What Christians Can Learn From Atheists

What Christians Can Learn From Atheists

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Larry Taunton's recent article "Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity" is an interesting read about interviews with young atheists. Taunton launched a campaign in which he interviewed college students who are members of Secular Student Alliances and Freethought Societies. He wanted to know why and how these students had become atheists. Taunton and his colleagues found a pattern among the students. Most had attended church, many found the message of their churches to be vague and superficial, many became atheists during high school, and their decisions to become atheists were often emotional. They also respected pastors and other Christians who took the Bible seriously — whose lives actually reflected the message of Jesus.  Some students had been disappointed with situations in life in which they felt God failed to answer their needs. Others found that some of the Christians they engaged with were superficial or seemingly unaffected by the Gospel they supposedly believed.

I was challenged by this article in a few ways. First of all, for most of my adult life, I have been involved in Christian ministry. I've worked for Christian organizations and attended seminary. I don't think this is bad or wrong — I often feel that my writing and teaching is useful for Christians who I want to help better understand the Bible. However, I realize that I am often disconnected from "the world." I have become used to being around people who agree with my beliefs and opinions (or if they disagree, it's usually about minor theological details that most people don't care about). As Taunton puts it:

"Christianity, when it is taken seriously, compels its adherents to engage the world, not retreat from it. There are a multitude of reasons for this mandate, ranging from care for the poor, orphaned, and widowed to offering hope to the hopeless. This means that Christians must be willing to listen to other perspectives while testing their own beliefs against them — above all, as the apostle Peter tells us, 'with gentleness and respect.'"

Because of my jobs and schooling, I have secluded myself, and now that I've graduated from seminary, I think I really need to consider who God wants me to engage with in my work and personal life.

Secondly, Taunton stressed the importance of listening to people who have different opinions from us. Like I just mentioned, in my world it has become easy to interact only with those who mainly agree with me. Taunton interviewed many students who had a personal experience that led them to their beliefs. They had reasons — scientific, emotional, personal — that led them to their atheism. They felt passionately about their causes, but interestingly, they often felt passionately about something else — the Christians they knew weren't passionate enough. They wanted sincerity and authenticity from Christians. If Christians believe in the message of Jesus, then it should change our lives and compel us to share it with others.

"That these students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable. I again quote Michael: 'Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven't seen too much of that.' Sincerity does not trump truth. After all, one can be sincerely wrong. But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe."

Overall, the article was a good reminder to me that I need to listen to others and really seek to understand them. But most importantly, I was challenged to evaluate my level of apathy. I was reading my Books of the Bible this morning, and came to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said some really incredible things. He told us to love our enemies. He told us that the poor and weeping are blessed. And He said that if we call Him Lord but don't do what He says, then we're like a foolish person who builds a house on a sandy shore. Many of the atheists who Taunton interviewed saw houses built on sand.

I am challenged, then, to consider the saving truth of the Gospel and share it with others. If I say I believe it, if I say Jesus is the way, then it needs to invade all of me and give me passion and compassion for a world in need.

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  • --Great post! I really appreciate it as a student who has attended both secular and Christian schools. During my time at secular schools, God grew in me a desire to engage in the culture; and now at a Christian school, He's helping me refine my Biblical worldview so I can better live in the world (and impact it) without being of it. Another great read on this topic is "You Lost Me" by David Kinnaman. His research with the Barna Group on this generation's views towards Christianity were stunningly similar to Taunton's!

  • --In recent months I've been reading a lot of book by atheists.  What is obvious to me is that their view of religion (Christian and otherwise) is completely wrong.  To be honest I'm not sure where they got thier ideas from.  I read "The God Delusion" and it seemed the most delusional person was Dawkins himself.

    Atheism is definitely not founded on reason or science.  There are many different opinions on evolution but it is absurd when looking at the human world to say that we descended from primates - and most people don't care.  

