Atheist Evaluations

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Atheist Evaluations
A Critical Examination of Two New Books

Two recent books offer the ultimate “outsiders” perspective of the Christian Church. In I Sold My Soul on eBay and Jim & Casper Go to Church, two atheists evaluate various evangelical worship services in order to offer their insights for the benefit of the church.

The mastermind behind both books is an evangelical, Jim Henderson. It was Henderson’s winning bid that sent atheist Hemant Mehta on his paid assignment to evaluate various churches. Hemant placed himself on eBay out of a desire to learn more about Christianity. He admittedly doesn’t fit the common stereotype. Unlike some atheists, he claims, “I am not angry with God, and I don’t want to rid the world of religion… I’m a friendly atheist” (Mehta, 4).

Henderson also hired atheist Matt Casper to personally accompany him during his visits to notable evangelical churches. Henderson and Casper travel to twelve churches in order to discuss their experiences. They write, “This is the story of what happens when two guys with polar-opposite worldviews go to church together” (Henderson & Casper, xxix).


The Inevitable Shortcoming of Atheist Evaluations

Though the atheists’ evaluations are helpful, they suffer from an inevitable shortcoming. Their perspective as atheists gives them a certain degree of objectivity, but it also limits the significance of their evaluations. How will atheists – who dogmatically reject the existence of any transcendent, supernatural reality – accurately evaluate services intended to celebrate and respond to a transcendent and supernatural reality? How likely is it that an atheist will be impressed by how a greater vision of the transcendent can motivate, shape, and direct human thoughts, affections, and actions? And yet, isn’t this what is at the heart of sacred worship? [Note: If one has not rejected the supernatural or transcendent but continues to remain unsure of its existence or significance, then one is an agnostic and not an atheist. However, both authors clearly label themselves as atheists.]

This disinterest in the transcendent is obvious in what impresses both atheists. In their visits to churches, Mehta and Casper are both impressed with liberal social activism, but they show little interest in training people to better understand distinctively Christian doctrines. For example, when one preacher speaks of the Holy Spirit as one “who would lift us up when we were down” Hemant wonders, “Isn’t that one reason we have human friends.” Certainly, this is one reason we have friends, but if a transcendent and benevolent God exists, then this “lifting” is much more profound, stable, and consistent than any human friendship could possibly offer. Another example: When a speaker comments on responding to God’s inner promptings to moral behavior, Mehta responds, “I kept thinking that since God doesn’t exist for me, there has to be some other explanation for why people have these inner promptings. I have them too” (Mehta, 125). He continues, “If I’m an atheist and I get these inner promptings to be ethical, then what’s so special about hearing that inner voice? … Whenever I consider telling a lie, there is a voice telling me not to. But is that God? I don’t think so” (Mehta, 126). Christian teaching would suggest that the urgings of the human conscience are prompted by God, arising from the fact that we are moral beings who reflect the divine as image-bearers. But having rejected God, Mehta would never allow this as an explanation. Thus, this distinctively Christian means of spiritual transformation has no significance to Mehta.

Because the reality of the transcendent is negated, the centrality of faith and the necessity of hope have little “cash value” to the atheist evaluators. Thus, it is practically impossible for the atheists to accurately evaluate the place of faith or eschatological hope in Christian experience. When Mehta hears a testimony of a changed life, he writes, “As I listened, I couldn’t help but think that his personal experience did not constitute proof of anything” (Mehta, 85). Certainly, other explanations can always be found, but for those open to the reality of a benevolent and transcendent God, it is not a stretch to believe that God changes lives. In another setting, Hemant is frightened by lyrics based on Philippians 2:10-11: “One day every tongue will confess you are God.” This glorious hope of a world completely restored and surrendered to God’s will is at the heart of the Christian story. It is central to faith, gives hope, and provokes meaningful expressions of love.

Rejecting the transcendent, the importance of faith, and the necessity of hope (as conveyed in the Christian story of redemption), the only thing that impresses the atheists is that which is not distinctly Christian: “I really liked it… [because] the messages – rather, the challenges – [the pastor] relayed were not entirely faith dependent” (Henderson & Casper, 23).

The atheists’ perspectives are unique but limited in shaping Christian worship services. They offer us a necessary objective quality that is expressed well by Henderson: “One thing I like about Casper and atheists in general is that due to their lack of reverence for our religion, they often see through things much more quickly than most Christians, and they feel free to tell me so” (Henderson & Casper, 28). However, this irreverence also severely limits their evaluations. Worship is not something entered into as a science experiment – coldly, logically, analytically, and objectively. Therefore, we should recognize that the atheists’ evaluations will be of no help when it comes to treasuring the transcendent, nurturing and forming faith, and inspiring hope in a God-centered trajectory to human history. In short, they will offer nothing that helps to form a distinctively Christian worship service.


