For the Narcissist Lover in You…

3 Reasons Why Christians Should Welcome Those Atheist Anti-Church Billboards

Last Saturday, while out driving with my son in St. Peters, Missouri, I passed a billboard.  You may have heard about it, because it (and a few others like it) have since appeared in some typically screechy and shrill news articles.  The billboard showed a little girl in a Santa hat accompanied by the words “All I want for Christmas is to SKIP CHURCH.  I’m too old for fairy tales.”

skip-church-BILLBOARDLook at that kid’s face. Forget the caption, she’s writing a ransom note about the Elf on the Shelf.

Somewhat understandably, the Christian response to this billboard has been angrier than Rachel Maddow on a lesbian blind date with Ann Coulter.  I’m a Christian, too, and I sort of get it.  But is it possible that we are looking at this from entirely the wrong perspective?  The following are three reasons why the atheist billboards might actually be a good thing.

3. Belief Requires Proselytizing.

Glenn Beck, on his radio show, responded to the atheist billboards by saying “why can’t we all just leave each other alone?”  Good Libertarian words, there.  And yet this is the same Glenn Beck who spends each Easter performing what amounts to a radio drama of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  This is less what could be called “leaving each other alone” and more what we’d have to classify as “proselytization”.

And there’s a good reason for that.  Even famed atheist (and, admittedly, one of my favorite peoples) Penn Jillette understands the idea that religious belief requires proselytization:

“How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

Christians have beliefs involving life and death and therefore are (or should be) engaged in trying to persuade others of them.  But it doesn’t just count for religious beliefs.  If a person deeply believes in anything that involves important human consequences, then it is absolutely essential to that belief that they attempt to persuade others of its validity.

pesi2Some beliefs we can all get behind.

Atheists don’t believe in God (or so they say) but they do have important, defining beliefs. Their belief is that the influence of religion is overwhelmingly negative to human culture, leading to wars, genocide, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, and even climate change. Whether you agree with their beliefs or not, these are very important claims. We can’t blame them if they, like us, feel a strong compulsion to proselytize for what they perceive as the good of humanity.  In fact, they absolutely should do so.

And there’s an important component that people of all beliefs should recognize: a rising tide of liberty lifts all ideological boats. The more atheists (and Muslims, and Scientologists, and even Satanists) appear in the public eye to proselytize their belief, the more freedom Christians can enjoy to respond in kind.  This is a good thing for everyone.  Which leads us to…

2. Engagement is Better Than Indifference.

Imagine someone approaching you on the street intent on converting you to Tooth Fairyism.  Would you respond with an expensive mocking billboard about how silly the Tooth Fairy is?  If so, congratulations on holding a decades-long grudge for that toothbrush you got under your pillow instead of the folding money you were hoping for.

The fact is, we don’t care enough to hate or oppose what we perceive as pointless, fringe ideologies. If we choose to engage in opposing a belief system, it’s because we view it, positively or negatively, as important, relevant, and worthy of debate.  No matter which side one is on in that debate, the debate should be welcome, because it allows an opportunity for persuasion.

Have you ever wondered why these atheist billboards only seem to appear in America?  There are no news stories about inflammatory atheist billboards in Europe, for example. Why? Because to be blunt, Europeans don’t care enough to oppose Christianity. Christianity has been on the wane there for decades (it was apparently replaced by Hasselhoffism). They don’t hate God any more than you hate leprechauns. It’s a non-issue. They are indifferent. Try to start a conversation about the Bible with a typical French or Belgian or German young person and you probably won’t get an angry atheist tirade. You’ll likely just get yawning indifference.

130203-blog-holland-creative-meeting-boring-meetingIn Europe, church is considered sleep therapy.

By contrast, atheists in America always seem like angry teenagers slamming their bedroom door and shouting “I hate you!” at their parents. Their very anger and forcefulness about the issue implies a degree of engagement that, frankly, Christians should welcome. At least they are involved in the debate.

Indifference is a far harder nut to crack than angry engagement.  And that’s why…

1. Christians Should Welcome the Challenge.

The atheist billboard basically challenges that God is a fairy tale, Jesus was just a man, and there is no such thing as heaven.  These are questions laid out to be confronted within our culture.  Are Christians unable to respond? Are we so weak in our faith that the very asking of a tough (or not so tough, really) question makes us splutter with impotent anger?

angryChristianBecause angry shouting has worked so well for us this far…

The problem with a lot of Christians is that they don’t know why they believe what they believe. Since they don’t know for themselves, they have no way of responding to those who demand an answer. This isn’t just counter-productive, it’s unbiblical. The Bible doesn’t say “angrily complain on Facebook about anyone who confronts you with tough questions.” It says “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”  Furthermore, it says to do so with “gentleness and respect”.

Jesus_Christ_driving_the_money_changers_from_the_templeIt’s worth remembering that the only time Jesus didn’t show gentleness and

respect was when he confronted the church.

