Can Atheists and Christians Get Along?


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The Calvary community includes numerous people of varied backgrounds. Together, we’ll explore how much people with very different views have in common, and where we’ll have to agree to disagree.

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

John 20:24-29

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

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“An Atheist, a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian all walk into a coffee shop. They talk, laugh, drink coffee & become good friends. It’s not a joke. It’s what happens when you’re not an arrogant ___________.” I did not write this sentiment that frequently circulates online sources, but I am thankful to know many people who frequent these locations showcasing mutual respect.

As we continue our “Questions of Faith” series with your inquiries, today we explore “Can Atheists and Christians Get Along (and Even Be Friends)?”

The short answer is yes. We must. Many in this room are not only friends with atheists– many here are atheists. Some of you are here with friends or are in a relationship with a Christian and came along. Others are here because you love music or are simply looking for community.

Sometimes people expect me to be shocked when they tell me, “I know I attend church,” but I don’t really believe in God.”

I am not shocked. I am honored to have this time together.

I can see why people would have serious doubts, perhaps even certainty, that there is not a being called God.

The words and actions of Christians can make it easy to write off God.

Over the last few days, a Christian personality with tens of thousands of followers, predicted that Cleveland would win baseball’s World Series over the Chicago Cubs because some protestors in Chicago had protested a Trump rally. When the Cubs came back and broke the 108-year drought, he said that actually, now a Cubs win means that 2016 is the year of God reversing the curse on America.

Every time a Christian says ridiculous things, an atheist gets his wings.

When I reached the final stage before becoming a pastor, I had my “Trials of Ordination.” After approximately 4 years of graduate school, internships, and examinations, I stood before more than 200 leaders who could ask me anything they wished after hearing my statement of faith.

One longtime pastor stood and said, “Mr. Weems, you seem to use the term ‘Child of God’ rather loosely. What do you mean?”

I reflected back on what “loose” language I had used.

Here are two excerpts from the statement I shared that day in 2006:

“I believe that in the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus Christ we experience God’s power and love. The Word became flesh and showed us perfection in his life and ministry. He taught us that true love embraces everyone–especially the poor, sick, hungry, and those society treats as outsiders. Jesus modeled how we should worship God individually and in community. Through his death on the cross and resurrection, he overcame sin and death and opened the door to the Kingdom of God for us.

. . . . .

The Church is the Body of Christ charged with loving God and all neighbors, working to let its light shine before others. An individual church is living into the promise of Christ’s Church when it seeks reconciliation within its walls and follows the model of Christ to love God’s children throughout the world.”

“Mr. Weems, you seem to use the term ‘Child of God’ rather loosely. What do you mean?” the pastor asked.

“Are you asking me if when I held a Jewish man’s hand as he died in the hospital where I worked as a chaplain, if I said, ‘Darn, too bad he went to hell?,’” I responded.

“Well, yes?” the pastor said.

“No, I believed that God loved that man and that any saving that would be done would be determined by God alone,” I said.

This pastor wanted me to narrow the gate more than I felt comfortable doing.

I do not think that this pastor was a bad person.

There are Bible passages quoting Jesus as saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, New International Version). And still others in which Paul commands exclusive Christian communities to avoid being “unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14, King James).

The pastor concerned about my loose language was trained his whole life to approach faith this way and it was authentic for him, and his church was thriving.

Yet his preferred approach is directly linked to the reason why a PEW research study released in August 2016 finds that “nones,” not “nuns,” are rapidly and “dones” are the fastest growing demographic—this group has either entirely shed religious affiliation, or is done with the institution of the church. Not all would identify as “atheist,” (without God), but the group cites reasons including:

  • “Too many Christians doing un-Christian things”
  • “Learning about evolution when I went away to college.”
  • “The clergy sex abuse scandal.”
  • “The church’s teachings on homosexuality”
  • “I see organized religious groups as more divisive than uniting.”

Prior to his passing in 2011, prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens observed, “To terrify children with the image of hell … to consider women an inferior creation. Is that good for the world?”

I can understand why someone would deny the existence of a God who allows suffering and whose followers are all too often either silent when facing societal injustices, or are the perpetrators of said injustices.

I can understand why someone would have serious questions about whether to devote their life to following the path of a man who ended up dying a humiliating death on a cross.

Some of the earliest followers of Jesus had major doubts.

