If you haven’t heard, the Secular Student Alliance recently organized a visit to the Creation Museum as part of their national conference. The SSA is a wonderful growing organization that supports atheist/free-thinking/secularist groups at schools nationwide. The Creation Museum is a multi-million dollar display of bunk science to reinforce Christian creationist beliefs.
There was a lot of drama around the visit, including a lot of petty complaints from the museum itself, and there are plenty of other blogs you can read for those accounts (I recommend Friendly Atheist and Pharyngula and these videos of the experience). One testimony that Hemant shared caught my attention and I wanted to resond to it.
Blogger Aaron (of A Great Work) and his wife, both evangelical Christians, joined the SSA on their visit, including wearing SSA nametags to get a “day in the life” experience of the atheists in attendance. Here’s some of what he reports:
[I]t was obvious that there was a distinctive way that we were being treated because of the shared identification. There were hateful glances, exaggerated perceptions, waxing surveillance by security, and anxious but strong ‘amens’ accompanying a lecture on “The Ultimate Proof of Creation” by Dr. Jason Lisle.
Is this how Christians treat people? Is this how we follow Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? I cannot help but think that many Christians are fearful of atheists. It is a sort of xenophobia that runs along lines of faith and belief. What we tend to forget is that atheists, agnostics, and evolutionists are people too. If our attempt to preserve our belief means that we are treating these people like animals, are we really holding up principles that are based on a creation worldview?
I’m sure this was a great learning experience, but neither Aaron nor Hemant really explores this idea of “fearing atheists.” In fact, I think Aaron inadvertantly shows us where some of that fear comes from in his own rhetoric:
There have rarely been times in my life that I have been ashamed of people that I call “brothers and sisters in Christ.” This was one of them. To be judged by people that share my beliefs because of the name tag I wore was appalling. We forget that Jesus not only commanded that we love our enemies and pray for them, but he also sought out people who were rejected by the religious order, embraced them, spent time with them, and partied with them. It was not a covert operation to get them to say the sinner’s prayer (which was not invented until the 20th century) and get them to change their ways. Jesus knew that spending time with them was like good medicine: those who are well do not need a doctor.
Maybe without realizing it, Aaron shows that atheists might be considered “enemies” who could use some “good medicine.” I do not want to put words in Aaron’s mouth, but he seems to still be thinking of atheists as bad and needing converted in order to be accepted; it’s just that he has a less negative approach to this goal. Now, he ends his post by talking about relationships and the need for us all to get along, which I’m totally on board with. But, it is these previous comments that seem to demonstrate how much more challenging that might be than Aaron realizes.
Neither Aaron nor Hemant explore the question of why there is this antipathy, and I wish to explore that here. Why do Christians fear atheists? Why are atheists “enemies”? Why do they need “good medicine”?
I have two cooperating hypotheses (not theories!) to explain this phenomenon.
The first is where the fear comes from. I don’t think believers fear nonbelievers. I think believers fear nonbelief. The very idea that there might be no God is threatening to believers. It would rock the foundation upon which they live their lives. And add to that the challenge of reason to faith and believers just cling that much more tightly to their faith. The less they open themselves to that reason and scientific thinking, the more they can protect their faith. By actively putting down and pushing away believers and hiding in recluses like the Creation Museum, believers can minimize their contact with those dangerous ideas. (The religious right only defends free speech when it’s their speech; as an example, BYU only lifted its ban on YouTube this summer.)
In addition to this is an inherent conflict that results from a core belief of evangelical Christianity and other worldviews. Most of those believers think it is their God-given duty to save others. They relish in their faith so that they can go out and help others do the same. As Aaron seems to allude, I’m sure they would be more than willing to reach out and help atheists (if they could just get an attitude check).
But these atheists, who are openly displaying their nonbelief and intruding in a believer’s sanctuary, are the worst kind. Why? Because they refuse the help of the believers. They have proclaimed all religious ideas to be unfounded and offer no respect to the ideas the believers might try to share. A believer might see this attitude and say, “Why should I love someone who doesn’t love himself and who refuses the love I try to offer in the name of Christ?” It’s easy to see the resentment bubble.
So, combine threatening ideas, self-sheltering behaviors, and growing resentment and it’s not hard to see why Aaron experienced the negative looks and comments that he did. It doesn’t matter what he and his wife believe; they dared affiliate with the nonbelievers? That made them inherently evil and an oppositional force to those seeking the kingdom of Heaven.
Aaron, I hope you share more reflections from your visit and that we can engage in some dialogue about these issues. Ultimately, I fear it’s going to come down to a “that’s the way it’s going to be if you don’t respect our beliefs,” to which I’ll have to reply “then that’s the way it is.” Hopefully we can get somewhere more productive than that in our dialogue!
I welcome any other ideas or thoughts about why there is such antipathy towards atheists/nonbelievers/etc.