    As the article states the main problem is that most churches have very shallow teaching.  What young people are looking for is teaching that is challenging, rational, specific, Biblical, and connected to real life.  

    Lately I've been to online sermons coming from "Village Church" based in South Surrey (British Columbia).  What I really like is they spend several month each year doing a "Skeptics Forum" where questions and issues that atheists and other non-believers might have are addressed. Anyone wanting to learn how to engage atheists should visit their website.

    What also fascinates me is that I've been reading a ton about atheistic young people in the UK are actually converting to Islam.  These are kids from middle class white families who grew up without religion. What the are finding in Islam - discipline, acceptance, new social networks, sexual integrity, and spiritual connection - should be available in Christian churches but are usually missing.

  • --Interesting what Carl Sagan said regarding atheism (and for the record he was agnostic).

    "An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed"

    The problem of course, is that both atheism and Christianity (really just about all major religions) leave some really difficult questions to answer without relying upon some sort of faith in things we don't understand.  Whether it be the existence or evil or the basis of morality, both beliefs require faith and not solely reason, despite what atheists may say.

    Keith you said:

    "What the are finding in Islam - discipline, acceptance, new social networks, sexual integrity, and spiritual connection - should be available in Christian churches but are usually missing."

    I've heard that one of the appealing things about Islam is that it is a very approachable, well defined religion.  Meaning that it gives very specific do's and don'ts which tend to be lacking in Christianity (or are muddled by the infamous "does this OT law apply to us now?" instances).  I suspect part of it is also a rebellion against the status quo.

  • --My disconnect with both religion and atheism is the profession of knowledge. I can no more know whether there is a god than I can simultaneously know the position and momentum of a photon (or anything else). When one claims to know rather than to have faith that there is or isn't a god or that this or that book was or was not divinely inspired, I get caught up in a mental blue screen of death. I do, however, understand that some people have faith (even if it's something I can't quite wrap my head around) and I think it's vitally important since we all live together we try and understand each other. Sagan was, of course, much more eloquent on the matter.

  • --Keith - so crazy that you would mention that.  I actually attend Village Church!  The Skeptics Forum series has been really helpful in challenging me to view my faith from different perspectives.  So glad it has been helpful to you too!

    I have an atheist acquaintance who has recently been in dialogue with me over various aspects of Christianity.  His main argument against it is that it simply is not rational.  He will acknowledge that there could be a "god" that could function like a moral conscience (i.e. part of yourself), but that is about it.  I've been puzzled by his determination to pursue this conversation with me, but he recently shared that his grandmother had become a Christian in the latter half of her life and that he had seen real life transformation in her.  I think that he wants to believe based on the true and authentic example that he saw in his grandmother, but is held back by his cultural background (he grew up in China).  He seems to pick on little things that he sees as irrational, but can't see that there are bigger issues that are of much, much greater import (i.e. Christ's life, death and resurrection which he doesn't seem to have that big of a problem with).  I think that as you said, Denise, he is looking for someone who is living out his or her faith in a sincere way.

  • --I have to call bull on this one. They say we aren't "passionate" enough, yet every time we take a stand, we're told to shut up. And I'm not talking about a Westboro type of stand, I'm talking about simply stating any opinion that differs from total tolerance and acceptance. I think for the most part, Christians can't win.

  • --xmackintosh,

    "I can no more know whether there is a god than I can simultaneously know the position and momentum of a photon (or anything else)."

    If by "know" you mean absolute proof, then you are correct. But there is evidence for the existence of God. If you are not familiar with them, I suggest researching the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Teleological Argument, and the Moral Argument for God's existence. I also suggest researching the evidence for the Resurrection of Christ. While none of these provide 100% total proof that God does exist, they form a compelling case. In short, there is better evidence that God exists than that He does not.

