In college, I went to listen to a Holocaust survivor speak on campus about her life. During her talk, someone asked her about her religious beliefs. She responded by stating she had no belief in God. A student in the crowd stood up and pressed her on her lack of faith. I remember feeling deeply uncomfortable as they exchanged words. The speaker said she witnessed too much suffering and horror to believe in God. She was firm. “I can’t believe.”
As a naïve college student, raised in the church, her words shook me. I still remember the proud look in her eyes and the confident way she spoke about her beliefs—or lack thereof. The reaction rooted in my gut surprised me the most. I couldn’t relate to her experiences, but I felt her perspective. Of course she couldn’t believe in God. My ability to relate to her scared me. If I could understand her lack of belief, did that mean my own beliefs were weak?
This memory came back to me this morning as I listened to a program about atheism on MPR. It included an interview with Teresa MacBain, a former Methodist pastor who recently claimed publicly that she is an atheist. This comes soon after I saw an interview on a major news network with an ELCA pastor who also claimed a personal loss of faith. My first reaction was suspicion—not of their claims but of the public way they chose to share them. Anytime someone purposefully looks for attention from the media, I question their motivation. A story about a pastor losing faith and living a lie is juicy in our current culture of arm’s-length compromise. Either you have belief, or you don’t. Either you embrace atheism, or you don’t. I hope they are trying to encourage conversation and mutual understanding, but I am doubtful.
I don’t claim to know what it is like to be an atheist. I don’t know what it’s like to experience judgment for my lack of belief. I would never claim a person needs belief in Christ in order to be moral or lead a life of service to others. To feel sorry for their lack of belief is a patronizing and unhelpful stance. To maintain a distance from others because of their different ideas about God leaves a real void. I am constantly fed by the brilliant writing of Roger Ebert, himself a staunch unbeliever.
I think, as believers, we are unable to separate our intellectual response to atheism from our inner reality—we understand. We truly understand it often feels impossible to believe in a loving God when the world is so full of violence, the Bible feels so full of contradictions, and we have experienced long stretches of lonely prayers—sometimes for years—that fall to the floor rather than rise to heaven.
I don’t know why belief takes root in some and not in others. Children who are raised in the same family, go to the same church and experience the same religious instruction can and do have incredibly different belief systems. Yet I do not believe faith is all-or-nothing. I struggle daily with the absurdity of belief. The doubts and questions rise up as naturally and quickly as the stubborn dandelions that are taking over my lawn. But I believe God is bigger than my lack of faith. God does not depend of my ability to believe. Rather, God works despite my unbelief.
I can only tell others of my experiences with God. Jesus reached out to those unlike himself with care and respect. His integrity never wavered, and he himself uttered words of painful doubt. I respect an atheist’s right to unbelief. I also pray my own struggles with faith lead me to compassion rather than judgment.
But I will also be honest about my own imperfect faith. My faith is rooted in the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus meets me where I am most weak, unfaithful, vulnerable and broken. No longer do I need to fear my lack of unbelief. Rather, I trust in a God who knows my struggles and—despite them—gives me hope. I believe on my darkest days of unfaithfulness God is still working in my life and the life of the world, restoring creation and mending relationships. I also daringly believe God is working in the hearts of all people, whether they believe or not.
I refuse to believe Christians and atheists are facing each other across a wide span. Our first instinct is to be afraid of those who think differently than us. But God calls us into community with all people, and for good reason—this community is enriching and faith-stretching. My belief is God is present in all of it.