I want more atheist friends
Before I left my former ministry, I’d been surrounded by Solid Christian Friends™ for a couple of years. I still know that game pretty well – the shared ministry, partners in accountability, assigned friendships, after-Bible-stud-hangouts, luncheons, and fight clubs (not the cool kind) that once totally rocked my schedule.
And it was a blast. But surrounding myself with people who thought the exact same things I did really narrowed my view and led to my developing a lot of false ideas about atheists, agnostics, gays, Jews, Catholics, and…well, pretty much everybody. It’s not hard to imagine why I used to secretly think that all atheists were godless liberal heathens, secular leftist fascist…secularists, devoid of any inner conscience or overarching moral constitution.
I mean, that’s clearly a big fat lie, but it’s one I believed for a very long time.
Which is why I find it funny that lately, I feel like God has been slapping me in the face with the irony that sometimes I seem to have much more in common with my militant atheist friends than with fundamentalist Christians.
But sometimes that’s where the similarities stop.
Sometimes I relate to militant atheists more than fundamentalist Christians because many of my secular friends have an incredibly humanistic worldview, one that’s bent on taking care of the captive, the widow, the addict, the orphan – the people Jesus seemed to care about the most – while, on the other hand, some (not all, but some) of my fundamentalist friends actually literally, liberally, (un– or otherwise consciously) deeply despise humanity.
My friend Morgan has written about this before. He calls this idea “the total depravity of everyone else.” It’s a toxic mindset I held onto for years that says that when we contemptuously insist that humans are nothing but utterly and completely evil and devoid of hope we are actually performing an act of solidarity with God. (It’s twisted, but very popular in some circles: God = good, Man = evil. Do you love what is good and despise what is evil? Love God; Despise Humanity.)
Atheists, on the other hand, almost universally affirm the unique dignity, worth, rights, and…well, humanity (and some would even go so far as to use the word destiny) of every person.
Now, talking to my fundamentalist Christian friends does teach me a lot. But what I learn are primarily the fruits of the Spirit, things like patience and forgiveness and self-control as I have the same conversations over and over again with them. (No, the earth is not 4,000 years old. Yes, dinosaurs existed, but no, that was millions of years ago; yes, God made man, but no, evolution is not incompatible with that. Please be intellectually honest with yourself for half a second here. You are reading a poem as a science textbook. God is far from trapped in that book!)
When I’m speaking with many of my more atheistic or agnostic-leaning friends, though, they’re usually the ones being patient with my ignorance, and I’m the one playing catch-up! Our conversations tend to be dominated by their intense concern for the most broken, most neglected, most God-forsaken people groups on the planet. (Bonus point: when’s the last time you’ve heard an avowed atheist defending genocide the way fundamentalists do with the Bible?)
I’ve said this before, but our Teacher has made it very clear that the primary order of a faithful Christian, the task of any woman or man after God’s own heart is this:
to love the last, the lost, and the least…at least as much as you love yourself.
Some would even go so far as to say that this is the task of any and every human being, regardless of your religious affiliation (or lack thereof).
Pope Francis affirmed just that when he gave a homily (a sermon, for thou Protestants) two weeks ago in which he proclaimed that Jesus’ eternal action on the cross is a beautifully redemptive act that reaches down and out to all of us, even – and perhaps especially – to those of us who may have a hard time with the whole believing in God thing.
I went out for drinks the other day with one of my friends on the study abroad program here who wanted to spend the night talking about my views on God.
We bumped around bars throughout our little Costa Rican town and spent the night getting to know each other better and talking about religion and spirituality. A little bit of his story: he’s an agnostic now (raised Evangelical Christian in the most-churched city in America) but is convinced that he’s a fundamentally better person now than when he identified as a Christian.
He says he no longer tries to one-up all of his friends, no longer thinks he’s superior to others, no longer judges his own peers so much for their faults.
Before, he was kind of a jerk.
He chose to shut down his intellect in order to believe, he walked a thin moral tightrope, he broke up with his girlfriend “for Jesus,” (sigh…I’ve also done all of those things) but now he knows that he’s not all that. Now he accepts his humanity with brokenness and humility.
That sounds pretty darned Christian to me, if not in terms of orthodoxy, then certainly in terms of orthopraxy.
Come to think of it, that sounds an awful lot like the story Jesus told about the sinner who beat his chest in shame outside of the temple while a Pharisee paraded his righteousness inside. That man, we’re told, was the only one who went home…what was the word Jesus used?
Oh yeah: justified.
I want more friends like that.
I want more atheist friends if it means that I’ll keep on improving myself and this world, if it means I’ll get to work with them to deconstruct the mammoth sets of idolatries in my own life, if it will help me become less judgmental, less jealous, less prone-to controversy, less poisonous of a person.
I want more atheist friends not so I can insidiously convert them to Christianity but so I can genuinely explore how another human being came to such different conclusions about the universe (that there is no God, this was all by chance, that death has the final word) than I have.
Because even though we don’t agree on our theology, I find in atheists an inspiring humility and a strong commitment to enhancing human life above everything else.
Pope Francis, you humble, humble man, I’m with you. That’s a radical commitment to social justice I can get behind. Working hand in hand, being authentic with one another, and humbly admitting our limitations?
That’s living justified.