I May Be A Better Atheist Than You...
I was corresponding with an atheist friend the other day. He’d read an article in which I described a kind God who would never leave. I had written about my friend Jesus with deep affection. He was agitated in my direction.
He informed me that he devoted himself to exposing the hypocrisies, abuses, and cruelties of the punishing god he’d been raised to believe in—a god to whom he had given zealous devotion and unwavering obedience during his formative and early adult years.
He was angry and swung at me with his beliefs about a Father who turned His back—a petty, sin-counting, unjust, merciless, insecure, egomaniac god. He wrote well to expose the horrific nature of the punishing god to whom he had once dedicated his life.
When he finished his tirade, he demanded I defend the god he no longer believed in.
Clearly, he was looking for a fight, but he encountered two problems. First, I didn’t want to fight. Second, and more to the point, I don’t believe in that god either.
I wrote, “There were days in my life where I tried to believe in the god you just described, and it led to desperation, insecurity, and a whole lotta shame. But I left that god a long time ago. I don’t believe in or follow him anymore, not even a little. So, no need to argue, my friend. We agree. That god sucks.”
I had hoped he would either let it go or ask for further explanation, but he was still too worked up with my article in which I wrote about a kind and loving God who happened to go by the same name as the evil god he once believed in and followed.
Instead of engaging in dialogue, he continued to vent. Ignoring my response, he listed several abuses perpetrated by god’s people, the church, throughout history and today. It seemed to me he had likely experienced the pointy end of some leader’s spear and spent a great deal of time contemplating the horrific destruction done in the name of the god he claimed he no longer believed in.
My atheist friend again demanded I defend this god, but this time he also wanted me to defend the sword-swinging, spear-throwing actions of this god’s followers.
But I, too, am offended by the hypocrisies and abuses within the church, and I let him know. “Man, I agree. Horrific things have been done on behalf of a god neither of us believes in or follows. Slavery, sexism, authoritarianism, racism, and abuses of every kind have been, and continue to be done in the name of a god we’ve both rejected. But I am not writing about that god.”
He was still not ready to have a conversation. Instead, one last time, he unburdened himself with another list of retributive definitions of god and the evil atrocities done by and for him. Again, he demanded I defend them.
“Convince me I’m wrong!” That was essentially what he was asking—but he wasn’t wrong.
So, I took a different approach. “It feels like you keep asking me to defend a god neither of us follows. We’re in complete agreement, believing in that god is detrimental to our emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, and relational health. And submitting to those who follow such a god is signing up for abuse, manipulation, trauma, and loads of behavior-focused shame. I don’t believe in that god—not even a little. I left him a long time ago.”
“But you still consider yourself a Christian!” He responded with confused frustration.
“Yes, but not as you define it.” Then I added, “I am absolutely in love with God, just not the one you’re angry at. Man, when it comes to that god, I may be a better atheist than you.”
“What do you mean?” He asked. And I sensed he was sincere.
“I think we agree about much, but there seems to be one significant difference between us. The god we don’t believe in anymore isn’t still traumatizing me. I no longer lose peace because of him. I have left him and the insecurities I once experienced when following him.”
I continued. “For the sake of conversation, let’s step away from the cruel, punishing version of the god you keep associating me with, and instead, let’s describe God as Greater Love—a kind, self-giving, others-centered love. When you read something I write, know that’s the Jesus I am writing about.”
Everything in our conversation shifted after that. He let me know he could get on board with that God. Then, he thanked me.
He thanked me?
It got me thinking. My new atheist friend seemed just as convinced of the punishing nature of God as many of my Christian friends—
It seems this retributive obsession, this conviction that God is cruel and punishing, leads to furious sword-swinging for Christian and Atheist alike.
Oddly, if you don’t leave the idea that God is punishing, even if you reject His existence, you will continue to experience the bondage of that punishing religion, and swords will still be swung and you still experience the bondage of that religion…
And whether adherents swing swords in the name of the God they love or in the name of a god they don’t believe exists, there is only one outcome. People get hurt, and trust is lost.
But thankfully, God is love and He continues to reconcile the world to Himself…
This article is excerpted from my book, Leaving and Finding Jesus