In times of difficulty the old adage often quote is that “there are no atheists in foxholes”. The author of such a statement is accredited to many different individuals. More importantly is that it suggests that when one is experiencing a struggle of some kind in one’s personal that is larger than oneself, the person will seek to find something or someone (God, a god) hopefully for deliverance beyond the present situation. It is being suggested then that everyone believes in something of another worldly kind.
Some individuals who have practised leadership within the Christian church have become self-described “atheists” which seems to be a double contradiction given their position of “minister” and the old adage. Many have questioned how one can be a Christian and an atheist. The two seem to be at odds to one another. At least until the definitions are further explored.
Firstly, one asks: what does it mean to be Christian? The simplest answer seems to be that a Christian is one who believes Jesus is the Son of God, the Saviour of humankind. At the same time there are those Christians who profess to follow “the Jesus way” (showing love, compassion, empathy, inclusion to name a few of his qualities) who don’t feel the same about the man’s role in the world. To quote Tim Rice from Jesus Christ, Superstar: “He’s just a man” with human not superhuman qualities. Between these two extremes lie the rest of those who call themselves “Christian”.
Just as the definitions of what it means to be Christian can and do vary, do can and does one’s understanding of what it is to be an atheist. In its simplest meaning one assumes that an atheist is one who doesn’t believe in God. However, the next question has to involve asking just what one means when the “God” is used. As this writer has often said before, there are nearly as many images or understandings of God as there are people. Is God anthropomorphized as an “old man with a long beard living in the sky”? Does knowing all things dictate events in the lives of humans? Does God care about “all of creation” or have a human’s first policy? Is it God who intervenes in some lives and not others and on what criteria? The list can seem endless if it isn’t.
A news media reported that a particular atheist minister didn’t believe in the Bible. Of course, this should not be called “fake news”, but it does mean that further questions need to be explored. What does it mean to believe “in the Bible”? Once again the extreme understandings of this book can and do create all kinds of havoc with one’s belief system. Do we read the Bible as the “literal” word of God, penned by human hands but totally directed by God (an outside force)? Does one read a history of a people and how that people rejected Jesus, as the Christ? Sadly, the Christian church can’t even agree on which writings should be included or excluded. There was even a time when the idea of translating the Hebrew and Greek into English was punishable by death.
It seems to this writer that we have given up exploring the questions far too soon to be able to make any bold statements. We seem to limit ourselves to our comfort zone and choose to go no further. By some definitions I too would be considered an atheist. Many are also turning from the religious institutions that limit one’s understandings and questions. Too often I also hear the adage that “if one doesn’t stand (believe) for something, than you fall for anything”. This adage seems only to be true when we accept a narrow definition of our beliefs.