How to Be a Better Atheist: What to Understand if You Want to Be More Effective in Rejecting Christianity
Lately I’ve seen too many people rejecting Christianity the wrong way. I understand why these folks are confused. The name “Christian” has come to represent a lot of crazy stuff over the past 2,000 years.
But if you’re going to be an atheist, you might as well have a solid grip on what you are rejecting. So I’m going to try to make a few clarifications here to help the non-believing do that work with a little more precision.
First off, let's talk about what you’re not rejecting when you are rejecting Christianity:
1. You're not rejecting a political force.
A couple of decades ago, the Moral Majority/Christian Coalition decided to work with the GOP, and what’s grown from that alliance is now a sort of spiritual/political cyborg.
This evangelical political movement has borrowed a handful of elements from Christian morality, but the whole machine cares a lot more about gaining earthly power than it does about listening to your hard questions or talking to you about your faith. I mean, think about it. When was the last time someone fighting for political Christianity actually took an interest in your soul? It’s probably been a while, right? Now think about the last time you heard a “Christian” fight for laws, political platforms, and government benefits. Last week, probably.
I’m not saying that Christians can’t get involved in government. A responsible government is made of people of all belief systems. I am saying that a lot of what’s hitting the public eye as “Christian” has very little to do with the teachings of Jesus and a whole lot to do with an attempt to maintain cultural muscle.
2. You're not rejecting young earth creationism.
So in the 50’s and 60’s, America’s educational values changed because of the Space Race. We needed to beat the Russians to the moon, so American school shifted its priorities to produce better scientists.
There’s nothing wrong with emphasizing science—science is great. But it’s important to realize that a historical nationalistic/military shift impacted America’s epistemological values. A lot of us were taught the scientific method as kids--a method which is rooted in a philosophical system called empiricism. In other words, we were taught to trust our senses to tell us ultimate truth. And even though we never really thought about the decision we were making here, we went with the flow and accepted the fact that empiricism was the most reliable measure of truth because our nation needed students who could grow up to build bombs and rockets.
When Christians realized this shift in values was happening, they got nervous. They worried about losing credibility in a world in which empiricism was the trump card. So some Christians decided to try to engage with the new values of our time. They started attempting to find ways to make the Bible fit what was being said in the realms of science.
Some of this feels like an exercise in futility to me. If God has all the creative power, he could make an old earth look young or make a young earth look old. Besides, if he’s outside of time, the complex stuff that wows us quickly becomes a non-factor to him.
When you throw an understanding of how ancient Hebrew poetry works into that mix, and then add in two scoops of what modern physicists are finding about human inability to validate the material world, you end up with so much nuance, nobody on either side ends up standing on solid ground. I’ve yet to see a Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate that did anything more than serve as a pep rally for what everybody on either side wanted to hear from the get go. They never get to the first question, which is how to verify a system of truth from premise #1.
Some of the most thoughtful, orthodox Christians I know actually allow for an old earth creation model. I’m not saying those people are right or wrong, but am saying that Young Earth Creationists who claim, “If these chapters aren’t literal, nothing is literal,” are (in truth) making a claim for Young Earth Creationism. They aren’t making a claim for all of Christianity.
3. You're not rejecting the "Hurry and Get Saved So You Don’t Go To Hell!" bit
This point is complicated, and it involves quite a bit of church history that would likely bore you. But let me just say that in some of the revival movements, the great big package of “salvation” got compressed into Tweet-speak: “Trust Jesus, or go to hell.”
I think well-meaning Christians started some of this because they were trying to communicate what Jesus is offering in a few simple steps. But the problem is, people are lazy. A lot of folks don’t study. They don’t dig. They don’t take risks. The structure that was supposed to unpack into a lot of different angles ended up being presented as the ultimate deal. These "SparkNotes" of faith didn't just help people interpret the Bible, they took the place of it.
The reduction also morphed into some emotional manipulation that was strategic for making big congregations. While awe should exist in the presence of a transcendent, holy God--and while hell is something to fear---the fear that many pastors wield while trying to grow a church is a whole different entity. Earthly religious fear is more about controlling you than it is about helping you. Holy religious fear is about healing your wounds.
4. You're not rejecting a God who can kill anybody he wants, who oppresses women, and who encourages slavery.
I’ve seen many atheist sites that argue against these three points. They pick verses out of the Old Testament and claim to offer proof that God is an immoral, narcissistic, and bloodthirsty being. Then they cite the Crusades and try to connect the dots. They say that Christianity is dangerous and that anybody who loves a God like that either has Stockholm Syndrome or is content with being a Stepford disciple.
