Often in religious circles atheists get labelled as the cold-hearted scientists who care nothing of relationships and put stock only in quantitative study, the big bang and evolution......
While atheists do not communally agree with the mantras of Christopher Hitchens’ “How Religion Poisons Everything” and Richard Dawkins’ call for “militant atheism,” this often is how they are viewed.
If this is true, why then would an atheist couple in Calgary donate a million dollars to a local church that believes in “growing as disciples of Jesus Christ” And why would English journalist and confirmed atheist Matthew Parris argue for evangelical missionaries in Africa?
In a 2008 article he wrote for the Sunday Times called (‘As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.’) Parris initially wanted to confirm the “Western academic sociologists’ argument for “placing tribal value systems” in “a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture.” The cultural relativism of “‘theirs’ and therefore best for ‘them’ that saturates our academic world” has long been presented.
But through his own qualitative, relationship-based research he comes to a far different view:
“We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world — a directness in their dealings with others.”
This single case should not be used to draw conclusions on thoughts of missionary work, since the accounts of missionary-based atrocities against developing countries are many. What I see in Parris, and many of my atheist friends, is a devotion to honesty: a refusal to simply “go with the flow” in a socially constructed system.
The above-mentioned Calgary couple consists of two men in a committed relationship, and they’ve had their share of persecution from religious organizations. Even so, they could not in good conscience let the community church perish when they knew the services provided — food, shelter and relationship support — would be deeply missed by the community.
Religions such as Christianity are increasingly losing their power and influence in a society where they once held sway. With each Catholic cover-up and televangelist scandal, people are increasingly distrusting the religious institution. Is there something that can be gleaned from the honesty of these atheists, despite the scorn they may face from some communities? I propose that religious communities relinquish any hold on the dishonest hierarchy that has often been enforced. Instead, we need to be open about our mistakes, and show that the power of faith does not come from the institution, but from the deity we claim to have encountered.
(Originally published in The Reflector October 7 2010)