Evangelical atheists

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Religious people are part of a vast majority. Statistically, 93% of the world’s population believe in some kind of religious reality. Only 7% of the people in the world are atheists, or people who believe in no god, gods, or any divine entity.

In the United States, the figure is higher with 10% of the population describing themselves as atheists. An atheist has a perfect right to be such.

Among the atheists, there’s a particular subculture that I would describe as “evangelical atheists.” An evangelist is one who is committed to spreading the word about one’s beliefs and, in many cases, attempts to win people over to their way of thinking and doing.

In 2 Timothy 4:5 the Apostle Paul instructed young Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist,” that is, to spread the news about being reconciled to God through Christ and to establish gatherings of like-minded believers. There is a point and a purpose to Christian evangelism.

I’m still trying to grasp why an atheist would care what I do or do not believe. And most atheists that I have engaged over the years do not care. They are perfectly happy for me to believe (or not believe) whatever I want as long as I show the same courtesy to them if they are left alone.

But there’s that other type of atheist — the evangelical atheist who has the mission of convincing religious people that there is no higher being than mankind, that there is no one listening to prayers, and that there is no life beyond the present one. Why do they care what I think and believe, especially if I do not try to win them over to my way of thinking?

I have some understanding why Communists are historically evangelical atheists. They insist that the state is that which should rule one’s life and thoughts, so no competing ideology is allowed. Nazism came to a similar conclusion and God and religion were cast aside and Hitler and Nazism were to take their place. In North Korea, the present “Dear Leader,” his father, and grandfather, are held up as near to deity as one can get. No room for religion there either.

But in a free society, it is not that way. In a free society, people are free to believe, or to not believe, in any religion or in none at all. In my encounters with evangelical atheists, which occurs mostly on social media, I have found near total intolerance for religious beliefs and for those who hold them. And while most atheists I know are kind people who believe that I am mistaken in my personal beliefs, the evangelical atheists are rude, intolerant, mocking, and often very denigrating.

These folks remind me of the kid in school who, not believing in Santa Claus, got a wicked pleasure in telling the other kids that Santa didn’t exist. It was as though they couldn’t stand the excitement and hope that the Santa-believing children exhibited during the Christmas season.

I somewhat understand that child who chooses to be cruel to others about their beliefs — he’s a child, after all — but why do evangelical atheists even care what others believe? If someone thinks that I am deluded, deceived, deranged, or just plain dumb, what is that to them?

Christians believe that they are under a mandate to share the “Good News,” the “Evangel.” The evangelical Christians (and I am not talking about political beliefs or political party affiliations) believe that when Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life — no one comes to the Father except through me,” he literally meant it.

Thus, other religions are untrue and lead people astray. So, the motivation is to help, not to harm, to bring hope and peace — it is to rescue, if you will. And, yes, some people can be pushy and obnoxious.

But again, why does an evangelical atheist give one whit what religions people believe? If the atheists are correct and there is no God, no heaven, no hell, no reuniting with lost loved ones — if they are correct that when you’re dead, you’re dead and that we simply cease to exist, then why try to cajole or shame me into becoming “more enlightened?”

If they are right, then when I die, then it doesn’t matter. But I have still lived a life of faith, of hope, of community with other believers, and I have, hopefully, been a better person because of those beliefs and relationships. I have lived a life where misdeeds, mistakes, and sins can be forgiven and even redeemed for good, and I have lived a life believing that a caring and loving Father never let me out of his sight and declared me to be in right-standing with him. And if all the answers to prayer that I have seen and experienced in my lifetime are merely “coincidences,” then that has enriched, not robbed me, of a life well lived. I have lost nothing, and I have gained tremendously by being a person of faith.

On the other hand, if I am not wrong — if I am not deluded, deceived, deranged, or dumb — if God is real, if Jesus is who he claimed to be, then my life does have ultimate meaning, all things have worked together for good, and life does not end at the grave but, in truth, is the beginning of a future beyond my comprehension. And, if I am not wrong, then the evangelical atheist is in for a big surprise.

