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Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Patience With God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism), by Frank Schaeffer.

Frank Schaeffer is the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer and grew up in an evangelical-fundamentalist environment. He was well on his way to being one of the pop stars of the Republican-fundamentalist coalition movement when he “began the process of escaping” both far right-wing politics and strict, literalist and fundamentalist religion. He did not, however, become an atheist. In fact, one of the claims of this book (he has written others, both fiction and nonfiction) is that what he calls the New Atheists—what I would call militant-scientific atheists (with an accent on ‘militant’)—and the evangelical fundamentalists (not all ‘evangelicals’ are fundamentalist or literal in their interpretation of the Bible) have a lot in common: both groups are certain that they are right and everyone else is wrong; both groups are intolerant of those who do not share their views; both groups engage in “conversations” with those of other views only for the sake of converting them, “listening” to heretics and apostates only insofar as to find the best way of effecting a conversion.

Full disclosure: as soon as I heard on NPR the introduction to this author and his book, before the interview even began, I said to David, “That’s me!” I resist and am always annoyed by efforts to convert me, whether to atheism or to some particular brand of religion. To the atheists I want to say, “What’s in it for you? I’m not against science, but science deals with facts, not values, and there’s more to living than having facts.” I have said these things to atheists on occasion, but their convictions are rock-hard and impervious to argument. I understand them, more or less: I just find their views narrow and rigid, more a posture of rebellion and defense than scientific objectivity. They seem stuck in their undergraduate years. Religious proselytizers, on the other hand, downright amaze me. To them I would say (if I didn’t try instead to avoid such exchanges entirely), “You believe in God (or so you say), and yet you think God can be contained in a single creed, God’s ways and purposes comprehended by mortal creatures? What hubris! I don’t care what people say they believe: I only care how they live their lives.”

And now along comes Frank Schaeffer’s book, expressing my feelings with his much wider experiences and in his much more potent language.
The New Atheists, like their evangelical/fundamentalist counterparts, aren’t on an intellectual journey. They are already at their destination, all i’s dotted and all t’s crossed. Everything they encounter is run through a fixed ideological grid. To them there are the good guys—smart atheists leaving appropriate comments on their websites—and the bad guys—dumb religious believers who must be answered with the correct arguments handily provided in the lists of debate points found on Dawkins’s and other atheists’ websites on how to deal with the other.

Schaeffer knows the evangelical, fundamentalist, literalist religious right from the inside, having grown up in his parents’ religious community in Switzerland:
To be a worker in L’Abri, you had not only to be saved, but the right kind of saved. Mom and Dad would talk about this or that person being “our kind of person” or “real L’Abri material.”

There is a lot of humor in this book. One funny chapter comes near the beginning, where the author asks why New Atheist Richard Dawkins opposes faith with lapel pins. (I always wonder why he has so much time to spend on opposing faith rather than doing science and why he has to focus on the United States rather than on the United Kingdom.) Apparently Dawkins offers a “Scarlet A” lapel pin for five dollars on his website (along with a “God Delusion” t-shirt for $20), and the purpose of it is to “start conversations.” People will ask about it, presumably, and then look out! Schaeffer is bemused and recalls:
When I was a young child, and to my eternal mortification, Mom used to carry something called the Gospel Walnut. It was a hollowed-out actual walnut shell filled with ribbons of different colors sewn together into one thin, shoestring-like, yard-long band.... You cranked it out with a little handle attached to the walnut shell, and the ribbon would seem to emerge from the nut magically. The point of doing this was to invite questions from strangers.... In other words, both the Gospel Walnut and the Scarlet A pin offer a chance to witness to potential converts.

Patience With God is not memoir, but there is a lot of Frank Schaeffer’s life in it, from his childhood in Switzerland to his schooling in England to his present-day happiness with a marriage that has lasted since he was 17 years old and has given him, along with a soul mate, children and grandchildren. His granddaughter Lucy appears early and often in the book. Childhood was a time of being closed off from the world of unbelievers or those with the “wrong” religious views (including his wife’s Roman Catholic parents) and of being neglected by his parents, who put their religious work before the work of raising (or even educating) their children. The boarding school he attended in England taught him tolerance for others and kindness to them—not as lessons to be memorized but through the example of the couple who ran the school. This was a way of living rather than a confession of belief. He also learned to read and write and spell at last.

Though he “escaped” fundamentalism, Frank Schaeffer has not rejected religion. He converted to the Greek Orthodox faith, drawn to and comforted by its ritual and mystery and a refreshing lack of emphasis on theology. The point for him, as well as for others who “don’t like religion or atheism” is not, after all, to find “The Answer,” not to find certainty, not to become necessarily a Unitarian, a Quaker, Greek Orthodox, Muslim, Buddhist or anything else in particular. The point is to find a way that has room for religious mystery and independent thinking both, a way to embrace paradox, a way to be able to say “Thank you!” and also ask, “Why?”

I found this book a breath of fresh air.


Late-breaking P.S.
The Leelanau Independent Women for Democratic Action have launched a “Shop Local First” campaign. Their flier begins by observing, “Small town merchants set the tone for our towns. If we want our town to thrive we need to support their businesses.” They list eight reasons for supporting local business, which I won’t copy in this post (I’ve already argued my own case), but if you’re interested in a “Shop Local First” bumper sticker you can get one at Dog Ears Books for one dollar. Cheaper than a cuppa coffee! May I note, self-servingly, that proceeds from bumper sticker sales go to LIWDA to pay their costs and thus do not count as a bookstore purchase? I’d love to sell you a book (or more than one) and a bumper sticker, but if I had to choose one or the other, the book sale would trump.


Dawn said...

Sounds like something I need to add to my reading list. Going to go do that right now.

P. J. Grath said...

The book is very well written and thoughtful. At the same time, it's entertaining and quick to read. I recommend it highly.

Gerry said...

A plague on all self-righteous fanaticism - including, alas, my own . . .

People will surprise you. I've met tolerant fundamentalists and intolerant freethinkers. Mostly I meet people who are exhausted by the culture wars and just want to get along.

The love of money may be the root of all evil, but fanaticism of every stripe is the fertilizer that allows is to flourish.

Um, thus endeth my sermon for the day.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, you have such a gift for the pithy phrase, e.g., "fanaticism...the fertilizer." I salute you! (Also the sentiment.)

Karen said...

I wish everyone would just lighten up. This book sounds good. However, I must say I found Dawkins' The God Delusion a breath of fresh air, because I hadn't heard anyone proudly proclaim they were an atheist before & I was beginning to get the feeling that this country was becoming a place where dissent was equated with being unpatriotic as was not being a practicing Christian. Dawkins picks on the U.S. because other western-style democracies--Europe, NZ, Australia--just don't have sizable fundamentalist movements, with such a voice in the media and politics.

P. J. Grath said...

You and I are coming at this from very different experiences, Karen. I hear just as many atheists as fundamentalists shouting about being an oppressed minority. To all of them I say, Who cares? How to you live? How do you treat people? I don't care what you say you do or don't believe! As for Dawkins picking on Americans, I have to admit to a Yankee prejudice against Brits telling us how to live. Sometimes whether it's a mote or a beam depends on whose eye it's in and who's looking, don't you think? Thanks for visiting and commenting.

Karen said...

Perhaps it was that stint in Texas. LOL

P. J. Grath said...

At first I thought you were referring to Dawkins, but now I think you were the one who spent time in Texas. That might do it.