Why We Let An Atheist Join Our Church


After years of advocacy for progressive causes, I am used to angry mail — often from fellow Christians — when I take a political or theological position that challenges conservative or fundamentalist views.

So, I wasn’t surprised when many were unhappy about the decision of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX, where I am the pastor, to let a self-professed atheist become a member. But the intensity and tone of the condemnations were surprising; this wave of mail feels different, more desperate, like people have been backed against a wall.

Ironically, the new member, a longtime leftist political activist and professor in Austin, has been getting mail from fellow atheists skeptical of his decision.

“How can you do this?” both sides are asking. To me they ask, “How can you let someone join the church who cannot affirm the divinity of Christ? Does nothing matter to you liberals?” To Robert Jensen they ask, “How, as an atheist, can you surrender your mind to a superstitious institution that birthed the inquisition and the crusades?”

Neither the church nor Jensen views his membership as surrendering anything, but instead as an attempt to build connections. Such efforts are crucial in a world where there seems not to be a lot of wood to build the bridges we need. And the shame is, while we fight among ourselves, the world is burning.

In my ministry, I have had to live in two worlds. I have spiritual friends who are trying to celebrate the mystery of life, and activist friends who are trying to change the world. Somehow these two enterprises have been separated, but I don’t believe either option represents a complete life. Apolitical spirituality runs the danger of giving charity instead of justice, while atheistic humanism runs the danger of offering facts instead of meaning. This divide between spirituality and activism is a betrayal of the deeper roots of both.

The Book of James argues that merely believing in the existence of God means nothing; he jokes that even the demons believe that. Some of the meanest people I have ever met believed in God. The Nazis marched across Europe with belts reading “God is with us,” singing some of the same hymns and reciting some of the same creeds that the church uses today. With a few notable exceptions, the German church hid in liturgy and theology while their brothers and sisters burned. Surely, the holocaust is a permanent rebuttal of that kind of detached creedal Christianity.

It’s been interesting to see that atheists can be just as narrow-minded as believers. Some of Jensen’s critics expressed an infallible belief that religious people like me are idiots by definition. Inflexible beliefs on matters where one has no experience is superstition whether one is a believer or in an atheist.

Atheism can become self-parody when it forms a rigid belief system about religion. There is a difference between true atheism and anti-theism. Atheism can be the naked pursuit of truth, but anti-theism is more often the adolescent joy of upsetting and mocking religious people.

I can understand the urge to make fun of religious people; many of the voices which speak for religion make me want to crawl under the table. But we also must remember that Stalinists — claiming to be atheistic materialists — were as savage and superstitious as the inquisitors.

Without religion we would eliminate some of the worst chapters in human history brought on by the religious inquisitors and religious terrorists. But we would also eliminate some of history’s best chapters. Imagine a world with no Gandhi, no Martin Luther King, and no Dorothy Day.

Some people argue that evolution disproves religion. I would say that evolution helps us understand why religion is inevitable in human beings. Our upper brain functions are built on top of a marshy swamp of animal instincts, and we are rational only in spurts. Much of our most important processes are irrational, even more are unconscious altogether. To say we will be purely scientific and objective is an act of imaginary dissociation from the liquid core of our own being. In Sartre’s words it is “bad faith”.

Advertisers know this swampy core and sell to it. Televangelists know this swampy core and manipulate it. Politicians know this swampy core and appeal to it. While progressives are trying to be purely logical, propagandists are playing that irrational core like a drum.

If there’s hope of saving the world from the clutches of propaganda it will not be because we refute it rationally. If we save our world it will be because we learned how to speak about personal meaning in a way that is adaptive to natural processes and compatible with universal human rights. Nothing else will do.

Hegel defined religion as putting philosophy into pictures. Strange and foreboding topics like hermeneutics and metaphysics can be taught to almost anyone if they are put in story form. While it is important not to accept these images literally, it is just as important not to reject them literally.

Because life is an ineffable mystery, religion speaks in pictures and symbols. To accept or reject the symbols literally is to miss the point from two different sides. Those who fight over whether God exists are like foolish pedestrians who praise or curse a red light as they step into oncoming traffic. The question isn’t whether God exists like a brick exists, but rather “what part of our experience does the symbol ‘God’ reveal and what parts does it obscure?”

The problem with most religious discussions is that we are usually swimming in a sea of undefined terms. What sense does it make to ask whether God exists if we don’t define what we mean by the term “God.” For some it’s easier to reconcile themselves to the universe by picturing a large person overseeing the process, while others reconcile themselves to the ground by using impersonal elemental images. These approaches are in conflict only when we forget what we are trying to do in the first place, which is to harmonize with the ground of our being.

Locke and Kant struggled to identify the ultimate categories that shape human perception, which is also the business of religion. We cannot think about being itself because it is too basic. We are like flowers that immerge out of a soil too primordial to be understood in plant terms; we can neither speak about the ground of our being nor ignore it. Religion is a kind of art that reconciles us to the ground out of which we emerge.

As William James pointed out, religion is not merely hypothetical opinion about the world. Religion is most essentially a decision to be engaged in a world that cannot be understood and offers no guarantees. “God” is a symbol of the truth that stands outside our widest context. “God” is a symbol of the reality deeper than our ultimate concern. “God” is a symbol of the mystery that lies between the poles of our clearest rational dichotomy. The point is not to affirm the reality of the symbol itself, but to affirm the reality to which the symbol points.

Part of the apoplexy triggered by Dr. Jensen came from his statement that he was joining our church for “political reasons.” If one defines politics as partisan wrangling then Jensen’s comments can be seen as calculating and manipulative, but if politics is about how we treat each other, then he is joining the church for the same reason the apostles did — to help save our world.

The religion of Jesus is both spiritual and political. Jesus said in his first sermon that he had come to preach good news to the poor. He taught that love fulfills the law and the prophets, and spoke of a coming movement of God that would lift up the poor and oppressed. Jesus let a doubter like Thomas serve that cause long before the disciple could affirm any creed. Jesus said that people who blaspheme him or God would be forgiven but those who blaspheme the Spirit (of love) would not be. Religion is not about groveling before a savior, it’s joining in the work of saving our world.

One last irony is that early Christians were sometimes accused of being atheists. Like true Muslims and Jews, the early Christians refused to worship human images of God. While I have nothing against the creeds per se, if they do not sing of a love for all humankind they are evil and must be renounced as idolatrous. Surely the essence of Christianity or any religion is not found in dogma but in the life of love of which the creeds sing. If God had wanted us to simply recite creeds, Jesus would have come as a parrot.

Is there still room in the church for Thomas? Doubters are an essential part of the team. The atheism of Ingersoll and Kropotkin is very much like the mysticism of Schweitzer and Dorothy Day. In fact, I cannot help but imagine they would all join in common cause to serve our world had they lived at the same place and time.

“Whoever has love has God.” That’s what the Bible says. So the question before my church was not whether Dr. Jensen could recite religious syllables like a cockatiel, but whether he would follow the core teachings of Jesus and learn more and grow more into Christ’s universal love of which the creeds sing. This he pledged to do.

I repeat: while we are fighting among ourselves, our world is burning. Jim Rigby is pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. He can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a comment