Atheism is as complicated as theism. To be fair to atheists, it should not be the responsibility of an atheist to prove the non-existence of a God that Christians define in an unprovable way. It is the responsibility of Christians to have a provable definition of God or hold onto their definitions more lightly. At the same time, atheists have a similar problem to Christians in not being able to defend what they cannot disprove. Both paths lead into a rabbit hole of dualistic and unconscious thoughts and arguments.
Over the years, atheistic-theistic debates (catalyzed by celebrity atheists such as American author Sam Harris and English evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins after the 9-11 attacks) have to some degree been framed up against the backdrop of two monolithic concepts. There is science, which is portrayed as being evidence-based, and religion, which is portrayed as being unprovable. The atheistic position is that people who believe in God are misguided at best and at their worst are tent-revival snake handlers, Capitol insurgents, and confession-booth pedophiles.
The ideas that science and religion are monolithic forces are both false narratives. Atheism is not monolithic, and defining it is complicated. According to 2019 Pew Research, many people who described themselves as atheists also said they believed in a higher power or spiritual force. At the same time, some of those who identified with a religion said they didn’t believe in God. To put a number to atheism, 4% of American adults identified as atheists when asked about their religious identity, up from 2% in 2009. An additional 5% of Americans called themselves agnostics, up from 3% a decade ago. The demographics skew white (78%) and male (68%). Europe is more atheistic than the United States, at closer to 15%.
There are two aspects of the atheist’s dilemma to consider:
Science as a shield: The very use of the word science has become dogmatized and politicized. The scientific method is evidence-based, and that is good. But when people cross the line and act as if theories are factual proof, they do not stay true to the scientific process that they use as an intellectual weapon. Even the most compelling scientific theories need the acknowledgment: “We don’t know for sure.”
Attacking as a mode of operating: Dogmatic and mean-spirited atheists cannot prove that there is no God. Since dogmatic atheists can’t prove the absence of God, they can only attack the weaknesses of their opponents. This results in many witty yet hurtful talking points, at the expense of having meaningful conversations. Sam Harris, one of the most influential American atheists of the last decade, has separately advocated that groups have productive and empathetic conversations. Yet, with his atheism, he has displayed a glaring lack of empathy when attacking religion through his debates, podcasts, and social media posts.
There are two things for dogmatic Christians to consider:
Dogma as a shield: When dogma can’t be proven, Christians, like atheists, need to acknowledge: “We don’t know for sure.” There is much that Christians can know. Holding dogma loosely doesn’t mean Christians can’t embrace their traditions, but it does mean that unprovable ideas should not be forced down the throats of others. After all, Jesus called the Pharisees in the New Testament blind guides and chided them for straining out gnats while swallowing camels.(43)
Separation as a mode of operating: What if Christians spent less time in their sanctuaries and more time in their communities—not to try to convert others to their dogmatic beliefs but to help feed them and improve their lives? Without the need for dogma, Christians, like Jesus, can love others, connect with them, and serve people who are struggling. That is what Jesus asked of his followers.
There is a Christian advantage in the theistic/atheistic choice. It is hard for fundamentalist atheists to unite around the existence of nothing. As a result, other than hating religion, dogmatic atheists often struggle as groups to have a unifying cause, meaningful rituals, and organizational capabilities that can make a difference in the world. However, helping people in need at scale is a core competency for many Christian groups. Many faith-based organizations do great work, including longstanding and sizeable organizations like Habitat for Humanity, YMCA, Volunteers of America, and the Salvation Army.
Imagine if Christians go even further and reactivate the potential of the more than 300,000 churches in the United States to heal and feed the suffering rather than try to convert them to their church’s dogmatic beliefs.
Imagine how much better things could be if atheists and Christians alike were able to acknowledge those three magic words more often: “We don’t know for sure.”
43. Matt. 23:24