Decoupling government and religion
The separation of Church and State is rightly, and even necessarily, a fundamental principle in democratic and pluralistic societies. This is one of the rare things that Christopher Hitchens and, say, Menno Simons would agree on. The anabaptists broke with those of their time by insisting that religion should be totally voluntary and not enforced by the state. Other Christians only joined with them en masse after decades of inter-sectarian violence led Christian refugees who had fled to the American colonies to agree and include religious freedom in the American constitution. Surprisingly philosophes of the Enlightenment like Voltaire and Montesquieu did not call for total freedom of religion (though Diderot did). It was left to Pierre Bayle, a Protestant, and John Locke, a heterodox Christian, to provide philosophical-political justifications for “religious toleration”. In any case, I think it true that in our times the vanguard fighting for thorough separation of church and state, particularly in the United States, have been atheists. For those of us who reject dominionist fantasies of Christendom and recognize the fundamentally non-coercive and countercultural form of cruciform witness, their work can only be seen as a blessing. The fact is that the farther away from each other the “throne and the altar” are (in Diderot’s language), the more clearly visible the “altar” is. I think it axiomatic that the further away from government Christianity moves, the higher its profile among seekers of truth will become. One need look no further than the current Republican presidential campaign.
Decoupling schools and religion
My argument here is similar to the one above, so I’ll state it briefly. The disappearance of Christianity from public schools may lead to lower numbers of nominal Christians, but I think it’s unlikely to lead to lower membership in the “invisible church”. What it will likely do is remove the sense of compulsion and oppression that many students feel when they do not believe (yet) in Christianity yet are forced to recite the Lord’s Prayer or take part in other Christian “rituals”. Free of compulsion or aversion, and not seeing Christianity as interwoven with “the establishment” they may, as above, be able to see it more easily.
Not letting us forget
Atheists are vociferous critics of Christianity. Granted much of their criticism is based on urban myths, misinformation, or outright slander, the inescapable truth is that the bulk of their criticism remains deserved. Christians going about their month praying, volunteering at the Church, or working with communities of service or justice seeking can forget the past misdeeds of the Church. Yet credible Christian witness in our time demands that the Church remembers, understands, repents of, and makes amends for, the suffering it has caused and the damage it has done to humanity and to God’s kingdom.
Putting up awful statues
Many Christians reacted with fear and anger to the erection of a 9 foot tall, one ton bronze statue statue of Baphomet by the Satanic Temple in Detroit last year. Even James Martin, S.J., the popular Jesuit writer known for his soft spoken, nuanced moderation, expressed consternation and warned of toying with dark forces beyond our understanding. The tall goat-headed statue, which combines a kind of animal sagaciousness with svelte muscularity, is flagged disturbingly by two children looking up to him with earnest receptivity. The addition of the children was meant to show, says the Temple, that “there is nothing to be afraid of”, yet to an unindoctrinated eye the fact of the children’s monotonal open-ness in the presence of a winged, goat-headed giant just comes off as creepy, suggesting brainwashing or sedation.
In any case the folks who put up this statue are not really Satanists. They don’t believe in a personal Satan, but rather see Satan as a literary symbol embodying a mixture of secular humanist ideals and softcore new age spirituality (“the embrace of opposites….as above so below”). I don’t think the statue or it’s followers are likely to unleash a fury reminiscent of the closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark on Detroit any time soon. I think in the long run their obsession with such things as moving the statue 900 miles (1,450km) south-west to erect it opposite a Ten Commandments monument outside Oklahoma City's Capitol Building is bound to backfire. As it happens, the skirmish between Satanist, secularist, and atheist groups on one hand and Christians on the other has led to Oklahoma's Supreme Court ruling that the use of state property to benefit a religion is banned under the state constitution, and as a result the fate of both the Satanist statue and the Ten Commandments monument that originally inspired it may be the same: their removal from State property. This development would show the true nature of this type of Satanism: it is primarily a rebellion not against Christianity, but against Christendom. In this sense the Satanists may be doing Christians a favor. Once they have succeeded in using the secularist principles of the US constitution to dethrone Christianity from its union with the State, secularism-mascarading-as-satanism will vanish like a fire set to put out a fire. Even better, the Satanists will have done the Kingdom of God a favour by cutting more of its ties with the Kingdom of the World. Satan is, after all, merely one of God’s employees.
Being decent and sometimes heroic human beings
Only the most insular of Christians would imagine that goodness, decency and heroism are confined to their co-religionists, or, say, to believers in God in some form. To start, Atheist religions like Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism prove this wrong- but even among those with no religion, examples can be found of people living self-sacrificial lives, fighting for the causes of justice and love, or engaging in everyday acts of kindness or bravery.
We should not only be grateful to these people and celebrate their goodness, we should make common cause with them. Whether you view these people as acting on the image of God within, or as recipients of God’s “common grace”, it amounts to the same thing: God has scattered his goodness in the rocky soil of the world. As the great German pastor and theologian Christoph Blumhardt (1842-1919), mentor to Karl Barth, put it while talking about God’s movements beyond the Church:”God is weaving his design in the warp and weft of the world…..Where will the kingdom of God come from? Is not the entire history of the world a fulfillment of the promise? Are not bonds loosed, chains broken asunder? Who would have thought, for example, that new paths could open up for women as they have for men? Jesus lives, and he conquers more and more, although too many of us are unaware that he is behind it all (Everyone Belongs to God).”