Are you an atheist? Just the word “atheist” conjures up certain impressions and assumptions. Maybe we think of an atheist as a nihilist. Or an anarchist. Or a communist. Or just someone contrary and negative. It’s not a very positive image to many. We may think of atheists as trouble makers, loners, undermining the cohesion of society, etc. An agnostic, well, that’s a doubter. But an atheist? That’s someone who’s against God. Someone who believes there is no God.
So, are you an atheist? Most of us reading this devotion on a church website would say, “no.” We may have many diverse ways of defining, explaining, and experiencing “God,” but we tend to think that our lives are oriented around something that we name as God.
I recently learned that in the early church, in the Roman Empire, Christians were known as atheists. Yes, Christians were thought of as atheists. And, it seems that many of the same kinds of negative connotations that are associated with the term atheist today were associated with Christians in the ancient world.
Now how could Christians who busied themselves with worshipping God and praying to God and serving God and devoting themselves to God’s son, could be thought of as godless atheists?
The people of the Roman Empire were devout. They had many temples and worshipped a variety of gods including the emperor. They offered sacrifices. They oriented their lives around the veneration of the gods and the duties of religious observance. They were very serious about their religion. Worship and sacrifice to the gods kept things orderly and running smoothly. Religion maintained the structure of society . Keeping the gods happy kept the Empire prosperous and peaceful. To neglect that worship could lead to trouble and the breakdown of the society.
But the Christians would not worship the Roman gods. So they were perceived as undermining the stability and well-being of society. By not worshipping the Roman gods they were inviting trouble. They were a threat to peace and prosperity. Sound familiar? Many Christians think just that of atheists today.
Today, we don’t have worship of the Romans gods, but there is worship of other gods, given the time, money, and ritual that is devoted to some things in our culture. There is worship of celebrities and fame. There is worship of sports teams and leading athletes. There is worship of wealth, money, and power. There is worship of the body and physical appearance. There is plenty of worshipping going on in our society today, but much of it is not happening in churches or faith communities.
I am imagining Christians today being seen as atheists because we don’t worship money, or greed, or power, or notoriety, or individualism, or the ideology of American exclusivism and superiority. We could definitely be seen as undermining the status quo of society: the hierarchy, the stratification, and the injustice.
Lectionary readings for today:
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Mark 10:32-34, 46-52
Prayer: May we give our full devotion to the realm of God as we have come to know it in the ministry of Jesus. Amen.