Pastoral Series

Church Matters: an honest atheist

   The other day I was thumbing back through some of Christopher Lasch’s very wise books. Hard to pin him down: conservative? liberal? religious? secular? Perhaps for this reason, his writings are always wise and make you eager to rethink things you’ve assumed, and to deepen what you believe but only superficially.

Here’s something he wrote: “Culture may well depend on religion, but religion has no meaning if it is seen merely as a prop of culture” – in which case “religious faith serves only to clothe human purposes with a spurious air of sanctity. This is why an honest atheist is always to be preferred to a culture Christian.”

The ugliest “culture Christian” image ever might be those Lutheran and Catholic clergy, caught in photos standing over the shoulder of Hitler, arms raised in their Heil! salutes. Christians and Christian leaders have had the nasty habit of baptizing whatever seems cool in the culture, whatever is on the rise politically. They may feel it’s the right thing to do, but true faith always keeps its distance from politics and culture, can offer some critique, and always offers a better, higher way.

It’s easy to say we wish our culture depended more on religion. But sometimes it’s a bogus, hardened kind of religion that invades the culture. Religion at its best, fixing on community, care, mutual encouragement, lifting up those in need, rising above pettiness and invoking the highest morality: all this can inform politics and culture, if we let it do so. But we are always on guard, wary of religion functioning as a prop for culture.

Lasch says he prefers an “honest atheist.” The peril in atheism isn’t that a person says he doesn’t believe in God. We all know and love marvelous people who are just tone-deaf, or uninterested in the things of God, or have been so burned and wounded by church they aren’t on speaking terms with God. Dangerous atheism is what we might call Nihilism – the hostile, negative viewpoint that there is no meaning, no purpose, no ethics, no real hope. Do whatever to get ahead. Grab the gusto now since this is all there is. My preferences trump anybody else’s needs or wishes. This is public atheism, and it is more prevalent than we realize – and it should frighten us.

So Church matters. Not that we get more people saying Okay, sure, I believe there’s a God. Rather, Church has its values, its passions, its ethics, its courage and undying hope – and we will join hands with any and everyone (atheists included!) to work for good, believing there is such a thing as good.

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