Friendly atheism

When Christians today think of atheism, the figure that perhaps most frequently comes to mind is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, of course, is about as militant an atheist as you are likely to find. He is so militant, in fact, that there are actually atheists who question whether or not he is good for the atheist movement.

Happily, not all atheists are quite as militant as Dawkins. One of the atheists whose thoughts I frequently encounter, thanks in large measure to a particular Facebook friend sharing much of his writing, dubs himself the “friendly atheist.” His motto is simply, “You can be skeptical and friendly at the same time.”

Now, I appreciate the fact that many atheists wish to approach discussions in a civil manner. Indeed, Dawkins himself recently signed a statement with Ophelia Benson stating, “Disagreement is inevitable, but bullying and harassment are not. If we want secularism and atheism to gain respect, we have to be able to disagree with each other without trying to destroy each other.” Sadly, Dawkins does not always seem to live up to what he claims to affirm.

I was driving somewhere recently and listening to the Holman Christian Standard Bible in audio. I am myself a user of the English Standard Version, but I decided to expose myself this time to the HCSB. I was listening on this particular trip to the latter chapters of Leviticus, when Leviticus 26:21 arrested my attention: “If you act with hostility toward Me and are unwilling to obey Me, I will multiply your plagues seven times for your sins” (HCSB).

In the context, God is warning Israel of covenantal curses if the nation forsakes its covenant with Yahweh. The first part of the chapter promises covenantal blessings for obedience, but it quickly shifts to covenantal curses for disobedience. What arrested my attention, however, was the parallelism of “act with hostility toward Me” with “unwilling to obey Me.” The ESV translates it slightly differently, though the same point is made: “Then if you walk contrary to me and will not listen to me, I will continue striking you, sevenfold for your sins.”

The two phrases here parallel one another. That is, in God’s view, to “not listen to me” is to “walk contrary to me.” Or, in the language of the HCSB, to be “unwilling to obey Me” is to “act with hostility toward Me.”

As I listened to these words, my mind immediately went to the “friendly atheist” posts with which I am so frequently confronted on Facebook. While I appreciate the intention of many atheists to enter into civil discussion, unlike much of what Dawkins writes, it occurred to me that, according to this verse, there is no such thing as a “friendly” atheist. An atheist may choose to speak civilly to Christians, but the reality is that those who are “unwilling to obey” the Lord in fact “act with hostility” toward him. In reality, there is nothing “friendly” about atheism; the entire philosophy is nothing more than hostility with a veneer of civility.

As we encounter people on a daily basis, who may appear quite civil and kind, but have no interest in submitting to the God of the Bible, we would do well to remember that they are opposing God in a most hostile fashion. This may be true even of professing believers, for the context of Leviticus 26 is God’s address to his covenant people, Israel. Nevertheless, God considers any form of disobedience to be hostility. Those who will not obey him are his enemies. No wonder, then, that James warns, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4).

Incredibly, though we are born at enmity with God, he has chosen to love us. It is “while we were enemies” that “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10). Let us be thankful for the gospel, which takes those who deserve nothing more than God’s hot fury, and changes them from enemies to friends, who do whatever he commands (John 15:14).

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