Answering The Angry Atheist
Pastor Vinnie MacIsaac, SSW, AA, BA, MA
What I am not saying:
The first thing you need to read in this article is this: Not all atheists are angry, militant, or out to get you. Many are just trying to be intellectually honest people living the best they can within the constructs of their own moral systems. This article is not a hit piece on them (or anyone else). This article is exploring, those angry, in your face, critical, mean-spirited types who can never be happy as long as you have faith. They are the Zing to the militant Christian’s Zang. I make no excuses to justify militant Christians, who are bigots, homophobes, anti-Semitic, or Islamophobic, and, in this article, I make no excuse for the equally rancorous, angry atheist.
You don’t need a God to have a religion. Atheism is the lack of belief in the existence of deities or that such things could even exist[i]. The etymology of the word is from the Greek word atheos (ἄθεος) meaning “without gods.” Religion is not a deity dependent concept.
“Religion may be defined as a cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, worldviews, texts, sanctified places…that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual elements. However, there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion.”[ii]
George Holyoake coined the terms Non-Theist and Secularist in the 1850’s. After he had been arrested and imprisoned for blasphemy. (Picture Source: The National Secular Society )
Hence, the debate, for example, over if Buddhism is a religion or not since it is transcendental, and spiritual but is not deity dependent.[iii] It is also for this reason many Atheist would rather be known more elementary as Non-Theists. George Holyoake, way back in 1852, first coined the term as means to soften the concept of Atheism among critics. Holyoake wanted a word that would convey, particularly to Christians, that he was not against religion but simply did not believe in God and so they should not see him as a direct threat to their way of life. Today the concepts tend to get fused.[iv]
Religion, however, put into the most unpretentious traditional terms, is just a system of understanding you come to about God or gods. Atheism is just that, a system of understanding come to about gods; namely that understanding is: “They don’t exist.” What’s the point? The point is Atheism can be intellectual, thought out, non-combative, stemming from deep conviction, or it can be emotional, reactive, and jihadist, stemming from unprocessed incognizant godless-religiosity; ergo it’s duality is just like all systems of belief minus the Deity.
Getting to the heart of the matter:
I don’t believe in the Tooth-Fairy. So, it has been relatively easy for me to avoid the temptation of running out an buying the URL www.toothfairytruthexposed.com[v] and blasting all those who keep that Tooth-Fairy myth going as evildoers, fathers of deception, and robbers of children’s teeth.
Oh, but you could say, the Tooth-Fairy is harmless, it is developmental, a part of childhood, and indeed does not create all the problems religion has in the world. But, what about other forms of beliefs like capitalism, socialism, Freudian beliefs, existentialism, or any other belief system a vast majority holds that actually impacts the world? Here is a newsflash for you, all belief impacts someone’s behavior and that is not a sound nor a rational excuse to seek to eradicate it! Ethical people don’t go around attacking all beliefs, other than their own, just because they disagree with them; that is unless you have seriously way too much free time on your hands and no purposeful direction in life![vi] Even when judicious, justified people go after a system of belief, they deem dangerous or malicious, they don’t target innocent, non-combative types in their path. If you oppose abortion, it is idiotic to blow up a clinic in order to stop it. Because you can’t stop murder with murder, hate with hate, nor theist religion with your own religious belief that there is no Theos (God)!
As a Protestant Christian, I don’t believe in the tenants of Mormonism, Jehovah Witness, Papal Catholicism, or a whole list of other semi-Christian sects and faiths, but I don’t go around building a ministry on teaching why they are wrong. Nor do I have any desire to tear them down, or harm either their systems, or the people in them. I teach what I believe IS right! The best response to stopping ignorance is not aggressive attempts to tear down opposing thinking but rather the spreading of systems you think are correct. Just as I am often struck by the futility of people of faith who think they are justified in acting sinful to stop sin; I likewise am at a loss for the intellectual honestness of those who say they follow empirical processes of belief but use an unsophisticated piteous pragmatic when it comes sharing “the truth” they think right.