This topic is too complex to unpack in a tiny section of a single post. However, all those family members or acquaintances who have told you that you just have to accept all this stuff without questioning God because he’s perfect aren’t speaking for all of Christianity.
Scholars like C.S. Lewis had a lot of trouble with the brutality of the book of Joshua. Ivy League philosopher Greg Boyd spent eleven years studying the morality of the Old Testament. These guys didn’t accept easy answers, and they were honest about what they discovered as they explored.
There are so many ways Christians deal with some of these passages, and a lot of the best ways boil down to being responsible enough to interpret the Bible like we interpret other works of literature. We look at history. We look at authorship. We look at theme. We make the scholarly efforts we make to interpret every other piece of literature from Sophocles to Tennessee Williams.
One of the downsides to the elevation of science, and the subsequent treatment of the text by Young Earth Creationism, was the development of a harsh, humanistic, linear approach to Biblical interpretation. Those folks claim to life by faith, but they have embraced secular values for understanding a sacred book. I don't think they realize how proud that is, but the people who do this have actually limited their interpretative abilities instead of elevating them. And they have also violated some Biblical guidelines for finding truth in the process.
Since I’ve already named some of the errors of Christians, I hope you will let me also say that numerous citations on atheist sites do not interpret Scripture responsibly. So many snarky remarks from non-believers have more style than substance because atheist authors tend to miss what was actually being said in the Scripture.
Again, there’s not room to deal with this whole point here, but just know that a lot of people are popping off at the mouth about this stuff without having done the academic work needed to make a solid claim. When you find people who have done the work, a lot of times, their answers are much more substantial.
SO...IF YOU REALLY WANT TO REJECT CHRISTIANITY.
If you reject any of those main points above, you aren’t actually rejecting Christianity. You may be rejecting political, cultural, and financial forces that are attempting to use the gospel for an earthly end, but you aren't rejecting the true gospel.
If you want to reject Christianity, you’ve got to go beyond all that. To be a proper atheist, you must reject the heart of the faith, which is this:
Once upon a time, there was a God who made a material realm which fit inside of a more complex, metaphysical realm.
The smaller, material realm had boundaries (like dimensions and time), and God gave humans (and other creatures) the ability to sense those boundaries.
He also gave humans a unique perceptive ability to connect with Him that reached beyond the material. This ability is called "the spirit." Lots of animals have bodies, and consciousness (souls)-- I think some even have feelings--but humans are the only creatures that have the ability to connect directly in the spirit with their Creator.
Humans were also made uniquely creative, not just with problem-solving skills or tool-making skills, but with an aesthetic sense and the ability to innovate. We can call this ability the "imago Dei," or being made "in the image of God." Modern lingo? MiniMe.
Relationships are important to God because he exists in community with himself. The concept of the Trinity is kind of hard to understand, but I think it boils down to relationship between three persons that is so synchronized, all three beings operate as one.
Maybe a metaphor of the creative process will make that more clear.
When an artist comes up with an IDEA for a project, she then applies her ENERGY to that creation. When she is done creating, there is a connective POWER that binds her audience to the work she has made. So, an IDEA works out through ENERGY to result in connective POWER (Sayers).
Likewise, the Trinity has an invisible directing IDEA (the Father). The ENERGETIC outworking of the idea in the physical realm is the Son (Jesus). And the connective POWER between humans and the godhead is the Holy Spirit. Like a single piece of artwork that is unified in beauty but contains different elements of process, the Godhead is both one and three.
God wanted humans to join in that union. So, we were established on earth with a spiritual capacity that would allow us to create with him and live in his love. (Some of the first commands of God to humans were encouragements to be creative, you know.) But nobody can be creative while being a lemming. So, God made us free to either choose that artistic union or reject it.
The story of Eve talks about how humanity made a choice long ago that it still makes today. We decided that we wanted to be like God without really being dependent upon God.
I think all of us have wanted to be god-like without being subject to God's authority or his resources. We are like teenagers who want to be left alone to try things our way. But in our liberty, we tried to break free, and we tore a great big hole in everything.
A piece of art doesn't thrive without its creator. If a painting in process could yank away from its painter, deciding to try to make itself beautiful, it would look terrible. And in a similar manner, the original vision for what humans were supposed to be and do was lost.
