Atheist. The word carries a charge. It has a negative connotation in many people’s minds, synonymous with anger, noisy activism, and valueless modernity. One study found that people trust an atheist less than they trust a pedophile!
For others the word atheist equates to unbelief. An atheist has rejected Jesus, and therefore salvation.
The Bible explicitly says to avoid such people. In fact, belief in the wrong god (or no god) warranted total annihilation in the Old Testament. It was a holy cause, to consecrate, dedicate and repurpose a city, or a region such as Palestine, into something belonging exclusively to Yahweh. Judges describes the holy conquest, and the absolute genocide required, the wholesale killing of men, women and children of non-Israelite nations.
In similar fashion Jesus vividly described the everlasting punishments in the afterlife for those who do not follow him. The Bible identifies Jesus with the Old Testament Yahweh. Same God, same message, that those who do not believe will be utterly destroyed, except in Jesus’ case, it will be for an eternity in hell. Which is worse, experiencing genocide once, or over and over again forever?
Not everyone, and not every Christian, subscribes to such fire and brimstone. For many believers, an atheist is someone to disagree with and still love. An atheist is to be pitied, however, because he doesn’t have the closeness to a personal god, the reassurance of forgiveness, and the promise of resurrection attached to the believer’s creeds. A believer is still hoping, deep in the heart, for conversion of anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the biblical god.
But what if we were able to see atheists as believers? It sounds like an oxymoron. But consider it from a different angle. An atheist might be a believer in this sense: she trusts in life.
If you think about it, life is as large a concept as God. Perhaps they are one and the same thing. Perhaps that is what the artists who wrote the Bible were really trying to tell us. There is something larger than ourselves, and we are a humble part of it, and it is good and sacred and holy. By continually observing and experiencing the life we have been given, we can become better people, we can know ourselves and our world, and we can contribute to others. Atheists are true believers in that kind of purpose.
An atheist can also trust other people, that they are also part of life, that everyone, regardless of religion or non-religion has a similar DNA, similar needs and desires, and a similar place together in the universe as human beings.
Atheists can have a calm and even a certain optimistic acceptance of the way the world works. They can have faith in the way we can observe and learn about how the world operates consistently over time, and amend our own way of doing things to be more consistent with that natural process.
Most of all an atheist can live of love, beauty, grace, and goodness, without a god. To do so requires a fair amount of belief.
A believing atheist? As contradictory as it might sound, this happy, serene, and hopeful enterprise exists. Rather than getting stuck on fearing, pitying, or destroying the unbeliever, let’s acknowledge the large and divine life we all share. Let’s celebrate the ways we do believe.