It may seem unlikely that a Christian would befriend an atheist. Aristotle taught us that friendships form because people long for the good things that can only come through a friendship. So what good could a Christian possibly find in a friendship with an atheist?
I can think of three. I could identify more, I suppose, and depending on the atheist, many more unrelated to atheism. But these benefits occur to me precisely because these friends are atheists. They are good things that can only be given to me by godless hands.
My atheist friends have made me more humane.
When I befriend an atheist, I am presented with someone like me. Obviously there is one big difference. But the common longings, needs and joys are there and it is good to be reminded of them.
For our religion to remain humane, we need friends who disagree with it. While this could be said for friendships with those from other religious traditions, there is something about atheism that stands out for a theist. That’s because atheism is a sort of shadow theism. After all, just who is the God these people refuse to believe in? And since they say “no” to my most important “yes” I must cull out the essential, the truly human in them, and hold it apart from their atheism. Wonderfully, a tool for the job has been handed to me by Christianity. It helps me distinguish an intellectual sin from an intellectual sinner. I can affirm an atheist’s humanity in spite of his dehumanizing philosophy.
Calling atheism dehumanizing may not seem very charitable. But the notion made famous by Freud—that God is merely a projection, a father figure we imagine in the sky—is dehumanizing. It inverts what we find in the first pages of the Bible. There we see that human beings are God’s projection into this world. When an atheist pontificates, he not only calls God’s existence into question, he calls his humanity into question. So this is the challenge, the religious challenge: Can I continue to regard an atheist as an image of God even as he denies the existence of that God? With God’s help, I can.
My atheist friends have made me smarter.
In my experience, atheists are more likely to know why they are atheists than theists are to know why they are theists. Even worse, atheists tend to have a better grasp of the basic tenets of the religions they reject than the adherents of those religions. It is all somewhat discouraging. What should we think about this?
Recently, sociobiologists have made a measure of peace with belief in God by proposing it must have a biological basis, and if so, it must have served a role in the survival of our species. This would mean faith in God is somehow “hardwired” into us. This would also imply that atheism is a sort of deficiency, even a birth defect. On the other hand maybe it is the next leap in human evolution. How can we know? Sociobiology can’t say.
C. S. Lewis taught us another way to think about natural predispositions. He said hunger implies there is something called food. Using this idea, he went on to say we can legitimately infer the existence of God from our longings for Him. Naturally atheists will have none of this. You can long for an island made of gold all you want, but you’ll be disappointed. So which is it? Is God food for the soul or a delusion of a sick mind?
Our food analogy may help. It is possible to overcome our natural predispositions. Anorexics overcome a desire to eat, often with sad consequences. The proof here is the proof of health. Wisdom is the proof of intellectual health. Is it wiser to presuppose concord or discord? Atheism presupposes discord and at best only encourages a cautious and calculating prudence. Because theists see a synchronicity working in things, they believe in a concord made possible by a super-intelligent creator. This faith makes a generous, unharried and graceful life possible. Philosopher Josef Peiper taught that this is the true nature of “leisure.” He reminded us that both the Greek and Latin origins of the word “leisure” are the source of the English word “school.” Theism promotes a particular sort of intelligence, a wisdom that cannot be measured by an IQ test or a poll.
Still, atheists can be intellectually stimulating. Their distrust is the source of their critical sharpness. In a secondhand way, Christians can benefit from it. My wife’s grandfather, a man educated at Harvard and Yale, once told me the danger of only listening to people we find agreeable is that we can nod ourselves to sleep. Keeping a few atheists for friends is caffeinating. I can be sure they will challenge my arguments. Like most people, I am a bit lazy. Atheists force me to think.
My atheist friends have taught me compassion.
Since atheists believe the universe began with a bang, but without the benefit of someone lighting the fuse, the second law of thermodynamics is their only guide as to how it will end. Everything will float apart in a cold eternal night. What difference does that make? The universe isn’t going anywhere. It has no meaningful purpose. Since the world does not serve the will of God, atheists must find their meaning in their own willing.
But why should we will one thing and not another? Because it will make us happy? The idea of God has done that for many people. Why not try to believe in Him? When I’ve put that question to atheists, they respond, “That wouldn’t be honest.” But what does honesty get you in a meaningless world? If in the end all our beliefs amount to nothing (see the second law of thermodynamics), why not go for the thing that produces the most euphoria? Following that thought, here’s a though:. Why not create a drug that will produce an intense religious conversion—the sort of joy intoxicated conversion experienced by Pascal? If the atheist persists in his objection, we could ask, “Isn’t your objection merely a by-product of your brain chemistry?”
The point is not to get the National Institute of Health working on a drug that will induce religiosity. It is to show how impoverished this way of looking at things is. If matter is all there is in the end nothing matters. The only hope for real meaning is a Creator.
And this is why, if I am truly a friend, I should be willing to forego the goods I have celebrated to this point for the sake of another. Even though their atheism has done me good service, I cannot be a true Christian, nor truly be a true friend without striving to show these atheists Christianity. With each attempt, I run the risk of losing a useful friend—but I potentially gain what Aristotle called a perfect one.
C. R. Wiley is the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Manchester (PCA) in Manchester, Connecticut, and the founder of the Edwards Institute for Apologetics and the Arts. He has been published in Modern Reformation and Touchstone Journal. He also writes young adult fiction under the nom de plume Mortimus Clay, and his book The Purloined Boy won the “Ippy” (Independent Publishers) Gold Medal for Young Adult Fiction in 2010.