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Conversations with atheists

'Tell me about the God you don’t believe in'

This spring I helped teach a course titled “Religion and Environmental Values in the U.S.” at Ohio State University. The school is only a few miles from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus where I’m on the faculty, but it’s worlds away in terms of classroom experience.

At the seminary, graduate students preparing for ordained ministry or vocations in church music, youth ministry or academia come with a deep sense of God’s call — or simply with profound questions about their faith. In seminary classrooms I can freely use the language of Scripture, prayer, and a Christian worldview and values. We may wrestle with what these mean today, but a conviction that they are worth wrestling with is precisely what draws people to study at Trinity.

The university was a different world. Among the 16 students in my weekly discussion section, only two had a strong Christian identity. Two or three others attended church sometimes when visiting their families but had no present connection to a Christian community. Of the rest, one student was a practicing pagan, one each came from Jewish and Muslim backgrounds, and the others — at least half the students in the section — were agnostic, uninterested in religion or hostile to organized religion.

These were bright, personable young people from a range of backgrounds. Most of them had some nominal religious upbringing (in fact, the pagan student and the two who were most suspicious of religion had attended Lutheran churches as children). But whatever present connections they had to religion were for the most part weak or irrelevant.

One of them, “Terry,” commented that she had grown up without church, and what she had heard of God over the years from people in churches had never felt appealing or particularly interesting to her.

Do you know anyone like Terry? Probably so: an October 2012 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed that fully 20 percent of Americans note their religious preference as “none.” That number jumps even higher among younger people: a full one-third of adults under 30.

Equally striking is the finding that these “nones” represent not just a strong segment of the U.S. population but also our nation’s fastest-growing religious preference. Recent coverage in The Lutheran (August 2012, page 20) has discussed the implication of these numbers — what this trend means for the church and our efforts to invite people into Jesus Christ.

And such thinking is all to the good. Acknowledging that we live in a world where there is no default presumption of shared Christian faith obliges us to learn both to be more articulate about what we believe — instead of assuming everyone already knows all about Christianity — and more humble, beginning such conversations from a stance of deep listening to what the other person really does believe or need or desire.

One thing we learn when we listen deeply to people like Terry — people like your own nonreligious neighbors, cousins, children or colleagues — is that we haven’t always done a very good job of communicating what the Christian God is all about.

People who drift away from church or were never part of it to begin with often echo the ways popular culture speaks of God: as, say, a watchful judge, a supernatural being, an old man in the sky or even a projection of our national pride. An interesting question to pose to someone who has rejected religion or God is: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” More often than not, I find myself saying, “I don’t believe in that God either!”


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