Last week I wrote a post Three Reasons I am Not an Atheist. For this post I am going to take a different route: rather than critique atheism as a worldview, I am going to discuss why I love atheists as people. So, I am shifting from talking about the idea of atheism to the people who embrace it.
I certainly don’t claim to represent all atheists in this post. There are a huge variety of people who consider themselves atheists (in terms of belief systems and demeanor), just as there is in Christianity, Islam, and many other religions. And there are even debates about what constitutes atheism—is it belief that God does not exist, or simply the lack of belief in God? My goal is not to enter into these kinds of debates, but simply to reflect on many atheists I have encountered personally, or through their writings, and what I love about them.
As apologists, we are often quick to criticize atheism as a worldview. But as I point out in A New Kind of Apologist, if we want people to hear our case for Christianity, we need to find common ground with others and also be charitable towards them as people. With that backdrop, here are three reasons why I love atheists:
1. Many atheists care about (what they believe is) truth
There are far more Christians in America than atheists. As a result, it is easy for people who grow up with Christian parents to simply embrace their family beliefs without genuinely considering any alternatives. There is little or no cost (at least in this country) to embracing the beliefs of your parents.
As a college student, I went through a period of significant doubt. In fact, I told my father, without knowing how he would respond, that I wasn’t even sure if I believed Christianity was true. While my father did respond graciously, and I ended up finding good answers to my questions, I remember counting the cost of what it would mean to reject my Christian roots. While thankfully I ended up keeping my faith, I still respect my atheist friends who choose a different path. Many count the cost and choose (what they believe is) truth over comfort. Even though I think atheism is wrong, I still can respect a person who makes a sincere decision based on what they believe to be true and tries to live accordingly.
Sure, I know some atheists who have rejected their Christian roots out of spite or rebellion. But that’s certainly not always the case. My atheist friends who have walked away from their faith remind me how important it is that we follow truth, regardless of the cost. Beliefs matter. And they do have consequences.
2. Atheists have made me think deeply about my own worldview
My worldview has undoubtedly been deeply shaped and influenced by great Christian writers such Aquinas, Augustine, Jonathan Edwards and even modern thinkers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and N.T. Wright.
But just as formative for me are atheist writers such as Nietzsche, Russell, and Camus. They have forced me to think deeply about my worldview and to consider why I believe as I do. In fact, some of my motivation to study and learn has come from the challenges they have raised to my faith: Why does God allow evil? Is there life after death? Is my faith a crutch? The more I have studied to find answers to these kinds of questions, the more my faith has grown.
Similarly, I love having conversations with my atheist friends. They tend to see weaknesses and vulnerabilities in my arguments, and force me to clarify and justify what I believe. Sometimes I have a good response, but many times I have to go back and study further to find an answer. But regardless, these kinds of conversations are always beneficial and enjoyable.
3. Atheists are made in the image of God.
As a Christian, I believe every human being—regardless of age, race, socioeconomic status, intelligence, athletic prowess, and sexual orientation—bears the imago dei. In other words, human beings have infinite dignity, value, and worth as members of the human race.
Even though atheists don’t believe in God, as a Christian, I still believe they reflect the image of their creator (Gen 1:17). As a result, like all people, they are unbelievably value human beings whom God loves. And so do I.
I am grateful for my atheist friends. Do I disagree with them? Yes. Do I pray for them at times? Certainly. Do I want them to become Christians? Absolutely! But my relationship with them does not depend upon their beliefs. My love for them does not depend on their conversion. Even if they never embrace Christ, I am thankful for their friendship. I love atheists, and if you are reading this as a Christian, I hope you do too.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.
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