Atheist is a label that many folks find to be particularly offensive. Religious people have historically railed against these “ultimate unbelievers” as if they are completely beyond the pale. Atheism is obviously the antithesis of religion, so I guess some amount of discomfort between “believers” and those who deny a god is inevitable.
If one listens to a self-described atheist present his or her arguments against the reality of God, you almost always hear about the evil that religion has brought into the world through religious wars, persecutions, bigotry, fraud, economic exploitation, etc. The religious generally counter those arguments by saying that the great benevolence of the church vastly outweighs any harm that may have been done in the name of God and religion. They also usually contend that right behavior can only be promoted by recognizing and honoring a higher moral authority, i.e. God. The atheists will deny this contention vehemently, saying that morality is not confined to the religious; in fact, they see the religious as often decidedly immoral by their standards. These contentious exchanges between the religious and the irreligious are repeated over and over throughout history.
Probably most of the religious people would have to admit that religion has been cause of more than a little grief in human history. Additionally, the events of recent history have demonstrated how religious thought evolves. It is a historical fact that religion was a supporter in the past of institutions and public policies which are now seen as unconscionable by most of the religious: slavery, racial segregation, denial of the vote to women for examples. Ironically, these changes in what was seen as acceptable were sponsored and opposed by the religious at the same time. Thus we see that a case can be made for church “good” and church “evil” all relative to the same change in cultural mores.
I have long felt that God denial is a logical response to the horrific picture of God presented by much of the religious world. We see it perhaps more readily in non-Christian religions where extremists visit random destruction and slaughter on the innocents in the name of their deity. However, many in our own country who are not immersed in a longstanding religious habit, also recoil from the traditional Christian picture of a God who is supposedly vindictive, jealous, demanding, arbitrary, judgmental, and eternally angry but who supposedly epitomizes love. Such a conflicted and confusing depiction is enough to alienate anyone.
If the honestly searching religious person is willing, he or she can learn much from these “non-believers” and their arguments. Much of what they say is undeniable, historical fact; and no amount of prevaricating can alter that. “Believers” are obliged, in my mind, to deal with the views of the self-proclaimed atheists and skeptics” because their misgivings about God and religion mirror the largely subconscious questions and doubts of the church members and the largely secular public alike. Dealing openly and honestly with the atheists among us would open the church to the total re-evaluation of its doctrine that is so obviously needed. The old way of seeing God is dying anyway; why not use the dying process to promote something much better- spiritual candor, honesty, and openness.
In that respect, I have to commend the vocal non-believers for helping promote a necessary skepticism about the traditions and doctrines of the religious. Personally, given the sole option of embracing the God of orthodoxy for instance and having to forsake all gods, I’d rather be an atheist.