• Christopher Tanner

On Being an Atheistic Christian: Fighting the Internal Paradox

I began entertaining doubts – flirting with atheism – when I was 18 years old, a freshman near the end of my second semester at Arkansas State University. It was then that I finally (reluctantly, tentatively) admitted to myself that everything I had been taught at First Landmark Missionary Baptist Church – and reinforced at home – might well be a pack of fantasies and fabrications. It was anything but a heady, exhilarating breakthrough into freedom: it felt like the keenest of losses and it damn near drove me crazy.

The result was that I did not make a clean break with the church. Instead, I entered upon a time of tremendous psychological pendulum swings and upheavals that very nearly cost me my life. I frantically embraced this or that ideology or religion (interspersed with bouts not only of atheism but of the deepest nihilism), careening wildly from pole to pole, wanting desperately to find the truth and to be sure about it – the unimaginably gruesome penalties for being wrong having been hammered into my head from the time I could first understand the spoken word. That time of upheaval lasted more than two decades, with a gradual but discernable leveling off towards the end of it. (Those two decades, even more than my lost childhood, are the greatest plunder the church ever stole from me. For those decades, I will never forgive the institution.)


It is fair to say that I have not believed in God, unequivocally, for about thirty years. Yet up until about thirteen years ago I remained a practicing Episcopalian – that church being my final steppingstone out of the religious horror of my childhood – and in fact a licensed lay reader: I took my ecclesiastical involvement seriously. I even entertained the notion of becoming an Episcopal priest.

On occasion, I would be asked by someone who had been apprised of my skepticism, “Do you consider yourself a Christian?” My answer probably struck some as evasive, but it was and is nevertheless my best answer: “Yes, provided you allow me to define the terms.” When pressed, I would sometimes declare, “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in Jesus.”


Such paradoxical answers no doubt strike many – both believers and nonbelievers – as hypocritical. But I want to argue that there is nothing the least bit hypocritical about practicing a religion one doesn’t actually believe. One can be edified and even awed by religious rites and symbols, and deeply moved by their beauty and thereby made more complete, even if one harbors doubts about the reality that is said to lie behind those rites and symbols. I have Jewish friends, for instance, who are de facto atheists – who nevertheless celebrate the Passover meal annually with their families and who also take Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah very seriously. For thousands of years, people have drawn strength and solace from the observance of religious rites without fully embracing the “facts” that those rites supposedly reflect: how many Catholics really believe that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the actual body and blood of Christ when the magic spell is pronounced over them?

My break with the church hasn’t changed the way I think about Jesus – or about God, for that matter: I was an atheist long before I left the church, but I still believe in Jesus. (I will perhaps address some of the shades of meaning in the verb “to believe” in a future post.)

I do not know whether there was any one historical figure whose life is represented by the Jesus of the Gospels – or whether, as some have argued, that account is based on two or more actual human beings (or perhaps none at all). Some of the sayings that are attributed to him are among the wisest teachings ever delivered to humankind, and it is those teachings that I revere. In fact, I think I take those teachings more seriously than many believing Christians. (I am far more likely, for instance, to be aware of what Jesus purportedly taught than many of my believing students – who cannot tell you what they believe or why; only that they believe and resent anyone who challenges their belief.)

Here’s one example: I am opposed to capital punishment. The death penalty simply cannot be reconciled to a commitment to both justice and fairness. It is not that I don’t recognize that some people are simply monsters who probably deserve to die: it’s that I am constitutionally incapable of flipping the switch, or opening the valve, or pulling the trigger, or whatever it is that ends the offender’s life. If I am not prepared to do that, then I cannot in good conscience place another person in the position of doing it. If I were to find myself in the unenviable position of executioner, I would not be able to keep a story from the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John from flooding my memory and queering the deal.

In that story, Jesus is confronted by a group of scribes and Pharisees who are dragging along a woman “taken in adultery.” (The story, curiously enough, has nothing to say about the fact that one cannot “commit adultery” by oneself; yet the other party – obviously a male – seems not to be of interest. A fair-minded person would wonder about that, and raise questions.) They demand to know what Jesus’ position is with respect to her, since the Law requires that she be put to death by stoning. It is a curious story in some of its particulars: Jesus, for instance, twice bends down and writes on the ground. I like to think that he was working out the solution – and later, checking his calculations. At any rate, his verdict finally was: “Whoever is without sin among you, let him be the first to cast a stone at her.”


Surely it’s obvious: the death penalty cannot be reconciled to this teaching of Jesus. I take this teaching very seriously: not because a man whom hundreds of millions consider to have been some sort of Cosmic Christ delivered it, but because it strikes me as one of the wisest things any human being has ever said. I feel this teaching to be true not because it was uttered by Jesus, but because it resonates deeply with me: it is congruent with my own commitment to justice and fairness. I feel the force of it irresistibly. I recognize it to be a formula for fairness arrived at by tempering justice with mercy – and it is only one of several ways that the release of the “sinner” could have been secured. (For instance, Jesus could have called into question the wisdom and rightness of the Law itself – and he’d have been right to do so, but it would probably have gotten him killed on the spot.)

I could go on at length. I cannot tell you for certain, for instance, whether I am a socialist because early in childhood I read the Sermon on the Mount, or whether, being a socialist, I am grateful that such a towering figure as Jesus also betrayed socialistic tendencies in his Sermon on the Mount. It almost doesn’t matter which way the causality runs, because my commitment to justice and fairness was bound to lead me to a socialistic position eventually, whether or not I ever heard of the Sermon on the Mount.

I don’t know whether or not Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed in God: he certainly had plenty of reasons not to. But it’s obvious to me that he believed in Jesus. The Cost of Discipleship remains the finest commentary ever written on the Sermon on the Mount. I would consider it required reading for any Christian – believer or not.


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