    In fact, the evidence for God is quite as compelling as many things we claim to have "proven" through science. Science can only ever make conclusions as good as our ability to test and make inferences. And many things we thought were scientifically sound turn out to be mistakes when we learn more. There is always a possibility that what we think we know is wrong. But we can't live as skeptics of everything. It's just not possible. Our minds may reserve some doubt, but we always choose a path that reveals what we truly believe. Our "faith" is simply what we believe, as evidenced by how we live. So while it's always possible that we're wrong and the earth doesn't go around the sun, we live as though we had absolute proof that it does. It's always possible that our senses do not give us an accurate picture of reality, but we live as though they do. We don't have absolute proof, but we are convinced enough that we live that way. That's faith. Regardless of how much or how little evidence we have, at some point, we have to act on what we believe to be true. We have to step out on faith, even though there's a small chance we're wrong. That applies to everything, not just religion.

    In the realm of religion, we do the same thing. Regardless of the evidence we do or do not have, we either live as though we believe God exists or we live as though we believe He does not. Either way, we act on faith since we cannot know absolutely. You can't pretend you don't have faith one way or the other by appealing to ignorance. We all have some level of ignorance on this question, but we all live in one way or the other. So the question is, which way are you living? There is no in-between. Are you living as though God exists or as though He doesn't?  The answer to that question will reveal where your faith lies.

  • --Well, my dad always taught me that you can't be confident in your position until you understand and can address the strongest arguments against it.  Because of that, he never sheltered us from opposing opinions, but rather encouraged us to get out there and find out for ourselves if it was right or not.  The person who was my "acting grandfather" was a strong athiest and yet my parents still let him play a significant role in my life. (He and his wife were nextdoor neighbors when I was young, and basically were the only "grandparents" I really knew)  Now that I'm older, I realize how unusual that is.  

    I have found, in Christianity, and other areas, there are three types of people.

    The first type believes what they believe, no amount of argument or rational thought is going to change that, and they don't need or want to understand the arguments for or against their position. It makes their brain hurt and they'd rather focus on other areas. Using a car examle, they jus want to hop in a drive, don't tell them about how the engine works, it only confuses them.  It is my natural inclination to roll my eyes at them, but I understand that sometimes they can be stronger than me in areas such as missions or giving, or just being salt-of-the-earth good people.  We each have our gifts. Plus, I'm that way with cars :p)

    The second type of person asks some questions.  They will read books or listen to pastors give them the "rhetoric" answers, and then they are satisfied. These people usually don't understnad the principles behind the answers, but a smarter person told them it was right and they generally believe smarter people.  They are even able to pass the rhetoric on when someone asks them about it. Car example again: They read a book and know there are wheels, an engine, and may even be able to change out a spark plug or two and fix the car when it breaks down.  They are doing pretty good.  This is where most people I've met fall.

    Then there are the people who grow tired of rhetoric, and want to know more.  Unfortunately, this is where it gets tricky.  I have a brother and cousin who are this way to the extreme.  To them, the rhetoric is very shallow and they want to understand the principles behind it.  If the are driving a car, they want to understand it, starting with the laws of phsysics and working from there.  I think this is the hardest group for us to reach because it is a very small part of the population and their questions seem too pithy to have any baring in the real world. But they influence their friends who are on the level below.   I've noticed that other Christians get annoyed at these people a lot, because to those on other "levels" they seem rediculous. Why? Lets use the car example again.

    Imagine teaching someone to drive and having to start with Newtons Third law and build from there.  "Why would anyone want to know that?  Ca't you just have faith it will work?"  You say, and "Well, I have a mechanic and he knows how it works, so I believe him." you argue.  But they don't care.  They are NOT driving unless they get answers.  So the are kicked out of Drivers Ed, because it isn't the place to learn about physics, it's where you learn how to drive.  Or they leave, believing cars are bad, and anyone working them to be idots because they have "faith" the cars work, and besides, look at all the pain cars bring in to the world when they crash and kill people, it is much better to walk, they think.

