Tag Archives: atheist

Pastor Appreciation from Atheists

The month of October was “Pastor Appreciation Month”. As the title suggests, it’s a month designated to thank and honor pastors and clergy who have had an impact on our lives. Some years, I’ve received touching notes and cards from parishioners. Other times, the church would put on a potluck supper in my honor. Then there were some years in which October came and went with very little. That never bothered me, really. I don’t anxiously sit around waiting to be accoladed and thanked.

This year, however, I received two notes of appreciation from some friends of mine. They are not my parishioners. In fact, they are no one’s parishioners. That’s because they are atheists. Here’s what they wrote:

I understand that October is Pastor/Clergy Appreciation Month. To be honest, I don’t particularly appreciate clergy in general, since I’m essentially opposed to organized religion. However, I want to make exceptions for clergy members who make an effort to help people here on Earth and not just in a supposed afterlife, and who try to lead by example rather than just mouthing the words. Shout-out to our friend Chris Owens–we may not always agree, but I appreciate his honest efforts to see the other side’s perspective.

I also got this one from another atheist friend:

Dear Chris,

Thank you for being my friend and my internet pastor. Knowing you and talking with you has meant a great deal to me – even when we disagree, I always feel I learn something from you, and for all those times we turn out to agree (which is delightfully more often than I feared) it gives me a wonderful sense of perspective about the Christian community today which I find is lacking among many atheists, and broadens my world view greatly.

You are, indeed, an individual very worthy to hold the title of “pastor” and you bear the mantle of responsibility, authority, and vulnerability well – better than many I know who hold that title.

Wow… I was deeply touched and humbled by these words. It’s one thing for a church member to say these things. But for people who are not members of my faith community- folks who do not believe in God and reject organized religion!- to affirm my ministry and me that way, it resulted in one of those rare moments of beautiful pause.

Now some Christians may scoff at any pastor who gets a warm response from atheists. Perhaps I’m compromising myself. After all, I should be preaching the truth boldly, without compromise or apology, especially to unbelievers. Of course, this thinking assumes that part of my job is to offend and alienate people who don’t agree with me. Whatever… There are enough Christian jerks out there who spout off their truths and slam people who don’t see God and the world like they do. I refuse to be one of them, even as I have my differences with people who think and see differently than me.
BridgesMaturing as a Christian has led me to the great value of connecting with people who aren’t like me. It’s a wonderful gift in my life, actually. I learn a lot. I see whole other perspectives which help me to understand how people think and why they think that way. After all, I can’t be a good pastor who effectively shepherds and teaches the good news of Jesus without that. More importantly, I’ve found the gift of loving and being loved by people who would most likely never be my church congregants. Those human to human contacts in which I see the face of God in people, especially those don’t acknowledge God’s existence, is a priceless treasure which draws me closer to Jesus and closer to them. That alone is a precious gift.

So to my friends, Ed and Sophie and the many others I have friendships with who are not Christians or even theists, thank you for being a hallowed treasure in my life. Thank you for the things you teach me, for challenging me, for helping me to think more critically, carefully, and with increased sensitivity and awareness. And thank you for loving and at times forgiving me. You’ve made me a better person, disciple of Jesus, and pastor. You are also much, much appreciated.


Filed under Atheist and Agnostics

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

Atheism in Believers

Believers and church folk in particular are notorious for looking down their long noses in disgust at anything that falls outside their standards of acceptability. We’ve been called judgmental, bigoted, holier-than-thou, Monday morning quarterbacks, and a whole host of other things. If we’re even slightly honest, we’ve deserved much the criticism. We also fail to see that many of the same people we chastise are those who have left the Church over the same kind of nastiness that now is directed at them! As someone who did not grow up in the church, I’ve seen it and even now check my own attitudes for this arrogance and pride.

My rant on atheism might seem like much of the same. Here is the pastor, standing up high and holy on his God soapbox, condemning non-belief and even non-believers. But I want to be clear that my comments were directed at a school of thought (atheism), not atheists, themselves. Out of my concern for them, I mourn the effects of atheism within the people who prescribe to it, but it’s not for me or anyone else to castigate atheists as people.
question markBut to further distance myself from finger-pointing at atheists– to borrow an overly used cliche– I want to “look at the fingers pointing back” at us believers.

