If you are like me, you’ve heard some preacher say something to this effect at one time: “There are no atheists on their deathbed.” Perhaps Voltaire or some other prominent professed atheists was cited as an example of a terrorized non-believer, who at death’s door recanted his lack of faith. Somehow these stories were supposed to motivate the faithful to a fuller appreciation of their own spirituality.
I have occasionally pondered what causes a person to espouse openly and even militantly a disbelief in a supreme being, a cosmic consciousness, an intelligence behind it all. To many, the idea that all that we experience results solely from eternally existing physical laws and blind chance is mind-bogglingly inadequate. Such thoughts or beliefs lead naturally to the question of how others reach a dramatically different conclusion. Too often, religious dogma would suggest that these skeptics are perniciously and willfully ignorant and/or deceitful, seeking to justify their own sinful obstinacy.
In seeking a less judgmental conclusion, I have speculated that religious skepticism is more likely a rejection of the traditional picture of the eternally angry, vengeful god, rather than a complete, reasoned rejection of any higher being. Of course, my speculation is just that, my feeble attempt to understand another’s viewpoint. I claim no ability to read minds, and so my conclusions are infinitely arguable. That being said, I would further suggest that a rejection of much of the traditional picture of God makes perfect sense to me. Why would anyone want to embrace the god of eternal punishment, for instance? Many believers have rejected that god.
As I further consider this issue, I am reminded of an editorial in the Houston Chronicle from last year. The op/ed piece was written by Robert Jensen, the atheist professor from UT Austin. What Jensen shared was a revelation that he had joined a church and declared himself to be a Christian atheist. Briefly, Jensen said that he rejected God and a historical Jesus but at the same time sought to practice the basic teaching of Christ, namely the Golden Rule. The essential tenor of his article was intriguing. For me it raised a fundamental question about Christianity. Is it more important to adhere to the principles of Christ or to affirm the historical reality of his life? Which of these two possibilities has the greatest effect on how we live our lives and thereby impact our world? Maybe the answer for many is clear, but for me it is not. Could it be that Jensen knows Jesus even though he denies his existence? I wonder.