On Atheism (abridged)
Below are several posts from Texian Weblog regarding Atheism. Though the dates of the posts are not listed, the posts are listed here in chronological order. The unabridged version of On Atheism can be found on the main Per·Fidem site. External links have been removed from the version below since we cannot guarantee that those links will work on a mobile browser.
Alister McGrath has an excellent article in Christianity Today (March 2005) regarding the failure of atheism to win the minds of theists. His article wasn’t entirely critical of atheism, though. Declaring, “the greatest virtue of atheism is its moral seriousness,” Mr. McGrath argues that atheism has served a useful purpose in pointing out the failures and corruptions of the Church.
The most beloved of all atheists, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, would always end her cable access program with the warning that Godism, her pet name for theism, has caused more suffering than any other idea in human history. I would think that greed should receive more blame, but she has a point. Theism has had its share of bloody wars.
But, while we point the finger at theism, let us also remember that atheism is not entirely blameless. Most of the brutal and ruthless tyrants of the 20th century were atheists. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, all were atheists. And they all had, in their minds, good reasons for eliminating theism. Theism was a threat to their power. They preferred to replace the native religions of their nations with their own.
Hitler created the godless religion of Nazism and made himself its Christ. Hitler’s speeches were like sermons, extolling the virtues of the new Nazi gospel. Nazism was complete with its own mythology, rites, clergy, fanatical devotees, even a holy text. Hitler, like other tyrants after him, saw the power he could gain if he did not have to share the people’s love with God. He would become their god, and distort their moral certainty to the point that they would do anything for him, even participate in the murder of their own countrymen.
Stalin had his own plans for replacing faith with fascism. In 1931, the Soviets destroyed Russia’s largest Christian cathedral, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The plan was to build a new, atheist cathedral dedicated to Communism. But, as evidence of Communism’s inherent flaws, the necessary funds could never be raised. Eventually, Khrushchev tired of the gaping hole left by the destruction of the cathedral and built a swimming pool in its place. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church was allowed to rebuild the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
Theism, with its belief in an authority superior to temporal powers, is a threat to modern dictators. Atheism, praised for being modern and logical, has often been used as a tool by these dictators to enact their will on the people. So, atheism’s role in man’s evil works should not be overlooked.
As an experiment, I started a discussion thread on an online atheist forum. I began the discussion with this question: “How does atheism define morality?” I was told that morality is defined by a consensus of society in order to maintain a functioning society. So, then I asked if government should promote morality, for example, punishing those who violate society’s moral consensus. The response was no. I was told there is a difference between what is immoral and what is criminal. While society may have an idea of what is right and what is wrong, government should only be concerned with preventing someone from hurting others. So, is morality not important to a functioning society? No, it is. Is morality defined as “do whatever you want so long as you don’t hurt anybody else?” Yes, I’m told. Even if society would like to add more to it? Yes. So then, society doesn’t define morality. Our idea of morality must come from something else. But who? or what?
There is what I call a need for perfection. This need for perfection is broad. One way it can be defined is the need to improve oneself and one’s society. In short, increase what is good and eliminate what is bad. Human societies need some way to declare what is right and what is wrong. Without a moral code, society crumbles. Every human culture has developed a rule that defines morality. Even the atheist/agnostic recognizes the authority of this rule. In our culture, we call it the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That’s how we can tell right from wrong. Every other human culture has a similar rule. But just having this rule is not enough. This rule is essential to the function of society. So, people must be made to obey it, even if they disagree. But, on whose authority do we enforce this rule?
If it is by society’s authority then the violator could say society is wrong, therefore he doesn’t have to obey. Take for example, Nazi Germany. At that time, the consensus in society was that Jews were inferior, and so they were exterminated. In the antebellum South, society believed slavery was justified. Were these beliefs moral? No, of course not. Therefore, anyone who disobeyed the law in these societies could rightfully argue that society was wrong. Society’s authority is too fallible to be compelling.
The source of this rule’s authority, if it is to have any authority at all, must be absolute and beyond question. Without such an Absolute Source, morality becomes a matter of personal taste. What is right and what is wrong? And how can we compel others to do what is right?
That’s the problem that many theists like myself have with atheism/agnosticism. We have not been given an adequate answer to this question. It seems to us that the only answer is found in the theist belief in the Absolute Good. Theism declares that certain things are always right or always wrong, regardless of the situation. For example, loving your neighbor is always right, regardless of who your neighbor is. This is absolute. This truth is always true, and its validity cannot be questioned. It is, as the Framers would say, self-evident. It requires no proof and no support from society. Theism declares the source for this Truth must also be absolute.
Now the question comes, how can we know this source? A source which is absolute cannot exist solely in a universe that is finite. Therefore, human logic, which is chained to this finite universe, is useless in understanding it. Reason is simply too faulty. So, to discover the answer to the most basic questions in life, we must abandon reason in favor of faith. Is that such a bad thing? Consider the soldier who believes, “leave no man behind.” Is that always a logical belief? No. But is it always right? Yes, absolutely. The theist values Truth over logic because he believes logic is useless in discovering Truth.
