Atheism and religion – the church has nothing to say to the world until it throws better parties.

May 22, 2010

‘Ultimately our gift to the world around us is hope. Not blind hope that pretends everything is fine and refuses to acknowledge how things are. But the kind of hope that comes from staring pain and suffering right in the eyes and refusing to believe that this is all there is. It is what we all need – hope that comes not from going around suffering but from going through it. I am learning that the church has nothing to say to the world until it throws better parties. By this I don’t necessarily mean balloons and confetti and clowns who paint faces. I mean backyards and basements and porches. It is in the flow of real life, in the places we live and move with the people we’re on the journey with, that we are reminded it is God’s world and we’re going to be okay.’

Central to reclaiming creation and being a resurrection community is the affirmation that when God made the world, God said it was “good”. And it still is.

Food and music and art and friends and stories and rivers and lakes and oceans and laughter and…did I mention food? God has given us life, and God’s desire is that we live it.’

Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell, page 170, 171


Friday night!

Actually, Saturday morning…

Nearly 1 am and I’m sat at my desk with my laptop and the diffuse light of my desk lamp creating a cosy corner in the dark, still room, contemplating the world and how it should be…at least how I believe it should be. I have an interview on Monday for an inspiring role at a church and I’m thinking about what to say. I have been asked to make a short presentation to the interview panel on how I would host a group of people who are unfamiliar with the church and possibly, somewhat skeptical of its value and  ‘good intentions’. It’s a good task to set candidates. I feel challenged and enthused, but I ask myself – Can I really answer that question faithfully?

Faithfully, in two ways. Two different motivations and yet not entirely unrelated.

One, first and foremost, being faithful to the good people I know and love who, in my eyes are quite entitled to doubt  the existence of God in the Universe. Moreover, who question the Church’s sometimes dubious achievements in representing God and/or Jesus to the world. Skeptical, even antagonistic atheists have in many ways made a powerful case for arguing that progress in human rights, freedom, civilisation and democracy have often come from sources outside the religious establishment. Even worse than this, such reforms have often been actively opposed by the Church. I struggle within the keenness of such arguments, but I recognise their basis in fact and history, and my need, I believe, to accept those criticisms face on as bitter, yet necessary medicine.

Two, I want to be faithful to my God, my saviour Jesus of Nazareth. According to the ancient documents we call the Gospels, Jesus was a historical figure of passionate, religious fervour. Few would doubt this. Yet, at the same time his zeal for high ethical and moral standards was balanced by a wide and embracing grace and forgiveness for those who aspire and try to live a moral life, but fail. Jesus cared for those who found themselves tripping and falling on the very, lofty steps they had set themselves to climb. When I use the word climb, I am not suggesting that Christians believe people have to somehow climb up to God, by their own efforts.  Rather, Christianity teaches that God in the man, Jesus, descended from heaven to us, to earth. Jesus lived our life and lived with us – Emmanuel –  which means – God with us. When I refer to climbing, I am imagining our human predicament. The personal daily, neverending, trial of endeavouring to climb our own standards. The challenge of living an ethical and good life, authentic to ourselves and caring for our fellow human beings and creatures, inhabitants of this world. Jesus somehow held this balance and paradoxical tension lightly. High moral ethical standards in our individual and common lives, but mercy and generosity, not judgement for those who failed to meet those standards. Probably this was because Jesus himself, as a young man had grown up in the brutish hardship of ancient Palestinian life, and was aware of how frail, as well as how galant, the human frame and soul could be. Mercy, not judgement, he lived and preached.

So how might one answer the interview question faithfully, both to skeptics outside or on the margins of the religious frame of reference and to the source of religion itself – God and his/her teachings.

Firstly, listen. Listen, to the antagonists and iconoclasts who decry the self-serving delusions of religion.

