Why Christians Should Rethink Their Attitudes Towards Atheists

Even Pope Francis Likes Randal's new book!
Even Pope Francis Likes Randal’s new book!

Dr Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary where he has taught since 2003. He is the author of several books including his latest one which we’ll be discussing today, Is The Atheist My Neighbor: Rethinking Christian Attitudes towards Atheism.

I first became aware or Randal through his debates on Unbelievable? In every debate I found myself feeling sorry for the atheist he was up against. He’s that good.

While I certainly don’t agree with everything Randal believes and teaches, I do strongly encourage you to listen to his Unbelievable? debates. Listen to them here, here, and here.  

While Randal makes no apologies for his Christian faith, he believes in and exemplifies charity towards his atheist interlocutors.

In this blog I ask Randal three questions that concern his new book. Which you should get.

Christians can be condescending too

Matt Fradd: Today, in many circles, “atheist” has become a short-hand way of saying, “I’m more intelligent than you.” In many forums, atheists tend to speak patronizingly about God and those who believe in him. Many Christians, I think, at least back when The God Delusion, God Is Not Great, Letters To A Christian Nation, etc. came out, didn’t know how to respond to the attacks atheists were leveling at them.

Because of this, I’ve seen many Christians just resort to the same condescending tactics they’ve seen atheists use. Has this been your experience? If so, would you speak to it a little?

Randal Rauser: I have no doubt that the harshness of the new atheist critique of religion and Christianity has contributed to the growing hostilities between Christians and atheists. These days many atheists dismiss Christians as irrational and emotionally regressed, believing they cling to religion as a sort of celestial security blanket. To note one common target, petitionary prayer is often derided as an infantile appeal to a “sky daddy”. This lack of care and basic charity in the attitudes many atheists hold toward with people of faith is, to say the least, a hindrance to dialogue.

As you might expect, these dismissive attitudes are particularly common on the internet. I’ve seen many Christians take the bait in discussions in online blogs and chatrooms by seeking to defend their faith to those who outright mock their convictions. Exchanges that start off with such hostility and condescension rarely end well.

So it is little surprise that some Christians respond in kind. But even if such angry reactions are understandable, for those who are called to turn the other cheek, they are never justifiable.

However, when I researched Is the Atheist My Neighbor? it became evident that long before there was a new atheism Christians as a group were themselves deeply hostile and condescending toward atheists. Atheism, the claim that no God exists, is largely a modern phenomenon which traces back to the 18th century Enlightenment. And as I discovered, throughout that time Christian pastors, theologians, philosophers, and other church leaders have consistently expressed scathing attitudes toward atheists.

For example, one famous 19th century Protestant pastor, Charles Spurgeon, denounced atheists as worse than the demons of hell. Spurgeon also quotes with approval essayist and hymn writer Joseph Addison’s description of atheists as vermin. Imagine that, referring to an entire group of human beings as a pestilence.

Fortunately, anti-atheist rhetoric is not quite that heated these days, but one still regularly hears sweeping dismissals of atheists as immoral and irrational. Understanding the dark history of Christian hostility toward atheists certainly goes some distance toward placing the new atheism into proper context.

To put it bluntly, I think the Christian community needs to own up to the extent to which we have failed to extend love and hospitality toward those within the atheist community. Rather than return new atheist barbs with our own heated rhetoric, I think we should own the fact that a good deal of atheist animus toward Christianity is simply the fruit of our own past mistreatment of atheists.

There Are No True Atheists

Matt Fradd: One of the things I’ve heard Christians say is, “No one is really an atheist, deep down they all know God exists.” If I were an atheist I would find this incredibly insulting. It would be like someone saying to me now, “Matt, you don’t really believe in God. You’re just frightened to admit it.” Um, ouch! Who the heck are you to be psychoanalyzing me? What are your thoughts on this, and what might be a better approach to take?

Randal Rauser: I agree. This looks bad. I don’t appreciate it when atheists tell me I’m a Christian because of some deep emotional issue. So by the Golden Rule, I presumably shouldn’t be trying to psychoanalyze them by telling them they’re really suppressing their latent belief in God. Not only is this insulting, but when you start talking to atheists, it also becomes increasingly implausible.

I remember one time I was out for dinner with an atheist friend. I told him that I experience God every day and he was genuinely fascinated by the claim. A day or so later he emailed me with a simple question. “You said you experience God every day,” he wrote. “Why don’t I?” I didn’t sense any hostility or condescension in his question. Rather, it seemed to be driven by a heartfelt perplexity.

This is a real problem. Indeed, philosophers have a name for it. They call it the “problem of divine hiddenness.” In short, if there is a God, then why doesn’t he make his presence evident to all those people who genuinely want to know that he exists, people like my friend? This is a great question, and Christian apologists and philosophers have offered some good responses worth considering. But at the very least I think we need to concede that there are such people. We simply can’t dismiss atheism as a disingenuous suppression of belief in God.

At the same time, I think it is important to understand why Christians often claim that atheism involves this willful suppression of belief in God. In my experience, Christians are often drawn to this position out of the belief that the Bible teaches it in passages like Psalm 14 and Romans 1. I argue in the book that this is false. In my view, the Bible doesn’t teach that atheism is always the result of sinful rebellion and the suppression of belief.

To sum up, we ought not claim that atheists really do believe in God or that they are suppressing belief in God. Rather, we should recognize that sometimes God seems to be hidden to some people. The next question is, why?

How Do we Love Our Atheist Neighbor?

Matt Fradd: Finally, would you give us a few tips on how to love our atheist neighbors? Other than us buying your new book, of course. 🙂

Randal Rauser: Sure. The best place to start is by setting aside any apologetic or evangelistic agenda. Your neighborhood atheist is not an evangelistic or apologetic project. Rather, he or she is a human being with a story to share … if you’re willing to listen. So take the time to get to know people and hear their story.

I find it fascinating, challenging, and often disheartening to hear the reasons why people don’t believe in God. But above all I have been changed by getting to hear the stories of other people. I guarantee that simply being the presence of Christ to those who have been alienated by the church or disappointed by life will do more than any apologetic argument.

Let me add that I don’t mean to devalue apologetics. I love apologetic argument. But arguments will be far more powerful once you’ve earned the right to be heard. And if I’m right that Christians have a long history of discriminating against atheists as a community, then I think we’ve got some work to do to establish good relations as a precursor to reasoned apologetic discussion

Learn more about Randal’s new book here.

One thought on “Why Christians Should Rethink Their Attitudes Towards Atheists

  1. One year late.
    I agree with your assessment of atheists, having been one. I was fascinated by religion in itself, but religious people always put me off, they still do because of their all too human, conscience free bad behaviour (individuals, not societies).
    Because of reasons you probably don’t want to know about, I transcended belief/non belief in the course of half an hour somewhere in the 80’s. I’ve been trying to understand it ever since, which has led to the moral conclusion that human life is sacred, and should be preserved intact, so that we can understand. If we get out the other end with greater understanding than when we started, that life was a success.
    Transcending belief is not something most Christians I’ve spoken to understand. If we scrap the importance of belief, or at least redefine the muddy ideas attached to it, we wouldn’t have these warring camps. Psychically belief is dangerous, it’s not spiritual, it’s your own consciousness dictating experience, it can send you insane as you become a victim of yourself. Belief isn’t absolutely required in order to produce an experience, it can come of its own accord.
    Honest understanding in order to differentiate will produce better results than belief.
    I haven’t mixed up belief with faith, hopefully. I understand Faith as trust, which I have no problem with.

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