The label ‘Christian Atheist’ is not popular among either of the parties the term forces together. Many people reject the very existence of Christian atheism due to an (understandable) inability to look past the stand-alone definitions of both of these words and find cogency in using them together. But there is logic and also usefulness to be found.
The first and most simple definition for the term sees it used simply as an identifier of someone’s religious background. It’s a convenient label to counter an argument theists use against atheists often: “You’re always taking down Christianity, but I never see you talking about Islam or Judaism or blah blah blah…” The typical atheistic response to this accusation is to remind the believer that their background in is Christianity and (like everyone else on planet earth) their opinions and arguments are shaped by personal experiences. Identifying oneself as a Christian atheist simply makes this reply shorter…
….Buuut, that’s not the definition that sets both sides of the fence on fire. The heat enters the picture only when the second definition is claimed. This definition sees a person identify themselves not only as an atheist with a Christian history, but also as a non-believer who still positively values and identifies with this history.
This deeper identification can manifest in numerous ways. A Christian atheist might still read the bible and gain positivity from the book, they may still enjoy Christian music and the general Christian aesthetic. But ‘worst’ of all are the ones like myself, atheists who still find merit in following Jesus. In spite of leaving the religion that bears his name, and denying its god, we refuse to leave Jesus behind. This enrages theists and atheists alike. “Oh the hypocrisy!” they all cry, and rightly so.
But there is method behind the madness. Christian atheists are still atheists after all, and reason should be expected. This is how I justify my own atheistic Christianity:
One thing many atheists will have heard from their Christian friends / family / whoevers during their deconversion from theism to atheism is the phrase, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” For the person saying this, they usually mean something like, “Yes there may be issues with this religion/church, but that’s no reason to stop believing in god!” – and for those whose deconversion is primarily motivated by the negative and/or hypocritical actions of those who share their belief system, it is certainly something to consider. Of all the reasons one might choose to stop believing in a god, the actions of other people is almost always a catalyst, but is not substantial. The actions of believers, no matter how in or out of line they may be with their belief system, do not serve as evidence for or against god. The decision to not believe in gods solely because of other people is emotional, not logical. Because of this, there is some merit in the sentiment of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Essentially, it asks a person to look past their emotions and deeper into the rationale of faith-based belief – and then decide what they want to believe.
But for those of us whose deconversion was initially motivated by things like an inability to reconcile scientific fact with biblical claims, or no longer finding belief in gods to be reasonable to due a complete absence of evidence, is there any sort of proverbial baby to be saved?
The short answer is, it depends.
It depends on whether or not you see merit in any elements of your religion that are external to a belief in its attached deity.
If you do, save the baby. For me, that baby was Jesus (the topic of exactly why the saving of Jesus was important for me is a story for another time).
A large determining factor of whether or not a person will find merit in their old faith-based beliefs is how involved they were in the religion. How much of their character, their identity, is a product of their beliefs?
I lived and breathed for our god; my entire identity was centred on my involvement with my church. To throw it all away would be to throw myself away- not just the bad bits, but the good bits as well. So for me, to not throw the baby away with the bathwater meant to keep all the good bits and pieces Christianity gave to me, like a sense of service to my community or an affection for those who society typically rejects. I find value in these things, they are elements of my character I like.
Usually, this is the point in the conversation at which a person will call me out and say something along the lines of, “Yes, but you don’t need Christianity to still do those things and be that person,” and I agree, you absolutely do not! I know many atheists who were raised in non-religious homes and they are loving, generous, caring people. They were given these lessons from other people, and they learned them well. The fact is though, I learned these things in the church. I learned to value those things through the example of Jesus. I can’t change that, and I choose not to deny it. Identifying myself as a Christian atheist is partly an homage to my history.
Yes, I left the church and I no longer believe in god, or that Jesus was his son, but is that reason enough to dismiss lessons I learned there?
Is not believing in gods a reason to no longer see merit in ‘Do unto others…’ (Matthew 7:12) or ‘Do good things, share what you have with others…’ (Hebrews 13:16)? I don’t think so. I still see value in these lessons. In fact, it was a bible verse that first motivated me to look deeper into my faith-based beliefs and explore their history. Proverbs 18:15: “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out.” These words began my journey into atheism and hold as much importance to me now as they did then. There is truth to be found in these words, and belief or non-belief in a deity is irrelevant.
