There are times when atheists have got a bad press in the church.
Stalin, Hitler, Mao and the other horror figures of the 20th Century may not have been religious, but they did not kill millions and oppress hundred of millions more in the name of atheism. Their perverted political doctrines may have enslaved nations for years, but the violence and killing was not in the name of a lack of belief in a god.
Atheists tend to be a laissez-faire lot (apart from Richard Dawkins who is the nearest thing they have to an evangelical wing); live and let live; believe what you choose; get on with your own life. Atheists do not threaten you if you fail to agree with what they say; they do not force you to sign up to their documents in order to get your children educated; they do not insist that your hospital treatment should be according to their beliefs. Atheists do not get preferential treatment from the government or tax concessions for their practice of atheism. Atheists do not seek constitutional or legal protection for their beliefs, nor do they seek the legal right to incite hatred of others, or to discriminate against groups of people they don’t like.
Atheists do not blow up those whom they dislike, nor do they vilify people over their private lives, nor do they attempt to conceal evil crimes against children in a perverted attempt to safeguard the good name of what they believe.
Maybe Christians owe an apology to atheists because many atheists seem closer to Jesus of Nazareth than many of the churches. The atheists I know are peaceful, tolerant and freedom-loving people; perhaps that comes from moving in liberal middle class circles, perhaps there is also a militant wing, if so, I haven’t yet met it.
The majority of churches around the world last Sunday began a year of reading through Saint Luke’s Gospel. Luke is the best known of the Gospels because he has the best stories – the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are at the heart of Jesus’ teaching recorded by Luke.
Anyone reading Luke as an authentic expression of the life and teachings of the First Century itinerant preacher from Galilee would be hard pressed to reconcile the words on the page with their experience of churches. What has an impoverished wandering teacher to do with the opulent wealth of the Vatican or the firebrand fundamentalism of the television evangelists?
Who is closer to the Kingdom, the atheist who works for community values and human progress, or the bishop who stands in the way of justice?