Religion for Atheists?

Pastors and other Christian leaders regularly worry about the state of fellowship in churches. They worry that visitors don’t feel welcome. They worry that members don’t know one another. They would be amazed to read that, to an atheist, churches look like a model for community that secular society needs to learn from. They would not, however, be comforted by the conclusions an atheist draws from the experience of worship in a Christian church. Alain Botton, writing for the Wall Street Journal, explains in a recent article that “even those who aren’t religious can find religion sporadically useful, interesting and consoling and should consider how we might import certain religious ideas and practices into the secular realm.” In other words, Mr. Botton believes it is possible to achieve the communal experience churches enjoy without the most important element of the community – God.

The quoted statement is the premise of Botton’s entire article based on his new book, Religion for Atheists. His statement reminded me of James Clavell’s famous story, “The Children’s Story.” In that story, the nation had been conquered and a new teacher, provided by the conquerors took over the classroom. The new teacher never disparaged the nation that had been conquered, not in so many words, but little by little, she so thoroughly disparaged the notion of fidelity to that nation that the children became completely confused. In the end, they cut up the flag so everyone could be equal and have a piece of it. Botton cuts up the whole idea of religion and suggests using some little pieces of the idea, reshaped and put together in entirely different ways. He completely excises that problematic element people call “God.” According to him, secular society could use the lessons in community life exhibited by churches to transform secular society. I felt just as battered by this thesis as I felt by “The Children’s Story” when I read it during the Cold War era in America.

Botton proposes a new secular utopia that starts in a restaurant. He is completely mesmerized by the meaning of meals in religious faith. In his mind, changing the way people eat in secular society can transform people from strangers to intimate friends and achieve something no church even suggests can happen – people who don’t know each other will simply reveal their deepest wounds to complete strangers on cue. The cue comes from a book each diner in his utopian “Agape Restaurant” will follow to the letter. “The Book of Agape would direct diners to speak to one another for prescribed lengths of time on predefined topics.” (This quotation appears near the end of the article.) Botton actually believes that when one stranger asks another stranger, “Whom can you not forgive?” the response will be honest and deep truth. He believes that his Agape Restaurant could mandate who eats with whom and mandate their conversational topics, and even the duration of the meal. He actually believes that people would pay to eat there and to follow all those rules.

This proposal misses the whole point of community as we know it in churches. Nobody tells anybody in churches what to say. He thinks the liturgy of the Catholic Church and the Haggadah of a Seder direct the same kind of interaction he is proposing for his restaurant. He does not understand that liturgy and Haggadah are not about getting individuals to divulge secrets to each other. The individuals gathered in community in a church or at a Seder celebrate something much more than the gathering itself; they celebrate what God has done, and what God is doing, and what God will do. The gathering does bond people together in love, but it would be nothing without God. The fellowship shared in worship settings is only one aspect of the fellowship of believers, and the writer correctly infers that the relationships of believers outside the sanctuary have something to do with what goes on inside, but his Agape Restaurant puts a human being in the place God enjoys in Christian faith. The utopia envisioned by Alain Botton actually creates a human dictatorship which sounds completely oppressive rather than copying the free, vibrant fellowship that grows out of shared faith. The Agape Restaurant sounds like a prescription for brainwashing to me.

Some people may see the first few words of Botton’s article and conclude that he might be taking a first step toward faith by trying to learn something from the great religious traditions of the world. He is absolutely not doing that. Read the entire article. He is, in fact, deconstructing the traditions built on a life of faith and attempting to reconstruct something that will reshape the culture in lockstep with legislative and political transformations of civil society. He specifically states that the restaurants would be the first step “to humanize one another in our imaginations,” a step to be followed by “legislative and political solutions to cure society’s ills.” His proposal is not the benign speculation of a philosopher. It is the same proposal Satan made to Jesus during Christ’s temptations.

Here’s how Satan put it:

The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ “ (Matthew 4:8-10)


Satan offered Jesus a deal: You can have your religion and anything else you want, as long as God isn’t in it. Botton is proposing that people worship people. He is proposing the development of a culture that submits to some human being as if that human being were a god. That is implicit in a model that says this person has the right to tell everyone else what to talk about and what to think. This human being is accountable to nobody, as near as I can tell from the proposal in Botton’s article. This is a terrifying proposal, whether or not you are a Christian.

Think about Botton’s thesis. Do you see anyone suggesting ideas that mirror this proposal? Do you think people want to be told what to do and how to think? Are you a Christian? Do you wonder why, despite the presence of so many Christians in society, we have not spread salt and light broadly enough for Botton to be affected by it? That might be the big thought question. We all want our testimony to be true, and we all want to live a testimony the Holy Spirit can use to bless people. Do we need to examine ourselves and examine our testimony? Are we shedding God’s light in a dark world?