From my experience as a disciple of Jesus and as a pastor, I see an alarming level of atheism at work in the church and in individual believers, myself included at times. We often talk a good game about God, God’s power, God’s faithfulness, and God’s mercy, but if you look at our actions and attitudes, you’re not apt to find a faithful reflection of our words. We sing about God’s mercy and forgiveness, but we often live a life of works righteousness, striving to prove our goodness to God while beating up ourselves and carelessly judging others. We “amen” God’s amazing and abundant gifts and blessings, but then we limit ourselves to the human constraints of budgets and circumstances, only accomplishing what we ourselves think we’re capable of doing. We revel in God’s sovereignty and mastery over all things, but choose and live as if everything is still up to us, our strength, our wisdom, our creativity. In other words, we live as if there is no God.

Someone, and I’m not sure who, once brilliantly called this kind of disbelief “functional atheism.” Simply put, it’s functioning as if there is no God, living in practice as an atheist. 2 Timothy 3:5 calls this “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power” (NRSV). Or as the Lord laments in the book of Isaiah, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13, NIV). Either way, our failure to live in faith and practice what we profess makes us no better than atheists. In fact, we could argue that atheists have more integrity than some believers do!

Our functional atheism, however, is far more significant than a topic of conversation (or a blog!). It has badly damaged the soul of the Church, stunting our power, effectiveness, and sincerity. Just as ancient Israel turned to idols when they lost hope in God, we turn to our own idols of rugged individualism, self-sufficiency, power over others, empiricism, hunger for wealth, and more. In none of these things will we find God, and yet we cling to them just as a non-believing world does. In an effort to be relevant, the Church embraced the principles of modernity only to find ourselves exiled into irrelevance in a post-modern world. No wonder the church in North America finds itself in steep decline. Among other root causes, our functional atheism lies within the heart of it.

We need a new generation of disciples who will live unswervingly according to the teachings of Jesus. Within him and his followers has been a life-giving, world-changing, God-glorifying powerful grace that could easily transform cynicism towards what the world calls “organized religion.” Otherwise, we will continue to see a rise of atheism and another phenomenon I call post-Christian agnosticism (a topic for another blog, I suppose.) In the mean time, I leave you with this thought as a challenge for all of us believers:

It could very well be that most of the atheism we find in our post-Christian world traces its origins back to the functional atheism of God’s own people.


Filed under Atheist and Agnostics, Church Culture and Leadership

A Conversation with an Atheist

Grand Canyon 23Some of the things that infuse more meaning and joy into life are the unexpected connections and conversations I have with other people. My life has been made dazzlingly rich by the sheer diversity of people I know and talk to on a regular basis. If someone was trying to figure out where I stand, what convictions I hold, or which values are dearest to me by analyzing my family and friends, the only one thing that might be deduced is my love for people of all kinds.

On Saturday night, my circle was widened by a conversation with a man who lives on my street. I had seen him around here and there, and I think I had said “hello” to him a few times, but just as I was about to get into the car and run down to the grocery store, he said, “Hey, Chris!” So, I stopped to talk to him a bit, asked him typical chit-chat questions about his family, his work, etc., etc.

From there– and admittedly I’m horrible at recalling conversations line by line– somehow I got to mentioning something about how I’ve learned many different life lessons from God.

After that, he said something like, “Well, as far as God and heaven go, I like to think that we’re living in heaven right now, that heaven is now.”

I immediately thought to myself that if this life right now is heaven, we’ve been royally had by a cosmic sadist. Sure, life is wonderful, but far, far from perfect. It’s certainly nothing I’d call “heaven.”

So, I think I said something to him like, “Maybe God will lead us to something far better than this.”

To that he replied, “Well, that’s assuming that there is a God.”

