How I Sent an Atheist to Church

And in all fairness to my atheist friend, this could also be titled, “How an Atheist Influenced a Church to Action”, but since I’m the author… well, you know. Now for the story!

Over the last couple of years, through blogging and Facebook, I’ve been enjoying a friendship with an atheist who lives in California. It’s been one of the most unexpected kinds of friendships, one that’s had its fair share of hot debates, as you can imagine. But also we’ve been able to nurture and respect one another, too.

Let’s be honest. Believers and atheists can get along… except when it comes to religion. It stems from the fact that each looks at the belief system of the other with sheer incredulity. It’s like this. The believer asks, “How can you be so blind to not see all the evidence of God? Are you that hard-hearted?” And the atheist asks, “How can you be so blind to all the evidence that crushes your fairy tale myths? Are you that dim-witted?” And on it goes.

I don’t know what my atheist friend might have garnered from me over these last couple of years, but speaking for myself, I have learned so many valuable things from him. If you listen to atheists and agnostics, they often level heavy critiques of religion and religious organizations that quite frankly ought to be just as alarming to religious people. If there’s an inconsistency, hypocrisy, a theological disparity, insincerity, or a failure to live up to what we say, they’re going to spot it a mile off and make some noise about it.

In that way, atheists and agnostics provide a healthy mirror for me. It’s challenging. I don’t always like or agree with what they point out. But I’d be a fool, and an arrogant fool at that, not to listen without being defensive.

So, in my recent conversations with my atheist friend, we got to talking about the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shootings. He was deeply upset that Christians only appeared to be praying and encouraging people to pray instead of getting up to do something about this tragedy. That’s a fair critique. I have seen believers get way too stuck in piety while avoiding the call to step up and serve in Christ’s name. As the biblical prophet Micah reminds us:

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:7-8)

My friend and I went back and forth on this for a bit, as we always do, and that’s when things got interesting. It was the Saturday after the shootings.

My friend put a challenge to me. He told me that if I would motivate my congregation to do something for the Sandy Hook school community, more than just pray, he would do some kind of religious practice of my choice: read a religious book, say prayers, or go to church. I told him, you’re on.

I scrambled, but on that Sunday morning, we did indeed pray for the Newtown community. And then, at my friend’s strong encouragement, we distributed consolation and Christmas cards, encouraging my congregation to write a note of sympathy to someone from the Newtown community. All in all, we collected 108 cards and have since then shipped them off to Sandy Hook Elementary School. This was due in large part to the healthy challenge my atheist friend gave my church and me.

He was right. We needed to do more than just pray. We needed to embody the mercy, healing, and presence of God that we prayed for, allowing for God to work through us to become part of the answer to our own prayers. (It goes without saying that the theological import of that last phrase is mine, not his. My atheist friend would probably just say, “Get off your holy butts and do something!” Fair enough.)
Glide Memorial Church

Well, a bargain is a bargain, so I asked my friend to choose a church of his choice and visit there on a Sunday. Afterwards, I’m looking forward to a reflection from him on his experience. I have no idea what God will do with this in his life. That’s up to God and up to my friend. I’m trusting in God’s goodness and loving faithfulness to make the difference, but again, that’s between them.

I’d like to think that believers and atheists can actually help each other. I know that atheists can help believers be more “gospel”, more true to who and what we say we are and believe. Can believers help atheists to see the reality of God? I’d like to hope so. Jesus has some practical instruction on that:

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

Notice that it’s good deeds, not good words that bring praise to God. It’s an authentic life well-lived that shines, not religiosity. Perhaps that’s what will bring believers and atheists together into one peaceable kingdom.


Filed under Atheist and Agnostics, Church Culture and Leadership

20 Responses to How I Sent an Atheist to Church

  1. Edmund Mettheny

    I look forward to holding up my end of the bargain.

  2. Just happened upon this post because it showed up in my reader (atheism tag). I think all atheist should go to churches once in a while. Very education at times and will help us realize that not all religious people despise atheists. I happen to visit many varieties of churches, synagogs, mosques, temples, etc., because I’m fascinated by religion. One thing I’ve learned, especially from traveling abroad, is that people are essentially exactly the same, just trying to live their lives.
    I’m glad you correspond with an atheist; many religious people won’t, as I’m sure you know.

  3. Kenneth Woodhouse

    It’s funny how the Atheist insists that Christians do something for the Sandy Hook Community but seems to have no similar intention himself. He’s gonna read a book lol.

    • Edmund Mettheny

      Am I sensing a little hostility there?
      I have, in fact, done my part for the folks of Newtown. And my wife (also an atheist) is working on some art to donate.
      Also, I read books quite often lol.

      • Kenneth Woodhouse

        Nope, no hostility intended. I apologize if my remark was seen as such. I’ve just noticed that many atheists seem to have incredibly high standards for Christians yet don’t hold themselves to that same standard. Christians have a realization that we are broken people who need more than our own willpower and intellectual understanding to stay on the straight and narrow. We recognize that we are not God (not saying you think you are!).I think that is a distinct advantage in trying to wade through the world we live in. Are we any better than Atheists? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Anyway, I agree with Pastor Owens and congratulate you on your willingness to get into a conversation on these ideas. Congrats to Pastor Owens for doing so as well. All the best to both of you this Christmas season 🙂
        P.S. I love reading books too…way to in my head sometimes lol.

