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Does God prefer kind Atheists over hateful Christians?

March 31, 2012

When I see slogans like ‘God Hates Fags’ I wonder what kind of religion this could be that speaks of hatred for anyone, and am amazed that anybody should wish to worship such a God as this.

For many years now I have been an atheist, but I hope a kind one. I am not one of those who has never been able to believe in the supernatural, but the other sort of atheist – one who arrived at this position through bitter disillusion with the Church.

As a child it was not difficult to believe in God; I also believed in Santa Claus and things that go bump in the night. I also trusted my parents, so it did not seem at all implausible that there should be a cosmic parent also.

School in the 1950’s and 1960’s in England began with a religious assembly each day, something I never found at all tedious. I loved singing hymns and listened attentively to the bible readings. From a very young age Jesus inspired me. I had a book of 4 bible stories which was a present at my christening from one of my godmothers, and it was a much loved and well-thumbed book – The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Widow’s Mite and Jairus’s Daughter. These stories built my soul. They speak of love and compassion, generosity, trust, forgiveness and self sacrifice. They are, for me, the pith and marrow of Christianity, and worlds away from ‘God hates fags’.

At the age of 20 I decided to join a church. My parents had never taken us,  or sent us to Sunday school (I have 2 younger brothers) and my father dismissed all churchgoers as ‘a bunch of hypocrites’ and would have nothing to do with any of it. This was mainly because his grandfather had been a puritanical killjoy who spoke of wrath and judgement and attended church regularly, whilst treating his children harshly. My grandfather, the son of this fearsome Victorian patriarch, was ‘the black sheep’ of the family, the rebel who kicked over the traces. Religion is in my blood, but it bypassed my brothers. Neither of them have the slightest interest in it, and never have had.

I do believe that some people are genetically more prone to be religious or spiritual than others. I have read that it is a left brain/right brain bias. So, we are born with certain predispositions, and, as children, are like seedbeds for ideas. The parable of the sower springs to mind, but I do not think we can help the kind of ‘ground’ that we are.

I stayed in the Church for 20 years, seeking the Jesus I glimpsed in those early stories and who leapt out at me from the sermon on the Mount. I sought but I did not find. The Church disappointed and disillusioned me. I was not unfortunate enough to meet any ‘God hates fags’ types but I met a large number of lukewarm and uninspiring people whose churchgoing habit seemed to be merely something they did on Sundays, a bit like going to the theatre, only less exciting and cheaper. Listening to many of the conversations over tea after the service, it was sometimes difficult to understand how they could claim to be followers of Jesus. I might have been in a bus or a pub – the talk was as trivial, gossipy and often as bitchy as anything you might encounter in those secular places where ordinary folk who never thought about God hung out. The man who told us to love our enemies could hardly be more absent from a group of people who were complaining in the most uncharitable manner about a neighbour, only minutes after receiving holy communion.

Through too many such encounters and the questions that arose through my reading. I eventually came to the conclusion that God was nothing but a powerful delusion – a mind trick that we fell for in our need and longing and fear. I looked at the Church’s history of brutality and oppression and was not proud to be identified with it. I thought – how is it that, after 2000 years of christianity, the world is still a mess? One reason is that the church has contributed to its misery. It has not followed Jesus faithfully down the centuries.

I also wondered – and still do – where is the Holy Spirit who is supposed to enter those who accept Jesus as saviour and lord? He is described as wind and fire, and these are turbulent and uncomfortable elements, hardly unnoticeable if present. Should it not be possible to walk into a church and feel that energy there? Even if only 2 or 3 of those assembled are temples of this spirit of God, surely we should notice it? Would it not be something that would powerfully affect you, if it were truly there?

I believe so. The tired old excuse of human frailty just does not convince. There are enough people who do consent and who are sincere, for God to use in this way, should He really be there. Only I don’t think He is, so that’s the reason you cannot feel the wind of the spirit blowing  over you in church and the flame scorching you.

Or is God just so utterly different from what we imagine and what the New Testament writers thought? The still, small voice, not the wind and fire? A voice so small it can scarcely be heard. This is hardly the image of omnipotence, though, is it? An apologetic God, timidly knocking and faintly whispering. Why would He do that?

God really asks for people to not believe in Him, making it so hard to hear and see Him, and giving so many confusing messages and riddles to untangle. And if the Church is Christ’s body on earth, it is pretty sick and unattractive in many of its parts.

I know many kind atheists and just as many unkind churchgoers. I know generous people and mean ones. I find no difference between believers and non-believers over so many moral  issues. I am certain that we do not derive our morality from religion, because we use our inner moral compass to decide what bits of the bible are ethical. Slavery and genocide are reckoned to be reprehensible by most civilized people today, but they are both rife in the bible. God apparently, like some war lord, incited the Israelites to wholesale slaughter of their enemies. One wonders what happened between then and the arrival of Jesus with his message of ‘love your enemies, do good to those who hate you’. Maybe God got more moral?

I think, rather, that God is made up, and so his character keeps evolving as our moral ideas change. He is made in our image, and not the other way round. 

