March 24, 2015

Dear Christians: How do you get rid of noisy atheists?

Dear Christians is a recurring column that deals with my intersection between belief and nonbelief. It looks at my personal views of belief and deals with the myths of nonbelief that I was taught growing up. All opinions are, of course, my own. To see more Dear Christians columns, click here.

Dear Christians,

I remember sitting in church, and listening to the pastor talk about nonbelievers, and thinking to myself, "How can anyone not believe?" Over time, that shifted as I grew into  a teenager into, "Why do we care so much what other people believe or don't believe?"

The caricature of atheism I had in my head was an absolute strawman. I'd never met an (out) atheist in my life. I had no idea. I assumed that the drunks and the drug addicts hanging out on a particular street in my hometown had to be atheists--because I'd been taught that atheists had no morals to speak of.

But none of that was true, of course.

The other topic that came up, consistently, was how we could rid ourselves of nonbelievers. It tended to take a couple of turns. Witnessing. Living Christ's message in our own lives. Some simple apologetic arguments. Pascal's wager. These were all tools we were taught would bring the unbelievers to God.

And what if they still didn't come? Well, then we were to shrug our shoulders and do what God put on our hearts. For some people, that would be cutting off contact entirely. For others, it would be rinsing and repeating the above, with a healthy, heaping side of prayer. After all, if God has the heart of the king in his hands, surely he also has the heart of a simple atheist.

Today, I'd like to take a look at that question. First, at what The Bible says about dealing with unbelief, and then at how you can actually rid yourself of noisy atheists making trouble.


What Does The Bible Say?


The Bible allows for a wide range of interpretations of how to deal with nonbelief, some of which are far kinder than others.

For instance, 1 John 1:9-11 says:
Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.
Some folks, like the churches in which I was raised, interpret this as a fairly hard and fast rule: nonbelievers should be shunned, or you will be taking part in their wickedness. However, some more liberal denominations see this as an olive branch, of sorts--after all, you can abide in many of the teachings of Christ, like compassion, while not believe in Christianity itself.

2 Corinthians 6:14 is a familiar verse:
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?

The Old Testament is, of course, a little more hardcore. 2 Chronicles 15:12-13 talks about those that refuse to enter a covenant with God:
And they entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and with all their soul, but that whoever would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, should be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman. 

The first freethinking martyrs in The Bible are in Numbers 16:
Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men: 
And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown: 
And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?
This has always been an interesting passage to me, because I come from a Protestant background, and the argument they make here is not unlike the arguments that Protestantism is founded on--that each of us has access to the truth of God, and that we can discover that truth for ourselves.

But God frowned on such a thought process at this point in biblical history, as we find in verses 31 through 33:
And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them: 
And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. 
They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation.

So we have a variety of methods of handling the nonbelieving--and a story about how to handle challenges to religious authority, even if they are technically believers.

But what would actually work?

How Can You Actually Rid Yourselves of Noisy Atheists?


 Can you actually rid yourselves atheists? Yes and no.

You are always going to be surrounded by people that don't believe. Maybe they believe in something else, maybe they don't, but they will be there, nonetheless. Even in nations where being an atheist carries the death penalty, or the threat of severe imprisonment and beatings, people still don't believe--and some of them aren't quiet about it. Some of them choose to be vocal, and to bear the potential consequences of that. How much more so will unbelievers feel comfortable talking about that nonbelief in nations like the United States?

But let's be real for a moment: it's not quiet nonbelievers that are really the problem. It's the noisy ones. The ones making trouble and sending cease and desist letters and filing lawsuits. THOSE are the nonbelievers that make the wider religious culture crazy, amirite?

The good news is, you can put an end to that, and it's really quiet simple. All you have to do is follow the Constitution, right here in the United States, and respect religious freedom.

That means not putting people in the uncomfortable position of public prayer--after all, Jesus himself said in Matthew 6: 5-8:

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. 
Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  
Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

It's right there, in red and white.

That means not proselytizing. Don't get me wrong, it doesn't mean you can't ever talk about your faith. I'd hate to be told I can't talk about my atheism, personally. But it does mean changing your tune. Try this: Topic A comes up, and maybe you say, "As a Christian, my opinion on Topic A is, XYZ."

When you encounter someone with different beliefs, you can say, "That's interesting! I'm a Christian. nice to meet you." It's pretty simple.

And yet, hard, right? I mean, you know The Truth™, how can you not share it? Isn't this against The Bible? Aren't you hiding your light under a bushel?

I'd argue that no, you're not, and that there's even a biblical basis for this strategy.

Consider this: God did not call for the Israelites to proselytize; rather, they were expected to live his covenant and show that covenant through their daily lives.

1 Petter 3:15 says:

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,

The wording here is interesting: "make a defense to anyone who asks". That's very different from proselytizing.

Matthew 5:16 says:

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

John 5:31 says:

If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not deemed true. 

What about all of the verses that talk about declaring that you have to acknowledge God before men? YOU CAN! That's the amazing part. No one is going to stop you from saying, "I'm a Christian."

But Christianity today has bled through to the point that it's influencing every aspect of our culture--and not always for the best. It's a component of the science denials that are preventing us from taking action to stem the tides of climate change and global warming. It's a mighty force behind the oppression of LGBT+ individuals (although, admittedly, in some areas its also a force pushing for the liberation...but of course, as it's liberation from principles held by other Christians and because of a situation caused by Christianity's morals bleeding into our legal codes...but I digress...). It's huge behind the push for abstinence-only education, the reduction of access to abortion, and the inability to access inexpensive hormonal contraception. It's been a force on both sides of women's and civil rights. Many of these situations are caused by what I call "cultural leakage"--intentionally or not, the morality bleeds through and affects even the lives of those that don't believe it...even the lives of Christians that have a different standard of morality.

It's not that organizations are pushing back against Christianity because they don't like Christianity--no matter what the American Family Association's bigotry map might say. It's that we believe that the best nation can only be achieved by having a secular meeting at the level of government. A secular public sphere protects everyone's rights, not just those of the majority religion.

That's what the pushback is all about.

You want to get rid of those pesky noisy atheists? It's simple. You

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