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The Apologist: Can atheism be 'tried on' for size?

Amy Orr-Ewing assesses whether belief can be treated like a pair of trousers that no longer fit – and what to do when doubt strikes.

To ask whether a Christian can ‘try on’ atheism is rather like asking whether a married man can live as a bachelor. You can reject or walk away from a person, but once you have come to know them it would be disingenuous to say that they do not exist.  

The person who has decided to experiment with atheism has already made the assumption that there is no personal God. It may be possible to spiritually dip a toe into some religions that are primarily about performing rituals, but a distinctive at the heart of the Christian faith is the offer of a relationship with the personal God.  

You can ‘try on’ or ‘take off’ religious practices, but knowing a person is something entirely different. (Atheism is a claim to know that God does not exist, whereas agnosticism says that we don’t or can’t know whether there is a God.) A Christian can choose to walk away from God and live a life ignoring him, but that is quite different from denying him entirely.  

In some recently published research on American pastors losing their faith, none talked of missing God as a person. This is an indication that the heart of the Christian faith had been missed in the first place: these pastors were losing their connection with the religious trappings of Christian culture, but did not appear to have encountered the risen Christ himself to start with.  

Can an atheist ‘try on’ belief?  

To an atheist wanting to experience Christian belief, I would always want to emphasise the importance of knowing God as a personal being. It may be tempting to say, ‘I have tried on belief by going to church’ or even ‘I’ve experienced belief because I’ve read the Bible’. But this would not involve a genuine encounter with God himself.  

An open-hearted prayer – inviting God, if he is real, to reveal himself to me, or an acknowledgement of my own failings and my need for forgiveness – is the starting point for coming to know God personally. Anyone can do that, whatever their background, but sincerity is important. If we are determined to assert that there is no God, it would be quite difficult to do this with any authenticity if we have not approached him in person.  

Since atheists are often just as moral as Christians, what difference does God make?  

Christians don’t (or at least shouldn’t) believe they are particularly ‘moral’ people. In fact, the Christian faith acknowledges that as human beings we all need forgiveness. Christians aren’t better than anyone else, but recognise a personal need for God’s forgiveness and rescue. We are all drowning, but some of us have caught hold of a rope that’s been thrown from shore.  

Christian faith means believing that I cannot be moral by myself – nor can I construct my own morality. Instead, I believe in the existence of the God who created the world and has challenged humanity with a moral standard that we need help to attain. This would include the Ten Commandments and its laws protecting the sanctity of life, for example, or the personal challenge of Jesus to love and forgive enemies and put others first. God is a foundation outside of ourselves for moral standards.  

Atheists can, of course, also believe in specific moral standards. Many atheists have very similar morals to Christians – particularly if they live in a country influenced by the Judaeo-Christian faith. However, for the atheist, morality is relative not absolute; a construct of individuals or society.  

God is not only the foundation for morality for the Christian; he also inwardly transforms those who invite him in. The power to forgive enemies, give to the poor or speak kindly comes from God, not the individual alone.  

As Paul writes in Romans, the moral law was burdensome to us until God’s grace gave us the power to live in freedom. It is relationship with God that empowers the Christian to reach for a higher standard. This will often be the quiet work of a lifetime, but it all begins with the acknowledgement of imperfection on the part of the Christian.

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried  GK Chesterton  

To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible  Thomas Aquinas  

The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank  Dante Gabriel  

To you, I’m an atheist. To God, I’m the loyal opposition  Woody Allen 

How should Christians deal with doubt?  

Don’t suppress doubt or pretend that everything is fine when it isn’t. The Christian faith is about having a real relationship with the living God, and he wants us to express our thoughts and concerns to him. Pretence is not obedience.  

It may be that you are facing a season of emotional doubt: you have encountered disappointments, unanswered prayer or feel distant from God. In this kind of situation, I would encourage you to go to the Psalms. Use the words of scripture itself to articulate disappointment or grief and remember that God gives you the space to do that. He wants us to be real about our emotions. Then remember why you believe and trust in God. Faith is not rooted in our circumstances. If God is real and it is true that he loves us, then we can be anchored by that truth even when life is tough.  

On the other hand, your doubts may be intellectual ones. Perhaps we have encountered people, books or websites that question many of the things we have been taught. With this kind of doubt I would encourage the doubter to ask questions, search and discover – there are some brilliant resources and intelligent answers out there. Speak to God about your questions and concerns. Thinking is never the enemy of truth.   

YOU CAN ‘TRY ON’ OR ‘TAKE OFF’ RELIGIOUS PRACTICES, BUT KNOWING A PERSON IS SOMETHING ENTIRELY DIFFERENT  

Amy Orr-Ewing is director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. You can hear more Faith Explored on Premier Christian Radio, Saturdays between 1 and 5pm.  Follow Amy @AmyOrrEwing

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