“Of course, you know I could never share your faith.” So wrote a friend of mine in a letter. She felt it was constitutionally impossible for her to believe. Many of my friends feel the same; perhaps yours are similar. They think they’re not people of faith and that Christians are.
It’s a way of thinking that’s as popular as it is preposterous. But really, it is wildly preposterous. Because I’m a believer and I’m a skeptic—it just depends what things I’m being asked to believe (or doubt). At the same time my friend is a believer (about certain things), and she’s a skeptic (about others). We are all living by faith—all of us, all the time—so it’s really important to examine such beliefs.
2 Types of Beliefs
Sometimes I classify our faith positions in terms of “day-to-day” beliefs and “deepest” beliefs. “Day-to-day” beliefs are ones we exercise all the time. They’re our moral assumptions about what makes the world go round, what makes people tick, what makes society work. We rarely examine these beliefs and we almost never seek to prove or justify them; they are simply the air we breathe.
I’m a believer and I’m a skeptic—it just depends what things I’m being asked to believe (or doubt).
These beliefs include things like “people have intrinsic value,” “a society should be judged by the way it treats its weakest members,” “might does not make right,” “everyone should be free to make their own decisions in the world,” “the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice,” and so on.
What you’ll notice about these “day-to-day” beliefs is how commonly they’re held. I believe them, my friends believe them, it seems as if most people in the modern world believe them. So really, we’re incredibly united by faith, wouldn’t you say? Except that we haven’t discussed our “deepest” beliefs—our metaphysical and religious views about the fundamental nature of reality. At that level a great chasm opens up.
For atheist Richard Dawkins, the universe appears “at bottom [to contain] no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” For Moses, on the other hand, “underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:27). So take your pick—underneath there are uncaring, brute forces or an eternal God with outstretched arms of love. Which is it? The clash of beliefs at the “deepest” level seems irreconcilable.
Given this immense difference, it’s completely understandable why my friend would consider herself incapable of my kind of faith. The gulf between “blind, pitiless indifference” and the “everlasting arms” of love appears unbridgeable. But maybe we need to reframe things. Instead of focusing on the chasm between those two deepest beliefs, why don’t we focus on a different disparity? Because the really unbridgeable chasm is the one that exists within our atheist friends. Consider the following clashes:
- We are clever chimps possessing inviolable human rights.
- We are biological survival machines who have a duty to care for the weak and marginalized.
- We are clinging to an insignificant rock, hurtling through a meaningless universe toward eternal extinction, and we should leave this planet in a better state than how we found it.
- Survival of the fittest is the deepest explanation for human life and Vladimir Putin is wrong.
My friends believe the second half of all these statements, passionately. As do I. And these dearest intuitions shape us at every level—indeed we stake our lives on such beliefs (as unprovable as they are). We are all persons of faith. But the real inconsistency to point out is not the inconsistency between the atheist’s deepest beliefs and the Christian’s. The starkest contradiction is among the atheist’s own beliefs—the gulf between their dearest intuitions and their deepest beliefs.
Influenced by the Jesus Revolution
In my book The Air We Breathe, I take seven of our dearest intuitions and show how they’ve become commonplace:
- Equality: We believe in the equal moral status of every member of the human family, no matter their rank, race, religion, gender, or sexuality.
- Compassion: We believe a society should be judged by the way it treats its weakest members.
- Consent: We believe the powerful have no right to force themselves on others.
- Enlightenment: We believe in education for all and its power to transform a society by persuasion and argument rather than by force.
- Science: We believe in science: its ability to help us understand the world and improve our lives.
- Freedom: We believe that persons are not property and that each of us should be in control of our own life.
- Progress: We believe the arc of history is long but that it bends toward justice.
The Air We Breathe explores each of these values in the context of the Christian story, taking the reader from Genesis to George Floyd. We begin in the Old Testament, continue in the New, then chart the early church’s growth, then medieval Christendom, the scientific evolution, the abolition of the slave trade, and on through World War II and the civil rights movement into the present day.
The starkest contradiction is among the atheist’s own beliefs—the gulf between their dearest intuitions and their deepest beliefs.
At each juncture we see that the dearest intuitions we hold are not at all obvious, natural, or universal. These values are largely unknown to pre- and non-Christian cultures. Each of these beliefs has come specifically through the Jesus revolution (a.k.a. Christianity) and they make little sense apart from it.
When we’re tempted to focus on the clash between believers and unbelievers, we should think again. Everyone is a believer. And there can be surprising agreement on the dearest beliefs we hold—such unprovable values have, through the Christian revolution, become the air we breathe. But we need to go further. As we press into those heartfelt beliefs, we see the most urgent clash to resolve is really the one that exists within the non-Christian. The beliefs our friends cherish (even while claiming to be unbelievers) are unfounded apart from Jesus Christ. He alone is a solid foundation. All other ground is sinking sand.
This article is adapted from Glen Scrivener’s The Air We Breathe (The Good Book Company, 2022) and was published in partnership with The Good Book Company.