Review by Jeff Swenson
I have a personal history with the author of Why I Am An Atheist Who Believes In God. Not that I have ever met Frank Schaeffer (though, admittedly he would be on my list of authors to dine with), but two of his prior books and his public speaking had a profound effect on my own examination of mainstream Christianity and, while I do not want to give Mr. Schaeffer too much credit, he was significant in the process that led me to an agnostic-atheist position (if I cannot know, I do not believe). I’m sure if he perused this site he would probably find my cartoons vulgar (I’m no fine artist like John Singer Sargent who he adores), but as crude as my work can be at times it is an expression on par with any artist trying to find something within himself or about the world. One of my complaints about this recent book may be the lack of recognition that art can be crude and ugly because art is not always about beauty, but instead is a statement. Schaeffer focuses on art as a type of heaven which doesn’t allow for certain types of artwork to be included. To be fair, art movements have often declared war on “beauty” so I understand the reaction, but I think in some regards he may be making the same mistake for dismissing “ugly” art. You’ll have to read the book if you want to delve into this debate, it’s endless and subjective.
Part of my ridiculous past as a Christian was that I joined a radical pro-life organization which ran a magazine back in the late eighties to nineties. They are long since defunct after being sued into bankruptcy by Planned Parenthood. I can’t say I was as extreme as some anti-abortionists (I never did a sit in or was arrested for noncompliance), but I donated my time each week doing mundane chores and helping out where I could as well as participating in a couple of protests (yes, I was one of those nuts you see along the roadside holding a sign condemning abortionists). One of the editors of the magazine liked my cartooning, as amateurish as my skills were, and gave me a small forum in the back of the magazine to make a fool out of myself. Eventually, I was also able to write a couple of low level articles and in one instance I drew an editorial cartoon for a guest article by–you guessed it–Franky Schaeffer (as he was known at the time–he now goes by Frank instead of Franky). It’s doubtful Franky even looked at my crude squiggles as I’m sure he cranked out multiple articles and material for his books each week so for him it was nothing; for me it turned out to be a new adventure.
As a young Christian in Bible college, my opportunity to illustrate a piece for an actual book author led to more interest in Schaeffer’s writings and eventually I decided to leave ministry for art school (another restless twenty-something). To be clear, we have to separate Frank Schaeffer from his well known father Francis Schaeffer, one of the founders of the modern evangelical movement. The best way to know who Frank Schaeffer is that he is an artist, one who throughout his life has been trying to meld his faith with his creativity. The two most influential books I read by him are Sham Pearls Before Real Swine and Dancing Alone: The Quest For Orthodox Faith In The Age Of False Religion. The first was an indictment against Christians who wanted to sanitize the arts and the second was about his journey towards becoming Eastern Orthodox.
I will briefly say that the first book Sham Pearls Before Real Swine got me into some trouble with my own church as the book convinced me that any writings or comic book art on nonChristians should reflect how they actually talked and acted…in other words, they swore and I didn’t censor the words with gibberish keystrokes like you see in kids’ comics. I created an unsanitized series of underground (xeroxed editions) illustrated short stories distributed to heathen metal heads with the goal of proselytizing them (even got a mention in the letters section of a major metal magazine). This was in the early nineties. Christians are more forgiving with language now, but the idea of PG13 to R-rated Christian entertainment was an anathema to the Holy Ghost and good conservative taste at the time I was spitting these ‘zines out.
Because of the second book Dancing Alone: The Quest For Orthodox Faith In The Age Of False Religion about Schaeffer’s road to Eastern Orthodoxy, while in art school, I attempted to join the Eastern Orthodox church and failed. Admittedly, it didn’t help that I was an introvert who, while not shy, really didn’t care about socializing. All I wanted to do was practice the religion; to experience the “true church” that Frank kept telling me about in his book.
I supposed I could be accused of giving up too easily, but by the time I had attempted to enter Eastern Orthodoxy it was too late, my mind had been sparked with a new curiosity towards rational inquiry. Starting out, I practiced orthodoxy on my own for almost a year, communicating with some young monks in California who followed Father Seraphim Rose, before getting the nerve to contact the local church. Failure resulted from impatience I think. I was growing tired of reaching out with nothing or nobody reaching back. Orthodoxy was much like what I found in evangelical Christianity–people were going through the motions, the church didn’t make them a better or worse person and they didn’t act like they had “the truth”. It was all so mundane. And I could see that members of the church were personalizing and adapting the religion which was the accusation Schaeffer made against mainstream Christian denominations. There was a more structured experience overall in Eastern Orthodoxy, only it was filled with cultural and traditional barriers and being an outsider I can tell you that the outreach effort was minimal. I tried joining twice, one large church which showed no interest in me as the priest met with me once and then skipped out on our second appointment; then a second time with a smaller parish where the priest disbanded his small flock for a job opportunity in another state. I began attending a Lutheran church after my disappointment with the Eastern Orthodox church which is when I began reading heavily on skepticism, agnosticism and atheism. The Lutherans didn’t convince me of anything either as theirs was a social gospel filled with social issues (hell of a nice congregation though).
I’m sure most Christians reading this are thinking that God is not found in church–the kingdom is within you–a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (which is really your inner voice talking back to you when you pray). However, if the American church, mainstream Protestantism or nondenominationalism, is God’s church–he is a piss poor manager and the gates of hell seemed to have done damage if not ultimately prevailed. There is no united church of Christ! There are hundreds upon hundreds of competing denominations and sects and then throw in some new cults to add to the mayhem. God is god of the church of confusion and disunity.
