A Christian Pastor Interviews an Atheist... and they like each other
You will want to read a previous hub of mine titled “My Friend, the Atheist, Didn’t Show” to learn the background to this hub. The short version is that several months ago a man who called himself an atheist phoned me to ask if I’d interview him and publish a hub about it. I agreed and sent him some questions, but I haven’t heard from him since. So I published the hub just mentioned in the hope that someone else might want to answer the questions. My first response came within a few hours from Olivia who offered, “I’d love to answer your questions.” She readily agreed to the “contract” I’d drafted. So here we are. She did ask to write an introductory paragraph which is what follows. To help distinguish her writing from mine, I’ve italicized hers.
Olivia's opening comments
Before I answer any questions, I do want to make some caveats to my answers. I cannot speak for anyone except for myself. There is no formal doctrine or dogma of atheism, so I can’t pretend to know what my fellow atheists are thinking except through conversation and interaction with them. My conclusions here are all from my own life and experiences, and I don’t claim to be representing any movement. My views personally fall generally under the “agnostic” category (we simply don’t know whether or not there’s a God and probably never will), however they tend towards atheism because we have no positive evidence for God, and in that case I will assume nonexistence. I prefer to identify as an atheist because I feel there’s a strong stigma against atheists, and there is more of a community and movement around atheism. I also fall into the A+ category, in that I prefer to prioritize my social justice concerns over my atheism. With that in mind, here are my answers.
What are the main factors which caused you to conclude that there is no God?
Olivia: I spent a good deal of time considering God and whether or not there was a God. I think on a guttural level I never believed there was a God. I went to a Catholic school from kindergarten through high school, and I spent a good deal of that time trying to find a way to believe in God, trying to find some evidence of his presence, or some feeling that he was there with me, because I believed it was the right thing to do. I also have an undergraduate degree in religious studies from a Lutheran College. However the more I learned about science, the world around me, and the way that religion functioned in our world, the more I realized a.that I did not want to be associated with any religion, b.that I had never had the “belief” that came from faith, or any other sort of non-evidence based source, and that I never would because I did not view faith without evidence as a virtue, and c.that there was no scientific or philosophical evidence for or need for God to exist in this world. It was primarily by virtue of trying to think logically and rationally about God, and realizing that while there may not be evidence AGAINST his existence, I could find no evidence FOR his existence, and that the burden of proof was on those trying to assert existence.
How would you define the term “God” as used in your answer to the previous question?
Olivia: For the most part, I approach God in a very western sense: a personal, omnipotent, omnipresent and universal being. However I also feel that my above feelings could be applied to any sort of “supernatural” creature that has powers beyond what we can witness/see/experience/measure, or that exists in some other dimension/world/realm, or is completely non-physical. Any one of these versions of god or spirituality seems to be broken down by logic and a lack of evidence, and thus my previous answer can be applied to any of them.
What do you think of Jesus Christ?
Olivia: I don’t think of Jesus Christ often because he has no real bearing on my life. feel that we really have no historical evidence that tells us much about him beyond the fact that he existed and was crucified, so I don’t have many opinions about him. The Jesus of the Bible was an extremely contradictory person, especially when you take into account the non-canonical Gospels. It seems to me that I can’t really come to any conclusion about him because he says things that seem to promote peace and love, but also says things that seem to promote exclusivity or violence. In general, I mostly wish that people wouldn’t appeal to Jesus Christ as often as they do, and would rather that people use logic and empathy to find their values.
What or who is the final authority in your life? Put differently, by what means do you determine what is true or false?
Olivia: I honestly don’t feel that there is any “final authority” in the world, particularly in moral terms. In terms of truth and falsity, I think that there are some things that we can determine through science, logic, rational thinking, and empirical testing, however I think we are all limited by our own perspective, senses, mind, and culture. Overall, I think this means that there is no ultimate authority, simply intersubjective reality. We can come closer to a truth by incorporating more and more sources of information, however we will never reach an objective truth and there will never be a means to which I can appeal for certainty.
What is the mission of the atheist movement?
