Why do Christians think atheists don’t understand their faith?



You are a Christian. You believe that Jesus Christ is your personal saviour and that through your relationship with Him, you will come to know His father in heaven, Yahweh, the King of kings, the Lord of lords.

You assert this on the authority of the bible, which you believe sets out a framework on how we should all live our lives and, in doing so, bear witness to its teachings, so that others might do the same.

These teachings, whilst they are in many ways similar to those contained in other equally motivating and historically relevant texts, are distinct in their validity on your faithful belief that those who authored the bible, were inspired by something far beyond that which inspired these other texts–and that in adhering to biblical teachings, a parable of the truth about God’s plan for humanity might be attained.

As a Christian, you do not discount the philosophy of other sacred texts merely on the grounds that they are not in keeping with the ideals of those who wrote the bible, but because other religious texts are not personally relevant to you. In doing this, you accept that to followers of other religions, in other cultures, the bible is as relevant as their sacred texts are to you.

Because of this, you rejoice in calling yourself a moderate. You want to live in a world where this acceptance of other people’s faith and theirs of yours leads to a peaceful coexistence, where the only concerns which arise from differing opinions, contribute to the overarching desire of all humanity for a true understanding about our place in the cosmos; where our passions and beliefs, as facets of that reality, are celebrated and preserved.

The tradition and ceremony in which you preserve Christian culture, which are conducted according to instructions interpreted from ancient texts have sacramental significance to you. You accept, on theological grounds, that this innately human desire to coexist; to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, is received from a higher power–whom your spiritual self shall come to know after your physical body dies, by contemplative and sincere observation of these rites: communion, confession, prayer, baptism, marriage and a regular affirmation of your creed.

You are not unaware of challenges to your beliefs, which are held by people who do not accept your beliefs are as encouraging to peaceful coexistence as you say they are; that you are in some way deluding yourself into holding these beliefs above criticism because you are afraid of sin. There are various labels for people of this opinion, the most common being atheist–and although as a follower of Christ’s teachings, you do not hate individual atheist and do not accept that certain biblical edicts on how non-believers are to be treated are in keeping with Christ’s compulsion to love your enemy, you do find some of what the irreligious have to say personally offensive.

You believe that the price non-believers will pay for their continued doubt, in the face of your witnessing to God’s truth and their refusal to accept this as their moral authority, is an eternity in the fires of hell once their physical body dies. You believe, as a God fearing Christian, that the very fear of this happening to your soul, when you die, is reason enough to distrust many of the things atheists say to you which directly challenge your faithful assumptions on a wide range of subjects.

You have, however, met and spoken with many atheists who are not dismissive of the impact religious faith has had in your life. These personal experiences, which you do not believe can be understood by those who do not share your faith, reinforce your belief that there is a higher power than that which can be described or understood by those who have closed their hearts to God’s word.

In keeping with Christian tradition, you pray for those who do not share your beliefs, so that they might come to understand what it is that you believe and why you believe it so that they too will be saved from hell by His forgiveness. You sincerely and genuinely believe that to offer thanks to Yahweh for His presence in your life, it is your moral obligation to hold Him above all other standards by which you view the world.

In doing so, you also accept that certain of your truth claims directly contradict observed reality. While you are occasionally troubled by this fact, you are also strengthened by it, because your faith tells you that some of the beliefs held by the irreligious are similarly paradoxical. For example, non-religious people who cite scientific methodologies as proof that there is no evidence for a creator god–or Prime Mover, will use mathematical axioms–things which are assumed to be true–to explain, not why the universe exists, just that it does and that it behaves as if there is no supernatural causality behind the anthropic phenomena.

By this light, you see what you would like to see; that while, in reality, this is not the same kind of logical contradiction as that which occasionally troubles your faith, you settle yourself that it is one which nevertheless requires a certain degree of faith by any other name; a faith in science, as opposed to God.

This transferred definition of the word ‘faith’, from one which means “without good reason” to one which honestly describes the uncertain origin of physical properties, is symmetrical and pleasing to you. It reinforces the idea that for all the godless might scoff at you for what you believe, they are just as reliant upon that which can not be corroborated by absolute evidence as you are; that the scientific method of ascertaining fact from opinion relies as much upon blind assumption as do those which occasionally test many of your religious convictions.

You take consonance from this and concentrate not on which side is “right” and which is “wrong”, since these too are absolute statements which can not be falsified. Instead you ascribe the teachings of your sacred texts to the language with which we explore human emotions. You celebrate this definition of Christ’s love with your fellow believers. This great feeling of group solidarity holds you close, like a mother’s embrace in a family of love and compassion. It is the warmth of humanity in an otherwise cold and complicated world.

I am an atheist and once upon a time, I thought like you. I did not lose faith, I gained reason.

