My husband’s parents buy all of their children an annual subscription to the Answers In Genesis magazine. I am quite familiar with Ken Ham and the Creation Museum. It’s kind of a joke in our house that we look forward to finding this magazine in our mailbox, but I do secretly enjoy seeing what Ken and friends are up to.
The most recent issue included an article written by Dr. Terry Mortensen called “How Should We Talk to Atheists?” It was the kind of thing I might have written as a Christian. He approached the topic by advising readers to be respectful and to use only gentle words. He challenged Christians to “be brutally honest with yourself, and if your words are prideful or hateful, leave them unsaid. Remember that except for god’s grace in your life, you could very well be an atheist yourself.” It all sounds like good Christian advice. He also recommends that Christians be patient with their teaching.
Now, in some cases people do lose faith because they are angry at god or have never really understood what god is all about. These doubters can be counseled with some success. But most atheists, and especially ex-Christian atheists, fall into a different category. They simply came to a different conclusion about what religion is. To these atheists, it is bold indeed for a Christian to assume a “teacher” role in their relationship. It is condescending at best. So what should a Christian do?
Imagine you and a neighbor are sitting on your deck overlooking the lake behind your homes. You comment on the beauty of how the sun is hitting the water, and your neighbor appears puzzled. You ask, “Don’t you think the lake is lovely today?” Your friend says, “What lake?” You think he is joking, but soon realize that he really believes the lake is not there. You argue about the existence of the very obvious body of water in front of you and get nowhere. Is your neighbor being cruel? Is he crazy? You’re not sure. You were both swimming in the lake just yesterday. What is going on?
You may explore a thousand different ways to cure him of his mean spirit or sudden mental illness. But never at any point do you actually consider that the lake might not be there.
This is similar to what a Christian feels when confronted with someone who cannot see god. They cannot remove the reality of god any more than they can remove the reality of the lake that’s clearly in front of their eyes. For Christians, atheism can only be viewed in relation to god existing. This is why Christian sermons and articles that grapple with the question of atheism never come close to hitting the mark. Every point involves that damn lake and the ways they can get us to admit we see it or long to swim in it again. The thing is, they can’t see the lake either. They only have faith that it is there. Atheists know it, and the idea of going for a swim seems ludicrous.
Paul was very clear in his letters to the Corinthians on how their faith would appear as foolishness to unbelievers. Why would god allow some people to be blinded this way? Why does it have to appear as foolishness? That seems counterproductive. Are Christians supposed to find comfort in knowing that if their beliefs sound ridiculous it is a sign they are right with god? It is not possible for us to know how much these words helped the Corinthians in their faith. It sounds like they required a lot of teaching. But since Paul’s letters found their way into the Bible it has become the indisputable word of god for today’s Christians. They have no problem with their faith sounding foolish because the bible confirms this to be correct.
Christians should not imagine a world without god, but occasionally one does find their way over that hurdle. The atheist would say this was the moment of awakening, but Christians everywhere are shaking their heads in sadness. They are certain that the atheist has been deceived.
The feeling is mutual. One day an atheist asked himself, “What if god is a made up concept? Is that possible? What would that look like?” Sometimes you have to see a thought through before you can let it go. If there is no god, there is also no devil putting lies in your head to make you doubt. Doubt isn’t so bad from that point of view. Start from the beginning and imagine it all again without god. Will it make more sense? Maybe. You may not see that lake anymore, but you know exactly where it was and what it looked like. You may be astonished at how easily your mind once accepted it. I mean, you used to swim in an imaginary lake! Now when you see others doing it you laugh. Not too hard, of course.
Losing faith offers a rare insight that Christians do not understand. So how should a Christian talk to an atheist? For a Christian to comprehend losing faith, they must first be able to imagine a world without god. But….is it possible? And if they are limited to approaching doubt from a place where doubt does not exist, what is the point? Talk to atheists like any decent person talks to another human being. And leave god out of it. That ship has sailed.