    Those are the people I think the church loses the easiest.  But, on the other hand, when someone is able to explain to them the principles behind Christianity, they can become the greatest assets we have.  Think of how Tolkien helped C.S. Lewis and what he has meant to us.  

    And thas all I have to say about that.  I should have a good ending paragraph, but I don't.  Drive safely!

  • --Hah! Leigh, I know EXACTLY what you're talking about!

    Honestly? I really think it depends on the Atheist you are currently conversing with. I think that most people who are truly, truly "rationalist"s tend to fall into the agostic camp: That is, they cannot scientifically prove the existance of God, but the possibility of the potential of God may exist in the part of knowledge that they cannot know simply by virtue of being finite. These guys I *get* I understand them, I can speak their language. Their love for science and the proveable defines them, and they find faith and leaps of faith to be uncomputable. I get them. I understand them

    On the other hand, there are what I call evangelical athiests. These are the folks, Like Dawkins and Harris who insist on rewriting history to make Christians the villians. They are the people who ask believers if they think they are going to hell and then string them up a rope no matter what answer they give. If you try to tiptoe around a direct yes, sharing a message of hope in christ and the potential for regeneration then you are not being direct enough and you don't REALLY believe your faith, because if you did you would say "YES!" and if you do give that direct answer you're an indoctrinated, judgemental jerk. They deny the fact that Christians have been responsible for much good in the world, including the creation of many hospitals and universities and many many charitable organizations, focusing on the cruelties of the inquisition and the crusades while ignoring the history of such athiest communist regimes such as Stalin's Russia and Mao's China on the grounds that "Those deaths weren't the _direct result_ of athiesm, unlike the Crusades and Inquisitions and even Jihad which are "carried out" at God or Allah's "Divine will" "  They insist that religion is the opium of the masses and the crutch of the weak and that it can and has perpetuated no good in the world. Those are the people I can't reason with because they are blinded by their own rage against the machine. They are angry with a God they say doesn't exist, yet they dismiss that as an impossibility because you "Can't be angry with the tooth fairy." ;) They cast themselves as being tolerant, wise, accepting, forgiving, motivated by "true" altrusim and not an "eternal reward"-- while rejecting people on the grounds that they simply belive in the possibility of a divinity immeasurable by human standards. They are the kind of people who are opposed to folks "Indoctinating their kids" but crusading in the public school system to wipe all mention of God from the books, regardless of the historical relevance as a result of the separation of church and state. Their counterbalance to what they see as the "opression" of religion is to eradicate it -- not to give educated people the choice of whether they do or do not see evidence for God naturally or supernaturally.

    I get it Leigh. ;D I know those guys too!

    Here's my thing: I think that there are a lot of the second type of athiests that have experience with the church. Nearly every one I've ever met has some experience in their past were some Christian did terrible wrong by them. You hear the flippant expression in churches sometimes that "You are the only bible some people will ever read." You have no idea how true that is until you have met someone who has been greviously wronged by the church. They cannot, will not believe in the goodness of God because they see people who swear to love him preach and act in direct contrast to that which Jesus stood for. It is not that people are not "passionate" enough about their faith. It is that people are not truthful enough about their faith. I believe in God not because I have this unwavering eternal assurance that God is good and life is rosy and difficult things never happen -- I believe in God because I see evidence of him in my life. Because I cannot believe otherwise. Because I have evaluated the options, I have looked at the science, I have weighed the possibility that he could not exist and I find it wanting. I believe in Christ because I believe that if there were a God, he would be benevolent. I see the bible as consistant with the world I live in -- that is, I see evidence for a perfect world corrupted by sin and greed -- not a broken world with hints of goodness. I believe in Christ because he offers a bridge between a perfect God and imperfect man, which a benevolent God would provide -- because I have read the Bible, the whole Bible, and although I wrestle with some of the more difficult passages, particularly in the Old Testament under the Mosaic law and covenant, I find the teachings of Christ to be consistant with the best way to live one's life, even two thousand years later. Are there parts of the bible I still do not understand? Yes there are, but there are parts of science I likewise do not understand, that even the most brilliant of theoretical physicists do not understand, and I do not doubt science any less. I believe in God not because a book says so, not because I was indoctrinated as a child, not because I "fell for a hoax" but rather, because I have tasted and seen that the Lord is Good, that I have evaluated the options, weighed the alternatives and found him to be the best alternative.

