While researching the life of the nineteenth century itinerant preacher and abolitionist Sojourner Truth, for an upcoming blog, it became extremely clear that many of the giants of the abolitionist movement in the United States had a strong Christ-centered faith. Sojourner Truth was a lay preacher. The famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman—the Moses of her people—both had a strong faith in Jesus Christ. The relationship between the Black Church and the fight for freedom continued into the 20th century, where the church and the Civil Rights Movement remained practically inseparable.
How is it then that those for whom life has been so extraordinarily difficult and unfair, by any stretch of the imagination, could have had such an unwavering belief in God—in Jesus Christ, specifically? Simultaneously, the loudest voices advocating atheism—of a belief in no God–tend to come from men and women of privilege, particularly from academia? The search for an answer to this question precipitated this post.
I originally intended to write the piece as a simple stream consciousness—an uncomplicated, personal account of my heartfelt belief on why I believe atheism is the purview of the privileged, while the poor, the oppressed, those who have few if any of life’s options, lean on the faith of The Almighty. As I got further into the post however, I decided it needed a little more heft, an examination of what the experts—both atheist and theologians–have said and written about faith and atheism. I’ll attempt to synthesize their arguments—as I understand them—and then summarize with my take.
The first names that came to mind for an examination of an atheist viewpoint was a quartet of speakers who have become known as ‘The Four Horsemen of the Current Apocalypse’. This group included neuroscientist, Sam Harris and philosopher, David C. Bennet. But it is the other two members who have grabbed much of the publicity on this discussion, and it is their work that I’ve chosen to examine, though, admittedly, from a relatively long distance. They are the late journalist and writer, Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great, and zoologist and author, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion.
Dr. Dawkins created a documentary for Channel Four in England based on his book, The God Delusion. The film is available on YouTube.
From the outset, surprisingly and disappointingly, Dr. Dawkins the scientist slams the door on any meaningful dialogue on the meaning of faith, with wholesale insults trained on the gullible schmucks who dare to believe in a deity. It is immediately apparent that his documentary is not a scholarly examination of a subject that is dear to billions of people, but a wholesale venting of his personal distaste (would ‘repulsion’ be too strong a description?) of those who dare to believe in God. Some examples: Barely two minutes into the film, before any attempt to understand the idea of faith, Dawkins labels faith as ‘belief without evidence’, ‘a brain virus infecting generations of young minds, [perpetuating] outdated and dubious moral values’, and ‘a process of non-thinking’. On the other hand, people who think as he does, are referred to as ‘people of reason’. Incredibly, he conflates all religions into one, as if all people of faith are indistinguishable one from another. There is even a sequence where the narrator describes the terrorist actions of Islamic jihad over pictures of a Catholic Mass.
Dr. Dawkins then makes his way to The New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and interviews, of all people, then Pastor Ted Haggard. (Haggard would later be forced to resign after his alleged sexual encounter with a male escort became public.) Dawkins also makes his way to the Holy Land and interviews a Muslim radical who believes that Islam will eventually dominate the planet. Other interviews include a pastor whose friend and colleague was convicted and executed for murdering an abortion doctor. You guessed it, the interviewee maintains support for his friend’s actions. Are we to believe that these individuals are the only representatives of the faithful that Dr. Dawkins could find?
When Dawkins gets down to scripture he emphasizes the Old Testament. Why? The Old Testament is the root of the Abrahamic religions. Such a statement is nothing short of laughable. Many Christians, who believe in Jesus’ command to ‘turn the other cheek’, will be personally insulted to have their faith characterized by an ‘Eye for An Eye’ philosophy. When he finally does get to the New Testament, Dawkins mysteriously skips over the teachings of Jesus or, as he puts it, ‘whomever wrote his lines,’ and goes straight to Paul. How can you criticize Christianity and avoid the teachings of Jesus?
Finally, Dr. Dawkins asserts the morality of secularism, underscored by science, and stands in stark contrast with the ‘dangerous’ teachings of religion. Science, he claims, reveals the true roots of human morality. ‘Morality stems, not from some fictional deity and his texts, [but] from ‘altruistic genes’ that have been ‘naturally selected’ in our evolutionary past. To bolster his argument, he offers this gem: ‘Fifty years ago just about everybody in Britain was somewhat racist, now, only a few people are.’ How on earth can any serious scientist make such a statement? How do you define ‘racism?’ And how would a famous scientist–white, male, educated at one of the most prestigious universities in the world—be qualified to quantify the dehumanizing stings of racism that still exists today?
While Dawkins tiptoes around the teachings of Jesus, Christopher Hitchens takes on the Messiah head on.
