Why Faith Needs an Atheist

What can we learn about dialogue by breaking out of our Christian circles?

In the last five years, the only person to ask me how my faith is doing is my friend, Chris.

He's an atheist. And when he asked, he really meant it.

I don’t mean to suggest that all well-intentioned and genuine inquiries from Christian friends, family and that one guy who always phrases it “How’s your walk?” are not meaningful. It’s just that, usually, I want to tell that guy, “I’m limping” and it wouldn’t go over so well. When you’re asked a question in Christianese, there is an expectation that you’ll answer in kind, and—if it’s not something on the “I’ve just been so blessed during this season” spectrum—you’re probably going to prompt the other person to pull out their best I’ll-Pray-For-You face.

You know the one: a furrowing of the eyebrows that masks disappointment with a shade of tenderness, a slow nod and a hand on your shoulder. In other words, every time this happens, I inevitably get the message that I’m not as close to God as this other person.

I grew up Christian through-and-through. I was baptized at age 10 by my own choice, attended a Christian kindergarten, elementary-middle-high school, college and then worked on staff at that college until I was 25. I know the pray-face well.

In all that time, there’s rarely been a conversation where I was asked about my faith and I didn’t feel the pressure to figure out what kind of answer the inquirer wanted and then respond in that way. Even now, I want to replace “rarely” with “never,” but I’m already paranoid readers will start to bow their heads.

To be fair, I’m sure most of this paranoia is self-inflicted. However, I’ve learned over time that it’s easier to say what they want to hear and then deflect with a joke. The reality is, you’re not just answering for yourself but also for the state of your theological leanings. Your answer needs to do the surface work of telling someone you’re fine, all while implying your doctrine is still watertight.

Plus, there are only so many times you can be told that you’re going to be prayed for before you start thinking you’re completely incapable of doing it yourself.

So when a tattooed, 6-foot-plus, atheist blogger and humanist chaplain at Harvard was sitting in my living room, in a chair far too small for him, and asked me how my faith was, for the first time in my life I had no idea what to say. And this was a very good thing. I didn’t have to tailor my answer for a Calvinist or a Charismatic or a liturgaphile.

For the first time, I could say out loud, “I’m not okay.”

The reason I need atheists is because I need doubt without a ceiling. A smattering of edgier teachers suggest that there is such a thing as redemptive or holy doubt and that it’s okay to Question Authority—as long, they go on to qualify, as it’s within a faith framework and you make sure you don’t stay (or “wallow”) in that place for too long.

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My atheist friend could care less how big my doubt is, and he really had no interest in pushing that doubt to the point of recantation. As a humanist and interfaith worker, he finds ways to connect to people of all (or no) faith and see what kinds of things we can work together on, rather than inflate an already bloated and obvious debate. The times where his work is most vehemently attacked, curiously, is by those that share his beliefs. I’m not suggesting you all go out and find a token atheist to tell all your problems to. The point is to approach relationships without predefined expectations of behavior. Find something in your experience that allows you to say what you’re most afraid to say without fear of being categorized.

As Christians, we have a long, inspiring history of inclusive, unanswered doubt (St. Wikipedia dubs it “authentic confusion”). St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul suggested that doubt wasn’t just something backsliders went through, but that it was as natural as the passing of hours from dark to light. C.S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed, not A Grief Ignored. Sufjan Stevens sings that he “want[s] to be well” on a record that ends with the repeated line “We made such a mess together.”

And that’s the power of trench-level doubt, of a saved mind that dares ask in fear-and-trembling ways what exactly it all means without immediately couching the question in some oversimplified homiletic remedy.


Shahid Shahzad


Shahid Shahzad commented…

mines not going well too. i got serious questions, though old and common but something that has started to bother me a lot, my rational thinking mind is struggling to accept,about God, religion, faith, i cant tell or yell it, iam afraid to be ridiculed or frowned at like a kid who does not know a thing about life or God... i am born again Christian and got degree in theology as well. the questions i have can be rated as pure spiritual pornography and would be reckoned shameful and rebellious to be asked by a Christian for 25 years.

