I hope you enjoy this heartfelt post by a dear friend about his view of the world from an atheist’s eyes. – The In-Place Missionary
Faith, Evangelism, and the Non-Believer by Eternally Grateful
A friend and I were talking one day about life prior to my recent conversion. For most of my adult life, I would have said I was an atheist. For people who have been raised in church, with God being part of their life ever since they could remember, it is probably difficult to understand the atheist’s perspective. After all, how could anyone reject something so important as God? My friend and I found ourselves agreeing it would be interesting to attempt to articulate the view of the non-believer from the perspective of someone who, until very recently, used to be one.
Atheists, Agnostics, and the Hard Numbers
It was difficult to decide how to approach writing this article due to the many misconceptions about atheism. So, I decided to start with the basics and take a look a couple of definitions. Most dictionaries or encyclopedias define “atheism” as a lack of belief in a deity of any kind. Whereas an “agnostic” is often defined as someone who “neither believes or disbelieves” or someone who believes there is just not enough information to determine whether there is a supreme being or not. Atheists and agnostics are a rather small, disjointed group according to a Pew research poll (Pew Forum On Religion & Public Life / U.S. Religious Landscape Survey) conducted in 2007). The poll asked Americans about their religious beliefs and reported 1.6% of Americans said they were atheist; while 2.4% were agnostic. Another 6.3% of Americans claim to be secular unaffiliated. If I were to sum up the numbers, about 10% of Americans do not believe in God. I can confirm the statistics are basically right because I lived it for almost 40 years.
Some people would have you believe the country is over-run with atheists and secular humanists. Obviously, there are a few small groups who make attempts to draw attention to themselves or injustices they see. Some groups are even attempting to ‘evangelize’ using methods normally attributed to an aggrandizing televangelist; however, the number of atheists and agnostics is relatively small by my standards.
What Does It Mean to be an Atheist?
In the end, the term “atheist” is just a label. Like all labels, it just makes it easier for us to categorize things; however, when one looks deeper, things are not as they appear nor do they always fit nicely inside a box. Just like Christians, the atheists I’ve met were a diverse group, and they came from all walks of life. Some had religion in their childhood, some did not. Some were liberal while some were conservative. Some were highly educated, some not. Some believed in spirits or other forces that come to play occasionally in the realms of man. Others did not.
For me personally, being atheist meant:
- There is no all-knowing, all-powerful being who was creator of the universe.
- I walk alone, and I was good with that.
- I don’t care (apathy) regarding the human condition. It is what it is.
- I don’t matter. In a universe that is billions of years old and populated with an uncountable number of galaxies where each is populated by an uncountable number of stars, my 50 plus years of existence on this rather smallish planet is really quite insignificant.
My Negative Perceptions about Christianity
As an atheist, I felt religion was not the basis of morality or justice, but was based on a social contract between individuals. I saw Christians lie, cheat, and steal just like everyone else, so what was so special about them? Experiences throughout my life furthered my negative perceptions about Christianity when it became apparent that at least some had hidden agendas. The Christians I encountered were often judgmental and hypocritical and tried to “convert” others to their specific brand of Christianity instead of genuinely loving people without any strings attached.
Public prayers during secular sporting events, public meetings, etc. were extremely uncomfortable for me. I always felt like it created an expectation to “go along” with it even if I didn’t agree. If I didn’t participate, I was “bad.” The “moment of silence” made me feel even worse because I viewed it as an attempt by Christians to get other religious groups to gang up on us non-believers. To this day, even as a born again Christian, I still cringe sometimes when there are secular events with public prayers because I don’t want unbelievers to feel excluded or forced like I did.
It would be easy to blame others for chasing me away from God; but, in the end, it was my decision. At the time, I just didn’t see or feel the way Christians said they did. I didn’t feel the Spirit, and I didn’t want to pretend about what I felt just to fit in.
Looking in the Mirror
I was speaking to a friend of mine recently who lives in the UK. In talking to him, I realized he and I had been going in opposite directions. While I had recently embraced the Message and become born again, he had been slowly drifting away from the Church. He said he was “living the lie” by the motions without truly believing. Although he is a secular humanist, he still takes his 86 year old father to church.