God loves Alain Botton, whether Botton knows it or not. I pray that somebody, or more than one somebody, may introduce him to the God who gives life to the fellowship Mr. Botton so fervently desires. He is a deeply lonely man. May Alain Botton soon meet the One who loves Alain enough to die for him.

A Bright Promise

Today’s readings:

Genesis 9:8-17     Psalm 25:1-10     1 Peter 3:18-22     Mark 1:9-15

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, People often think of it as a dark time, a time of deprivation, a time to endure some pain. I think the texts we read today give a somewhat more hopeful view of this season. It is certainly a season to examine ourselves and to think about what is in our lives that might need to be relinquished in order to remove one more barrier between us and our deeper relationship with God. But viewed as an invitation to draw nearer to God, Lent looks like a brighter time.

Today’s text from Genesis at first strikes us as misplaced. The rainbow after the flood in the story of Noah is one of the most colorful and delightful images in the Bible. With the rainbow, God announced that he would never again cleanse the earth of sin by destroying humankind. As we read Mark’s rapid-fire, high-level narrative of the beginning of Christ’s ministry, it is easy to miss the point that when Jesus began to preach, he was fulfilling God’s plan never to crush humanity again in an attempt to wipe out sin. Jesus came, and began to preach the simple message Mark records, because he was God’s solution to sin on the earth. He was the fulfillment of the promise of the rainbow. God could not tolerate the fact that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” He sent Jesus to die instead of destroying human beings.

Jesus’ message invited us to draw near to God, because God had drawn near to us. He said, “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The problem everyone has with that message is that everyone knows he is sinful. People want to get closer to God, but they don’t dare. They know how unworthy they are. They feel that they have done too many bad things. They have made too many bad choices. They know they need to clean up their act, yet they feel incapable of doing so. Mae West once said, “I generally avoid temptation, unless I can’t resist it,” and most people know exactly what she is talking about. People know that God hates sin, and because they feel they can’t resist sin, they are afraid to draw near to God. They even get mad at God for being so judgmental. They think he has no idea how hard it is to be a human.

They are wrong. As Jesus came up out of the water at his baptism, the Holy Spirit manifested itself to him in the form of a dove, and God said, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” That sounds like quite a lovely sight, but Mark says that the Holy Spirit “immediately” drove Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus was about to find out exactly how hard it is to be human. For starters, he fasted for forty days. He was human, and he needed food. The wonderfully designed human body has immense resources to promote life, even in times of great deprivation, so this long fast did not kill Jesus, but it would have made him profoundly hungry and miserable and weak. It was in that vulnerable state that Satan came to tempt him, when he was as weak and miserable as you or me.

Mark doesn’t provide any detail about the temptation, but Matthew fills in the story. Jesus was tempted over and over to build up his human self rather than trust and serve God. Every temptation is ultimately that one temptation: do what will make you feel good right this minute instead of doing what God created you to do. The story of Jesus’ temptation is like the story of the rainbow, however. It is not intended to make us feel guilty, because we have problems resisting temptation; it is intended to help us understand that God loves us even though we have those problems.

We can be blessed by the story of the temptation of Jesus in three ways:

  •  It comforts us, because Jesus knows what it is like to have Satan in your face, preying on your greatest weakness, pushing all your buttons, teasing you about what you want and daring you to believe that you deserve to get what you want, because God is not fair.
  •  It encourages us, because Jesus, a real human being, was able to prevail. He responded to Satan and resisted the temptation. There is hope for us in the model he gives us. Maybe, just maybe, we can sometimes resist.
  • It helps us understand the calamitous depth of Jesus’ confrontation with Satan on the cross. In the wilderness, at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, we are allowed to see the Satan clearly, starkly contrasted to Christ. In the wilderness, Christ suffers great privation, but no torture. Satan was frustrated in the wilderness, but he did not give up. If we want to know what was happening with Jesus on the cross besides great physical suffering, we have only to look back to the wilderness. The voices at the cross screaming, “Okay, if you really are the Messiah, just climb down off that cross. Show us your stuff,” were animated by the same voice that said in the wilderness, “Why should you be hungry? You could turn these stones into bread if you wanted to.”

 If Jesus had not been tempted in the wilderness, his preaching about repentance might have rung hollow in our ears. After all, what would he know about how hard it is to live a righteous life? The temptation reminds us that Jesus knew exactly how hard it is. When we remember that story, we can put our own temptations in a different perspective. When we think about our problems in the light of Jesus’ experience, then it is easier to see how we might need to let go of some bad attitudes and self-serving behavior in order to be more like Jesus. If we didn’t have the image of Jesus in the wilderness to show us how serious God is about fighting Satan, it would be harder for us to understand that Christ’s death on the cross is the real fulfillment of God’s promise in the rainbow. Every time we see a rainbow, we should remember the price God was willing to pay for his decision not to crush us because of our sins.