    I think that, if anything, that is what we can learn from devoted athiests. That process of self-inspection, introspection and honesty about what we truly believe and why. I think there are many people who call themselves Christians who have never read the whole bible. I think there are many people who call themselves Christians simply because they have never considered another way -- but there are very few people who could truly call themselves athiests who have not at least considered faith at some point in their lives. We need to know not just WHAT we believe, but WHY we believe it.

    And when we do that, it will motivate us to action. The truth of Christ motivates us to be like him, and should drive us to consider him more. It is only faith taken for granted that elevates the importance of observance of ritual above the importance of people. It is only faith taken for granted that makes it more important that someone look, act, or dress a certain way than that they have shown up to hear what God has to say to them. It is only faith taken for granted that says that our circumstances on this temporal plane are driven by our total faith or lack of it. Real faith sees God as infinite, huge and complicated. It sees Christ as merciful, loving and interceding. Being a Christian never, ever means you have all the answers in this life -- and I think for too long, that is how the church has sold itself.

    People see that promise falling short and they think the Church has failed and that that is evidence there is no God, but that is not true. God has never promised that this life would be perfect or that a life of faith would be easy. He never promised to answer our every whim, only that he would hear our prayers. I think that if we were more honest with ourselves about our other, more honest with each other about how we see and understand God, and more honest with God about how we acknowledge him -- there would be much less ground to criticize Christianity on on behalf of Christians.

  • --Leigh87:

    "They say we aren't "passionate" enough, yet every time we take a stand, we're told to shut up. And I'm not talking about a Westboro type of stand, I'm talking about simply stating any opinion that differs from total tolerance and acceptance."

    Hmmm, well what do we really want to be most passionate about as Christians?  What sort of passion do we want those around us to see?

    We have this idea that the church should be 'engaging with the culture' at some kind of public level, and that's good, but Jesus primarily engaged with people, individually, and I think for most of us that's what we're primarily called to do too.  Getting behind the church's latest big stance is not the kind of passion these people are talking about, I think. They want to see *me*, not some abstract *us*, taking a stand for grace, justice, truth, mercy, compassion and righteousness, not out there somewhere in 'the culture' but in my daily life with the people I know. They want to see me speaking respectfully and kindly to and about others, offering my own time and money and expertise to help people, forgiving those who hurt me, showing self control in my words and behaviour, working hard and being fair.  They want to see me being interested in them and their lives, and eager to share with them my hope and faith in a natural, unforced way.  Do the atheists around us know us by our love?  That's the question, because if they don't we (that abstract we) are doing something wrong.

  • --While I won't say being raised exclusively within a Christian community (or bubble if you prefer) is a bad thing (private or home schooled, etc) in fact I'm sure it's quite nice -.but if your aim is to reach unsaved people than yeah, you're at a certain disadvantage imo... depending on who you want to engage.  That's where believers who have experienced certain communities have a unique ability (and knowledge) to best serve in those places.

    "I am challenged, then, to consider the saving truth of the Gospel and share it with others."

    Might I suggest phrasing it this way -  "...to consider the saving truth of the Gospel and live it with others."

