Confession of a Liberal Atheist

October 9, 2020 by

David Lenefsky is a long-standing friend of our community who recently reached out to us with a prayer request for a child who was suffering. I was particularly touched by this, as David is an avowed liberal atheist. At a time when it seems such differences so easily divide, I asked him to reflect on why he felt moved to reach out to us to ask us to pray for this child. For anyone who knows David, his love, warmth, and concern for others will come as no surprise. He takes people as he finds them, just as we all should. I respect David in his stated belief and understand the pain that brought him to his position. But of course I still believe in God our creator, and his son Jesus our savior. And I find it amazing that often the actions of avowed atheists like David embody the teachings of Jesus and can even build confidence and faith in a loving God and the capacity of humans to show God’s love and kindness. David wrote the following:

In mid-July I asked my friends at the Bruderhof community to say a prayer for a neighbor’s eight-year-old daughter who was hospitalized after a stroke. It is an incident that occurs for approximately five in one hundred thousand children.

Of course the answer was yes.

Weeks later, when I updated my friends that Claire was discharged and making progress doing physical and occupational therapy, I was asked, “Why did a liberal atheist ask a Christian community to say a prayer?”

artworkPrayer on the Railway Station by Victor Borisov-Musatov. Public domain.

They asked me to answer, if I would, on paper.

They obviously know I do not believe in god. What they do not know is that, not only do I not believe in god, I loathe the concept of a creator-god. It is inconceivable to me that a god would create a species so cruel and willfully ignorant. For me, it is a contradiction in terms that a god would create a species that grossly violates the central biblical mandate to welcome the stranger. Seeing our behavior, it is offensive to me to believe the biblical assertion that we are each in the image and likeliness of god. Such a belief, I think, is a grand rationale to legitimize the idea that everything is permitted.

Our DNA is programmed for survival – how else could we have survived history? – but not for truth. Our DNA is programmed for religion to be natural to humans. But as I see it, the biblical assertion has it backwards: god has been created in our image and our likeness.

If one reads twentieth century history, in which more than one hundred million lives were lost in war – with dates omitted, one might understandably think the history read was about the so-called Dark Ages, late fifth to fourteenth centuries (they weren’t so intellectually dark, but they were brutal for human life). To summarize Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century French philosopher: man never kills so happily as when he does so in the name of god. In contemporary language, it is faith-based violence.

Having this strongly held belief has, however, ironically made me especially attracted to people who practice religious humanism (the particular religion, however, is to me irrelevant). Hence, my attachment to the Bruderhof.

It is a commonplace but important thought that morality has nothing to do with religion. We all have read about too many so-called religious people who have committed grossly immoral acts.

So, let me put it this way: history is full of wonderful people who are what I call beauty seekers, wisdom seekers, culture makers and lovers. And of course, our science and technology has raised living standards for billions of previously impoverished people. But the critical question is, have we made moral progress? If we define morality as the capacity to care about others, then my answer is no.

Why then did I reach out to the Bruderhof? The answer is simple: I wanted Claire to know that a group of people who care deeply are rooting for her.


About the author

Heinrich Arnold 1

J. Heinrich Arnold

J. Heinrich Arnold serves as a senior pastor for the Bruderhof in the United States and abroad.

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