The Catch-22 for Evangelicals about Atheism

Evangelicals get very upset when one of their flock becomes an atheist. At one level, I understand. But at another, I think they have set themselves up for failure on this issue because of their reliance on two major but dissonant foundations.

The modern evangelical mind has two major important philosophical underpinnings (maybe more, but these are the important ones for us today.)

The first would be ontological. Concepts like: There is a God; this God has given us a Holy Book. Truth is always Truth no matter what you think or feel. You cannot base your life on your feelings or experience. (Because people are sinners.)

The second would be phenomenological and experiential. Modern evangelicals are conversion oriented and virtually all teach that you can have a personal relationship with Jesus. Even as short a time as 35 years, a large group of evangelicals would say that emotions and experience of Jesus were not that important. What mattered was that grace which enabled faith led to salvation. Emotion and experience were not as important. But in the push for conversionism, and the push for the idea that you can “accept Jesus” the movement shifted unconsciously to the idea that you “made a decision for christ” which suggests what I term a “psycho-social acceptence of Jesus”

My parents were involved with bible churches that were skeptical of all experience. Many southern baptist churches used to stress that what mattered was faith, and the SBC churches that preached the “deeper life” in Jesus (that you could have a mystical and personal experience of God beyond the “born again” experience)were often made fun of by other baptists.

But then came along the heirs to the pietists (which started in Moravia in the 1700s) who were the Jesus People of the 1960s.

And the pietists and Jesus people won. I think in large part due to the rising influence of contemporary christian music, praise and worship music, and the merging of mild charismatic streams of Christianity with the more mainstream evangelical church which further stress experience.

CCM music and Praise and Worship music are not just more personalistic in their approach to God/Faith. You see, the old hymns were largely songs to God about God…”God you are good. God you are great. God we are this. God we are that.” Hymns were often corporate “We the people of God say the following.” there were some exceptions but the ones in the official hymnals tended to be less personal. CCM and praise and worship music is more personal and relational.

I just went to iTunes and found a current big download in praise and worship. These are the lyrics:

Take me in with Your arms spread wide..

Take me in like an orphan child
Never let go Never leave my side

I am
Holding on to You
In the middle of the storm
I am holding on 

Love like this
Oh my God to find
I am overwhelmed
With a joy divine
Love like this sets our hearts on fire

This is not just personal. This is the language of romance and is in the tradition of the mystical. They fact that evangelicals do not like/use the word “mystical” does not mean that they are not, in fact, teaching that people can have mystical connection to God. When you say a person can experience the divine in an individual way, you are saying they can be a mystic. Go read some books on it at your local college.

Mysticism as a tradition is 1000s of years old. And it was never mainstream in Christianity. The average “Joe Blow” Christian in history (this may not apply to the first generation or two of Christians) were not personally mystical. Most people who became mystics went into the monastic movement. Sometimes leaders were mystics. But not the average adherent.

The modern evangelical church is constantly telling people that can experience God. I rememer the book “Experiencing God” by Henry Blackaby. It is right in the title!

But they also tell them that if they do not, then it is their fault. Because ontologically, God is real, whether you feel it or not. This is major cognitive dissonance!

And here is the funny thing about that:

The more likely one is to take this claim seriously, The more likely one is to have a crisis of faith.

In 43 years, I have talkd to a lot of Christians who are average. They believe, but not “real hard.” God is for the big stuff. Their prayers are short, about themselves, and their families. They may go to church every week or not. But they are not that dedicated. They do not internalize the values being preached. God is something that adds value to their lives. That value includes salvation, protection, and prosperity. They are not bad people. I am not judging them but observing. Globally and historically, this is what most people want out of religion: protection, prosperity, and a good afterlife. These people may not “experience god” much. Some do. But if they do not, they can say to themselves, “I have not really tried that hard.” And they would be right. They have not. No big deal. They have few serious crises of faith.

Then there are those that do try hard. They realize that Jesus did not come to just give you salvation or comfort but to seek and save the lost. To change the world. That christians should make a difference.

These people pray hard. They seek hard. They try their best to hear God. They do the things that they think Jesus would do, no matter how hard that is. No matter what the cost is. These are true believers/seekers.

