Even now, I have Atheist friends


Candace Chellew-Hodge is the founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians and a Christian pastor. She wrote a post about Teresa MacBain for Religion Dispatches.

MacBain recently attended the American Atheist’s convention in Maryland, where she came out as an Atheist pastor and has found a home in a new coalition helping such disbelieving clergy called “The Clergy Project: “a safe haven for active and former clergy who do not hold supernatural beliefs.”

As a member of the clergy, I totally get it, but what I think is wrong with this situation is the false dichotomy at play here. Specifically, either you’re a Christian or you’re an Atheist.

No, but if you are an atheist then you’re not a Christian, and vice versa. She’s right if she means that those aren’t the only two options but not if she means you can be both.

You can be a Christian, be religious, without believing in the unbelievable, as Jim Burklo has recently argued.

This is where the Atheists come in. Even now, I have Atheist friends who tell me I’m very close to jumping the fence into their camp and they encourage me to take that final leap. But, this is disrespectful of my faith. Just because I don’t believe every jot and tittle of Christian doctrine doesn’t make me Atheist, or even a quasi-Atheist. It just makes me a particular type of religious person.

Well, if you insist, but really – the truth is it’s all unbelievable.

There’s a church in my neighborhood (there are a lot of churchs in my neighborhood) that has a sign out front that says it’s for believers and seekers and doubters. That’s kind, I always think, but what kind of “doubters” are you talking about? They sound like the kind of pseudo-doubters who just brag a little about their doubts but keep going to church anyway, as if paying a debt they owed. Chellew-Hodge comes across a bit like that. She disbelieves bits of Christianity but she still demands “respect” for her “faith.” One doubt too few, if you ask me.



  1. jamessweet says

    I sort of see where she’s coming from… there is a middle ground of sorts, where you don’t believe any of the bullshit that directly matters, but you still believe a bunch of bullshit that (the vast majority of the time) doesn’t really matter all of that much.*

    I think what she’s missing is that people who reject that middle ground aren’t necessarily denying it’s existence, we are merely denying it’s validity. Or in other words, MacBain didn’t become an atheist because she didn’t realize she had the option of rejecting the important bullshit while clinging to the (mostly) unimportant bullshit; she became an atheist because she got tired of bullshit.

    * I don’t want to get on a tangent on whether an abstract belief in, say, the Resurrection, is inherently harmful. It probably is. The point is, those types of beliefs are, at a minimum, less directly harmful than “god hates fags” types of beliefs, so I can understand the temptation to only reject the latter.

  2. julian says

    You can be a Christian, be religious, without believing in the unbelievable, as Jim Burklo has recently argued.

    No you can’t. Christianity isn’t like Judaism in that it’s almost entirely cultural and something passed from parent to child. Christianity is, and has always been, about the beliefs behind the religion. The entirety of the mythology surrounding its savior deity demands we believe (in Jesus’ divinity, in his being the true way to please god…) and almost all of it calls for Christians to convert others.

    Or am I supposed to pretend none of that’s there so we can hold hands or whatever?

  3. A. Noyd says

    “You can be a Christian, be religious, without believing in the unbelievable, as Jim Burklo has recently argued.”

    It’s a stupid argument. Belief in the unbelievable is exactly what being religious (or being “spiritual but not religious”) is all about. Not, of course, from the perspective of any given believer reflecting on her own beliefs, of course. But then, if believers each get to decide the believability of their beliefs, who is Chellew-Hodge to judge as “believing in the unbelievable” someone who, for instance, does believe Jesus bodily rose from the dead? Chellew-Hodge (and Burklo, whom she links to) believes in god—which is a pretty funny thing to imply isn’t unbelievable in an article about atheists!