So many atheists seem to have distaste for religion that irrationally hinders them from being able to appreciate any of the positive elements that may be discovered within. In fact, it almost seems like some atheists think they are obligated to reject anything remotely connected to religion (good or bad) just because they don’t believe in its gods. It can be a very “you’re either with us or against us” arena at times, especially for those of us who don’t conform to this black and white thinking and reside happily within the grey area.
The other primary criticism I receive comes from fellow atheists and regards the blatant and undeniable hypocrisy in meshing the words ‘Christian’ and ‘atheist’ into a single term. I have been ridiculed and scoffed at by more non-believers than I can remember just for using the label. I have a couple of responses to this, neither of which attempt to deny the conflict. My first and favourite response is to remind my friends that every single one of the 42,000+ theistic brands of Christianity is hypocritical in nature, so why should my own be any different? One could even argue that hypocrisy is one of the only things these tens of thousands of Christianities have in common, so Christian atheism fits snugly within the fold. In fact, isn’t it better that my Christian hypocrisy is limited to my word choice rather than being evident in my actions towards other people,like most of the others? At least I’m not claiming to love while simultaneously rejecting and condemning others to a fiery eternity.
Of course, for a lot of people this jovial answer isn’t enough, as they see a deeper element to the hypocrisy. Yes, all versions of Christianity are hypocritical in nature, and yes, there is no ‘true Christian’ – but, there is one thing that ALL these tens of thousands of Christian denominations have in common: they believe in god. How can I claim the label of ‘Christian’ in any way, shape, or form if I lack the one and only thing that every other type of Christianity is unified in? Simply: because I can. In fact, this particular element of hypocrisy is one reason I use the label. I find the hypocrisy somewhat reasonable. I feel as though I tick enough boxes to warrant using the ‘Christian’ label:
- I try and follow the example of Jesus and consider him a fantastic role model and example of a person who truly valued the people around him.
- I study the bible and find value and beauty in many of its teachings.
- The church formed much of my identity and my character is a product of being part of the church.
- Christianity is an important aspect of my existence and a major focus for me.
If someone were to describe themselves this way, I have no doubt that they would be labelled a Christian. But what if this someone, this Christian, doesn’t believe in a god? They MUST then, by default, also be labelled an atheist. Hence: a Christian atheist. Yes it is a paradoxical term, but the hypocrisy has reason behind it.
I am fully aware that for Christians and atheists alike, my reasons for identifying with the Christian atheist label aren’t good enough, and again I feel like this stems from the ‘all or nothing’ mindset of both parties. In fact, my label creates some of the only common ground Christians and atheists tread. Both parties will tell me: “You can’t just read and follow the bits of the bible you like and ignore the rest and call yourself a Christian…” Oh, the irony. Not only does cherry picking the bible align me even more with the Christian majority but also, because of my atheism, my cherry picking is justified. Only theistic Christians carry the OBLIGATION to consider the bible as truth and heed the text in full. As an atheistic Christian I am free to pick and choose the bits I like (the baby), and dismiss the bits I don’t like (the bathwater). Compromisation of my faith does not enter the picture in my use of the bible, because I have none. It’s great!
Love another? (John 13:34) Hell yes! Gay people will be punished? (Romans 1:27) Fuck no!
A common misconception that comes from both the believer and non-believer camps is that Christian atheists must have something nice to say about Christianity, the religion. While I can’t speak for all who identify with the label, for me, this could not be further from the truth. I abhor theistic Christianity. My thoughts on the religion would most likely be perfectly in line with most atheists. I consider them a money driven cult, selling delusion to the masses and calling it truth. I believe it (along with all religions) has caused harm to the world and has inhibited progress of attaining peace within humanity. Like most people, I do consider the good deeds of some of those who follow the religion to be of benefit, but their delusion-based motivations make their efforts somewhat disingenuous and we’re always left thinking, “If that guy wasn’t afraid of going to hell, would he still help the needy?”
Which leads me to finish up by explaining my original intention when I decided to adopt the Christian atheist label, before any of the criticisms I have addressed above were of concern to me. I want to take these human morals and ideals that Christianity claims as theirs and attributes to their god, and keep them as my own. I want to take the example of Jesus and release him from the son-of-god prison Christianity has kept him locked up in so they could spread their bullshit more efficiently. I think it’s important that everything Christianity claims it is (good, moral, just, etc) because of its god, is shown to be accessible to those who don’t believe in him. In a world where the word ‘Christian’ has become almost synonymous with the word ‘good’ (eg. “It’s the Christian thing to do…”) I think it’s vital show that atheists can be ‘Christian’ too, no god required.