Do you know any Atheists? I imagine you do. I think about Atheism a fair bit. I have a number of friends and family members who are Atheists. In my many years of Agnosticism, it never occurred to me to be an Atheist. Atheism seemed like such a strange philosophy. As physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson once quipped. “I don’t play golf. There’s no word for someone who doesn’t play golf.”
After I became a Christian, my view of Atheism evolved. I suddenly became aware of something new: the faint target on my torso. Which filled me with a strange sense of foreboding and confusion. I suddenly had put myself into a position where my faith would cause confrontation. I’ve never shied away from a healthy debate, but suddenly I felt the hot, angry breath of intolerance in a way I’d never encountered.
And that got me thinking. Atheism. A-theos. Without God. An Atheist is a person without God, not just in their life, but in their reality. Which is an important difference. Not having God in your life is a Christian paradigm. God is still there. Not having a God in your universe is an Atheist reality. And that is a matter of faith, belief and opinion, but that’s not what Atheism seems to be about a lot of the time. A life without the reality of God doesn’t explain the hostility, the hot, angry breath.
So, that got me thinking some more. We tend to be pretty clumsy with language in our culture, which is a shame, given the richness of the English language. An Atheist, in my experience, is not apathetic. Atheism seems to have, in its heart, antipathy. So is Atheism the correct term?
Is Antitheism closer to the mark?
When I talk to Antitheists about their faith in no God, I’m often struck by their own religious experiences. It’s worth mentioning that the vast majority of Antitheists I know had early experiences of religion, some of them largely positive. And then there is almost universally some sort of betrayal, some sense of indoctrination which later turns out to be based on something apparently false. This is a pattern which I encounter time and again. Even Richard Dawkins, Antitheist par excellence, has an almost cliched childhood narrative of gloomy Anglican dogma, obliterated by the awesome truth of Science. Evolution came along, Genesis faltered, and thereby the entirety of the theistic universe came crashing down around him.
Dawkins is obviously an extreme case, but in a sense, he is the lit stained-glass exaggeration of many people’s more pastel Antitheism. Faith that was a house of cards had some minor turbulence, and couldn’t resist. That turned to frustration and anger, and I suspect embarrassment. How terrible to find out you’ve believed in Santa for just a bit too long.
So, why should we care if people are Atheists or Antitheists? The answer, like so many things with Jesus, is counter-intuitive. And comes down to love. If a person is an Atheist, a real Atheist, who simply doesn’t harbour an imagination, or a faith, which can tolerate God, and does so in an emotion-neutral way, then there is nothing for us in them, beyond the Great Commission. But, if someone is an Antitheist, then there is anger, then there is trouble, then there is a heart hardened and betrayed by God. Not in truth, but in their reality. And for them, we don’t need the Great Commission, so much as we need the Great Commandment. We need to show them love, reconciliation, mutual forgiveness. In their lives we can be a force for change.
And I can tell you, from experience, it is hard. Because they will attack God, who doesn’t exist, and Jesus, who was a peasant who probably didn’t exist, whose memory has been turned into the greatest brainwashing campaign in history, by Paul, who imagined the whole thing in some kind of hysterically blind psychotic episode. And they will attack you, for being so naive and so simple-minded that you have not realised what they grasped so concretely at the age of fifteen.
And I can tell you, from experience, the best response. The best response to hurtful attacks on the thing you most cherish. What we want the answer to be is to have a clever counter-argument, and there may be a season for that later. What we want is for some evangelising inspiration, and there may be a season for that, too. We want some act that nullifies their hate, their anger and their frustration. But that’s not what Jesus says. Matthew 5:39 reminds us of that.
The best response is to listen. The best response is to allow space for their anger. You are the target, because maybe they’ve never had a target before who wasn’t in authority. Maybe you’re the target because it always ends in an argument, and they need to vent their spleen. Maybe you seem safe. Maybe you will finally be the one to just allow it. Maybe you will be the one to prove that the Holy Spirit does inhabit us, that we do indeed turn the other cheek, that grace is something that actually manifests itself. Here. Now.
As St Francis said, “Preach the gospel at all times. And when necessary, use words.” It’s amazing how often it’s not necessary.