I have many thoughtful atheist friends and here are the kinds of things we’ve talked about together.
– While they might reject the idea of a personal God, some can talk about a direction or trajectory of evolution. (Some will not – seeing everything as random and accidental and in that sense ultimately nihilistic, period.) They might be able to use terms like Dr. King’s – speaking of an arc in the universe that bends toward justice. That direction or trajectory or arc provides us common ground, I think, between God and non-God.
– If they don’t want to speak of any moral grain to the universe, they may still want to work for justice, joy, and peace, as best as they understand them. Justice, joy, peace, and other values are for them a kind of beckoning vision – not written into past and present actuality – but calling from future possibility. Again, this might be some common ground where what I call God intersects with a reality they do not call God.
– If they don’t want to speak about anything like that, we can at least enjoy the gifts of life together – whether it’s a baseball game, a comedian, a great piece of music, or a good cup of coffee. Even savoring “goodness” points us in the direction of the Giver from whom all good gifts flow … and I suspect that God doesn’t mind being anonymous in many circumstances. In fact, anonymity may be a relief after all the ways God’s name gets dragged into craziness by human beings! I must admit, on many occasions, I find letting God’s presence be anonymous, unspoken, or understated enhances my joy in God, just as situations where God’s presence is over-hyped and exaggerated makes me feel less and less aware of God’s “still small” whisper.
In situations where believer and atheist encounter one another as friends, extending grace toward one another that transcends fundamental disagreement, it is pure friendship itself – extended and enjoyed without the static of religious or atheistic rhetoric – that makes God most real. At least, that’s how I see it!