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My friend the… atheist churchgoer
Joe Ogborn explains how going to church with his atheist friend Tom has shaped his own faith
For the last five years or so, Tom and I have attended the same church nearly every week. More often than not we sit together, we sing together and we listen to the same sermons. Tom even takes notes. At the end of the service we like to discuss the sermon while drinking our ‘please stick around’ coffee. On the surface, our Sunday mornings look very similar. Except Tom doesn’t believe in God. Tom is an atheist.
Think of an atheist. Any atheist you like. I would place a good bet that you may have Richard Dawkins in your head right now. Dawkins’ comments crop up regularly as sermon illustrations. However, believe it or not, this infamous biologist is not representative of atheism or all atheists. In fact there are many atheists, including Tom, who admire him as a gifted scientific communicator but less as a robust philosopher. Just as my Christian faith will look similar and different to other Christians, atheists are not a homogeneous group, but encompass a range of views.
Tom believes the evidence in the world overwhelmingly points towards the non-existence of God, particularly the non-existence of a loving and allpowerful deity, the God that I believe in.
The atheist and the doubter
I first met Tom at university. We belonged to a fledgling conversation group that met on Saturday mornings over cups of coffee in the upper room of a small café. The premise was simple – nothing was off limits, no questions or subjects were considered taboo. We were a mixed bag of philosophers, lawyers, theologians, chemists and the odd architecture student who sought to grapple with the ultimate questions. We were mostly Christians or atheists. We called ourselves ‘Café Theology’.
We hoped that, in an age of angry online diatribes and weekly public burnings of straw-man arguments, it might be possible to genuinely understand an opposing point of view. I’ve always found it fairly difficult to get angry with someone holding a hot chocolate in one hand and a muffin in the other.
Faith comes easily for some. But this has not always been the case for me. During my first year at university, my Christianity was an ironclad fortress – confident and robust. But into my second year, I found my faith falling apart around me, stretched, ragged and looking a shadow of its former self. Certainty gave way to confusion. Doubt and disbelief accompanied me to church and the various Christian activities I participated in. This doubt was no mark of authenticity. It wasn’t some kind of accessory to the Christian faith. For me it was painful. Isolating. Like shouting underwater.
From the earliest days at university, Tom has seen the insides of my faith. He has seen the moments of conviction and certainty, along with days of paralysing doubt before leading worship in our church. Strangely, there was something oddly comforting about speaking to an atheist in those times. He understood my doubt more readily than some Christians. Tom never sought to encourage my doubt; he saw how important my faith was to me. He witnessed the social community, family and friends that it surrounded me with. But he listened and didn’t offer any easy answers. After all, it’s not like he believed in them.
We’ve listened to the same sermons but ended up on opposite sides of the fence
After graduating, I moved to Cambridge and Tom ended up securing a job there, too. While at university, Tom had frequently attended a local church out of curiosity. My wife invited Tom to join us at our Cambridge church and he took us up on the offer. So began my five-year journey of worshipping God, week in, week out, alongside someone who I knew fervently, though kindly, disagreed with me.
We all have heroes of faith. People who have had a profound impact upon our beliefs, our convictions and the lives we lead. Oddly enough, as I consider the people who have influenced my faith, Tom is most definitely up there. It has not always been an easy journey but it’s one I am deeply grateful for. God knew what he was doing when Tom and I first met at Café Theology.
When worshipping is difficult
When Tom first joined me at church, I found worshipping God rather difficult, and not simply because I was struggling with doubt. I am often performance-orientated and find myself craving the attention and admiration of others. What people think of me has regretfully played too big a role in my life.
There’s something highly disconcerting about raising your hands in worship to God, when you know the person to your left thinks your zeal is misplaced, if not delusional. It was difficult at the best of times to share what I believed God might be saying from the front of the church, let alone in front of Tom. “He must think I’m hearing voices!” I thought to myself. I felt as though Jiminy Cricket was standing on my shoulder, incessantly whispering in my ear, “What would Tom think?” It was hard to shrug off.
Sitting next to Tom, I found myself listening to services differently. If someone said they’d been healed or received an answer to prayer, my brain immediately went into overdrive: Is this defensible? Could it be a coincidence? Where is the evidence?
In an effort to present Tom with the most watertight case for Christianity, I quickly began distancing myself from any aspect of church life that I deemed suspect. I found myself embracing cynicism as a default position. Tom, on the other hand, was polite enough to join in with the clapping and celebration when someone shared their story.
My cynicism slowly grew and I found myself in turmoil. I found church services annoying. I got frustrated with preachers, I became condescending towards other Christians’ simplistic faith. I adopted attitudes and feelings that more closely resembled the stereotypical atheist than a follower of Jesus.