Helpful Atheist Suggestions

This is evident in their respective conclusions. Casper has little constructive advice to give to Churches. Mehta, on the other hand, concludes with a chapter of suggestions, some of them helpful, but none having to do with the heart of Christian worship.

First, he suggests that churches tone down the amount of time devoted to “singing praise songs with repeated choruses” (Mehta, 138). The reason: “I consistently noticed a lot of people showing up late for church. And I know of at least one Christian family that deliberately arrives late on Sunday morning in order to avoid the lengthy and repetitive songs. In this case, something I found personally irritating apparently is also bothersome to some Christian worshipers” (Mehta, 138).

He suggests that the energy level and passion of the church is more important and more inviting than the building. “The churches I enjoyed the most had a buzz of excitement that was noticeable from the moment I walked in the door… A church’s high energy level is not produced by meeting in a beautiful building. The positive feeling I picked up came from other churchgoers. It stands out when you are around people who look forward to coming to church, people who are glad to see one another. That vitality brushed off on me” (Mehta, 143).

He commends pastors who connected faith to contemporary life: “Finally, the pastors that made the best positive impression on me made sure their message was relevant today” (Mehta, 146). After visiting many churches, Hemant concludes he prefers Willow Creek above all others: “It wasn’t a fire-and-brimstone service. It wasn’t a worship-God-out-of-fear-of-hell service. It was a place where I could think about the message after I left. If any church had a chance of making me come back for more, it was Willow Creek” (Mehta, 135). Casper also admires effective preaching. While commenting on a Presbyterian pastor he says, “One thing I really liked was their use of the Bible. In many of the churches we’ve ‘worked,’ they pull one sentence or even just one clause from one verse, and we get no context…. But here, we read a whole passage (Acts 26:1-29), and we got the whole story in context…. The Bible is chock-full of interesting stories, and sometimes it may be more effective just to let them speak for themselves” (Henderson & Casper, 60). One of Mehta’s most helpful suggestions is that pastors hold a question-and-answer forum after each service that address questions related to the sermon (Mehta, 153).

Both authors also commend churches engaged in positive community work. Good deeds speak loudly. Casper writes: “Lawndale [Church] is providing the kind of compelling evidence someone could reasonably point to as evidence of a God being active in and through people” (71). Curiously, Casper continually rails on churches that don’t emphasize social activism, but when he is challenged to do the same, he admits the following: “But then I realized that I am way too preoccupied, busy, and/or lazy to start really helping others. I think maybe I do enough by doing no harm” (85). For all his criticisms, Casper does not even apply his own standards to himself. If he is unwilling to dedicate some of his time and energy to good works, why is he so quick to condemn every church where social activism is not of primary importance.

Casper concludes by expressing his disgust for dogma (Casper, 153). His evaluations prove that he has no interest in Christian doctrine. Mehta concludes with a more positive evaluation: “Now that my experiment is over, I realize I didn’t find God, but I saw the incredible power a church can have. I hope that power is used to benefit society instead of hurting it through creating unnecessary divisions between Christians and non-Christians” (Mehta, 173). Even though he is convinced that God does not exist, Mehta realizes that the “idea of God” can be of positive value.


Unhelpful Evangelical Evaluations

The atheists’ evaluations were mildly helpful, but nothing earth-shattering. I expected short-sighted evaluations from the atheists. I expected that their perspective would certainly influence their evaluation. I did not expect the same from Henderson, but I found his comments more frustrating, and frankly, more damaging to the life and health of churches.

He writes, “Jesus never intended for the institution we call Christianity to form into a religion… he personally only mentions the word church twice” (Henderson & Casper, 18, 19). What then is wrong with the church? Jesus’ plan was “hijacked early on by some religionists who managed to institutionalize the movement” (Casper, 19). Jesus may have only used the word church twice, but it was in the context of stating his life purpose, “I will build my church.” Jesus did come to create a church. The training of the twelve, the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, the rise of the church in Acts as a work of the resurrected Christ, all point to Jesus’ mission to create a people of mission in and for the world. This will, by default, have organizational qualities. We begin to see the birth of these organizational qualities in Acts and Paul’s epistles. (One could even argue that the genesis for this organization is in Jesus’ calling and training of the twelve as leaders of the primitive church.) It is unhelpful to condemn the church merely because it is organized. All living things will be organized. Obviously, the organization should exist for the sake of promoting the life of the organism, but one doesn’t exist without the other. The body of Christ, in order to exist, will take an incarnational form, and this will have a structure.