Olivia: The “atheist movement” is a pretty ambiguous term. First, I think there are HUGE numbers of atheists (the vast majority) who are not part of any movement. Second, many people have many different goals within the organized movement. And third, there’s a great deal of debate within the movement about what our goals and mission should be. Overall, I think that the movement was started to increase awareness of atheism, create some community and camaraderie to allow atheists to feel more comfortable with their lack of religious beliefs, and to decrease stigma against atheists. It also has a great deal of overlap with the skeptical movement, which tries to educate the population about pseudo-science and similar things. Atheism has also moved into trying to educate and end some of the harms that have happened because of religion (e.g. pedophilia in the Catholic church). Some people like Richard Dawkins have tried to make this the main focus of the atheist movement, and even gone so far as to say that religion is inherently damaging, but I would argue that that’s a fringe position. There’s also a recent development in the atheist movement called A+, which is something like a hybrid of humanism and atheism, and looks to incorporate social justice and humanitarian goals into the atheist movement, to try and create something like the ethical framework and community that a church might provide for the atheist community.
Atheists desire peace and justice and long for personal joy and fulfillment. What brings these about and how do you experience them?
Olivia: First, I think it’s really an overgeneralization to say these things about any group. Yes, most people yearn for these things, but there are horrible people in the atheist movement and out who don’t care about these things. That said, I think that for me personally, these things are incredibly difficult. Obviously, peace and justice are difficult to try to bring about no matter who you are, and I don’t think the methods to bring them about hinge on religious beliefs. There is great variety within religious groups as well. In terms of personal joy and fulfillment, I think that atheists probably have to struggle a bit more with nuance about these because they don’t have a set of rules that they can turn to, they have to figure out the rules for themselves. That said, I think that even religious people spend a great deal of time trying to understand how to find personal joy and fulfillment in a difficult world. For me personally, joy and fulfillment come from giving back to my world and community, from love, relationships, family and being with other people, and from understanding my world. I don’t think that atheists are really all that different from other people in terms of what makes them happy, however they don’t label it with religious terms, they simply accept that their meaning is earthly, temporary, and transient, and comes from other people and themselves.
What offers you confidence in the face of the death we shall all experience?
Olivia: Nothing. I don’t have a strong fear of death, because it’s simply oblivion so I won’t experience it. What is there to fear about nothing? I don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about or worrying about death. I’m more worried about getting what I can out of the time that I have because it’s all that I have. What I’m afraid of is not having enough time, or feeling like I can’t accomplish what I’d like with the time I have. Once I’m dead, that won’t bother me, so I have to learn how to deal with those anxieties about the here and now through things like therapy, reflection, meditation, and an understanding of my own emotions and where they come from.
My take on Olivia’s answers
This is an interview, not a debate. Though I disagree with much of what Olivia has written I respect her for her thoughtful honesty and gracious manner. It’s helpful that she describes an atheist as someone who doesn’t see sufficient evidence for God as opposed to dogmatically asserting “There is no God.” The former has integrity, the latter implies godlike omniscience. I’ve learned from Olivia what an A+ atheist is. Whatever her religious convictions are, she’s focused on the real world seeking justice.
Olivia’s position concerning Jesus marks the watershed between us. She grants that he lived and was crucified but believes there’s little evidence for much else. She judges his teaching to be contradictory. If these are her thoughts regarding Jesus, I understand why she would find it off-putting that people appeal to him so much. Neither am I surprised that she’s not concerned about death, for she’s concluded that death is no more than oblivion.
I would have to agree with Olivia but for one thing. There is overwhelming evidence that Jesus not only lived and was crucified, but that he rose to life on the third day. I don’t expect Olivia, or any atheist to agree with that, but hear me out. If, in fact, Jesus rose from the dead, his life and words take on a whole new meaning. It would be reasonable to conclude that I’m faced not with a mere man, but with someone of godlike power and character. So if his words are contradictory, I’ll assume I’ve misunderstood them, not that he’s speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Once you grant that he conquered death everything else falls into place, including what happens at our own death.
Now integrity demands that if it’s proven that Jesus did not vanquish the grave I jettison my christian convictions in favor of a world and life view akin to Olivia’s. No melodrama here. Paul wrote, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (I Corinthians 15:14) Conversely if after examining all the evidence for Christ’s resurrection he’s proved to be alive, I’d hope an honest atheist would reconsider.
Finally, I’ve never met Olivia. If we did meet, I’d enjoy her company over a cup of coffee. Everyone created by God is worth respecting and getting to know even if the person doesn’t believe there is a God.
Olivia's final comment
I want to thank Crane for setting up this interview. It's a really wonderful experience to have some honest dialogue between a theist and an atheist. I agree with most of his conclusions, and if I were presented with strong evidence of Jesus' resurrection, or of some other immediate intervention of God in the world, I would be forced to change my beliefs. We all start with the evidence that's presented to us, analyze it through our own lens, and work from there. I can begrudge no one the conclusions they have come to through their own honest contemplation. This experience has made two of us that would look forward to a cup of coffee and a good discussion.