Atheists have testimonies too

cuseal

Christian Challenge, the Baptist campus ministry I am going to be working with, has an office in the Student Center, and right across the hall from us the office for the “Secular Students and Skeptics Society”. This is a CU student club composed of atheists, agnostics, and religious skeptics. Not surprisingly, given the liberal, and at times even anti-Christian atmosphere that prevails in Boulder, they are a very well-organized group. A quick perusal of their website reveals that they have regular meetings, special guest speakers, and observe “holidays” (such as the birthdays of notable scientists like Charles Darwin and Carl Sagan). They also have regular social gatherings, elect club officers, and promote affiliations with other like-minded groups in the Boulder community and throughout the state of Colorado. These include the Boulder Atheists, the Boulder Heretics (yes that’s a real organization haha), and the Colorado Coalition for Reason. The latter group sponsors billboards like the one below.

COCORE Billboard 2013

It was put around Denver during the Christmas season.

Here is another billboard that the Coalition for Reason has featured lately…

So you can see the type of in-your-face approach that atheist groups around Colorado are now taking. As you can imagine, it can be easy sometimes to scoff at these groups or even become annoyed that they are so aggressive in promoting their views. And yet this cannot be our response as Christ-followers! First of all, we should have compassion on them, even as the Scriptures say that Jesus felt for the crowd in Mark 6:34—And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. So He began to teach them many things.” It also is important for us to learn how to listen constructively to atheists. What do I mean? Well atheists often assume, and with some justification, that the average Christian will shun their company to the point where they are unwilling to listen to them or their story. All too often, Christians, myself included, have essentially isolated ourselves away from people whose beliefs and worldview may be at odds or even radically different from our own. The atheists, agnostics, and skeptics assume that we are afraid of having a true dialogue with them, and are not willing to give them a fair hearing. So consequently they withdraw further into their own circle of like-minded friends, and possibly go for months, or even years at a time without hearing a Christian witness that extends out of love and a genuine desire to foster a relationship.

So what happens if we start to really listen to atheists? We may learn some fairly revealing things about how our faith is perceived by those on the “outside.” Going back to the website for the Secular Students and Skeptics Society, it’s quite revealing to read some of the “testimonies” of the various club members. Some of them have never been religious, but a significant number have been raised in a Christian denomination. It’s heartbreaking to think about the number of current atheists/agnostics who, while they probably never accepted Christ as personal savior, were at least exposed to the teachings of Scripture, the blessings of Christian fellowship, and were likely discipled by their pastor, Sunday school teachers, and other church members. Some of these atheists probably went on mission trips, and had opportunities to see other friends and family members baptized. Now I’m certainly not trying to blame any churches for what happened—for every individual must ultimately take responsibility for their spiritual life. Martin Luther put it aptly—Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying.

It’s interesting that an atheist student group would go to some lengths to borrow many of the trappings and structures of a campus Christian ministry. Having special guest speakers, holding events to foster fellowship, observing “holidays”, and seeking to promote and share their views with others, all of these activities make the members of the Secular and Skeptic Students Society in some ways like a strange caricature of a Christian campus ministry. But the parallels go even further. These secular students attempt to connect with what would be their version of a local “church” or “denomination” by affiliating with other Boulder organizations that promote irreligion and skepticism, and even statewide groups for such purposes. Finally, the “testimonies” themselves seem to be directly designed to prove that these atheists arrived at their viewpoints after systematic and purposeful study and thinking—in other words, not by accident. But while Christian testimonies invariably should draw attention away from the individual and direct it back to God and His glory, these atheist testimonies mostly serve to self-aggrandize the individual for being clever and iconoclastic enough to realize the “truth”, and avoid being duped like all of those other, more gullible religious people. But behind this I sense a hidden sadness. These students are trying to fill a void, one that the French philosopher Blaise Pascal would say is God-shaped. So they have created an organization that has many of the trappings of a Christian group in order to find purpose, fellowship, and to try and promote their message to others.

My response is that I want to meet and engage with as many atheists, agnostics, and skeptics as possible on the CU campus, and around the Boulder community. It’s not going to be easy, and it will definitely involved me stepping out of my comfort zone! But every one of these people, no matter how antagonistic they may be to the church, and even towards me, is someone who Jesus died for. Not only that, but they have a story of their own to tell—one which may well remind me in what ways the Church and Christians are failing to connect with and listen to people on the “outside.” I pray that I will have the Holy Spirit strength to respond with patience and love when I meet people who repudiate everything that I hold dear. While never being ashamed of the truth of the Gospel, I hope that like Jesus, I can ask questions which may sow some seeds of doubt amongst the doubters themselves. Lastly, and perhaps most difficult, I pray that even if these non-believers who I meet do not convert, I will continue to love them, and let them know they have worth in God’s eyes through my attitudes and behavior towards them. I may not be privileged to always see the fruit of conversion, especially when tilling rocky and difficult soil, but there is privilege enough in being a bearer of the Gospel message. Even during those times when I feel rejected, and like Paul “burn with indignation” (1 Cor. 11:29) because people seem to be blindly rejecting God’s free offer of salvation, I pray that inside me the stronger emotion will be that expressed in one of my favorite passages from the prophets, Jeremiah 20:9–“Then I said, “I will not make mention of Him, nor speak any more in His name.” But His word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not hold back.
Let us not hold back, and the next time you meet someone who seems to completely disagree with you spiritually—take a minute nonetheless to listen to them, so that you can respond with God’s love and truth. After all….atheists have testimonies too!

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2 thoughts on “Atheists have testimonies too

  1. Nice post! It is also worth keeping in mind that younger people- particularly college students- are often a bit outspoken about their beliefs, to the point of being strident and aggressively acerbic. As people mature they frequently become more comfortable with nuance and provisional (bracketed) assumptions to engage in productive discussion. I would avoid intense arguments with angry atheists- they may have deep hostility to religion for a variety of reasons. Instead, if you find a respectful audience engage them where you might find common ground- the importance of shared moral and ethical beliefs, while sharing how your love of Christ has influenced and guided you and others. Also don’t fall for any straw man arguments that religion is inherently anti-rational- think of the theologians (both Christian and people of other faiths) who have sought to reconcile faith and reason (ex Aquinas blending of Christian doctrine with Aristotelian teaching, Averroes and Maimonides seeking to syncretize Classical Greek philosophy with Islam and Judaism, respectively). There will always be some tension between the secular and the sacred, but this isn’t a bad thing- it produces profound insight for those who pursue it with open hearts AND open minds and communicate in a manner of mutual respect.

  2. On a humorous side note- if you ever get into a debate with an intellectual agnostic or atheist (who isn’t a religious studies scholar or from a Muslim background) throw in a passing reference to Averroes or Al Farabi – your interlocutor probably won’t know who you are talking about and may even go away feeling embarrassed for his or her cultural ignorance. Assume a subtle demeanor of condescension that suggests “What? You don’t know Al Farabi? Then why am even talking to you?” It’s fun to see someone who assumes they are smarter than you get all twitchy.
    Not that I have ever done that (ahem). It wouldn’t be Christian of me. 🙂

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