I Thank God You're An Atheist
I THANK GOD YOU’RE AN ATHEIST.
“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
Pictured above: Christopher Hitchens, author of "God is Not Great", before his passing in 2011
I am not an atheist. But I often tell people I was one for about a week. When I was in high school I began to wrestle with my faith through many tough questions. After months of reading and searching and doubting, I came to the conclusion one day that I did not believe in the existence of God. This didn’t bring me any relief, but I couldn’t see any way around what I felt deep in my guts.
I told my dad about my newfound (absence of) beliefs. I confessed my feelings and expected him to be shocked and dismayed–instead he chuckled. He reassured me by placing a hand on my shoulder and said, “Okay, let’s continue to talk about this. If you’re struggling, I have lots of things you could read.”
I said something like, “Those are all Christian books, dad. Of course they’re going to try to win me back to an old way of thinking.”
And he said something like, “Well, since you’ve been reading these atheist forums and blogs for several months, it’d only be fair to see what the other side has to say, right?”
He had a point. What was the harm if it was all fake? I dove into several apologetics books and found them so nourishing. They didn’t answer all my questions (I still have many of the same questions) and they didn’t just talk me back into my religious crutch (although I’m sure many atheists would disagree with me). But they did feel like the “other side” of the conversation. I had been hearing a monologue–or, on many blogs, a rant–for so long, I felt exhausted by their criticisms. (Even though I grew up in church, we didn’t make a point of arguing for our side–therefore, I hadn’t heard any rational defences of the faith I held.)
I GUESS THERE'S SOMETHING IN THE WATER
The other day I saw a headline being shared by some of my Christian friends on Facebook. It said, “Carrie Underwood’s new single making atheists MAD AS HELL!”
I clicked because it seemed unbelievable: Carrie Underwood seems so sweet and innocent *to everyone but her ex boyfriends, so how could she enrage all the nonbelievers like this? Of course, it was just a song with poetic allusions to redemption through Jesus–something country music has been comfortable doing for a long time.
I write this because sometimes Christians identify nonbelievers as their enemies. Indirectly, of course. If we are right because we believe, then those who choose different beliefs must be wrong. If this is a team game, they’re on the opposing bench. For many Christians, having faith in the right principles means you don’t just get a deluxe eternity package–you also get a set of stickers that come standard in the box. The stickers either say “Us” or “Them”, and those principles qualify you to place them on anything or anyone. Some people use the stickers in the comments section of Youtube and Facebook–some just use them for identifying and sorting the interior judgements they’re making everyday.
If my headline feels as sensationalistic as the one which honoured the revolutionary Carrie Underwood, then I’m sorry. I’m not trying to surprise or offend. This is a confession, and a direct appeal to anyone who doesn’t believe exactly the same as I do. I find myself thanking God for those who do not profess a Christian faith–or any faith at all. I thank God for them because I think we have much more in common than I ever realized. And I refuse to peel the back on my “Them” sticker. I cannot afford to make those who see the world in a different way than I do feel like they are serving my enemies.
So with that said, I make my appeal as direct and simple as I possibly can.
To those who stopped believing in God because they had a passion for discovery, and someone made them feel as though their beliefs couldn’t coexist with their intellect, I’m not at all discouraged by your atheism. If you’ve wrestled with your faith because your curiosity and your passion for reason went in the opposite direction of your religious assumptions, keep exploring.
If your value for science and observation made you dissatisfied with the answer “God did it, and that settles it”, I completely understand. If God does exist, and did create the world, He is not surprised by what we find out about it! Christians are notorious for reading their sacred texts only in entrenched ways. We feel threatened and make a fuss about non-issues when bright people ask smart questions. I don’t know any believers up in arms over the earth revolving around the sun, but about four-hundred years ago this issue enflamed many people. (Literally.)
“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” -Werner Heisenberg
Even if your atheism (or agnosticism) has nothing to do with the scientific method, I respect your viewpoint. In fact, we have a patron Saint for you, if you’ll have him. “Doubting” Thomas wasn’t doubting; he straight-up contradicted the narratives his best friends were hoping in. He refused to believe without evidence. We gloss over that part because we don’t want anyone to have permission to doubt or question. In the meantime, Jesus specifically says we’re supposed to go looking for the evidence of His claims! And He takes it a step further, as only He could: Jesus says that if you haven’t experienced the reality of His message, you are off the hook. I don’t know how this works. I know that if He didn’t say it, some of my Christian friends would say this idea was blasphemy. But I just want you to know your demand for the truth–and your stubborn insistence that the claims of Christ will not convince you until you experience the evidence of them–is oftentimes an honourable thing.
