My atheist neighbor used to lean forward in his chair, glare, and in his affected Northeast accent declare, “Religion makes people crazy, Preston!”
He was speaking categorically and painting the world with a very broad brush--but, he had to. It was the only option he had in order to be a serious atheist, and whatever else my neighbor was, he was a dedicated atheist. In fact, he was the most thoughtful atheist I’ve encountered.
My neighbor wasn’t like the atheist professors I had in school, especially college and graduate school. They espoused the notion that education was about exploration and the ebb and flow of ideas. But there was no forum to have honest dialogue about religion or matters of faith. The forum was their bully pulpit. If I put an idea forward that smacked of faith—even in the slightest—the red ink flowed, not because of my paper, but because of my idea. Their derisive disposition about faith and God, and those adhering to either, was abundantly clear. They were smart people, but they were insecure—so insecure they couldn’t tolerate a faith perspective. So much for higher learning.
My atheist neighbor was insecure as well. To categorically state that the majority of the world and its history is crazy-headed wrong, except for him, is either the height of arrogance or a very exclusive club of enlightenment.
The sentiment that religion makes people crazy, wasn’t just my atheist neighbor playing out of tune with the world.
Back and forth my neighbor and I went. Each Monday, before he devoted himself to Monday Night Football and enough alcohol to embalm a small town, we met to visit. For all his strident and inflammatory statements, he received as well as he gave, thus affording me a safe (relatively speaking) place to test my faith, unlike the “open minded” halls of higher learning referenced above. This was my neighbor’s greatest gift to me.
In truth, the sentiment that religion makes people crazy, wasn’t just my atheist neighbor playing out of tune with the world. My neighbor also introduced me to a group of atheists and agnostics that invited me to sit with them each week, which I’ve done for over a decade. Not as often as when my neighbor was present, but periodically this group of friends affirm to each other, almost like a touchstone, that religion makes people crazy.
And in truth, looking through the social lenses that comfort their outlook and affirm their perspectives, it does indeed look as though religion makes people crazy. When some guy blows himself up during a wedding reception, or shoots school children, or destroy world heritage sites—or closer to home, invokes religion to bolster his political chances, or covers up blatant abuse to protect his ideology and office, then it does indeed seem that religion makes people crazy.
Christians have enjoyed the predominant voice in Western society for decades, but no longer. Today, we live in a Post-Christian society. It’s not just that Christians are no longer the majority group in Western society, Christians are derided and Evangelicals are hated in many circles. While it makes me sad that these terms have fallen into such disrepute, I’m not surprised. As a group, we have said one thing and done another.
I’m not saying my atheist neighbor and friends are right to believe what they do about Christians, but from their vantage point, what they believe about us is true. My atheist and agnostic friends, like my atheist neighbor, are not asking questions about my faith, or about Christianity or Evangelicalism, that can be answered with words.
There are no words to explain the inequity between what we say we believe and what they observe us doing. “Actions speak louder than words,” observed Mark Twain.
Let me be clear: I do not believe for a moment the arrogant perspective of my atheist neighbor. Religion does not people crazy, but I grasp why he says that. The fact that he says something so inflammatory and it finds pasture in other’s outlook is not to be dismissed. Further, it angers me that my decade-old friendships with my agnostic and atheist buddies is foundering on the rocks of disrespect.
I want to remain their friend, and at some level I am, but a friendship without respect is unsustainable. In spite of what I’d like to think they know about me, the craziness of the group I’m part of makes me crazy by association. What they believe about Christianity and Evangelicals is attributed to me, to you, and to anyone else adhering to religious belief.
If we can’t be believed, and there are no words to preserve or reestablish trust, and there is no respect upon which to have civil discourse, what is left?
For my atheist neighbor, and to a lesser extent my atheist and agnostic friends, denial of God is an honest attempt to get as far from crazy as they can.
I’m not saying this is right of them, only that it is understandable. Further, their disposition toward me is intolerant and offensive. Ascribing to me, whom they know, the reputation of the group is narrowminded, but I understand. Here’s the deal: A schism has occurred in our relationship by inference and my cathartic, explanatory, clarifying words fall on deaf ears.
It is too easy to dismiss what I’m writing and say, you need a new neighbor and more open-minded friends. That might be true for me, but that is blatant denial of what we face as Christians in society.
A case in point: On ABC’s “The View,” Joy Behar, referencing Vice President Pence as a Christian said, “It’s one thing to talk to Jesus. It’s another thing when Jesus talks to you. That’s called mental illness.” Folks, that is offensive, intolerant, hate-speech that has NO place in civil society. ABC did nothing. It is said Ms. Behar called Vice President Pence, but three weeks after the fact.
