The village atheist was never a threat to people of faith. He—and it was always a he—never amounted to being more than a gadfly. That was the case with Robert Ingersoll, the 19th-century master of the craft, and Richard Dawkins of the 21st century has not been any more successful. People are not ideologically threatened by their enemies, be they religious or secular. (Which is probably why fundamentalists tend to view people outside their ranks as enemies.) The threat always comes from friends who find your faith irrelevant—friends such as myself.
People like me are the ones you talk to over the fence, friendly neighbors who lack faith but who are not in your face about it. We don't like calling ourselves atheists because we are not strident, nor are we offended by what you believe; we simply lack faith, and we don't see what Christianity has to offer us beyond what we already have. And that is the greatest challenge that you who are Christians will ever face: convincing the world that your faith is relevant in the 21st century.
We are a mixed group of well-meaning people. Some of us, who can look back at more decades than we care to appreciate, know all about Christian beliefs—or so we think—while newer cohorts confuse angels with fairies and think the Bible says that Noah's Ark was built by fallen angels with bodyparts made out of rocks. But what we have in common is the tuned-out ear and the glazed-over eye when we happen to hear ministers hawking their spiritual wares on the radio or on TV or even in real life. Asking us if we are saved is like being asked what our thoughts are about the Roman Empire or World War I—as puzzling as it is annoying.
The problem with us is that we have read too much about human evil in the past and the present to even consider the possibility that God, should he exist, would be trucking in genocide and torture. It is so unthinkable to us that we dismiss out of hand any implicit or explicit threat of such metaphysical horrors. The only people who fear hell today are your children. Nor are we drawn to the dream of living in a celestial version of Trump Towers for all eternity. Many of us, me certainly included, doubt if we would want to live one hundred years more, let alone an eternity, especially if it would be an eternity caught up in a cosmic personality cult.
What we, your friends without faith, desire is relevance and meaning in life. We are far less concerned about the meaning of life, and so, incidentally, are a great many of you. The world is full of Christians dying from existential and personal despair related to such things as bad jobs, awful marriages, cultural desolation, isolation in old age, and lack of meaningful human contact. An overarching meaning of life will give you pleasant ideological quarters to live in, but ultimately, it is the life you lead there that matters.
Which brings me to the challenge I have for you: how would you, as people of faith, lay out a meaningful version of the Christian faith to your friends on the other side of the fence, especially to those of us who have found meaning in life. Or can that even be done? Is faith an experience, a rapture, that can only be had apart from from any rational pitch? And if so, without a rational pitch, how do you get people to expose themselves to such an experience?
I hope you will use the commentary field to lay out the case for faith in the 21st century and tell me what I and my non-ideological friends are missing. Or is Christianity doomed to be irrelevant to a culture such as ours?
Aage Rendalen is a retired foreign language teacher who has served the Richmond Public School system in Virginia and is a frequent participant in conversations on SpectrumMagazine.org.
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