A Friendly Response to a Friendly Atheist

I read an interesting little essay from Hemant Mehta, the “Friendly Atheist,” on CNN this morning, outlining some reasons why Millennials are leaving the Christian Church. He suggests that Christianity’s “sloppy defense” (“they’re anti-gay, anti-women, anti-science, anti-sex-education and anti-doubt, to name a few of the most common criticisms,” he writes) is partly to blame. But he also points to the inroads that the atheist movement has made in the culture—the atheists’ large, vocal presence on the Internet perhaps being the most obvious. Of this “impressive offense,” he writes:

Christians can no longer hide in a bubble, sheltered from opposing perspectives, and church leaders can’t protect young people from finding information that contradicts traditional beliefs.

An Agape feast from an early Christian catacomb
I believe Mehta’s right on that score. There is no safe place to hide from ideas in the 21st century. The Internet has made even traditional notions of privacy feel rather quaint, and certainly we cannot expect our most cherished beliefs to be held without scrutiny.
That said, “hiding” has never been exactly high on a list of Christian virtues, anyway. While keeping a low profile has sometimes been necessary for Christians during the faith’s long and bumpy history, Christianity has always thrived best out in the open, facing the future—whatever it might hold—with a certain boldness.
And well we should be bold.
I’ve seen a great many stories over the last several days that track Christianity’s declining influence in the culture. According to the Pew Religion and Public Life Project, nearly 20 percent of all adults claim no religious affiliation, with nearly a third of people under 30 being unaffiliated. Author Nigel Barber claims in an e-book that atheism will replace religion by 2041.
Numbers like that can fuel a lot of angst among the faithful. We see church attendance dip year by year and congregations grow older. Folks who feel that the country should reflect traditional Christian values lament the tide of secularism. Mehta, with his “offense/defense” imagery, suggests we’re locked in a battle, and Christians can often feel that way, too—a battle in which the best, most persuasive ideology will eventually prevail. We feel like we have to fight.
But Christians must remember that this “battle” is, in the end, almost completely moot. We are not championing an ideal as much as we—both Christians and atheists—are searching for truth. And the truth is not dependent on how many people convert to one side or the other.
Man Reading by Candlelight by Matthias Stom
Religion and atheism aren’t warring over the merits of a political ideology or a plot of disputed land. We are simply asking the same question, but answering it in different ways: Is there a God? The answer, while unknowable, isn’t decided through debate. Either He’s out there or He isn’t. Whether religion or atheism wins this 21st century war of words is beside the point. It’s like fighting over a vacant lot—but ownership has already been decreed by deed, locked away in a mysterious safe somewhere.
Now, if you believe in a God like I do—one who’s in control—that should give some comfort in these uncertain times. That doesn’t mean we should be passive to challenges to our faith. But we shouldn’t get defensive, sloppy or no. This isn’t a war. We’re simply telling the world the truth as we see it—conveying that truth as best we can all its beauty and mystery and paradoxical rationality. Yes, we may be wrong. Then again, so may they.
If we focus in on those big questions instead of getting tangled up in smaller ones, I think we’ll be better positioned to show people God’s love and grace.
There’s no guarantee that the trends we see will reverse anytime soon, of course. I’d expect that the religious “nones” will continue to rise in influence in the United States. But we must not confuse trends with truth. Christianity has often been threatened. It’s often been beaten, quite frankly. And yet, the faith never seems to lose. It’s remarkable. It’s outlandish historical resilience would be enough to give, you would think, some atheists pause.
In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton wrote:

Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave. But the first extraordinary fact which marks this history is this: that Europe has been turned upside down over and over again; and that at the end of each of these revolutions the same religion has again been found on top. The Faith is always converting the age, not as an old religion but as a new religion.

I think if Chesterton was alive today, he’d be pretty amused by the Christian hand-wringing over the rise of the “nones.” Yes, Europe is growing more secular—and yet there are more Christians on the planet than ever before. Even as the numbers of the “nones” grow as a percentage of the population, another Pew study tells us that “the unaffiliated have one of the lowest retention rates of any of the major religious groups, with most people who were raised unaffiliated now belonging to one religion or another.”    
Christianity is Cool Hand Luke. It is Rocky. It’s a stubborn cuss. For at least three centuries, atheists have claimed that the end of faith is just around the corner. But we faithful are still here, proclaiming our truth with cheerful boldness. 

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