There are a number of good, thoughtful voices who express eloquently these viewpoints in popular literature and media. A.C. Grayling, love him or hate him, has put forward a strong case to argue that much of  the freedoms, rights and privileges, as well as modern, technological breakthrough we take for granted, both religious and atheists, have originated in developments from the atheistic philosophical and scientific revolution of the Enlightenment. He is an atheist and his arguments, are not always waterproof. Yet, in a real way, I believe, he is right. Much of the benefits of modern society have been hard-won for humanity by non-believing pioneers working in science, philosophy, politics and social welfare.

To argue this, as Grayling does ably and articulately, is not in itself proof against the existence of God. However, it does present a healthy and sober challenge to the claims of institutional religion and personal religious conviction to represent a benevolent deity that has humanity’s best interests at heart. It also pours cold water, on religious confidence – I am thinking of Christianity in particular – that faith in God represents purely a revolutionary force for social justice and human welfare. Grayling and popular authors, such as Philip Pullman (See his recently published – The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ), argue that in fact religion and Christianity, in particular, has often been an anti-progressive force in history.

Ok… point taken. A sharp incision is made in the bubble of  benevolent, religious self-illusion by these intelligent and thoughtful authors.

Secondly, embrace. Embrace the refreshing source of  original ethical behaviour in religious terms – God himself, the Ultimate, the Eternal Spirit. And do so by remembering your history. Return to the stories of old. Rediscover, the lives of the great figures of the past, who did act faithfully – true to the incandescent, dynamic divine message of love. Love one another, love your neighbour, care for the oppressed, even love your enemy.

 It is true that looking back in history there have been great social reformers, philanthropists, artists and benefactors who have been inspired and passionate Christians – William Wilberforce, Joseph Rowntree, John Cadbury, Sir Titus Salt, Thomas John Barnado, Florence Nightingale, Chad Varah, Martin Luther King Jr, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Charles Dickens. These figures and many others have made seismic shifts in society by improving the quality of life for poor, disadvantaged and marginalised people. 

It can be a depressing place to be standing face to face with the critics of religion. It is, I believe, a healthy practice to remember the good which many religious followers have accomplished by practically serving others. A lifestyle many of them claimed to be at the call of God. Both believers and non-believers can find inspiration and encouragement at the selfless, kind and noble acts of others who took faith in God as a vocation to help others.

So, we do two things. We listen to our critics and we embrace the stories of heroines and heroes of the faith of old. We don’t deny the voices of either. But how can we reconcile these two opposing accounts of history and the nature of the world and universe? Well, here I return to the original quote by Rob Bell. Perhaps, at one level the purely rational there is no easy or even adequate answer to these contradictory histories, to affirm one is to suppress the other, to silence another’s view, is to diminish the strength and authenticity of one’s own assertion. Perhaps, rather than operating purely rationally, as if in battle at the debating hall, we might meet over the dinner table. Rather than fighting to assert one’s case and defeat our opponents we could raise our glasses to life in all it’s fullness and variety. We could toast and celebrate our company, as long-lost friends, fellow travellers on the journey of life, in the search for truth, wisdom, companionship, belonging and love.

There will still be ample time to discuss and listen to our differences, but at another level we might just find more in common with each other than we previously expected. We are all subject to the same plethora of difficulties and troubles. Most of us still delight in the same joys and hidden exultancies of life. Music, food, drink, dancing, crying and laughing…Maybe this way as Rob bell so eloquently puts it in his book Velvet Elvis:

‘I am learning that the church has nothing to say to the world until it throws better parties.  By this I don’t necessarily mean balloons and confetti and clowns who paint faces. I mean backyards and basements and porches. It is in the flow of real life, in the places we live and move with the people we’re on the journey with, that we are reminded it is God’s world and we’re going to be okay…Food and music and art and friends and stories and rivers and lakes and oceans and laughter and…did I mention food? God has given us life, and God’s desire is that we live it.’





