A CNN special report, “Atheists: Inside the World of Non-believers” that aired on March 24, focused mainly on the rejection felt by three individuals who no longer identify themselves as Christians. David, Jerry and “Stan” used to believe. Now they don’t. And that makes them bad.
At least that’s how many Christians have made them feel.
Christians can be guilty of overlooking the simple fact that atheists are people too. It’s more convenient to deal with them as objects instead of subjects. They are easy to dismiss as misguided, angry and divisive. They are better dealt with from afar, from echo chambers deeply embedded within our Christian subcultures where we can trade our apologetic pep talks and affirm our superiority over the incredulous.
Such thinking can lead to a subconscious, or conscious for that matter, view of the world in terms of a three-class system comprised of believers, unbelievers and those who have abandoned the faith.
Believers deserve fellowship and edification. Unbelievers are in need of care and evangelism. But the apostate, as this thinking goes, is simply hopeless. In short, such persons are our enemies.
The only problem with all this is that it is contrary to the spirit of Christ.
If Jesus walked onto a secular university campus today He wouldn’t head straight to the campus ministry center. More likely, He would be found in a small room in the library where a group of young men and women gather to build relationships and find solace in their journey away from the familiarity of faith into the unknown of the seemingly unknowable. That’s because Jesus wasn’t afraid of doubts and He had the stubborn habit of loving doubters. He seemed to take to Thomas just fine, and since He is the same today as yesterday, He’s still in the business of meeting skepticism with compassion and unwavering fidelity.
We would do well to follow in His footsteps.
Though the show included brief appearances from popular atheist evangelists like Richard Dawkins and David Silverman, the emphasis was on a less angry, more humanistic brand of unbelief advocated by David, Jerry and “Stan.”
In spite of his devout Christian upbringing, David became an atheist at the age of 16 and is now a leader in the Secular Student Society at his university in Georgia. He describes his feelings about his parents’ response to his unbelief.
“I am who I am and I’m not going to change that. I can’t change that,” he said. “It’s just part of who I am. And as loving parents of a loving son on some level they should be accepting of that. And they are outwardly of course, but it’s still lurking there underneath the surface. They’ll always harbor some sort of regret or anger towards me for just being who I am and that kind of hurts.”
I couldn’t help but think of the article published at The Atlantic by author Larry Taunton who highlights the decisive nature of the ages 14-17 for worldview development in his article, “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for A Stronger Christianity.” If we wait until students leave for college before we give significant attention to dealing with doubts about Christianity and training in basic apologetics we will likely labor in vain.
Jerry DeWitt (no relation to me) grew up idolizing Jimmy Swaggart on television, so it was only natural that he became a Pentecostal preacher in his home state of Louisiana. But after a former church member sought out his counsel when her brother was in critical condition, Jerry realized he no longer believed in prayer. And he no longer believed in God. His choice cost him his job, his career and his family. He now leads a congregation for unbelievers that he founded after his de-conversion.
Where he used to ask for an “amen” from his parishioners, he now says, “Can I get a Darwin?”
“Stan” is an active minister and a closet atheist who is still working through how to tell his believing congregation that he no longer believes.
While the CNN special did not offer any substantive arguments for or against the existence of God, it did bring a good reminder. Many atheists feel rejected and alienated from the faith communities to which they once belonged. Among many lessons we can learn is that these unbelievers miss something about their religious past: not the religion but the relationships. So much so that they are drawn to humanistic organizations and god-free worship services. Our witness to this growing demographic of “nones” could certainly be strengthened by genuine friendships and an authentic and relentless love.
But this is nothing new. And it shouldn’t take a CNN special to compel Christians to action. A Jewish carpenter in the Middle East once told us to love our neighbor as ourselves. And He didn’t make this command contingent upon whether or not our neighbors are believers.
And neither should we.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Dan DeWitt is dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate school of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association recently named him a finalist for “Best New Author” in the 2015 Christian Books Awards for his latest book, “Jesus or Nothing.”)