I have been fortunate in that I have always believed in God. I have not had to struggle with whether God is or isn’t. Oh, I have had arguments with God, have complained to him about how he has allowed some unhappy events to occur — but even when my faith has been at a very low ebb and my actions were less than honorable, I have always believed.

When I came to a place when I no longer believed in Santa, I chose not to rob my brother, who is nine years younger, of that childhood pleasure. Besides, there really is a Saint Nicholas. He was the Christian Bishop of Myra during the time of the Roman Empire. He died at the age of 73 in 343 AD. Because of the many answers to his prayers of intercession, he was also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker.

So, believe or disbelieve what you will. A passage in the Bible says, “I have set before you life and death … choose life and live.” My choice is made. I choose life.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). Worship services are at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but the church is also live streaming at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life). He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]

14 COMMENTS

  1. I am not bothered by evangelical atheists who have the initiative to put forth their atheistic religious convictions. If anything, this gives me the opportunity to expose them to their intellectual blindspots and maybe, just maybe, plant a seed of doubt about their doubt (pun intended). It also gives me the strength to dig deeper into my faith and to understand it better so I can provide an adequate response when faced with a challenge. Last, but not least, it gives me the chance to know my fellow neighbor better, to see where he/she comes from. That can only make me a better believer and human. My only turnoff is with respect to those individuals who are disrespectful by attacking the person or by mocking (rather than respectfully criticizing) that which I hold sacred. I am turned off by the occasional Christian zealot who also displays the same disrespectful arrogance.

    We live in a marketplace of ideas, and every religion has the right to assert that it is the one true and only. It is the responsibility of its followers to demonstrate (via their conduit and via apologetics) that their faith is indeed intellectually coherent & respectable. Naturalism is also exclusionary, it asserts that we are all made strictly out of atoms, that we are only that which we can touch. So it excludes intrinsic ideas such as soul, meaning, morality, natural rights – it includes them only as social constructs at best. Respectful dialogue is what allowed the Western society to prosper in the last several centuries, we should not give in to the woke extreme which seeks to shelter us from competing ideas.

    PS. A cursory look into the human history reveals that those who committed atrocities in the name of Christ were not really Christians (for if they were, they would have not committed them); on the other hand, the great purges of the 20th century committed by various atheist rulers (and which far outnumber the rest of war casualty throughout the last few millennia of human history) were not in any violation of the atheist/naturalistic worldview of the respective dictators.

      • I agree with Suz, coexistence > conversion. And I appreciate that mike.nica isn’t hysterical or bombastic in their response and makes good points regarding respectful dialog. But then at the end I feel like this submarines the whole effort:

        “… those who committed atrocities in the name of Christ were not really Christians (for if they were, they would have not committed them); on the other hand, the great purges of the 20th century committed by various atheist rulers … were not in any violation of the atheist/naturalistic worldview of the respective dictators.”

        I perceive this little zing at the end to communicate, “But Christians are still much better than atheists anyway.” But by your own admission, mik.nica, there have been atrocities committed in the name of Christ … so how do you figure Christians are better than atheists at not committing atrocities?

        You say that the people who did the Christian atrocities weren’t “really” Christians because if they were, they wouldn’t have done the atrocities … but isn’t that a bit of an ouroboros? It gives you the ability to decide who is a Christian based on their actions, and whoever doesn’t act the way you think a Christian should act, you can say they’re not “really” a Christian … I don’t think that’s how it works.

        I think people who are going to commit an atrocity are going to do it, whether they are Christian or atheist. We can Monday-morning quarterback the Christian by saying, “You shouldn’t have done that if you claim to follow Jesus! He is against atrocities,” and we can Monday-morning quarterback the atheist by saying, “You shouldn’t have done that! It’s a crime against humanity to commit atrocities!” and both have equal weight and are true.

        I don’t think you get to say Christianity is better because there’s no morality among atheists. It’s simply not true. They weren’t violating “atheist principles” maybe, but they were violating decency and morality; you don’t need a God to be good (or bad, although it does seem to help a lot of people be bad if they feel they’re doing it for God).

        But this is just my opinion, perhaps I misunderstood the intention of the PS in mike.nica’s note.