That was when I knew our conversation was going to get far more complex and perhaps thornier than either of us had imagined. Here we were, a theist speaking to an atheist. From there we conversed back and forth on the question of God’s existence from the point of view of nature, the origins of the cosmos, and everyday human experience. For every idea I proposed to demonstrate the reality of God, he countered it with some kind of non-theistic scientific explanation. We were obviously getting nowhere fast with one another.

I then tried to shift our conversation to the person of Jesus and his resurrection. We talked about the historicity of Jesus’ life and resurrection with multiple and varied attestations to both things, sources like the gospel accounts, Josephus, and other ancient Roman histories. He questioned the validly of the sources, and honestly I wasn’t sure how familiar he was with them. So, I borrowed one more tried and true question which C. S. Lewis used on skeptics. Lewis said that Jesus claimed himself to be Lord and God. There’s no question about that from the gospel accounts. So, either he was a delusional lunatic, a liar, or indeed who he said he was. And if you look at all the things Jesus did and said with any kind of objectivity, you’d be hard pressed to conclude that he was crazy or a liar.

My new friend thought for a second, and then said, “Maybe Jesus told a good lie. Religion is the sum total of human creativity and imagination, designed to make human beings feel good and do the right thing, so maybe Jesus told a good lie in order to get people simply to do good. It’s like Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a good lie; it’s harmless, and yet it brings people enjoyment.”

“So,” I countered, “what you’re saying is that people like me and millions and millions of others are living in a delusive lie– albeit a good one!– that people have designed in order to help us be good people and do the right thing?”

“Basically, yes,” he replied.

“So, you’re saying, that my career, everything I believe, my livelihood, and what I’m prepared to preach to my congregation tomorrow, is a good lie on par with something like Santa Claus?”

“Yes,” he said. “But that’s not bad! If it’s what you believe…”

Hmm… after we wound down the conversation and said goodbye to one another, I began to taste a new found bitterness towards atheism. I’m not at all bitter towards atheists as people. In fact, I really like my new friend and hope to get to know him better. I’ve known and loved other atheists, too.

But this conversation helped me to see that atheism exercises a philosophical bravado, if not a degree of arrogance, to assume that the commonly held spiritual conviction of the other 90% of us who believe in some form of deity is nothing but a fanciful human creation which we’ve unwittingly convinced ourselves to call “God.” It escapes all reason to argue that  intelligent, sophisticated, sane, self-aware, highly educated people would be snared into a delusion as large as God. Have we been duped by the greatest and oldest conspiracy of humanity? An atheist would have to conclude, “Yes.” In that case, my passionate convictions of Jesus Christ are no more substantive than a child’s belief in Santa Claus.

Yet there’s also another heartbreaking problem with atheism: it robs people of their full humanity. We humans, as creatures who strive towards greatness and mastery, all have a basic need to fetter that power with humility by awing something or someone greater than ourselves. In other words, human beings have the need to worship. When we hear a stirring piece of music or stare wide-eyed at a classic painting, it’s not long before we start to revere the artist as the creator. Likewise, when we look up into the sky to see the immeasurable vastness and power of the cosmos, gaze out at the grand canyon, marvel at the intricate balance of our environment, caress a newborn baby, dive through a coral reef, or take in the symphony of birds and insects in a forest– all these things far, far greater in intricacy, beauty, and force than a piece of music or a painting– how can we fail, without losing an essential part ourselves, to acknowledge and worship their Creator? If there is no no one to thank, praise, and worship, then we have fallen into a sub-human cesspool of narcissism, nihilism, and cynicism. Those of us who believe in a deity can fall into these same forms of dehumanization when we fail to fall humbly on our faces in worship. From time to time I’ve seen dehumanization in myself from my lack of worship.

Thinking again of my new friend, I realize that clever arguments won’t curb his atheism. Any condemnation or condescension he senses from me will only repel him. I believe he will come around by the influence of two things: the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in his life and by my loving him, accepting him, and serving him as an authentic witness and image of Jesus himself. In the end, love, which comes from God, and is indeed God, will be the victor over any shred of unbelief.


Filed under Atheist and Agnostics, Bible