If God should have any real and objective existence, there is no empirical evidence for it, and a lot of people need this in order to believe in Him. The story of Jesus allowing Thomas to put his fingers in the holes in his body so that he may believe is not what happens with God – He does not offer to those who struggle to believe what seems nonsense to them, any real, tangible, visible sign of his presence. Except the Church, of course……

I expected to find in the Church an alternative society – a group of people dedicated to building ‘the kingdom of heaven’. How naive can one be? For the most part I think churchgoers are looking out for themselves; wanting comfort in life’s struggles and hoping for reward when they die. This appears to require regular worship and confession but not necessarily an exemplary life. So God is more interested in what you believe than in what you do? And hates fags maybe?

I wonder at times if religious people think God will vanish if they do not endlessly rehearse his name and praise him. Certainly they leap to his defence if you should question his existence. Yet, if God is really there, how shall He be affected by anybody’s unbelief? If God is really there, and sees our hearts and knows all our motives, what will He think about the kind atheist who gives with no thought to eternal reward, and the Christian who judges another for their sexual preference and has a mean, intolerant spirit? Is the latter ‘justified by faith’ and the other condemned to hell for unbelief?

Ok, if that is God, you are welcome to Him.

I say I’m an atheist, because I don’t believe in that God, or any supernatural being. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t actually think it is important. I think it is infinitely  better, for the world, to be a kind atheist than a hateful Christian. Of course there are unkind atheists and some very nice Christians, and I think all good- hearted, compassionate folk should band together and not be troubled by whether we believe in gods or not. Church ought to be that place where all types of people can gather together for inspiration and encouragement on the road to greater goodness, a space where we celebrate life, offer love to each other and learn how to interact kindly with the world around us.

For 15 years after leaving the Church I was unattached to any spiritual community but much involved with the environmental movement. I suppose Friends of the Earth became my ‘church’. I met all sorts of folk there, and they were not all kind. I saw how making anything a ‘goddess’ was dangerous. It could lead you to acts of hate towards your fellows who did not share your zeal for your object of worship. The earth is worthy of reverence and I do, sincerely, revere it, and when you read of a swathe of rainforest destroyed and wildlife driven to extinction by human activity, it is hard to forgive those doing the damage. I understand very well the allegiance to the leader and to the cause that drives people to carry out terrible acts against those who believe and behave differently.

I think that if there were truly a God of Love, Christianity would not fall into this trap. But it does.

I feel that I grew up when I decided that God was a delusion and I had better face it and get over it. Life has no purpose except the one we give it. There is no reason that it should make any sense, just because we might like it to do so. All I know for sure is that we live and we die, and that all of us are in this together. Jesus spoke wisdom – hatred is pointless, love is powerfully liberating. I am not surprised that those who knew Jesus should think him God – it was 2000 years ago, when everybody believed in gods. For me he is an inspirational man, a signpost for my life. He remains so, though I no longer believe him divine. I can’t believe that because there is no such thing, as far as I’m concerned; the natural realm is all there is. 

Some people talk about God in the abstract, as ‘ground of being’ or ‘isness’. I don’t find this objectionable, but nor do I find it compelling. It seems to add nothing to my understanding of any of life’s mysteries. Rather, it adds a further layer of confusion, for me. I see no need to call my longing for a better world by any name but that, or to personify any high ideal and call it ‘god’. 

I returned to church about 3 years ago after reading ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins. I was left wondering if he was right about all religion being bad and decided to give Christianity another go, but I would be honest and admit from the outset that I no longer believed in God and see where it led me.

It led me, eventually, to Unitarianism, a tolerant religion that does not inflict  dogma on you and does not tell you that you are imperfect and sinful, but instead builds on what you are and encourages you to better efforts to live compassionately. I found that Christians really cannot cope with atheists in their midst, even kind and quite spiritual ones. I found that , however compassionate you are and however moral and keen on justice, you are viewed with suspicion in church if you don’t believe in God. ‘Why are you here?’ might be asked, in tones varying from mildly curious to slightly defensive. And nobody is prepared to concede that a service that is less religious and more appealing to agnostics might be a good idea. There is no radical welcome extended to you. Nobody will outright say so, but you get the feeling that they would rather you were not there.

Many atheists do not understand why other atheists might want to go to church. And that’s quite a tricky one to answer. There is something appealing about joining together in community to sing and to share your life’s journey with people who you hope are benevolent and ethical. What we don’t want, of course, is God. All the benefits of Church without God.

Some people would say there are no benefits to church. Why bother? You can be a good person without it. You can be a bad person with it. But could you add value to your ‘goodness’ by belonging to a spiritual community that encouraged and inspired you and enlarged your heart? I think so. 

I would say that any religion that failed to make you into a more compassionate person was not doing its job, and that you do not need God to achieve this. In fact, God could even be an obstacle to this kind of progress. Theistic religion carries with it all the seeds of unthinking ideological fanaticism. The Christian Right in the USA amply demonstrates this.

So, does God prefer kind atheists over hateful Christians? Assuming, for argument’s sake, that He exists, I would say that God’s love must be all embracing and so the Church should be also, which means that atheists, and everyone else, ought to be welcomed. It is for God to worry about what people believe – He who it is said sees into the heart – not for Christians to judge and exclude and condemn, as if they speak for God on all matters. Indeed, some act as if they were an elite, privileged to know God’s will, and they are very keen to shout it aloud for the rest of us to hear. It is not an attractive quality. 

I remember that Jesus saved all his harshest criticisms for the religious folk of his day. I think many Christians would do well to take heed of this.

 

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