Atheism and Christianity
An article by Mark Pointdexter.
Several surveys and studies I have come across recently have stated that the fastest growing segment of religious affiliation in America is among those who check “no preference.” Over the past decade that number has apparently doubled and now represents about 15% of the country’s population. Though 85% of Americans still claim some religious affiliation, which still makes it one of the most religious nations – that percentage is getting smaller and the trend will likely continue.
The 15% of Americans who claim no religious affiliation are not a monolithic group – they are apparently quite diverse. Many still claim belief in God or they claim to be spiritual but not religious. Others claim that it was the hypocrisy they encountered in organized religion that drove them away. And there are also a growing number of atheists.
Bolstered by the literary work of The New Atheism (Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris) atheists have decided to come out of the closet and make themselves known. In my small Midwestern town that sits between a large state university (Indiana University) and a major metropolitan area (Indianapolis) a billboard supported by the local Free Thinkers Society proclaimed “You Don’t Need God to be good. You can love, laugh, and hope on your own.” The words were set against a light blue background and some happy, smiling faces.
Just this morning (September 7, 2012) there were two stories that highlighted atheists on cnn.com. One was about the disenfranchisement atheists felt at the recent political conventions since both political platforms mention God. The other was about Dawkins and his travels into the Bible belt to spread his message that “there is nothing good that religion can teach us.”
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 has become a matter in my congregational ministry. A young couple who I have felt very close to over the past several years had not been at worship for a while. This is a couple who has been very engaged in several different areas of our congregation’s ministry. I told them several times that they were missed and I hoped to see them soon.
Then one day I just asked, “How come you all haven’t been coming to church?” The response was that they found themselves no longer believing as they once did and that they were closer to “agnosticism or atheism.” We talked for a while and we made a commitment to each other to continue our conversation.
In addition to this young couple we have lost from our community, at least for the time being, there is a man who attends our congregation, is as regular in attendance as anyone – even helps to lead singing, who identifies as an atheist. I know that he is engaged in the hour in that he loves to sing, he occasionally comes up after worship and talks with me about the sermon – even the parts of it that touched him or his wife. He generally seems grateful to be there and part of a caring community. In a similar vein, the young couple mentioned that the one thing they missed was the sense of community that they enjoyed in our congregation.
And it is reported in some of the studies I mentioned earlier that up to half of those who claim to have no religious affiliation long for a sense of community. Which leads me to the question, 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 know it is a provocative question, but I think it is an important one for the church to consider in the upcoming years.
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. I have also been deeply affected through my involvement with Habitat for Humanity.
A Millard Fuller statement has become critical for me. Millard said “Habitat for Humanity is unashamedly a Christian ministry. And it is because we are a Christian ministry that we partner with people of all faith and no faith. Because that is what we believe Jesus would have us do.”
Some of the greatest expressions of community I have ever experienced are through my involvement with Habitat and I am glad we make room for both believers and non-believers. Finally, just as my understanding of God has change through my lifetime, so has my understanding of the Christian faith. I used to believe that being a Christian meant having a certain belief system involving specific understandings about the Trinity, Jesus’ divinity, the purpose of the cross, etc.
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.