Today I enjoy the Daniel-in-the-lions-den privilege of being a guest panelist at the Midwest Freethought Conference, which is sort of a regional “New Atheist” convention. Anytime I get an opportunity like this, I like to celebrate the common ground I share with my atheist friends as fellow humans made in God’s image. I find that affirming God’s common grace in those who don’t share my worldview goes a long way in defusing the often-hostile “us vs. them” rhetoric that both sides are prone to fall into. So here’s what I was thinking about this morning… four things I really appreciate about atheists.
- They are people of conviction. They are not mushy and half-hearted like so many blithely religious people, or like “unbelievers” who don’t actually disbelieve anything.
- They value thought and inquiry. “Come, let us reason together,” said the Lord to Isaiah (Is. 1:18) – which is exactly what fundamentalist Christianity has largely failed to do in the last century. What atheists are often reacting against is a thoughtless, “because I said so” style of Christian belief which is foreign to the Bible and to the greatest periods of Christian history but has been sadly common in the American experiment. “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him,” says the book of Proverbs (Prov. 18:17). If we haven’t winsomely and cogently pleaded our case, let’s not blame atheists for buying into what seems right.
- They dislike religion. And so do we – at least those of us who love the gospel of grace. Religion of all types (even the “Christian” type) is an enemy of the gospel. So I share common ground with my atheist friends in hoping for a shriveling of religion. My atheist friend Sarah helps to lead an organization called “Recovering from Religion,” which sounds like a cause Jesus might appreciate. The confusion between gospel (grace) and religion (law/moralism) is very common among atheists and Christians alike, and it’s a confusion I hope to help unravel.
- They are people of great faith. (Although they really hate when I say that.) Though atheists are fond of saying things like “faith is the enemy of reason,” such a statement smacks of philosophical simplicity and historical naiveté. Some sort of “faith” lies underneath all attempts at reason. I find that many of my atheist friends seem to still be living in a pre-1960 modernist universe, when unbridled confidence in Science and Reason reigned supreme. News Flash: the Enlightenment is over. Nowadays, almost every serious epistemologist recognizes that all human knowledge rests on prior assumptions. As Michael Polanyi put it in his important work Personal Knowledge, “complete objectivity as usually attributed to the exact sciences is a delusion and a false ideal.” Or, as Tim Keller writes, “You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B.” Faith is not a Christian distinctive; it’s a human distinctive. I look forward to robust conversations with my atheist friends about our differing faith assumptions.