While recent signs indicate that the tenor of conversation between Christians and atheists may be improving (evolving, even?) in public discourse, there is some irony in the fact that there is such considerable room to improve. Irony because, in the first centuries of the Church, Christians were regularly accused of - and killed for - being atheists, having adopted, said the ancient Greek historian Dio Cassius, "the practices of the Jews." Or as Phil Harkland put it in the article cited above: "the denial of other gods was perhaps the most important source of conflict and the strangest thing about devotees of the Judean God and of Christ."
While it is not uncommon for Christians to consider the distinctiveness of Christian claims relative to Judaism, it is instructive that the early Greeks saw Christians as adopting the practices of the Jews. This outside Greek perspective helpfully recalls the continuity of Israel's vocation - Israel's "set apart-ness" - and God's mission to those beyond Israel. Dio Cassius is observing exactly the scandal by which the blessing of Israel's Kingdom is, in Christ, opened to Gentiles and that mixed kettle of fish called the Church. For Christians, Jesus is both "a Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel."
To begin with Israel is to begin with one God: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad; Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is one (Deut. 6:4).
Now, belief in one god is, in some sense, a question of movement from one's point of reference. That is, the one god of Israel's Shema could represent an increase, as in, "I did not believe in God before, but now I do." What the early opposition to the Church clearly saw, however, is that confession of "one true god" can just as easily - and far more probably - represent a decrease, as in, "I will not bow down to other gods."(1)
Examples of the confession of one God as a decrease from the alternative in Scripture are many and too numerous to list. Consider a few representative instances: Israel and the golden calf (and God's response), Israel's request for a king (and God's reluctance), the refusal of the three men to serve the king's gods (and their subsequent deliverance from the fiery furnace), Jesus' crucifixion (and the people's haunting words, "We have no king but the emperor"), and the missionary encounters of the apostles recorded in Acts.
Similarly, the history of the Church's life and witness has consistently understood and engaged formation centered on one God as opposed to many. In his commentary on the Ten Commandments, Martin Luther writes:
Ask and examine your heart diligently, and you will find whether it cleaves to God alone or not. If you have a heart that can expect of Him nothing but what is good, especially in want and distress, and that, moreover, renounces and forsakes everything that is not God, then you will have the only true God. If, in the contrary, it cleaves to anything else, of which it expects more good and help than of God, and does not take refuge in Him, but it adversity flees from Him, then you have an idol, another god.Thus, Christian formation consists, in part, of not believing; of saying "no" to the pantheon of the gods, where "gods" are understood to be anything from which we expect more good and help than God.
Of course, Christians are not atheists. Emphatically, believing in the one God who delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead changes everything. Indeed, to the extent Christians fail to worship the one true God - by expecting more good and help than of God from the countless myriads gods of our day - we live what Stanley Hauerwas calls lives of "practical atheism."
But if confession of the Christian God requires of those who confess this God the refusal to worship another, perhaps we can acknowledge that atheists and Christians have a shared agenda: the naming and dissuasion of the worship of gods we don't believe exist. For this reason, it is curious that Christians have not valued inter-faith conversations with atheists on the same level as conversations with peoples of other faiths. Christians believe that it is enough to believe, and forget that not worshiping gods is as distinctive of our tradition as is worshiping the Triune God revealed in Jesus.(2) The challenge to an inter-faith conversation with atheists, I suppose, is that Christians and atheists can't agree on the gods we don't believe exist.
Disagreements notwithstanding, I have hope that generous atheists can teach the Church a thing or two about not believing. I hope, too, that a generous Church can raise questions for atheists - about the gods, with God's help, we are learning not to worship.
(1) Significantly, throughout the Church's history, one of the chief expressions of the Christian's refusal to worship other gods has been the Christian's unwillingness to legitimate the empire's claims of divine status. Thus, the Church understands "Jesus is Lord" to be a theological and political statement.
(2) Cf. Hauerwas: Americans do not have to believe in God, because they believe that it is a good thing simply to believe: all they need is a general belief in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in the US. The god most Americans say they believe in is not interesting enough to deny, because it is only the god that has given them a country that ensures that they have the right to choose to believe in the god of their choosing, Accordingly, the only kind of atheism that counts in the US is that which calls into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and happiness.