Shahid Shahzad


Shahid Shahzad commented…

here are my spiritual porn questions, rather cry out: read if you have patience, sorry its bit messy.
I am Christian but i think the Eden story is just a drama. He plants the virus of free will in people, plant a forbidden tree as temptation, allow satan to come into the garden to tempt. Because they were programmed to choose or not (which they did after having option) they took the pill and turned the heaven into hell. As a result of disobedience to God they are punished. By genetic coding they also have Sin virus to transfer to their seeds to they too can sin and be part of this, creation, fall, redemption, resotration, hell and heaven drama.
It's all drama! Did i get a phone call from God ''listen, i have created a new place for humans. If you are interested i will send you as infant. You can also select the place of choice to be born. I am also giving you option to be a faith hero to suffer their for my sake and return to heaven after successfully completing your task, second option is live a great ife there enjoy have fun and i will call you back sometime to have your feedback about the whole experience. third option is you can remain in heaven without no threat to your status. do you wish to go or stay here. remember if you go to earth certain terms and conditions may apply you may lose your current status in heaven if you disobey me or break my commands. the choice is yours. are willing to take part in my new survey. Yes or No"".
Why he did that to human race? Was it love, his pleasure or what? Why you create them if you know that you are going to or have to throw them in the lake of fire for eternity to be tortured. Billions! oh no i provided atonement so they can avoid ending up in hell. What if someone is not born in a Christian family and that person is a real good man. What fate that poor creature is going to suffer because he did accept or knew about the plot of atonement through his son.
sadly God did not give us any choice. he programmed everything by his choice, he created this whole drama, i create, they fall, i go as hero to save em, he selects an evil to plot against on earth, those who accept my heroic offer will be saved the rest, as according to the story i created, will be thrown into lake of fire for every and ever. Is this fair, is this just, yes as bible say everything he does is just. but sorry if you are concerned about your human rights it violates all of them. Thats cruel. no love. total injustice to your own creation, created in your image.
Ok lest see its not drama... well why he allowed the evil to remain loosed to tempt, while he should have been in lake of fire after disobeying him. You created situation for us here and tell us to face it. Sorry i have been born again Christian. all this stuff always had in my mind but i guess it was hidden because i used the same reasoning to silence all these silly questions (as you may think) i had in my head demanding answers. I had always snubbed atheists. no one forced to me think about this all stuff. the thing is they were always in my head but now i just cant suppress them anymore.
Why people who suffer will go to eternal fire for eternity. suffer here and get ready to suffer millions of times with greater torture in hell. Why? i cried as a christian demanded answer from God. oh well it is sin that separate us from God so he has to punish us to justify his word or will or whatever. people chose hell its not for them. ok so why created all this stuff. you created us and you could have programmed us right to do right. well you know he did not want robots. he wanted us to choose him or not so he could take pleasure. lets put them to test... lets see who is going to choose me or reject me. that's a game, matrix. oh dear i created but they have disappointed me. woe, woe, they are not doing as i commanded them to. well the thing is you installed a virus of free will, original sin, in us that make us dysfunctional. so whose fault is it if we do not function as we should or as desired by him. creation or Creator.
oh well the creation cant complain why you created me this way. it is my will and pleasure i did what i did. do you have problem, so, go to hell. Is it love, is justice, is it fair.
Eden story is drama, tree of good and evil is drama, original sin, free is drama, redemption plan is drama, just wanted to be hero and you have put billions life and future at stake. What is this? oh satan fall so i thought to create human so i can send this evil creature to them to make them disobey me and make them suffer, so they can fall in sin so i can justify my redemption story.. sorry plan. that all are sinners no one is right. sounds like nice plot against us. you dont worry i did not create hell for people it is for the fallen angels. you just obey me if you dont then i will send you there. but you know i did not intend to send you there but sorry i have because i cant change my self written plot. i feel sorry for you but you have suffer in hell. this is my plan for sinners whom i created i harden their hearts so i can bring some twist and drama on earth and human history... this would be great chance to come as hero.
can any christian give my any logical answer.. dont give theological, emotional and spiritual blackmailing reasons.
if hes real why has not bothered to show up to me? Why he rejects everything i desire or ask. why he always choose the opposite for me and by the way he also gave me free will. whats the point then?? why he sent me to this stupid country i live in to suffer. oh your reward will be great in heaven. ok but what about the others who do not suffer. does not sound fair to me. oh no Jesus is appearing to many in dreams and visions.. well he has never turned to put me out of my misery. if he is he is still not bother. hes not bother to lose a soul. you are asking silly question and your demand is irrational that cannot be answered. if you want part in heaven have faith... blind faith or living faith whatever...