        • Thank you for this, VJax. I agree with you completely.
          I questioned the P.S. from mike.nica, too; but for a slightly different reason.

          My challenge is the implication that there are various degrees of Christianity (in this case, those who commit atrocities in the name of Christ are “not really Christians”).

          Our standing as a Christian is not based on any worthiness before being baptized into the body of Christ; nor is our status afterwards based on our actions. It is all a gift. Willed to us by the grace of God. He is both the pioneer and the finisher of our faith.

          A Christian is a Christian. Full stop. “Really” a Christian.

          Sadly, this does not stop Christians from committing heinous acts, as you point out. And contrariwise, followers of other faiths (and none) have shown themselves to out-do us in charity (the shameful treatment of native Americans comes to mind).

          Some of the most sad and angry people I have known are Christians.
          Even broken, hateful ones. Awful people, really. But still Christians.
          God is that good.

  2. Fr Epps asks, “If someone thinks that I am deluded, deceived, deranged, or just plain dumb, what is that to them?”

    OMG I just thought of some more reasons why an atheist might be evangelical, by Fr. Epps’ definition.

    And they’re theoretically the same reasons why a well-intentioned and caring Christian might feel compelled to be an evangelist. It’s all based in wanting what is best for you, Fr. Epps.

    For instance, perhaps your atheist friend wants you to live up to your fullest potential and sees that religion holds you back. It’s no secret that some styles of Christianity begin and end with guilt. The story is that you were born in sin, so God can’t even stand to be in your presence! And you’re just lucky that Jesus decided to take the horrible punishment which you deserve so that God will let you into his presence and you won’t go to hell for eternity.

    This induces a ton of guilt, and if that guilt is what drives you to make a commitment to Jesus, that’s a terrible foundation for a relationship, and it’s a terrible foundation for the motivation of your life! Suppose your atheist friend can see that you are convinced of your own and all humanity‘s original guilt. And he wants to set you free from that and let you know: there is no God condemning you. Be free!

    The same is true if your religion drives you by fear: fear of eternal hell, fear of stepping outside of God’s lines and being struck down, fear of God Himself or the eternal punishment He is ready to thrust you into … Maybe your atheist friend would be doing you a great favor to let you know: there’s no need to fear hell because there is no hell!

    Or perhaps if you are a girl born into an evangelical or fundamentalist Christian family, or a Mormon family, or an Islamic family, any of the religions that focus on so-called purity culture that demands virginal women until marriage and then sex kittens to satisfy their man after that. This kind of stricture has been proven to contribute to a lot of sexual dysfunction — in women and men — as well as that guilt problem we discussed before. If your atheist friend can see that you were crippled by something you view as sexual sin in your past, wouldn’t it just be a great relief for you to know: there’s no sin, there’s no sexual sin, sexuality is fun, and no cause for guilt or shame?

    In this way your atheist friend is letting you know, you’re not damaged goods, and you deserve happiness as much as the next guy, and there’s no God condemning you.

    Or suppose your atheist friend realized that your religion was a contributing factor to horrible violence and war? Wouldn’t they then have a vested interest in how can you escape that religion? Look at 9/11, religion was the prime motivator in convincing those terrorists to do a horrible evil.

    Look at the crusades. Those bloody debacles caused a wedge between Islam and Christianity that may never have existed without them, and although we can argue that the crusades were really about wealth and power, they were given the veneer of religion to inspire the food soldiers to sacrifice themselves. They were going to free Christ’s tomb, they were going to slay the infidels. An atheist looking at that madness would have every reason to try to convince you there was no God who expected you to free any tomb or slay any infidels.

    In fact, an atheist who convinced religious people that they need not become embroiled in conflict with one another in the name of God, would be doing the world a favor.

    These are just a few reasons why an atheist might seem evangelical about helping you escape your “deluded, deceived, deranged, or just plain dumb” beliefs. They want you to be free, Fr. Epps, of hate, fear, and guilt. They want you to live your best life, and they want peace on earth.

    I don’t think eliminating religion would accomplish those aims necessarily, but I understand why an atheist might think so.

  3. It is painful for me to read Father Epps; because I often hear his opinions in my own voice. Albeit in my much, much younger voice.