Henderson’s comments border on the ludicrous when he presents the following false dichotomy: “Are we in the preaching business or the people-changing business?” (Henderson & Casper, 150) Why must it be one or the other? In the Great Commission, Jesus calls us to “baptize” and to “teach.” Certainly, this can be done in many ways and forms, but one does not have to undermine preaching. Preaching still remains the best and most effective means to teach a large group of people. One wonders if Henderson even pays attention to the fact that both atheists actually expressed interest in and appreciation for good, biblical preaching!

Perhaps the craziest comment Henderson makes is:  “We need to honestly admit that in fact, Jesus didn’t care a whit about church services” (Henderson & Casper, 150). I guess that is why Jesus regularly attended synagogue services on the Sabbath and holy feasts and festivals at the temple in Jerusalem. (Yes, the previous sentence is sarcasm!) Those who claim that Jesus did not participate in the religious life of his culture simply need to reread the Gospels. Henderson’s comment is completely and utterly false – and unhelpful in every way. Are to conclude that if we want to be like Jesus we shouldn’t “care a whit about church services”? Does this reveal Henderson’s profound bias? Could it be that the irreverent atheists have more reverence for worship services than the evangelical? Is Henderson’s point to completely undermine all organized expressions of faith, all preaching events, and all church services? It is unfortunate that the most unhelpful comments in books by two atheists come from one of the Christian co-authors.


An Insecure Church

Sadly, we live in a time where the church has absolutely no trust in its liturgy, its doctrines, or its traditions. We are an insecure church with little confidence in our heritage or courage of our convictions. We frantically look for silver-bullet solutions that will make us “relevant” and, in the process, we sacrifice the beauty of what we have received and currently possess.

Try as we might, we will never find a better way to gather together as God’s people than to call people to worship, confess our sin, hear the sacred scriptures read and opened by faithful preaching, give testimony to God in word, song, and praise, respond to God’s grace through communion, and then go with blessing into a world in need of God’s grace, truth, and love. The traditional elements of worship have lasted this long because they all contribute to a celebration of a transcendent reality that pervades our lives, our world, and our mission together.

Rather than trying to reinvent ourselves at every turn, we should recommit to the tried and true basics handed down to us in the Spirit-given sacred tradition of the Church. Certainly, we must give them fresh life in our contemporary world. The tradition must be a “living” tradition. But this is not found by shaping worship services according to the perceptions and biases of those who reject the reality of the transcendent, the centrality of faith, or the motivation of eschatological hope. Worship must, after all, be worship of the divine – not of ourselves or of our good works.

Our works of love are not the good news but our response to the Good News. Morality and good works are certainly part of religion, but religion is more than morality. The second greatest commandment – loving our neighbors as ourselves – is distinct from and after the first, which is to love the Lord God with everything. The order is significant and the reason for worship of the transcendent, nurturing faith, and building hope. I don’t expect an atheist to “get this” but I certainly expect evangelicals to.

Quotes excerpted from I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith through an Atheist's Eyes by Hemant Mehta and Jim & Casper Go to Church: Frank Conversation About Faith, Churches, and Well-meaning Christians by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper
© Richard J. Vincent, 2007

