Take an Atheist to Church

Atheists often talk about religion like scientists at the Center for Disease Control talk about plagues and epidemics -- unambiguously bad things that we should work to eliminate. There is a difference, however. The scientists at the CDC know what they are talking about because they have studied epidemics. Their comments are based on more than a few documentaries on the Discovery Channel and headlines about the flu in local papers. Atheists, however, speak with great confidence about the evils of a religion that they seem to have encountered only in headlines -- a terrorist incident here, an assault on evolution there, a new survey connecting religiosity to young earth creationism, and so on. Religion as practiced by ordinary people is nothing like these headlines. If the scientists at the CDC were as ill-informed as these atheists, their knowledge of diseases would not extend beyond lethal high-profile plagues that were killing thousands of people.

Atheists should go to church and do some research if they want to keep talking about religion.

In a provocative piece certain (once again) to annoy the atheists, Brian Appleyard -- himself an agnostic -- defines new atheism, which he calls "neo-atheism," as a "tripartite belief system founded on the conviction that science provides the only road to truth and that all religions are deluded, irrational and destructive." The third leg of what he calls this "exotic ideological cocktail" is, of course, denial of the existence of God.

Although I believe in God, I am actually fine sharing the world with people who do not and I have friends who fit in that category. Belief in God is complicated and every thoughtful Christian I know will admit privately to having doubts about the existence of God from time to time. Even Richard Dawkins charitably -- and honestly -- admitted recently that his atheism was less than 100 percent certain. Foundational beliefs like the existence of God are not simple binary choices that one makes as a child and then never revisits or wrestles with as experiences accumulate.

What I am not OK with, however, are the mean-spirited caricatures produced by people who have virtually no real experience with religious people, beyond reading about them in headlines. I don't recognize these religious people.

I would like to invite atheists to join me at St. Chrysostom's Church in Quincy, MA -- or whatever church is convenient -- and spend a year doing research into what real life religious people are like -- the people who are not in the headlines. You may be surprised to discover that we don't all think the same. Some of us are cradle Christians with deeply rooted and unwavering beliefs. Some of us are new believers, wondering about our faith. Some of us are properly called agnostic because we have serious doubts -- but doubts we prefer to explore from within the Christian community, rather than from outside. None of us are overly concerned about this lack of uniformity. All of us are concerned about our mutual need for community and we invest energy in making our communities strong and healthy.

Some of us donate our time to a tutoring program for local students who need a leg up. Some of us run a weekly job fair to help people find employment. Many of us send money to troubled parts of the world to help people in need. Atheists, of course, also do these things but our city has no tutoring programs, food banks or homeless shelters sponsored by atheist organizations.

None of us have ever bombed an abortion clinic, or held a sign protesting gay marriage. In fact, our fellowship includes openly gay Christians. We are worried about climate change, widespread lack of healthcare, and the excesses of the Tea Party. In these and other ways, we find common cause with many of our fellow citizens, both believers and atheists.

I don't think a year in our church will transform your atheism into belief in God. You may leave even more convinced that Christians believe odd things. But I think your experience would help you see that our faith -- like our affection for our beloved Red Sox or our love for our glorious fall foliage -- is not an epidemic or a plague. The beliefs we pass on to our children are not harmful and abusive.

And the world is a better place because we are here.