Thank God for Atheists?

01 Jun 2017
Thank God for Atheists?

Richard Dawkins (pictured) is arguably the world’s best-known atheist. His 2006 book The God Delusion was a runaway success and widely influential. That’s why theologian Alister McGrath was surprised when a young man told him he became a Christian after reading The God Delusion

“Without Dawkins,” he said, “I would never have given God a second thought.”

He felt that the book had seemed so unfair and one-sided that he needed to hear the other side. To do that, he began going to church and became convinced that he should be a Christian.

McGrath recalls in Why God Won’t Go Away that the young man then asked a theological question—McGrath is a professor of theology at King’s College, London. The question: Since Dawkins’ book had been so instrumental in his conversion to Christianity, should he thank God for Dawkins in his prayers?

Perhaps he should. And perhaps there are some other things that Christians should thank atheists for.


When our world became post-Christian 

For centuries, Christianity has been the dominant religion in the Western world. When Emperor Constantine (ruled AD 306–337) became a Christian, he gave Christianity status and political influence—Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. 

This impacted on law and morality, which were defined within a Christian framework. At the break-up of the empire, many European nations made it their state religion, and they became “Christian” nations.

That’s now past as these nations are run as secular, not Christian, societies. The Western world has become post-Christian. 

Back in 1949, historian Herbert Butterfield wrote that we can “just about begin to say that at last no-one is now a Christian because of government compulsion, or to procure favour at court, or to qualify for public office, or because public opinion demands conformity, or because they would lose customers if they didn’t go to church.”

That is now a reality and is what a post-Christian world looks like. That doesn’t mean Christianity has no impact or influence, but it no longer has the final say in Western society. 


Post-Christian advantages

There are several advantages of living in our post-Christian era. Most importantly, individuals now choose to be Christians—by conviction, not by compulsion. There may be family and other pressures, but there is no pressure from society. 

Then, to quote Butterfield again, “We are back for the first time in something like the earliest centuries of Christianity.” That’s an advantage if Christians sense the connection with these spiritual forebears. More than this, there’s much that Christians living in a post-Christian world can learn from those who lived in a pre-Christian world (see sidebar on next page). 

Finally, religious freedom is a value worth preserving. In the West, post-Christianity has allowed freedom of choice for religious and non-religious beliefs. That’s healthy. 

Too often, when Christianity and political powers work hand in hand, people are hurt. England in the fourteenth century became a nation where those who dared to follow a faith outside the state-endorsed Christianity were punished—sometimes by death. 

Of course, Christianity isn’t the only religion to do this. It happens when the perceived need for faith conformity (of any kind) is stronger than freedom of belief. 


How atheists have helped Christians

Today’s atheists may be preaching that there is no God, but God isn’t going away. The Economist ran an article on December 23, 1999—the last issue of the past century—claiming that, “After a lengthy career, the Almighty recently passed into history.” That note of certainty was dented somewhat in the next sentence: “Or did he?”

Did He? Apparently not. An article in the April 7, 2009, issue of The Economist was titled “God is back again.” In fact, He’d never gone. He’s here to stay.

By attacking God and Christianity, what Dawkins and other atheists have done is forced Christians to look at their approach to Christianity. 

And in our post-Christian age, others are also asking questions—particularly as tragic scandals within some Christian organisations have been revealed over the past few decades.

This has tarnished all of Christianity. Now, sadly, Christianity is often caricatured as an old-fashioned, myth-driven religion that’s opposed to science; a protector of pedophiles; a hater of homosexuals; and an anachronism in a world that has outgrown religion.

How do Christians respond? “We ought to ask ourselves a very provocative question: ‘Why aren’t we more like the One we follow?’ ” That’s pastor John Burke’s response, in Mud and the Masterpiece. 

He goes further: “Why doesn’t the average person describe the average Christian with words that match Jesus’ life and ministry: ‘loving,’ ‘kind,’ ‘compassionate,’ ‘wise,’ ‘merciful,’ ‘truthful,’ ‘hopeful,’ ‘helping,’ ‘caring,’ ‘life-giving’?” Followers of Jesus being Jesus-like! That’s not radical—unless it isn’t happening.

Butterfield said “those early centuries afford some relevant clues to the kind of attitude to adopt” in a post-Christian era. The appeal of Christianity in those early years was found in the way Christians lived out their faith. 

It could be that if Western Christianity is to have an impact it’s again time to follow the counsel of Cyprian (bishop of Carthage, martyred in 258): “We must labour not with words, but with deeds.”

Christians would disagree with atheists and their position that there is no God. But as atheists—and others—have put Christians under the spotlight, they’ve also done us a service by exposing weaknesses within Christianity. 

We can thank God for that. But it does leave us with the challenge—to be “more like the One we follow.”    


When Christians were “atheists”

It sounds strange now, but when Justin Martyr (Christian apologist, AD 100–165) defended Christianity before the Roman emperor, he admitted that Christians were known as atheists.

“And we confess that we are atheists,” he added “so far as gods of this sort [pagan gods] are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God.” They rejected all other gods. 

This simplified religion dramatically. No Christian had to worry about other gods or the beliefs and conflicting views that had grown around them. 

Then, Christians made the stunning claim that God actually cared about people. “The simple phrase ‘For God so loved the world . . .’ would have puzzled an educated pagan,” says Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity. “And the notion that the gods care how we treat one another would be dismissed as patently absurd.”

Christianity also made life meaningful during times of trauma. During epidemics, for instance, the priests of the gods and the philosophers had no answer to the problem of why—and often fled the cities when they hit. 

Dionysius (bishop of Alexandria in the third century AD) noted that while pagans were terrified, Christians greeted epidemics as a “schooling and testing.” Not only did Christianity provide an explanation for what was happening (evil reveals itself in various forms) and comfort (God still cares), it provided something to do (care for the suffering). 

This proved to be attractive in a world dominated by superstition and uncertainty.