Our friendship has been the fire through which my faith has passed and emerged just a little more golden
You may think my doubt and cynicism were an inevitable result of hanging out with an atheist. It would be a shame, however, if my story were to be used as a cautionary tale. Tom has shown a deep care for my faith, even though he himself does not share it. There are days when we meet to discuss a particular Christian doctrine and by the end of it I am exhausted. Taking a chainsaw, axe and flamethrower to my deeply held beliefs is not always a pleasant experience. But our conversations are never about who wins. Tom has never relished a sense of victory if I struggle to answer his questions satisfactorily. It is easy to attack someone when they are down, but often Tom will simply say, “Do you want to go on? We can leave it for today.”
Tom has attended everything. He’s sat through so many gospel presentations, he could probably give one. I remember a picnic with an unchurched friend when Tom gave a beautiful overview of Old Testament history and theology and how Jesus can be seen as the fulfilment of many Old Testament prophecies. It was a slightly surreal conversation.
At our church, people often share how they came to be a Christian, before they are baptised. It is not uncommon for an Alpha course, or similar, to be pivotal in their journey. Sometimes someone simply felt a sense of emptiness and asked Jesus into their heart. It is hard for me to observe Tom during these moments. Tom has done the Alpha course – and Christianity Explored. He reads the Bible and he has started a theology degree. I know Tom has prayed the doubter’s prayer: “If you are real and for whatever reason I just can’t believe, help me believe. Reveal yourself.” And nothing seems to happen. I have seen Tom’s frustration as people talk about their decision to follow Jesus. They make believing sound so easy.
Tom might be an atheist but he’s a searching one. He is open to other people’s suggestions – try this, try that, attend this course. With tears pouring down my face, I have prayed with him, feeling the same sense of frustration. It would be easy to start accusing God of negligence or playing some cruel trick. But I have learned to be patient and watch for the small signs that God is on the move. The words from Job echo in my ears, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?” (40:2)
Five years on
Many things have changed since Tom’s first visit to our church five years ago. The fears and whisperings in my ear have disappeared. They grew quieter every time I consciously and defiantly made a decision to raise my hands and worship God.
I repented of my cynicism. Through what can only be described as divine intervention at a church meeting, I let go of years of confusion and pride. I was freed from the burden of feeling responsible for Tom’s lack of conversion, of believing that it was my job to make Christianity make sense to him.
In truth, I have a deep sense of coming home, of feeling comfortable in my faith like never before. Tom’s presence at church has been a test of my faith – the ever-present question mark that has not let me accept easy answers and avoid uncomfortable conversations. Our friendship has been the fire through which my faith has passed and emerged just a little more golden.
Yet despite our growing friendship, church attendance and conversations, we can never escape the obvious differences between us. Differences that at the same time unite and divide us.
Recently, Tom seemed unusually quiet and distant on a Sunday morning. Our friend has a benign brain tumour that is due to be operated on. He was troubled and upset. At her request, he had agreed to pray for her, yet felt unable to offer up any prayers of his own.
“How could I pray to a God to heal her when he is the God who allowed it in the first place?” he asked. This was not an abstract question about suffering, or a topic of conversation over a pint. This is the reality in which the daily grind of a life of faith is lived.
3 conversations on faith
For more honest conversations between Christians and sceptics try these:
1. Letters from a Skeptic (David C Cook)
Greg Boyd is a pastor whose intimate correspondence with his unbelieving father makes compelling reading.
2. An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar (Prometheus)
Randal Rauser is a Christian theologian. Justin Scheiber is an atheist philosopher. The book is an accessible and lively exchange between them on their different worldviews.
3. Dinner With Skeptics (College Press)
Jeff Vines is a pastor in California. He hosted dinner with a table of non-Christians full of questions about faith. This book records their conversation.
We’ve had the same conversations and listened to the same sermons but ended up on opposite sides of the fence. I offered the only explanation that seemed to make sense to me at the time: “I believe the book of Job has something to say about wrestling with all these questions. They don’t go away even if you believe in God.” “I don’t like the answer that God gives in Job,” he replied.
And suddenly it seemed so obvious, yet just as heart-wrenchingly complicated. I’m not sure Tom struggles so much with the existence of God, as with the nature of God. I think he’s worried that the God who exists might be one he doesn’t like. A God he believes is unworthy of worship. I didn’t know what to say. I can’t make him love my God. Later that week, Tom kept his word. He prayed, with difficulty, for our friend.
Tom is still an atheist – an unusual one perhaps (how many atheists pray?) but nevertheless, he does not believe. As much as I wish it, programmes, courses, apologetics – even friendship – cannot save him. Only a genuine encounter with Jesus will do that.
But I continue to hope that one day I will have the pleasure of standing by his side at his baptism. I hope that one day we will worship Jesus together, that he will be able to pray with faith. I believe that day will come, but only God knows when, and I’m not going to rush him. So for now Tom and I will continue sitting, singing, listening and chatting together. After all, he’s so much more than my atheistic, church attending, intellectual sparring partner. He’s my friend.
Joe Ogborn is a freelance musician and writer based in Cambridge. He blogs at joeogborn.com
Hear Joe and Tom discuss faith and church on Unbelievable? on Premier Christian Radio, 2:30pm on Saturday, 7th January or listen back at premierchristianradio.com/unbelievable