This week I had the opportunity to be on the radio program Cross Defense with Rev. Rod Zwonitzer (KFUO-AM 850 in St. Louis). We discussed the common atheist claim that believing in God is evidentially the same as believing in Santa, why that claim offers a great opportunity to talk to your kids about the evidence for God at Christmas, whether Christians should include Santa in their Christmas celebrations, and how to keep your kids focused on Jesus this time of year. If you’re interested, you can hear the whole interview online here.
In the course of our conversation, Rod asked what I think is the biggest challenge to kids’ faith today. As I’ve written about before, I said it’s undoubtedly atheism. The percent of atheists in America is quickly rising, and those atheists are often quite vocal about their rejection of religion. Our kids are more likely to hear faith challenges from atheists than from any other group. Because of this, it’s incredibly important that we proactively help our kids understand the atheist worldview (here are 14 ways to do so).
It’s also important that we help our kids have an accurate view of atheists themselves.
I’ve talked to my kids (ages 7 and 5) a lot before about the fact that not everyone believes in God, but I realized a couple of weeks ago that we haven’t talked much about atheists as people. Today I’ll share some highlights from our conversation that you can use as talking points with your own kids (of any age).
Here are four things your kids should know about atheists.
1. Atheists can be just as friendly and moral, if not more so, than Christians.
I opened our conversation by asking, “Do you think atheists can be nice people and do good things even though they don’t believe in God?” My kids looked at me a little skeptically, sensing a trick question, then my daughter said, “No, they would probably be mean.”
That was a perfect opportunity to clarify the difference between belief and behavior. I explained that all people, regardless of what they believe about God, can be nice and do good things…and all people, regardless of what they believe about God, can be mean and do bad things. I emphasized that you can’t necessarily tell what someone believes by how they behave.
When you explain the difference between belief and behavior, it’s a great time to then make three crucial points:
- The Bible says it’s not behavior that makes someone right with God and allows them to be with Him forever. It’s a belief in and acceptance of Jesus as your Savior (John 3:16). Even though two people’s actions may look similar, their status with God can be quite different.
- That doesn’t mean that Christians should sin so that “grace may abound” (Romans 6:1). When a person accepts Jesus as their Savior, they are committing to a relationship that should transform their heart; moral behavior should flow out from belief.
- The fact that people, regardless of their beliefs about God, know some things are objectively right and some things are objectively wrong, is actually evidence for God’s existence (this is called the Moral Argument). Romans 2:15 tells us that God has placed His laws on the human heart whether we choose to acknowledge the Source of those laws or not. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that atheists know what is right and can choose to live moral lives according to that compass.
2. Atheists are often ex-Christians.
I next asked my kids why they think some people don’t believe in God. My son immediately responded, “Because no one has ever told them about Him! We have to tell them!” While I loved my son’s enthusiasm for sharing his faith (and encouraged him to do so), I also explained that many atheists used to be Christians; they’ve heard about Jesus and have chosen to reject Christianity.
This is important for kids to understand because atheists who are ex-Christians can be especially impactful in their challenges to believers—they can “talk the talk.” For example, atheists who are ex-Christians are often fond of showing how immoral/contradictory/crazy various tough biblical passages sound. To young people with limited Bible knowledge, it can seem like those atheists know more about the Bible than the Christians in their lives who have never brought those passages to their attention…and it can shatter their trust (just one of many reasons parents should proactively bring tough questions like these to their kids’ attention).
Kids need to know that just because someone knows something about or has experience with Christianity doesn’t mean they truly understand it or are presenting it accurately.
3. People can be atheists for good reasons.
Our conversation then turned to some of the specific reasons why people reject God. I asked my kids if they thought atheists have good reasons or bad reasons for not believing in Him. Since we talk a lot about all the good reasons for believing in God, they quickly assumed that atheists must have bad reasons for rejecting Him. Once again, I corrected them.
To use an easily understandable example, I reminded them of how much suffering we see in the world. I explained that one of the most common reasons why people don’t believe in God is that it can be hard to understand how a perfectly good and loving God could allow so many bad things to happen.
I acknowledged that I, too, often find that hard to understand.
I acknowledged that we can’t explain why every bad thing happens.
And I acknowledged that if we only looked at the evil in the world, it would be a pretty good reason to not believe a good God exists.
But I also acknowledged that we have a much bigger picture of “clues” to consider when we search for the truth about God (e.g., the existence of our universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, the complexity of our bodies, how we know right and wrong, the Bible, historical evidence for the resurrection, etc.). I concluded that atheists don’t necessarily reject God because they haven’t thought deeply about Him. They may well have some good reasons for why they don’t believe, and those reasons can sound compelling—even to Christians.
4. People can be atheists for bad reasons.
I then flipped the topic of conversation around and asked my kids if they thought people could be atheists for bad reasons. My daughter replied, “Yes, because maybe you just want to do whatever you want and not worry about God. But that doesn’t mean He’s not there.” I loved that example. What we want to be true has absolutely no bearing on what is true. Wish-fulfillment is a bad reason for choosing a worldview.
Importantly, I made sure my kids understood that Christians can be guilty of choosing their worldview for bad reasons too. I gave the example of how many people incorrectly think that if they’re a Christian, their life will be easier somehow (something Christians were never promised).
There’s a significant reason why it’s important for kids to know that atheists don’t always have good reasons for their beliefs: Passionate atheists often engage with an air of intellectual superiority and can make kids feel that they just don’t know enough yet to reject their faith. If kids don’t understand that behind the intellectual bravado there can lie a pile of poor reasoning, they may easily start to assume the problem lies with them.
Tell me what you think! What else should kids understand about atheists?