    Now, I don’t care for the “No True Christian” game, whether its believers or atheists playing it; if Chellew-Hodge wants to call herself a Christian she’s welcome to do so. But it’s not disrespecting her “faith” for anyone to question the label. She ends up confusing “faith” with self-identity, and it’s as though she’s borrowing on culture’s respect for the former to demand respect for the latter. That might be a useful tactic in dealing with religious and faitheists friends, but not so much in dealing with atheists who see faith itself as deserving of disrespect.

    She says, “What drives this false dichotomy…is the fault of Christians and Atheists alike.” No, really, it’s not. Where there’s a dichotomy, it’s not false and where there’s not a dichotomy, well… She doesn’t say that her atheist pals are telling her she already is an atheist and why doesn’t she just call herself that. She says they’re asking her to “take that final leap,” meaning they are signaling to her that there’s something more she must do to actually be an atheist. They are, in a sense, acknowledging that there’s more than one way to be a Christian—that, rather than a dichotomy, Christianity is a spectrum with one end nestled up next to non-belief.

    At any rate, if that article is anything to go by, she’s very much not a skeptic, so she doesn’t have to worry about me inviting her over the fence any time soon. I would just stick with challenging her over the way she seems to want to reserve the label “unbelievable” for other people’s beliefs and not her own.

  4. Robert B. says

    You can be a Christian, be religious, without believing in the unbelievable

    Perhaps you can. But why would you want to? If you ditch heaven, hell, the resurrection, the Trinity, Satan, Creation, original sin, the rapture and other apocalyptic visions, and the literal soul… what’s left? At that point, aren’t you just someone who thinks they’re good at ethics but has only read one ethics book and its commentaries? (And meditates sometimes, I guess?)

  5. says

    Meh, I don’t get too stressed with the happy-go-lucky gay-friendly Christians, so I’ll cut her some slack on that. Just out of self-preservation, I’d rather have gay-friendly Nice But Dim types in the church than firebreathing fundamentalist wackjobs who want to take away my rights.

    But what she doesn’t seem to get about The Clergy Project is that most of her fellow Christians aren’t happy tolerant LGBT-affirming types like she is. The point of The Clergy Project is that it’s based on the experience of people in the hard end of fundamentalism who need help getting out. It’s not for her.

  6. Egbert says

    You can take the ‘God’ out of religion, but apparently, it’s not so easy to get out the ‘aura’ of respect and privilege. There are many atheists who are pro-religious. Annoying for us, but scary for fundamentalists.

  7. Chris Lawson says

    I’m not sure I understand, Egbert. Why are atheists who support the aura of respect and privilege of religion scary for fundamentalists? I would have thought they’d be delighted at having a moral enemy who is happy to keep the fundamentalists in their tax-free, deference-assuming palaces.

    I suspect I have misread you.

  8. says

    There’s a church in my neighborhood (there are a lot of churchs in my neighborhood) that has a sign out front that says it’s for believers and seekers and doubters.

    I wonder whether they think they are marketing to people who think doubt is a good thing, or to people who want to get rid of their doubts…

  9. Roger says

    As god is all-powerful, god can do anything, including not exist, so it is logically possible to be a christian and an atheist…

  10. Metatwaddle says

    This part seems right: “Just because I don’t believe every jot and tittle of Christian doctrine doesn’t make me Atheist.” (Well, almost right: I doubt you could get Catholics, evangelical and mainline Protestants, Anglicans, Copts, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Mormons to agree on many jots or tittles at all, which would seem to support her point. Christianity is a big tent.)

    However, not believing that Jesus died for anyone’s sins seems distinctly non-Christian to me. I think (says the armchair linguist) that it’s inconsistent with the way most people use the word “Christian”.

    I wonder what the linguistic division of labor is here. Are there any experts on what religious terms (like “Christian”) mean?

  11. Egbert says

    @Christ Lawson #7,

    I admit my point was completely unclear, so much so that I really have lost whatever point I was trying to make.

