Atheists Seeking Followers

Have you seen the billboards? In recent months those who live without God have been announcing their presence along interstates across the country. The messages are not confrontational or critical. They are well crafted and easy to connect with. They reflect the atheists among us and do so in a dignified way.

Additionally, just before the Christmas holiday, a congregation of atheist announced their presence in Nashville. This worldwide group, founded in London, has established a small community in Nashville that gathers weekly for fellowship, lectures and singing. The gathering happens on Sunday and sounds a lot like something those who believe in God might also do on Sunday. A kind of church but without the religious trappings that stem from a belief in a higher power.

And all this is happening in Nashville, where I serve as president of Lipscomb University, and reportedly is one of the most religious cities in the nation. The belt buckle of the Bible Belt. The site of religious publishing for the Southern Baptists and Methodists. The home of five Christian universities. The place where church attendance is among the highest in our nation.

I have pondered how to react, how to respond to this more public element of our non-religious community. Initially, as a lawyer who cherishes the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution, I wholeheartedly support the right of organizations or individuals to put up billboards and assemble, even to promote the virtues of a Godless life. While it feels more like the freedom to reject religion as opposed to the freedom to express particular beliefs, the Constitution's wise protection extends to those who choose to share with others their lack of belief in God.

In addition, I am not surprised by the declaration of people who live Godless lives or alarmed that there are those people in our community. Perhaps shock was one intention of the advertising, but not my reaction. A recent visit to England affirmed the realities of a culture that has, for the most part, given up on God and is creating an entirely secular society. While declaring a life without God in Nashville might concern some, to astute observers, it is not particularly dramatic. We all have family members, work colleagues and neighbors who have chosen to live without God.

I primarily react out of sadness. As one who does believe in God, I humbly assert that there are answers to the largest questions of life -- who am I? What am I here for? I believe there is compelling story that is larger than the world I control. My relationship with a higher being gives hope for the future, even hope beyond this life. But, not all would agree. I understand that.

During my London visit, I met with Dr. Alister McGrath, an Oxford faculty member who was an atheist at the time he received a doctorate in molecular biophysics. He has since become a leading Christian theologian and author. We spoke about the recent emergence of "scientific atheism," the idea that because the existence of God cannot be proven by scientific methodology, God must not exist. Yet, for many, including Professor McGrath, the physical world, vigorous academic inquiry and personal experience all confirm the reality a higher being. Our billboards would have a message proclaiming the existence and work of God.

It's my hope that the movement of atheist organizations into communities throughout our nation will motivate the honest discussion of religious beliefs. Those who believe and those who don't should be able to share perspectives, and ultimately, decide what narrative is real. Those who believe should be confident in both the discussion and their own conclusion. At the end of the day, a decision about God, is far more than what can be proclaimed on a highway billboard.