Recently my local pastor had a section in his sermon where he discussed Christian Atheists. Now his definition of a Christian Atheist is very different from mine, however both definitions would make a certain level of sense. On the one hand, the pastor had defined a Christian Atheist as somebody who claims to believe in God, but they don’t live their lives as a follower of Christ (whatever that means.)
My definition would be somebody who doesn’t believe in God, but is a follower of Christ. Probably the most famous example would be Robert Price (aka the Bible Geek.) Robert Price is an extreme skeptic and atheist, but he loves liturgy and regularly (could I say religiously) attends his local Episcopalian church. Some would prefer the term Christian Humanist. Now in this case I am talking about people who are consciously trying to follow the example of Jesus even without a belief in God. There are many people, especially in small communities, that attend church and go through the motions just so that they won’t be ostracized by their local community.
Now I am sure some are questioning how this could be? First of all, the teachings of Jesus have inspired many movements, some of them not necessarily Christian. There are examples where the teachings worked (think civil rights movement in America or Indian independence led by Gandhi.) The Christian Atheist would of course reject the claim that Jesus was a savior or God. Only John has explicit language that could be interpreted to be a claim to Godhood. However John is widely considered to have been the last Gospel that was written. So it is very likely much further removed from the actual events and sayings of Jesus. Also, as documented by Bart Ehrman, there are several examples where the earliest documents are much more ambiguous on this issue. It turns out that later scribes may have altered the original text to support the doctrine of the Trinity. This means that you can still think of Jesus as a good teacher, but not necessarily God (contrary to the logic of CS Lewis.)
Along those same lines I read something in Harvey Cox’s book, “The Future of Faith.” He was telling a story to illustrate the difference between faith and belief. In his view faith is largely the impetus of action as opposed to belief, which is just accepting certain assumptions as true. A son was trying to comfort his mother in her illness. She asked her son to pray for her and he told the local priest that he was uncomfortable with this whole idea of praying and he went on to say that he didn’t believe that God existed. The priest responded, “What does belief have to do with prayer? You can still pray even though you think that there is no God.” The act of prayer would be an act of faith even though there is no belief.