I mentioned in the last post the need to have a balanced approach in thinking about atheists. I need to talk more about the other side of that balance. While we need to recognize that atheism is a great moral evil, we also need to remember that atheists, like all human beings, are made in the image of God. They therefore possess a great value that we ought to recognize and respect. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves because we love God and our neighbors are made in God's image. This translates into various concrete attitudes and behaviors. We are to value the lives and happiness of all our human neighbors. We are to treat them with honesty and respect in our dealings with them. We are to keep our promises to them. We are to hate their suffering and strive to relieve it when we are in a reasonable position to do so. And so on.
There is a quote from atheist philosopher Austin Dacey (from his book, The Secular Conscience) that I really like, and I think it sums up an important part of what I am saying here: “We do not respect people by accepting whatever they think and do, but by holding them to the same intellectual, moral, and legal standards we apply to ourselves." This is the principle of fairness. All of us as human beings are made in God's image and have a natural equality of value. This means we should treat people by the same standards. We should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. That is exactly what Dacey is saying. Some people seem to think that respecting people as human beings necessarily involves accepting, tolerating, agreeing with, or thinking acceptable whatever they believe, value, or do. It does not. It does, however, mean treating all human beings with fairness. I should never give myself an unfair advantage. As Peter said, “Indeed I see that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is accepted by him.” And, on the contrary, whoever does evil deserves the appropriate punishment, no matter who they are.
We need to also remember that we are sinners saved by grace. All of us, by nature, are children of wrath, evil rebels against God by nature, deserving of his infinite punishment. Our salvation in its entirety—in justification, sanctification, adoption, and all other benefits—is entirely owing to the unmerited grace of God through the sacrifice and righteousness of Christ. Our merit plays no role in this at all. Indeed, we have no positive merit to deserve anything good from God. All we have is infinite demerit to deserve God's infinite punishment. There is a difference between a believer and a non-believer. The one is forgiven of his sins, he has faith and repentance, and he lives a life of (imperfect) obedience in this life. The other remains in the natural state of complete rebellion against God, refuses to repent, and is not forgiven of his sins. Some people turn from their sins to God through Christ in faith and repentance, and some don't. But, contrary to Arminian theology, we Calvinists know that the only ultimate reason why there are these differences is God's electing grace, whereby he chooses some for salvation not due to any goodness or merits they possess, but due to his own sovereign purposes. Therefore, since the only thing that makes the difference is God's grace, we Christians have no room to boast. When we look at the evils of atheism, we need to remember that there but for the grace of God go we. And, as God has not yet perfected us in sanctification, the evils of human nature all too often creep up into our own attitudes, values, and behavior as well. These facts require us to have a humility in our dealings with non-believers. Yes, we must point out evil as evil and not downplay it, but we also must recognize the graciousness of our salvation, and this should produce in us humility and compassion towards non-believers.
Here's a slogan to put these two strands—hating the evils of atheism and standing up against them, while loving atheists as human beings made in the image of God and our fellow sinners—together: Hate the atheist; love the human. In each atheist, there are both the evil of atheism and also the value of humanity. Our attitude therefore must encompass both. We must see all of our fellow human beings for the complex beings that they are, just as we learn to look at ourselves in the same way. We must love our neighbors as ourselves.
Another way in which this double-stranded reality manifests itself is in our personal relationships with atheists. As fellow human beings, we can learn to appreciate each other and enjoy each other's company. (Of course, we can also find that there are some people whose company we will never truly be able to enjoy in this life, both among non-believers and believers!) At the same time, though, we can hate the evil attitudes and actions that our fellow human beings often encrust onto themselves. Can we be friends with non-believers? Yes, I think we can. But it certainly can be a difficult balance. And there will always be a distance in such friendships arising from being on opposite sides of such important subjects as truth and goodness. No matter how much we wish to pursue friendships and dialogue with non-believers, we need to realize that our attitudes and actions regarding them must always reflect the balance that comes from recognizing the full complexity of our fellow human beings, however difficult that may sometimes be.
Of course, the basic principles of the above discussion (in both posts) apply not just to atheists, but to all those who follow a false religion/worldview.