There’s been a lot of talk recently about militant secularisation in Britain. There was the case of Clive Bone objecting to council prayers in Bideford. There’s been discussion over whether religious organisations – like the Church of England – should have to submit, for example, to employment law which might force them to accept women priests and gay bishops. On the other side, various bishops and peers have been hitting back at the atheists and secularists, not always in edifying ways.
I say all this to set the scene; I’m not going to discuss these particular issues here (maybe another time). I’m more interested in how we as Christians or people of faith respond to these perceived threats and challenges. Do we withdraw into small beleaguered communities? Do we shore up our defences and fight back? Or do we seek to display the character of Christ by engaging in generous dialogue with those who oppose us?
I used to feel threatened by atheists and their anti-religious rhetoric. I confess my response is still often irritation (or, more charitably, amusement); but increasingly I find what atheists have to say both interesting and challenging – sometimes profoundly so.
I think I used to feel threatened by atheists because I was worried deep down that they might be right. (To put this in context, I also occasionally worry that Christian fundamentalists might be right, or that Muslims or Pagans or the BNP might be right.) This is partly just a result of the strength and passion with which some atheists put forward their views, and partly because I think it’s always important to question our own beliefs and to listen to those of others, changing our own views if the evidence requires it.
I also used to worry that atheists were going to hell and that I personally had to save them. I now worry instead that many atheists may be closer to Christ than some of us Christians. I’m no longer certain about things like hell and who is or isn’t going to be redeemed. All I’m certain of is the unfathomable and limitless love, goodness and mercy of God as shown in Christ.
And nowadays I no longer worry that atheists might be right; I’m sure they’re right… at least about many things. Having heard the best arguments that Dawkins and co. can throw at Christianity, I’m no longer concerned that they’re right about that; and anyway I’m not convinced that much is to be gained by arguments between atheists and religious people. Which leaves me free to listen to atheists on the many things that I do think they may be right about – sometimes more right than Christians and other people of religious faith.
Yes, some of the things that some atheists say are merely offensive or ill-informed. If you go on atheist forums as a Christian you can unfortunately expect to be rudely and rounded insulted. The following is a description of Jesus from RationalWiki, and it pulls no punches:
Jesus (Aramaic: Yeshua bar Yehosef), otherwise known as Jesus Christ (“Jesus the Messiah”),
was a dirty piece of hippie socialist scum is the central figure of Christianity. In Christian theology, Jesus is the son of God, born to the Virgin Mary, and was sacrificed to atone for humanity’s sins. And he became a zombie in the process, as well as conjuring a zombie army (Matt. 27). http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Jesus
This is fairly typical of certain kinds of atheist and rationalist forum, but it certainly isn’t the full picture – particularly not if you talk to individual atheists face-to-face. Anyway, if our faith is genuine we can – and should expect to – put up graciously with some insult and misunderstanding; and let’s face it, we in the church can hardly claim never to speak offensively or ill-informedly.
Listening to atheists
Perhaps one of the most important things atheists can tell us is what’s wrong with Christians, with the church, and with Christianity as we practise it. They can also challenge us over some of our more bizarre or bonkers beliefs and doctrines, and help us to engage better with the findings of science. Saying this will doubtless irritate atheists but I think God may use them to critique Christians and the church and to shame us into changing our ways. In this sense, they sometimes speak with an almost prophetic voice.
In my experience, atheists are often very forthright and honest, sometimes brutally so when they’re talking about Christianity or religion in general. This can feel pretty painful when you’re on the receiving end – I’ve had some run-ins in the past and notably been called stupid and a liar on this blog. Nonetheless, at best this robust debate can be helpful and healthy– and at least you know where you are!
Agreeing with atheists
I also have to admit that, where I am at the moment on my faith journey, I find I agree with and have a lot more in common with some atheists than I do with many Christians. Like many atheists, I get irritated by religious right-wingers and fundamentalists, by biblical literalists and inerrantists, by doctrinal obsessives, and by many of the more narrow-minded or backward-looking attitudes and beliefs prevalent in large sections of the church. On many issues I actually find myself on the side of the atheists – with the one slight difference that I firmly believe in God and don’t see religion as an inherently false or bad thing.
Many atheists are passionately committed to making the world a better place, to combatting bigotry, racism, sexism and homophobia, including in the church. In so doing, I suspect that some of them are closer to the radical heart and spirit of Christ than they realise. God doesn’t need us to sign up to a particular creed in order for our heart and deeds to matter and to have worth in his sight… perhaps some atheists may be better Christians than we are. And they quite often call us to action and hold us to account over social issues that we would sometimes rather ignore.
Atheists for Jesus
Interestingly, quite a few atheists who hate church and reject the idea of God still have considerable respect for Jesus. One of my most passionately militant atheist friends has half-jokingly described herself as an ‘atheist for Jesus’. Some Christians will complain that this is just wishy-washy thinking; that Jesus didn’t leave us this option – following one of C.S. Lewis’s less convincing arguments Christ is either ‘mad, bad or God’ and we’re deluding ourselves if we think otherwise. But as far as I’m concerned, if Jesus is the way, the truth and the life then anyone who tries to follow him at all is at least heading along the right lines.
As an aside, you sometimes hear atheists say things like ‘I wish I could believe like you do, it must be so comforting’. I sometimes find myself wishing to retort ‘I wish I could disbelieve like you; faith in God is as often challenging, inconvenient and troublesome as it is comforting’…
Learning from doubt
Another thing we can learn from atheists is the importance of doubt, of questioning, of looking critically (sometimes even sceptically) at our beliefs and practices. Why do we believe what we believe and practise what we practise? What grounds are there for our faith? Atheists often make the mistake of thinking that doubt, critical thinking and evidence-based argument are antithetical to religious faith; the reality is that they are central to it. I’ve talked before of the stages of faith development, and how it’s healthy for early blanket acceptance of doctrine and dogma to be countered later on by a process of rigorous thinking and questioning.
Many of us don’t get to this stage, sadly; and some who do feel unsupported or distrusted by their churches. We need to embrace this phase and be prepared to subject our religious faith to the searching light of reason and the searing heat of criticism and doubt. Yes, for some this will spell the end of their faith – at least for a time. For others it will mark a new beginning with a new depth and strength. Unquestioned, uncritical faith is not in my view a finished faith; it’s more like the flush of first love untested by the trials of really living with another person.
Hearing people’s stories
But perhaps the most important reason why we need to listen to atheists is that a lot of them have been hurt or let down by religion, by religious institutions, creeds and systems – and by religious people.
Some people are atheists simply because they see no evidence or need for God; fair enough. Others believe that the evidence leads to the atheist conclusion; I disagree, but again, fair enough.
However, I suspect that many are atheists because they’ve had bad experiences of religion, from family or peers or the church. Some have been told they’re wicked and godless, that they’re going to burn in hell. Some have been physically or emotionally abused. Some have been excluded on the basis of their sexuality or background. Others have simply been bored stiff, or not listened to, or have turned to the church in their hour of need only to be fobbed off or turned away.
We need to hear their stories; we need to grieve with them and for them, and to acknowledge where we’ve let them down. The church is meant to represent Christ’s body on earth; we know full well that most of the time it’s not a particularly lovable body. That’s inevitable and we have to accept it (and accept ourselves); but we also have to accept that it often does damage to others in Jesus’ name, which is the worst kind of blasphemy.
So let’s be willing to listen and not too quick to take offence, to fight back or to worry that we’re losing ground to secularists – as though our job was to cling on to a Christendom that’s probably best consigned to the past. And if we really show ourselves willing to listen to atheists, then maybe – just maybe – they might be a little more willing to listen to us…