To those who reject the notions of a violent, coercive, and petty deity: I’m glad you’re an atheist. In fact, I’m an atheist about that kind of god too.
I will admit that the Christian religion has done some terrible things in God’s name. What might be worse, and more subtle, are the terrible things we say about God’s character. Christians are clearly struggling with some things too. Don’t get me wrong: the Bible says many things about God, and depending on how you read it, you can draw wildly different conclusions about Him. Perhaps the same passages which drove you away only inspired us to warp the values we were struggling with. We could acknowledge the ugliness of genocide in God’s name, and our inability to understand this particular part of our scriptures–instead we declare genocide must be holy when God does it. Instead of confessing our inability to judge the souls of strangers, we shout hopeless fragments with frantic gestures on the corners of first and main. Instead of offering unconditional love in the form of meaningful help, we qualify our kindness with the hopes we’ll convert you to our cause–and we come across like car salesmen. Instead of sharing the beautiful mystery of eternity with a quiet reverence, we write brash diatribes about the afterlife without the faintest humility–when deep down, we should know we could be wrong. But you’ll never get that impression from the tract on the tank of the toilet in the public washroom stall.
We should be claiming two very simple things:
1) God is exactly like Jesus.
2) Jesus brings us good news.
On the first matter, let me just say that we mean “God looks like Jesus” in a specific way: Jesus forgiving those who hated Him, even unto death, transcends all other pictures of God we can come up with. Even the other pictures of God we find in the Bible. There are other religions who worship their holy texts–ours merely point us to a person. Every concept about God before and after Jesus is subject to Him. (And while some Christians may make you feel like Jesus is also petty, coercive and mean, we’ll just both not believe in that version of Him.) Because Jesus is the image of God, there are contradictions! They’re super scary for us. You may dismiss all our religious texts, but we’re trying to learn from them. I hope you’ll understand if we don’t always get it right. We’re moving towards a future where the only kind of God we share is exactly like Jesus.
Second, if you’re an atheist because what you’re hearing doesn’t sound like good news, then I apologize. It’s not good news because we have some weird way of defining what “good” means. Some people only have good news for you after they tell you the bad news, but you already know the bad news: parts of this world are broken. And it’s news because it’s true whether you believe it or not. I don’t say that as a threat. I’m trying to say the fact that it’s “news” makes it more than just an offer! It’s a reality you should be able to experience. If we’ve just given you a theory or an argument, we’ve offered you a shallow token unworthy of your life's loyalty. I don’t know who said it first, but my dad often repeated it to me: “if you can be talked into it, you can be talked out of it.”
Please don’t let us just “talk” you into something.
To the men and women who have been abused by pastors and priests, and have now rejected faith altogether–my heart grieves for you. I do not mourn the loss of your allegiance, because you are more than a score above my religion’s cosmic shot-clock. I grieve because those who have professed my Truth have committed a grave evil against you. They have robbed you of the chance to understand what God is like without violation. I know God can restore anyone’s innocence–I’ve seen this kind of healing take place many times–but I do not blame you if you reject my faith and my values. I believe, with all my heart, that if there is any shred of truth to my claim that God is Love, He will both lead you into wholeness and reveal Himself to you in a way you can receive. Until then, know there are Christians out there seeking your greatest good–without conditions. We are looking for a chance to demonstrate a different kind of love. We are looking for your forgiveness.
I won’t put atheists on the opposite side because faith runs much deeper than agreement, anyway. Our beliefs go beyond our religious perspectives. Faith is the motivation which keeps us seated in this plane of reality, and it’s the spark which prompts us to leap up out of it. Sure, our thoughts and opinions have an affect on our belief system, but I think many of us will discover our true beliefs in the afterlife. Jesus is clear that some who think they’re going to be “in” are going to discover they actually chose to be “out”, and many who thought they were “out” actually ended up “in”.
I understand our perspective on eternity has profound implications for how we live our lives, so obviously our ideologies will run into conflict. I hope it’s civil. Some atheists proselytize as fervent as any Christians do, so I’m not going to promise we’re not going to try to convert each other, either. Still, I understand the truth must be bigger than that. (At least I’m glad about all the gods we don’t believe in together.)
Sure, I only lasted as an atheist for about a week–some will say I didn’t even take a fair crack at it. But the worth of who you are will never be in question. I am wholehearted in my commitment to keep myself, and everyone I influence, from making you into the enemy.
As the old saying goes, “there aren’t any atheists in foxholes”. But there aren’t any “Christians” there, either. In our most human moments–in the best and worst of times–there are just people, surrendered to forces beyond our control. We’re either all made in the image of God or we’re not. The truth doesn’t change with our perspective.