    Sales pitches turn people off... in fact it can be downright creepy when it's religious in nature - do you open up when strangers come to your door or flag you down outside the grocery store?  I certainly don't.  But I definitely listen to people I interact with regularly - those I carpool with, work with, live next to, share meals with, etc.  That's most effective imo..and I might go as far as to say that's true outreach.  Start fostering those kinds of relationships, let them ask you about your life... ask why you smile all the time, why you're so nice, etc.  But also don't try to put on a show...a happy face when you're really feeling terrible... it's ok to show your shortcomings and frustrations...share bad news, and make mistakes. That's called being genuine (or "real")...and that's what people respect and respond to.  It's very easy to pick up on someone out of their element or putting on a pitch of some kind.

  • --Integrity can be a tricky concept. You might be really proud of your moral uprightness and personal integrity but Jesus said very little about that. So if you go about calling yourself a Christian then people are going to judge your integrity on your commitment to social and economic justice and your efforts to love everyone.

    That said, you also must keep in mind that the spirituality of young people develops. It changes over time. Kierkegaard identified three stages of spiritual development. We start off full of the wonder at the goodness of God's creation. Then we grow up a little and then we become aware of the God's rules and our inability to live by them. But then we come to realize that we will never abide by the rules. That against God, we are always in the wrong. And we are propelled into the next stage, faith. In that stage, abiding by the rules both matters and doesn't matter at the same time. Put philosophically, it's a Hegelian dialectic. The thesis of the first stage leads to the antithesis of the second stage but eventually the two are synthesized into a third. Now, if you are in one stage and you are sharing your faith to someone in another stage then there is going to be a disconnect. If you are all hung up on the rules then to someone who is still lost in the wonder of God's love you will appear to be nothing but a kill joy who doesn't get it. When sharing your faith with a young person you need to enter that stage where that person is and not stand firmly where you are.

  • --Denise: Amen and Amen! I was sooooo excited to read this post! It's so important to engage in the culture, and I'm so glad that people are listening to atheists.

    JosieJo: I completely agree with you! I've had many conversations with nonChristians who are disenchanted with Christianisty or religion in general because of the crazy wackos or the strong public religious-based fights over abortions and so on. I'm not saying people shouldn't fight politically, but what good is it if your Facebook posts are overflowing with Pro-Life articles and yet you're not loving your "unlovable" co-worker? Where does the rubber meet the road? Like you said, Jesus was involved with individuals' lives--the opposite of what his disciples wanted. They expected him to side with the zealots and create a political revolution--but what he did was so much better than that!

    I've had a lot of conversations with people disenchanted with Christianity. Sadly, many of them had experiences with someone who believed one thing, but acted differently. He said he was helping the poor, but he kept a big screen TV for himself. She said she followed a loving God, but she condemned everyone and judged them. They said they believed X, Y, and Z in the bible, but they didn't act on it. My friends and colleagues were looking for Christian authenticity, and instead they found hypocrisy.

    As a Christian, I've felt more and more that my mission is to help others understand authentic Christianity. I pray that my nonChristian friends would be saved, but honestly, I think it's still a HUGE step in the right direction if they can at least understand what true, unjudging Christianity is. A friend was shocked when I told him that to /truly/ be a Christian, we have to admit we're not perfect. He had never heard that before. Sadly, instead of communicating God's open invitation to ALL who are thirsty, we've communicated quite the opposite. So I guess I call my mission Operation Damage Control, because interacting with people in this world often requires a lot of listening to hurts caused by a religious person and misperceptions of Christianity before sharing my life story with them. And being authentic with my friends has often meant I've admitted I've been judgmental at times, too.

  • --Why would one assume that "secular" people are atheists?

    And...there are other spiritual beliefs other than Christianity and atheism: Judism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, the list goes on and on!

  • --Regarding Evidence:

    God's opinion on why people should believe Him:

    I am the Lord, that is My name;

    And My glory I will not give to another,

    Nor My praise to carved images.

    Behold, the former things have come to pass,

    And new things I declare;

    Before they spring forth I tell you of them.  (Isaiah 42:8-9)

    For an example of God's foresight,  spanning thousands of years,  and covering several empires, read Daniel chapter 2

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