This post (originally published here on August 11, 2009) has become the most popular post I have written to date with more than 14,000 onsite views and more than 140 comments. It is a small testimony to the the way Christians are seen by atheists and how simply recognizing them as neighbors can go a long way to proclaiming the gospel.
Several weeks ago it came to my attention that the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), a group of people who would be considered atheist and agnostic, were planning a trip to the Creation Museum as a preface to a conference that would occur in the same area. What started out as a mild curiosity became fascination and eventually action. What would it be like to be a Christian and a fly on the wall as a group of atheists peered at exhibits that attempted to prove them wrong? How would the creationist lecturer react to challenges and would he gloat when he wins a point?
I did not decide until the week before to take the day off to go. So it was that I rode with my wife to the Creation Museum for what may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I can honestly say that I was not prepared for what we experienced.
My wife had been there before, and as we pulled into the parking lot her first reaction was to how many extra security were visible. She said that she did not remember more than one or two officers on her last trip, but even before we left the car there were at least 6 clearly visible in front of the facility.
To ensure that we would be able to be included with some of the SSA members in the tour (and because we got $12 off on each of our admission prices) we signed up with the group. What we did not know was that we would also get name tags with the SSA logo printed prominently on them. We also had to sign an agreement which said that we would be respectful and appropriate during our time on the grounds. Emails had gone out over the course of the days leading up to the event to ask the very same and to forbid those who would come for the sole reason of causing a scene from coming at all. “We want to show what even as godless atheists we have morals.”
The Social Experiment
Not only were we wearing name tags which clearly said that we were there with SSA, but many were also wearing atheist shirts. Most were subtle, in the sense that if you did not know what you were looking at you may not have even noticed. I overheard some people (obviously not with the group) talking about the shirts and what they meant.
If you are familiar with the book The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne you will understand the reference. The story takes place in a Puritan community where a woman is accused of adultery and as a consequence is forced to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ for the rest of her life to identify her sin. With the label she was also subject to ridicule and utter rejection by the rest of the community of Puritans (Christians).
While I did not have a T-shirt (a symbol anyway) it was obvious that there was a distinctive way that we were being treated because of the shared identification. There were hateful glances, exaggerated perceptions, waxing surveillance by security, and anxious but strong ‘amens’ accompanying a lecture on “The Ultimate Proof of Creation” by Dr. Jason Lisle.
Is this how Christians treat people? Is this how we follow Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? I cannot help but think that many Christians are fearful of atheists. It is a sort of xenophobia that runs along lines of faith and belief. What we tend to forget is that atheists, agnostics, and evolutionists are people too. If our attempt to preserve our belief means that we are treating these people like animals, are we really holding up principles that are based on a creation worldview?
There have rarely been times in my life that I have been ashamed of people that I call “brothers and sisters in Christ.” This was one of them. To be judged by people that share my beliefs because of the name tag I wore was appalling. We forget that Jesus not only commanded that we love our enemies and pray for them, but he also sought out people who were rejected by the religious order, embraced them, spent time with them, and partied with them. It was not a covert operation to get them to say the sinner’s prayer (which was not invented until the 20th century) and get them to change their ways. Jesus knew that spending time with them was like good medicine: those who are well do not need a doctor.
What Then? … No Excuses
Do not miss this: belief must not be a reason not to engage in relationship. This is not about being right or wrong. This is not about having the answers. This is not about their tactics and how they have been rude or dismissive. This is not about a fundamental difference in the way we approach the world.
What this is about is relationship. It is about listening to other inhabitants of the planet, regardless of what we believe about how we got here. It is about having dialogue and getting to know one another. It is about sharing a cup of coffee, a glass of beer, or a soda and enjoying one another’s company. It is about realizing that we have more in common than we have in opposition. It is about being like Christ, which in fact is the largest issue that keeps us apart.