Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, and Nominals

I enjoy having discussions and conversations about Christianity, world religions, faith and doubt, and reasons to believe (or not to believe). When you seek to provide meaningful reasons to believe, you are doing what is called apologetics. When you then help a person work through his or her own response to Christ, you are doing what is called evangelism. Today, evangelism often requires apologetics.

The Alpha program is a very loving, relationally rich environment to explore genuine issues of faith and doubt. If you have a friend who could benefit from this 8-week adventure, we have a new Alpha community starting on September 25. Click here for more information. You can give this link to any of your friends.

Part of our calling as Christians who live in the 21st century post-Christian United States is to be ready, able, and willing to have vital conversations about why we believe. As we read in the New Testament,

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. 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)

Here are a few groups who turn out to be the conversation partners.

ATHEISM simply says there is no God. Atheists believe there is no supernatural, nothing spiritual, and the immaterial realm does not exist. There is no soul. Consistent atheists don’t even believe in a non-material thing called the mind. There is only the physiological mass of the brain with all of its chemical and biophysical processes. There is only the material world that can be measured and which is subject to scientific experimentation. By the way, talk about a faith statement that cannot be measured! (More on this later in the week.)

It is worth keeping in mind that in their attitude toward Christianity, there are hostile atheists and benevolent atheists. Well, I haven’t met too many benevolent atheists. I have met those who are not hostile, just simply dismissive of Christianity and those who hold to it.

Richard Dawkins is one of the famous militant atheists. Dawkins is equally opposed to all religions and has recently found himself in some hot water with his anti-Muslim rhetoric. It is one thing to be militantly opposed to a religion (i.e., Christianity) that teaches you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Jesus in Matthew 5:11-12; 43-46), it is quite another to be militantly opposed to a religion that has even a minority of its followers who are aggressive against infidels and who do not take lightly insults against either Allah or his prophet.

AGNOSTICISM says I just don’t know enough to say there is or there isn’t (a God). The agnostic is not willing or able to say there is no God. The agnostic simply doesn’t know. Agnostics hedge their bets. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. The jury is out. Agnostics can be sincere or they can be slippery. Agnostics may have arrived at their position after long and genuine searching, or they could have simply defaulted to it out of convenience. The question I like to ask an agnostic is: Do you want to know? A follow-up question is: What is needed for you to commit yourself one way or the other?

There are a number of people who settle into a position of agnosticism as they leave a religious group to which they have belonged. They don’t want to go so far as to say there is no God, but they are sufficiently disenchanted with their previous religion to not be quite sure what a meaningful alternative is. They settle into a no-man’s land and a spiritual nomad kind of wandering.

On the other hand, there are some who are agnostic in a quite innocent way. They just have never heard a meaningful presentation of Christian faith. For them, agnosticism is just a waiting phase of life.

SKEPTICISM is agnosticism with an agenda and an edge. In my thinking, agnosticism seems pretty laid back. The agnostic is usually not interested enough to get in motion, whereas the skeptic enjoys poking holes in the arguments of other people. Skeptics pretend to act from a neutral ground, but they aren’t neutral. Every skeptic believes that he or she is sufficiently bright enough to be a skeptic poking holes (and fun) at the views of others. Skeptics are actually much more interesting than agnostics. Perhaps we could say a skeptic is an energized agnostic who alternates between being intriguing and irritating. My favorite tactic with skeptics is to tell them I am skeptical of their skepticism. I would ask them to prove to me why being a skeptic is a good thing.

NOMINALS are the final category I think needs to be added. A nominal is a believer (of any religion) who is so lukewarm about their beliefs that for all intents and purposes they are functional atheists. They say they believe, but their belief means so little that they act as if they do not believe. Without being unkind, in the Christian faith those who steadily move toward a more liberal theological position gradually become more and more nominal. Simply witness the rapid decline of liberal Christianity in Europe and the United States. But nominals will also be found among evangelicals and fundamentalists. In fact, many people who say they asked Jesus to be their Savior have so little belief and so little evidence of transformation that, again, they are functional atheists. The words of Jesus in Revelation 3:14-15 are stirring about the dangers of being nominal or lukewarm.

Belief, and more importantly, the object of one’s belief, are so vital that belief should be vigorous, meaningful, substantial, energizing, and central to one’s life. Thin and watered down belief is about as nourishing as a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup to which you have added 5 gallons of water!

Tomorrow – 4 Reasons Why People Choose Not to Believe

Pastor Brian

Brian Rice