You can believe in God, but the church is supposed to defend the true version of God and the Bible for us to worship and study. Otherwise, any god will do and if any god will do there might as well be no god because it all starts to sound made up. Which, again, when I talk to Christians, this is what I find. God somehow adapts to opinion and selfish motivation and politics and therefore any claim to truth is slowly diminished. If you say God’s truth is found in the Bible and nothing else you have the same problem as evidenced by multiple theologies and commentaries by both highly intelligent scholars and uneducated evangelists. The Bible cannot be ultimate truth if it has multiple interpretations and historical speculations. Again, this would be an author of confusion.
One night I woke up with an epiphany: God may not exist! To an atheist this isn’t anything profound, but for a Christian mind to even allow for the possibility it is life-changing. I had to sleep on that most dangerous idea…but it stuck when I woke up again and I felt like a huge burden had been lifted off my shoulders (much like the experiences described by born again Christians when taking an altar call).
I’ll dispense with any further biographical information about me, thank you for indulging me if you’ve read this far. I simply wanted to give some background as to why I have an interest in Why I Am An Atheist Who Believes In God (published in 2014, by the way) because Frank Schaeffer has obviously gone through several changes in his own beliefs over time, a shift more radical than mine considering where he started out from and who his father was. You can find him appearing on the Rachel Maddow show or writing confessionals on Salon.com about his experiences with the Christian right. I’m not sure what his views are on abortion now, but I’m sure they’ve calmed down dramatically since I last heard him rail against unborn killers in art school.
If you read the comments under the book title on Amazon you will see some low ratings by atheists who believe the book is a scam and that Frank Schaeffer is really a liberal Christian. After reading his book, I understand why. It’s a breezy read filled with anecdotes and opinions and the title subject matter never really comes to fruition as something you can grasp. Schaeffer even admits within the book that it is a self-indulgent self-publishing effort which may explain the breezy tone with disconnected thoughts. However, I would dispute that Schaeffer, based on his words, is a liberal Christian. As confusing as his premise seems to be, what I took away from the book was that Schaeffer’s god is really the arts, love and what he perceives to be beautiful.
Schaeffer does state he is not an agnostic. He believes and he doesn’t believe–at the same time which makes him both an atheist and a believer. But never in the book does he accept a literal god or a literal Bible. It’s an artist being an artist, philosophizing so that the logically minded reject him with frustration (I wonder if he does this on purpose). If given another 50 years to live and reflect he may reject his own premise in time because when god is not deemed to be literal do you really need to even use the word “believe”? The word god becomes your way of conveying what you find to be spiritually fulfilling.
Carl Sagan also used the word “god” to mean something other than a literal god. I was in his audience as a teenager because my creationist father wanted to give me a well-rounded education on unbelieving scientists. When the mic became available to ask questions, Sagan was asked by one audience member if he believed in god. Sagan obviously had been asked this question multiple times and had a well thought out answer. I wish I had the exact words, but I can only paraphrase from memory that for him god was the wonder found in the contemplation of the universe. To be clear, as I understand it, Sagan never referred to himself as an atheist because he associated the word with a confidence he could not accept. He thought of himself as an agnostic. But there is a similarity between Sagan’s god and Schaeffer’s god. A type of spirituality or wonder that is not tied to a literal deity.
There is a fair criticism to be made that Schaeffer’s disgust with the new atheists, as mentioned in his book, does mean he may lack an understanding of them and atheism in general. First of all, “New Atheism” is a media term. What the new atheists stand for, generally speaking, is not new. Their activism and success at gaining a following and freeing atheists and other unbelievers from being shamed by the majority of the public…well, that may be new due to their success. Schaeffer embraces a stereotypical idea that new atheism is cold and devoid of beauty even as he writes that science and math are beautiful. Nothing could be further from the truth. The new atheists have expounded in many different ways on “beauty” and “meaning.” Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris particularly come to mind. I just started watching Dawkins BBC series Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life which absolutely is wrestling with meaning and beauty. I’ve also found Dawkins’ books to be filled with wonder about life, the universe and how we got here. Schaeffer seems quick to denigrate authors he may want to reread if he has indeed read them at all. Though, the new atheist he criticizes by name is Daniel Dennett and therefore maybe something about Dennett’s writings have rubbed him the wrong way.
With that said, if Schaeffer wants to call himself an atheist, but still practice religion, I’m fine with that because bickering about who is a “true atheist” or a “true Christian” is one reason why I left religion behind. The word “atheist” has a basic definition of “lack of theism” and a broader definition that is branching out and still being defined. What it comes down to is Schaeffer is a type of unbeliever with a disclaimer. It’s why I have to add disclaimers when I tell people I’m an atheist because they already assume what my philosophy on life is and that I’m one of those killjoy “dicks” telling people there is no god and I know it for sure and Christians are all idiots (actually only 95% of Christians are idiots–kidding!!). What counts when Schaeffer says he is an atheist is that he doesn’t believe in a theistic worldview–a literal overlord of us all. His god is simply metaphor whether he wants to admit it or not. I don’t personally see the need for metaphor; beauty, creativity, spirituality and love stand on their own without having to be put under the umbrella of “god.” I think Schaeffer can’t let go of a vestige of his faith–the feeling of belonging to “belief.” His atheism has to be justified with a facade that I can’t buy into or maybe I’m not philosophical enough to “get it.”
It’s not uncommon to find atheists in church and there are more of them than Christians would care to know about. Unfortunately, that means there are often atheists in the closet too. By coming out with a dramatic and seemingly contradictory title, Schaeffer may actually inspire other nonbelievers to come forward. Progress for atheism could come from within the church and not an abandonment of the church. Because until atheists can replace the culture of the church with their own version, the church and its culture are not going away. As Christianity did with paganism, it may make more sense to simply take over the institutions of Christianity with rational philosophy and humanism. I think we can indulge the facade of god as metaphor as the transitional period continues.