Why was there no outrage? Why was this hate speech toward Christians tolerated? One can only assume it is because Christians and Evangelicals are intolerable.
How does that make you feel? I contacted my ABC affiliate. I wrote to the corporate office’s of WFAA and to the two news anchors who are prone to give commentaries on important issues, Pete Delkus and Dale Hansen. I received NO reply, not even an automated reply, from any of the three. One has to wonder why.
What to do? If we can’t be believed, and there are no words to preserve or reestablish trust, and there is no respect upon which to have civil discourse, what is left?
Personally, I have returned to the observation attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. “We are called to be witnesses for Christ, and every so often we must use words.”
How this worked out with my atheist neighbor, I can tell you. How this works out with my group of agnostic and atheist friends who’ve become disrespectful, I’m still working on. How this affects an entity like ABC is another matter.
“Preston, religion makes people crazy,” my neighbor would say as we discussed religious matters.
I could have said, “Are you saying I’m crazy?” Knowing my neighbor, he would have smiled—knowing he got me, knowing that I wandered into his trap like a rat after rancid cheese. My choice would be our friendship or rejection, sanity or insanity on my neighbor’s terms.
What my neighbor was truly attempting with his pompous statement was to categorically dismiss as crazy all that is attributed to the existence of God. While clumsy and relationally abrasive, he was being true to his atheism. If there is a shred of rationalism to religion, even a hint that it might be true, then he has to examine it further. If he doesn’t, he isn’t intellectually honest. If religion and all its adherents are crazy, then it makes little sense to explore it. Can truth be embedded in craziness? It’s unlikely.
I sat with an atheist guy in New York City some years ago. He rattled on and on about his atheistic beliefs. At some point, I asked what he had read of the other viewpoint. “Have you read Lewis, or Little, or Schaeffer?” He hadn’t. I named another source or two. He’d never heard of them. That man wasn’t an atheist. He was a fool who fancied himself intellectual by claiming atheism while gambling his eternity.
I waited for him to make his statement about craziness again—I knew he would.
My atheist neighbor had read, and we read Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God” together. Keller works toward Lewis’s “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” question. When we got to that chapter, my neighbor said he believed Jesus Christ was a lunatic. That’s the end of the conversation, in case you were wondering. If Jesus Christ is crazy, then we who follow Him are delusional, crazy as loons.
But just because the conversation is concluded, that doesn’t mean the story is over.
Follow me on this: When I write nonfiction literature, I tell my readers what I know. This is expected. I make an outline of my points, and point by point, step by step, I tell what I believe in thirteen chapters and 180 pages. If I fail at this, my book doesn’t hold together and my readers stop reading.
But I’ve learned writing fiction that the stories that are my novels must be shown to my readers, not explained. In fact, if I tell my fiction readers what to think, the story is spoiled and they stop reading. The rule of writing a story is to show, not tell.
My words—my logic, my rationale, my explanations, my apologetics—with my atheist neighbor concluded. There was nothing left to say beyond small talk.
What we say as Christians and Evangelicals is pretty much worthless in today’s environment. There is no dialogue. There is no civil discourse. The more words we say, the more we are divided. While civility seems dead, the story of society and our place in it is still being lived.
I converted words with my atheist neighbor to story. I waited for him to make his statement about craziness again—I knew he would—and said, “So, you truly believe religion makes people crazy, do you?”
“I do, Preston. It’s irrefutable.”
“Okay, buddy. You are going later this week to Baylor Hospital for tests. I wouldn’t go if I was you.”
“The place was founded by Baptists and Episcopalians. Nor would I go to Harris Methodist Hospital for the same reason. Where is Atheist General Hospital? I’ll take you there.”
He laughed at me. I didn’t stop showing him the story though.
“You’re proud of the education you received from Yale. Well, I wouldn’t be. In fact (pointing to the diploma on his wall), I would get rid of that right away. You may as well have a statement from the psyche ward at Atheist General Hospital certifying your craziness. Did they not tell you when you got to New Haven that Yale was founded by Puritan ministers? It’s true. Each one of them donated selections of books from his own shelf to establish a college? Yale was the result.
“You’ve lauded the educational superiority of Yale, and Harvard, and Princeton. Harvard came into being to educate clergy—I can only assume in craziness—while Princeton was founded by Presbyterians to do the same.
It was crazy people who eventually put an end to the carnage.
