I know a lot of atheists, partly because my undergrad was spent at an anti-Christian college, or what Nashville would call “the mission field”. In my experience, the vast majority of the atheists I know used to be Christian but renounced the church for specific reasons.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that most of their reasons for renouncing their faith are often based on misconceptions stemming from a limited view of Christianity, often extrapolating their own personal experiences to the church at large, and often coming from a belief that faith and science, belief and reason, are mutually exclusive.
The Atlantic had this write-up of a Christian honestly asking a simple question of young atheists: Describe your journey to unbelief. These are conversations the church ought to have more of. Not only is it fascinating, but what we do with the answers will determine the future of the church. Here’s their profile of the young atheist:
They had attended church.
Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity.
The mission and message of their churches was vague.
These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible. Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.”
They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.
Some had gone to church hoping to find answers to these questions. Others hoped to find answers to questions of personal significance, purpose, and ethics. Serious-minded, they often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant.
They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously.
Ages 14-17 were decisive.
The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one.
The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism.
From years engaging with atheists and being constantly challenged about why I believe, these answers weren’t surprising. In fact, over the years I have found a number of misconceptions that atheists have of the church, which along with Biblical knowledge and sincere belief, we could better address in conversations like these.
1. Christians don’t really believe in anything/ they don’t know the answers to the tough questions/ the Bible doesn’t address questions relevant to society today.
This one isn’t entirely false, but it’s not a failing of Christianity, rather it’s a failing of the humans who are in charge of the church.
One of the frustrating things in churches today is that for a certain generation, church has become nothing more than a social club. While this isn’t true across the board, it’s been found among people who are serious about church that many younger Christians are salivating for answers to the big questions of the day, while many older Christians are offended when someone begins a discussion of Arminianism versus Calvinism at a church potluck, because it’s dinner, and it’s rude. And the reasonable reaction of the younger Christian is, if these questions aren’t polite to have at church, where and when CAN we ask them?
What’s missing in this first misconception is that Christians do believe in something, and the Bible does help with the tough questions, but the church is often too scared of offending, or is full of people who don’t want to be impolite, to actually talk about these questions. But there is a growing number of under-40’s who are yearning for an authentic church where they can ask these questions, full of people who are searching for answers as they grow in their faith. The church is slowly coming to understand this.
2. I know Sally Smith who goes to church, and she’s one of the worst gossips I know, and Joe Green sits right next to her and is a total jerk to the kids who live on his street. Why am I going to a church with these hypocrites?
I’ve spoken to many atheists who have dealt with hypocritical Christians leading the church, or leaders with destructive or immoral behaviors that are tearing apart the church, and they assume that all churches then must be led by hypocrites. They also see their neighbors going to church, neighbors whose faults they know, or even cultural figures who fall short of Christ’s call for our lives, and they wonder why they should bother going to church with these hypocrites. What this misconception misses is that people don’t go to church because they’re perfect. They go to church because they know they’re not. Church is for sinners, and thus it’s full of sinners. This misconception also grants absolutely no grace to the imperfection of human nature, which is a harsh judgment on people accused of being judgy.
3. If I started to go to church, I wouldn’t be able to do anything fun anymore. I’d rather have a fun life than go to church.
I think this belief stems from the stereotypical disapproving frowns of the older generation at church. In reality, this is a matter of maturity, and a disagreement over the definition of the word “fun”. Doing the right thing is intrinsically rewarding in itself, and a life of having “fun” while doing morally bankrupt things has a reward of its own. Damon Linker at The Week expands this idea while encouraging us to redefine our idea of Hell:
According to Socrates, most people assume that when a person does something bad, he deserves retributive punishment in the form of inflicted suffering. “Hell” as it is depicted in the popular imagination is modeled on this view: It is where evildoers are sent to suffer punishment, deservedly, for their sins.
But Socrates implies that this view makes no sense. Doing the morally right thing must be good, intrinsically, for the moral person himself. (Otherwise, in what sense would it be good?) But that means that the opposite must be true as well: The person who fails to do the morally right thing suffers intrinsically by virtue of missing out on the good that comes from doing the right thing.