The rainbow is a beautiful image. We don’t need to see one in order to think about it. It is easy for us to see a rainbow in our heads whenever we want to. Even little children can do that. When we feel tempted to give up on ourselves because we keep failing to be the people we want to be, we should remember the rainbow. In the rainbow God tells us that he knows all about our problems. He knows how hard it is, and he loves us anyway. In the rainbow, God says, “I love you so much that I’m going to fight that war for you.” When you think of it that way, the Lenten season is not so dark after all.

 Try reading today’s Psalm as your own prayer, thinking about the rainbow promise as you pray.

It’s Always the End Times

I remember the world-wide frenzy generated by the “Left Behind” series. I don’t happen to share the hermeneutic stance of the authors, so I don’t have those books in my library. That doesn’t mean, however, that I reject either the significance or the value of the book of Revelation.

Quite the contrary. I believe that book is critical to a Christian understanding of the way we live our faith. The central message of the book of Revelation is that we must cling fast to Christ and live in faithful relationship with him no matter what is going on around us. That message is timeless, and that message has value in all eras for all people. What’s more, the urgency of Revelation is that we should always live and speak of our faith as if time were about to end. Why? Because for every one of us, time is about to end. Whether it ends for all people is irrelevant. The end of time is imminent for every human being, because none of us gets out of here alive, as somebody so famously said in some pop song. God has written it in our souls and we all know it is true that this life, this time, this place is temporary.

That is why I can’t get very excited about an attempt to find a timeline to eternity in Revelation. I don’t think it matters, because the message of Revelation is to be steadfast in faith at all times. Be ready for rejection. Be ready for persecution. Be ready to give the answer as Peter told us (1 Peter 3:15) because somebody will need to hear it. You don’t know if the heavens are about to be rolled back, or if you will be hit by a bus on your way to church. You do know as surely as you know your own name that time will end for you, one way or another.

In the letters to the churches, Jesus cried out for people to live their faith wherever they were. He pleaded for people to reclaim the enthusiasm and energy of their first profession. He reminded them that the gift of his love is not something to hide in a closet; it is something to share in our faithful testimony. He warned people that we will be so filled with regret if we don’t live our testimony that the day will come we will wish rocks could fall on us.

This is what I learn from Revelation. I have a few thoughts about the similarity between the world I live in and the world of the author of Revelation. I have seen calls to worship the state that closely parallel the call to worship Roman emperors. I see all sorts of temptations in daily life to substitute human accomplishments for God’s grace and glory. But I am not able to discern any clear timeline in either Revelation or my own era that say that the final big bang is imminent. However, remembering that Christ said we never will know these things, I don’t worry about these things very much. I have something bigger to worry about.

Myself. What? Am I the most self-centered person you ever heard of? Maybe I am. I pray daily to topple SELF off the throne of my heart, but to date, I am unsuccessful at making that commitment stick. Every time I think for even a moment that I have successfully denied SELF, I am filled with such pride at the accomplishment that SELF climbs right back up on that throne. My faithful testimony is shredded by my complete inability to deny SELF once and for all and follow Christ faithfully in a life of love and service.

So I don’t worry much about the end times. I worry about these times. I worry that I will fail to give my testimony in a way that provides salt and light to a culture that is disintegrating. I don’t worry that time will end. I worry that my time will end before I ever serve Christ for even one minute in faithful testimony. It is always the end times, and I need to act like it.

Book Review — The God Whom Moses Knew

The God Whom Moses Knew by J. Roger Nelson, M.D., is a novel tightly shaped by the biblical narrative of the Exodus, richly textured with commentary, viewed through the lens of Moses’ life. Imaginative little vignettes introduce the backstories of major characters.

More attentive editing would improve the reader experience, and the story would be stronger without dated diction such as “graven images.” The author braves uncharted territory in his explanations of the mind of God. Behavior based on contemporary rather than ancient standards is sometimes startling.

Nevertheless, the book is a solid reminder that God achieves his great work when ordinary people afflicted with ego and jealousy, weakness and ambition, go ahead and put one foot in front of the other on the path where God leads them. It is not uncommon for people of faith to diminish their own potential for service by comparing themselves to the imagined virtue of biblical characters who were actually not so virtuous. The God Whom Moses Knew reminds the reader that the kingdom of God is not built on perfection; it is built on redemption.

How Shall We Live in this Brave New World?

