Making Friends with Atheists

2011/01/jeremy-pirate-600.jpg Photo ©Copyright/Courtesty of Jeremy Witteveen, r25 Productions

Duh! Isn’t that why we’re here, after all? But if we’re honest with ourselves, how many Christians do you know who are out intentionally befriending atheists—especially atheists who used to be Christians—for sure the most dangerous kind!

Though there are plenty of dangerous nice atheists we could befriend, today I’m talking about one in particular—Jeremy Witteveen. I met Jeremy last week when I got a Google alert in my inbox about one of my articles he “poked fun” at. Okay, it was really more like scoffing, but no need to get technical.

I was more amused than offended by Jeremy’s remarks so I browsed his website and read a little bit about him. As I pretty much expected, I found evidence of a deep thinking, engaging, articulate, witty guy (also an insane blogger), who has a legitimate bone to pick with Christianity. That particular day, I just happened to be his target, but it was nothing personal. Little did he know he was going to get caught in the act by the wonders of modern technology (Google alerts)! In the days since, I’ve had several conversations with Jeremy and found his bark to be far worse than his bite. There’s a pretty nice, sincere guy underneath the tough, sometimes sarcastic, anti-Christian exterior, but don’t let that word get out—he has an image to keep up.

Why did I suspect to find a great person when I started exploring Jeremy’s blog? Well, first of all, in my experience, atheists aren’t against God, they’re against god—against the god Christianity has painted to them through our major hypocrisies, and our unwillingness or inability to answer (or listen to) their legitimate questions. No one in their right mind would turn down an accurate representation of the true God…in other words, if they had half a fair chance to find out who He truly is by those who are supposed to be His image on earth. Just so you know, I fully include myself in this lack of image-bearing.

“Listening” to Jeremy, I found out he was brought up a hard core, evangelical Christian. He attended Christian school, went on to Christian college, and was in church with his family every Sunday. And that’s just the beginning. You can read a little more about his journey if you dare. And I dare you. I think Jeremy, and many other atheists I’ve met, have some GREAT questions and thoughts about Christianity and how they arrived at their beliefs. Sadly, I used to dismiss their questions without even listening to them. But now I’m asking us all to begin listening. We can learn a lot about our faith from an atheist. Will our faith crumble? Some parts of it might—the parts that have no foundation and NEED to go. But we can also become more reasoned, considerate, open minded people by listening to the legitimate, honest questions and observations—especially ones that reveal weak our spots and gaps.

Great! I’m supposed to be building your faith but instead I’m influencing you to read blogs and books by atheists! What’s next? Hopefully, more enlightenment. Expectantly, more compassion.

You might be asking, “Does an atheist have anything worthwhile to say to someone like me?” I guess that depends on who you are. If you think not, then I rest my case. But if your heart is open, you will be blessed in your learning. One of my favorite blogs of Jeremy’s (of the 4-5 I’ve read this past week) is called “Absolutely Despicable Me.” It’s a beautifully written blog, centered around the theme of adoption (Jeremy was adopted by a very loving family when he was little). I really recommend it, but here’s a look at one part in particular:

When you’re little, there’s a forgiving disappointment. When you’re little, you’re like a dog. You can get beat down with disappointment and still manage to forgive the despicable actions from parent deity. When you grow up, either you get over the disappointment with the many justifications the church provides, or in my case, you don’t.

The breathtaking thing about my family is the sticktoative behavior they’ve shown despite my absence of belief. As promised, they haven’t abandoned their love for me. While there’s a conditional nature to Mr. Deity’s love, they have no condition. Family is family. And that love, as it’s shown by Witteveens, would never let me go.

