By Debie Thomas

Around this time last year, I fell into a brief, throw-away conversation I haven’t forgotten. It was over coffee at a dinner party. A few of us guests had lingered, and when the conversation turned to movies, I mentioned that I was curious to see The Theory of Everything — a biopic of world-famous physicist and self-avowed atheist Stephen Hawking — which had just been released in theaters.

I didn’t know I was admitting to something provocative, but the atmosphere in the room changed. It hardened. After a wary silence, a man I didn’t know frowned and tossed his crumpled napkin across the coffee table. “I’m not the least bit interested in that film,” he said. “What is there to be curious about? The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”

I stammered something about being curious anyway, invented an excuse to leave the room, and lingered in my host’s kitchen until the conversation veered to safer waters. But when I got home that night, I lay awake, agitated. I replayed the conversation in my head, imagining over and over again the things I could have said instead of running away.

The backstory? I grew up reading, hearing — and pronouncing — the very Bible verse (Psalms 14:1) the man quoted that night. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” I heard the verse often in sermons, Sunday School classes, and all sorts of apologetics and “culture war” discussions intended to demolish atheistic assaults against Christianity.

I remember feeling something powerful — something intoxicating — in making the Bible-sanctioned argument that non-believers are idiots. Just saying it made me feel like a witty insider, in on a joke only God and I were clever enough to comprehend. To invoke blanket stupidity was to win a cosmic battle against some faceless, nameless evil.

The problem? Precisely that facelessness. That namelessness. In all the years I dismissed atheists as fools, I never had an actual conversation with an actual atheist. It never occurred to me that they might have stories of belief and unbelief as layered as my own.

If I could get a do-over of that dinner party, I would begin by telling the man who offended me that he reminds me of myself. I know what it’s like to feel defensive about my most cherished beliefs, so defensive that I need to treat opposing beliefs with contempt. I know what it’s like to use the Bible as a be-all-and-end-all, a “Get out of jail free card,” a blunt instrument. And I know what it’s like to run away from the complexities of another person’s story out of pure fear.

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But that’s not all. The real reason I fled into the kitchen that evening is because I felt the sting of the man’s comment so personally. My spiritual life isn’t what it was a decade or two ago; much of what used to be set in stone no longer is. Maybe one way of putting this is to say that certainty has given way to faith — as far as I can tell, the two are mutually exclusive. If I’d had more courage that evening, I would have said, “Well then, I guess I’m a fool.”

Because I am. I’ve said it. I have said, “There is no God.” I’ve said it out of anguish — lost in the grief of unanswered prayer. I’ve said it in the face of tragedies — tsunamis, famines, mass shootings, mass rapes — which mock the very idea of a benevolent deity. I’ve said it in loneliness, living as I do in a post-Christian culture that takes God’s non-existence for granted. And I’ve said it in bewilderment, because — let’s get real — God is invisible, and my lived experience of Him is often an experience of sweet but aching absence. Regardless of how scandalous this might sound, there are days when my pursuit of the Presence-that-is-Absence makes me tired. Makes me angry. Makes me doubtful. Makes me quit.

At this point, I would dare to suggest that if a Christian has never — not even once — sat with the possibility that there is no God, then she hasn’t sat long enough with horror. He hasn’t allowed the real stories of real people to sear his soul. She hasn’t knelt long enough at the cross.

Among my friends and acquaintances who aren’t believers, I don’t hear much in the way of foolishness. I hear frustration over religious institutions rife with hypocrisy. I hear impatience with canned language and false cheer — the “Christianese” that flattens life into caricature. And I hear pain — the pain of yearning for faith, and finding it unavailable.

If I’m honest, I have to admit that my own faith is a mystery. I don’t know why I keep circling back to belief. I don’t know why my forays into agnosticism and atheism have been infrequent and brief. Skeptics might say my upbringing in a Christian family has primed me for belief — faith is my default setting, built into my mental architecture. Or they might say my faith is a product of my weakness — I’m frail and broken, and faith provides the crutch I need to make survival possible.

Maybe. Or maybe faith is an unfathomable gift, given at the discretion of a Giver whose ways I can’t predict or quantify. Maybe what I need to do in response is keep my mouth shut and my arms wide open. In gratitude and in humility, both.

This isn’t to say there aren’t real complaints to be made against the scornful tone of much New Atheistic writing. Christians hardly have the monopoly on dogmatism and contempt, and it’s okay to stand up against incivility in our public discourse. But if we really believe in a God who loves everyone — even those who can’t or won’t believe in Him — then the onus is on us as Christians to be both civil and compassionate.

In the end, the problem with dismissing “fools” is that our Creator’s imprint runs deeper than we know — deeper than our fear, deeper than our misguided notions of superiority. Even the most foolish among us is an image-bearer of God.

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