There is a hymn I grew up singing. For some reason, unknown to me, this song came to mind the other day. I started humming it before I realized what was happening. As I became aware of what I was doing, I recalled the lyrics and paid closer attention. I had been thinking about the fundamental insecurity of life and the way in which religions try to compensate for this insecurity.
What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.
What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
The familiar feeling crept into my consciousness as I allowed myself to be taken in by this song. Honestly, I always hated the tune. It’s a simplistic ditty. I remember the old women in my childhood congregation dragging the refrain up from note to note. “Leeeeeaaning, leeeeeaning, safe and secure from all alarms!”
Even now, the feeling it gives me is unmistakable. The promise of being held, safe and secure, in the mighty embrace of an all loving God who would never let anything bad happen to you, is the central promise of Christianity.
The promise of Christianity
The promise of security and freedom from existential dread is rooted in the promise of eternal life in heaven (or a new earth, or a little of both, depending on the details of your theology). The basic element of this teaching is that you cannot reallydie. You can die temporarily. But in the end, if you’re on God’s side, you will live. Forever.
And not just you — everyone who accepts God’s offer of salvation will be saved. What’s more: all evil, corruption — and even death itself — will be destroyed. According to the story, at some point in the relatively near future Jesus will return to the earth with all the hosts of heaven. The stubbornly unrepentant — those who cling to evil — will be destroyed, not by God’s wrath so much as by the brightness of his goodness. Sort of like a vampire in the daylight. God will ultimately destroy the earth by fire, thereby purifying it, and then create a new earth. Full circle, back to Eden. Paradise restored.
This is the core promise of the Christian story and embedded within this promise are many other promises. One is that nothing truly bad can ever happen to you. Ever. You may die. You may be tortured and die a horrible, painful death. But even this cannot actually touch you. In Matthew, chapter 10, Jesus gathers his 12 disciples to him and gives them some final instructions before sending them out to evangelize in his name throughout Palestine.
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (v. 28).
A few sentences later, Jesus continues:
Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it (v. 39).
Dallas Willard, the late University of Southern California philosopher, was an important voice in my theological formation. One of his thoughts that I embraced so deeply was this very thing: that in the kingdom of God, nothing could truly harm you. The worst thing that could happen wasn’t ultimate. You are truly safe in the Everlasting Arms.
Another promise — a corollary of the big promise — is that, in spite of appearances, things are going to be okay. Not just individual believers, but the whole social order. Martin Luther King, Jr captured this philosophy succinctly when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
It is quite clear that Dr. King did not believe that the moral arc of the universe just bends by itself. The story of his life is mountain of evidence that he thought we must participate in bending it. But behind this aphorism is a confidence that God (in King’s case) ensures, in the long run, that things work out. There is another popular aphorism, often attributed to John Lennon (not known as a fan of religion), which says, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
These concepts are a powerful antidote to anxiety and existential despair.
When it happens that you discover there is no God — that the promise-maker isn’t there — these promises start to look a little shaky. I’ve spoken dozens of times over the past five years about how I came to the suspicion that there is no God and that the promises of the Bible are empty. But lately my interest and focus has shifted.
As stubbornly resilient as theism is, atheism is a surprisingly simple conclusion. There are so many paths to it: science, philosophy, anthropology, psychology. Even simple personal experience is enough to call into question the presence or existence of God and discard the whole thing as useless, at best, and a lifetime of manipulative gaslighting at worst. I want us to be able to make the move from understanding the fatal flaws of theism to acting in line with those discoveries.
The reason that discovering Santa Claus is not real is a much easier idea to onboard is that it is not woven into every aspect of a person’s life. Yes, I cried! I was deeply distraught at the discovery that Santa was make-believe…for about half a day.
To be honest, I don’t really remember how long I grieved the death of Santa. I remember being in the back seat of my parents’ car, going somewhere. I have no idea where. Somehow it slipped or my parents decided it was time to be honest with me. I cried. I remember being shocked and devastated, but against my better judgment, I believed them again. And then I got over it. I never went to any conferences for people who don’t believe in Santa. I didn’t seek the help of a therapist who help people deconvert from Santaism. Because Santa doesn’t matter.