God saw we had chosen to be fiercely independent. He heard our stubborn insistence that we didn’t need any help. But he also knew that we couldn't get out of this hole we were digging by ourselves. So he sent Jesus from the meta-dimensions, compressing him into our human boundaries of space and time.
In this tangible, physical form, Jesus took all of the separation we had created into Himself. He did that so he could patch the break up and make a bridge that led us back into relational and spiritual communion with him, the Father, and the Spirit.
Why did He do that? Because he knows it’s hell to be solo. He knew this hell of autonomy could last forever, and grow deeper, and darker, and become more lonely without some intervention. And he knew that even though it would hurt, he could help us live and thrive instead of going deeper and deeper into isolation.
It's hard for us to see this, because humans have been trying to make our own autonomy work forever--which means it's still our default. We don't hear our independence any easier than we hear the accents we learned as kids.
We notice when humans get surges of brilliance here and there. And we learn to love the thrill of our own roar. We notice that it feels good to say things like, "I am god!" and "I am master of my destiny."
But down inside us, there’s still a restless, a homesickness, a sense of loss—and that loss comes from being torn away from the heart of the creator who made us to connect with him.
When we refuse that creator, we’re going to feel a couple of things. First, we will feel proud, like we've got this and don't need help. Declarations of self-sufficiency cause an adrenaline rush, right? It's hard to give up that thrill.
But eventually, many of us will begin to feel lost and empty, like something is missing. And that emptiness can last for eternity if we remain unwilling to be vulnerable to the God we need. He won't dominate us. He will let us resist him until we harden into a forever-hell of “I’ll do this myself.” But that's not what he wants for us, because we were created for artistic community.
The next part of what I'm about to write is something you won't hear from a lot of people who call themselves Christians. I don't know why the rest of the story is hardly ever mentioned in Christian dialogue because it's all over the New Testament. It's hard to read a single book of Paul's without finding this concept. But for some reason, a lot of preachers and teachers don't talk about it much.
The whole machine of faith doesn’t stop with a single moment of saying, “Okay, save me." Sure, that's only the starting point, but there’s an awful lot that is supposed to happen after people are born into a new life in Jesus.
The New Testament tells us how to finish out the years we have on this planet, plugged in to a God who actually comes to live inside us. This new way of living is not about trying to be moral. It’s not about following a bunch of rules. It’s about letting go of effort and independence and learning to lean into a connection that is free, resource-rich, and beautiful.
You’ve seen those television shows where people who have been single for 40 years finally get married and struggle with sharing the toothpaste. Well, after years of living independently, it’s a whole new dynamic for Christians to learn community with a God who lives inside them. A lot of Christians never really explore what that means, so they continue to try to do everything on their own, using shame and guilt as motivators, and leaning on the same old broken methods of self-control and determination that they used when they were secular.
This is why so much of what is called Christianity is messed up. A laser focus on only keeping as many souls out of hell as possible has resulted in failure to implement what is actually supposed to happen after salvation. So many Christians think there’s not much more to do after walking an aisle and praying a prayer, so they fumble around post baptism trying to accomplish personal and social change, and they goof a lot of stuff up along the way.
But when Jesus comes to live inside a person, new resources for a new life are there.
People who were impatient have tools to be patient. People who were selfish have tools to be kind. People who were resentful have tools to be forgiving. Like a kid learning to drive a high-powered vehicle, we have to learn to use those tools, and that knowledge takes time. But resources for living in a new way show up once we are connected with Jesus. At conversation, we at least get the keys to the car.
The letters of the New Testament spend a ton of time talking about how when our identity changes with faith. Paul tells us that we don’t have to struggle and strain to be good like we used to; we just need to learn to depend on the gifts of a God who loves working with us, and who is helping us become beautiful like he is.
And by the way, we don’t lose our old personalities here. We fill them out until they are winsome and generous. In other words, we begin to look like a painting that has finally turned itself over to an artist who knows what he’s doing.
If you’ve never heard of a Christianity that looks anything like this, write me. We can get away from all the politics and arguing and take apart a book of the Bible like Galatians or Ephesians. Or we can look at John’s gospel and see what sort of descriptions he has for us. It’s possible that you might learn things about the faith that most people who call themselves Christians don’t see because they are distracted and confused.
In the end, you might still reject Christianity. But if you do, you will be rejecting the true heart of it, not distorted imitations. And you will have rejected it at the source, after having done some primary research, instead of floating along with sloppy, self-serving interpretations. I think this sort of clarity tends to be a good idea, no matter where we stand on the issue.