All of this follows of necessity from the logic of morality itself. What makes no moral sense at all is the popular view of punishment embodied in the vision of hell as a place for the infliction of external torments. To say that an immoral person deserves to suffer for his sins is like insisting that a man with cancer deserves to have his legs broken. It’s a prescription of additional suffering for someone who’s already suffering.
So faith is not a matter of no longer having any “fun”. It’s a matter of asking yourself where your happiness will come from, and thereby how you define the idea of “fun”. Will you be happy in the long term if you build a life around having “fun” at superficial parties with superficial friends? Is binge drinking every weekend a healthy life decision? Is living a life of lying, gossiping, and corruption the way to a satisfying life? Faith versus fun comes down to whether you’re mature enough to sacrifice temporary immediate pleasures for more meaningful, moral, long term goals, and whether you’re mature enough to search for the answers of these life questions and make the decisions that follow from that searching.
4. I believe in science, which is incompatible with faith. I’d rather live by reason than by fairy tales in the Bible.
Biggest pet peeve, right here, because it’s simply wrong. Let’s run down the standard science/reason vs faith arguments:
World created in 7 days: Humans invented the concept of the 24-hour day. There’s nothing in Genesis that says God created the world in seven 24-hour segments. A day in this concept, thus, is simply a period of time.
The world is millions of years old / dinosaurs and humans lived millions of years apart: See above. God’s concept of a “day” could be millions of years in human time.
Evolution is proven (or really, any scientific theory that’s claimed to “disprove” God or faith): Why can’t evolution be the method by which God created humans? Science is the language that God uses to explain His creation, so the presence of more science does not disprove God, it only helps us better understand His world.
If you know another of these science vs religion arguments, post it in the comments, I’d love to discuss.
5. The Bible says that homosexuality is wrong. I can’t be a part of a faith that believes that.
This is a whole topic for another day; suffice it to say, the word homosexual didn’t exist until this century, so the interpretations of the Bible on this issue are just that: interpretations. There are legitimate arguments on both sides, and there are closeminded bigots on both sides. Do your research, and you can find a church that agrees with you regardless of whether you’re for, against, or sitting on the fence. For a more educational view on what the Bible actually says and doesn’t say, check out Fish Out of Water on Netflix.
6. Christians think that people who don’t believe in Jesus aren’t going to heaven. Why would a religion that claims to believe in a loving God doom to hell all people who are good people and atheist, or people who have not had the opportunity to ever hear about Jesus?
This is a question that’s disputed by many, but here’s my personal answer: I believe that the word, the actual name “Jesus” isn’t what’s important. Jesus is an idea, a concept upon which a faith is based, he’s the person/God behind tenets that guide moral behavior. Thus it doesn’t matter if someone has ever heard of the name “Jesus”, it just matters whether they understand the concept of Jesus and what he called for us, and strive to live by those moral tenets. This is harder to do if you’re not Christian, but it’s possible. If you are a Christian in all but name, I don’t think God is shutting the door on your face, nor do most Christians.
7. All the Christians I know are self-righteous, and I don’t want to be a part of that.
Yeah, that one’s on us. Many Christians forget the concept of humility and servanthood that Jesus taught, but see the above question/answer: Christians don’t go to church because they’re perfect, they go because they’re not. Going to church means accepting that you’re imperfect, and you’re in a community of the imperfect who are dedicating their lives to the pursuit of becoming more like Jesus. This reminder of imperfection is one that active, church-going Christians need, too.
I would love for my fellow Christians and my friendly atheists to be able to engage each other with kindness, mercy, and understanding. Like any good discussion, I’d like to encourage both take a step back and imagine life from their point of view. Don’t make brash assumptions that they are either naive or immoral, and remember: most prominent figures on both sides usually represent the worst of both sides. Forget both the smug, annoying atheists that lurk in the comment sections of the internet, and the obnoxious Pat Robertsons on television. Both are far removed from the people you know and love, and are talking with. Most of all: be genuine, authentic, and stand for something.
That these students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable. I again quote Michael: “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”