    Raised in a conservative Christian home, I was well versed in the Holy Bible (no pun intended). I accepted the
    interpretation taught in my Evangelical church (and yes, it WAS an interpretation–one version taught as literal and inerrant).

    Worst of all, we used scripture as a weapon. To threaten “the others”; and to justify our questionable behavior.

    So I cringed to read Fr. Epp’s, “Thus, other religions are untrue and lead people astray.”

    He is surely familiar with the experience of St. Peter (in The Acts of the Apostles). In a graphic dream, Peter is advised, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Later as Peter puts the lesson into action, he
    exclaims, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.”

    It is time to stop weaponizing the Bible to exclude and insult others. Why not consider the passages that welcome and include?

    Personally, I gladly recognize loving people of good will in all religions (or no beliefs at all) as godly. I consider them my brothers and sisters, in Universal Love. Another name for Christ.

    The God of my youth was too small. The Old Testament choice Father Epps gives us is too simplistic. I choose not life or death; I choose Love. Infinite, endless, all-encompassing Love. After all, isn’t that Who we claim to serve?

      • Thank you, VJax.
        I frequently feel as though I am speaking a completely different language than my fellow followers of Christ.

        Another baffling sentence from Father Epp’s was his imagining of the afterlife. He proposes that if he is indeed correct concerning God and Jesus (not deluded or deceived, etc.) “then the evangelical atheist is in for a big surprise”.

        I would happily suggest that we all will be wonderfully surprised. Floored that no one is rejected. No one left out. Stunned that all atheists to fundamentalists (and all in between) are welcomed to the celebration.

        Thankfully, God is so much better than us. We are all in, simply because He wills it.
        No surprise comeuppance for anyone.

        Just the scandalous grace of a crazy loving Father/Mother that insist not one of us is lost.

        Is anything less than that really “Good News”?

  4. Fr Epps asks, “If someone thinks that I am deluded, deceived, deranged, or just plain dumb, what is that to them?”

    Here is what it is to me: when someone who is deluded, deceived, deranged, or just plain dumb, manages to pack the Supreme Court with people who are similarly deluded, deranged, etc. and on the basis of their deluded, deranged and just plain dumb beliefs they begin taking away the civil rights and freedoms of women, minorities, LGBTQ folk, etc., the problem with your state of delusion has become my problem. Your religion is now dictating to me what I can do with my body, and that is dangerous.

    My being an atheist (which I am not, but for the sake of argument) does not cause me to deny your humanity and entitlement to civil rights and freedom. The beliefs of some Christians do cause them to deny the humanity of others and desire to take away their civil rights and freedom. This being the case, I don’t wonder that an atheist might try to talk you out of your harmful beliefs. In fact, I wonder that more of them don’t!

  5. If your definition is accurate, I am as much concerned about among Christians, “there’s a particular subculture that I would describe as “evangelical Christians.” “An evangelist is one who is committed to spreading the word about one’s beliefs and, in many cases, attempts to win people over to their way of thinking and doing.” My concern is that “evangelical Christians” will, “in many cases,” socially (to include politically and physically) manipulate, coerce, extort, and otherwise compel acceptance “to their way of thinking and doing.” Christ did not come into this world to judge, but to be among other things, the “Word” whose light guides us to the truth. There is a difference between one lovingly shining their light and compelling others to follow it.

    • 2 Cor 5:17-20:
      17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:[a] The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

      That world “compel” can be translated “beg.” Christians are to be more than just examples, or “light.” They are ambassadors who represent a kingdom. I get that most Christians in America do not get this and that it is an offense to some. Just because are obnoxious is no reason to abandon the mission and the mandate.
      David Epps

  6. This is a rather interesting argument from a clergyman. You liken the “cruel” knowing child for enlightening naive children who believe in a non-existent Santa Clause to an atheist who likewise enlightens naive Christians who believe in a non-existent god. Your proposition, thus, is that belief in the non-existent Santa and non-existent god present no problems; yet the person who communicates the truth about these fakes is a scoundrel. The happy conclusion is that if no one is ever confronted with an untruth, life would be so much happier.

    This is indeed an interesting take on theology!