I believed that the world was divided by evil people and good people. That the good people were on God’s side and the evil people rejected His love and embraced Satan’s false choices. I could recite, verbatim, every catch-all prayer and statement of faith in the book, to reinforce my beliefs. The money lenders in the temple became the message and the message became the church.

I believed that these certainties and statements of faith would provide for me throughout my life; that at no point in my adulthood would anything come into my learning so profound that it could challenge my belief that God almighty, King of kings, Lord of all lords could not guide me through and protect me from any challenge to my faith.

So when I read Christian apologetics, of the kind which linked you here, and I respond to them with what I have learned since I left behind simple, circular answers to the complex questions anyone interested in their own existence must surely have to confront at some time in their life, it is not to offend anyone, or call anyone a liar, that I cite contradictions in the bible or the arrogance of individual Christians.

Nor is it to score some end-of-level high score in a game of pedantic atheism; like some kind of race towards the ultimate density of an argument one can squeeze into a single paragraph. It is to point out the simple fact that, no matter how important you think it is, for you to go to that meeting next week, to discuss your church’s next move against gay marriage, or condom use, or the teaching of evolution, or any one of a thousand issues you feel entitled to an opinion on–NOTHING in the words of Jesus himself, gives you the right to impose that opinion on anyone else.

In ignoring that simple truth; your failure to take the log from your own eye, before removing the spelk from mine–you have left yourself nowhere to go, but even further away from the fundamentals of your creed. You have become the thing you feared the most.

“Dogma is a failure of cognition and a commitment to that failure” – Sam Harris


15 comments on “Why do Christians think atheists don’t understand their faith?

  1. Pingback: Lousy Canuck » Just because we atheists disagree, doesn’t mean we don’t understand your beliefs.

  2. Wonderful post, Jim. I was never really a “true believer”, so I don’t have the benefit (if you could call it that) of your experience as a Christian. One of my favorite lines: “NOTHING in the words of Jesus himself, gives you the right to impose that opinion on anyone else“. Excellent. I’m just afraid that the truly zealous believe exactly the opposite to be true.

  3. I didn’t realise you used to be a hardcore Christian. What turned you off it initially?

    Also I’m sorry for being pedantic but it’s cite, as in citation, not ‘sight’ :-)

  4. Of course!! Curse my metal body! Thanks. Sight, to cite corrected.

    I wasn’t hardcore into glossolalia or any other form of pattern seeking self-induced brain washing, but I was hardcore in that I never questioned the motivation of the people who taught me what to believe and why to believe it. I think it is the stark contrast between what I was told and what I have subsequently learned to be true which drives much of my interest in what people believe is true, in contrast to what can be proven so.

    Just to infer some kind of balance, this dichotomy informs my scepticism of organised scepticism as much as it does my interest in contributing to the debate–just to perhaps second guess your retort there. This speaks to why I recoil from describing myself as an atheist–apart from when it is used as a social short-cut, participial to my beliefs (nice loaded word for all you who think atheism is a religion without a deity there).

    I use the word ‘beliefs’ very broadly. For example, I didn’t read ‘The God Delusion’ one day and suddenly decide that putting ‘atheist’ on my Facebook profile suddenly made me a free thinker. It took me many years to truly shake off all my superstitions. For example I no longer say things like, “touch wood” or “fingers crossed” and I am currently trying to avoid “Jesus Christ” and “God” when I stub my toe.

    My secular humanism (which itself sounds like an awful Guardian reader’s excuse for having a received opinion on something they don’t really understand) is genuinely routed in a belief in clear thinking and humanity–despite a wealth of evidence to suggest that in the case of the latter, this is an unwarranted commitment–hence, I do not lack faith; but I do not make the arrogant assumption that faith alone answers any of the questions truly worth asking.

    Neither do I assume that scientific materialism, therefore, can answer those questions. Merely that, where it has been used to ascertain the facts, by using the least amount of assumptions, it has consistently produced falsifiable results with a practical application and an increase in the collective knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom, but neither is believing the best way to fix a sick society is to teach school children that the world was made in situ, 6000 years ago, by the enemy of your enemy.

  5. That’s interesting. Don’t worry I have no retort to second guess, I was just intrigued as to the process that took you from ‘A’ to ‘Z’ so to speak :-)

    Secular Humanism is a fascinating philosophy, admirable in it’s intentions if a little confused in its doctrine. It does seem to have good intentions though.


  6. I don’t know that “secular humanist” even really applies to me. I’m for most of what the philosophy stands for, but I think I prefer the label “freethinker” because it suggests I’m not beholden to any particular codified doctrine. However, if it became an option on a census, I’d list myself as a secular humanist in solidarity with the cause.

    It’s a shame there’s no further responses yet on that other thread you’ve linked. It looks like a thorough drubbing, and a rather one-sided one at that.

