Q. Atheist actor and writer Ricky Gervais is working on a new show, Afterlife , which features “an atheist who dies and goes to heaven.” If Gervais hopes to bring cultural acceptance of non-belief to mainstream America, he faces an uphill battle. Polls show that many Americans distrust atheists and nearly half say they would not vote for one. Should it matter whether or not a politician believes in God? As mainstream acceptance of other minority groups grows, will atheists still lag behind?
A. Members of my church saw friends and family slaughtered in the name of atheism.
I am a member of the Orthodox Church. Members of my church suffered millions of deaths in the Soviet Union’s gulags. Meeting a person lucky enough to have survived is not hard. I have personally met victims of the terror in the Soviet Union, which had official atheist fairs and attacked religious belief in schools, and communist China. One person speaking at Biola was in a Chinese camp for the crime of being Christian. His testimony was heart rending.
At this moment, officially secular regimes are imprisoning and torturing religious people behind a bamboo curtain of lies and oppression in the name of “reason” and “science.”
Simultaneously, in the West loud atheist voices proclaim all religious people “foolish” and refuse to debate issues with common courtesy. In those few cultural areas where atheism or secularism is dominant, religious people can face discrimination for their beliefs. These stories are told, and often exaggerated, to the Christian majority.
A noisy few in the media treat atheism as an excuse for libertine lifestyles.
When a few atheist partisans pretend that public performances of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (or postulating that rights to life and liberty come from the Creator, or public prayers that “God Bless America”) may produce an American Inquisition, most of the populace gets positively puckish.
Americans will tolerate the antics of a Bill Maher, and a few even pay to see him clown, but they don’t want their kids to grow up like him.
These facts may explain why many Americans are not enthusiastic about their atheist neighbors, but they do not justify the prejudice and hatred too often displayed as a result. The Christian majority in the United States is called to love their enemies and so certainly must also love philosophically mistaken fellow citizens.
It is true that bad men used atheistic or officially secular regimes to kill millions of people in the 20th century. It is true that many of the loudest atheists in our culture are boors. History supports the conclusion that secularism, and certainly atheism, is inadequate to create or maintain an advanced culture.
Americans are, however, in no danger of making that error. Instead the comfortable Christian majority sometimes confuses opposition to an idea with opposition to people.
American atheists are small, divided amongst themselves, and subject to prejudice and persecution. We are in greater danger of irrationality in America. It is that fear that gives atheism what little cultural power it posses.
Opposing this irrationality, whether religious or atheistic, requires recognition by the religious majority that the bulk of atheist citizens are with them.
It is not true that “public atheists” represent American atheism or the majority of secularists in the United States. Guilt by association is an ugly vice particularly when applied to a fairly powerless minority. Atheism may be wrong, but may a man be great, even in his error.
Just as the Trinity Broadcasting Network does not represent the average evangelical pastor, so the irrational intolerance of professional “skeptics” has little to do with the daily life of most American atheists. Christians should agree not to hold Richard Dawkins against atheism if secularists will not hold Pat Robertson against Christians.
Surveys show the vast majority of American atheists came to their opinions through study and often painful personal choices. They share their beliefs thoughtfully and with respect for the different conclusions of others just as most religious Americans do.
Studying such a tiny group is hard, but best evidence suggests that Americans atheists overwhelmingly support our republican institutions, work hard, and are law abiding citizens. They repudiate genocidal actions done in the name of atheism, just as surely as American Christians disown misuse of Christianity to perform great crimes. There are atheists in foxholes, charities, and in classrooms doing noble work for our nation.
Personally, atheists or secularists have mentored me, shown me mercy, and demonstrated a strong commitment to the best of American values. I owe these good people a great deal and one way to pay the debt is to never confuse them with the loudmouths who appropriate their beliefs to do harm.
Should a sensible person vote for an atheist? That seems a difficult question since an atheist denies, despite the evidence, the existence of the most important part of reality: God. The Christian, however, is wise enough to know that a mistake in one area does not necessitate mistakes in other areas. Humans are capable of compartmentalizing their errors. It is not good to be wrong, but it need not be fatal.
A thoughtful voter must ask: “What political implications has the atheist politician drawn from his error?”
A man may deny the existence of God, but still conform to His will, just as another man may loudly proclaim God exists, but foolishly try to ignore His wishes. Such an atheist will find himself agreeing with God more than the theist. Better to be governed by a man who would never say, “God bless you,” but whose actions bring God’s blessings than a loudly pious man whose perfidy brings on ruin.
Just as a religious error may not lead to political problems, so an irreligious one may be relatively harmless to the public good. In fact, sensible Christians would rather vote for a competent atheist, committed to republican values and common sense, than a “Christian” deluded into supporting bad ideas.
My atheist neighbor deserves Socratic dialog and love, not scorn. The atheist politician should receive consideration for a sensible man’s vote. Many atheists deserve our admiration, thanks, and applause for skills or deeds performed in service to humanity.
The atheist denies having a soul created in God’s image, but that does not make it so and cannot lessen our moral obligation to treat our atheist neighbor as we would wish to be treated. Atheism is wrong, but being wrong is not a crime.
When atheists are attacked irrationally, then every good Christian must stand in solidarity with their secular neighbor.
John Mark Reynolds | Jul 21, 2011 1:09 PM