“You are adamant that the government should provide for the least among us, the poor, the destitute, the infirmed. But, tell me who’s doing this work in our society. Where would those down on their luck be if it were not for Presbyterian Night Shelter, Union Gospel Mission, Beautiful Feet Ministries, the Salvation Army, or Catholic Charities?
“You are privileged to live in the greatest country on the earth. It was founded by men and women who knew a monarchy could not—would not—provide for the common welfare. They knew as well that while the Roman Republic was genius, it fell because it could not regulate the avarice of its citizens. Our forefathers also knew that even the best governments in the history of mankind were insufficient to inspire the population’s aspirations. Knowing all of this, these crazy men and women founded America and recognized that for this country to succeed, it must trust in God. They believed it so strongly that it is stated on every denomination of our currency.
“The very fabric of our society, the rule of law upon which we depend and find security, the pledges that undergird our way of life, and the honor our elected officials claim are vouchsafed by swearing before God.
“All of this is craziness, delusional, and should be dispensed with as soon as possible so society can perhaps find its rationality in atheism. Is this truly what you desire?
“You’re a literary mind. You taught it, in fact. Tell me: Dostoevsky and Nietzsche explored society without God. What they concluded was nightmarish? Society either didn’t listen or didn’t understand, and what did the world get for their godless experiment? Let me help you with your history. We got Communism and Nazism and the bloodiest century (note the last three paragraphs of the source) in the history of the world. Oh, and it was crazy people who eventually put an end to the carnage.
“If religion makes people crazy, perhaps we need more religion. At least the world is less crazy than without it.”
After this, my atheist neighbor stopped saying, “Religion makes people crazy.”
I’m speaking of my neighbor in the past tense. He didn’t die, he moved. More accurately, he abandoned everyone other than himself, including his family and grandchildren, and ran off to Florida with a woman, leaving in his wake broken hearts and disillusioned friends. Months later, his abandoned and suffering son sat on my patio and said, “Dad’s just living out his atheism.” It was as true and incisive statement as I’ve ever heard. Strangely, despite his own heartache, loss, and embarrassment, my neighbor’s son is following his Dad’s lead, and I don’t mean he’s moving to Florida. He’s living out his own version of atheism. It’s not as pure as his Dad’s, but then, he’s not as old as my neighbor was nor as desperate to dispense with a deity.
Sadly, for several decades our actions have spoken louder than words.
I felt for a long time that my friendships among my agnostic and atheist buddies was changing their biases about Christians and Evangelicals. But then, the world shifted. Christian and Evangelical was wedded to politics, power, sex, and money. Sadly, our visible Christian and Evangelical leaders are behaving no better than those claiming nothing—and my atheist, agnostic, and hostile-to-religion friends have taken notice.
Once again, I’m hearing, “Religion makes people crazy.” Only this time, the opinions are harsher. One of my atheist friends said recently, “I hate those born-again people” (he has no idea who these people are, but that is beside the point). Another said, “All those Southern Christians, the Fundamentalist, and the Evangelical right-wingers—they can all go to hell.” Yet another said, “What gives these Christians a right to the power of life and death? They treat their sick dogs with more compassion than their sick parents.”
What’s my point? My point is that in today’s societal atmosphere, words about religion are virtually pointless, even counterproductive unless honestly requested. Sadly, for several decades our actions have spoken louder than words.
But we have a golden opportunity. There is a rule of thumb, given to us by Mark Twain. He said, “Actions speak louder than words.” We can free ourselves of worrying about the right thing to say and devote ourselves to living true and truly living.
The indictment to my neighbor’s claim that religion makes people crazy wasn’t the words in a book, or my words as a follower of Jesus Christ, or even the claims of Christ Himself. Rather, it was the action of those, who guided by their belief in Jesus Christ, filled with the Spirit of God, and reliant upon what they understood from reading Scripture, implemented their faith with action that engaged a secular society. They built hospitals, founded universities, took care of the least among us, and lived lives consistent with their faith. They went about the business of being followers of Christ, and in so doing, afforded all of us a testimony of Christ spoken without words.
America doesn’t need another hospital or college, but it needs people deemed crazy to live lives within secular society that are representative of Jesus Christ, and in so doing, show the world the sense of God and the reasonable rationale for placing trust in God. The challenge is to engage our world, not with words, but the life of Christ lived in compelling, consistent fashion throughout our lives. We must get it clear in our heads, that while engaged in the moral issues of our government and society, we live for an eternal Kingdom.
May our lives be lived with such compulsion, such conviction, such empowerment from the Spirit of God that our actions as Believers render a far more convincing testimony than even the most powerful statements of faith.