Can you be both an atheist and a Christian?

Can you be an atheist and a Christian?

I probably spend at least as much time discussing theology with people who claim atheism or agnosticism as I do with other Christians. I tend to prefer it this way.

For one, it challenges me to really think about and articulate what I believe and why. For another, I’d much rather have some lively dialogue with people who think differently than I do than to sit around and agree with everyone.

After one of these kinds of chats recently, I started wondering if someone actually could be a Christian, while also not believing in a divine being. It began as a fairly abstract intellectual exercise, but the answer I came up with actually surprised me.

Depending on your personal Christology, I am pretty confident that you can be both a Christian and an atheist.

I should explain here what I mean by Christology. There’s a sort of Christological spectrum that helps define how each person perceives Jesus. Those who focus more on the divinity of Jesus, his miraculous works the significance of the crucifixion and resurrection within their theology of salvation would have what’s called a high Christology. Those who emphasize Jesus’ humanity, his works of compassion, his teaching and his love for all of humanity would have a lower Christology.

Though I’m not a big fan of the connotations that “high” and “low” attach to one’s beliefs, I didn’t make up the terms. As someone who has a pretty low Christology, it feels a little bit demeaning to be considered by others to have a faith system that lingers at the bottom of the God Chart.

But that’s not really the point. If you consider that the lower Christology focuses not so much on divinity and more on humanity, it begins to make sense how someone could adhere to the moral teachings of Jesus, and even try to pattern their lives after how he taught and lived, without actually having to believe in God.

Sure, there’s the challenge of what to do about the whole praying thing, but I’ve met plenty of atheists who still meditate without any intention of communing with God. But I’ve met plenty of people who don’t consider themselves to be Christians, but who I think are very Christ-like in the way they live their lives.

So are they Christians? It probably depends on who you ask.

One thing I’ve noticed about those with a higher Christology is that they tend to limit the definition of the word “Christian” to the boundaries of their own understanding. They’ll back up their belief with Biblical scripture, but in the end, the understanding that you must accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior is the only way to be a true Christian.

Through the research I did for a previous book on the spirituality of young adults, I found that younger people are increasingly comfortable with recognizing Christians as anyone who conducts themselves in a Christ-like way. Though high-Christology believers will likely decry this as an erosion of basic religious principles, I think it actually offers an opportunity to open up the best of Jesus’ example and teaching to a lot of people who have felt shut out or judged by Christians.

Even if we maintain a high Christology, do we really need everyone to agree with us before we even have dialogue? Is it possible that there’s a both/and reality that can counter our tendency to think in either/or terms? Can I arrive at my own truth through reflection upon the life and teachings of Jesus, possibly among others, without recognizing him as divine?

Some will feel the need to assert absolute authority in answering this question, and that’s all right. Personally, I think I could spend the rest of my life trying to understand the essence of what I think it means to be a Christian, and still only have a dimly lit view of the whole picture. Other people, atheists included, help me understand a little bit more about my own spiritual reality every day.

That personal growth is way more important to me than knowing who’s right and who’s wrong.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://empretho.wordpress.com empretho

    Well, if you consider a person a Christian a person who follows Jesus Christ teachings, then they must follow all of Jesus Christ teachings, among which is that He is the Son of God, and that He came to die for the sins of the world. Jesus Christ Himself taught us this. Christ is more than just a miracle worker, or a skilled physician, a good teacher, He is the Son of God. Jesus Christ said that we must be born again. Being a Christian is not about external behavior, but rather being born again.

    • http://newref.blogspot.com James

      But still, I think that you can interpret these things as metaphors. Obviously, you can’t be physically re-birthed. What Jesus means is you must renew your morals and wordview. He says that no one can come to the Father, he means no one can find enlightenment. When he speaks of the kingdom or heaven, he is referring to a peaceful, enlightened, utopian society on earth. When he refers to eternal life, he clarifies later when he says that he has come (with his message) so that we may have life more abundantly – so that by adopting these morals our lives will be more enriched and fulfilling.

      Even traditional theist Christians admit that much of what Jesus says is metaphors. Obviously, you can’t be physically re-birthed. Obviously, shall not perish isn’t literal, because everybody dies. It’s just that theist Christians think their particular interpretation of these metaphors is the only acceptable one. The Da Vinci Code was baseless on most of its plot points, but it is true that Jesus was human one day and divine the next.

  • http://revmaria.blogspot.com/ revmaria

    I’m really glad there is such a thing as middle.

    I love the miracles, all of them. I believe God can do anything and that includes all the miracles. I believe it was God who did all these things using Jesus as his instrument so that all the world could be told the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness for all God’s children.

    But my understanding of Trinity is on the lower end of the “scale.” I believe Jesus is divine in that he was perfectly obedient to God’s will. I don’t interpret John 1 as meaning he was personally present at Creation, but that God’s Word was embodied in him when he was born however many centuries after Creation. I pray through him rather than to him, as indeed Scripture directs. I preach living according to his teachings, which all flow directly from his commandment to love one another and which is really hard to do.

    That being said, one of the people my congregation considers part of the family proclaims publicly that he is an atheist. While his wife lived, he brought her to church on Sundays but walked around the neighborhood during worship. He participates in all our social justice activities and educational events, and lives what I would consider a “Christian” life. I just keep remembering Luke 5:31 ” Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’” and know that he is one who does what is right, and that God loves him.

  • Ulrik Von And

    The concept Christianity is both a well define, but also very weak define religion. Both Catholic and Orthodox as well as various reformed forms of Christianity has well defined concept of what Christianity is. However all of these definitions are different and contradict each other in several ways. Added to this many individuals have their own more vaguely define version their believe in (as I understand you are one of those). Because of this (and other things), I don’t think that it make any sense to say that there is only one definition of what it means to be christian and follow the teachings of Jesus. This can only make sense if you believe that you know for sure what Jesus teachings exactly were (and thereby claim to know better than various christian fractions).

    Because Christianity is (in my point of view) such vaguely defined concept there should be nothing wrong in claiming to follow what you believe to Jesus teaching and being atheist at the same time, if you believe theism was not a part of Jesus teaching. However, if you do so (claiming that Jesus were “just” a wise teacher), then I would questioning whether you form of Christianity actually is a religion, or rather an philosophy or an ideology like for example Confucianism.

  • Pingback: Christian Piatt Blog » Blog Archive » Dialogue about my “Atheist Christian” article on Unreasonablefaith.com


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