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Certain atheists are happy to proclaim their disgust for religion and believers whenever they get a chance. I recently had the pleasure of meeting a 21-year-old atheist former Christian from British Columbia, who is actively seeking greater tolerance for Christianity than he has at present. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is, in a time of escalating rhetoric and hardening of ideological positions, to find someone who recognizes his own prejudice and wants to let it go. He told me he has “an instinctual desire to mitigate or annihilate my disgust for much of Christianity,” but that he finds this difficult to do. He eloquently elaborates his desire, saying, “There is nothing more effective at pickling the state of the soul and congealing the lucid flow of critical inquiry and the intellect than a rankling prejudice.” I will address just two of his objections to Christianity here: its enshrined anthropocentrism, and its glorification of absolute certainty.
My intention is to help my new friend get past his rankling prejudice, and I hope against hope that this may inspire other intolerant atheists to do likewise. My only qualification for mounting a defense of Christianity–given that I was raised a non-observant Jew and have experienced neither the gifts of Christian faith nor the outrage of disillusionment in such faith–is that I can assure an atheist audience that I have no desire to promote Christianity or to silence criticism of it. I have no doubt that he is perfectly accurate in his criticism of the Christianity that he experienced. The way for him or others to transcend their prejudice is not by being argued out of their considered criticisms, but by being shown that Christianity (like other faiths) is more than its faults. The vapid, punishing, close-minded version of Christianity he is responding to may well have been prevalent in his childhood congregation and in countless other churches, but decent, thoughtful, admirable Christians do exist in the world, and the reason such people remain Christian is that they see something else in Christian doctrine than he sees. The defenses these people might offer would certainly be richer than mine, but, based as they are on assumptions that atheists don’t hold, they would have even less chance of convincing this audience than mine will. So, without further ado, here is my ad hoc atheist apologetics for Christianity in response to two specific charges.
To the charge of anthropomorphism: Anthropomorphism of God is only a metaphysical problem. Given a contemporary, scientific view of cosmology and evolution, imagining the creator of the entire universe to have human qualities or to care about human affairs is absurd. God has human qualities because humans invented God, not because God made humans in his image. Whatever certain Christians may say or believe, atheists should not have a problem understanding this. To criticize Christianity for believing in a God with human characteristics is easy, but it misses the point that a god without human characteristics would be useless in a religious context; such a god would not help people bind themselves into moral communities and give themselves moral support and strength in the face of adversity, violence, temptation, and dissension. As atheists we can scoff at an anthropomorphic creator of the universe, but the function of God in contemporary human life is in the moral sphere, not in the cosmological sphere. Christians, as we know and they themselves know, have to perform all sorts of dubious mental gymnastics in order to hold on to a cosmological view of God in a scientific age. The reason they do so is that it is worth it to them for the sake of the moral and communal benefits they enjoy as a result of their belief, not because they are less capable of understanding the big bang or biological evolution than the rest of us.
Moving on to the charge of “the glorification of absolute certainty”: Faith is not certainty. Belief in the omnipotence of a being who is invisible, intangible, and undetectable–especially in the face of scientific theories that remove the need for God in explaining the origins of the universe or intelligent creatures–requires a lot of faith. If the language expressing that faith sometimes seems over the top, full of hyperbole, expressive of an impossible certainty, let us have some sympathy for what believers are trying to overcome with such language. People don’t believe because they are certain; they use professions of certainty as a support for a nearly unsupportable belief–and, again, they do so because it is worth it to them.
The more evidence we provide that belief is wrong, the harder believers will work to maintain their faith. Their beliefs and justifications are riddled with absurdities, but demonstrating that only serves to push each side further into its corner. The question for thoughtful atheists is not how believers manage to sustain their belief, but why they choose to do so: what do they get out of it? They are not primitive people needing myths and fairy tales to explain a frightening universe. They gain a source of hope, purpose, camaraderie, and moral guidance that some atheists find enviable.
As atheists and humanists we have some responsibility to use our critical powers for good. Even though we may see the ways that religions are corrupt and wrong-headed, society suffers if we proclaim that that’s all that religions have to offer. We are particularly well-suited, given our clear-headedness about the natural world and the fit between scientific theories and reality, to provide a corrective force to the harmful use of religion, but only if we also cultivate our compassion for religious people and our understanding of the good religions do in some people’s lives.