What is atheism?
At base, atheism is a truth-seeking enterprise inquiring into the nature of material reality, human existence, and the divine. Atheists champion the use of reason and emphasize the role of personal experience and the verifiability (scientific and otherwise) of information.
In their approach to religion, atheists maintain two prominent orientations. First, evidential atheists—philosopher Bertrand Russell is a good example—disbelieve in God (and religion) because they find insufficient evidence for belief. Second, atheists of suspicion—Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche are good examples—disbelieve because the practices of its adherents show religion to be something other than what it claims to be.
The first target belief content, the second target the belief’s outworkings. But of course, this is not how Christians typically consider atheism.
Typically, atheism is identified with its conclusion that the most truthful characterization of the preceding is that no God or Gods exist—that the material world is all that there is and that human existence is the result of natural forces, including chance.
Yet by jumping straight to its conclusion, Christians overlook a lot:
They overlook the common goal that they share with atheists: an ardent pursuit of truth. They further overlook that both claim to engage seriously with the real world in attaining this truth. And many again overlook that they too, to a certain extent, are atheistic: most Christians would claim that the White Supremist church (in the early American South or during South African apartheid) is a false church, and that its God is a distortion of the true Christian God, and is not to be worshiped.
Before examining their significance, we must ask: Why do Christians typically overlook these similarities? Because most have adopted a posture of dispute with those who oppose them.
My wager is because many of them understand loving God in much the same way that Kyle Idleman describes in his book, not a fan: being “so committed [to Jesus] that by comparison, you hate everyone else.” (p. 65). And what happens when such Christians encounter outsiders to their views? Let’s see what Kyle did:
He tells a story (pages 110 – 111) of a single dad who started coming to Kyle’s church and “fell in love with Jesus.” Later the fellow’s mother, herself a churchgoer, wanted to meet Kyle with her son. During the meeting the mother expressed concern that her son was going too far, becoming immoderate with his beliefs. Kyle’s response?
“I tried to keep a pleasant smile, but my teeth were clenched, and my breath was short. I was feeling defensive of my friend. . . . So I did what I always do when I get angry; I started quoting Scripture from Revelation. I said to this lady who had been in church most of her life:
‘In Revelation 3 Jesus says to the Christians in Laodicea, ‘You are neither hot or cold but because you are lukewarm I’m about to spit you out of my mouth.’ Jesus doesn’t say: ‘everything in moderation”; he says you can’t be my follower if you don’t give up everything.’ “
On the one hand my reply is: Shame on you, Kyle Idleman.
You had an occasion to love you neighbour and instead of offering acceptance in order to foster a relationship and develop understanding, you chastised and excluded her. Faced with an opportunity to discuss what it means to love (and be loved by) God, you instead chose to shut down dialogue by arguing against her with your righteous indignation? Poorly done.
On the other hand, sadly, the problem is much larger than Kyle Idleman. To begin, we need dialogue instead of dispute.
More so, we need church leaders who clearly perceive the deep kinship that exists between Christians and all “outsiders” to the Christian faith. We need those who, given our common humanity, do not curtail dialogue because either we “don’t have Christ in common” or we do not view Christ (or Christianity) the same way.
And ultimately the Church needs leaders who understand the love of God aright, so that thereby they may model love of neighbour rightly.