Jesus has the power to change lives. At one time, Jesus wrought change in my life, as he has for millions of American Evangelical Christians. Having spent 50 years in the Christian church, and 25 years as an Evangelical pastor, I witnessed first-hand the mighty power of the life-changing Jesus. I know of many alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, murderers, and thieves who are now exemplary citizens due to Jesus and his ability to change and transform lives. I know of a family member who, thanks to the Jesus, is now out of jail and no longer on drugs. Recently, this family member was baptized and he is now a faithful member of Crossroads Baptist Church, (link no longer active) a Southern Baptist church in Newark, Ohio. If “knowing” Jesus causes my nephew to stay off drugs, all praise and glory to the mythic powers of the son of God.
Those of us who were once card-carrying members of Club Jesus™ know firsthand the transformative powers of Jesus. While we are now atheists and agnostics, we cannot deny the fact that religion does have the power to transform substance abusers and criminals into model citizens. Wait a minute, Bruce. I thought atheists deny the existence of the Christian God? Correct. Here’s the thing that most atheists and Evangelicals fail to understand: the transformative powers of Jesus have nothing to do with whether Jesus is who Evangelicals and the Bible claim he is. Myths and stories can and do have great power to effect change. Politicians and preachers alike understand this, using myths and stories to bring about political, religious, social, and personal change.
American history is littered with stories about how sermons from a mythical book about a mythical God and his son Jesus produced great change. That this change was brought to be by belief in a mythical God is immaterial. All that is required is that people believe the myth to be true. This is why the mythic Jesus and his miracle-working supernatural power is still a powerful force in America. Substance abusers go to church, hear about the wonder-working power of Jesus, make a decision to turn their lives over to him, and their lives are transformed. While many “saved” substance abusers will return to their addictions, some do find lasting deliverance from their demons.
How then, should atheists respond to such stories? Perhaps we need to determine what is more important: destroying the myths or seeing lives put back on the right track. Take Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a program devoted to helping substance abusers get clean. AA’s appeal to a “higher power” drives many atheists nuts. Pointing to AA’s group and accountability dynamics, atheists rightly say that a “higher power” has nothing to with substance abusers kicking their habits. Fine, but participants “believe” God is helping them to work the program, to take another step forward in their continued sobriety. Are programs such as AA a crutch? Sure, but all of us, now and then, need crutches to helps us walk.
Should we ridicule and demean those who find help and support from religiously oriented institutions and programs? Isn’t the ultimate goal the betterment of society? Yes, I wish people could find help without getting entangled in the mind-numbing web of Evangelical Christianity. I wish my nephew and others like him could find help for their addictions without having to turn to Jesus and his emissaries on earth. But wishing changes nothing. Christianity still gives life, purpose, and meaning to a majority of Americans, and atheists such as I need to accept this. Until secularists, humanists, and non-Evangelical Christians can provide comprehensive help to people struggling with addictions, addicts have little choice but to turn to religiously-oriented programs. It matters not whether Jesus is who Christians claim he is. Addicts want and need help, and Jesus is ready and waiting to help them. If non-Christians want things to be different, then we must be willing to invest our time and money in developing “ministries” to help those in need. While good work is being done of this front, we are likely several lifetimes away from the day when the miracle-working Jesus is returned to his grave.
One of my sons had a substance abuse problem, one that resulted in him stealing medicine from his father. I am proud to say that my son has been drug-free for a number of years. If religion played a part in restoring him to mental and physical wholeness, so be it. All I care about is that his life is back on track and he is a happily married and father to four awesome girls. He is gainfully employed and our once-fractured relationship is now restored. While he himself finds it frustrating to attend group meetings where Bible-thumpers remind him that the only reason he is clean is Jesus, he has no other option. While my son attends the Catholic church with his family and is a spiritual person, he no longer believes in the Evangelical version of God.
The nephew I mentioned earlier? I hope that he finds Jesus to be the addiction counselor that sticks closer to him than a brother. All that matters to me is that he finds mental and physical deliverance from methamphetamine. He has been down the Jesus path before, having made numerous professions of faith and rededications at the family church, the Newark Baptist Temple. None of these previous attempts worked, and in time my nephew found himself back in the gutter, homeless or in jail, losing countless jobs and destroying his relationships with family members in the process. I know that if he continues on this path it will only lead to continued misery and heartache, and likely result in incarceration and early death. If Jesus can help him break free of his addictions and turn him into a productive citizen, count me as one atheist who will say AMEN.