Reasonable people, who don’t believe in deities don’t attack the invisible God behind your behavior. They address your behavior that they think is problematic. In my previous career as a mental health worker, I was once in a situation where a Paranoid Schizophrenic was trying to jump out of a moving car doing 65 mph because he saw Satan in the back seat with him. That was no time to try and explain his current belief system was wrong, because 1) It would not work, 2) It was not the issue and 3) I cared more about changing his negative behavior, so he did not get killed then I did about proving his delusions wrong. We call that ethical, moral reasoning instead of soft secular sabotage.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton the English writer, poet, and philosopher.
The English writer, poet, philosopher, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, reportedly once said, “If I did not believe in God, I should still want my doctor, my lawyer and my banker to do so.” And while I in no way expect the atheist to have to see faith in others as a virtue, I must point out there is no real reason to hate the existence of faith either. Unlike the “intellectual atheist,” who is making decisions based on the best empirical reason they can find, albeit limited in understanding and reason, the “Angry Atheist” is an emotional responder who has a deep-seated fear inside that provokes them into jihadist mindsets against their own will and even awareness.
C.S. Lewis brings us closer to the heart of the issue and gives us a true HD focus when he says,
“Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.”[viii]
The Angry Atheist must destroy faith where they find it, for they live in terror that if another reasonable human has faith, then there may be reasonable arguments, and virtues, still left in theism that could drag them back into “The Light.” In, Surprised By Joy, Lewis speaks candidly about his own fears as a young atheist. Thus he presents us with an insider’s view of such mindsets about God, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere–‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”[ix]
The agnostic American journalist, Heywood Broun, makes an apt point when he says, “Nobody talks so constantly about God as those who insist that there is no God.”[x] But this is where we must tread softly. There are many good reasons for people to have a beef with God. A fallen universe is a cruel place to reside, and it does a poor job of presenting the true nature of the Divine. Secondly, religion and “religious” people have not always been pure, noble, kind, or passive. We cannot ignore the truth that much cruelty, war, and all kinds of abuse, and evil, have been done in the name of God by sick people and sick systems masquerading in place of Divinity. People have been hurt, so people have a corrupted view of God and his nature, and often the Angry Atheist is rightfully fighting hell, but mistakenly calling it God.
Mahatma Gandhi2 1869 – 31948) Indian activist.
I must have compassion, even a sad compassion because much evil has been done, to the innocent, weak, and dismally even helpless children trusting those claiming to represent the Divine. And some Angry Atheists, or their loved ones, may have been the victim and so at this junction, I find myself agreeing with their rage. In fact, in such cases, I find no fault in their emotive force and I find it easy to join in. I seek to empathize with it, and if I can I want help to provide evidence in my own life, that the degenerate miscreant masquerade that waltzed through their life or awareness, was a fraud, and not what lives in me.
Despite all of this, I cannot deny, the very heart of the matter that Mohandas Gandhi brings to certain clarity with merely irrefutable logic,
“It amazes me to find an intelligent person who fights against something which he does not at all believe exists.”
And I am truly and sorry to tell them, that really is the bottom line, it is the end of the barrel, it is the last thread on the spool; regardless of the cause of anger if a person fights against a being they claim does not exist, if a person insults, cusses out, and blasphemes a deity they say does not exist, if a person hates something they say is a delusion, then the Good News is that they are not beyond reach. Someplace deep inside, is a scared, hidden theist, who refuses to look possibility in the eye. This is a person we can work with!
Steps To Answering The Atheist:
(Please note this method will work for both angry and intellectual atheists as well as agnostics).
Get rid of ego. You have nothing to prove. So if you’re in this to win an argument you’re not spiritually ethical, you won’t bring glory to God, and you can’t be effectively used to reach an atheist. God doesn’t want, nor need your cleverly disguised ‘foolishness’ of being smart or right. People with all the answers need not apply; so stop and to check yourself!
