For many years, an atheist was a member of a church that I attended. Many “church” folks might be surprised or even shocked by this, but we must remind ourselves that this is normal. If people of faith are not drawing (and challenging) those who doubt, there is something wrong. I would even argue that it is beneficial – the doubting among us help to keep us honest and remind us of what is important.
The first thing some people ask is why an atheist would attend church regularly at all. Of course, there are some sanctimonious atheists who would go to religious services only to mock or challenge others, but in fact the varieties of why people don’t believe differ as widely as the reasons why people believe. Many atheists have no desire to fight with others but want only to find a place of acceptance. As a matter of probabilities, it is better for families to be involved in communities of faith whether they believe or not. People who attend church regularly are less likely to become involved in drugs or become pregnant, more likely to finish school, and more likely to make something of themselves. It’s just that simple. This is the reason why Deists such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, though they may have questioned the divinity of Christ, yet strongly believed in the necessity of religion because it benefited society. Sadly, it’s a lesson that some opponents of religion will learn only too late, for a deconstructed society is far more likely to slip into an amoral barbarism than evolve into some utopia.
It should be normal to have the doubting among people of faith, if not by invitation, then attracted by reputation. There ought to be something in our lives, whether love or inner peace or service, that draws people to us. If this is not happening and people do not recognize there is something different about us, it may be because there isn’t anything different about us, which is a problem. The doubting should want to know what that something is that makes believers different. In the end, it is not altar calls or fancy sermons that draw the unbelieving; it is a changed life. Our lives speak much more than words. There is a famous quote attributed (probably falsely) to Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times, and if you must, use words.” Whether or not he actually said this, it is certainly true. In any case, those who are shocked by the presence of unbelievers are missing out on a key requirement of faith. They ought to be appealing to those who most need to hear their message of hope.
Having doubters among people of faith benefits more than the unbeliever; it also benefits those who already believe. For one thing, it helps believers to be a little skeptical. Too many believers fall into groupthink, in which they simply go along with others because it’s popular. Perhaps they are claiming a miracle from something that is rationally explained, or perhaps they try to stretch Bible verses as a “proof text” to support bad theology. We’ve all seen it done. The doubter helps by throwing cold water onto these misuses of faith. They challenge believers to answer why they believe something, and those who learn these answers actually become stronger believers as a result. This is actually helpful in any class or group. I remember an older lady in a Sunday School class I attended who wanted to discuss every point. She often apologized for being rude, but I frequently reminded her how helpful she was in clarifying issues that needed to be clarified, which would only result in more consistent faith.
However, the main benefit of having the doubting among believers is to remind us about what’s important. It isn’t theology or popularity. We should not crave or be driven by these things. What’s most important is loving others. You may think your worship is out of this world or your teaching is spot-on, but if you treat people rudely, you’re only making a lot of noise. Those who doubt, who challenge our faith, who ask questions, help to remind us that we ought to be known by our love, for it is kindness that helps people change their minds. Many who doubt are looking first and foremost for friendship rather than faith, and for these, love and acceptance are of primary importance. But whether acceptance is what they want or not, the presence of those who are “outside” a community challenges people of faith to include them in the group, not just in discussions but in meals, gatherings, and recognition. It is not only a duty to include others; it is a true sign of faith and love.
One of my favorite sayings from Charles Williams is that every band of disciples ought to include a doubting Thomas. We ought to invite and draw those who doubt to participate in our gatherings and discussions. This not only benefits them by exposing them to the truth, it also benefits us in helping us to remain grounded and focused on loving others. Those of true faith welcome the doubting among us.
© 2022 J.D. Manders