What does it mean to be an Atheist?



This is a question, being a believer, not really for me to answer. But it’s one I come back to again and again since I first wrote the review of Graeme and Jonathon Rutherford’s book Beloved Father, Beloved Son, 3 years ago. And nearly everyone I mix with outside the church these days seems to call themselves an Atheist - with a capital 'A'.

The word itself derives from the ancient Greek and first meant Godless or ungodly or impious, used for many centuries in a pejorative sense: a (without) theos (God). Karen Armstrong tells us that it wasn’t until late 18th century Europe that the word began to mean disavowal of a monotheistic Abrahamic God. And then not until 20th century does it come to mean disbelief in all gods.

Another good books on the topic, of relevance here, include Keith Ward’s The Evidence for God. But I am not going to attempt to engage in this debate. However, I do have two personal reflections.

Atheists can take up very strong, loudly pronounced positions. And it seems much more trendy in early 21st century to be an Atheist, than a believer, let alone a Christian. I'm on the outer. I am increasingly interested, though, to find with my Atheist friends that when they are in a situation of extremis - facing raw bereavement or serious diagnosis of an illness - they can be really happy when I offer to light a candle for them in church. One avowed Atheist relative, even requested two candles. Nowadays to be a Christian seems to have become counter cultural (always a place I more at home with than mainstream) though many Christians do give very poor coverage of such faith.

‘Atheists’ can often feel Christian faith is an easy thing to have, a kind of unthought through, dumbing down of existence. It's 'eye ball rolling' territory. Not only does God not add up logically, but faith itself is seen to be a shoring up of wishful dreams and ideals so that the real world doesn’t have to be faced up to. As though ‘believers’ have somehow or other not quite yet realised just how serious life is, or how truly painful it can be. Believers haven't grown up yet. But, apart from the critical thinking and deep reflection I have done, it actually takes some courage on my part to offer to light a candle for someone whom I know to be just such an Atheist. It seems to me also that courage is at the heart of faith. Courage to walk in the dark. Living by not-knowing but believing is not a comfortable place at all to be. But it’s only by walking in the dark that you can experience the chains that bind you, loosen and set free.

My second reflection is this. And it’s a very general one. Though particular to the movements of life that I engage in with friends and family, day after day, here in Melbourne. I think there are very few genuine Atheists. Language is a great barrier, and prejudice and abuse of words gets in the way again and again. After Richard Dawkins had a stroke in February this year, I read an avowed Atheist write that he would not be found praying for Dawkins or doing anything religious that weekend - as though that were blasphemous - but would simply sit down and read one of Dawkin’s books. And that’s when I thought - but that’s faith. That’s what I would call an act of accompaniment, of being alongside another person. A showing of an act of love for someone. That’s Christian faith. As simple, and as costly, as that.

In The Go Between God, John V Taylor writes that the first apostles were people who had seen for themselves ‘not merely in the sense of having been physically present at the crucial events, but as those upon whom the meaning of the events had burst as a revelation.’ p70. The speech and writing of the Apostles then becomes alive with this revealed insight that they have both heard and seen. They break open the Greek and Hebrew language to help articulate what they have witnessed. We have become so used today to sound bites and slogans, to hiring professional communicators, we are too often complacent with a limited vocabulary that diminishes subtlety of thought, and yet simultaneously we have a heightened suspicion of any words that are potentially tinged with insincerity.

Perhaps the best question to ask an Atheist - who genuinely wants to talk with you about what it means to be an Atheist - is, What sort of God do you not believe in? Start with his or her language about what ‘without God’ means, and listen. Even simply let silence speak. And respect. In the same chapter Taylor writes that what makes a prophet is not eloquence but vision, ‘not getting the message across but getting the message.’ p69 This is because when you get the message, even the most hardened self-proclaimed Atheist can be heard and recognised as a child of God. ‘Getting the message’ is not about going on an aggressive crusade of conversion. Something is at work in the ground of our being that will voice itself personally from this inner space that Christians call being in God. Something behind language, something that connects each one of us to what it means to be human. And to what it means to be connected to one another.