How Atheists Have Helped Me Become a More Authentic Christian

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:

Christian: I believe in God.

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!


Filed under Atheist and Agnostics, Church Culture and Leadership, Spiritual Growth and Practice

10 Responses to How Atheists Have Helped Me Become a More Authentic Christian

  1. As an atheist, I have been engaging close theist friends in all sorts of discussions and debates about every topic you might imagine. All of this in an effort to understand what makes a theist remain a theist. One of the odd results is that these friends appear to genuinely want me to find salvation in Jesus, and they are going to good measure in their attempts.
    I don’t blame them, but I do wonder what it is they expect me to do? What I have told them, many times I might add, is that I will not be dishonest about this topic, and my successes and failures in attempts to connect with God. And let’s face it, if God is real, we can no more fake a relationship than we could build our own universe, now can we!
    No matter how sincere I am, or what lengths I might go to in considering the reality of God, I refuse to step forward some day and simply proclaim my personal belief, or even faith, unless it is absolutely genuine. And so far, it has not happened for me. Of course, this leaves me wondering in all sorts of ways. But many Christians will simply remind me that I must be doing something wrong. Well, that’s possible, but it still doesn’t make much sense when there appears to be no wrong or right way for so many whose testimony is certainly not identical in how they found God.
    I, along with most of my atheist friends in person, and online, want one thing. We want people to understand that not everyone believes in a god, and that should not be something so horrible that Christians, for example, get up in arms and actually angry about. Sure, there are those people who go out of their way to make fun of religion, but I know very few atheists who want to completely rid the world of gods. They just want the believers to stop pounding everyone into the ground for not believing.
    If I stand side-by-side with a “good Christian man”, I can guarantee that you will not be able to tell that I am atheist, until you get to the final question, do you believe in God. Up to that point, I challenge anyone to show me a single thing that identifies me as less than any Christian, or pastor, priest, holy man, all the way up the ladder of the most holy humans alive, or ever alive. I am a human being, and you will never be able to single me out. In fact, all believers are currently surrounded by atheists in their everyday lives, and they are largely unaware.
    That is how it should be, because God or no God, we are all in this together, and I can’t think of a better way to make it enjoyable than to stop treating non-believers like second class citizens. We deserve better, and each Christian must certainly be well aware that Jesus shunned no one, for any reason.

    • Hi Jetson- It’s great to hear from you again! Obviously, I can’t speak for your Christian friends as to their motives. Christians share their faith with others for all kinds of reasons, as you know– some more sincere and authentic than others. I have to admit, Jetson, I’ve been guilty of the worst sort of motives in the past!
      For me, it comes down to wanting to share something incredibly wonderful, powerful and good that has changed and continues to change my life for the good. If you say, “No thank you!”, sure I’ll be disappointed, but it doesn’t stop me from loving and respecting you for who you are. Also, for me, sharing one’s faith is the equivalent of sharing their life, not just words or a doctrine I’m asking you to assent to. There’s a time for telling the story of the good news of Jesus, but how and when is critically important, too. Often, Christians lack basic tact and respect when it comes to this.
      Also, Jetson, I think you hit on something when you said that believers and atheists often don’t take the time to understand why we believe (or don’t) they way we do. I think that can be just as important, if not more, than what we believe.
      Thanks for reading and leaving a thoughtful comment, Jetson!!

    • Edmund Metheny

      Nicely said Jetson!

    • Just re-reading your reply, Jetson, you say some very valuable things. You might want to read my comment/response to Edmund, which affirms what you both are saying.

  2. Noel

    Hello Chris. Your post caught my attention because the topic of atheism interests me. I have a similar point of view. I used to believe that we as Christians have an obligation to convert everyone, particularly atheists. I don’t think like that anymore. My actions as a follower of Jesus should be enough to let the Atheist know that believing in God is worth it. Jesus taught us to live the Kingdom of Heaven by serving others unconditionally, and this is including homosexuals, criminals, abortionists, people of other religions, and atheists, to list a few. Jesus ate with sinners and he was criticized. Jesus healed the servant of a Roman. Jesus forgave a prostitute. For us to do the same would simply be following His steps. My job is not to convince anyone that Jesus is Lord, but that my actions should reflect Jesus. You may visit my blog and read the post titled “Why I am not an Atheist” for more thoughts on this subject. I look forward reading more from your blog. God Bless.

  3. Edmund Metheny

    Hello Chris!
    A lovely entry indeed!
    As my thoughts largely mirror Jetson’s, I’m afraid that I am left with little of substance to contribute. But as usual that won’t stop me. Since I like writing dialogue, I thought I would take a stab at rewriting your conversation –
    Christian: I believe in God.
    Atheist: I don’t.
    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: I think the universe is a beautiful place – and far grander than your religion often gives it credit for. Look at our galaxy, just as an example – upwards of 20 billion stars, all moving in a complex ballet governed by the laws of physics. And our galaxy is just a minuscule part of the universe as a whole! It is a wondrous thing, but there is no real indication that it was made by any sort of intelligence, let alone one that resembles the Christian idea of God.
    Christian: But doesn’t creation imply a creator?
    Atheist: No.
    Christian: No?
    Atheist: No.
    Christian: Oh.
    (Pause – Christian wonders whether God’s commandment to spread the word requires him to argue the point. Atheist wonders if he’s about to be punched in the head with scripture bellowed at top volume.)
    Christian: want to come to my church?
    Atheist: why would I want to do a thing like that?
    Christian: we’re having a big fund-raising event this week to buy toys for children in local shelters for Christmas.
    Atheist: hey, I can get into that! What time?
    You mentioned towards the beginning of the post that believers of many different religions all share a common belief in God. I’d like to pick up on that idea of commonality, and assert that Christians and atheists share views of morality, kindness towards others, generosity, and making the world a better place that are far closer and more easily reconciled than the Christian view of God can be reconciled with the Hindu view of God. Robert Ingersoll and Jesus shared very similar views of the world and how to make it better.

    • Edmund, as always, thank you for such a thoughtful reply! There are several things here I want to affirm.
      First, I think you’re right that Christians can undervalue and fail to awe at the vastness and power of the universe. As a corrective, I like to pray the creation Psalms as I look at pictures from the Hubble telescope or learn about the latest facts and figure of the expanse/dimmensions of space.
      Second, I very much affirm that often we Christians overlook the commonality of virtues and basic human goodness/decency we share with our atheist/agnostic/otherwise religiously unaffiliated friends. I would also say that folks like you have an edge over many “religious” folk in that your motivations (at their best) are purely intrinsic, and not motivated by any thought of appeasing or pleasing a deity. Now, Christians at their best don’t have that as their basic motive for goodness, either. It’s more about emulating the goodness of God or being the love and presence of God, not appeasing or pleasing. But again, I’m always amazed at how few of us understand that.

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