  12. sailor1031 says

    The irony is that whether a non-christian christian, as advocated by this Jim Burklo, or a rabid fundamentalist literalist, or anything in between, it ALL depends on a view of a Yeshue who did not exist. And no I’m not getting into the Ehrman – Carrier issue; the Yeshue who they think they are following is a figment of Saul of Tarsus’ imagination, fleshed out by rigidly orthodox “church fathers” later.

  13. Jer says

    Are there any experts on what religious terms (like “Christian”) mean?

    Not an expert, but the word “Christian” can be used to basically describe any religious belief that has its roots in the New Testament of the Bible.

    It’s really a useless word, because the New Testament of the Bible is a mess of beliefs created over a relatively long stretch of time. So you can call yourself a Christian if you’re a fundamentalist who believes every word is literally true[*] or if you’re a Catholic or mainline Protestant who believes that there’s some truth to most of it but it needs to be read with an understanding that it was written by people and “not meant to be taken literally”, or you can call yourself a Christian if you go through the Gospels, pick out the bits where Jesus says to do things, throw away the things he says that don’t comport with modern understandings of ethics and morality, and jettison the rest of it. You don’t really need to believe that Jesus was the Son of God, for example, to call yourself a Christian – you can be one of those Christians who thinks that “following the ethical/moral path laid down by the teacher named Jesus” is sufficient to be a Christian (though again, nobody actually does this – everyone picks and chooses through the things laid out in the Gospels to choose the ones that comport with their desires/upbringing. You pretty much have to – if you tried to live by them all you’d quickly realize how anti-social and contradictory many of the precepts of Jesus actually are.)

    I think you do pretty much need to believe in God though, and not just any God, but the Christian God (all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing) to call yourself a Christian (unless you’re a Calvinist – then you can re-define “all-loving” to mean “all-loving to the handful of people God loves, fuck everyone else” – so again, exceptions even to that). So I personally do take up an argument against the whole “you don’t have to believe the unbelievable” schtick. The Christian God is unbelievable given the evidence at hand, so all Christians have to believe the unbelievable, liberal Christians like Chellew-Hodge just have really good ways to rationalize their beliefs.

    (Also the whole idea that you don’t have to “believe the unbelieveable” is ridiculous. If you personally believe it, then it is believable by definition. What I find unbelievable might be the bedrock of your life foundation. Saying you don’t have to believe the unbelievable is just defining “what I believe” as “believable” and “what I don’t believe” as “unbelievable” – projecting your own stances on evidence/belief out onto everyone else. Unless you have an objective definition of believable that you can apply equally to your own beliefs as well as to others it’s just name-calling.)

  14. Erp says

    However, not believing that Jesus died for anyone’s sins seems distinctly non-Christian to me. I think (says the armchair linguist) that it’s inconsistent with the way most people use the word “Christian”.

    Actually some Christians don’t believe that but instead see Jesus as a moral exemplar (they tend to (a) support social justice issues, (b) be considered heretics by most other Christians and (c) often in the US be Unitarian Universalists). Jim Burklo btw is Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California which makes him fairly safe materially from denominational retaliation (they can’t get him fired).

    I wonder if the churches openly welcoming doubters, skeptics, seekers (there is one near me) have pastors looking for a congregation where the pastor can be safe in expressing doubt?

  15. Rieux says

    Egbert @11: well, your comment @6 was right on target (and an important target) for the first two-and-a-half sentences. It’s only the last clause of the third sentence that (as Chris @7 noted) seems dubious.

    So, y’know, five stars out of six. Worth reading.

  16. says

    My point isn’t really to stress about happy-go-lucky LGBT-friendly Xians, it’s to try to clear up some confusion. I think C C-H’s claims are based in confusion. (That’s partly of course because she didn’t spell out which items she takes to be unbelievable and which she doesn’t.) It’s also to point out that “Christian as just a word for trying to be a good person” is very unhelpful, since it implies that trying to be a good person is inherently religious and that non-religious people don’t make that effort. If she’s using it that way she’s making a whole slew of mistakes, moral and political as well as epistemological.

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