Preaching on Atheism
We want to you preach on atheism. The topic is in the air more and more in the last few
years, specially with the rise of the New Atheists. In April 2012 Melbourne is hosting an
Atheist Convention, Celebration of Reason. That has prompted us to put together this
sermon series. We’d love to have lots of preachers in churches around Australia address
the issues of atheism, and we hope this resource will help you do this.
In these notes we are trying to promote preaching to Christian churches. We haven’t
tried to put together a resource for apologetic talks to unbelieving audiences. That
would be worth doing, but it isn’t what we’re trying here.
These are some ideas of what you can proclaim to a Christian congregation from
Scripture in the face of the new atheism. We have outlined a series of fours sermons
each based on the exposition of a Biblical text and the declaration of the gospel of Jesus
Christ. They are primarily a word to believers who may be unsettled, confused,
intrigued or angry about atheism or who can yet see that it is a great oppourtunity for
the gospel but wonder what they can say.
We are not trying to trigger a war against atheists and run them out of town, or even
berate them into silence. We want to live in society where belief and non-belief are
allowed and where these issues can be discussed and debated openly.
While these sermons are not primarily apologetic they certainly have an apologetic
dimension. Apologetics serves Christians by helping them see how their faith is
defensible. At the same time it can at least prompt unbelievers to listen more carefully
to the Christian message. We hope these sermons do both these things, giving
Christians some greater clarity and confidence in the face of atheist criticism and
engaging the unbeliever who is at church and opening the way for them to reconsider
their scepticism or apathy.
We are providing you with some sermon starters. We don’t at all expect you to feel
constrained to repeat what we have here. In fact that would probably be a very bad
idea. Please adapt and adopt anything we’ve put in here and make use of it in whatever
ways suits you and your people.
Each sermon looks at a topic raised by the new atheists: faith and doubt, whether God is
a projection, suffering and ethics. For each sermon we provide the following:
- Texts: a suggested Old Testament and New Testament text which serve as the basis for
a sermon.Rationale: A summary of a few sentences of our sermon direction. You might call this
our ‘big idea’ though it is a little more complex than one big idea.
- Notes: These are written to you, the preacher. They are not meant to be a sermon or a
detailed commentary on the suggested texts. They explain our thinking about the topic
and suggest some ways of developing the ideas biblically, theologically, apologetically
and pastorally. We certainly assume that you will do more work on the biblical texts as
- A sermon outline: some main headings and a couple of subpoints which could be the
framework of a sermon.
Quotations: A few quotations, from all sorts of sources, which might spark some
thoughts or be useful in the sermon.
- Resources: Some books and other resources which might help you prepare or might be
good to suggest to people.
We share these hoping that you they will encourage you to declare God’s word to
believers living a world in which unbelief is getting more aggressive and spiritual
longing seems more obvious.
Michael Jensen, Moore College, Sydney
John McClean, Presbyterian Theological Centre, Sydney
Doubting and Believing
Texts: John 20:24-31; Ecclesiastes 1:12-18
Rationale: The point of this sermon is to help the congregation think about what it is to
believe by considering the narrative of a skeptic turned believer – Thomas. When we
doubt, it is because we have started to believe something else. A secondary rationale for
the sermon is to acknowledge the presence of doubt in the lives of believers and invite
conversation about it.
Notes: In the contemporary world a stance of skeptical doubt appears brave and
authentic. Doubt conveys a kind of knowing aloofness; an ability to stand courageously
above the gullibility of the ordinary person. It is the position from which you can be
more authentic than thou. Comedians like Stephen Fry, Tim Minchin and Ross Noble,
for example, use their unbelief to connect with their audiences.
But if we dismiss doubt as so much posing, we underestimate its more serious and
earnest side. In the nineteenth century the great poet Alfred Tennyson, a doubter of
longstanding himself, wrote: “There is more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in
half the creeds.”
‘Honest doubt’ is certainly preferable to the kind of willful ignorance or deliberate
naivety of most popular religion. (I suspect that this phrase will resonate with many
congregation members). Who isn’t tired of intellectual shortcuts and slick arguments
that don’t stack up on closer inspection? Who isn’t appalled by the kind of blasé faith
which is more convenient than courageous and more concerned for reputation and
sticking with the received opinion than for the truth?
But even doubt has its limits. It is simply not possible to doubt everything. As the
philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: “If you tried to doubt everything you
would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubt presupposes certainty.”
That is to say: doubts will tend to arise in one place because of increasing certainties in
other places. You lose belief because of the presences of counter-beliefs. This insight
has, I think, great pastoral merit for us: it is always worth asking the doubting person,
or indeed asking ourselves when we begin to have doubts: what am I starting to believe
in more than the Christian faith?
We don’t have anything like a biography …