An atheist is, by definition, without God. The term “atheism” comes from the Greek word atheos—a- meaning “without” and theos meaning “god.” Atheism is the philosophy that God does not exist.
Put very simply, atheism is the opposite of theism—belief in God or gods. Monotheists like Christians believe there is one true God who created and rules the world. They also believe that one’s relationship with God should greatly influence everything in one’s life.
So are atheists the sworn enemy of Christians, followers of Jesus Christ who believe he is the divine Son of God?
The answer is simple. No, atheists are not Christians’ enemy—certainly not as a category or class of people.
Disagreement, Not Enmity
While the tone of religious debate today can be quite rancorous, disagreement alone does not require two parties or factions to act as enemies, committed to the destruction of each other. Believers and nonbelievers have fundamental differences, yes. And yes, those differences may be deeply held and passionately articulated. They can certainly result in divergent values and lifestyles.
But it is also true that individual atheists and Christians might have much in common. They may be members of the same family or residents of the same neighborhood. They may share the same profession or employer. Together they may love their friends, serve their community, champion the rights of the disadvantaged, protect the peace, or work for justice—all while disagreeing about the existence of God.
It is possible for those with opposing views to disagree strongly, present their arguments openly, and dialogue respectfully. Some may be won to a new view by such tactics; many will not. But the more the two groups are willing to engage truthfully and respectfully as opponents rather than enemies, the clearer their differences will appear—something both sides desire.
Amicable opponents may do what enemies find it impossible to do: avoid mockery, reject intolerance, refuse to engage in hateful rhetoric, listen well, and act with kindness.
A few years ago, the American Atheists organization sponsored a holiday billboard in Times Square in New York City. The piece featured a picture of Santa Claus over an image of Jesus crucified on the cross. “Keep the Merry,” it said. “Dump the Myth.”1
This image, presented at no small expense in one of the most heavily trafficked metro areas in the United States, openly mocked Christianity at an important season for its followers. The ad was ill-advised at best, inflammatory and mean-spirited at worst.
Believers and unbelievers can and should treat one another with respect. They need not mock one another to score points in a philosophical debate. Even Jesus never mocked honest unbelievers. He reserved his strongest indignation for the Pharisees—a powerful and educated class of devout Jews whose hyper-piety rendered them judgmental and rigid.
The voices most publicized in the debate between Christianity and atheism tend to be those that are most strident, extremist, and unyielding. Both sides ascribe tolerance as a virtue, but tolerance is not acquiescence or capitulation. It is engaging others with respect, inviting critical inquiry, and encouraging open discussion.
This is exactly the kind of tolerance that Jesus extended to his adversaries throughout his public ministry. When confronted by angry Pharisees about his words or actions, Jesus frequently responded by asking them questions in return. Often he held his tongue.
When the rights of others were at stake, however, he was unbending:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.2
Refuse Hateful Rhetoric
“One bad thing about the new atheist books is they weren’t just saying that religion is wrong, they were actually saying that even respect for religion is wrong,” says author and pastor Timothy Keller. “That’s a recipe for disaster, and certainly doesn’t bring about civil discourse at all.”3
Disrespectful, hateful rhetoric is counterproductive, whether it is offensive placards waved by Westboro Baptist Church protesters or references from the pages of best-selling books like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. For instance, Westboro protesters frequently brandish signs containing harmful, hateful, and hurtful messages, often declaring that God hates homosexuals, the media, and America.
On the other hand, militant atheist Richard Dawkins calls the God of the Old Testament “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”4
Both approaches are unproductive and fail to encourage open, honest conversation. Such tactics are damaging to respectful, reasoned discourse.
“To answer before listening,” the writer of Proverbs says, “that is folly and shame.”5 But too often we do just that. When exchanges between Christians and atheists become emotionally charged, listening is even more difficult.
We often assume we know what another person is going to say, and we respond based on that assumption. Giving our opinion before gathering the facts or hearing the other person’s argument opens us to many kinds of problems, including “folly and shame.”
Wise opponents listen carefully to opposing arguments—not simply to refute them but to understand them. “To deem listening unnecessary,” writes author and communications expert Tim Muehlhoff, “is to communicate that the other person is inferior and that his or her perspective does not matter; all that matters is what we have to say.”6
Little is more polarizing than a refusal to listen.
Act with Kindness
It is possible for us to act in loving, charitable ways toward those with whom we disagree, even when we have wildly differing views. “The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance can be our friend,” C. S. Lewis wrote. “He need not agree with us about some answer.”7
When we treat each other with respect and focus on our common questions, real dialogue is possible. “Dialogue is to love,” writes Reuel Howe, “what blood is to the body. When the flow of blood stops, the body dies. When dialogue stops, love dies and resentment and hate are born. Indeed this is the miracle of dialogue: it can bring relationship into being.”8
The True Enemy
We can brand our opponents as enemies and treat them as such, or, as Christians, we can choose to follow the direction of Jesus. We can love our neighbor and consider our true enemy to be the devil. “He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”9
As we seek to share the truth and beauty of the Gospel with those who do not believe, our words can kill, or they can give life.10 The choice is entirely our own.
- Ryan Grenoble, “American Atheists Place 2012 ‘Myth’ Holiday Billboard in Times Square: ‘Keep the Merry, Dump the Myth’, The Huffington Post, December 11, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/11/american-atheists-christmas-billboard-times-square_n_2273314.html.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Matthew 23:13, 15.
- “Tim Keller on the New Atheists,” BigThink, http://bigthink.com/videos/tim-keller-on-the-new-atheists.
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 51.
- The Holy Bible, Proverbs 18:13.
- Tim Muehlhoff, I Beg to Differ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 88.
- C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960), 96.
- Reuel Howe, The Miracle of Dialogue (New York: Seabury, 1963), 3.
- The Holy Bible, John 8:44.
- Ibid., Proverbs 18:21.
- Photo Credit: Matthew Spaulding / Stocksy.com