Thanksgiving is about giving thanks TO someone. So who does an atheist thank on Thanksgiving Day?
Right now we are in our Hot Topics series, and one of the topics highly voted on (but not in the top 3) was Atheism and Agnosticism. I have a few atheist and agnostic friends, and have interacted and kept up with some public figures who are atheists, so I thought I would share some thoughts about this subject.
Atheism does not mean that a person is totally immoral or that they hate all religious people. For some, atheism is not even permanent, but a season of life where they are doubting the faith they grew up with and they are not sure if God exists. Atheism tends to emphasize the need for humans to do their moral work, not needing the “crutch” of a higher power to motivate them. Some atheists are incredibly giving and generous people, seeing this as a way to help their fellow human beings; others are not very giving, seeing charity as a further crutch that holds people back from working hard. Some atheists have been personally hurt by religion or religious people; many also point to history and the evil that religion has done as a reason not to believe in God or religion.
I have had seasons in my life when I have doubted many things about the Bible, but I have never really doubted the existence of God. Looking at the mountains and seeing their grandeur calls me to believe in my heart that there is something (Someone) even bigger than the mountains. I agree with my atheist friends that sometimes religious people get lazy, and abuse grace and ritual, and don’t do the moral work needed to have a virtuous life. But I challenge them to go even deeper beyond laziness, and do the further moral work of study into the ways of God, and how a moral code is more than just evolutionary encoding, and how living in community with those who believe actually gives people hope and strength. I believe that we should be giving – to help those in need and to grow our own hearts – and that giving is actually returning in thanks the gifts that I have been given by God. I agree that many evil things have been done in the name of religion – but the deeper issue is not religion, but power. Humans have used religion to further their own power (instead of the Kingdom of God). Take religion away, and there will still be the human lust for power – but without religion there will be little reason to restrain that lust.
Most of all, what I have noticed in my conversations with my atheist friends is that they have deep longings – for justice, for the world to be right, for people to work hard, for religion to work the way it is supposed to, and for God to act like God if there really is a God. Sometimes these longings come out disappointed, and angry, and attacking other people. There is a longing for true hope, but a wall has been put up against any false hope that would fool them and make false promises. I believe that Jesus – not people or religion or doctrines – is the answer to the longing in the human heart. And He can give true hope.
The life of walking with Christ goes beyond a naive understanding that the world will never be bad – Jesus was crucified by powerful and selfish people. He rose again. There is light fighting back against the darkness, and even when the darkness seems to be winning, we can still believe in the light. I try to keep sharing this hope with my atheist friends, with gentleness and respect, showing the reality of authentic faith in Jesus, in the hope that they will let Him fulfill the longings of their hearts.
When the pilgrims crossed the Atlantic, they gave thanks to God. Even though they had done a lot of work and braved the dangers of the sea, they knew that God had done even more and had given them courage. We work and give thanks – to Someone who is with us, who can overcome the darkness, fill the longings of our hearts, and gives us true hope.