And some of these true believers experience a God who listens, who cares, who answers their prayers. The evangelical ontology and evangelical phenomenological promise of an intimate God match up.

But for some? This may happen for awhile, then stop. Or it may never happen. I have talked to more liberal Christians who say they never “felt God” the way they were “supposed to” and came to believe in a different kind of Christianity and God. I have also talked to atheists who say they never felt God and finally admitted that . Finally, I have met atheists who say they “felt God” in the past but not anymore…and that they now think they were probably just wrong about the past.

This is the catch-22. Many of the atheists who no longer believe in God and Jesus stopped because they put the evangelical promise to the test. They actually believed what is promised in a 1000 praise songs, and in a 1000 sermons:

“He never failed me yet.”

“You ask me how I know he lives…he lives within my heart.”

“A man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with an idea.”

There are forms of Christianity that say, “forget what you feel.” Orthodoxy is one of them. They stick to ontology. If you tell an orthodox priest, “I don’t feel or believe in God.” They will say, “keep going to services and taking the host. What matters is what God does, not what you feel.” You may disagree but philosophically this makes more sense than saying. ‘You can experience god? Oh wait? You do not? TOTALLY YOUR FAULT.”

So. We would call this Unintended Consequences. The Unintended Consequences of the Catch-22 in Evanagelical Christianity is that the more it is preached, “you CAN have a personal relationship with God but that if you do not, it is your fault,” the more crazy and shaming the movement appears to those both inside and out who do not have that experience.

Roman Catholics and The Orthodox realize not everyone is built socially and psychologically to be a mystic. Too bad evangelicals did not get the memo. 

Post Script. (no need to read. Move along…)

This is a very personal issue for me, because I understand both sides. I read the book My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey in which thbrain scientist/author experienced a stroke that showed her that for the average person, it is our right, intuitive brain that experience reality in a holistic, non-categorical, non dual way.

This right hemisphere is the mystic’s brain. It is our other hemisphere, the left brain, which is the deductive side, that sees things in terms of past, present, future, categories, labels etc.

[Now, some people have told me “there is no such thing are right brain/left brain that is too simplistic.”

  1. our two brain hemispheres are largely separate

  2. The book I read was by a nueroscientist who experienced her own scientific understanding of the brain when a stroke shut down her left brain. Don’t take it up with me. Email her.

  3. The fact that some people do not fit the norm of left brain/right brain does not mean it is not true for many people. ]

This book made a lot of sense to me, because I seem to be able, at times, to radically shift between my two hemispheres. And I times, I cannot unshift at all.

My left brain is an atheist. It is deductive, categorical. It does not experience God and often, when thinking about God, it is easy to be a total skeptic.

However, My right brain is a mystic– it is relational and has had many experiences that fit what people call “the divine,” “God,” etc.

You cannot prove that there is a God because your brain experiences something. However, Ken Wilber notes that it is folly to say “It is just in your brain.” He talks about his dog Isaac. When he sees his Isaac and plays with him, his brain lights up. Ken’s brain says “Isaac is real. I am interacting with Isaac.” And the dog does, in fact, exist. Ken also experiences the divine. We cannot prove or disprove that the experiences of God people have relate to something outside there brain. They DO have the experience. What we cannot know is if it correlates to something more than just an internal reality.

So I am sympathetic to people who say, “I no longer believe in God because I cannot experience him.” I can see why they say that. They were taught for years they could and they tried and it did not work. So quit judging them when it is your fault that you told them they could surely experience something and then they surely did not.

And I am sympathetic to people who say “I believe there is a God because I experience it.”

But I have no time for people who say “I know with certainty there is no God because I do not experience God. Or the opposite, “I know with certainty there is a God because I experience God.”

There may be God that I am experiencing when I experience “God” in my brain. Or it might be my unconscious. Or a 1000 other things. It might just be the universe and I getting connected.

I chose to say ‘I believe there is a God” (though I prefer the term “the Divine”) But I cannot prove it. And if you do not believe there is a God, maybe it is because your right brain is different from mine.

We all have reasoned and logic-ed the world in the matrix of our own experience/context.


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