Understanding Atheists: Two Churches Try

A bit of a strange contrast today, in my aggregator. Clearly, Christians have taken notice of the growing numbers of atheists, and have seen the need to… do… well, something. Our first attempt comes out of San Antonio, TX, where they ask the musical question

Ever wonder what atheists truly believe and how you could be a better friend and witness to them?

Not a bad start, actually. This could be an introduction to a presentation by actual atheists, don’t you think? Which would be a real first step toward understanding. Let’s read on!

Join us for our Unpacking Atheism simulcast with Lee Strobel, Mark Mittelberg, and William Lane Craig.

Oh. Three Christian apologists. I have to wonder, even if they are being scrupulously honest, what sorts of differences exist between their view of “what atheists truly believe” and, you know, what atheists truly believe. Anyway, you can show up for a live simulcast, for fifteen bucks, if you are among the first 300 to register.

Oh, look! If you click to the registration page, the description of the event changes–no more being a better friend here:

Atheism is on the rise. If you haven’t been confronted by it yet, you will be. Your children are already being challenged by it. The effects of it are seeping into our culture and, increasingly, into the church. We must confront this challenge! We need to be ready–and help our church members become ready—to not only “give an answer” (I Pet. 3:15), but also to “take every thought captive” for Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

Yes, these are precisely the people I want to tell me “what atheists truly believe”.


But you know? There is hope. Our other example of an attempt at understanding atheism comes from the [D]mergent blog; it’s a thoughtful essay by a Christian minister, whose first response to the New Atheism was… to read up on it, and on science.

Over the past several years I have spent a lot of time becoming acquainted with the New Atheism and the critical responses to it. My bookshelves, and more recently my Kindle’s memory, are full of books about this matter. A topic closely related to it, the relationship between faith and science, also occupies a good amount of space. I believe for the church to move faithfully into the future the matter of the relationship between science and faith, and the growing number of those who claim no faith or belief in God, is something we must try to fully understand and engage.

Atheism is also a personal matter for him; he has lost a couple from his congregation, because they now consider themselves atheists/agnostics. Another member of his congregation, who attends regularly and participates, is a declared atheist. Having an atheist as an active member of his congregation has framed the question differently for this writer.

I won’t take the space to critique the new atheism, or present any of the critical responses to it. ( To clarify, I do believe in God and have some philosophical troubles with atheism.) It is simply true that more and more people in the Western world are identifying as non-believers, With such people, if they want, is it even possible for them to have a place in the church. I guess I am asking, can someone who doesn’t believe in God find room to live among the people of God?

Twenty years ago, I would have firmly answered, “No. It is not possible.” But over the past two decades, because of my studies and my life experiences, my own understanding of God has changed a good bit and I have become more grace-filled and understanding toward those who don’t believe like I do and toward those who don’t believe at all.

Recognizing a change in the culture, he could have reacted against it as today’s first example is doing, but he accepted it as part of a new reality.

I have come to understand the Christian faith no longer as adherence to a certain belief system, but primarily as way of life rooted in the teachings of Jesus, a way of life rooted in love, grace and the struggle for peace and justice.

Understanding the Christian faith in this way, allows us to partner with any and all people, who wish to pursue the same kind of world. I may call it the realm of God, they may call it something else, but together we call it hope.

His essay is worth considerably more than the fifteen bucks a head the simulcast is going to charge, but it’s freely available right there at the link.


  1. hexidecima says

    I wish that the pastor hadn’t said “growing number of those who claim no faith or belief in God”. It makes it sound like so many other theist claims that atheists simply can’t “really” have no faith or belief in their god. I also wonder about his claims to have changed his “understanding” of his god and his claim that this new understanding is more “grace-filled” e.g. straight from this god. I’m sure he would have claimed the same thing about his beliefs before. His opinion of what Jesus “really meant” is also full of the usual cherry picking.

  2. machintelligence says

    There have also been some attempts at outreach from our side. During a panel discussion on community building at the American Atheist Alliance national convention over the Labor Day weekend in Denver, one of the panelists mentioned that he had, on at least two occasions, been able to bring a number of atheists to a church meeting for the express purpose of letting the church members meet real live atheists and ask questions about their beliefs. Holding it on their “home turf” made them more agreeable to having the discussion.

