Saturday, August 24, 2013

When Atheists and Skeptics are Right

Not being an atheist or skeptic I’m often disheartened by critical messaging on social media and TV. Sometimes it is intentionally confrontational, sometimes it’s nothing more than a light-hearted poke, and often it is simply crass or just wrong. Sometimes it is articulated well, sometimes it is puerile and, usually, it is nothing more than just a tee shirt slogan. Always, I feel it. Perhaps I should just grow a thicker skin.

However ugly the full-grown expression might be, it often grows from a seed of truth. This post is all about one of those seeds. I want to say to you skeptics and atheists that, on this issue at least, you are right.

The criticism or ridicule that I have in mind may be broadly categorized as a reaction against the kinds of claims made by believers that they are somehow special, or better, or more privileged than the “others”. A previous generation might have used the phrase “holier than thou”. At its heart, it’s a visceral reaction against what I call Religious Exceptionalism.

Put simply, Religious Exceptionalism states that because I subscribe to such-and-such a religion, or go to so-and-so church/temple/mosque/synagogue, I am entitled to all manner of privileges in this world and the next. The key term here is “because”. It’s using God to escape the bell-curve of probability; to elevate myself above my neighbors; to consider myself separate from them.

These privileges might be identified within a religious belief, but they can also be identified in a secular sphere. They can range from special knowledge or revelations, to the right to occupy land or to persecute other people-groups. Like skin colour, or sexuality, they are a self-serving set of criteria that I can use to consider myself better than, or more deserving than. They make me one of the good guys, and because of that, the universe owes me special consideration. They make me the exception.

Leading popular critics, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Lawrence Kraus, have capitalized on this criticism. In the recent debate that I attended, the repugnance exuded by Kraus and his supporters against Religious Exceptionalism was almost palpable, even if he didn’t express it in those terms. What drove him was the sense that we believers considered ourselves better than him and his science because of our beliefs. (Incidentally, I think his repugnance is only partially justified, and a balanced reflection indicates that he and his colleagues are supplanting one kind of Religious Exceptionalism with another – a form of anti-Religious Exceptionalism if you like – even though he aspires to anti-Religious anti-Exceptionalism.)

One cartoon by Alan Krumin showed a Rabbi, an Imam and a Bishop approaching the Pearly Gates guarded by Thor, the Viking god. The caption was something like “What happens when you support the wrong team.” In the face of this, it would be hopeless for me to try to explain the differences between Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and why I am one and not another, and perhaps that’s the cartoonist’s point. But I also see a sense of repugnancy at the perceived exclusion of the “other” religions from heaven. Am I entitled to enter those Pearly Gates and, if I am, what makes me so? What gives me the warrant to believe that I am the exception?

In my reading of the Bible, I see both bad news and good news for Religious Exceptionalism.

The bad news is that there is nothing in myself that makes me qualify for heaven or, indeed any other worldly or other-worldly privilege. I am not the exception, not even if I go to the “right” church and say and do the right things. For instance, when God directs Israel to occupy the land, he says
It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land … for you are a stiff-necked people Deuteronomy 9:5-7
In other words, Israel could not justify its privilege on the basis of its own rightness or religious preferences.

This scenario, in my reading of it, sets the pattern for all privilege and exceptionalism. Indeed it forms the bedrock of New Testament theology. Paul frames it in terms of faith and works
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works Ephesians 2:8-10 
The Reformers distilled it further to Sola Fide– Justification by faith alone, as opposed to justification by works.

The point of Paul and the Reformers is that our claims to privilege are not based on “works”. I understand the term to mean both the things we do and the things done to us, particularly as they relate to religious observation.

The seminal NT example of a religious “work” that is done to you and by you (if you are a Jewish man) is circumcision. How many times does the NT reinforce the message that we cannot justify our privileges by being circumcised or by circumcising our sons, or even by the state of being circumcised? Paul puts it bluntly in 1 Corinthians 7:19 “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing”. We cannot use it to justify our claim to privilege.

Likewise, Christian theology kicks against all kinds of Religious Exceptionalism. We Christians are good at forgetting this. Though we aver from Exceptionalism by circumcision, we often allow it to creep back in, in different clothes.

I was recently criticized for saying a prayer in church in which I described us as “dumb” in the context of God’s peerless wisdom. Do we think that we are entitled to being smart because we go to church? Would it be wrong to characterize our church as being full of idiots, of which I am the lead idiot? Where is the spirit that says that God often glorifies Himself through the foolish things of this world? Do we not realize that we, ourselves, could actually be those foolish things? Have we resorted to justifying ourselves based on our intellects and education? We need a new generation of Reformers to remind us that we are not the exceptions.

The good news is that God has made all the privileges of Christ available to us, through faith (for example, see Ephesians 1:3). There is access to heaven in this life and the next. However, these are not privileges that I am entitled to – I have no right to them. It is precisely because they are a gift that I can claim no exclusiveness to them – I do not own the franchise; not even partially.

In this context, I rightly see myself as the everyman that I am. I have privileges, but I am not entitled to them. I do not possess them by right. When God wishes to take them from me – the privilege of being alive, for instance – I have no reason to complain. There’s nothing in me that makes me the exception, and what privileges I have, I have by the grace of God. Surely that’s good news for us all because my neighbors, who are equally as unqualified as I, live under His grace too.

I feel sure that God wants me to enjoy and exploit whatever privileges he extends to me, including my life, my intellect and my education. By following in kind, He wants me to desire the “others” to enjoy and exploit their privileges too. In this economy of freely giving and receiving – the economy of Grace - there is no place for Religious Exceptionalism. In this respect, the atheists and skeptics are right, even if they are right for all the wrong reasons.

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