        • Edmund Mettheny

          OK then – my apology for an overly aggressive response.
          I don’t believe that Christians (or Jews or Muslims or Hindus) are bad people. They all certainly have some beliefs that I disagree with, but in general it isn’t the belief itself that really sets my teeth on edge, but rather some of the ways that belief is interpreted. As a rather extreme example I have no beef with Christians believing that prayer is a good thing, but I do have a beef with Christians denying their children medical care in favor of prayer-based healing. I also think that Christians, as the majority religious group in the United States, often take their own point of view for granted, and overestimate the good things about their religious beliefs and practices, while underestimating the negative aspects of it, particularly regarding minority views differing from their own.
          In my own life and writings I pick on religions a lot, but my intent in doing so is to provide a counter-view to the unremittingly positive self-view that most religions have. I don’t believe that having a positive self-view is necessarily a bad thing, but it does sometimes go so fr as to become self-aggrandizement, and hinders growth and necessary change.
          I don’t think that I said this in my article (and I should revise it in order to add this thought) but one of the big things that I learned from this whole thing is that I am not immune from such self-aggrandizement myself. Whatever the reasons why I do what I do, and for the stances I take publicly about religion, I need to have a care to be open to looking at the other side of things myself. I cannot get so caught up in my critiques that I blind myself to the many good people who practice religion in all its many forms, nor to the good things that they do. While religious belief, like everything else, should be subjected to a critical analysis, the good parts cannot be ignored just to find the bad – that makes for a skewed viewpoint and poor thinking.
          Have a nice Christmas, and thanks for writing back!

    • Kenneth, in all respect, this was an honest exchange, a way for two people to challenge each other and grow. And also I know how very difficult it is for someone like my friend to venture into something he has consciously rejected. That was a significant thing he did. And hey, the world is now a better place because two people challenged each other. I’m grateful for what I did and what he did.

  4. Edmund Mettheny

    So, I went to Glide today. It was a nice experience. More on my blog soon!

  5. Pingback: How an Atheist Influenced a Church to Action « TWO SHE-BEARS

  6. Kenneth Woodhouse

    I’m with you Ed lol! I just stopped believing that I’d find the perfect faith that believed everything that I did and would have all perfect people involved in it. Look at the Disciples, Jesus picked a bunch of losers! Throughout the Bible God selects people for his work that we never would. Moses was a murderer, Noah was a drunk…and the list goes on and on.. . Anyway, enough of my babbling on Pastor Owens blog, here’s a sermon you might enjoy reading, I just came across it myself, by Shane Claiborne. You might find it of interest. Take care.

  7. Kenneth Woodhouse

    OK, last comment…I promise lol ! When I first felt the Lord leading me to re-examine faith I went to Evangelical churches. I’d been raised in a Liberal church and was just waiting to hear sermons condemning gays, sin, sex and everything else. If that happened, I could hit the door! But what I heard was quite different. The first service I attended the Pastor’s sermon was on doubt. He said “Give me a doubter any day, a doubter actually cares about what is true” at another conservative church I heard “People ask why I don’t do more fire and brimstone sermons. Well, when I sit down to write a sermon I think about who I’m going to be talking to. I think about the person who may have just lost a marriage, or lost a loved one or is dealing with severe illness and I ask myself ‘what does that person need to hear’ I think what they need to hear is about a God that loves them and that’s what I choose to preach” OMG, I was stunned by this stuff! When I attended Liberal churches frequently I would hear hostile remarks in sermons and general discussion about the “born againers” . It’s funny, my experience was that the Liberal churches were far more condemning and smug than the conservative ones. Interesting to note. OK, I’m done…for sure lol.

    • Jim

      Lying about god being real, to intelligent people will always make some atheists annoyed.
      It’s a pity that theists can’t tell the truth and have bought into their own lies. They dress up their lies with stories and try to appear normal and authoritative. Truthfully, atheists realise that you suffer from this illness of deceit.
      Atheists are simply waiting for theists to grow up and start admitting that they lied about god. Meanwhile, theists will continue to play word games and point their naive fingers at atheists who have all he facts on their side.

  8. Pingback: Churched « The Reef

  9. Jim

    Instead of complaining about atheists being right, having exposed the fraud of religion. Pastors should concentrate on training and education, that way, they can get real jobs, when society wakes up and realises that lying about a god that isn’t real is no way to help society get better.
    When theists get enough courage to prove their stories instead of misleading and misdirecting ( ie cheating and lying) people with songs and church-theatre to try to brainwash them towards religious ignorance. Then this group can regain trust.
    Instead of writing essays, why not just prove your god?
    This question is always offensive to theists because they know they have no proof and are lying. Cue more stories and excuses from the liars with no evidence of god…

    • I’m going to go against my better judgment here about not feeding the trolls and just say this: even if I were to make the most compelling, imperially-based evidence for God, you would still say I was lying. So, if it makes you happier to think of me as a liar, deceiver, manipulator, or just an intellectual dolt, go right ahead. It seems as if the trolls prefer that to reality. Blessings on you!

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