5 Comments

"But how will atheists – who dogmatically reject the existence of any transcendent, supernatural reality – accurately evaluate services intended to celebrate and respond to a transcendent and supernatural reality?" What do you consider "accurate"? The only account anyone can ever give of any experience is their own perception of it. "For all his criticisms, Casper does not even apply his own standards to himself." True, but does that make his criticism incorrect? Any more than it makes it incorrect to say that it is right to give to the poor and then not do it, or that it is wrong to commit adultery and then do it? Just thinkin'. =) Rich: I'm glad you're thinking. Keep it up. It's always great to hear your thoughts. "Accurate" is probably a poorly chosen word. My point is simply that worship services exist in order to celebrate and respond to the transcendent. An atheist, by definition, rejects the transcendent. In my opinion, this means that no matter what their perception - which will always be that celebrating and responding to the transcendent is a useless waste of time - it has no real benefit in giving Christians insight on how to reform, reshape, or renew Christian worship. And, you are right: Casper's failure to apply his own standards to himself does not make his argument wrong. But this is the one note he hammers on throughout the book - his chief criticism of any church that does not make social activism of such primary importance that it is prominently mentioned in every service. If he is going to make this his chief rule of criticism, he should at least practice it a little, or, at the very least, back off on criticizing churches so harshly when churches are also full of people with busy lives trying their best to fit it all in. Hope that helps make more sense of my criticisms. Believe me - I don't like to be critical. I read these two books with every intention of benefitting from them, but the nagging questions raised in my piece would not go away. Most importantly, I wasn't nearly as disturbed by the atheists' comments - which were, for the most part, more friendly and gracious than people might expect - as I was by Jim Henderson's contributions.
Thanks for this thoughtful review. I've dipped into Jim and Casper Go to Church and found it interested, but was troubled by the premise. I hadn't quite thought through why, but you've nailed it. I was also frustrated with their selection of churches, as it seems that evangelical megachurches are someone disproportionately represented. Rich: Hi RevJen. Thanks for visiting the site and commenting! As my previous comments to Crystal reveal, I approached these books with every intention to benefit from them. In other words, I didn't buy them to be critical. It's just that nagging questions about the real helpfulness of a committed atheist's evaluation to theistic worship kept nagging at me. I think it would have been better if the participants were agnostic. But then, the books would have been no different than previous books evaluating so-called "seekers" perceptions and opinions. And, yes, it would have been nice if a broader selection of churches had been picked. Knowing that megachurches account for less than 1% of churches in the USA also makes me leery of books on church worship, leadership, growth, etc. that solely focus on megachurches. One thing that makes Hemant Mehta's book better than Casper's is that he actually visits a broader selection of churches, although only one chapter is devoted to "small churches" (defined as 200 or under). Oh, well.
I'm with you Rich. I can learn something from the writings of many religions, but I struggle with atheist writings (particularly those ABOUT Christianity) because of the inherently sort of militant nature involved. It's like, if you start off "anti" something, you're not going to get very far with people who follow it. I don't, however, want to ever discount someone's suggestions because they don't believe (yet) in what I do. Sometimes it's simply a matter of telling a group, "I'm with you to a point, but you loose me when you do -this-." Depending on what "this" is, particularly if it's not something that's core to the faith itself, I don't necessarily see a reason to discount it. 'Course, that's not particularly what you were doing, either. It's sorta like: it's difficult to follow the teachings of those who don't practice what they preach, but it doesn't mean there's nothing we can take from what they preach. I don't know if that makes any sense or not. =) I still think everything you say is brilliant. ;) Rich: You're right. And the atheists did have some very helpful things to say about some of the formal aspects of worship ("Why do greeters always feel the need to smile?" "Why do people arrive so late to worship - is it because they don't like the music?" etc.) In many ways the atheists were doing exactly what you suggest, and in their own way showing great tolerance. They effectively say, "I'm with you to this point, but... when it comes to belief in the transcendent as motivational, or the centrality of faith, or the need for a hopeful story, etc." And, gratefully, neither atheist was in the militant camp - the anti-theist camp of S. M. Hutchens, Mike Hutchinson, or Richard Dawkins. As I stated in the article, they were very pleasant, and really had more positive contributions to offer than the evangelical behind the whole thing, Jim Henderson. If I'm frustrated with anyone, it's him. He should know better. Finally, I appreciate your kind words about the "brilliance" of my words. I wish it were true. The problem is: Half of what I think or say is bullsh*t and the other half is probably a little helpful - maybe even original. The problem is I can't tell the difference between the two, so my writings and thoughts are plagued with both. It is up to the reader and listener to pick through the mess. My only hope is that the pickin' is interesting, enjoyable, and maybe even a little enlightening.
"Certainly, this is one reason we have friends, but if a transcendent and benevolent God exists, then this “lifting” is much more profound, stable, and consistent than any human friendship could possibly offer." Indeed. I love my friends and I know that they love me. But they have and will let me down. Relying on others will only get you so far. Sometimes it has to be just you and God. Because humans are.....well, human. They are flawed. They don't know everything (even when they act like they do). And sometimes what they think is right or best is really wrong or worst. Because they. Are. Not. God. Sorry to get on something of a tangent but that line struck me when I read it. Rich: No tangent... Good point!
Thanks for taking the time to read our book and then review it. You did a very thorough job even if we come to some very different conclusions Thanks again Jim Henderson Rich: Jim, thanks for your kind and gracious response. I have read another one of your books with great profit (the "lost" book) and attended an Off the Map conference in Washington with great benefit as well. So, it was with great reluctance that my response was so negative. I do greatly respect your attempts and passion. I simply wish for a more robust and enriching ecclesiology that I (sadly) find lacking from many emergent and seeker-sensitive writers. It is easy to take pot-shots at the church. It is a big target and its great diversity guarantees that things will always be a little screwy somewhere. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read my rant. God bless you!

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