At least part of Jeremy’s struggle with Christianity (besides the intangibility of God) is his inability to reconcile the fact that, according to Christianity, his parents love him more than God. His adoptive parents have proven to him over and over that there is really nothing he has done or could do that would make them stop loving him, whereas the “God” of his parents—the “God of Christianity”—is another story. Jeremy, like so many others out there who have been wounded by such twists of God’s character, has something very worthwhile to say—to teach us. These kinds of expressions can be one of our greatest instructors in the ways of the true character of God, if we have ears to hear and understand.

“Well,” you might say, “isn’t that kind of dangerous, hanging out with people who are against God? What if they have a corrupting influence me? It’s one thing to drag an atheist down to the local potluck at church to hang out, but should you really be hanging around on their turf?”

I say, if more of us spent time reading or listening to people like Jeremy on his turf, we would get a glimpse of something our deaf ears need to hear and our blind eyes need to see. We will be challenged in wonderful and necessary ways. We will also gain understanding of how the world sees us, and our hypocrisies will be laid bare. In the end, it’s ALL good!

Be sure to read the endearing post Jeremy wrote about our initial meeting from his point of view. And when you read his parting words: “The way I see Ferwerda is she’s a gateway drug to this side of a coin. She’s a stepping stone toward non-belief, or at least a more realistic view of the world through an educated view of bible (what a compliment!)…” Remember this is from an atheist’s viewpoint. I have no intention of going over to the “dark side” (LOL)…at least not anytime soon!

2 honest, thoughtful books I’ve read this year that I recommend (but only AFTER you read my upcoming book—it will help ward off discouragement and give more insight!) are:

  • The Unlikely Disciple, by Kevin Roose. An undercover Brown student spends a semester at Liberty University to better understand the Christian culture. Hilarious at times, sadly true at others.
  • Jesus Interrupted, by Bart Ehrman. As a Christian, you should know what your educated, post-Christian critics are saying—they have some great questions and knowledge that your pastor knows but doesn’t teach you. Bart graduated with a degree from Moody Bible Institute and became an agnostic. His questions need not lead to apostasy, but can certainly make you more understanding of how some people come to the conclusions they do, as well as spawn you to find a more intelligent, reasoned faith.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you encountered atheists and listened to them? Do they make reasonable points that cause you to have questions about your faith and beliefs? Can you think of any? Share them with us!

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  • A. Friend

    Julie, I love your heart. You are a great and caring person and regardless of Jesus talk or Christianity and all that…. you are a beautiful person and it is your honesty and how you are driven by your love that is truly compelling and attractive.

    • jferwerd

      Hey A. Friend, thanks for your kind words. I have a long way to go in learning to really love and listen to people, but notes like your keep encouraging me on the journey.

  • I agree with "A. Friend." It has always been Julie's heart and love that has attracted me to her and has solidified our friendship.

    As for making friends with atheists, I think I grew up with several. I say "I think" because I can't even tell you what, exactly, an atheist is anymore, and I no longer care. Some of the people I thought were atheists might actually be agnostic. Do you have to proclaim you're an atheist in order to be one? Because I know people who don't even think about a god or God. They just live their lives without theism or religion, and they are lovely, kind-hearted, and compassionate people. Pfft, maybe they're deists. Oh no! I can't even define who's what…and I'm glad! I can't stand the labels and the dividing.

    I second the recommendation of Unlikely Disciple. It's an excellent, *open-minded* other-side-of-the-story exploration.

    Great blog post, Julie. I've spent some time on Jeremy's blog and have enjoyed reading his perspective.

    • jferwerd

      I can say the same of you Barb. You have taught me so many new perspectives on people from your rich background, and I am ever grateful for it! You're the best!

