As we begin Holy Week and move toward the celebration of Easter, the news gets really interesting. This is especially true if you, like me, have your news feed set to let you see stories on religion. Maybe the religion news isn't that important to you. If not, I respect that, but for me it's part of where I live as a deacon.
Any time of the year, not just Holy Week, the religion news setting will catch a plethora of negative articles. Particularly this is true in regard to those who are opposed to the faith or perhaps who are militant in arguing from the viewpoint of non-belief. Typically I like their articles because they challenge me to give a good answer.
Recently I found the following piece from a former militant atheist, now an evangelical apologist, the journalist Lee Strobel. He is writing in response to an "Easter message" by atheist comedian Ricky Gervais. Strobel says it was Easter that killed his faith:
It was the worst news I could get as an atheist: my agnostic wife had decided to become a Christian. Two words shot through my mind. The first was an expletive; the second was “divorce.”
I thought she was going to turn into a self-righteous holy roller. But over the following months, I was intrigued by the positive changes in her character and values. Finally, I decided to take my journalism and legal training (I was legal editor of the Chicago Tribune) and systematically investigate whether there was any credibility to Christianity.
Maybe, I figured, I could extricate her from this cult.
I quickly determined that the alleged resurrection of Jesus was the key. Anyone can claim to be divine, but if Jesus backed up his claim by returning from the dead, then that was awfully good evidence he was telling the truth.
For nearly two years, I explored the minutia of the historical data on whether Easter was myth or reality. I didn’t merely accept the New Testament at face value; I was determined only to consider facts that were well-supported historically. As my investigation unfolded, my atheism began to buckle.
I don't know that I would necessarily take the same strategy or tactic as Strobel in replying to Gervais, or even to others who doubt or who are opposed to Christianity. While proofs, in the sense in which they are presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, are important to belief, and while faith and reason should not be opposed in any way, I don't really believe that traditional proofs are always effective tools for convincing nonbelievers, though certainly in the case of Strobel they amounted to something. However, if you read the comments that have been posted on Strobel's article, and can get past the haters, you can see that proofs mean very little to those who are convinced in their faith against God.
Instead, I would look to my own experience of doubt and faith, and apply it accordingly. Like Strobel, I too at one time was a nonbeliever. Unlike Strobel, I went from being an evangelical Pentecostal as a teenager to being a questioning student of philosophy in my 20's who understood his Christianity best in terms of atheism. That's right, at one time I defined myself as an atheist, albeit a Christian atheist. Bear in mind that this was many years before my journey to Catholicism.
Now this brings me to the point of Gervais, who in his Easter message says why he believes he is better at being a Christian as an atheist than believers are by being Christians. However, Gervais is making an attempt at humor rather than a true statement of belief. Gervais, in my opinion, is not a Christian atheist, rather he is relying on humorous irony to make his point.
Gervais says that he believes in the Ten Commandments and keeps all of them. To this I would point out, not so much in a judgmental way as much as an objective observation, that he sounds a little like the Pharisee in Jesus' time who went into the temple and prayed, "Thank you Lord, that I am not a sinner like that tax collector over there." Keep in mind that the tax collector, who wouldn't even come into the building all the way, stood back at a distance and prayed for mercy to God, of whose existence he surely had no rational proofs. Furthermore, out of the tax collector's situation of being aware of his sin, he was also probably acutely aware that he had no proofs. Rather, his viewpoint was from the sheer poverty of existence--the place I believe we are most likely to discover the sacred for ourselves.
As Christians, should it matter all that much what we say about what we believe? Are we really going to prove anything to anyone by way of talking? Isn't what we do much more important, and isn't this the lesson of the story of the tax collector in the temple? Did he not realize that in his life there had been an absence of justice?
The message to nonbelievers is that true religion isn't really about believing in things that are too big to grasp, things that can never be proven except perhaps subjectively. True religion isn't about fairy tales, nor is it about perfectly keeping the Ten Commandments. Rather, it's all about how you live and how you love others, even those who are most unlike you in what they do and believe.
Many years ago, back when I was a Pentecostal teenager, I heard a gospel song that went "If heaven never had been promised to me, neither God's promise to live eternally, it's been worth just having the Lord in my life." Sure it matters that we believe, but what's most important is that we learn to follow Jesus really.