By Jacqueline J. Holness
I honestly believe you can learn lessons from anyone—even atheists. Although it seems in some cities throughout the U.S. that you can find a church on every corner, the truth is, atheism is on the rise. According to “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism,” a poll conducted by WIN-Gallup International, 60 percent of Americans considered themselves “religious” in 2012. This percentage was down from 73 percent when the poll was conducted previously in 2005. In fact, the United States is one of the top 10 countries experiencing a notable decline in religiosity since 2005. In addition, in 2005 about 1 percent of Americans identified themselves as atheists; that rose to 5 percent in 2012.
Since the Great Commission is one of the central tenets of our faith, we cannot ignore what atheists are saying, and we have to prepare to address and even learn from this cultural shift. Just as Christians are not a homogeneous group, we also have to recognize that if we have met one atheist, we haven’t met them all. According to a 2013 study conducted by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, there are six types of atheists: intellectual atheist/agnostic, activist, seeker-agnostic, anti-theist, non-
theist, and ritual atheist/agnostic.
The last group “was one of the most interesting and unexpected,” according to the researchers. These atheists don’t believe in God but “may identify strongly with religious traditions as a matter of cultural identity and even take an active participation in religious rituals.” There may be a mission field among our pews if we pay attention. Jeff Schapiro interviewed the researchers, and Thomas J. Coleman III recalled “one person in particular who participates in church services and sings in the church choir, but doesn’t believe in God” (from the Christian Post article “Researchers: ‘Ritual’ Atheists and Agnostics Could Be Sitting Next to You”).
Sadly, atheism is starting to penetrate the pulpit as well. I recently found articles on pastors who have left the church and have started atheist churches. I’m not sure what we can do about this trend, but it is important to note.
As is widely known, most people become Christians at younger ages. And in college those beliefs are typically challenged. I came across an enlightening article “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity” on The Atlantic website. Larry Alex Taunton wrote about his discussions with atheist college students throughout the country. One of the college students interviewed was Phil, who was president of his school’s Secular Student Alliance—but he was once president of his Methodist church’s youth group. Phil noted that his disillusionment with Christianity began when the church’s youth leader, who was very knowledgeable about the Bible, was replaced by “Savannah, an attractive twenty-something who, according to Phil, ‘didn’t know a thing about the Bible.’” The youth leadership was changed by the church to attract more young people, and the youth group did grow. However, the church lost Phil. Phil’s experience leads to two questions: (1) how knowledgeable are we about the Bible? and (2) in our efforts to grow, have we left the gospel behind?
It also seems that many atheists or nonbelievers dislike Christians more than they dislike Jesus Christ, according to John Shore, who wrote the book I’m OK—You’re Not: The Message We’re Sending Nonbelievers and Why We Should Stop (NavPress Publishing Group, 2007). Shore listed several e-mail messages he received from nonbelievers in researching his book. One person wrote, “I have no problem whatsoever with God or Jesus—only Christians. It’s been my experience that most Christians are belligerent, disdainful and pushy.”
In our zeal to follow the Great Commission, have we become insensitive? Have we forgotten that our job is to tell others about Jesus Christ while the Holy Spirit’s job is to influence that person to become a Christian?
Atheism is a growing cultural shift in this country that cannot be ignored. We must engage atheists in a knowledgeable and respectful way. Hopefully, through the love and power of Jesus Christ, we can reverse this cultural trend.
Jacqueline J. Holness, a member of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, is a correspondent for Courthouse News Service,
an online, national news service for attorneys. Contact Jacqueline at afterthealtarcall.com.