Hitchens graduated from Oxford University and wrote for several publications in both the UK and US, including the liberal-leaning, The Nation, and Vanity Fair. In 2007 he published God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As the subtitle suggests, Hitchens conflates several faiths, and analyzes Judaism, Christianity and Islam as if they are slightly different versions of the same poisonous cocktail. I was drawn to the chapter of the book, ‘The New Testament Exceeds the Evil of the Old.’ The New Testament is quickly dismissed as ‘a work of crude carpentry, hammered together, long after its purported events, and full of improvised attempts to make things come out right.’ He attacks the New Testament from two standpoints: its veracity as a historical document, and the supposed immorality of its content. Here are a few gems. The account of Jesus being born in Bethlehem is probably incorrect, since both parents were from Nazareth, and there is no historical record of a census being conducted at the time of Jesus’ birth, as is written in Luke. Another example, attacking the passage about the Lilies of the field, suggests that Jesus is preaching that ‘thrift, innovation and family life are a waste of time.’
Hitchens wants to have it both ways. Inconsistencies between the gospels are presented as proof of the illegitimacy of the text, and agreements among the gospels are dismissed as a simple ploy by the authors to shoe-horn events into a narrative to fulfill Old Testament prophesy.
The diatribe against the New Testament is not limited to the books themselves. Contemporary writers who agree with the texts come in for harsh criticism. C.S. Lewis’ asserts in his classic treatise, Mere Christianity, that Jesus must have been either a lunatic, a devil from Hell, or ‘Lord’—he must be one of the three. Hitchens disagrees, implying that Jesus could have been a moral teacher, basing his words simply from ‘hearsay’. Lewis is right; Hitchens is wrong. Any human being who says he is the son of God, must be either the greatest con-man in the history of he world, a lunatic, or, really the son of God. If you are a con-man or a lunatic, who is going to believe anything you say, regardless of how ‘moral’ your words may be?
The problem with both Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ work is that that they approach their subject matter from a point of pious intolerance, smug academic arrogance, and plain old intellectual dishonesty. Faith, by definition, is foolish, a crutch for simpletons. End of story. No attempt is made to understand why an individual would chose to live by faith. No attempt is made, simply because they believe they already know the answer: those who live by faith are either stupid, have been hoodwinked by religious charlatans, or both. How can this attitude be intellectually honest? How do you account for the many positive things that have emanated from faith? The Civil Rights Movement? Gandhi’s work on behalf of his people in South Africa and India? Mother Teresa?
Hitchens’ writings on Mother Teresa is revealing. For Hitchens, Mother Teresa’s decades long work caring for the ‘poorest of the poor’ in the slums of the former Calcutta somehow pales in comparison to her accepting money from persons of dubious reputations, such as the Haitian dictator, Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier. Hitchens along with British-Pakistani journalist, Tariq Ali, produced a documentary that in effect demonized the woman who would one day become a saint. The name of the documentary? Hell’s Angel. Enough said.
‘My dear brother, the late Christopher Hitchens, whom I loved very much, and respected very much, I just have profound disagreements. Christopher Hitchens was very brilliant, but he was not religiously musical. He was tone deaf and flat footed when it came to religion. He was a reductionist, he becomes a kind of dogma in atheistic space—a secular dogmatist…Secular folk need to read religious texts and religious phenomenon with a sense of not just openness but what they are wrestling with…how are you going to come to terms with the structure through the eyes of meaning in your own life…how are you going to deal with catastrophe in your own context…how will you respond when you’re terrorized, traumatized and stigmatized?’ – Cornel West, Philosophy and Religion Through Words of Cornel West (video). (Dr. West is a graduate of Harvard and Princeton, and is a Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice. He’s authored over twenty books including Race Matters and Democracy Matters, www.cornelwest.com).
Thank you, brother West. This is exactly why so many who have been ‘terrorized’, traumatized, and stigmatized, can’t afford the luxury of atheism.
James Cone and Taylor Branch
Professor James H. Cone is a Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He is known as the founder of ‘black liberation theology’–interpreting Christianity through the eyes and experience of the oppressed. Among his books are Black Theology and Black Power and The Cross and The Lynching Tree). Taylor Branch is an author perhaps best know for the three-volume history of the Civil Rights Movement, America in the King Years. In an interview with journalist Bill Moyers, Professor Cone and Branch discussed the Civil Rights Movement of the fifties and sixties and how it was influenced by the Black Church.
A year to the day before his assassination, Dr. King gave a speech in New York City where he referred to a ‘radical revolution of values’. According to Branch, this radical revolution of values is ‘to see people first, to see Lazarus at the gate and not pass them by, so I think the revolution in values is Christian and democratic, but it starts with people—they have equal souls and equal votes, but we are very stubborn in human nature in denying that and wanting to see anything but…’
Was it theological? Moyers asks.