  7. I was quite surprised by the lack of replies to that too Jason, thanks for noticing. Freethinker is up there with ‘awake’ in my list of preferred terms too.

  8. The article is not actually correct because Christians believe that you have locked yourself out of heaven from the outside. In otherwords, your rejection of Jesus means that you have rejected life altogether. As a result, you will experience an eternal death apart from God as this is the choice you have made.

    I think it is awesome that God will allow you to reject him and suffer apart from him. When you reject God, you have also rejected Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Gentleness. When you reject these virtues, your eternal suffering has been determined by you as an individual.

    As the Scriptures say, “God does not want any to perish, but all to come to repentance” The fact that you have rejected the love of God means that the only other option is that you have accepted the wrath of God for all eternity.

    I guess you can see the suffering, sickness, disease and death in our world and that is fine with you. I guess you want to experience this type of suffering for the rest of eternity. A life without the presence of God.

    For me, I would rather live in love than in hate, I would rather live in peace than in strife, I would rather live with Joy rather than Sadness. As an atheist, your rejection of God is merely the acceptance of concentrated evil for the rest of eternity rather than experiencing the goodness of God.

    I appreciate your thoughtful article!

  9. As a Christian, I do thank Jim for expressing himself and forwarding his beliefs. Here is a man who does make a claim and never varies from that path. If and when anyone takes the time to research what his words and actions say and do, then it can be said that he is not lukewarm.

    Jim has never tried to shove something down my throat (well, he has tried to bait me), but that is only because he does enjoy debate. We need people like Jim to forward some of us Christians out of a very stale (lukewarm) existence.

    God hasn’t “forsaken” Jim for his beliefs, because God keeps bringing people as myself here to continue speaking up. If some of us “Christians” can’t be decent about another persons selftruth, then how can we learn what is possible?

    At times I’ve noticed that Jim’s patience with some of us does get stretched; and from what some leave on this page – even I want to reach outand smack ya. I have learned Or been brainwashed) to trust that God and Jesus will prevail. So where do some of us “Christians” get off with the dribble that leaks onto this page. Yes, Jim is off base, but he is one man who can and does express himself better than most of us. Please encourage him, and learn to ask questions of his beliefs (faith), rather than lambasing him with your form of hate.

    Let him make his stand before God, and let God make His judgment.

    Thanks Jim, I too apperciate this article.

  10. Darren Kyme Nicholson: I stand before no-one for judgement of my freely made actions—least of all a petulant sadist who demands worship in return for forgiveness from being born human. The belief of religionists that in fact I do, whether I like it or not, stand before such a creature, says more than I ever could about the clarity with which they perceive their own beliefs and why they believe them.

    I accept that to you and billions like you, god is real. But your personal god is just that—your own personal belief. It is self-evidently redundant for anyone to believe in anyone else’s personal opinion to the abandonment of their own inner-dialogue. And yet that is exactly what you are accusing me of lacking, when you assert that I am “off base” merely for stating—and with naught but irrefutable logic as my witness, as opposed to my own opinion—that, by definition, an unseen, timeless / massless deity can not exist in the form of the Israelite god of war, Yahweh.

    What you are effectively saying, in your contrary insistence to this fact, is that the reason you and your fellow believers keep coming back for more from writers and thinkers, bloggers and the like who are not religious, is not to better understand the nature of your beliefs and why you believe them, but because you wish to embolden your opinions with exactly the same blasé non-evidence you originally started with, despite having ostensibly understood just how compelling and well considered the arguments against your truth-claims are posited.

    When I personally realised that it was this kind of circular reasoning which was the driving force behind everything I thought I believed in, it enabled me to embrace reason and abandon the false promise of religion and the empty solace of any kind of overseer deistic superstition almost overnight. This was some 20 years ago—so I can only hope, in time, it will have the same positive and life affirming effect on you and yours when the dawn of truth breaks over your personal beliefs as it did over mine. It is never too late to wake up godless and free, in a staggeringly beautiful universe.

    Take it easy—and thanks for the encouragement in not just this post but others on which you’ve commented over the last week.

  11. Believe it or not the bible says every knee will bow and every tongue will confess so in the end all the unbelievers will not have an option that is my God for you!

    See like i was once in the world and conformed to the ways of the world before christ came into my life i wasnt half the person i am today and no Dr.Phill or Oprah could have changed me incase you didnt know the bible is the most effective in peoples lives changing for the BETTER! I don’t know why you became an unbeliever but you must have never experienced the supernatural or had an encounter with the Almighty God. I know atheist that have turned into believers that thought Religion was stupid but you know what changed them it wasn’t religion it was the encounter they had with our all supernatural God. I dont know about False promises ither everything God has promised me has come to reality and their is much more he has for me.You know what this scientist studied the winds with letters and you know what they spelled HALLELUJAH ! you cant change my Faith you have no proof God on the other hand has proven many people like yourself wrong

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