October 30, 2013

As I See It


I shouldn’t have told the taxi driver I was going to the atheist convention. “So they’ll sit around saying there’s nothing up there?” he said in a Middle Eastern accent, fingering his prayer beads. “These people are mad!” 

“It’s a bit more than that . . .” I started to say. 

“These people want two men to marry each other, but they can’t have no children, which proves they’re wrong. These people ought to be shot.” He drove on angrily, making the wooden cross swing faster from his rearview mirror. Did he remember that the man on it never forced anyone to obey, and was killed by religious intolerance?  

I kept quiet. Some beliefs are more like prejudice, out of reach of reason. Is this what atheists put up with? If you were parented or taught by a believer like this, atheism might look open-minded and attractive. 

Inside, comedians started carpet-bombing religion. “To anyone who has lost a child, let me say: God loves you, so he’ll burn your baby in hell forever, and it’s your fault. You didn’t ask a pedophile priest to hold him and dribble water on his head to wash away the original sin of his ancestor Adam, who the church officially says never actually existed.” There is wincing, deafening laughter and applause from the 4,000-strong crowd, twice as many as last year. But he’s attacking the God invented by the medieval church, not the God of the Bible. 

Outside, Muslim protesters were chanting that Christopher Hitchens, the atheist writer who recently died, would “burn in hell forever.” A Christian group carried signs about eternal hell. I asked them politely how an infinite punishment for a finite crime would be just, and some actually thought about that. At least they were emphasizing that Jesus died because He loved atheists and wanted to save them. Inside, hell was often featured. One scientist told me, “God is the cosmic Saddam Hussein, but worse, because at least a dictator leaves you alone when you’re dead. God has you forever.” I thought of a comment by a favorite writer: “The errors of popular theology have driven many a soul to skepticism who might otherwise have been a believer in the Scriptures. It is impossible for him to accept doctrines which outrage his sense of justice, mercy, and benevolence; and since these are represented as the teaching of the Bible, he refuses to believe it as the Word of God.”1

Mainstream Christianity really has to rediscover biblical teaching on hell, or churches will keep producing atheists. 

I notice the T-shirts. Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.  (Witty line, but there aren’t many people in either group.) Forget Jesus. The stars died so you could be born; Smile, there is no hell; or God is not my drug of choice.

The conference has the celebrity atheists—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, P. Z. Myers, Ayaan Hirsi Ali—and is called a “Celebration of Reason.” Reason is worth celebrating, and I want a faith that is reasonable, not blind. But where did we get reason? Did mere matter become conscious on its own? Did the human brain, easily the most complex object we know, assemble from chemicals by chance alone? Or is it more likely that our reason came from another Mind? I’m producing a film about this in the Big Questions series.2

A number of ex-Adventists say hello, including two former teachers and a former minister, who waggles his finger in my face and tells me God has completely failed at communicating with the human race, so God must not exist. (That logic puzzles me.) He’s still preaching, but for the other side. Some are converts; some are just looking.  

I bump into an Adventist mother and son. He is a science student who asked their pastor to come around and help with some questions he was facing at university. The pastor never came—perhaps because he had no training in apologetics and didn’t know how to respond—so the young man assumed Christianity had no answers. I’ve heard this story so many times: the bright kid goes to university, and no one has developed the intellectual side of their faith, which stays at school level, and they outgrow it. His strongly Adventist mother is at the atheist convention, despite concern from some church friends, to listen to the questions, and to work on answers with him. I feel a deep love for them both, and give them a book by John Lennox, a Christian professor of mathematics at Oxford, called God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?  

I find some atheists want honest dialogue, while others take cheap shots and attack straw man arguments, acting like intolerant fundamentalists—but I’ve heard some Christians do the same. Is anyone actually listening fairly? We need respectful dialogue, not tribal warfare. Atheists have reason and intuition, the ability to love, some innate knowledge of right and wrong, a sense of purpose—because they are created in God’s image, whether they recognize it or not. Some have never heard good reasons to believe, and have rejected illogical church dogma. Some have been abused by Christians. Many are influenced by scientists who act as if all the evidence goes one way, and who wallpaper over large gaps in the naturalist account of how we got here. 

I know of only one way to reach them: friendly dialogue. 

Peter tells Christians to do three things (1 Peter 3:15). One: “Revere Christ as Lord.” That is, recognize your own need of a Savior and spiritual transformation. That leaves no room for smugness. 

Two: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”  A reason means a reasoned defense (Greek apologia), a logical case for something. So it’s not enough to say, “Faith feels good to me.” We might need to repent of mental laziness and think harder about why we believe. I’m encouraged to see some Adventists reading such Christian apologists as John Lennox, Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, John Dickson, or Alister McGrath.  (You can find their talks on YouTube.) Most times that I talk with an atheist, I realize my ignorance on yet another topic, and go home to dig deeper.  

Three: “Do this with gentleness and respect.” I need to respect people who have prayed and felt unanswered, who feel they’re on a mud ball hurtling through space, unguided, unparented, trying to make their own meaning and purpose and to live their lives as best they can. I need to respect their intelligence in how I present Christianity. If a loving Father is calling them home, how could I represent Him by arrogance or rudeness? I need to take a different road from my taxi driver.  

And so I sneak into the convention center’s prayer room—it’s not like anyone was using it—and ask for love and logic as I interview celebrity atheists. I pray that I’ll really listen, and make films for my church that will begin to answer the real questions of this growing segment in cities around the world. God wants to answer their questions as He did for the original “Doubting” Thomas, and to enjoy their reason, their individuality, and their company. Forever.

  1. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 525.
  2. Read more about the project in Gerald A. Klingbeil, “A Hole in the Soul,” Adventist World, November 2010, at www.adventistworld.org/issue.php?issue=2010-1011&page=14.

Grenville Kent, Ph.D., is producing the Big Questions apologetics films (www.bigquestions.com) for the Australian Union Conference.