When Secularist Meets Christian

When I was seventeen, I met an avowed atheist. He had more luck talking to me than I had with him. He challenged me to read Atlas Shrugged and I did. I challenged him to read the New Testament, and he didn’t. I learned something about the way atheists think about life in time and space. He chose not to learn about life with an eternal frame of reference.

The problem is that I live in both the time/space universe where the atheist lives and the eternity/infinity universe where God lives and reigns. I acknowledge the existence of the atheist’s universe, but he does not acknowledge the existence of the eternal/infinite realm. He interacts with the spirit world he denies just as often as I do, but he denies all the evidence of that interaction.

We who live at the intersection of time and eternity in relationship with Christ are flummoxed by people who reject the whole idea of a spirit world. We feel shut down, because we are not sure how to start talking with someone who simply rejects everything that shapes our daily lives. It isn’t an imaginary problem, but even though we must face and deal with the problem, we need to remember that God is not hindered by the same issues that stop us in our tracks. Whether or not atheists allow us to talk with them we always must remember that God is not daunted by anyone’s unbelief. Who knows how many times Nicodemus scoffed at the whole idea that God could have come to earth in the flesh before he sneaked out one evening to talk with Jesus?

The culture of the USA is growing increasingly secular, which means that more and more people in our world consider any form of religion to be useless twaddle. Secular thinkers consider that at best religion is the same kind of comfort we might derive if someone drew a smiley face on a post-it and stuck it on our computer display at work. At worst, they look at September 11 and at the escalating violence that seems to be overwhelming the Arab spring and conclude that it would be better for the whole idea of religion disappear.

If we take our Christian faith seriously, we are disturbed by these developments. We feel some fear that government policies shaped by secular thinking might attempt to shut religion out of our culture altogether. We worry that the protections we assume were intended by our Founders in the First Amendment may be redefined to restrict our freedom to exercise our faith. If we truly believe that Jesus has commanded us to make disciples by teaching other people what Jesus taught us as we go about our daily lives, then we worry that our freedom to engage in that task will be diminished in a secular culture. Further we worry that even though we may be free to speak about our faith, people will generally dismiss us as slightly batty rather than consider what we have to say. If we are honest, we would prefer an acerbic engaged conversation to a condescending or indifferent shrug.

The biblical guidance for living faithful lives in a secular culture is not so different from that for living faithful lives in a culture dominated by a religion. The nature of our stresses is different if our testimony is challenged by somebody else’s god than if it is challenged by the denial of all gods. No matter the challenge, our response is always the same. Christ told us exactly what to do.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, [1]

Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.[2]


[1]  The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 5:43–44). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[2]  The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Re 2:10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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15 thoughts on “When Secularist Meets Christian”

  1. “Do you mean that you object to people wanting to pray in a school”

    Students praying in a school? No. Prayer being instigated and/or supported by the school itself? Yes. I object very much to that.

    “or to display historic legal documents that include Moses and the tablets of law?”

    Sorry, but ‘historic legal documents’ doesn’t cut it. When the first 3 or four of your Decalogue have nothing to do with our country’s laws and actually are against the law, there’s no more a good reason to post them in our court houses than we should post Buddhist scriptures there.

    “You don’t want to see religion in public.”

    No.

    I don’t want my children to be forced to pray to your god or any other, and I don’t want to go to a non-religious courthouse and see religious rules plastered on the wall. It’s really not that hard.

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    1. Many ancient legal systems included references to the state religion. A state without any official religion was a very new idea in 1789. For us it is the norm, but many countries even today either have an official state religion, or only one religion permitted by the state. So the display of legal documents throughout history and around the world would often include religious references. The Ten Commandments originated in the Middle East in a society that expected the religion and the government to be tightly integrated. The colonists and other immigrants who formed the USA were definitely influenced by the Ten Commandments and biblical wisdom literature in their perception of what constituted good law for good order in society. They also came from a nation that had, and still has, a state religion. They were aware of the pitfalls of such an arrangement.The people who founded the USA were not influenced by Buddhist teaching, so it wouldn’t be a part of the legal heritage here.
      I can appreciate your objection to any attempt to force anyone to pray to a god not of his/her choosing. I would not want anyone to force me to do that. In fact, a lot of Christians have died because they refused that kind of government pressure. I would not want anyone to be forced to pray to God. God wouldn’t like that, either. Christians feel the same kind of pressure when they are asked to do other things that conflict with their faith convictions. That is the reason Catholic employers reject the federal employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act. So I think we can agree that when government at any level attempts to impose religion on anyone or attempts to impose non-religion on religious people, that is not a good thing. I believe that the right to choose any religion or no religion is given by God at creation. Secular thinkers believe humans have that right by virtue of being human. Still, even though we do not agree on the origin of the right, we agree that it is a basic human right.

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  2. “As for your statement that ‘public’ means ‘government supported,’ I have never seen the word ‘public’ used that way.”

    So you’ve never heard of a public school, then?

