Why Atheists Follow Christ Better than Christians, and What to do About it.
Western culture is permeated by Christian values. That is to say, though the culture is not submitted to God, it mostly behaves as if it is.
Consider the history of the West. It began with various groups of pagans: Romans, Greeks, Celts, Germanic tribes, and the like. In many regards, these groups valued things diametrically opposed to Christian values, and their practices followed. Famously, it was not unheard of for Romans to leave infant girls out to die of exposure, because boys were valued more than girls. Gluttony to the point of vomiting was acceptable, even classy. Torturing an accused criminal was the default practice in various situations. Dozens of examples like this could be found. Clearly, the society was fundamentally opposed to God.
When the Church dominated Western culture for over a thousand years, things changed. While it is possible to see the influence of these earlier societies on Western culture, the dominant force is Christianity. This was even clearer before the Enlightenment. The Church conquered the pagans and took over.
When the Enlightenment occurred, it reinforced Christian values. Sure, it ignored the Christian source of these values, but be sure that the values themselves were mostly taken straight from Christianity. Enlightenment thinkers had no other sources to draw on, except their own culture! There are a few things that came more directly from pagan thinkers than Christianity, such as the total trust in rationality (which is still not incompatible with Christianity, but misfocused), but by and large the values the Enlightenment embraced were taken from Christianity 101: Human rights, the value of the individual, the importance of law, etc. Therefore, the culture, in practice, remained basically Christian, though it was unaware of this.
Today, Western culture still basically values the same things Christianity values. Whereas Paul was able to almost totally condemn the Roman world (though a careful reading will show that he did not actually do this), the situation is not so simple for us. It is as if a cat was raised by wolves. Sure, the cat would act in many ways like a dog, and there would be much to correct to restore the cat to its rightful state. However, the cat would still be obviously a cat: it would prefer to be alone to being with the group, it would hunt alone, it would spend time in trees, etc. In the same way, the culture has forgotten what it truly is (Christian), and so has learned to be act, in some ways, as if it is fundamentally different, but it is not.
The Church ignores this at our own peril. Other are incredulous when we use Paul’s condemnation of heathens to condemn our neighbors, who behave essentially as good Christians behave. It is true that these good people do not follow God as faithfully as they should, but that is not what we accuse “the world” of doing. We accuse them of being the most ungodly period in history. We imply that the world is consistently getting worse, implying that our neighbors are increasingly bad people. Nonsense. When we talk like this, some in our churches accept it. Many do, in fact. But many of us who daily interact with these people recognize the foolishness of this train of thought. This underlies many of the most important reasons Christianity is not doing well in certain age brackets. If we can’t learn to discuss the world around us in some complexity, we will continue to lose credibility, and Christians.