Local author Frank Schaeffer will present his newest book “Patience with God, Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism),” a provocative challenge to atheists and fundamentalists alike, tonight at 7 at Jabberwocky Bookshop, the Tannery, 50 Water St., Newburyport.
Salisbury’s Frank Schaeffer grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home and lived to tell the tale.
A former member of the Christian right and a lifelong Republican who now wholeheartedly supports President Barack Obama, Schaffer, a New York Times best-selling author, has written several novels about his religious roots as well as his 2007 memoir, “Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back.”
Through his writing and talks, Schaeffer offers an insider’s account of the religious right that’s both devastating and hilarious. He describes fundamentalists and evangelicals as dangerous, adding they have a deep mistrust of fact and a troubling tendency to root for Armageddon.
But that doesn’t mean Schaeffer has leap-frogged to the other end of the spectrum. In fact, he has some big complaints with the New Atheists, a group of best-selling authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, whose books have drawn and quartered organized religion and touted science as the source of all truth and light.
In his new book, “Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism),” Schaeffer takes a hard look at the new atheists and concludes they are guilty of trafficking in the same zealous declarations of absolutes as the religious fundamentalist they so like to ridicule. For Schaeffer, the real conversation about faith and spirituality needs to take place somewhere way back in the middle of both camps.
Schaeffer shares his stories and views and invites local readers into his ongoing conversation about faith this Friday, Nov. 20, at 7 p.m. at a reading and book signing at Jabberwocky.
“My writing has smoked out so many individuals who seem to be thinking about the same questions,” says Schaeffer. “I hope that this book will provide a meeting place for us, the scattered refugees of what I'll call The Church of Hopeful Uncertainty.”
Growing up with God
Those familiar with Schaeffer and his earlier books know he wasn’t always a member of that church. Much of his youth was spent in Switzerland at L’Abi, a Christian ministry founded by his parents, Francis and Edith Schaeffer. Both critics and friends have credited Francis Schaeffer, a Presbyterian minister and Christian thinker, with laying the groundwork for today’s religious right.
Schaeffer says one of his biggest mistakes was giving up a promising career as an artist to devote himself to the business of religion. He says he became his parents’ sidekick and then, eventually, a leader himself on the “big-time evangelical/fundamentalist circuit.”
By the early ‘80s, Schaeffer was a regular guest star on the 700 Club and was even invited to preach from Jerry Falwell’s pulpit. And he started developing relationships with big-name members of the Republican Party. It was heady, ego-driven stuff, and the money was good.
But gradually, Schaeffer started to question himself and his choices. He says part of it was a matter of taste. His religious and political friends didn’t like art, or film or literature – all things he highly valued.
However, the real divide came when Schaeffer started to acknowledge some of the basic problems with fundamentalism.
“I discovered I was part of an anti-American crusade based on lies. Bad news was good news to us. If things went wrong for America it “proved” we were right,” he recalls. And when he returned to the United States to live as an adult in 1980, he discovered it wasn’t this declining evil place he and others in the movement were saying it was.
Looking back, Schaeffer says he’s grateful he got out in time to make another life for himself as a writer. But he also says he feels a sense of shame about certain aspects of his past.
“For instance, when I see the hate leveled at Barack Obama, I know we helped build the army of willful ignorance that shouts that he isn’t a ‘Real American’ or is the ‘Antichrist’ and all that nonsense,” he says. “We were the ones who started comparing Americans to the Nazis because of legal abortion, and now that’s something you hear spoken about the President.”
Schaeffer has since become one of the most relentless critics of the religious right and particularly of the movement’s political involvement. He now refers to fundamentalists as our “national village idiots” and says they have seduced millions of Americans into believing lies, like Obama is a closet Muslim who wants women to have more abortions; gays are secretly plotting to take over America; national healthcare is communism; and immigrants are the enemy.
But in his new book, “Patience with God,” Schaeffer also takes aim at a different target - the New Atheists, a group of writers and thinkers that a lot of readers may have assumed had his approval and sympathy. They don’t.
For Schaeffer, it’s not so much what the atheists say about faith, it’s more the way they say it. There’s no question that they are insulting. Dawkins, a British biological theorist and author of the 2006 bestseller, “The God Delusion,” calls religion a “mind virus” and has said, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.”
Schaeffer points out that Daniel Dennett, a professor of philosophy at Tufts and author of “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,” calls the New Atheists “The Brights” and refers to atheism as “the bright movement.” The implication being, of course, that everyone else is left wallowing in the darkness.
But one of the writers who has raised even deeper concern for Schaeffer is Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and the author of the bestseller, “The End of Faith.” According to Schaeffer, Harris has said there are some people whose beliefs are so dangerous, they ought to be killed.
For Schaeffer, the New Atheists turned the corner when they went from regular snark-fueled condescension to an approach similar to that used by evangelicals.
“Not only are they saying the people who don’t agree with them are wrong, they are also saying they are idiots and possibly dangerous,” says Schaeffer.
Schaeffer says his definition of fundamentalism, religious or otherwise, is the impulse to find absolute truths and shut down the question-asking part of one’s brain.
“Fundamentalists reject both Christian humility and post-modern paradox,” he says. “The New Atheists and the religious fundamentalists do and say things the same way - they just use different catch phrases.”
Schaeffer is also highly critical of the New Atheists’ weakness for merchandising. Bestselling books are one thing, but T-shirts, tote bags and coffee mugs with a big scarlet A for atheist or the letters RDF for the Richard Dawkins Foundation are way over the top.
“Go to his Web site and you could be looking at any flake egomaniac televangelist minus,” says Schaeffer.
Schaeffer does say that, while the New Atheists and the religious right share a lot in common, the latter is ultimately more dangerous. Not only do their numbers exceed the New Atheists’ wildest marketing strategies, the religious right has also burrowed right into the heart of the Republican Party – a political organization that Schaeffer says would no longer be recognizable to conservatives like William F. Buckley, who brought plenty of intelligence and wit into the red vs. blue fray.
Still, Schaeffer has had enough of both the New Atheists and the religious right, and for him the better place is what he calls, the Church of Hopeful Uncertainty.
For Schaeffer, that’s the place where people are aware we are a young evolving species and no one has access to the truth.
Schaeffer is still a Christian, despite his background, and he attends the Greek Orthodox Church in Newburyport. He suggests that we may want to live our lives tempered by the example of Jesus, not so much the messiah but rather Jesus the wisdom teacher who preached love and tolerance and urged followers to be responsible for one another.
Schaeffer says that, nowadays, he steers clear of grand theories on religion and faith, and instead feels the presence of God in smaller things, like his relationship with his granddaughter, Lucy. Schaeffer suggests that anyone looking for God or answers is more likely to find them in love rather than doctrine.
“And whatever solutions we embrace had better be on a human scale and reflect something of the paradoxes we encounter in real life,” he says.