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What Evangelicals and Atheists Have in Common

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Atheists and evangelicals often find themselves on opposite sides of the cultural battle line -- and those battles are becoming more frequent. The rise of "New Atheism" via best-selling books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and the emergence of what I call "Constitutional Evangelicalism" comprised of Christians more likely to know the Second Amendment than the Second Commandment, has inflamed the tensions between the two groups.

But the new breed of atheists and evangelicals may have more in common than they'd like to admit.

For example, some within New Atheism are proselytizing their beliefs with the fervor, and in some cases anger, more often associated with evangelicals. From an international ad campaign on buses dismissing belief in God, to rallies at universities inviting students to exchange their Bibles for pornography, atheists are no longer content with a live-and-let-live approach to those adhering to religion. Instead, they are actively trying to convert (or is the word un-convert?) the masses.

Last October NPR reported that Christopher Hitchens told a packed crowd at the University of Toronto, "I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right." He told NPR, "If I said to a Protestant or Quaker or Muslim, 'Hey, at least I respect your belief,' I would be telling a lie."

Of course not all atheists agree with Hitchen's evangelistic approach. Paul Kurtz, a more traditional atheist, worries that the rhetoric of Hitchens, Dawkins, and others will actually set the movement back.

"I consider them atheist fundamentalists," Kurtz says. "They're anti-religious, and they're mean-spirited, unfortunately. Now, they're very good atheists and very dedicated people who do not believe in God. But you have this aggressive and militant phase of atheism, and that does more damage than good."

I can't help but see the irony. It appears some New Atheists are incorporating the very traits they've often condemned about evangelicals -- intolerance, dogmatism, and now even the church's penchant for schism. It seems anything can be turned into a religion, even anti-religion.

But evangelicals should take no delight in pointing out the speck in the atheists' eye while a log remains firmly lodged in our own.

The common criticism levied on atheists by evangelicals is that they are prideful -- seeking to live "above God" with no regard for his existence or instructions. Atheists, the argument says, have given up on a theistic universe in favor of a humanist one -- a world in which purpose and truth are fluidly defined by the individual or at best one's community. As a result, some Christians view atheists as adrift, lost, and susceptible to all kinds of error and evil. The solution, say these evangelicals, is to embrace a life "under God" by submitting to his ways.

This "over God" versus "under God" split is what has led to a great many cultural conflicts about same-sex marriage, abortion, stem cell research, public display of religious symbols, prayer in school, and even last month's decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to retain "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance despite arguments from atheists that it violates the First Amendment.

But in their attempts to conform the United States' law and society to God's commands, these culturally crusading evangelicals have exchanged the Gospel of Jesus Christ for a Gospel of Morality. And in the process many of my evangelical sisters and brothers find themselves guilty of the very sin they peg on atheists -- seeking a position of authority above God. Let me explain with a few examples.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, one evangelical leader made the following statement, for which he subsequently apologized:

I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, "You helped this happen."

Sadly, these kinds of judgments are not uncommon. Other church leaders made similar remarks after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and following the earthquake in Haiti. Presumably, according to the logic within these proclamations, the way to prevent terrorist attacks and natural disasters in one's country is by earning the Almighty's affection and protection through moral behavior, adherence to prayer, traditional family values, and frequent worship.

This "life under God" approach also applies to individuals. Countless evangelical teens have been taught that if they abstain from sexual activity before marriage God will bless their sex lives after the wedding. Evangelical parents clamor for "biblical" parenting methods guaranteed to result in moral, obedient children. And I've counseled a distraught business owner in my church who believed that if he gave generously to Christ's work, God would prosper his company.

The problem with this "life under God" view of the world, apart from the obvious fact that it doesn't work, is that it is predicated on fear and control rather than love. What drives many who buy into such an approach is not love for one's Creator, but a desire to control God as a means of survival and advancement. Whether an ancient culture sacrificing a virgin in the volcano, or contemporary conservative evangelicalism, the "life under God" view inevitably results in human attempts to control the divine through ritual, morality, and dogmatic manipulation of others.

The great irony is that while claiming submission to God, those advocating a life under God are actually seeking control over him through their religiosity. Pray X, sacrifice Y, avoid Z, and God's blessings are guaranteed. They have reduced God to a predictable, controllable, even contemptible formula. Some evangelicals condemn the atheists for exalting themselves over God without realizing they are guilty of the same sin by other means.

Don't assume that I'm painting all evangelicals with this broad brush of hypocrisy. I am an evangelical, and there are many among us who recognized the danger of exchanging the message of the New Testament for a false message of national morality. But I believe both the New Atheists (advocating life over God) and the Constitutional Evangelicals (advocating life under God) are far closer in their values and worldview than either would like to acknowledge. They are two sides of the same coin. But there is a third dimension; a third way between "live over God" or "live under God." There is also "life with God" -- the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Skye Jethani is an ordained pastor, managing editor of Leadership Journal, and the author of The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity. He blogs at www.SkyeJethani.com.