Writings by Cole Huffman

The Sparkler Show

Tennessee law bars ministers like me from holding public office. It’s an unenforceable law thanks to a 1961 Supreme Court ruling but it remains on the books. Atheists likewise are barred from office in Tennessee and seven other states. But whereas the language of the Tennessee law bars ministers because they “ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions,” the working assumption barring atheists was governance is a divine as well as public trust. A prevailing sense that atheists can’t be trusted with the keys to the kingdom is still majority public sentiment, according to a 2014 Pew Research poll. Given a list of possible attributes for the President of the United States, respondents ranked “atheist” least appealing (53%).

Laws and sentiments uncharitable to atheism are combustibles firing the activism engine of the American Atheists organization. I was invited by them to represent Christianity in a moderated panel discussion at the Peabody Hotel, site of their 2015 national conference. There were three others on the panel besides me: the American Atheists president, an ex-Muslim atheist, and a local Muslim scholar. A reporter from The Memphis Flyer, Chris Davis, moderated and did excellently. The invitation came to me because a friend couldn’t do it and I had no good reason to decline.

American Atheists is a fundamentalist organization. Fundamentalism of any stripe is almost impossible to reason with. Their president, David Silverman, believes religion, not fallen human nature, is responsible for the world’s ills and evils. For Silverman, when religious people do badly it is because religion—all religion—is bad. He maintains that atheism is not a belief system, so when atheists do badly it’s because individuals make bad choices, not because atheism is inherently misanthropic. Some atheists in the room audibly groaned when in a back-and-forth with Silverman I said, “I see your Westboro Baptist Church and raise you a Stalin.” Silverman pressed Westboro on me because Fred Phelps’ insular family says its Christian, despite repeated violations of every command to love Jesus ever delivered.

In dialogue I didn’t deny that people calling themselves Christians have done horrible things. But Christianity will often be self-critical and self-correcting. In atheist and Muslim gatherings one hears a lot of defensiveness while Christian conferees pay handsomely for the privilege of being raked over the coals by our leaders. But many atheists can’t distance themselves from Stalin and his ilk fast enough. This dismayed one atheist in the room. She wrote me an appreciative email, saying if I hadn’t raised the Stalin issue she would have!

Richard Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion that there is no evidence Stalin’s atheism was motivation for his crimes. While it’s technically true to say no one does anything for atheism, as it has no set creed, it is absurdly false to suggest people do not act from atheism. Few atheists are like Stalin, but the evils Stalin committed were indeed products of his atheism in that his atheism was powerless in itself to restrain his darkest impulses. The evils Westboro Baptist Church commits are products of flagrant disobedience to Jesus, which one cannot call genuine Christianity. At one point in the discussion I tried to put it brass tacks: What philosophy or religion has the power to restrain the worst in human nature? Christianity at its most biblically Christlike certifiably does, and yet Christians remain sinners—this not an excuse or pardon for when we’re wrong but a baseline reality for why we need God’s enduring grace.

The event was billed a civil discussion aimed at dispelling myths and stereotypes. Anyone hoping for a fireworks show got something more like sparklers. I found the Muslim scholar on our panel, Dr. Yasir Qadhi of Rhodes College, an able defender of religious freedom and a powerful intellect. For me his presence on the panel was like how Gimli the Dwarf regarded help from the Dead Army in The Return of the King: “Very handy in a tight spot, these lads, despite the fact they’re dead.” Listening to Dr. Qadhi, I realized Christians should pray not just that Muslims realize Jesus is more than a prophet but also, for sake of things that make for peace, pray for leaders like Dr. Qadhi to exert greater reformational influence on Islam from within.

Pray for Muhammad Syed, the ex-Muslim atheist on the panel, and for David Silverman and his staff. Pray for them, not against. In our ranging discussion and Q&A from the mostly atheist audience, the usual subjects were raised: human suffering, religious violence, socially regressive doctrines. From their point of invite I had a two-week window to prepare. I knew going in I would later think of things I wish I’d said. Some things I thought sure to come up didn’t. Johnny Cash called himself a C-minus Christian. I’ll take that grade as an apologist. 

Fundamentalist secularism is having its cultural moment. Many atheists aren’t strident but ambivalent about their unbelief. Some are haunted by a distant memory of God. What they’ve experienced in church or heard from Christians is often nominalism and reactive party lines easy to caricature. Pastorally I found myself wanting to sit with each atheist in the room and hear his/her story. One of the American Atheists’ staff told me he was once a Christian worship musician.

God always rises up to outlive His pallbearers. That’s why I accepted the American Atheists’ invitation. That and it was Easter Week. What then could possibly go wrong?

Posted by Cole Huffman at 10:30 AM
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