JB Cachila (no, I’ve never heard of him/her either) caused something of a stir with a recent article in Christian Today which asked if Christians should hate atheists or could be friends with atheists.
In Cachila’s words atheists are “one of the most aggressive against the faith.” That said, the answer to the question “should Christians hate atheists is, thankfully, “no.” So far, so good. But can us Christians be friends with atheists? Well, according to Cachila, this depends on what we mean by “friend.” If we mean “one not hostile; opposed to an enemy in war,” then “yes,” we can. However, Cachila adds if by “friend” we mean “a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, then on course, no. The Bible is very straightforward about this.” Cachila continues, “Friendship requires a sharing of interests…we must not allow them to influence our faith in God,” and then he quotes the Bible warning against being unequally yoked with unbelievers, and then ramming home what appears to be the chief concern: “We must take care not to let them take us away from Christ. We can be a friend to them, desiring God’s best for them, but we must not allow their unbelief to influence our faith in Christ.” For good measure the article finishes with the quote that “evil company corrupts good character.”
I confess that this article struck me a piece of fearful sectarian bile which Christians should immediately reject as contrary to the spirit of Christ. Moreover, the tone of the article, intended or not, is pompous. We might treat atheists as our nice little conversion projects but we aren’t really to treat them as, well, human beings with an inherent dignity and worth. Atheists? Yuck! Nothing but evil company that will corrupt your good character! Cachila is correct about one thing though – friendship is built upon bonds of mutual affection. But why cannot there exist bonds of mutual affection between Christians and atheists (or members of any other non-Christian faith?). As a Christian I find myself quite naturally forming bonds of mutual affection with all sorts of non-Christian people, and one of my best friends growing up was an atheist. We played football together, snooker, went on holiday (to a Christian camp!), and to this day I regard his influence in my life as a massively positive one. In fact, he it was that kick-started my interest in philosophy. If anyone had my back, this guy was it, but neither of us managed to convert the other, and in fact we never tried. We were just friends.
Furthermore, Cachila’s musings strike me a contrary to the spirit of the Jesus I read about in the Bible. This Jesus despised and rejected the religious establishment. He fraternised with “tax-collectors and sinners” and partied with prostitutes (as did his followers). Seemingly, the Christ of the gospels had no qualms about forming bonds of affection with unbelievers. There was simply no arrogant elitism or petty fear-mongering when it came to Christ’s social relationships.
It seems the fear of losing one’s faith lies at the root of Cachila’s aversion to fraternising with atheists. This point is mentioned three times in quick succession in the article. Lots of things can affect our faith, and not always for the worse. I’ve found my interactions with atheists to be an incredibly positive one and remain a Christian after all this time. If I was asked what has been the biggest negative influence on my faith I would answer, without having to think about it, other Christians, particularly those I had the misfortune to become associated with in the “Word of Faith” movement. That said, the greatest ongoing threat to my faith is myself, not atheists or people of other religions! My own reading and thinking – including the works of Christian philosophers – has been the biggest driver of my faith, for good and (according to some, perhaps) for bad. Atheists have often kept me sharp and have been a wonderful check against any unthinking dogmatism on my part. As for the moral charge of being “evil company,” that is ludicrous. I have no reason at all to regard atheists as less moral than Christians. In fact, I have far more frustration with Christians in this regard, and let’s face it our history is often not one to be morally proud of! The vast majority of people live to some degree of success in accordance with the golden rule, and we all mess up from time to time.
The sort of fearful slander against “atheists” as destroyers of the faith or corrupters of character is pure, unadulterated bile. I invite all my Christian readers, if they haven’t already, to come out of their insular bubble and embrace a big wide world of many wonderful people. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at what and who you might find. It’s a much better existence than quaking in your boots behind the cold walls of an inward-looking church.
Stephen J. Graham