The Lessons of Atheism

By David Fiensy

One might well ask, “How can atheism teach Christians anything?” After all, atheists do not even have the basic starting point correct. Yet atheism holds a fascination for many people in the Western world right now, and that is the reason Christians need to think about it.

This is the era of the so-called “new atheism.” This movement has spawned an in-your-face, aggressive, and even rude attitude. Even the titles of some of the books demonstrate the authors’ aggression—The God Delusion and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, for instance.

Yet people seem drawn to these adherents of antireligion. The books of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens1 appeared on The New York Times Best Seller List for weeks. Dawkins’s book remained on the list for 51 weeks; Hitchens’s book rose to No. 1 in its third week of release. By November 2007, Dawkins’s book had sold 1.5 million copies.

These authors have been interviewed on countless TV and radio shows, further indicating there is an audience for these writers. Finally, the popularity of these books is also seen in several Christian responses.2 One does not need to respond to an unpopular voice.

These authors basically blame religion for most, if not all, of the problems in the world. They represent religious persons, especially evangelical Christians and Islamic fundamentalists, as hateful, intolerant, ignorant, domineering, and even violent. Religious people, in the minds of the new atheists, pose dangers to society. If we could just rid the world of all religion, Dawkins, Hitchens, and their kind maintain, we would all be happier, would live together more peacefully, and would practice tolerance.

Influencing the Populace

Nor is this attitude confined only to the champions of the new atheism. The ideas seem to be having an influence on the general populace. Consider, for example, a woman’s letter to Time magazine (September 1, 2008) in response to a report about Rick Warren’s church.

She began with a kind of backhanded compliment: “I was glad,” she wrote, “to hear that Pastor Warren is starting to inject a little love into rightwing Christianity.” The letter writer continued by blaming world poverty on the unavailability of abortion and birth control and then concluded, “True believers are always wrong, whether they are Christians, Muslims, or Jews.”

Most evangelicals, of course, would be surprised to hear that only now is “a little love” finding its way into their practice of the faith. The writer of the letter is not aware of all the famine relief and other charitable ventures sponsored by evangelicals in the last 100 years.

Further, one must challenge the assertion that lack of abortion produces poverty. In many cultures, although medical abortions are not readily available, infanticide is practiced. And, of course, the statement, “(T)rue believers are always wrong . . .” sounds to me like an intolerant true believer’s words.

Yet there is something in both the tone and the content of the letter that Christians should note. The writer, like Dawkins and Hitchens, is absolutely confident in her assertions. The claims, of course, are wrong. But it should interest Christians that people feel they can so confidently make such declarations.

Converting from Atheism

Ironically for the new atheism, we are simultaneously witnessing the conversion of rather famous atheists to theism. Anthony Flew3, the philosopher, has become a believer in God (though not a Christian) and has authored a book explaining why. Francis S. Collins4, scientist and leader in mapping the human genome project, has become a Christian and has even taken part in a debate with Richard Dawkins.

Joining this list of former atheists is Christian theologian Alister McGrath, whose new book, The Twilight of Atheism5, offers both a history of atheism and an explanation of its failure. According to McGrath, atheism, though it has always claimed to be vehemently antireligious, is, nonetheless, itself a religion. Atheism offers a vision for a utopia and it has a body of beliefs. McGrath also asserts that atheism can be just as dogmatic and intolerant as the most fanatical Christian group.

Worse yet, atheism can commit horrendous crimes against humanity. The Christian Inquisition was a terrible time in the history of the church, but it pales considerably when compared with the two big atheistic societies of the 20th century. Both Nazism and communism murdered tens of millions of innocent souls who refused to adopt their ideologies. McGrath wonders how any atheist can believe an atheistic society would be a utopia.

Lessons for Christians

All of this leads me to lesson one: The new atheism capitalizes on the mood of our age. If McGrath sees things so clearly now, what possessed him, as a young man, to become an atheist and then reject atheism later? Perhaps his experience can also help explain why millions buy the books of the new atheists.