Don’t let your Flesh get hooked. Understand you will be tested. The angry atheist will regularly check your limits to see if you are what you say you are. They will provoke you, seek to offend you, on purpose, and do their best to prove you a fraud by dragging you into sinful responses. This is spiritual warfare, and we fight not flesh and blood. Consequently, we can’t respond with flesh. Be as humble as Moses, as long-suffering as Job, and as gentle as John the Beloved.
Don’t commit proxy- blasphemy. What I mean by that is, don’t step on God’s toes. Don’t think this is about you or even something you have to do. God doesn’t need to you get offended for Him if he is insulted. He is well able to defend Himself and His own; you are not. Check your self-God complex at the door.
Be a friend. It is that simple. Find common interests. Be nice, build a relationship, and move past just trying to prove who is wrong and who is right. Break new ground and learn to really care about this person. If you really believe Jesus died for this person, then you need to really see, in them, what Jesus saw and gave so much for. Jesus is calling you to love, truly love, those who hate you, that is His calling. If you can’t deal with that honestly, then go spend time with Jesus and get out of the way until you can.
Be a long-term friend. These people are not won easily. You’re not going to win a soul like this in a revival meeting. Seriously, you’re not adding a baptism to your spiritual belt, you are adding a real friend to your real life long-term or forever, regardless of the ending. Be there in the good times, be there in times of need. Be there when it is about much more than winning someone to yourself, or even to Jesus. Just be there.
Be an intelligent and authentic friend. Yes, be yourself. You are interesting and as they get to see you the real you, they need to see a real person, warts and all. However, no atheist (that I ever met) likes a dummy. Seriously, being yourself goes a long way, being an “intelligent you,” goes further. Please, if you are serious about this kind of ministry, know and understand the basics of the History of World Civilization, Scientific Method, Scientific view of Evolution, the ABC’s of Philosophy, the factual history of the Church throughout the ages and have the ability to hold in tension more than your own worldview.
Look for God- openings. Late in the relationship, once a real friendship has bonded and trust on both sides is open, God will create openings that are much different than the early days of bickering the finer point of theism. Real questions will come from them. Or real problems that need spiritual advice. Tread softly, but if there is trust, also push back when needed. In real relationships, there is a liberty to be free to say, without offending, what you really think. Give and take that liberty, and constantly ask God to open those doors slowly, but widely, and for you not to miss them when he does. You will be shocked at this stage of relationship, I have have professed atheists say things like, “I’d ask you to pray for me, if I was sure I believed it,” or “Sometimes I just long for a community connection like you have with your church,” or even, ” I know my life don’t work, it is exhausting hiding that I am empty in want rest, I am thinking about mediation because it is sort of like praying.” These are real things I have heard at this stage in the process. They are what I call God openings, God is opening the door to awareness of their need for him. Don’t hesitate, to make open appeals to come to Jesus, if the Spirit urges in this stage.
Lastly, you are not anyone’s last chance. God will keep calling new points of contact, new experiences, and new intersections with His Divinity as long as there is any hope at all. I shudder to think how poorly I did when I was first learning to reach and love this population. But I can tell you this, now these people are truly the highlights of ministry for me, and building forever friendship that I hope to last into eternity is among the top joys in my life. Join the party! It is out of this world, and it doesn’t ever have to end.
[i] Harvey, Van A. Agnosticism and Atheism, in Flynn 2007, p. 35
[iii] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/nicholas-liusuwan/is-buddhism-a-philosophy-_b_10176992.html also http://www.buddhanet.net/nutshell03.htm
[v] I’ll know my blog is famous when someone buys up that url! <j/k>
[vi] Seriously, I mean no disrespect, but speaking as a former mental health counseling (of ten years) if your whole existence is tied up in tearing down others, what others believe, or those who disagree with you, you likely need some professional mental or emotional help. This is not a snarky footnote it is a sincere observation about self-identity which is more than what you are “against.” To have a self-ego, or a self-identity you have to be “for” or about something.
[vii] Virtuous Leadership: An Agenda for Personal Excellence By Alexandre Havard, https://goo.gl/DMyUFQ
[viii] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, Pg77
[ix] CS Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Kindle Location 2547