Rob Moll tells about how atheists were instrumental in his coming to Christianity:
“If there were no God, there would be no atheists,” said G. K. Chesterton. My own period of doubt came not because the idea of God or miracles seemed wrong, but because God himself wronged me. That’s how I saw it, at least. Though atheists may argue that the existence of a supreme being is impossible, their arguments often reveal a belief that God just doesn’t behave as they think he should. In a debate, Christopher Hitchens complained about war and killing in the Old Testament. He said he wrote his book God Is Not Great in response to the murders in Muslim countries that followed the publishing of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. None of these are arguments against God’s existence, but rather arguments against how God and especially his followers act.
That is why traditional atheism is a highly moral philosophy, and one worthy of respect, even while we strongly disagree with it. . . .Another flaw of the faith revealed by atheists, especially the New Atheists, is the frequency with which Christianity or any religion appears oppressive. It was no coincidence that the New Atheism exploded during the second half of the Bush administration, when Christians were widely perceived (correctly or not) to be using their political power to influence public policy. When some Christian leaders were found to be violating their professed beliefs, whether in sexual behavior or other ethical lapses, it cast all attempts to bring Christian moral arguments into the political process as hypocritical manipulations for power.
“The attractiveness of atheism is directly dependent upon the corruption of Christian institutions,” says McGrath. “History strongly suggests that those who are attracted to atheism are first repelled by theism.”
Atheism is a creature of Christianity. My turn away from God came at a time when I had questions about my faith. My pastors and youth group leaders, rather than hearing out my questions, prescribed more intense devotions, more fervent prayers, and further exclamations of biblical truth. My friends who wandered from the faith faced similar prescriptions. Our questions were heard first and foremost as a desire to flout the rules and to sin without compunction. In truth, there was no real correlation between those who lost their faith and those who flouted the rules of their Christian high school and college, though our behavior was often described as the evidence of our lack of faith (while the infractions of our more faithful colleagues were seen as mere lapses of good judgment).
Most of my wandering friends, like me, seem to have returned to Christ. But I’ve found that a surprising number who had fully accepted the faith have now left it. Each tended to have had some experience in which Christian leaders acted as hypocritical, power hungry, judgmental, or arrogant elites. For some, the church’s inability to shepherd during a painful period led directly to rejecting God. “If God isn’t there when I need him,” they say, “I don’t need him.”
Atheists may have an arsenal of arguments against God or religion. But at heart, rejection of God seems not to be a purely logical choice against the possibility or desirability of God. Rather, it is often a rejection of God’s people. Atheism’s recent popularity should serve as a warning to us. Apologetics conferences and passionate rebuttals may have their place. Certainly we should be ready with reasons for our faith. But before we begin dueling on blogs and arming ourselves with television talking points, let’s learn to see atheists not as deniers of God, but as wrestlers with him. And let’s remember that their deepest arguments against belief are the people they’re arguing with.
The early Christians, of course, were persecuted on the grounds of their “atheism.” That is, they did not believe in the pagan gods or the deity of the Emperor. Surely Christians should be “atheists” in their stance against the pantheon of the world’s religions.
The unstated assumption in much of the New Atheism is that all religions are essentially the same, and some Christians unthinkingly accept that assumption in arguing for some generic deity. But the Triune and Incarnate God of Christianity is utterly unlike the deities of Islam, Hinduism, Deism, the New Age Movement, and every other religion.
For example, in dealing with the problem of evil, Christians unwittingly find themselves defending the Muslim or Deistic god who looks down from above on the world’s sufferings. Rather than the Incarnate God who died on the Cross, taking the world’s evil into Himself.
Notice how the atheist use the fact of sin to disprove Christianity, when actually the ubiquity of sin–including among believers–proves one of its major doctrines. Ironically, those same atheists will often then accuse believers in religion of being oppressively moralistic! And yet Christianity, while upholding morality, is itself all about God’s grace and forgiveness when people are NOT moral.
Can you think of other examples? Should Christians be atheists when it comes to other religions? Or should we defend religion in a generic way before zeroing in on Christian distinctives?