  • Shari

    I was casually thinking about this yesterday. I finally got to watch Anne Rice’s video explaining why she left christianity. Based in what she explained it breaks my heart how men tend to get in the way of God. When that happens in a way not required by God (manipulation) instead of following God’s views of helping new believers (discipleship) people get hurt, dissapointed and upset. I would surely be and was at some point when I realize what we are doing to people stricking them with religiosity. It is not God’s fault but ours when we fail to show love and patience to those who have valid questions. Her arguments were valid. She expressed how there was a lot of things that christianity (catholism mostly) find immoral like homosexuality or abortion due to a very sick mother that can die giving birth (paraphrasing what she said). I agree in her impression of how we are quick to judge and it motivated me to watch what I do and say. It has definitely got better but, as believers, we need to go an active change of mind to the mind of Christ. Otherwise the world will keep seeing us religious and not as a reflection of an all loving God.

  • Really good, Julie. Thanks.

    • jferwerd

      Thanks so much Ron. I hope you're doing well.

  • Sherry Meneley

    Julie – wow. You are someone I would like. I have been "unfriended" by (pent-up) Christian friends because I have unintentionally (yet then intentionally) set out to be friends with others outside the church (my Jeremys).

    I've made friends with Atheists, Wiccans (who I often think really want to be Jesus-Followers but just can't get over 'Christians'), and Church-Hurt folk. The kindest, most amazing and affirming, compliment I ever received about my Christian faith came from one of these 'outsider' friends.

    I get a little hot-under-the-collar when Christians want to stay in the safety of a Christian bubble… There has got to be balance, and we've got to be unafraid… My 2¢

    • jferwerd

      Sherry I am so glad you shared your perspectives and experiences with us. It is testimonies like these that truly help us grow and learn. These are a few thoughts I shared on FB this am with commenters:

      If there's one thing I'm learning, it's that you will be a lot more successful in dealing with people from all walks of life if they don't sense you have an agenda in why you're befriending them or showing kindness to them. The people who do not believe the same as we do are already very suspect in why you want to be their friend (as a Christian). Why not give them a great surprise and just be their friend with no ulterior motives?

      Sharing the (true) gospel with people is just about loving people where they're at, usually without words. This will go a million more miles than trying to tell them anything. If you study the life of Christ, you'll find there are very few people He changed with His words, and a lot that He changed with His LOVE and actions.

      "You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts." 2 Cor. 3:2-3

      • Sherry Meneley

        Exactly! No motives, just friendship… they pick up the rest on their own. That God would even use me to revel HImself and His love blows my mind.

  • Brian

    I will say this you are walking like Jesus, befriending the Tax Collector, Theif, and Prostutuite. What good company you are in my friend.

    You I'm sure will understand what I am refering to, but for others, to the Jewish people in Jesus's time these people were tottaly off limits to speak with or be seen around.

  • Kaye

    Julie, I'm so glad that Ron shared your link with me. The timing is significant. Some of my dearest loved ones are no longer believers & I am learning a lot in this process of relating to them. Altho' still a believer in Jesus, I'm basically exiled from the institutional church – & I agree with much of your assessment about how organized religion pushes people away from Jesus. What a lot we have yet to learn about sharing His love, huh?

    • jferwerd

      Awesome Kaye! I'm also glad he did. Ron is a great guy with such a big heart for people. And yes, we all have a lot to learn!

  • tboracer

    What a wonderful post, Julie. We are instructed to be in the world, not of it. And that means being salt and light to everyone. I have often found that when I am unwilling to listen to someone else's point of view, I'm demonstrating insecurity in my own lack of knowledge or faith. I don't want to listen to their arguments or questions and simply want to "prove them wrong" only because, deep down, I don't know the answer. So I'd rather not address it at all. But having these conversations should cause us to question our knowledge and understanding, which will only allow us to grow in our faith, not walk away from it. As it is often said, people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

    • jferwerd

      Thanks for these thoughts. I agree. Other times for me, it has just been arrogance in thinking I'm right and no reason to listen to anyone else's point of view. How I hate that attitude now, but it sure is hard to recognize in yourself sometimes!