Quite simply, McGrath says, he found atheism to be a liberating and hopeful experience. There is no doubt McGrath’s childhood in Northern Ireland contributed to his feeling that religion only leads to quarrels and violence. Just give up religion and all the quarreling will stop. Furthermore, atheism offered, he thought, a sense of hope for a better world. If he could join the cause of destroying religious faith everywhere, a peaceful utopia would result. He found that atheism (and the Marxism that often accompanied it) was almost messianic in its promises.

Later, when McGrath had matured and received a university degree in science, he began to conclude that the atheist religion was a failure. When he thinks back on this atheist period, he finds “the ideas that once excited and enthralled me seem . . . rather humdrum and mundane” (p. 179). The mature McGrath, the Christian McGrath, the theologian McGrath now finds it difficult to understand what he ever saw in atheism.

Why is atheism appealing to, or at least fascinating to, millions of readers? Why would anyone fall for this faith that is allegedly based in nonfaith? I would argue that this faith in nonfaith fascinates because atheism plays on the current antireligious sentiment of the Western world. This mood consequently disseminates a caricature of Christianity and offers utopian promises that it cannot deliver. This analysis, I believe, explains atheism’s current appeal.

Lesson two: While we reject the atheists’ basic worldview, we need not regard all atheists in the same way. There are at least two kinds of atheists today. Many seem to have a noble goal. One could call them programmatic atheists as opposed to being mere skeptics.

The village skeptic believes he is right because he is smart and is content to turn up his nose at all the ignorant religious folks. He stands ready to sue you if you challenge his civil rights but otherwise leaves religious people alone.

Conversely, the programmatic atheist is an evangelist preaching an antireligion utopia. One can even somewhat respect the programmatic atheists. They want change. They want to help the human race. If they are, in this writer’s judgment, delusional about the way to bring about utopia (by doing away with all religions), they are, at least, in this movement to do some good. Perhaps, therefore, Christian’s could find common ground with the programmatic atheists by applauding their desire for a better world.

 

Lesson three: The atheist movement confirms the Christian view of the fallenness of humanity. We could almost smile at the naïveté of the atheists who have believed (and still do) that if we could only wipe out all religions we would have world peace, tolerance, and love. I say “almost,” since the attempts to expunge all religions have been nothing short of Hell on earth.

The 20th century was, if anything, the century of atheism. Two great atheistic movements—Nazism and worldwide communism—murdered perhaps as many as 150 million people. These huge numbers numb the mind. And these crimes, perpetrated by the pure utopian thinkers, unfettered by what they believed was the evil of religion, show us that it is not religion but fallen humanity that is the problem.

There are evil people in every organization. But the real problem is this: religion is the only restraint against our worst demons. Take away faith in a higher power, who transcends us and holds us accountable, and we have Nazism and communism with all their horrors.

Remove belief in God, wrote Dostoyevsky, and everything is permitted.6

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1Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006); Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007).

2See for example, John F. Haught, God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008); Becky Garrison, The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007); and William Lane Craig, “God is Not Dead Yet” Christianity Today, July 2008, 22-27.

3Anthony Flew, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: Harper One, 2007).

4Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006).

5Alistair McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (New York: Doubleday, 2004).

6Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. 

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David Fiensy has served as dean of the Graduate School of Bible and Ministry at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson since 2004. He came to KCU as a professor in 1995, after previously working there as associate professor, 1980-87.

He has also taught at other universities and seminaries, in addition to serving full- and part-time in ministry with five churches.

He has published widely in academic and scholarly circles. He has traveled throughout Bible lands and has participated in archeological digs in Israel.

He has received degrees from Cincinnati Christian Seminary, Xavier University, and Duke University, where he earned the PhD in 1980.

David and his wife, Molly, have two daughters, Amanda and Jeannie.

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