I once heard someone say that the longer you are a Christian, the fewer non-Christian friends you have. I know this has been very true for me. As I fell in love with God and my Catholic faith in high school, the more I started to make choices around my faith. Where I went to college, the career I chose, the subjects I studied, and how I spent my free time were significantly influenced by my identity as a follower of Christ. I don’t think this self-segregating phenomena is peculiar to Christians. It’s totally normal, if not always healthy, to spend time with people who think and act like us. However, by the magic of social media, I’ve managed to stay in touch with, reconnect with, meet, and in fact deepen relationships with people whose lives have taken a very different turn from my own. Some of these people are atheists. We frequently have conversations on Facebook about politics, ethics, philosophy, pop culture, and yes, religion. And through some trial & error and lots of good will, we’ve managed to establish a culture of mutual respect and productive dialogue in our conversations. I have come to love these conversations as they give me a window into the minds of people with whom I don’t normally meet in my day to day interactions. In particular, conservations with my atheist friends have proved supremely fascinating. And while my Christian friends and communities keep me grounded and supported in my life in Christ, I’ve also found great value in my friendships with atheists. Below is a far from exhaustive list of things I’ve learned from them. Most of these are lessons that I’ve known intellectually but have relearned experientially in a deeper way through these conversations.
Christians do not have a monopoly on virtue
I can be a jerk. Like a really selfish jerk sometimes (even in online conversations, shocker, I know). Ever had to eat humble pie when you realize that you were way out of line while your atheist friend was gracious, understanding, and forgiving? Yeah, that’s happened.
In his letter to the Romans (2:14-15), Paul wrote that Gentiles (who had no direct revelation from God like the Jews did) still had God’s law “written in their hearts” and that their conscience bore witness to their minds. The Catechism similarly says “The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties”(CCC #1956.) Thomas Aquinas also acknowledged that there are natural virtues which any human may acquire to some extent through their own efforts.
We know this of course, but it’s easy to believe the stereotype of the unfeeling, rational, utilitarian atheist if we don’t take time to form relationships with actual atheists who are frequently quite virtuous. Moreover and inspiringly, virtuous atheists do good things without any thought of the reward of heaven or the pain of hell. Granted, Christians are also not supposed to draw our moral motivation from these either, but rather be motivated by the gratitude we feel in response to God’s love for us (1 John 4: 11), but we often forget that. Our Atheist friends can be a reminder.
Christians believe some weird stuff
When you are a person that goes to church every week, it’s easy to forget how strange it sounds to talk about eating Jesus’ flesh and blood. Or that Jesus is God but also God’s Son. And that he had to be tortured and killed to save us from our sins. Yeah, we believe some weird stuff. I still believe it and I think everyone should (because it’s the truth) but let’s be honest, it sounds really weird to outsiders.
Christians have a bad reputation
Those of us who belong to a church probably do so because we’ve had really good experiences there. Maybe your church baked you meals after you had your baby or when you were sick. Maybe you found mentors, friends, or (like me) a spouse there. Maybe you broke free and found healing from addictions and abuse. Maybe you’ve had amazing witnesses in your history that have shown you the powerful love of God. Throughout my life, I have found wonderful church communities that have helped me discover my purpose in life and encouraged and challenged me to be all that I can be. I know many of you have as well.
But what if you hadn’t? What if your 5th grade religious ed. teacher told you that your parents were going to hell because they’d gotten divorced? What if the only personal conversation you ever had with your parish priest was about how inappropriate your clothing was? What if your uncle was sexually assaulted by someone at the church? What if, at church, instead of mentors & friends, you met bullies, abusers, or people who ignored you altogether? Would you still be a Christian? I’m not sure that I would be.
This is the experience of many atheists. As the late Brennan Manning once wrote, ““The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” Which is why . . .
They are watching us
I don’t mean that in a creepy way. What I mean is that they are curious how we are going to live our lives. Many atheists admire the devotion we show to our faith, even if they think it misguided. But they see how we treat people in person and online. They want to see if we can put our money where our mouth is.
Atheists doubt their beliefs sometimes too
If you ask 100 Christians if they’ve ever had serious doubts about whether everything they believe is a lie, 99 of them will probably raise their hands (some of them will raise both). Periods of doubt are par for the course when you are a Christian and many of us kind of assume we will go through a really bad one at least once in our faith journey, if we haven’t already. But I never thought about the fact that Atheists doubt their beliefs sometimes too, but whereas the frightening, soul shattering question for Christians “What if God isn’t real?” for Atheists the question is, “What if God is real?” As Christians, it’s easy to think that we are the only ones who tempted to think that everything we believe is a lie but it turns out that is true for everyone.
Moral of the story, none of us can have absolute certainty about God’s existence (or lack thereof) on this side of eternity. Doubt, it turns out, is part of the human experience.
Atheism takes some guts
Seriously, I don’t know if I could get through life as an atheist. Life is hard enough to get through even with the consolation of faith. Pretty much every hard time in my life, I have gotten through it by relying on God, believing that he had a purpose amidst the storm, praying for (and receiving) wisdom and strength to persevere despite my shortcomings. I can’t imagine overcoming life’s difficulties without God bringing me through. And yes, a part of me feels sorrow and compassion for atheists that they can’t/don’t/won’t rely on the Lord in such times, but it is also an impressive demonstration of will power. I think this perhaps is why some of the great saints have been converts from atheism: their strong individual will power, when put at the service of the Lord and aided by grace, is a force to be reckoned with.
They are seekers of truth
Many atheists pride themselves on being rational seekers of truth and they take their search seriously. They aren’t going to easily be drawn to a conclusion that isn’t sound. Christians, too, should be voracious seekers of truth, not accepting superficial answers but thoroughly examining the great questions of life. By this, we can assure that our faith rests on solid ground and is more than surface deep. Jesus famously said, “Seek and you will find” (Matthew 7:7). This means being willing to ask tough, probing questions and persevere in pursuing the answers.
I’ve benefited so much from friendship with atheists through the years, I highly recommend spending time in conversation and fellowship with kind hearted atheists. And not in a missionary friendship kind of way where our goal is conversion without connection or community. Sure, if an opportunity to witness to the gospel presents itself and you think you can pull that off in an effective way, go for it. That’s our call (Matthew 28:19). But we believe that they are children of God, even if they don’t recognize God as their father, which means we need to treat them like our brothers and sisters. We should love our non-believing brethren because they are our brethren, not just because they are unbelieving. You never know, you might make some friends. Heck, you might even learn something. And you may also introduce someone to Jesus. Conversion most often comes from healthy community. That goes for us Christians as well (who should always be seeking greater conversion to Christ). And as much as my Christian communities have helped and continue to help convert my sinner’s heart, I’m also a better man and better Christian from my friendships with atheists.
Mike Tenney has spent the past 15 years speaking, teaching, and leading worship and retreats for youth and young adults of various backgrounds and faiths. Mike has been a featured musician and speaker for national, regional, archdiocesan, and parish events including the Couples for Christ National Youth Conference, Catholic Underground, Life Teen XLT's, Theology on Taps, and Christ in the City. He has shared the stage and worked alongside Matt Maher, Jason Evert, Steve Angrisano, Jesse Manibusan, and Chris Padgett. You can find more about Mike and his ministry including online talks at www.MikeTenneyMusic.com and follow him @pkMikeyT.