Sunday Sacrilege: The Price

What dreadful price must we pay to be an atheist?

It seems that Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is feuding with Michael Dowd, the author of Thank God for Evolution, who endorses a kind of fuzzy spirituality that is mostly pro-science. I can’t honestly say that I’m a fan of Dowd’s approach — bite the bullet already, man, there’s no need for even the concept of ‘spirituality’ — but I will say that a fuzzy faith is preferable to the cast-iron dogma of an old-school Baptist.

But here’s the thing: without even trying, Al Mohler is hilarious. Also, a little scary. He’s wonderfully oblivious to what he writes, so his recent screed against Dowd gives us this jewel.

I regret to learn of Michael Dowd’s cancer, but my concern for him is far more urgently focused on his malignant beliefs. In his own very effective way, Dowd clarifies the theological and biblical costs of embracing the evolutionary worldview. In describing himself as an evolutionary evangelist, he underlines the fervor of his cause and the inevitable collision between evolutionary theory and biblical Christianity. In sharing his sense that preaching the New Atheists as the prophets of God is his supreme calling, he points us to what is ultimately at stake.

We are engaged in a great battle for ideas that Christians understand to be a battle for hearts, minds, and souls. Dowd and his fellow evangelists for evolution are certain that they own the future, and that biblical Christianity will simply fade and disappear. “Ours is a time of space telescopes, electron microscopes, supercomputers, and the worldwide web,” he asserts. His conclusion: “This is not a time for parsing the lessons given to a few goatherds, tentmakers, and camel drivers.”

Well, give Michael Dowd credit for reminding us where the rejection of biblical Christianity inevitably leads.

Where does it lead? Away from herding goats, making tents, and driving camels, and towards space telescopes, electron microscopes, supercomputers, and the worldwide web? That’s plainly what Dowd is telling us; I don’t think that that is probably the message Mohler wants to give, though.

But I want to focus on that one curious phrase: by leaving Christianity, we are facing a “theological and biblical cost”. Mohler believes there is a price to pay for throwing out faith and old religions, but he’s vague on what it is, except that whatever it is, it’s “biblical” and “theological”.

Well. If the price of being an atheist is to carry a kicking, squalling Theology out to my backyard altar, stick a knife through it’s rancid little heart, and burn its noisome fat and bones in an offering to Science, I’m willing. It’s hardly necessary; I think we can just watch it fade away into irrelevancy, like the long-faded scholarly traditions of haruspication and ornithomancy. As an atheist, telling me that I’ll lose schools of theology is no deterrence at all — he might as well tell me that practicing regular bathing will cause me to lose the comforting company of lice. I don’t think I’m unusual, either: if Mohler were to query your average Baptist-on-the-street, most wouldn’t give a good spit for theology; they’re not unbelievers, but believe in tradition, authority, and social conventions, not the twisty weird rationalizations of his seminarians. “Theology” is nothing but a magic word to reassure them that some smarty-pants somewhere has a reason for the rituals they go through, but it’s hardly necessary.

What about this mysterious biblical price? If he means giving up the Bible wholesale, no — I’ve got a couple of copies on my bookshelves, and I’d even say that it’s an indispensible work of literature in Western history, so it should continue to be taught and considered, just as we do the Gilgamesh and Thucydides and Herodotus. So I haven’t paid a price in so much as the loss of a book.

Perhaps he’s referring to the promises of heaven and hell in his holy book? Promises are cheap, and unlikely promises backed up by no collateral and no certifiable authority are worthless. Empty threats are just as useless: Mohler could announce that he was going to leave me a million dollars in his will, but decided that my heathenish ways could not be so rewarded, and I’m sorry, but I would not pine for my lost fortune at all. It never existed. An imaginary god can rage all he wants in the pages of the Bible, but I lose nothing by ignoring him.

I wonder if some of the resentment of some Christians towards atheists is that they feel the burden of a price they must pay — the tedious church services they attend, the offerings, the time wasted, the absurdity of the whole phenomenon — and atheists are escaping all that with no apparent loss of anything. Oh, but we will eventually pay, they reassure themselves, either with an eternity in hell (while they smugly look on) or now, in the real world, with the loss of theology and the Bible. Oh, no, I shudder in fear!

But the believers don’t even know the price they pay, the loss they suffer right now. I don’t mean the triviality of sleeping in on Sunday morning, which I don’t do myself, but the loss of a human perspective and a set of misplaced priorities that screw up their own lives, and the lives of those around them. People matter far more than theology, and crazy dogmatists like Mohler have lost sight of that. I told you he was hilarious, but also a bit scary; for an example of the latter look again at the first sentence I quoted up top.

I regret to learn of Michael Dowd’s cancer, but my concern for him is far more urgently focused on his malignant beliefs.


Dowd has cancer, a disease which could cause him pain, suffering, and death, and Mohler considers that less a matter of concern than that he doesn’t accept Baptist doctrine. If any of you have heard Dowd, you know that he’s enthusiastically cheerful and seems to be coping well — his “malignant beliefs” don’t appear to be interfering with a rational and effective response to illness. What cost?

Maybe I’m odd, but if I were criticizing someone who was ill, whether it be Michael Dowd or Albert Mohler, I would never consider it far more important that they convert to atheism right now, rather than that they should take care of themselves with the best of modern medicine. Not that we couldn’t continue to argue, but have some perspective — reality should always be priority one.

Maybe that’s the price we pay. We’ve given up childish delusions, and we’ve given up the idea that ghosts and fairy tales are more important than human lives. And we didn’t even have to pay the garbagemen to haul that junk away! Perhaps the sacrilege here is that we got such an unbelievably good deal, and they didn’t.