I love atheists. And I don’t mean with that blanket Christian universal love that suggests we love people because we have to. Some of my best friends are atheists, and so are some of my favourite writers, such as the recently departed Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was an outspoken radical and intellectual. His 2007 book, God is Not Great, was a scathing rebuke of religion that described how monotheistic faith poisons everything.
So it came as a shock when I heard that there was a memorial service held for Hitchens in late April in New York. Of course, memorial services are common after someone dies. Usually conducted by a member of the clergy, the services feature hymns, prayers and sacred readings. But how does one hold such a service for a person who was not only an atheist, but a self-described “antitheist” (i.e. a person who was against the very idea of a supreme being)? I couldn’t imagine anyone close to him allowing a “religious service.” But a service was held that was consistent with Hitchens’ own worldview, focusing on the beauty of the arts, the equality of all people and a genuine love for our fellow person. It even had a reading from the Apostle Paul.
I have to admit that I was saddened when Hitchens passed away last year from cancer. Why did I like Hitchens? Why do I read people like Richard Dawkins and others who stand against the things I value? I do so because their questions are troublesome ones that cause me to think. While I disagree with Hitchens’ contention that faith is a societal ill, I cannot deny his claim that religion, at times, has been an impediment to social progress and that grave crimes have been committed for religion’s sake. So I find myself reading and wondering what I can do to better articulate a Christian worldview.
As an officer in The Salvation Army, I have committed “to live to win souls and make their salvation the first purpose of my life.” This includes the atheist. Officers have a hard enough time making converts among those who agree that there is a God. How do I begin talking about God to a person who believes I am deluded for even conceiving one exists? The first step, for me, is acknowledging our faults and mistakes. Then it is about entering the stage of public discourse and making a reasonable Christian contribution to the issues that face our society.
Like most people, I am drawn to people whose values are similar to my own. It is perhaps the single most-important reason that I am a follower of Jesus in The Salvation Army. Christ’s core values of peace, his core teachings of social justice and his core commandments of goodwill are the reasons I find joy in following him. So I can understand why unbelievers mock Christianity when Jesus’ name is politicized by groups who have no obvious concern for their neighbour or the poor.
The fact is that many atheists have values that are noble—an overwhelming appreciation and awe of creation (though they wouldn’t call it that), a desire for social improvement and an obligation to fight for human rights and dignity for all people. They’re not all hatemongers who outwardly snicker at us “believers.”
Jim Wallis, CEO of Sojourners, tells a story about Patrick Greene, a militant atheist. Greene fought against Christian expression in his community wherever he found it. He was a taxi driver who developed cataracts and needed surgery in order to see properly and retain his job. A Christian woman named Jessica organized people in her church to begin fundraising for Greene’s surgery. However, not only did Christians help, but some atheist friends worked together with the church to raise the money needed. The Christians could have heaped scorn upon Greene and judged him as getting what he deserved. But they didn’t. They showed compassion. They didn’t expect anything in return, such as asking Greene to stop his counter-Christian activity. But in the end, he did just that and became a Christian. Compassion won out.
I know many Christians are afraid to encounter people who are admitted atheists. Maybe they feel that they lack the knowledge to debate with unbelievers. Maybe they are ashamed of some of the things they have believed and said. But maybe there is a lot we have in common with our faithless neighbours. Maybe it is about building a bridge and demonstrating the love that Christians are supposed to be known for. We may be surprised to find that there is love on the other side of that bridge, too.
Major Juan Burry is the executive director of Victoria’s Addictions and Rehabilitation Centre.