Needless to say, in the world of “religion” there is no greater philosophical oil-water or perhaps gasoline-fire combination than atheists and believers. Sadly, there are indeed often violent conflicts between one faith tradition and another (to which my atheist friends would rightly question, “And you say religious belief is a force for good?” Good point.) But, if all we believers in God would get our heads together and wake up, we’d see that in fact we all do have something incredibly great in common: God! I think God would pass as a greatest common denominator on any scale, don’t you think?
But I digress… just slightly.
In my little world of experience, atheists and in particular Christians tend to stand at strong odds with one another. Their conversation goes something like this:
Atheist: There is no such thing.
Christian: How can you possibly believe there is no God? Have you no heart? Have you no eyes to see all the evidences of God in nature and in everyday life?
Atheist: How can you possibly say there is a god? There’s no ontological proof for the existence of a deity. I see nothing but chaos and disorder within nature and in the world, certainly nothing that suggests a supreme omnipotence. Use your brain! Use reason! Then you’d see there’s nothing supernatural out there at all.
Christian: Oh yeah? Well, you’re a hard-hearted sinner who has simply blinded yourself to the truth. If you’d only open your heart and mind, you’d see there is a God.
Atheist: Oh yeah? Well you’re a delusional simpleton for believing in all these fairy-tale stories and myths that the best of science, history and reason has already debunked.
Christian: (with an angry glint and gnashed teeth) Sinner! Reprobate! One day you’ll find out in the fires of hell that there is a God, but it will be too late!!
Atheist: (with long sigh, and a gentle pat on the Christian’s head) There now, you just keep on taking that la-la land opiate if if makes you feel better. Some people still believe in Santa, you know?
Feel free to add your own variations on the theme, but I think you catch my drift. In all their differences, there tends to be at least one thing that Christians and atheists typically have in common: they both view the other with intellectual and moral condescension flavored by a strong degree of incredulity that cannot understand the mere existence of the other.
I have to say that I’ve had my negative encounters with atheists that have led me down this same path. There was even a period of time in which I declined to discuss faith or philosophy with atheists because of their belief that my dearest, deepest held convictions are based in some kind of God-delusion. That angered me to no end. Admittedly, at times I still get irritated by this, but as you can see by this post’s title, much has changed in my attitude.
What greatly helped me have been encounters I’ve had this past year with a few atheists who have been refreshingly open and humble and who also exercised an uncanny level of patience with me and the dumb things I tend to say from time to time. Dare I say– especially to them!– that they have been gifts from God? Why not! As the old doxology says, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” (emphasis mine).
In my ongoing conversations with these new found atheist friends, I have seen something I was not able to appreciate before: often the things that propel atheists away from religion and religious institutions are the attitudes, values, inconsistencies, hypocrisy, and often the hateful things said and done towards other people in the name of a loving God. For example:
- How can we say we love and embrace all people while excluding and belittling other people groups, especially our gay and lesbian neighbors?
- How can we claim to be intellectuals when many Christians thumb a nose at science, textual and historical criticism?
- How can we claim to be good stewards of the earth when our lifestyles and voting tendencies further our planet’s corruption?
- How can we claim to be humble and loving when we’re quick to become closed and condescending towards those who disagree with us?
- How can we claim there is a God when our lives more closely resemble a functional atheism?
All of these are excellent questions which call fellow Christians and myself to serious account. In other words, most of the strong objections that non-believers have to our current manifestation of Christianity are things, which if taken seriously, would make all of us, myself included, more authentic disciples of Jesus.
Now my atheist friends have had enough courtesy and everyday respect to avoid opening up both barrels on me with these questions. (That’s a far cry from many a Christian who lick their chops over any opportunity to blast a non-believer into holy submission.) But the gist of their faith-roadblocks have steadily come up in our conversations, well enough to get my attention and challenge me to become a more authentic Christian.
And I saw something else that I might have ordinarily missed. My atheist friends are truly beautiful people who strive hard to be moral, good, and giving. (I would say this is the grace and goodness of God working in and through them. They might reply, “Whatever!”)
But nevertheless, rarely have I found gifts from God as precious and surprising that I would end up thanking God for the gift of atheists in my life, for the way they challenge me to reason more clearly, to think and rethink some unquestioned assumptions, for the purely intrinsic ways they have encouraged, supported, and befriended me, and for showing me yet another way God’s graceful presence does indeed inhabit the most unlikely people and places, acknowledged or not.
One concluding question: Do I desire for my atheist friends to become fellow disciples of Jesus with me? Absolutely I do! I want anyone to share the greatest, life-giving blessing of Jesus I have ever known. But let’s be clear: inviting an atheist (or anyone else, for that matter) to become a fellow believer and disciple is never ever motivated by adding another name and number to the convert list or claiming a prize scalp to put under my belt. I don’t work for a Christian Borg.
I will, however, always try to open up my life as far as I can in hopes of having something there of Christ worth giving, sharing and having by another human being, no matter what they believe or don’t believe. At the very least (and most!), I will attempt to love and serve like Jesus. And yes, I can always count on my atheist friends to tell me how I’m progressing… Lord, bless them and keep them always for that!