It is often curious to people why I would wish to engage in dialogue with atheists, especially when I emphasize that my intention is in no way to convert or subject them to Christianity. It comes at even a greater curiosity on both sides of the table for me to suggest that these conversations help me to actually strengthen and enrich my own belief. In reading the book Christless Christianity by Dr. Michael Horton of the White Horse Inn radio/podcast, I ran across a few passages that may begin to help answer that question:
The search for the sacred has become a recurring cover story for national news magazines for some time now. Although this search is often identified as an encouraging sign of interest in God, it may be more dangerous than atheism. At least atheism makes arguments and shows an interest in a world external to the feelings of the inner self. Furthermore, after each round of this quest for the holy grail, evangelicalism itself looks more and more indistinguishable from the ooze of pop spirituality more generally (page 159-60).
It almost sounds like Horton suggests that atheism is a sort of partner for the Christian faith, at least in so much as it being a sort of system of checks and balances that can help to strengthen logic and rational perspective in the faith tradition. Whereas generic spirituality can easily mislead and help people to be comfortable in having no real basis for their beliefs other than some strange internal feeling that may just be a result of eating leftover pizza too late at night.
Perhaps this kind of spirituality is what Leonard Sweet commented about in his tweet when he suggested that most atheists have a sort of spirituality. It may have been more appropriate to say that many spiritual people do not have to believe in a god to maintain their psuedo-spirituality. Horton also seems to offer this perspective when he comments about how Christ-less many churches have become in their attempts to be more “relevant” to the culture. In so doing, it seems that more and more churches are turning to performing “hymns” written by Coldplay and Snow Patrol, rather than maintaining a Christ-centered approach to worship:
To the extent that churches in America today feel compelled to accommodate their message and methods to these dominant forms of spirituality, they lend credence to the thesis that Christianity is not news based on historical events but just another form of therapy. If this were the only path of true religion, the argument of modern atheism would offer the best explanation of the whole phenomenon. We never really meet God–someone who is different from us, who stands over against us in judgment and grace–but an extraordinary experience (page 180).
Agreeing with the charges that I have made against the likes of Joel Osteen, Horton takes it a step further. He actually suggests that these “church leaders” are presenting not the message of the Gospel, but rather that they are redesigning the Word of God to meet their own agendas:
[The approach of many churches] represents a “practical atheism” according to which the success of Christian mission depends on human technique, style, planning, and charisma “without having to surrender ourselves and our words to the presence and work of the Word and Spirit.” It is no wonder that the expectation of the Spirit’s activity shifted from the church to the parachurch, from the ordinary means of grace to the extraordinary methods of inducing conversations…” (page 225).
Perhaps the atheist has more allies in the church that he may have realized. Afterall, if churches are presenting nothing more than pop psychology and easy fixes, there is no need for a god and then the atheist can find the same things that she could while watching Oprah or subscribing to Dr. Phil’s podcast. Can we really call an organization a church when there is nothing of Christ in its message?
Thank God for atheists. They keep us honest, they ask the right questions, and readily challenge us to see our faults. Indeed this sounds a bit too much like what has been lost in our churches. Christ-centered ministry should be about conviction of sin and the presentation of the Gospel as the answer for our wretched state of affairs.
Thank God for atheists. If more Christian pastors took them seriously then they may be challenged to return to the Scriptures and to again cling to Christ as the only thing that we have.