March 7, 2013

Father Knows Best: Do words lose their meaning if we redefine them?

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Man kneeling down in a field to pray, via

Man kneeling down in a field to pray, via

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Jesus tells one parable after another about transgressing boundaries, about nurturing a kingdom in which we listen to and love our neighbors, irrespective of the categories which have been imposed upon them or which they have chosen for themselves. Our calling is to do the same.

by greeblie/Flickr

Dear Facebook Friend:

I’m so glad that you asked.

Maybe what that Pew survey means is that a name such as “atheist” might be the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of one.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of attending an afternoon workshop with a life coach and transgendered educator by the name of Renata Razza. Razza’s focus that afternoon was on what effective and meaningful ministry with GLBTQ people looks like. He gave my colleagues and me a big bucket of tools from which I draw on to this day. None of those tools were more valuable than a simple but profound piece of advice.

“People,” Razza told us, “are who they say they are.”

In other words, if someone tells you that he is a man, then that’s who he is. If someone tells you that she is a lesbian, then that’s who she is. It is neither helpful nor respectful to start cross-examining such a person to determine if he satisfies your criteria for maleness or if she meets your test for lesbianism. Naming is a vital act for human beings. And honoring the names which people choose for themselves is a profound and empowering act of empathy and of compassion.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that Razza’s words had big implications beyond ministry with GLBTQ folks. Walking with another person during a time of joy or change or learning or loss is made immensely easier when we err on the side of agreeing that such person is who she says she is. Now, that’s not to say that I never dispute the name which someone has chosen for themselves — to the contrary, I will gently but firmly challenge a label such as “unlovable” — but it is to say that we do well when our bias is towards respecting someone’s name or names. If a person says that she is an introvert or a conservative or a feminist or a Christian (or maybe even all of those things), then that’s who she is.

At St. John’s Cathedral in Spokane, where I serve as a pastor, there are two young people in the youth group who both identify as atheists and who pray to God with an inspiring passion and conviction. I guess I could argue with those youth. I could tell them that they aren’t really atheists. I could insist that, just like me, they are Christians who reject the often anti-intellectual, selfish and bigoted narrative of mainstream Christianity in favor of the generous love of the Gospel.

But I don’t do that. I want to respect the name that these two young people have chosen for themselves. I want to be in genuine conversation with them. They say that they are atheists. And, therefore, that’s who they are.

Jesus tells one parable after another about transgressing boundaries, about nurturing a kingdom in which we listen to and love our neighbors, irrespective of the categories which have been imposed upon them or which they have chosen for themselves. Our calling is to do the same. So, let’s not fret too much when we meet an atheist who believes in God. Instead, let’s take such a meeting as invitation into a place of generous curiosity about that person and about her story.

We may be surprised by just how much a prayerful atheist has to teach us.

Do you have a question about ethical decision making, living a faithful life or theology? Leave a comment below or send your question for Martin Elfert to

  • DVD Bach

    Can anyone cite the Pew Research study that forms the basis of this whole article? I’d like to see it.

  • Susy

    At first, what you are saying seems admirable. But by not questioning people and taking them at their word, it presupposes that the person is educated about what they are saying. Sometimes the person saying, “I am a conservative” knows nothing about conservatism, and what it really means. A few questions and one comes to find that the views they are espousing are, in fact, not very conservative at all. Secondly, the words that, like yourself, Christians often reject the “often anti intellectual, selfish and bigoted” narrative of mainstream Chtistianity. WHAT! A little bit of a broad brush? Ever heard of Thomas Aquinas? St. Augustine? The Early Church Fathers? Even some of the founders of Protestant Christianity like Luther or Calvin? We need to get back to the basics of what REAL Christianity is and what it really teaches, and has taught for 2000 years.

  • David Smith

    Pew Report in question can be found at:

    Mr. Elfert misread it. 32% are not atheist and do not claim belief in God or a universal spirit. The rise in numbers (actually 20%) is among the so called “nones.” This group includes atheists but also is an umbrella term for agnostics and theists who do not have a specific faith affiliation. In otherwords the group does include theists but theists who have not aligned themselves with a specific religious belief system. The 32% number is specific to the 18-29 age group.

  • DVD Bach

    A Christian misrepresenting information on atheists? Who would have thought…

  • David Smith

    To be fair, I don’t know that he “misrepresented” it. It could be a matter of not paying attention to what he read. He may not have actually read it all but relied on second hand information. Then, again he may have intentionally distorted it. I don’t know. I just wanted to point out the inaccurate information.

  • DVD Bach

    You’re absolutely right. We’ll know he simply made an error just as soon as he apologizes for it and publishes a retraction.

  • Martin Elfert

    Hi David and DVD Bach!

    I am assuming that the stat to which the person who posted this question on Facebook was referring is the one found on Page 48 of Pew’s “‘Nones’ on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation.” In the paragraph entitled “Belief in God,” the survey says that, “…about four-in-ten atheists and agnostics (including 14% of atheists and 56% of agnostics) say they believe in God or a universal spirit.” The more specific number (38%) is found in the column beside that paragraph.



  • DVD Bach

    Excellent; thank you for the citation. However, you are still misrepresenting the numbers, since your post addresses only atheists, for which that number is 14% rather than 38%.