So an Atheist Walks Into a Mission Trip

My wife doesn’t like that I call myself an atheist, but agnostic isn’t a religious preference, so I don’t like to tell people I’m an agnostic. See, agnosticism is really just a lifestyle of critical thinking and openmindedness–it says nothing in and of itself whether one believes in god or not. It’s a scientific foundation, a preference for evidence before drawing conclusions, a hesitation to take anything on blind faith. There are religious aspects to a lifestyle of agnosticism, but it is not exactly a religion.

And I think that atheism is. Yeah, I know a lot of people say that atheism is not a religion, that it’s the exact opposite, and I sympathize with the need to distance oneself from religion, especially if one has been abused with it for any length of time. But let’s just be logical and note that there are strategies for ascertaining beliefs (agnosticism vs gnosticism) and the end results of those strategies, the actual beliefs (theism vs atheism)

So if we put it on a graph, (a)gnosticism is the Y-axis, and (a)theism is the X-axis. The further to the left you go, the more you believe in higher powers. The higher up you go, the greater need for evidence before making up your mind.

I would be somewhere in the top right corner; there is no evidence suggesting that there is a god (that can’t be explained in a different way), but there is also no evidence disproving god. I’m not convinced that god exists and I’m not willing to take a leap of faith, therefore, I am an atheist.

But I try to keep an open mind and when I discuss the issue with my wife, I often think, “Well, certainly, god doesn’t have to be human, it doesn’t have to resemble us in any way and could very well defy imagination, so maybe there is a god that maintains nature in an ordered way.”

Or maybe nature is just nature and why call it god? Why do we give god these attributes of human emotion if it is not human? Why do we sometimes picture god as a giant bearded man in the sky?

I don’t believe in that god. It doesn’t make sense. For that reason, because I don’t believe in the god that most people (by my estimation) believe in, I call myself an atheist.

So I went on a mission trip to Mexico last week. My father-in-law is a Presbyterian Pastor. Everyone on the trip was Presbyterian. The churches we visited were part of the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico. There was a lot of religion in my life for that week. Some of it was frustrating, some of it was fine.

We painted a sanctuary, made friends, painted a mural, made some repairs to the old sanctuary walls, played with neighborhood kids–all in the name of god.

I’ve been at odds with myself quite a bit over the whole thing. Do I think it’s important for communities to gather together and develop bonds with one another? Yes, absolutely. Do I think that religion is the best social binder? No. Do I think god cares one way or the other that people worship it? No. Do I think that shared commonality between people keeps them closer and more likely to work together for the common good? Yes.

My main motivation for going to Mexico was to improve my conversational Spanish skills. Since I teach English to Spanish-speaking immigrants, I felt I could better serve and teach them if I could converse in their native tongue. I think I’ll improve the quality of life of my 8 or 9 students in a tangible way by improving my Spanish. I don’t think that’s selfish, even though it may have been a little misleading to my fellow mission workers who all think I’m a devout Christian.

And as far as charity goes, I think many missions are poorly planned. I think that having a bunch of unskilled laborers eating up all of the local food and slowly doing manual labor that takes work away from local laborers is probably a bad thing. However, the main point of this particular mission group is to improve relations between our countries, not to aid the poor or fix their houses (at least, as far as my experience shows). I wouldn’t be okay with mission work that hurt the local community in the name of god.

This is all to say that I had a weird week. I don’t think religious missions are the best way to build relationships, objectively speaking. Relatively speaking, they are the best option for me. I mean, what am I supposed to do on my own? Cross the border and just start making friends? Well, that’s fine and possible, but I’m just one guy and the number of people I can help with my friendship and particular skill set is finite. Having a larger organization at my disposal increases the number of lives I can touch. In a way, I am using the Presbyterian Church to further my own cause. Maybe there is a more secular solution down the road, but I don’t have that option right now.


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