This is the message I heard from the authority figures in my life as I was growing up. Being atheist immediately placed a person in the same category as paedophiles, wife-beaters, and mass murderers. They were depicted as angry, mean and downright unfriendly. (The leaflet shown above is just one of the many I have seen that were used to teach us that atheists are evil, mean, uneducated, corrupting and immoral influences and we should avoid them at any cost.)
So imagine my surprise to find out that non-belief doesn’t make you a Grinch, or even put you on the Most Wanted list! The fact that someone such as this could be friendly? Really? But they don’t have Jesus in their heart. They don’t read the Bible. They wouldn’t know how to be nice. Right?
How wrong I was.
Not only do they embrace such mantras as “Live better. Help often. Wonder more,*” but they give blood, volunteer at the soup kitchen, drive for Meals-on-wheels, run charities, volunteer for humanitarian causes and care deeply about many of the same things I care about. Some of them I have the privilege as counting as good friends and valued associates.
That’s probably why I was drawn to The Friendly Atheist website and then podcast by Hemant Mehta. Hemant started this venture after selling his soul on eBay and then writing a blog and a book about it. He has no problem having conversations with Christians and non-believers alike and learning from anyone with something of value to say. I find his method intriguing and insights compelling.
Reading his book I Sold My Soul on eBay, I was struck by someone who was open-minded and willing to admit that he didn’t know it all. He put that which he didn’t believe existed, his soul, up for sale and not only took bids on it, but agreed that, for every $10 raised, he would visit one religious service. The winning bidder, John Henson, compiled a list of all the churches he wanted Hemant to visit and then asked that he write blog posts about these churches and what he learned about Christianity through his interaction with these people of faith.
These blog posts became the book.
He experienced some crazy stuff, was amazed by other committed and caring folk (I guess we aren’t the only ones who pigeonhole whole groups of people), and was able to examine Christian worship from a purely objective point of view.
He admitted that many things the Church in general has gotten right, though he tends to qualify this by emphasising that his sample set was a small proportion of Christianity as a whole, and mostly focused around the Midwest U.S.
He also sees a whole lot that we have gotten wrong, including the idea that all atheists are sad, angry and have experienced a God-centred trauma at some point in their life (which is essentially the theme of the insensitive, ignorant and grossly inaccurate screenplay of the movie God is Not Dead.)
The truth is, we as professing Christians (at least a fair percentage of us) are also angry, mean-spirited, immoral and hateful people. Our tradition has us believing in a god who throws people who have never been given a chance to repent into a place where they will be roasted forever, who commanded horrific acts of genocide, even presiding over the intentional elimination of every man, woman, child and creature on the planet at one point in what many believe to be ‘history.’ I intentionally use the word ‘god’ because this god is small, tribal, angry, and manipulative. The God I believe that is shown in Jesus is a God of love, peace, joy, inclusion and acceptance. This is a God whose character I cannot reconcile with the god of the Hebrew patriarchs. In this, and many other areas, I must admit that I, too, don’t have all the answers.
So I defer to kindness, peace, hope, love–all traits that good-hearted people of both atheist and theist positions embrace. I choose to live in harmony with my non-believing brothers and sisters. I choose not to have an agenda of persuasion whenever I am with them. I (and I think God is with me on this because, as you know from my previous posts, God thinks like me) would rather see a kind atheist than a mean Christian.
* The mantra of a growing popular humanist movement, The Sunday Assembly, that replaces the church service with an uplifting secular meeting, held on Sundays.