Talking About Jesus to an Atheist

by Jim Booth
Jesus helping the sick and poor throughout the streets of Jerusalem.

Jesus helping the sick and poor throughout the streets of Jerusalem.

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Though it seems to be a discussion fraught with contention and potential discord, discussing Jesus with an atheist need not devolve into polemics or, worse, enmity between those involved. In fact, a healthy discourse can take place that allows for better clarity and understanding regarding the moral and historical figure of Jesus. This understanding can yield a respect for Jesus and Christianity on the part of an atheist that does not require a belief in the decidedly religious and metaphysical aspects of Jesus.

Foregoing The Metaphysical Realm

In order to discuss Jesus with an atheist, focus ought to be directed toward the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus rather than the spiritual aspects associated with salvation. This allows the conversation to remain grounded in the common vernacular of ethics and morality rather than the more contentious conversation of belief and disbelief.
A great source for this discussion is 'The Gospel in Brief.' Written by Leo Tolstoy, long-considered one of the worlds’ greatest novelists and a devout Christian in his own right, 'The Gospel in Brief' only contains the sayings of Jesus that focus on proper ethical and moral behavior such as kindness and compassion. Tolstoy takes out any of the metaphysical aspects of Jesus. Such a text, then, can better frame the discussion between a Christian and an atheist and disallow it from becoming mired in claims of salvation or damnation.

Richard Dawkins and The Golden Rule

Even Richard Dawkins, the most vocal proponent of contemporary atheism, can’t help but admire the kindness and compassion of the historical Jesus. Though he grants no quarter to the spiritual dimensions of Christ, Dawkins can’t help but concede to the inherent value of Jesus’ morality and does so in the following statement:
“The best I can offer is what I hope may be a catchy slogan. 'Atheists for Jesus' would grace a T-shirt…I think we owe Jesus the honor of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense which he inevitably espoused as a man of his time.”
The Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have done to you” as espoused by Jesus can serve as a kind of bridge between the often polemical debates that erupt when Jesus and atheism are discussed together. Regardless of whether or not one has faith in Jesus Christ or not, The Golden Rule can be considered a sound ethical code of conduct for both a Christians and atheists.

Christianity’s Most Famous Atheist

C.S. Lewis, often considered modern Christianity’s most profound and prolific writer, was, at one time, a staunch atheist. His views as an atheist were grounded in the philosophical trends of his day, namely empiricism and its corresponding need for physical proof before an idea could be considered true. Nonetheless, C.S. Lewis gradually began to see great wisdom and hope in both the historical and spiritual figure of Jesus Christ that eventually dissolved his atheism in favor of Christianity. Much of his doubt in his atheism arose from the limitations he discovered in his own thought processes. Lewis states this quite succinctly in the following excerpt from one of his well-known works:
"Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking…But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? …But if I can't trust my own thinking, of course I can't trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God." (Lewis, The Case For Christianity)

Sustaining The Discourse Through Mutual Respect and Goodwill

Tolerance and understanding are vital to understanding views and beliefs that differ from our own. This doesn’t require that we forsake own beliefs. Rather, it compels us to accept our own limitations as human beings. As Christians, we readily accept our inherent fallibility and imperfection while, as atheists, we recognize our biological, and consequently, our ontological limitations. The resulting humility in both cases can serve as a stepping stone to better understanding one another, building bridges of trust and goodwill rather than enmity and ill-will in this increasingly complex world of ours.

References

About the Author

Jim Booth is a writer living in Los Angeles. He is currently pursuing graduate work in Philosophy and Religion. The study of faith, in all its various guises, has been a paramount pursuit for him. He has published work in 'The Seattle Review (2005),' 'Rattle (2003),' and 'Zouch (2011).'

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