The lead story in the Oklahoma Gazette August 7, 2013 edition is on atheism. It specifically is on atheism’s growth in the Bible Belt. By Bible Belt, Carmen Snyder’s well-written piece referred to Oklahoma. The human interest side of the story lies in the memorable exchange between CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer and Moore resident Rebecca Vitsmun. Blitzer asked if she thanked God for sparing her life in the May 20th tornadoes. Vitsmun’s response? “Actually,” she said, “I’m an atheist.”
The article goes on to give the depressing demographic trend for organized religion and for the growing number of those who don’t affiliate with any religion. It’s not a pretty picture for us who follow Christ and seek to show Him to others.
What interests me in this story is not so much the “what” of atheism but the “why.” Why is atheism increasingly finding a home in the Bible Belt? For Vitsmun, being raised a Catholic, I’ll give it to you in her own words: “I decided it was impossible for the god that I believed in to condemn billions of people in Asia, Africa, and across the world to eternal damnation for not knowing who Jesus was.” Her atheism was awakened by her compassion and sense of fairness.
Now, I’m not a Catholic, and I am not aware of all official Catholic teaching, but I don’t think the Catholic Church teaches what she said. I do know, to some extent, what the foundational document of the Christian church teaches.
The Holy Bible doesn’t teach that God condemns people for not knowing who Jesus was. Of course, this doesn’t mean that some, and perhaps even many people, won’t be condemned for something else, but it won’t be for not knowing who Jesus was.
How could she miss this? Jesus Himself said that He didn’t come to destroy people’s lives but to save them. People’s lives were already in ruin.
More condemnation is not the need of the day. Aren’t we to be about the same thing as Jesus? This is actually what the Bible does teach. Again, how could someone go from this to atheism? Someone who was raised Catholic. Of course it could happen to someone raised Baptist, and it has.
Perhaps we are making it too easy to be an atheist these days. Christians are increasingly painted by society as intolerant hate-mongers. What can we do to make it more difficult for our next generations to turn to atheism?
I believe the words of Jesus have at least a sliver of the answer. Jesus said, “May they be one as We are one. I am in them and You are in Me. May they be made completely one, so the world may know You have sent Me” (John 17:22-23, HCSB). Jesus said that if we are “one” the world will know that God the Father sent Jesus. It’s a oneness that is found only between true Christians. He even gives the parameters of that oneness, and it is deep, tough, full of grace and complete.
Jesus elsewhere said, “I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35, HCSB). Perhaps if we work more at love for one another, through the ups and downs, then people, even our own people will believe in the God who sent Jesus.
Perhaps they will even believe that we are His disciples. It would be harder for Rebecca to fall into atheism when people around her are holding up a safety net of love. The kind of love that Jesus wants us to share all around.