I’ve been reflecting on the way some of my atheist friends respond to key aspects of the Christian message. In particular, I’ve been struck by how they often don’t go far enough — stopping short at a response of gob-smacked disbelief.
Take the miracles in the Gospel narratives, for example. Recently, an atheist with whom I was reading Luke 8.22-28 (where Jesus astonishingly calms a storm) responded with something to the tune of ‘I have a hard time believing that stuff like this happened — or that it’s even possible!’
By contrast, contemporary Christians — not to mention the original witnesses and composers of the Gospel accounts — can seem credulous and faintly ridiculous for believing in such things so easily.
Likewise, many atheists object to what they see as an unjustifiable ‘human exceptionalism’ when the Bible says things like this about human beings (Psalm 8.5-8):
You have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
Atheism sees in this a naive and over-inflated sense of human significance at best and immoral bigotry at worst.
But what’s fascinating about these apparent contrasts is that things aren’t quite that simple.
The atheist’s response, you see, is actually shared by Jesus’ followers in the first instance and the writer of the Psalm in the second.
They too are gob-smacked — at least initially.
Jesus’ followers ask, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’
And the Psalmist wonders out loud, ‘When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’
The only difference is that an atheistic response stops short.
Where Jesus’ followers are drawn forward — edging beyond their initial shocked disbelief towards something more — atheism stops short.
The question is, What convinces Jesus’ followers take this tentative step? What moves them forward?
Or to put it around the other way, Why does the atheist only go this far? What stops them going further?