This weekend I had the opportunity to watch three atheists being interviewed about their atheism; how they became atheists, how they viewed Christianity and the evidence for it, and how they were treated as atheists. Here are some of my big takeaways.
1. All three of the Atheists were formerly Christians. All of them said they eventually left the faith because of questions about Christianity and doubts that were not addressed or were even suppressed by their churches, leading to a growing conviction that Christianity was not true and, finally, rejection of Christianity.
This demonstrates how critical it is for Christians to engage in loving God with their minds and to be ready to give reasonable explanations of the hope we have – both of which we are commanded in scripture to do. We shouldn’t stifle questions or doubts and insist that they only come from a lack of faith. As Stephen Meyer has stated, “The heart cannot exult in what the mind rejects.” We are not loving others if we fail to love their minds! And that means taking their questions and doubts seriously, and addressing them appropriately with reason.
2. All three demonstrated misunderstandings of Christianity, and espoused common objections to Christian belief, including: a) a demand for “scientific verification” (as opposed to historical verification?) of the resurrection, b) a definition of faith as “belief without evidence,” c) the belief that Jesus was a myth because there were other dying and rising mythological characters, d) a rejection of “philosophical assertions,” e) the belief that science undermined the fundamental tenets of Christianity.
We, the Church, need to be ready to address the objections of skeptics to prepare our children against these objections as well. Most Christians today couldn’t meet the challenges these atheists offered, despite the lack of sophistication in these challenges. Are you prepared to respond to the “proud arguments raised against the knowledge of Christ?” Are you prepared to explain to your secular but curious friend why Christianity isn’t just a nice set of beliefs, but the one true religion?
3. All three had experienced discrimination or disrespectful treatment from religious people, and loss of relationships as their religious friends didn’t want to interact with them. They emphasized that they are people just like us, and have spouses and families and lives of their own, and want to make the world a better place.
If we need to be able to address the questions and doubts of others seriously with reason, we also need to be able to do it in relationship. Atheists are people too, and they should be treated as image-bearers of God no less than Christians. Apologetics is, as Josh McDowell tells us, “truth in relationships.” And you can’t get away with just one or the other! I’ve known a number of atheists over the years. I’ve obviously disagreed sharply with them. But I respect each of them as a valuable person with dignity, and recognize that they have generally wanted to know the truth and help others. I don’t need to attack them morally to say that they are wrong about their atheism. I don’t need to tear them down to say that they are sinners in need of Jesus. So am I!
“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” 1 Peter 3:14-16