Let’s take a look at Thomas from today’s Scripture lesson. From what we can read in the Gospel of John, he was an active follower of Christ. He was chosen by Jesus as one of his twelve disciples and he accepted the call. If he were involved in a modern Presbyterian Church, he would have been thought of as very involved. He might have been in charge of a committee and even stuck around at night to wash the dishes after a youth group event. He is rumored to have led a mission to India, but he is best known for his doubt.

You see, Thomas had essentially missed Easter. Jesus appeared to the other disciples soon after he rose, but Thomas wasn’t there for some reason. When he came back, he did not take the word of the other disciples. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” said Thomas. According to the Greek text, he was in a state of faithlessness or unbelief. The Greek word apistos can mean more than temporary doubt.  It appeared that Thomas had written off Jesus and perhaps the concept of God. He had experienced too much pain to believe without substantial proof.

And that is where much of our society is.

As many of you know, Calvary has a growing community on social media including Facebook, with more than 1700 active people. You can check it out without giving any personal information by simply typing “Calvary Presbyterian San Francisco” into your favorite browser. While most of those people are from the Bay Area, we have people from across the country and even overseas. People ask us to pray for them. They watch videos of some sermons and music. And sometimes they are critical.

After Easter a couple of years ago, we posted a link to the sermon saying, “Even when things can seem so dark, Easter reminds us that light will come. Darkness does not win!

One young man named Marcus had an abrupt reply: “Bull!” B-U-L-L.

Part of me wanted to click the delete button. We don’t need that kind of negativity, right? But this is the kind of a church where it should be perfectly acceptable for you to say, “Bull.” It is healthy to have questions. We encourage our young people to ask questions in Sunday School and Confirmation. Our adults do it at Bible studies and Sunday Morning Seminars. And Marcus on Facebook is welcome to do it as well.

There were once two young men who started college together.

One would have said he was a Christian though he had only been to church about three times during high school. The other identified as an atheist. The Christian made fun of the atheist when he started buying ecofriendly toilet paper and switched his major from mechanical engineering to environmental studies. The atheist didn’t express judgment as the Christian pursued careers with a primary emphasis on earning money. As they finished college, the atheist even helped the Christian move from Los Angeles to San Francisco so he could attend law school. When the Christian finally got involved in a church and told the atheist that he planned to become a pastor, the atheist was supportive. He even flew north one more time to help his weird Christian friend move into seminary.

The atheist is my best friend from college (other than Colleen, my wife of 20 years J).

Greg was there for the baptism of Jacob, and has been there for us through every imaginable time of joy and challenge. When Greg got married and I had the honor of serving as his best man, he did ask me not to get into the God stuff in the toast. I respected his wishes, but did talk about how Greg and his lovely wife Lauren, consistently exhibited selfless agape love. I didn’t drop any J-bombs (Jesus), but do see as much of Christ’s love in them as any people I know anywhere.

They earned their PhDs together and now teach at a university in China. Inspired by thinkers including Paulo Freire, Greg focuses on eco-pedagogy, “a democratic, transformative pedagogy centered on increasing justice by critically teaching the politics of environmental issues.” In other words, how can education help oppressed people rise up against dominant cultures that tend to take advantage of them to gain wealth.

Greg’s work does not give glory to God or any deity.

He attributes some of his reasons for that to his scientific worldview. Greg also admits that his father’s death from cancer when Greg was only six had a profound impact on his view of God. His dear mother said he could still talk to his dad through prayer and Greg said he even had an experience in which he might have felt his dad’s presence, but it was not convincing enough for Greg.

So, “Can atheists and Christians get along?”

In his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York writes, “Whether you consider yourself a believer or a skeptic, I invite you to seek the same kind of honesty and to grow in an understanding of the nature of your own doubts. The result will exceed anything you can imagine.”

We are not all in the same place spiritually. I strive to be Jesus follower. I believe that accepting him individually and seeking him in community brings salvation that I have only experienced through Christ. Some days I fail miserably in seeking to follow him. I am not “saved” by a log of good things I have done, just as I am not condemned by a list of bad ones. If Jesus can open his arms to me, why would he close them to Greg, even if Greg says Jesus is not the Son of God because God doesn’t exist to have had a son.

Even Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers, denied knowing him when the authorities took Jesus away to crucify him. Jesus still loved him.

My Jesus would say to Greg, “I know losing your dad when you were a little boy was devastating. I know your brilliant brain makes it hard to accept simple formulas that deny science. I get it. Let’s break bread together and talk about it . . .”

 

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