So maybe we shouldn’t be angry at the challenges demanded by the atheist billboards. Maybe we should welcome the questions they pose in the public’s mind and be prepared to answer. Because there are answers. Maybe we should seek them out for ourselves first.  Maybe we should get familiar with that famed intellect of the Christian faith, C. S. Lewis. To the atheist challenge, he wouldn’t have said “how dare they!? Pass the Chik-Fil-A!” He’d have said “You ask an important question: how do we know God? Is the Bible truly a fairy tale? Would a little girl actually say such things in a letter to a magical gift-elf?  There are answers to these questions, so I am glad you asked…”

The bottom line is this: how can we Christians be angry at people for doubting a God they haven’t experienced yet?  How can we be mad at them for spreading their idea of the truth while demanding our right to spread ours?

If, when confronted publicly with atheist ideology, we Christians respond with anger and spite instead of welcoming the challenge and responding with respect (and even a little humor) then we are wimps and no one should listen to us anyway.

Put THAT in your letter to Santa.


10 responses

  1. A couple of corrections, Norman. Atheists only agree on one thing, and one thing only; they don’t believe in God. On any other question there are atheists on one side or another from climate change to the utility of religion.

    Also, a vast majority of atheists in the United States come from other religions, including Christianity. To imply that atheists are lying about their belief in God or that they have not really experienced God is pretty insulting. By and large Atheists have better reasons not to believe than believers have to believe.

    Finally, I want to thank you for falling for the American Atheists plan. You misconstrue what the purpose of those billboards. They aren’t really about proselytizing. The purpose is to reach out to Atheists where ever they are and let them know that there is a convention where they can go and have a good time and socialize with other Atheists (and fund raise for AA!). By writing something slightly protective on their billboard they reach a much wider audience when it gets picked up by Fox News, Newspaper articles, blog posts, etc. In this way they can reach those Atheists that are more insular. The ones that go to church, but don’t believe any more, or even know it is an option. Even the Atheists that preach to their congregations.


    December 10, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    • “By writing something slightly [provocative?] on their billboard they reach a much wider audience”

      I have to admit, that’s a pretty good plan.

      But surely you aren’t suggesting that atheists aren’t interested in persuading people that they are correct? That religion is bad for human society and should be left behind? Like I mentioned in the blog, if one truly believes such a thing, it’s their responsibility to persuade as many people as possible, isn’t it? Maybe you just object to the term “proselytize” because it equates atheism with religion? I suppose that’s understandable. I just mean it in the sense of convincing people of your worldview and/or belief (or lack of belief) system.

      As for being insulted by the suggestion that some atheists are not so much disbelievers as just angry at God, sorry, I can’t recant that. They may not be the majority, but such people exist, just as there are professing Christians who don’t really believe in it meaningfully. I don’t feel diminished by their existence. And I don’t mean to diminish your “pure” atheism by referring to conflicted believers who operate under that name.

      Either way, thanks for the input. I do value it, and I’m not in the least being sarcastic.

      December 10, 2014 at 7:06 pm

  2. Great points Matt! BTW, nice to see you again, it’s been a long time.

    December 10, 2014 at 7:08 pm

  3. Jonathon

    Imagine how you’d feel about this story if instead of religious beliefs the parents had allowed their child to die because their horoscope had told them to do that?

    Lives are lost and basic human rights are denied based on sparing the feelings of a fictional character. That’s what people hate. Are there people who hate God? Yes but there are also people who wrote to the Navy to ask them to rescue the castaways on Giligan’s Island.

    Thor didn’t steal your candy as a child nor did Zeus push you in the park – you don’t hate them you just don’t have any reason to believe in them – so what experience have you missed out on?

    You believe in your particular version of the god figure but you’re an atheist even when it comes to other interpretations of the Christian god.The god who wants people who work on the Sabbath to be stoned? Probably don’t believe in him. The god who wants non-virgin brides to be killed? The one who wants rape victims to marry their rapists? The slavery loving god?

    If you been brought up with a different religion that’s the one you believe now and you’d be happy to dismiss your current idea of a god. It’s no different than any other part of culture.

    December 15, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    • Instead of responding (for the moment) to your critique of religion — and a worthy critique it is– I’m curious about something.

      Do you, Jonathon, (or Matthew, or Beth) disagree with the main thrust of this post? The main point I was trying to make is that religious people should not be angry about atheists expressing their views, and they definitely should not mount an effort to ban them. Instead, people of all ideologies, if they are confident in their beliefs, should welcome the expression of other philosophies, since their own beliefs can only be strengthened (or, if reality demands it, discarded) by engaging with opposing views. Is this a viewpoint you agree with?

      I’m not opposed to engaging with any of your critiques– I would enjoy the repartee– but I am just curious that the main point of the blog, which I intended to be tolerant and even defensive of atheist expressions, seems to have been met with some derision, if not hostility, from actual atheists (rather than Christians, which is what I expected). It almost makes me wonder if the last thing atheists want is for religious people to cool their jets about them.

      December 15, 2014 at 5:16 pm

  4. Jonathon

    Yeah be nice to others I’m very much on board with that but it’s depressing that such an article has to be written. The minority want a voice and that’s considered controversial.

