“What do you mean I have to write a paper about atheists ….” she yelled over the phone. “All I know is that they are EVIL! EVIL! I tell you!” Then without a warning, she broke down and started to cry. I had worked as an academic counselor for quite some time and had come to understand that most students were resistant to certain topics in their world religion course. Usually, frustration was expressed in the form of incomplete assignments or lack of engagement in classroom discussion. However, this was new to me. This was my first time witnessing someone having a complete meltdown over this matter.
The student on the other end of the line was a middle-aged daughter of a fundamental pastor. She had been assigned the task of identifying and discussing moralistic motivations of atheists. The assignment required her to provide an academic response describing social constructs, influence, and norms. However, she interpreted the question as a direct attack against her Christian worldview. Behind the sounds of her uncontrollable sobbing, she kept repeating, “Atheists are evil!”
At first, I didn’t have a response to her outburst of emotion. To be honest, I didn’t understand how she came to interpret this assignment as a personal attack. Seeking clarification, I asked her, “Can you help me to understand what you mean? I’m not understanding what has caused you to be so upset.” You would have thought that I had splashed a glass of ice-cold-water on her face.
She knew that I was a former pastor, and she had expected me to side with her. From the sound of it, she wanted me to help her find a way out of completing the assignment. She stopped sobbing for a quick second to ask a question, “Weren’t you taught that atheists are evil?” I chuckled to myself and responded, “What I’ve been taught is that evil and rebellion are part of our human nature. Thanks to Adam and Eve, we inherited this mess. In fact, it was for this very reason that Jesus came to Earth. He came to redeem a fallen humanity. We just all express evil differently depending on where we are at in life.”
It was obvious that she was not pleased with my response. She wasn’t having it with my stance and expressed it by muttering some things under her breath that involved the words “rebuke,” “get thee behind me Satan,” and “in Jesus’s name.” Her choice words were followed by the sound of a dial-tone. She had hung up on me.
This puzzling conversation caused me to take a moment and reflect on how I respond and interact with people who hold different beliefs and worldviews than I do. It doesn’t take long for people to find out that faith and belief are a huge part of my life. I am unapologetically a Christian. I believe in God, I believe in His son Jesus Christ, and I am an undeserving recipient of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. As a representative of Christ, I believe that it is my responsibility to represent Him and to do it well. Sometimes, I’m shining in this area, and at other times, I fail miserably.
In my failures, I always encounter grace. Grace changes my outlook. It causes me to renounce any temptation to assume that I am better than others, and it inspires me to demonstrate grace as well. Yes, I do recognize that some atheists are extremists who go to great measures to demonstrate spite and hatred toward people of faith. However, I’m not ignorant of the fact that I have attended church with people who might as well be labeled as Christian extremists themselves. And that’s why I cling to grace. In fact, grace causes me to recognize that there are many things that I can learn from those who hold different beliefs from me. And with that thought, I’d like to share with you 3 powerful lessons that I have learned over the years from my friends and family who happen to be atheists.
- It’s good to “do good” simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Throughout my life I’ve been addicted to approval. I must confess that many times I am tempted to do good things to receive the approval of others and of from God. Truthfully, I love to be awarded, and I love acknowledgement. However, I have several friends who happen to be atheists and who are involved in serving their community and advocating for justice. In doing this, they are simply motivated because it is the right thing to do. They aren’t concerned with receiving the approval of a deity or anybody else for that matter. They simply choose to do good because they enjoy it. Their example makes me wonder how my relationship with God would be if I just genuinely chose to do good because I was motivated by love and not by a desire for connection with the divine. I wonder how life would be if I simply approached God with the desire to be in his presence instead of expecting something in return.
- Love is best experienced when you love someone simply because of who they are, not for what they believe in.
I have a family member that holds an agnostic/atheistic worldview. When we talk, it’s obvious that we don’t see eye to eye on everything. Nevertheless, this guy has not once made me feel like I am “less than.” In fact, I truly sense that he loves me just the way that I am. Not once has he ever asked me to be someone other than my ornery self.
Since I can remember, he has been a constant voice of encouragement. He’s someone that I still count on for an encouraging word when I’m having a bad day. The truth is his love inspires me to love people regardless of where they are at in their current journey in life. As I look through the Gospels, I see Jesus loving people in this manner. It may sound sacrilegious for me to say this, but this family member inspires me to be more like Jesus than many Christians do. And I’m grateful for this inspiration.
- The opinions of others are never a “good enough” reason to cause you to doubt what you believe.
Another trait that I admire about my loved ones that are atheists is that they are not easily swayed by the opinions of others. They don’t live in constant doubt, worry, or fear. They have a predetermined foundation that they live from and it is not dependent on the affirmation of others. When I see this, I’m personally convicted to do the same with what I believe to be true. I’m challenged to hold fast to my beliefs regardless of what others may say. I’m challenged to stand up to doubt, worry, and fear. I’m challenged to be a man of faith in the face of opposition.
John Eli Garay
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on john-eli.com
Featured Image by Tim Marshall