How Atheists Made Me a Better Christian

For some reason, my brain when I was younger told me that I would reach some point where I would be a finished product and be done learning, rooted in an unchanging outlook.  It was a comforting idea, but then I discovered that we never really stop growing, never stop learning, and never are 100% certain we’re doing the right thing.

I like people who push me and challenge me and don’t let me get away with my usual crap.  Back in Grand Rapids, there was the not-so-small matter of befriending a bunch of atheists, or as my friend James terms their group “evangelical atheists.”  I was very happy about this because it meant I had access to people who did not share my beliefs about faith and who had many of the same problems with religion that I did. Happy, because by now I craved difference and getting to know people and what makes people tick.  (As a matter of fact, we called this group “Group Yay!” because I was so happy to have new people at all.)  I wanted to be pushed and forced to grow my faith and understanding, and everyone else in my life was basically in my camp.  Group Yay would force me to look at my faith in a much more objective way.

I know at first they looked on us – Miranda and myself in particular – as good little Christian girls who were educated but indoctrinated (if not outright brainwashed).  I caught the smirks whenever Cornerstone University was mentioned.  I noted that they were very careful not to offend us about God or the Bible.  But there was room for growth here, on both ends, and I took this as a challenge.  I am a big believer in spending time with people as a means of showing what you believe.  I’m also very big on shocking people who think they have me figured out.  So, we didn’t Bible-thump; we drank with them on our porch. We mixed them in with our CU friends who are just as liberal, if not more so, than they were.  Gradually, Group Yay began to see that we were not exactly what they’d expected.  This opened things up for mutually respectful conversation without worrying about stepping on toes.

That is one of the first great things I learned about these atheists – they weren’t all in your face about it.  Many of them respected our faith because they respect the morality it brings.  They liked the Church because, as James put it, he liked the love he received whenever he went there. Evangelical atheists though they claim to be, they didn’t want to hurt anyone, or at least not us once they knew us.  It’s hard not to compare this to evangelical Christians.  I’d much rather discuss with someone what they believe when they are respectful rather than calling me a sinner.  My atheist’s approach of winning me over was, well, by being loving.  

Not that they won me over to their overall point, but they won me over to themselves, certainly.  We differ on some key points about life and reality, of course, and at the end of the day you have to just agree to disagree about some things.  Is there any belief, really, that is worth severing ties with people?  The point of this life is not to be right but to be decent to people and share the Truth.  If they don’t accept that Truth, that is their decision.  We can be sad about what they are missing out on – and about what might come after this life – but that is absolutely no excuse for shutting people out or marking them as losses and moving on to someone who might listen.

One difference I noticed about my atheist friends and the average Christians I had gone to school with was, sadly, intelligence.  I hate when Christians simply answer tough questions with “Because God said so.” Atheists pride themselves on seeing through lies and mysticism and getting to the logical facts, or at least reasonable speculations.  A big reason many of my atheist friends had turned from Christianity was because that Christianity didn’t make sense.  Of course there is the argument that faith is not about knowing, and the bottom line of this I wholeheartedly agree with, but that doesn’t mean we should not look for answers.  As far as matters of science, who made science?  If God made science, how can science not show facets of God?  Any reasonable Christian who believes that God is responsible for the universe should be able to grasp this.  But, for whatever reasons, we’ve come to think in terms of science vs. religion.  We shouldn’t.  If atheists think they have everything figured out in their system but we believe differently, then we should be able to make logical arguments.  And that means we have to at least make an attempt to study, learn, and know what we’re talking about and trying to defend.

More than anything, I think nonbelievers’ perspectives on the Church are noteworthy.  I’ve read I Sold My Soul on eBay and agreed with basically everything the man said.  (I was especially relieved that he liked Mars Hill, where I used to go on occasion because it is beautifully refreshing.)  For the most part, our church services are in no way easily accessible to outsides, or “searchers” as we like to call them.  Isn’t the spread of the Gospel supposed to be our job?  Why are we preaching to the choir?  Or, worse yet, why are we saying from the pulpit that we’re better than them?  It was mortifying one Sunday when Christian and I were home for a service and our Pastor told a joke about Fool’s Day being Atheist Day.  Wow, that wouldn’t have turned off any of my uber-intelligent atheist friends at all.

Of course, it didn’t take befriending atheists to make me disappointed with the Church in general.  Many of the same things that bothered me in high school and college still bother me.  I hate the belief that the way witnessing used to work is still the only way that will work in our changing culture.  I hate that many Christians condemn anything outside our bubble; I hate that we don’t condemn enough inside.  I hate the quality of Christian media and the excuse that it’s all good because it is of God.  I hate that we close ourselves off.  I hate that the world often has to teach us about Love and yet we think we alone are capable of it.  However, I also don’t agree with those who say that we should scrub everything and start anew.  I think we need to reclaim what Christianity originally meant.  What do we really need to believe?  What has entered our religion that is complete hooey? We need to reexamine the angles, regroup, and stick to what Jesus would encourage.  Foot washing anyone?  I think Protestants have gone too far in turning our noses at tradition, and this is one thing I really appreciate about Catholicism – it is rooted in a history. There are sacraments, holidays, etc. that are worth holding to because they connect us to something bigger than ourselves.  Jesus was a part of a traditional religion, wasn’t he? (Sorry, ACS, but he was Jewish.)  It’s a good thing to remember we are links on a chain, a part of something broader and deeper than ourselves – it holds us more accountable when we’re arrogant and self-centered.  We are not gods.  God does not need us to war for him.  Even Jesus walked away from some people. It is not imperative that we are right if it means beating others down, and you can not force Faith. The very least we can do is at least make it look appealing, like a community people should actually want to be a part of.