    Don’t agree with us and you’re going to burn for all eternity – that’s fine. 50 billboards with that message please.

    Are you good without god? Come meet like-minded people – Arrrgggh get out the pitchforks, the witches must be killed.

    I don’t understand how in a country with a predominantly Christian culture people in the majority are allowed to play the victim time and time again. A cashier saying “Happy Holidays” can make the news over there. How is that possible? “The War on Christmas” would be a sketch in a comedy show over here yet over there it’s Christian persecution.

    Also Matthew had a very valid point about adding “or so they say” into a one line description of atheist beliefs. Adding “or so they say” to “Feminists believe in equality between the genders” because you knew a guy in college who just said it to get laid would be equally as disingenuous.

    December 16, 2014 at 11:45 am

    • I’m sort of puzzled at how offended Atheists are at the suggestion, by a Christian, that they’re more angry at God than disbelieving in him. I can respect your [lack of] belief system while having my own doubts about it, yes? I honestly expected most Atheists would just roll their eyes at my apparent ignorant arrogance (ignorrogance?) rather than get all offended by it.

      Perhaps it would be as if an Atheist suggested that Christians don’t really believe in God, they’re just lying to themselves in order to feel superior. The thing is (to be perfectly frank) if an Atheist claimed that, I’d have to acknowledge that it is true of some self-proclaimed Christians.

      But moving on…

      It’s interesting, Jonathon (and others): I spoke about the Atheist billboards in front of my church and said pretty much what I say in this blog, and I didn’t get any of the responses you are expecting. No one got out any pitch-forks or condemned anyone to hell. In fact, the Christian response to my comments has been uniform agreement.

      But yes, there are still some angry, hateful, confrontational Christians out there. The thing is, it isn’t just you Atheists who oppose them. The Bible’s own teachings oppose them. After all:

      –Jesus said we believers are to respond with “gentleness and respect”.

      –Paul, the founder of the church, said “judgment begins with the house of God”. He also said it was stupid of believers to apply their rules of conduct to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 5).

      –Another Paulism says that even if Christians speak the truth, if they don’t do it in love, they’re just making obnoxious noise. (1 Corinthians 13)

      Frankly, I think the best way for Atheists to shame and challenge the church is to demand they live up to the standards they are *supposed* to follow. How satisfying would it be, when a “Christian” gets all up in your face spouting hate and judgment and rage, to quote a Bible verse back at them, condemning their own actions by the book they profess to follow?

      If I was an Atheist, that’s how I’d do it.

      December 16, 2014 at 4:05 pm

  5. Jonathon

    Well I’ll explain why it’s a little annoying. “I don’t believe in any form of higher power because there is no evidence that supports it.” You may not agree that there is a lack of evidence but I would hope you find the basic argument logical.

    “I don’t believe in any form of higher power because there’s this one particular one who I hate.”. An absolutely ridiculous straw man argument that makes no sense yet you credit this to all atheists. How is that respecting anyone’s belief? Would you tell your Jewish or Muslim readers that you hear what they say but that really they’re only one experience away from accepting Jesus Christ as their lord and saviour?

    If you were discussing the need for equal representation for women in Congress and someone listened to your argument but then made up a new one for you – “So you’re saying you want more eye candy in the halls” – I think you’d be a little peeved.

    The Bible is currently used to oppose same sex marriage. 100 years ago it was interracial marriage. 200 years it was all the proof that was needed that slavery was acceptable. You can cherry pick the good verses or the bad but the Bible hasn’t changed in that time, morality just moves on around it.

    December 16, 2014 at 9:26 pm

    • Not to belabor the point, Jonathon, but are you suggesting that there are absolutely no self-proclaimed Athiests who are, in reality, lapsed believers with a rage-on against God and/or the church? Not even one?

      Here’s the deal: I’ve learned that it’s pountless to debate certain people, since they are far too entrenched in their ideology to honestly consider any opposing view.

      There are a few warning signs that such people always show:

      1) they reject any conciliatory gesture.

      2) they show not the slightest willingness to be wrong, even in (or especially in) small things.

      3) they become persistently hung up on minor perceived insults and offenses rather than concentrating on the main topic.

      Congratulations, Jonathon: you pegged all three.

      December 16, 2014 at 10:12 pm

  6. Jonathon

    I’m sorry if you think I was being rude that honestly wasn’t my intention. If I answered a rhetorical answer that I shouldn’t have again I apologize. (Please consider the z in that word to be an olive branch)

    Are there people who apply an atheist label to themselves who by definition aren’t atheists? Yes absolutely, whether it’s because their child was run over by a drunk driver in the street or just wanting to fit in at college. If we’re talking about the US there are atheist & agnostic clubs and a wider community in which I’m sure they’d be welcomed in.

    It was the just shout out – (or so they say) – to those who in their heart don’t share the one and only belief that defines atheism, in a sentence about atheist beliefs. I found that a little strange – as I would have with the feminist example – and I think Matthew’s was thinking along the same lines. That’s all.

    December 16, 2014 at 11:55 pm

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