Should belief (or non-belief) in God be kept private or shared with others?

Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are among a number of recent so called ‘New’ Atheists aggressively promoting atheism and ridiculing religion. It raises the question of whether belief (or non-belief) in God is a private matter or should be shared with others. New Atheists and Christians both share a view that others are in ‘danger’ and desire to warn them – though of vastly different things. For Hitchens, the danger is clear in the subtitle of his book God is not great: How Religion Poisons Everything. In his chapter ‘Religion Kills’ he writes ‘Religion is not unlike racism…One version of it inspires and provokes another. Religion has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred…’ [1] For Hitchens and other ‘New’ Atheists, the world needs saving from religion.

Christians see the world’s problems resulting from a much deeper issue than religion. Historian, Alistair McGrath, pointing to efforts by states such as Soviet Russia, Communist China and the Khmer Rouge to control or forbid religion notes: ‘The 20th century gave rise to one of the greatest and most distressing paradoxes of human history: that the greatest intolerance and violence of that century were practiced by those who believed that religion caused intolerance and violence.’ [2] Christians claim the world’s problems clearly cannot be solved by trying to eliminate religion. Our fundamental problem is more profound, not external but internal – the problem is our rebellion against God which brings alienation and fragmentation to both human relationships, and our relationship with God.

For ‘New’ Atheists, the solution is to try and ‘rescue’ the world by marginalising religion. For Christians, the solution is the ‘gospel ’ or ‘great news’ that God has made a way for human beings to be rescued through his Son Jesus Christ. The Old Testament records an account of four lepers from the besieged and starving city of Samaria coming across an abandoned army camp full of supplies outside their city. As they begin to eat and drink, they said to each other ‘We are not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves…Let’s go at once and report this” (2 Kings 7:9). They knew there were many who could benefit from what they knew. In the same way Christians consider it is not right to keep the good news of Jesus to themselves. The angel who foretold Jesus birth said ‘I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people’ (Luke 2:10).

So both Christians and ‘New’ Athiests seek to share their message with others. Which set of beliefs will lead adherents to be most respectful and compassionate with those to whom they differ? New Atheists are often criticised for being arrogant and disrespectful, no doubt the same charge often applies to Christians. Yet which belief system has a basis to critique such behaviour?

The apostle Peter says to Christians ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15). The Bible tells Christians their message is to be shared through both the words of the gospel, and a life which is being transformed by this gospel. So a Christian who ‘wins’ an intellectual argument against an atheist, but does so arrogantly with no compassion for the one with whom they are speaking, has not properly communicated the Christian gospel.

All of us have beliefs or assumptions about who we are, what life is about, and what is most important in life. We can all grow through understanding the beliefs of others and evaluating our own assumptions. In this brief clip, athiest  Penn Jillette describes why he respects Christians who want to proselytise (tell others about Jesus):

The extent to which we’ll desire to share our beliefs with others will be impacted by how great we see the danger or problem others are facing, and how convicted we are of whether there is any hope for them. Christians believe hope is found in the one person who perfectly spoke and lived the gospel – Jesus Christ.

 


[1] Hitchens, God is not great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 35-36.

[2] McGrath, The Twilight of Athiesm: The Rise and fall of Disbelief in the modern world, 230.

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