America is becoming increasingly post-Christian. Christianity has been in decline and is losing ground as the majority religion. According to the Pew Research Center, only 56 percent of Americans saying they believe in God “as described in the Bible.” A recent Barna report showed that just 38 percent of Americans attend church services weekly. This means that the beliefs and values of the Christian faith less and less represent who we are as a nation.
Living as Christ’s Ambassadors
Rather than seeing this post-Christian shift as “us versus them,” where we make enemies out of those who do not believe in God, we are called to be Christ’s ambassadors to our culture, to demonstrate the love of Christ and share the truth of the gospel (2 Corinthians 5:14-21). This means we live in the culture but live counter-culturally by following the ways of Jesus. To effectively be a minister of reconciliation and help others better understand Christ, this often starts with trying to understand what others believe.
An atheist is someone who does not believe in the existence of God or gods. An atheist can also be a naturalist or humanist. Naturalism denies the supernatural and believes that scientific laws adequately account for all phenomena. According to the American Humanist Association, humanists are those who affirm that without belief in god or the supernatural, humans have the “ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.”
While atheism focuses on what someone believes, agnosticism is focused on what someone can know. An agnostic is someone who doesn’t believe that we can know if God or any gods exist. Some are agnostic theists, people who believe in God but don’t believe they can know if God exists. This would be a type of religious skepticism. Religious skepticism also could describe those who do believe in God and hold some religious beliefs, but land in a place of uncertainty, questioning, and doubting.
Researchers will refer to this group made up of atheists, agnostics, and those who believe “nothing in particular” as skeptics (Barna), the religiously unaffiliated (Pew), or the “nones.” A recent Pew Forum found that worldwide there are 1.1 billion people who have no religious affiliation, making it the third-largest religious group globally. In the United States, roughly 23 percent or 55.8 million adults make up the “nones,” a significant jump from 36.6 million in 2007.
Pause for a moment and take that in. Twenty-three percent of Americans are either atheists, agnostics, or believe nothing in particular. Almost one in four Americans are skeptics of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, skepticism will remain on the rise with atheism becoming more prevalent among younger generations. A Barna survey conducted in 2016 found that 5 percent of Boomers (born 1946-1964) were atheists, 6 percent of Gen Xers (born 1965-1983), 7 percent of Millennials (born 1984-1998), and 13 percent of Generation Z (teens 13-18 years old born between 1999-2015) were atheist. This survey revealed that “the percentage of teens who identify specifically as atheist is double that of the general population (13 percent vs. 6 percent).”
So what is the significance of these definitions and statistics? As followers of Jesus our heart is to break for the things that break the heart of God. And all of these religiously unaffiliated are . . . people. Just like in Christendom, there are a variety of beliefs and reasons why people hold their respective beliefs, so one of the best ways we can know where to start is by building relationships and asking those in our lives what they believe about God. Then we listen. And ask more questions.
Just like Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), we must try to understand those around us and find something admirable within their belief or value system that we can relate to the Christian faith. Share with the humanist that we also see goodness in humanity and that Scripture teaches that God made humanity good.
We may be surprised to find that many people are drawn to spirituality and enjoy spiritual conversations. In a 2014 survey reported by Scientific American, 32 percent of those who called themselves atheist or agnostic said that they believed that there is “life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death.” Even those who don’t believe in him have had eternity “set” in their hearts by God (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
We need to try to understand what, and perhaps why, the nones in our lives believe what they do. Pew Research in 2017 found that the most common reason people were atheists was that they didn’t believe in God. The second reason was that they questioned many religious teachings. For agnostics and those who believe “nothing in particular,” the two highest reasons cited for being religiously unaffiliated were that they questioned many religious teachings and didn’t like the church’s standing on social and political issues. Barna Research found additional barriers to belief to include the problem of evil (how a good God could allow so much suffering in the world) as well as the hypocrisy and judgmentalism of Christians.
Discovering an individual’s specific barriers can help us know if we should be having a philosophical or pastoral conversation, or perhaps sharing an apology and clarifying the character of God displayed in Christ. Again, we must stop seeing the “other” as our enemy and instead seek to understand and love the others in our lives. This esteem for others should go beyond our perception of the nones and even extend to those on all sides of the political spectrum. If we want to have a voice of influence in our culture we, individually and corporately, cannot be filled with insults and anger if we engage in political discourse with anyone. Unfortunately, as David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons suggest in their book unChristian, we in the church “have become famous for what we oppose, rather that who we are for.” The church needs to make a conscious effort to become known for what we are for, not what we are against, all the while loving like Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Opportunity abounds for the people of God to come alongside the nones in our lives and demonstrate the character and love of Jesus. Let’s find the common ground to build relationships where we can foster a better understanding of God in the lives around us. Rather than winning an argument or a convert, may we focus on the more gradual process of discipleship. As his ambassadors we can be a part of clarifying the misperceptions people may have about God, Scripture, or Christians. With time, mutual respect, intentionality, and prayer, we may even start to see some of the nones in our lives become more and more counter-cultural themselves, as the Spirit of God works in their lives.
Danah Himes is a campus minister at the Christian Campus House serving Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, IL.