This Friday night I visited a meeting of Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), a campus ministry to students of Brown and The Rhode Island School of Design, both in Providence. I always enjoy being on college campuses and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to find parking – somewhat rare for college campuses. It was great to worship with the students, hear the teaching, and interact with a couple of them afterwards. In the midst of one of these conversations another student asked if we’d be willing to answer a few questions. To make a long story short this student, along with two friends, introduced themselves as atheists doing research for a potential sociology project. I’m glad I was able to interact with them and hope to cross paths again and out of all that we covered I think there are three things that stood out:
1. People who object to the reliability of the bible don’t know it that well. This isn’t a fault of atheists. If I were an atheist I wouldn’t spend a lot of time reading the bible and studying theology so that I could tease out the complexities. I, as an atheist, would see the glaringly strange items right on the surface that seem absurd and therefore dismiss the bible without further thought. The specific example we spoke about was the Old Testament prohibition of blending different fabrics which is punishable by death. Yes, this is a little odd but fits within a larger picture of the religious and cultural life of ancient Israel. Furthermore, they did not know that this aspect of Old Testament law had been fulfilled in Christ and was not something that Christians understood as binding. If you’ve spent much time in the church you pick up on such distinctions but it would make sense that an atheist would not be aware of this line of thinking. So it is important to have these conversations, acquainting people with the biblical world and pointing out the solutions and difficulties that come as we struggle with the sacred text.
2. Remaining calm, not getting defensive, and acknowledging some of the difficulties of belief open up the door for pushing at the weak points of atheism without inciting a heated confrontation. From a Christian point of view, it makes complete sense that people will not believe in God and seek alternative ways of viewing life. We should expect people to find Christianity foolish and see those who profess Christian faith as foolish. The least a Christian can do is to refrain from appearing as an angry fool. In Christianity there is incredible power to love those different than us and regardless of how well I can respond to the various lines of questioning I can do so in a loving manner.
3. Near the end of our conversation, one of the students cited Richard Dawkins, who purportedly says that, “anyone who believes in religion is an absolute idiot.” The students asked for my response to this question and if I ever get asked this again I want to ask if this critique is for the modern man only or extends backwards. What of Bach, of Rembrandt, of the countless religious who have contributed to culture and history in profound ways. I may be an idiot but I do not think such men were. Dawkins, like many thinkers of the the various ages, will probably fade to the darkness of merely academic interest while the music of Bach, the paintings of Rembrandt will move and stir us through the generations.