Atheists have taken aim:
How should Christians respond?
By Kirk Noonan
If some prominent atheists have it their way, the United States will be devoid of religion. To that end they are rallying constituents by lashing out at God and the faithful through scathing, anti-religion books. They do so, they say, because religion — specifically evangelical Christianity — is toxic, has too much influence in America’s social and political arenas, and deceives people.
As evidence, atheists point to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a national ban on partial-birth abortion, strong opposition of evolution and stem cell research by evangelical leaders, and the government’s funding of faith-based initiatives.
To thwart such influence, atheists are ratcheting up their invective.
According to Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, “Religion kills.”
Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, calls it a “ludicrous obscenity” to take one’s children to church.
“I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural,” writes Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, which has been on The New York Times best-seller list for weeks.
Hitchens and company represent a burgeoning breed of atheist. These neo-atheists are strident and possess a fervor that leaves little room for civil discourse or tolerance of other people’s views, especially those who follow Jesus.
Despite the written and verbal salvos, Christian leaders implore followers to take a different tack, one they hope will change the minds and hearts of countless atheists.
Rhyme and reason
“If you’re going to create a market for anti-religion literature you have to create some kind of buzz,” says Earl Creps, who is working with the Northern California-Nevada District of the Assemblies of God to plant a church in Berkeley, Calif. “As with a lot of social groups, atheists have become defensive and have started to ‘evangelize.’ ”
A survey of culture and media seems to support Creps’ view. Television talk shows have become the atheists’ bully pulpits. On the Internet there are numerous sites devoted to atheism, including one that encourages users to blaspheme the Holy Spirit on video then post it on YouTube.
Last year on eBay an atheist put his soul on the auction block giving bidders an opportunity to save him. The atheist has since written a book about his experience and done numerous media interviews.
Recently, a U.S. congressman was among the first high-ranking government officials to come out of the closet as an atheist.
There is even a summer camp for the children of atheists. Traditional summer camp activities such as horseback riding, archery and campfires are offered.
“But campers also learn about critical thinking, science education and humanist values,” reads the camp’s promotional material. “Through an exercise that challenges campers to disprove the existence of two invisible unicorns that live at the camp, the children discover the limitations of arguments for and against supernatural claims, like the existence of God or gods.”
One atheist group even boasts of targeting children by advertising on Web sites geared for preteens. Creps warns, “If atheists have a Sunday School, the Internet is it.”
Despite the strides atheists have made of late, they remain a minority group on the fringes of society. Studies indicate that only 8 to 11 percent of the U.S. population describe themselves as agnostics or people of no faith. Only 1 percent identify themselves as atheists.
Paltry numbers for sure, but atheism seems to be gaining traction in a culture that is increasingly moving away from its spiritual moorings. Some Christian leaders wonder if the state of the Church has something to do with this.
In the United States 80 percent of the population identify themselves as Christians. But a recent Harris Poll found that only 76 percent of Protestants say they are absolutely certain there is a God.
Church attendance and membership have also declined. On any given weekend only 45 percent of Christians, according to The Barna Group, attend a Christian church.
The divorce rates among born-again believers and those who are not are almost the same.
George Barna says in his book Revolution that the typical churched believer will die without leading a single person to Jesus Christ.
“It is important for Christians to understand the environment and the perspectives of people who are different from them, especially among young generations whose culture is moving rapidly away from Christianity,” says David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group, who recently directed a study of the lifestyles and habits of no-faith adults in America. “Believers have the options of ignoring, rejecting or dealing with the aggressiveness of atheists and those hostile to the Christian faith.”
Christian leaders TPE spoke to lean toward not only dealing with atheists, but also actively seeking opportunities to share Christ with them. But doing so, they warn, should not be taken lightly.
Turning from atheism
Though anti-religion rhetoric can be offensive, Creps says, it can also serve a valuable purpose in that it can get believers thinking about how they are representing Jesus as they live and share their faith.
“Believers should continually be asking themselves questions such as: Am I loving and caring toward nonbelievers? Am I living out the relationship I say I have with Christ? Are there any discrepancies between what I say I believe and how I live my life?” says Creps.
Alicia Britt Chole was once an atheist. She says she used to believe that God had not created humans, but humans had created God to help explain complex matters.
“There were just so many questions in life that were never going to be answered by science, reason or experience,” she says. “Because of that, it seemed understandable to me that individuals and communities would create mythical beings and call them gods or God.”
Atheism took Chole on a wild ride. She became suicidal at her lowest point and angry enough to lash out at anyone who suggested the existence of God. Like others with doubts, she wondered how God could be all-powerful but would not use His power to prevent all the pain and suffering she saw in the world.
Despite her worldview and penchant for berating anyone who tried to share their faith with her, two Christian friends eventually played a part in her conversion to Christianity.
“My friends gave me what God gave them,” she says. “I now call that the ‘present of Presence.’ They got close enough for long enough that God actually echoed through their humanity and suddenly something within me began to quicken.”
Today, Chole, a wife and mother of three children, is a popular Christian author and speaker. Her conversion experience is illustrative of things believers should and should not do when reaching out to atheists.
“All too often, believers underestimate the power of proximity,” she says. “God is within us, and His existence is not awaiting an affirmation from our senses to begin to be true. With the Living Word within us we give people the present of Presence.”
Chole recalls feeling agitated, as an atheist, when believers tried to convert her but could not explain why they believed what they believed.
“I was open in that I considered all thoughts equally,” she says. “But when people of faith couldn’t articulate their thoughts, instead of listening to their hearts over their words, I let their words distract me and give me a reason not to take their beliefs seriously.”
Randy Hurst, the AG’s commissioner on evangelism, says every Christian is responsible to share his or her faith with those outside the body of Christ — even with angry atheists.
“As believers our lives cannot contradict our message,” says Hurst. “In our culture, which is one that is hugely exposed to Christian images and verbiage, the credibility of the messenger is paramount.”
Creps says religion is the name people give to Christians’ relationship with Jesus Christ. The challenge for Christians, he adds, is to keep that relationship alive and healthy with love at its center — for God and other people — even in the face of attacks.
Besides Scripture study, intercessory prayer and the offer of genuine friendship, another effective way to communicate God’s love, says Randy Rich, operations director for Convoy of Hope, is to be an agent of compassion.
“When the Church serves like Jesus, it makes a tremendous impact on people’s lives,” says Rich. “For many people — including atheists — such outreach may be the first real demonstration of Christ’s love they’ve ever seen. When an individual feels loved, respected and cared for, that greatly opens up his or her heart and mind to Christ.”
No matter one’s evangelistic goals, it is important to remember many atheists would like nothing more than for evangelical Christianity to be abolished in the United States. If Christians quietly stand by hoping the rising interest in the subject will eventually dissipate, the consequences could be severe on social, cultural, political and scientific fronts.
“Christians need to be well informed about atheism and able to give a defense of their faith,” says Creps. “But Christians shouldn’t treat atheists as a special class of people. Like all humans, atheists need a radical solution — which is Jesus — to a radical problem — which is sin.”
KIRK NOONAN is managing editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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