If there are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes, neither are they found in rest homes.
Patrick McManus, a favorite humorist among hunters, relates a yarn of his youth when he finally persuaded a town character to let him borrow an old rifle – a single-shot that “kicks a bit.”
He went on to say that his second shot was a little better because his first shot had moved his nose safely out of the way into the vacant area above his right eyebrow.
It’s an entertaining tactic to exaggerate the impact of an action by saying it caused atheists to become religious. The literary ploy works because people seem willing to believe that atheists are the most immoveable of creatures.
But are they?
Not Born That Way
We know these two facts from scriptures:
This means it is impossible to be born an atheist and difficult to ignore denoting evidence of God’s existence. (Conclusive evidence is another matter; otherwise there is no test of faith.) Atheism is not natural; it is, rather, an acquired mentality. This in turn suggests there must be many paths to that self-described state.
Understand the journey of the atheist, and you may well find him more reachable than you thought.
Not a Monolithic Bloc
Many taxonomies have been used to categorize atheists, most of them based on the degree of belief or non-belief: iconoclasts, pragmatists, deists, absolutists, strong, weak, etc. But instead of where a person is, categories based on how he got there are more useful, and motives are easy to spot.
Consider a few:
I don’t know how many of each type we have in America today, or even how many types there are. Even the total number of atheists is disputed, ranging from two million hard-core to over 50 million, or about one in six. However many there may be, and their numbers are said to be growing, remember that every one of them arrived here with the spark of Christ within them, and in all but the blackest of cases it’s still there.
The quintessential atheist in the Book of Mormon is Korihor, and a multi-motive one at that.
An analysis of Korihor’s arguments, and Alma’s counters, could fill several of these columns (you cannot know what you haven’t seen, show me a sign, foolish and silly traditions, you oppress the people and glut on their labors), but the point here is that even as hard-bitten as Korihor appeared to be, he knew the truth deep inside and finally confessed: “Yea, and I always knew there was a God.”12
Korihor’s story is in the Book of Mormon for a reason.
Talk With Your Favorite Atheist
All of this tells me that many atheists are reachable if we take enough time to understand their journey – to understand what led them from innocent child to claimed atheism.
For the rebel, it may be finding the burr in his saddle blanket and helping him realize that he has nurtured it out of proportion over the years. Then gently suggest it may be time to let go of grudges.
For the intellectual, it may be explaining that there is a deeper level to a person’s mind, and that belief and intellect are not enemies. Explain that our belief system rests on a deeper level of intellectualism, an advanced intellectual spiritual mind, if you will, that recognizes patterns and truths that cannot be explained with our shallow vocabulary, but must be experienced. And it’s far more rigorous and exciting than the drivel that passes for intellectual substance among skeptics.
The famous agnostic/atheist Bertrand Russell said that if he is wrong and God does exist, that he would defend himself by saying, “God, you gave us insufficient evidence.” I have wondered whether God’s response might be, “The evidence was always there; you even lived within it 24 hours a day. But you let your superficial intellect get in the way of your deeper discerning spirit.”
For a third, it may be explaining the plan of salvation and providing previously unheard answers to the basic questions of whence, why and whither.
And for a fourth, it may be musing that the flesh loses its luster. The hide-behind atheists will know what you’re saying. They sense that sooner or later they must turn from illicit pleasures if they are to find peace.
It is safe to assume that deep down in their spiritual DNA, all atheists know God exists. Truth be told, many would like to believe, and many are quietly searching. They think deeply about it or they wouldn’t be so vocal. I believe further that many would like to be proven wrong, in an intellectually acceptable way of course. They would like the comfort of knowing there’s more to life than this frail existence.
We are better positioned than any other religion to have fruitful conversations with atheists because we can tell them the fullness of God’s plan for us, our happiness, our salvation. And do it with authority.
Some of our best future converts may well come from their ranks.
* * *Gary Lawrence welcomes comments at [email protected]