Another interesting thing about atheists is that they seem to place high value on morality.  By this I mean ethics, humanitarianism, etc.  These should be very Christian concepts, and it should be one point of common interest that we have.  Just because someone is not a Christian doesn’t mean they can’t do incredible good in the world – and inadvertently be used by God whether they like it or not.  Look at Oprah.  Or Angelina Jolie.  Or the Dalai Lama.  You wanna tell me God doesn’t smile on their work?  In this life, we should work together with anyone and everyone who wants to do God’s work of taking care of the orphan, the homeless, the widow.

Whenever one of my atheist friends goes through a hard time, I am reminded how blessed I am.  Simply having faith that there is meaning in life makes a huge difference.  Believing that Someone is in control helps.  Believing that this is not all there is helps.  I remember at Grandpa Bud’s funeral seeing this distinct difference – Gpa’s friends who were not believers were absolutely in grief, whereas we had hope.  I think that I largely cried at his funeral for them.  It’s also a wonderful blessing that I have God to talk to when I can’t talk to anyone else.  A personal relationship with God is an amazing part of faith that the atheists I know scoff at, of course.  But even acupuncturists (I know this from my job) recommend meditation.  It is good for us to take a pause and “relax the body, entrain the mind, and commune with spirit.”  I think God wired us so that it is good for us – “be still and know that I am God.”  An even greater part of this is that God listens.  And since he knows me better than I know me, I think that also means he puts up with me better than I do.  He has to love me, if you think about it.  It’s very freeing.  Yes, he’s God and should be respected and feared, blah, blah, blah.  But we’re also supposed to be honest with him.  Job yelled a lot, if memory serves.  So did Moses.  I don’t know of any healthy relationship where one person bottles emotion from the other.  God knows when I am mad or hurt or confused, so why not tell Him?  I’m not saying I want to curse out God, but there are plenty of people in the Bible who seem to have voiced their doubts rather strongly.  Aren’t we just being as open and honest as possible when voicing our frustrations to God?  He can take it.  And, maybe that’s part of why he lets shitty things happen to us in the first place – it forces us to come to him.  

Along those lines, we believers should be able to share with each other too – we have a community.  But why are we so afraid to share with each other?  When we’re hurting, isn’t the body of Christ where we should seek comfort?  Why can’t we ask for help?  My atheist friends point out that this is because we’ve become so incredibly self-righteous that we fear each other’s judgment.  Um, good point.  Also, we as Christians have deluded ourselves to think that we should be perfect.  We should never hurt.  We are above all that.  We are not flawed.  We do not struggle.  If we do, we are dirty and must need to repent of something.  But, Jesus practically promised that this life was going to suck if we followed him as we should, so why are we confused when life gets us down?  “Pray for me” usually only comes up when someone had medical testing or a job interview.  Again, I think Catholicism kinda has us here – there is something delicious about spilling your guts to a priest’s listening ear, isn’t there?  Especially when that listening ear is supposed to have his shit together more than me.  Anyway, we should share our struggles and pains with each other.  We all go through turmoil, so what is that turmoil good for if not to empathize with each other?  It would teach us a lot of about loving the outside world if we were capable of loving each other.

Confession:  I have a very, very hard time loving stupid, wrong people.  Aunt Sharon once pointed out that I “do not suffer fools lightly.”  And since I try so very, very hard to show God’s love to people outside the Christian bubble, clearly I should have more tolerance for people inside that bubble.  But I focus maybe a little too much on how Jesus spoke out more often against the Pharisees than he did against the nonreligious.  He tried to heal the sinners and lead them to a better life, yes, but he seemed angriest with those religious people who should have known better.  But, I really do believe that love is a key point of what we’re supposed to be showing as Christians, and following Jesus’ example all around is probably something I should focus on.  He might have rolled his eyes at the disciples and religious people, but he loved them enough to be gentle too.

So, yeah, there are a lot of ways atheists make me a better Christian – not just the ones I know personally.  They challenge me and make me sort out what I believe, which forces me to understand God more.  I see non-Christians who are living good and I want to be like that.  I see non-Christians who are serving and loving others, and I know I should be better.  I think that, somehow, even nonbelievers can be used to show us examples of Christ.  And I know absolutely that I am supposed to reflect God right back at them.  That’s the rough part.  And, I guess, the whole point. 

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