  3. Aratina Cage says

    The minister asks,

    Can our church communities become places that welcome such people? Can we live our faith in such a way that people who claim no faith in God can participate in community with us?

    I’d say that lots of liberal-minded churches already do welcome such people (many of whom are priests or their equivalent), and they really have no choice about letting us participate in the community, which we already do. So that is a double yes.

    But really, I don’t think that person understands atheists, especially not New/Gnu Atheists. To really understand us, a believer would have to be able to see the story behind their faith as she or he would see a fairytale. I don’t think they can do that momentarily. I think that takes time to get to that understanding, and that when a person reaches that understanding, they have already crossed the bridge to atheism. The minister isn’t quite there if the Jesus story is still seen as historical (actually happened) rather than fictional (didn’t happen or happened very differently than what has been recorded).

  4. Cuttlefish says

    Oh, I don’t think he understands atheists. But I get the feeling he does not fear or hate us, and even believes he *wants* to understand us. Disagreement on this very big issue, it seems, does not prompt him to dismiss us as human beings.

  5. says

    “With such people, if they want, is it even possible for them to have a place in the church.”

    Quite a laudable article by the pastor, although I wonder: if Christians become comfortable (and vice versa) with allowing outspoken nonbelievers to be active members of the church, at what point does “church” cease being “church” and just become a gathering of people who enjoy being around each other? I liked most of the people that I used to go to church with just fine, but nonbelievers would also have to be exposed to the content of church, which includes praise music, presumably a sermon, etc. That fourth verse of “Amazing Grace” might get a little grating to the unbelieving church members after while. But you are right, Cuttlefish: at least he seems willing to view atheists as actual people.

  6. Cuttlefish says

    Well, yeah, Keith, I agree, but from their* point of view that’s a bit like asking *me* not to promote vaccination. If they honestly believe (which, yes, cuts the population down a bit), withholding the good news from us (and thus damning us to eternal damnation) is far worse than any mortal harm they can do to us by offending us.

    (*I know I am describing a subset of Christians here, but it is the subset I was part of, and understand most.)

  7. Anonymous Atheist says

    Perhaps someday most Christian churches will take the attitude that your actual beliefs don’t really matter, just go through the motions for the sake of community/tradition… like quite a bit of Judaism is today.

  8. machintelligence says

    Anonymous Atheist @ 8
    Some of the mega churches are nearly there already. They have no emphasis on doctrine, so if you’re “one with Jesus” (whatever you think that means) and pay your tithe, they are happy to accept you.

  9. Cuttlefish says

    An excellent point, AA!

    I have heard some (not all) rabbis say that it does not matter what you believe, only what you do. Follow God’s laws, and you do not have to actually believe in them.

    Can we get there for Christianity? To the point where poorly behaved Christians are held in lower esteem than well-behaved atheists? (and no, I am not going to define well and poorly here–it’s a rough sketch, that’s all!)

  10. doktorzoom says

    Hexidecima @1, I’m going to assume that by “growing number of those who claim no faith or belief in God,” the minister is not skeptical about their belief (or rather, lack of it), but rather the more “possessive” sense, as in sense 3c here –to assert one’s ownership of.

    I claim membership in the League of Grammar Nazis, myself :)

  11. markr1957 (Patent Pending) says

    Now bad Christians being called out I would pay to see! The sheer hypocrisy I witnessed throughout my childhood and teenage years, and then the sickness of sectarian violence and killing I witnessed in Ulster during the summer of ’76 have left me wondering whether ‘no true Christian’ doesn’t cover the lot of them, regardless of which sect they belong to!

  12. says

    Historically, it was always a bad idea to trust christians making nice-nice. After all, they baptized the natives of Central and South America BEFORE they massacred them.

  13. mutt50 says

    “Mainstream” religion has been left behind, and is looking for a new business model. Freethinkers might just help out the bottom line.
    The fundie/tribal mega-churches are all about big entertainment/spectacle, and hate politics, because it works to put butts in the seats and money in the bank. Think Rick Warren, pompous and moralizing, and a multimillionaire, just like Jesus was.
    Religion is a business, especially in the USA. Businesses will adapt to survive. If this means letting non-believers in the club, it’s fine, as long as they bring cash.

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