Like many people of faith, my belief in and relationship with God was part of a journey. And that journey of course continues to this day. When I was a child, my parents dragged my 4 siblings and me off to church every Sunday. I remember one particularly painful stretch of years when not only were we dragged to “boring church,” but we couldn’t even listen to the radio or watch TV for the rest of the day after church! (I’m sure some ACLU lawyer somewhere is legitimately calling that ‘child abuse.’) As I got older – meaning maybe 10 or 11 years old – I began challenging my parents on why we had to go to church: “What are they going to tell me that I don’t already know? That murder is wrong? That it’s bad to steal? Mom. Dad. C’mon. It’s me. I know these things already!” Oh my poor parents…
My litigation skills were however rebuffed, and the slog continued every Sunday. My Mom’s words to my 3 sisters still echo: “Pull your hair out of your face, put your smile on and march yourself out to the car. WE ARE GOING TO CHURCH!”
I need to fast-forward briefly. My Christian faith eventually grew organically and as a young adult I was dating a girl who was Wiccan. I remember asking my Dad, “What would you do if you were in my situation?” My Dad’s response was effectively this: “Nothing. Do what you always do, Daniel. You live your life with God’s grace. You lead by example. You love, and stay strong, and stay brave. Then someday, maybe, she’ll ask ‘How do you do it? How do you persist gracefully and lovingly in the face of adversity?’ And if that time comes Daniel, that’s when you can tell her about the strength you receive through your relationship with Christ.” My Dad’s answer was not to preach or breathe hellfire, but to lead by example. And so at my best which unfortunately doesn’t manifest as often as I’d like, that’s exactly what I do.
My parents didn’t push religion on us with any real ferocity. We went to church every Sunday, we prayed before dinner which by the way happened at 6PM every night of the week as a family and with no exceptions, and we weren’t allowed to take the Lord’s name in vain. (The language rules in my house were pretty simple: No “Oh my God!,” no swear words, and a very interesting one that I plan to adopt with my own kids…no saying “Shut up.”)
I was 16 years old when God truly blessed me with my faith. For my whole life God was a foregone conclusion, but nothing I really thought about or accepted on my own. Then one night when I had snuck out to sit in a park where I could smoke and quietly think without being bothered…it occurred to me: “Daniel, your faith in God actually means something. It’s not just something that exists in your life because others have told you it should. It’s a real thing.” At 16 and particularly among the crowd I hung out with, I had already met plenty of atheists and while I found them to be compelling in their rebellion…exploring the dynamics of faith was so uninteresting to me that I wouldn’t even do it with them in pursuit of ‘cool’ points. But that night, alone in the park, smoking and thinking, it also occurred to me “In fact not only is God real, and not only is His existence logical…but denying that, or acting like he doesn’t exist, is the single most illogical conclusion one could assert.”
Now 38 years old I’ve had that same conversation with myself and others many times, and have refined my ‘argument’ many times. It got most substantive when I started persistently asking the question “But what came before that?” when challenging atheists on the origination of life, but today it sounds more like this…
People of faith believe life manifested from a single point of origin that simply “Is.” If any atheists out there can offer an explanation for the origin of life that sounds less crazy than that, by all means — share it.
I consider my Christian faith a gift. I’m blessed to have my faith. I’m not better than people whose faith may exist as a foregone conclusion rather than as part of a more personalized journey. I’m not better than those who don’t have any faith at all. I’m certainly not better than those who as children learned a religious language different than my own; I learned to speak English as a child. Others learned to speak French. I learned Christianity as a religious language. Others learned Islam, or Judaism. Without question or qualification I know that Jesus Christ is God, but living by His example and at my best — I believe He’d rather I love people than seek to convert them. And by my own earthly father’s teachings, I learned that the best way to convert is to love.
My brother once shared an anecdote that’s remained with me ever since: If you and 1,000 other people all bundled up your individual problems and put them in the middle of the room, if given the choice you’d still walk away with your own. For most believers, the same is true of their spiritual journeys. We all have enormous room to improve, and at our best we all try to improve every day. Without challenges and opportunities, joys and hardships, pleasures and pains…life would be pretty stagnant.
It’s along this same stretch of reasoning that I recently began understanding that atheists very much have a place in God’s often incomprehensible, awesome plan and design.
Can you imagine a world without atheists?
They’ll no doubt love this reasoning because it echoes their own, but I’ll grant them that because it’s not untrue: If there were no atheists, then there’d be only a world full of people who all believe in different Gods and are all bent on proving “whose” God is more powerful. Heck even as Christians we often spend as much time arguing among each other as we do loving ourselves, each other, and those outside our faith. (Don’t get me started on the Pope!)
Of course to imagine a world without any religion or faith is, from my view, to imagine a world without logic. Again, to many of us, myself included, the only logical explanation for the origination of life is the existence of a single point of origin that simply “Is.” And since mankind has both reason and a moral compass that other species do not, it stands to reason that single point of origin uniquely values both.
In a world with atheists however, rather than prove “whose” God is better, people of faith all over the world are able to instead engage in evolutionary thought and conversation related to the mysteries of life that we’ll never get the answers to. How awesome is that, as we explore the ultimate origination of life, the universe and the moral compass by which we’re all guided?
Lead by example. Know that while you work hard every day to prepare your fields so that you may be ready to receive that which you most hope God grants you, your life and your faith and the outcomes you celebrate are still very much a gift from Him. He has blessed you with these and all other things. To quote one of my least favorite politicians entirely out of the context with which he said it: “You didn’t build that. Someone else made that happen.” That someone is Christ.
I’ll share another post in the future (Edit, 9/17/15: Here’s that post.) about why it’s wrong for the government to impose morality, as doing so negates entirely morality’s merit and also negates God’s greatest gift to us after life itself: Free will. (Which incidentally, in America we call “Liberty” and may help explain why God has may have shed His grace on We.) But for now I want to close with this…
Atheists are absolutely a gift from God, and as is the case with all things — atheists are exactly where God wants them to be, doing exactly what God wants them to be doing.
So don’t hate atheists. Don’t fear atheists. Don’t cry for atheists. Be grateful that atheists are right where God wants them to be, doing exactly what God wants them to be doing. And yes of course pray for atheists, but more importantly…Love atheists. As is so often the case, “Love” has the power to transcend that which may otherwise be painful in to something worth celebrating.