  • Damian Masters

    So how long have you been exiled? When I first read your blog i thought you were still in the organized church. But that doesn't matter. George Carlan has a you tube video out that decribes the worlds minister. ( I don't recomend it) but it does get right to the point about what the organized church is all about. Money and control.
    I have been asked a couple of times, to not come back to some small group bible studies. When one recieves the gift of grace and your mind is opened we see things a lot differently. I hope those who once believed will ask our God to show them the light and truley know peace. Thanks for your blog.

  • Luis V.

    Julie, you said: “atheists aren’t against God, they’re against god—against the god Christianity has painted to them through our major hypocrisies, and our unwillingness or inability to answer (or listen to) their legitimate questions.”
    I have to ask you, is this your professional diagnosis as to the root of Jeremy’s and all other atheists’ lack of belief? Specifically I’m curious as to why you singled out the Christian god. Was this intentional? Were you going for brevity? Or are you under the impression that all atheism is a position of rebellion against dogmatic Christianity and only Christianity?

  • Julie,
    As you know, both Jeremy and I respect you and the message you are trying to pass on.
    I found this post interesting, it is not often you get to read a post that is directly inspired by a conversation that you have been a party to. It really helps me see what we are communicating effectively and what is getting lost in translation.
    There are a few points in your post with which I fundamentally disagree; there were times that the whole thing made me feel uncomfortable. In spite of this I realize the importance of your overarching message and continue to see your voice as an important one in the dialogue going on at the moment. I won’t spend any time here “missing the forest for all the trees”, that might be a conversation for another day.

    In my time as a Christian, your voice was genuinely rare and rarely genuine. I hope I continue to be surprised by you in the future.
    Kudos.

  • jferwerd

    Luis V. tried to post the following comment but for some reason it didn't show up:

    “Julie, you said: “atheists aren’t against God, they’re against god—against the god Christianity has painted to them through our major hypocrisies, and our unwillingness or inability to answer (or listen to) their legitimate questions.”

    I have to ask you, is this your professional diagnosis as to the root of Jeremy’s and all other atheists’ lack of belief? Specifically I’m curious as to why you singled out the Christian god. Was this intentional? Were you going for brevity? Or are you under the impression that all atheism is a position of rebellion against dogmatic Christianity and only Christianity?”

    • jferwerd

      Luis, I'll be honest and say at this point in my life, I believe that no one (in their right mind) would reject a God if He were first, available to them in a tangible sense, and second if He were the perfect representation of unconditional love and goodness. I wasn't intentionally singling out the "Christian God," just summarizing why I would reject the modern Christian idea of god if I were an atheist.

      • Chester

        Doesn't the Bible show rather conclusively (through both allegory and historical examples) that there are those who will reject God, no matter how much he reaches out to them?

        To assert otherwise is to take free will rather lightly. I'd rather think of a God who has followers who want and chose to follow him, rather than a God who effectively forces those he reveals himself to to worship him.

  • Danielle

    Hi Julie! This is right on time, I am acquainted with several kind, loving, intelligent folks who could be labeled as atheist or agnostic. I welcome their questions and I appreciate the opportunity to present the tangible God I KNOW, based on being in a real and personal relationship with HIM. Not only am I able to witness to them that God isn't some mystic in the clouds waiting to burn people at each opportunity, but they in turn also keep me on MY feet. There are some things I hadn't studied in years and responding to a topic helps to dust off some of the cobwebs and make sure your beliefs are scripturally sound. I think as long as you seek God and ask Him to lead and guide you, you are not in any harm of being swayed to their beliefs, especially if you have a PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD. I don't understand that thinking, could someone who doesn't believe your husband exists, sway you from a relationship with him?

  • jferwerd

    Hey Danielle, good to hear from you on the blog! Thanks for sharing this. I agree that a huge goal of Christians should be to love and to listen when dealing with atheists as well as other religions. Like I already said, I have sadly not listened very much in my life, copping a superior or "in the know" attitude. Come to find out, I had almost all of it wrong. I'm ready to be the student for awhile. :D

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