Saturday 10 August 2013
I’m an atheist and the President of the Secular Society at the University of Melbourne. Several weeks ago I attended ‘Summit’, a week-long camp held by the Christian Union. Over the past few years I have attended many similar Christian events, including discussion groups, Bible talks, Bible readings, and church services. In the light of these experiences, I want to share some of my thoughts about the similarities and differences between Christianity and atheism, and what I think we can learn from one another.
Christians and atheists alike regularly ask me why, as an active member of the atheist movement, I spend so much time talking with Christians. I would like to turn this question around: why do most atheists spend so little time talking with Christians, and similarly why do Christians spend so little time talking with atheists? As I see it, we both share the same objective: to come to a knowledge of the truth, and help others to do likewise. As CS Lewis has said: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance”. Similarly, atheists do not simply enjoy criticising other people’s beliefs, they really do think that all religions are false. Rather than seeing each other as adversaries, therefore, I think atheists and Christians should consider one another as allies in a difficult journey to discover what is really true—no easy task in this immensely complex and confusing world.
That being said, in general I do not attend Christian events with the expectation that I am likely to find some new argument or piece of evidence that Christianity is true. I think it is important to always be open to the possibility, but I consider it to be unlikely. Nonetheless, I do attend these events with an expectation of learning more about what Christians believe, of refining my own opinions and ideas about philosophical and religious matters, and of benefiting from hearing the perspectives of thoughtful, intelligent people I would normally not have the opportunity to meet. It is so easy to become trapped in one’s own bubble and only talk with people one already agrees with. When this happens, our opinions are never challenged, our minds are never expanded and we lose the opportunity for intellectual growth. I think this is a dangerous trap we should all endeavour to avoid.
Another reason I attend Christian events is because I think atheists can learn a lot from Christians. From my observations, Christians are generally much more active and committed than atheists. They attend church on Sunday, they go to public meetings during the week, they do Bible study, they share the gospel with their friends, and seek to live it in their daily lives. As atheists, we think that we possess knowledge and tools of critical thinking that are potentially of great benefit to everyone. Why then are we not much more active, motivated, and willing to share? Atheists could learn a lot from Christians regarding these qualities.
Conversely, I also think Christians can learn a great deal from atheists. One of the things I most admire about the atheist movement is the great importance it places on careful use of reason and evidence in attempting to arrive at the truth. From my experience, Christians spend relatively little time discussing such issues of evidence and reason for belief. This is puzzling to me, as for atheists these things are not added extras or peripheral concerns—they are the core of who we are. I think Christians would benefit from emulating atheists in this respect.
Some Christians I have spoken to think that reason is antithetical to faith, or that use of reason and evidence represents an arrogant dependence on one’s own faculties in place of reliance on God. I think this concern is misplaced. Reason and evidence are not cynical devices designed to undermine faith. They are tools to help us, as limited and imperfect humans, to guard ourselves against self-deception, overconfidence, and other sources of false belief. Nor should reason be considered to be in opposition to faith. As I have learned in my time speaking with Christians, faith does not mean blind belief without evidence: is means placing one’s trust in God by building a personal relationship with him. Such trust should not be without foundation, but should be firmly grounded on solid reason and evidence. In 1 Peter 3:15 it says that Christians should “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have”. I thoroughly agree with this sentiment.
Christianity makes a very bold claim: that all humans are eternally lost unless they surrender themselves to the redeeming power of Christ. As an atheist, I think this claim is false. But if this claim were true, I would very much want to be convinced of that fact, as would many of my fellow atheists. Indeed, I would go further than this: if Christians believe they have compelling reasons and evidence for their beliefs, I insist they share them with us! In the words of Isaiah 1:18 “Come now, let us reason together”. Let us sit down together, Christians and atheists, and politely but honestly share our best reasons in a spirit of good faith and friendship. Let us do this not occasionally, but often. These issues are too important to be neglected as a result of our tendency to separate ourselves from those we disagree with.
James Fodor is President of the Secular Society at the University of Melbourne.