As we were chatting, it became obvious he was trying to steer me away from my new path. In effect, he was evangelizing me! My friend cited Christopher Hitchens as an influence and suggested I read his books or at least view his many Youtube videos with the idea that we would talk again on the issue. I was unfamiliar with the name; but after our conversation, as I had promised, I googled his name and watched some videos.
Mr. Hitchens is a rather well-spoken author known for negative views regarding religion. As I watched the first interview, I could see he was a thoughtful, well-educated man. I could also see a very sick man in the last stages of a battle with terminal cancer. Hitchens passed away in 2011. In all honesty, I would have to say I agreed with about 95% of what he said in the interview about man, human society, and religion. I’m willing to bet most believers would agree with a lot of his comments as well. I haven’t read his books or seen all of his public commentary, so it’s possible there are a few inflammatory statements associated with him; however, I’m sure there have been more than a few unkind words thrown in his direction by believers as well. All unkind words and inflammatory statements aside, I am reminded we are still all God’s children.
If someone says they are not a believer, do we really need to criticize them for being honest? They are just telling you what they feel. They have no connection to God. Why attack the messenger, especially when they are telling the truth? If someone tells us it is raining, should we be critical of them because we would rather hear it is sunny outside?
Today, as I write this, I thank God for the opportunity to hear Mr. Hitchen’s words spoken so honestly and eloquently, as they reinvigorate me to find a way to reach those who need Him most. I also pray for mercy for Mr. Hitchens, as I do for my parents and other family members who may not have known our Savior. In my heart, I know I can do no less.
Reaching Out to Others
So, how does one reach an atheist or like-minded person with the message of salvation? That’s not an easy question to answer. I’ll tell you first what doesn’t work. Preaching “fire and brimstone” or trying to force the message on a non-believer does not only fail, but would likely be counter-productive. The harm done by this is incalculable, in my opinion, for the audience will often reject the message as well as the messenger.
I think it’s better to engage each person in a positive manner. Throughout my life, I have found the tone of dialogue changes as one person gets to know another. You don’t have to agree with someone to respect his or her point of view. Try to look at things from the other person’s point of view. Everyone has to deal with the pain of living. Let us not cause someone to close his or her mind to the message and thus the door to salvation.
Also, what do non-believers know about you and your faith? Are you modeling Christ or a persona with perfect hair and flashy charisma? In my experience, people tend to avoid the high pressure salesman; but they will listen and even enlist input from people they trust like close friends. If they see the way you live and the peace you have, they may at some point say, “Hey, I think I’d like to know more about that.” And if the time is right, at some point they may decide they want that too.
Through New Eyes
Less than a year ago, I became born again. I was conquered by love, not fear. One of the things that became almost an obsession with me from the start was to address what I see as a major problem with the Church as a whole. Specifically, we Christians need to do a better job of reaching out to
non-believers. We must live the gospel and reach out with love in our hearts. God loves all His children, and we must never forget that.
For those who have spent all or most of their life in the Church, let me say this: We must remember a nonbeliever does not know the joy we know through Him. We must also remember a non-believer may also bear scars from prior encounters from our fellow Christians. We must be inclusive and empathetic, open minded and thick-skinned, and most of all, we need to love on non-believers as we do believers. As I look at my lost brothers and sisters, I feel their pain and loneliness; however, because God loves ALL his children, I am forever grateful and hopeful.
Our time here on earth is all about relationships with other people, as well as, our relationship with God. It’s important to invest the lives of others and sincerely get to know them. We can say things as a friend we cannot say as a stranger. It is impossible to know someone’s needs until you get to know the person. Listen to the still, small voice and remember to use a still small voice in your relationships with others. Colossians 4:5-6 NLT:
Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.
I realize as I write this post how much I need to work on forgiveness. How can I expect God’s forgiveness yet not forgive others who hurt me when I was a non-believer? I know I’ve got a long way to go; but with God’s help, I will get there.
Two final thoughts:
- The first is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always; if necessary, use words.” I love that saying! One must absolutely live the gospel first.
- The second thought is inspired by 1 Corinthians 13:1-7 and came to me first through the gift of music (Proof of Your Love, by For King and Country):
If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day,
and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.
If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere.
So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
I pray that I never be a rusty gate.