  1. Ok so did you get the job?

  2. I appreciate the party quote – rings true quite literally actually. I wish you courage for the task ahead – I think someone familiar with doubt can testify to the resurrection in a way that is subtle and necessary, especially to the sceptical (I’m thinking of those who’ve been most helpful to me in my moments of scepticism, and their ‘hard won’ gravitas). With regard to the Graylings of the world, and the notion that the Church has stood in the way of enlightenment and advancements in justice, science and thought – I’m not a historian myself, but I’ve heard very good historians speak convincingly in support of the Church with regard to these events – I think you would be wise to explore this, especially if you’ll be proselytising those who’ve taken their history lessons at face value. I’ll see if I can dig up some relevant links for you – if you’re interested. An interesting blog, dark nights are fabulous things, God help us.

    • Hi Ann, thanks for your thoughts and comment! It’s encouraging when someone with a different background concurs with the thoughts you (as a writer and witness) are struggling with. But your words encourage me to believe that in some small way that holding parties for those of us with a variety of religious, political or philosophical worldviews is perhaps the first step in bridging the gulf that lies between us as (often quite isolated) human beings. Regarding atheist critics of religion, I’m inclined to agree with some (even many) of their criticisms of religious people and organisations and yet I disagree with the arguments they then go on to draw from these negative instances of religion and then the conclusions they arrive at from highlighting such bad practice within the religious sphere. Atheist critics generally argue that religion, faith in God etc is a bad thing and that therefore an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God does not exist, otherwise religion would not be such a ‘bad thing’. As a committed religious devotee one is confronted with the contradictions of people who represent a Good God doing ‘bad’ things all the time. They happen in relationships with others, but perhaps most essentially within one’s very own heart, body, will and mind. The contradctions of people who aspire to live a ‘holy’ good life and yet do immoral, even gastly things is ever present within us. In a sense this internal and external contradiction could be described as a paradox of religious faith – one that all the great religious traditions describe. For Christians it is the battle between the flesh (that is the human body and soul turned away from God) and the Spirit; for Muslims it is the ‘greater jihad’ – that is the internal battle of overcoming selfishness within oneself and becoming submitted to or at peace with God; for Buddhists it is the challenge to overcome dukkha (selfish craving) and to break free from the cycle of repeated life, death and rebirth to break into nirvanna ( a perfect and peaceful state of ‘coolness’, free from the addictions of self).

      So, to summarise, when atheist critics point the finger at religious people, organisations and faith they are only highlighting something (albeit a contradiction) that most committed religious people are very familiar with and which indeed points religious people to return to God or to the teachings of their belief system for more help.

      At the same time, all people and religious people perhaps especially so, are inclined to retreat from the keen edges of reality into a soft and cosy world of self protection from the sometimes harsh realities of existence. So, for me as one who has been prone to see only what is right with my faith and only what is wrong with other’s belief systems, I find it helpful for someone to point the finger at the often selfish, sometimes bizarre inconsistencies of my faith to others. In this respect atheist critics can be helpful allies in the goal of coming to terms with our own failures and frailties and recognising our deep need and dependence on God to help us become more caring, loving and wise people. Pilgrims who tred this world gently, reverently, respectfully; rather than marching triumphantly across creation and civilisation as if we owned and ran the show.

      I don’t know if my thoughts here are clearly expressed or helpful. I hope they are both, but certainly I aspire to embrace the ascerbic and painful criticisms of those antagonistic to faith (as hurtful to my own ego as that may be) because I find them to be if not always true, often enlightening in openning my mind, heart and soul to the perspectives of others who are outside the comfort zones of religion and find themselves reacting bitterly and violently to the notion of a loving God. In the end, I feel, that as a Christian my religion teaches me to accept these people and as best I can to love them. I find in my circumstances the best way to love them is to carefully listen to them and receive their bile towards the God, I love so dearly and am so indebted to. This seems to be my only way of relating to others first and foremost as fellow human beings – beyond the dilineations of politics, colour or creed. And as Rob Bell and you rightly say, perhaps the best way to overcome these divides and to give place for these kinds of conversations is the party – the celebration of the goodness of life and people, in spite of the ever present conscious awareness that this a world of great suffering too.
      Thanks Ann, so much for your feedback and comments, I really appreciate it. Hope you will revisit the site and we may discuss these and other issues again.


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