relgion is big manipulation and blackmailing. pay me tithe and i will bless your money. if you dont you will have hole in ur pocket. well i have been doing it but i find many holes not just one. If you give offering then i will bless you. if you dont i will make you suffer. is it love, is it pagan god is it loving God. What is it? the idol worshpers in history had same kinda stuff. offering people to sun god or moon god so the deity is satisfied and will not torture people. the loving does not sound any different to me.
i have been born again christian, trained in theology, teaching and preaching, doing all what evangelical Christians do. But in those years i suppressed all that stuff on my chest. i dont know if iam atheist or not or agnostic but i got serious question which my mind and sanity requires logical answer.
i feel religion and believing in God is psychological. its therapeutic, the worship, prayer(talking to one who is stronger and supposedly care), reading psalms (reading it and getting therapeutic healing), reading positive stuff in bible makes you feel better, some kind of hope it gives you,whether real or not. meeting with people on Sundays and fellowships is like a group therapy, giving my money to God or church gives me sense of security that i will not get any financial problem or get problems in life the locust wont destroy my storage and savings, sermons on Sundays give you boost to carry on with faith you have, its motivates you encourages you. Good place to be huh.
the thing is IS GOD REAL. if he is then why he has done stuff which does not provide any logical sense. Why we raise questions against all that he did. all what i said is what bible tells us. and sorry it does not make any sense to me. why he do or did whatever he does. simply telling me iam sinner is not good enough. i did not choose to become flesh, you chose and decided. i did not planted original sin gene and free will in me. you did. you created my.. i did not. you planted all those security risk in Eden, i didn't. you planted the tree of good and evil.. i did not. you could have chose not to plant it at first place, but you did it deliberately. can you explain that? you allowed satan into Garden in holy place, i did not. you had this idea to create human race, not we. and even my these silly questions make you upset .. ah why i created him. look how disobeying and rebellious he is!! sorry i dont want to be like that but what ever has been plotted and conspired story is making me angry. you created all this drama of human life.
Jesus and God is hero, satan is the evil one, and human race is the heroine to be tortured, suffer here, rescued only few ones the majority go to hell! The good the bad and the ugly.
God is holy he cant stand sin. ok fine. why he created man who is inclined to sin( he knew it all) and yet he carried on his venture. it was all programmed. He knew it all if does know.
oh shut up silly me. you have never been a born again at first place, you dont know God if you did you would not have asked this stuff. really?
my questions are not out or arrogance or ignorance, if you think i do then you are wrong, i am trained in theology and i can give all the loved answers you want to hear from a trained preacher and teacher. all these questions and other stuff i got is result of personal out cry and reasoning which i suppressed for long and i could not keep it inside any longer, no more. no born again christian will dare to ask the questions and criticism i have posted here. I want answer from Christians and God. Answer me. i need answer because all that stuff has troubled me. i am not starting anti christian campaign here i have questions and i need answers that make sense.

Benjamin Spurlock


Benjamin Spurlock replied to Shahid Shahzad's comment

Shahid, it is entirely possible that no born again Christian will 'dare' to ask the questions and criticism, but likely because of the nature of the way you posted it. In any civilized discussion, starting out with a willful lie (stating that you're a Christian at the start, and the later saying that you have never been a born again Christian), taking a combative tone ('You are wrong,' 'no born again Christian will dare,' 'Answer me,' 'is making me angry,' etc.) would be an instant turn-off- it feels like you're more looking for a fight than a discussion. That may not be your intention, but that's how it comes off, and as a result, it freezes potential dialogue.

That being said, if you would like to have a discussion about this, I'd be happy to talk it over. I'm far from 'trained in theology,' but I think that I might at least have a different perspective that could be interesting to you. Or, if by contrast, you wanted to vent and that's all, then know that I heard you and neither I nor God hate you or are angry with you for asking these questions.

I'll leave the choice up to you. I'd be happy to discuss, but it'd have to be more calmly, or else we won't get anywhere. So, let me know and we'll see what happens, yes?

ETA: Actually, would it be better to talk through Facebook messages or e-mail? I don't want to miss a response because of this being in the comment section. If not, that's fine, but I'd be happy to work this however works best for you.

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