Inklings of Truth


Churches for Atheists?

By Audrey Stallsmith

I read in Time magazine recently that atheists are now starting their own churches.  I found it funny—and also a little sad— that people would set up churches for the worship of nothing. 

Apparently some of them hanker after the fellowship they see in Christian congregations and hope to duplicate it.  Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen.  The love between Christians is caused by God’s spirit in them, and frequently fails when they allow their own spirits to get the upper hand instead.

Christian love obviously isn’t going to happen in hearts from which God is implacably barred.  I don’t doubt that atheists feel affection for their fellow atheists, as they would for other members of a club in which all share similar interests.  But you can’t unite around a nothing, as you can around a Someone or even a something. 

There will always be a large and empty hole at the center of such a gathering.  As Fulton Sheen points out in Seven Words of Jesus and Mary, “Without God people only succeed in bringing out the worst in one another. Lovers who have nothing else to do but love each other soon find there is nothing else. Without a central loyalty life is unfinished.”

Christian love, on the other hand, is not a natural love but a supernatural one.  It requires that we care about those who don’t deserve or return our affection, as well as those who do.  We can’t feel smug about such love because it doesn’t come from us, but rather through us from God, and we must allow it to overwhelm our natural instincts.

As Timothy Keller puts it in Generous Justice, “We instinctively tend to limit for whom we exert ourselves. We do it for people like us, and for people whom we like. Jesus will have none of that. By depicting a Samaritan helping a Jew, Jesus could not have found a more forceful way to say that anyone at all in need--regardless of race, politics, class, and religion--is your neighbor. Not everyone is your brother or sister in faith, but everyone is your neighbor, and you must love your neighbor.”

In Christ’s day, the Samaritans were despised by the Jews, who considered them an inferior race.  So the story would be roughly equivalent to an African American in the old south stopping to help one of his racist white neighbors who had been robbed and left for dead.  Did that neighbor deserve it?  No way!  Would he be grateful?  Not likely! 

He and the Jew in the Bible story probably would both feel humiliated that they’d had to accept help from someone they considered so far beneath them.  But the African American and the Samaritan might stop anyway, because God had stopped for them when they weren’t worthy either.  That unworthiness didn’t spring from their race, however, but from the fact that all of us humans are sinners and undeserving of God’s forgiveness. 

As R. C. Sproul points out in Reason to Believe, “Being a sinner is a prerequisite for being a church member. The Christian church is one of the few organizations in the world that requires a public acknowledgement of sin as a condition for membership.”

The fact that Christians occasionally fall back into wrongdoing doesn’t disprove their faith.  It proves that what the church has always said about men being sinners is true.  As G. K. Chesteron puts it in The Everlasting Man, “When the world goes wrong, it proves rather that the Church is right. The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.”

And we Christians know that all the positive thinking in the world isn’t going to change that.  In Soul Survivor, Philip Yancey writes that we “admit that we will never reach our ideal in this life, a distinctive the church claims that most other human institutions try to deny.”

Because we know and admit ourselves to be sinners too, we can see our neighbors—no matter how offensive—as fellow all-too-human beings for whom Christ died.  On the other hand, those who don’t believe Christ was God, and don’t believe themselves to be sinners, aren’t likely to see any value in their unlikeable neighbors.   

So a church isn’t really a large building with regularly scheduled meetings.  It is a family of evildoers, orphans, and rejects who found Someone big enough to love and adopt them anyway.  Without that Someone, the big building will just echo with emptiness.