God is different. God is everything!
Important for this conversation, God is the truth, according to the New Testament. God doesn’t just tell us the truth. God is truth, in Godself. The Bible poorly reflects the truth of God. God is bigger and purer than any book, any human mouthpiece. God is all and in all, said the Apostle Paul.
Because of this, the death of God, or the loss of faith in God is an actual loss, unlike the loss of belief in Santa. The experience, for many people, is the loss of one’s center. Therefore, my claim is that atheism has a moral valence. There are moral consequences to being an atheist, whether we like it or not. The basic outline of my argument, which I plan to flesh out on this website over the coming weeks and months, is as follows:
First, the God hypothesis includes the claim that all goodness is rooted in God.
Second, there is no God. The absence of evidence for God is so overwhelming and devastating that I feel confident is saying I believe there is no God, not just that I lack a beliefin God, as many atheists claim. The fundamental consequence of this reality is that no one is coming to save us. There are no promises; no guarantees.
Third, goodness exists. There are things that are objectively good and, consequently, things that are objectively bad or wrong. For example, conscious, sentient life is good, and preferable to death, all things being equal.
Therefore, we should take care of conscious and sentient life. Moreover, we should take care of the environments and resources necessary for the flourishing of life, both the natural and built environments.
If there is no God, and if goodness exists, and if what is good should be cared for and what is bad should be resisted or eliminated, then we who do not believe in God are responsible for each other. We are ethically bound to one other and we need to act in ways that make for the flourishing of life in all its forms. As an aside, the deep sense of community that we’re all longing for, that no one can quite put their finger on, only happens when we understand that we are bound to each other in this way.
Atheism means waking up to this reality. In coming to the conclusion that God does not exist and the promises are void, we recognize that there is no rescue party on the way. It’s just us. Now we can get on with the urgent matter of engaging in the only struggle that really matters: the struggle for freedom; the struggle for our full humanity. Understanding what actually makes for human flourishing entails a long and involved debate, but we must engage it. This is the bridge between atheism and humanism that everyone who is not a cynic or nihilist must cross.
Freedom and Responsibility
Our lives are lived in the tension between freedom and responsibility. At some moments, and for some people, freedom is the greater demand. At other times and for other people, responsibility is greater. But understanding this tension is vital if we are live lives that make for human flourishing, both for ourselves, other sentient animals, and the environments and institutions we depend on and enjoy.
What makes for human flourishing are the things maximize freedom, in community. The way we spend our time and other resources, the people who we enter into relationships of solidarity with, and the causes that we engage in, ought to be informed by this calculus about freedom and responsibility.
Taken together, this is what I call radical humanism. It is a love for life which includes the things living beings create: art, music, literature, food, families, architecture, and cities. But it is not just sentimentality. Radical humanism squarely faces the cruel, the ugly, and the hateful as well as the kind, the beautiful, and the compassionate, elements of life. It looks fear in the face and doesn’t back down. The love of life that radical humanism embraces is not a denial of reality but a whole hearted embrace of this life, in all its complexity.
Radical humanism is atheism in action. Radical humanism knows that there are no promises. No one is coming to save us. We are the ones we are waiting for, and we will be damned if we are going to let people who wield all of the power ruin it for everyone else.
Radical humanism demands from us an analysis of our privilege. For some, radical humanism is an invitation to live into their freedom. For others it is an invitation to deep solidarity with and responsibility for the whole human family, especially with what Franz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.”
The humanism I am describing is radical in its return to basic commitments with the urgency of our present moment, and a fearless engagement with the complexities of life as represented by an intersectional analysis of race, gender, and class. As such, radical humanism presents a critique of modern humanism which has too often become distracted by bourgeois concerns of the ruling and middle classes.
In the face of the empty promises of Christian scripture and tradition, we are faced with challenge. How ought we to live? Radical humanism is an effort to answer this challenge.