‘Oh yes,’ Professor Cone responds, ‘because people are created in the image of God. If you are created in the image of God you can’t treat people like things.’
Later in the interview Professor Cone provides a succinct description of ‘liberation theology’: Liberation Theology has its meaning primarily in seeing Jesus as one in solidarity with the poor to get them out of poverty’.
In another interview with Moyers, where he discusses his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Professor Cone provides a concise definition of religion:
Religion is a search for meaning when you don’t have it in this world. So while they [the dominant society of the American South] may have controlled the black people physically, and politically and economically, they did not control their spirit. That’s why the black churches are very powerful forces in the African American community, and always have been, because religion has been that one place where you have an imagination that no one can control. And so as long as you know that you are a human being and nobody can take that away from you, then God is that reality in your life that enables you to know that.
How would an atheist respond to such a statement? Should people who are politically and socially weak–poor and oppressed–should they be denied the belief that their lives are legitimate, that there is a God who sees them as every bit as valuable, as every bit as humane as their oppressors? Well, the atheist may counter with, ‘the morality gene determines equality among all people.’ The problem with that argument is that there is no authority by which that statement is made. What if I don’t believe in a ‘morality gene?’ What if the only authority is the authority of the powerful? Not the authority of God. In that case, Dear Oppressed, you’re just of luck. You were born holding the short end of the stick and there’s absolutely nothing that you can do about it.
When Wrongs Are Made Right
The New Testament provides hope for the oppressed in another way. And that is, in the hope that, even if circumstances aren’t set right in this life, justice will be meted out in the next. This may be controversial, and is certainly not promoted by activists, since it may be interpreted as promoting passivity in the face of injustice. But there will be instances where, despite the best efforts of the marginalized and their supporters, their situation will not be made whole. For them however, like the parable of Lazarus, there is hope that injustices will be remedied in the afterlife. Who could not be comforted by the story of Lazarus? Lazarus, his body covered with sores, begging at the gate of the rich; and the rich man, blessed with material possessions, dutifully ignores the filthy beggar. They both die, and their fortunes are reversed. Pipe dream? Who knows? But when a dream is all you have, what right does anyone have to say, ‘No, that’s a fairy tale. You can’t have that either! You live. You suffer. You die. I, on the other hand, get to enjoy this wonderful world I inherited by sheer accident of birth!’
Howard Thurman, 1899-1981, was a theologian, pastor and author. He was a friend of Martin Luther King, Sr. and a mentor to a young Martin Luther King, Jr. His best-known work is Jesus and the Disinherited. First published in 1949, the book draws on similarities between Jesus, whom he describes as poor and a member of a minority group—aspects of which the poor and dispossessed of any age can identify. But what is perhaps most intriguing about this little-known but extremely influential figure in the Civil Rights Movement was his relationship with his grandmother. A former slave, she raised him from the time he was seven years old. In Jesus and the Disinherited he tells the story of how, as a child, he would read the Bible to her, for she could neither read nor write. (The story is found on page 19 of the 1976 edition, published by Beacon Press.) He says she was very particular about the Scriptures he was permitted to read to her—the more devotional Psalms, portions of Isaiah, the Gospels ‘again and again’. However, the Pauline epistles, except for the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians? Never!
When he was older he summoned the courage to ask her why he was not allowed to read Paul’s letters. She replied: ‘During the days of slavery…the mater’s ministers would occasionally hold services for the slaves. Old man McGhee was so mean that he would not let a Negro minister preach to his slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he would use as his text: “Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters…as unto Christ.” Then he would go on to show how it was God’s will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.’
The story of Thurman’s grandmother is strikingly similar to a story in Sojourner Truth’s narrative. The itinerant preacher was illiterate as well. The Bible had to be read to her. She made a point of having a child read it to her, not an adult. Why? Children would read the passages, simply, as they were written—without putting a personal slant to them, without inserting their own agendas. That way she could determine for herself the true message of the Scriptures.
And so there you have it. Two slave-women, unable to read or write, but with enough wisdom to seek the true meaning of the word of God, wisdom that somehow has eluded two of the most erudite writers and speakers on the planet, complete with degrees from prestigious institutions, and the respect of the world’s academic elite. For these slave-women, and the millions of their spiritual descendants, atheism is truly a luxury they could not afford.
© Weldon Turner, 2017. All Rights Reserved
Author, Christopher Hitchens
Credit: Peter Power / Contributor
Collection: Toronto Star
Date created: 01 January, 2010
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