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    1. You were referring to religion. Of course I have heard of public schools. But I have never heard anyone refer to a government-funded religion as a ‘public’ religion. Always ‘state’ religion.

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      1. I was referring to when secular people, like myself, object to the use of religion.

        For me, it’s when people try to force their religion into the public…like into public schools, or court houses, that sort of thing.

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      2. Do you mean that you object to people wanting to pray in a school or to display historic legal documents that include Moses and the tablets of law? If you consider that to be “forcing their religion into the public,” then you have simply demonstrated that you, as a secular person, have the same view as many secular people. You don’t want to see religion in public. There are numerous examples we could discuss. I will simply point out that for the Christian, prayer is a part of everything we do. We may appear to be in prayer, we may join in prayer with others, or we may be praying silently. We consider this to be the normal exercise of our faith, and we consider this to be the sort of thing protected by the First Amendment provision for “free exercise” of our religion. Does it make a difference to you whether we invite you to join us? Is that the problem?

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  3. “The culture of the USA is growing increasingly secular, which means that more and more people in our world consider any form of religion to be useless twaddle.”

    I don’t know if you understand what ‘secular’ means. Quite a lot of liberal religious people are secular.

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    1. I learned about secular thinking from visiting secular websites. There certainly are some Christians who adopt secular thinking. That doesn’t change the truth. Secular thinkers want religion to stay out of public view. People who self-identify as Christians and simultaneously adopt the secular principle that religion should not be spoken of in public sound quite secular. Strict orthodoxy with regard to Christian teaching would at least question their identity as Christians, because Christ himself said that every Christian has the responsibility to tell people what he taught and give those people a chance to be baptized.
      Your observation that some Christians behave in keeping with secular teaching points up the difficulty of classifying any human. It is common to speak of the ideas as if any of them was fully realized in any human. I apologize for the confusion that may produce.
      According to secular sites, religion belongs inside religious buildings and not in the public square. Some secularists even go so far as to hope that by isolating religion they will starve it out. They hope for a day when there is no such thing as religion in human life. I don’t know how that hope would address those self-labelled Christians with a foot in each camp.
      Thank you for your comment. You keep me thinking.

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      1. “People who self-identify as Christians and simultaneously adopt the secular principle that religion should not be spoken of in public sound quite secular.”

        You are using the wrong definition for the word ‘public’.

        Secularists are against the the public use of religion when ‘public’ means ‘government supported or paid for.’ Not when it means ‘out in the open’. There’s a difference.

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      2. You should Google the word “secular” and visit the sites listed. You will find that many secular thinkers want religion out of sight now and out of existence as soon as possible. There certainly are some secular thinkers who value certain things that are associated with religion — art, architecture, music, even literature. There are some humanist thinkers who apply secular and humanist principles to something they call Christianity, although orthodox believers might well dispute that label.
        It is difficult to talk about all the various elements in detail. Some sites provide definitions that the sites use internally, but nobody is obligated to abide by those definitions.
        Still, after studying a number of secular sites I was able to find that there is a general attitude across all of them that religion outside of houses of worship is a problem. In fact, some secular thinkers go so far as to assert that only what happens inside houses of worship actually is religion. This particular secular definition is being used by the current administration in the USA to define what sort of organization qualifies for conscience exemptions from the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
        As for your statement that ‘public’ means ‘government supported,’ I have never seen the word ‘public’ used that way. For that purpose, the sources I use ( numerous) chose the word ‘state’ for that purpose, talking about ‘state church’ rather than ‘public church.’

        You can find different definitions if you do the research, but I try to work with the ones that seem to be most widely used. If you look over the material and come to a different conclusion, I welcome more conversation.

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  4. Good post. I have spoken with many atheists and found that few have ever taken times to read the New Testament, yet they act like they’re authorities on all things religious. Most claim to have read the Bible, but after a few questions you can tell they have not.

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    1. It is always interesting to have those converation. I continue to hope every time that one of them will take that big step and open the book.

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  5. Excellent post, Katherine. I spent several years writing a memoir for an ex-Muslim/atheist, a man who claimed he couldn’t believe in God because God hadn’t shown up and off when he’d asked Him to. Perhaps, I suggested, God might have been there in each of the miracles Reza experienced in his two escapes out of Iran. Perhaps God had been the One moving those mountains and hiding him from those bent on his murder. Logic couldn’t have explained those circumstances. Nor could coincidence. My friend is no longer alive to tell me how he finally resolved the matter, to tell me if he finally admitted that God is and that God had been faithfully calling him, as He calls each of us, to trust and believe.

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    1. You make the point very well. This man had evidence in his own life that God loved him and acted in his life, but he could not accept it.
      I once had the misfortune to attend a Bible study session taught by a pastor who did not believe that Satan is a real personality. Talk about a person who rejects the evidence! Needless to say, I did not return for a second session. I concluded that this instructor lacked the credentials for the subject he was teaching.

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