When reading or hearing the stories of atheists, certain patterns tend to emerge. One standard account goes like this: I was a devout Christian but along the way became dissatisfied with certain aspects of my faith. As I learned more about the Bible I realized that it is loaded with problems. After examining it more closely, I concluded that it is horribly unreliable and really just a bunch of made up stories, essentially religious fairy-tales. This realization, combined with all of the hypocrisy I witnessed among Christians, essentially spelled the end of my faith. So now I’m a completely fulfilled atheist. Examples of this basic story abound on the Internet, such as here and here.
Now there are a few things about this journey to un-faith paradigm that bother me and that from a rational standpoint don’t add up. For one thing, it strikes me as odd that so many atheists moved directly from giving up Christianity to giving up theism. The Christian faith is just one of three major brands of theism (along with Judaism and Islam). To falsify one form of this general religious perspective is not to falsify it in all of its forms. After rejecting Christianity, why not look into one of the other major versions of theism? Perhaps such atheists will insist that in discovering the Bible is a book of fairy tales they have basically discovered that all religions “of the book” (in this case, all three including the Old Testament) are baseless. But, then, we may ask, why limit one’s theistic alternatives to these three traditions? Why not consider generic theism or a non-religious philosophical theism such as that espoused by the likes of Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle?—at least until one has thoroughly reviewed the evidences for God. Some thinkers, such as Antony Flew late in his career, have done just this, all the while keeping an open mind about the possibility that the world creator had revealed himself in some special way.
Another unsettling fact about many atheists is their rejection of Jesus Christ, not just as a religious figure or, more specifically, the God-incarnate savior of humankind, but in toto. That is, in rejecting Jesus Christ as Christians believe in him, one need not also reject his teachings. One can deny that Jesus is “Lord” but still recognize his wisdom, even philosophical genius, as evident in his many brilliant discourses and parables. One might even reasonably say that Jesus is a great philosopher. As Doug Groothuis shows in his fascinating little book On Jesus, the itinerant Nazarene is undeniably a profound and innovative philosophical mind, whatever else he might be.
Suppose a religious tradition emerged which had as a core teaching the notion that Immanuel Kant was divine and somehow God’s envoy to save humanity from our moral faults, such as by assiduously following the Categorical Imperative, praying in Kant’s name, and so on. Now if I decided, as I think we all should, that Kant is not the savior, would it make sense to also completely disregard him as a philosopher or otherwise ignore his many valuable insights about ultimate questions? The same might be said of many other great thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, Hume, and Plantinga. The fact that none of these thinkers is divine is no excuse to completely ignore them as philosophers and sources of great wisdom. In fact, we should study their teachings closely regardless of how they might be misconstrued from a religious standpoint. Other people’s overestimation of their ultimate identity or moral goodness is no reason to ignore their philosophical genius. Yet, this is what most atheists and other non-Christians do when it comes to Jesus. They seem to assume that rejection of him as God-incarnate and/or savior of humanity is tantamount to rejecting him as wise or even as a significant ethicist or philosopher of religion. But these two things are far from equivalent.
For this reason I often implore Christians-turned-atheists to return to Jesus, if only as a student of the man’s philosophical acumen. Jesus’ logical skill, ethical teachings, anthropological insights, and cultural criticism (usually aimed at religious leaders, which should please any atheist)—not to mention his rhetorical genius and unparalleled influence on world history—all merit close study. For these reasons we can all benefit from a better understanding of Jesus, whether we call him Lord or merely a great human thinker.