When the president of the United States appeared on nationwide tv and radio to announce an “accommodation” in the dispute with the Catholic bishops, I did not expect anything good. If he had been planning to take any action in accord with the First Amendment, it would not have been labeled an “accommodation.” An accommodation is not the same thing as a solution. It is a way to avoid solving the problem. The announcement proved to be no solution at all. It is an accounting shell game. Instead of forcing employers whose religious scruples forbid contraception, abortion and sterilization, the regulation would force the insurance companies to provide those services at no charge to the insured individuals, and at no charge to the employers either. Our president thought nobody would guess that the insurance companies must obtain the money used to provide those “free” services from somewhere. They will obtain that money by restructuring premiums to collect enough money to prevent them from going bankrupt by providing all that free service. In plain English, this accommodation accommodated nothing and it solved nothing.

The accommodation did have a value, however. It demonstrated clearly this president’s complete disregard for the Constitution as a whole and the First Amendment specifically. He has told us in a number of speeches how much he objects to the limits the Constitution places on the federal government. When I hear it, I don’t complain along with him. I say, this Constitution is working exactly as designed. Our founders knew that in the course of human events, another despotic ruler might come along and be elected president. We have a president who feels every bit as affronted by the prospect of free people living their lives according to their own choices as King George III felt. He expresses it in a variety of ways, but lately, he seems to be very focused on suppressing religious freedom, something King George seemed not to worry about.

People of faith have run from all over the world to this country seeking the liberty we famously offer to every citizen: the freedom of religious expression without any government interference. Buddhists have come here. Muslims have come here. Hindus have come here. Christians have come here. People of many religious persuasions have come here when their home countries decided that free expression of religion was a threat to an autocratic government. They have come here in fear of their lives, and here in the USA they have found safety. They have brought their families, reared their children, enjoyed their faith, and nobody has ever interfered with them. The freedom to enjoy and express their faith no matter the faith has been a hallmark of American citizenship.

Lately it appears that this freedom is under assault. The most widely discussed issue is the regulation written by the Secretary of Health and Human Services that requires religious employers to buy insurance that provides free contraception, abortion and sterilization. Less widely known and discussed is the news that when the Bishops sent letters to Catholic military chaplains, exactly like the letters they sent to all pastors nationwide, letters that instructed Catholics on the church teachings regarding contraception, abortion and sterilization and reminding them that their adherence to the faith required them to refuse to comply with this regulation, the government told the Catholic military chaplains that if they read those letters to their congregations, they would be subject to be tried for sedition and treason for opposing an order of the president.

This is not all. The latest information I have received is that a program entitled Public Service Loan Forgiveness has been revised specifically to exclude individuals employed in religious jobs. The loans addressed by this program are student loans. The relevant part of the regulation provides loan forgiveness to someone employed by an organization classified “as tax-exempt by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC).” Without engaging in any judgment whether this is a good idea at all, I point out that the program specifically stated “The type or nature of employment with the organization does not matter for PSLF purposes. Additionally, the type of services that these public service organizations provide does not matter for PSLF purposes.

In plain English, this program has, for many years, provided loan forgiveness for students who were employed in all sorts of 501 ( c ) 3 organizations. Churches are among the organizations that qualify for this classification. We all know that. Every church is tax-exempt, and donations to a church qualify for the deduction for charitable contributions. The rule applied until the end of January. Now the rules have changed.

As of February, there is a new paragraph that follows the statements quoted above. The new paragraph reads as follows:

“Generally, the type or nature of employment with the organization does not matter for PSLF purposes. However, if you work for a non-profit organization, your employment will not qualify for PSLF if your job duties are related to religious instruction, worship services, or any form of proselytizing.”

You can find details in this online article at

This change means that employees of churches no longer qualify for the loan forgiveness program. Again, I say that this post is not to argue with the logic or justification of student loan forgiveness. My point is to ask why, in February of 2012, the rules suddenly changed, and why this change excludes work for religious organizations.

The real question is this: what changed? The respect for religious organizations that has been part of the fabric of the culture of the United States for more than 200 years is no longer expressed in the administration of the federal government of this country. What motivated this change? These are really only a few of the issues I could list.

Our forefathers fought and died to create a country where they could be free. When the American Constitution was written, it was understood by its authors to be a statement of the boundaries for a central government. The founders believed that the government did not have the authority to do anything not named in that Constitution, and the Constitution did not authorize the central government to suppress or impede the expression of religion by any citizen. Some wise minds recognized that human nature being what it is, there needed to be a specific restraint on this government that prevented it from either establishing some single official religion or from persecuting or suppressing any religion. Who knew that we would today be asking ourselves what happened to that freedom?

Christians have survived a lot of governments. The Roman government first ignored and later persecuted Christians before eventually making Christianity the state religion. Across the centuries Christians have known feast and famine in their relationships with governments. Today we have to ask ourselves what we do about the things that are happening with our federal government. It is a big issue. We will not lose our faith or give up our faith even if the government should forbid our faith, but life will be different. It is already different.

How shall we live in this new world?