Top Mistakes Christians Make (about Atheists)

Phil Zuckerman, professor of Sociology at Pitzer in Claremont College, offers nine mistakes (because ten is “so Old Testament”)  that atheists make (along with agnostics and XTC fans) in expressing their disbelief. Here they are in summary:

  1. Insisting that science can, or will, answer everything.
  2. Condemning all religion, rather than just the bad aspects thereof.
  3. Condemning the Bible as a wretched, silly book, rather than seeing it as a work full of good and insightful things as well.
  4. Failing to understand and appreciate “cultural religion.”
  5. Critiquing God as nasty, wicked, and immoral.
  6. Focusing on arguments against the existence of God, rather than working to make the world a better, more just place.
  7. Arguing about morality in the abstract.
  8. Not having more kids.
  9. Always making top ten lists.

I didn’t know who Zuckerman was until today, but I can tell you that I’m already a fan. I so appreciate thoughtful, respectful people, regardless of what their beliefs are. Zuckerman demonstrates the ability to show charity, laugh at himself, yet also understand the profundity of a thing like belief in God. I think that Christians can learn a lot from his example. You can see the whole post here.

Here’s my Top Ten response (because I’m all about the Old Testament and the New one too!):

  1. Insisting that the Bible can, or will, answer everything. Too many Christians treat the Bible like an encyclopedia. Faith in God should actually make us more comfortable with the fact that we don’t have an answer for everything. According to Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Faith in a transcendent Creator should humble us and give us the freedom to frequently say, “I don’t know” because we believe that the world does not turn around our wisdom but God’s wisdom.
  2. Condemning all secular culture as immoral. We are really talking out of both sides of our mouth when we curse secular culture while enjoying many of the benefits and freedoms of living in a secular state. Christians have the freedom to assemble because we live in a secular state. We have the freedom to disagree with our government because we live in a secular state. When secular culture challenges our freedom to worship God and love our neighbors we should stand against it. But we should not try to “Christianize” secular culture by insisting on prayer in public schools or posting the Ten Commandments in courtrooms.
  3. Condemning all secular culture, rather than seeing it as full of good and insightful things as well. I almost laughed out loud when I read Zuckerman refer to XTC alongside atheists and agnostics. I can remember feeling so guilty about how much I liked XTC’s song “Dear God” in the mid-1980s. How could I, a Christian, love a song about disbelief in God? Strangely, as I’ve grown in my faith, I’ve come to appreciate this song even more. XTC’s existential angst about faith in God and the problem of suffering really echoes questions that are raised in the Bible itself (think of Joseph, who said “you meant this for evil, but God meant it for good” in Genesis 50:20). There is a great deal of truth and beauty in secular culture that we can appreciate and from which we can learn. In the words of Augustine, “all truth is God’s truth.”
  4. Failing to understand and expose “cultural religion” as false religion. Zuckerman nails it when he says that people who practice religion without believing its teachings are “allies, not enemies” of atheists. The message of the Christian faith can not be reduced to checking off a box on a census survey, having your name in a church directory, or owning a Bible at home. Cultural Christianity is actually far worse than atheism or agnosticism. It appears good but denies everything good about the good news of the Gospel. It is what Jesus calls a white washed tomb, beautiful on the outside but dead on the inside (Matthew 23:27). We really need to get less excited about Christian sub-culture, celebrity Christians, and sprawling church campuses, and look more carefully for lives that are being transformed from the inside out by faith in Jesus.
  5. Critiquing unbelievers as nasty, wicked, and immoral. The truth is that none of us could really live up to our own accusations. I may rail about those who hold a pro-choice position, yet live with relative indifference about the millions of babies dying in far off lands. What distinguishes believers from unbelievers is not our morality (we are all immoral!) but the fact that we have come to know God’s grace in Christ (we can all be forgiven!). Our posture toward unbelievers should be the opposite of condemnation and accusation; it should be a posture of grace and affirmation.
  6. Focusing on fixing the world rather than loving the world. Enlightenment thinkers were driven by a desire to prove that it was possible to have moral life without faith in God. The Bible’s position on this, I think is, “duh?!” According to Romans 13:6, there is biblical warrant for paying taxes because “authorities are ministers of God” who have the power to promote peace and justice. Christians don’t need to compete with the world to fix the world’s problems. We can really work together with the world. What is unique about the Christian faith, is the believer’s capacity to love their neighbors sacrificially and selflessly and show them that they are loved sacrificially and selflessly by God. It is precisely because the Christian message is about more than just “fixing the world” that middle class Americans need the message of how God reconciles us through grace in Christ as much as impoverished villagers in the Third World.
  7. Arguing Grace in the abstract. Grace is not something that just unbelievers and new believers need. We all need God’s grace. Far too many of the stories that we share as Christians are about how good we are rather than how forgiving God is. Grace has become abstract in our lives. We need concrete stories on a day to day basis about the difference God’s grace has made in our lives; otherwise the gospel we believe and share is really about ourselves, not about Jesus.
  8. Not parenting our kids with the Gospel. Zuckerman points out that religious people have more kids than secular people. This affirms a recent blog post by Tim Keller about faith and family on both the Gospel Coalition Blog and the City to City Blog. But just having more kids is not enough. Many of those children of believers are in reality “cultural believers” and many more cease to believe altogether. We need to be vigilant to make sure that we are not merely parenting with traditionalist or secular values, but in such a manner that our children find their value in the vast unearned love and grace of God in Christ.
  9. Having no sense of humor. Martin Lloyd Jones once said that Christians above all people should have a sense of humor. We should be able to laugh at ourselves. We shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously. We shouldn’t get too riled up by satire that pokes fun at us or deflated by criticism that is thrown our way. As forgiven people who cherish God’s grace, we of all people can laugh at ourselves.
  10. Not making enough top ten lists. We need fewer voices that preach to the choir, and more that engage skeptics and seekers in respectful, honest, and engaging conversation.
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About David Lee

I am the pastor of New Life Mission Church of Fremont meeting in Newark, CA. I live in Fremont with my wife and three children. In my former life I was a history teacher at Irvington High School in Fremont. I love watching and discussing movies (but not at the same time), playing board games, hiking, visiting local cafes, and watching and complaining about (at the same time) Bay Area sports.
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