As long as the Absolute Good is believed on faith alone, it remains absolute. There are no exceptions to the Golden Rule. We go wrong when we eliminate faith and introduce our own faulty logic. From that point on we construct for ourselves logical exceptions to the rule. We say, “This is right, except in this case.” or “except when we’re dealing with these people.” That is what happened in Nazi Germany and in pre-Civil War America.
So, theism satisfies, by faith, this universal need for an Absolute Good. While atheism/agnosticism, through logic, corrupts it. This leads one to wonder if there is something inherently wrong with a philosophy that fails to fulfill a basic and universal need of humanity.
While reading an article about atheism I came across this line:
Please excuse the grammar (singular “theist” coupled with the plural “their”).
For the purposes of this post, “atheism” refers to weak atheism, more commonly known as agnosticism. That must be said because the broader definition of atheism (used in the quote) makes the term confusing. The atheist’s argument is that since it is the theist who claims that God exists, then it is up to him to prove his claim. If he cannot, then one is justified in refraining from accepting his claim and remaining an atheist.
That sounds reasonable, except for this: where’s the answer? There are two possibilities to the god question: either there is a god, or there isn’t a god. One of those possibilities is true. Those of us who are interested in such things want to know which. Atheism doesn’t tell us. Atheism doesn’t offer an answer. So, how can (weak) atheism be automatically justified when it doesn’t offer an answer to the biggest question any of us will ever ask? Can we really construct a worldview around an unanswered question? That is not a rhetorical question, I would really like an answer.
Without any answers to these questions, I am forced to say that not only is atheism not automatically credible and rational, but also dishonest in the sense that atheists often attack theists’ “irrational” claims (something that is common on that website) but offer no alternative claims of their own.
In his criticism of my post, Atheism Automatically Justified?, Austin Cline uses a legal analogy to explain how my reasoning is in error:
The juror’s default position would not be an absence of belief in the prosecutor’s claim, but rather a belief in the defense’s claim that O.J. Simpson did NOT kill his wife. In the American legal system, the jury begins with an assumption of innocence. If the prosecution cannot prove its claim, then the jury would have to conclude that the defendant remains innocent. If the jury defaults to a no-decision (we don’t know if O.J. killed his wife or not), then a hung jury will be declared and there would be a new trial. This will continue until a jury makes a decision, either O.J. killed his wife, or he didn’t.
So, using Mr. Cline’s analogy, the default position regarding the question “is there a god?” would be “the claimant has not yet proven his claim, therefore there is no god.” Using Mr. Cline’s analogy, we must begin with the assumption that there is no god. When we discover that the claimant, the theist, cannot prove his claim then we remain with the assumption that there is no god. But that is not where Mr. Cline would like the analogy to lead us because that assumption is not logical. Mr. Cline is looking for a no-decision, but his analogy does not lead us to that conclusion. In fact, Mr. Cline's analogy only adds support to my argument that a no-answer is not justified or acceptable. Certainly, Mr. Cline must understand this and so he must also understand that his is a bad analogy. Therefore, one can only conclude that Mr. Cline offers his argument dishonestly.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I asked this question:
Recent criticisms of that post never answered the questions I asked. The closest answer I received was this from Austin Cline:
But, nothing explaining how one can construct a worldview around an unanswered question (Mr. Cline should be careful with his sarcasm considering his refusal, or failure, to answer that question). All I received was more talk about how it is the theist who makes the claim that God exists, and therefore the burden of proof falls on him. If he cannot prove his claim, then disbelief is the only logical reaction.
Atheists are atheists primarily because they believe logic has lead them there. Atheists hold on to logic very closely. So closely, in fact, that even though they admit it has failed them, they continue to hold on to it.
So, why hold on to it? If logic has failed you before, and you admit that it has, then why continue to trust in it? It is as if they hope that one day logic will not fail them. One day, even though it has failed them many times before, one day it will answer their questions. And not just the God question. I’m sure if he really cared to, an atheist could list all the times that logic has failed to answer a question.
There is wisdom in old sayings. One old saying that comes to mind now is, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” If I put my trust in someone and he fails me in that trust, then I would be careful about trusting him again. If logic has failed to answer a question, especially an important one such as “Is there a god?” then why continue to trust it? It takes a great deal of faith to continue to trust something that has failed you before. Most people would turn to other methods of discovery once they realized that logic fails. Only the truly faithful will keep coming back. They are blinded by their devotion. They refuse to see reality because it doesn’t fit into the little box they have constructed for themselves.
Atheists are always complaining that conservative Christians want to take away religious freedom. A claim that is as insulting as it is wrong. The true threat to religious freedom comes from the non-religious.
The onslaught of disbelief is constant and unrelenting in its efforts to recreate American society in a secularist image. Long held beliefs and traditions are now ridiculed as backward, irrational, unenlightened, silly, and so on. The only “ism” acceptable in the public square is secularism. Judicial nominees must not be allowed a vote because they are “too conservative.” The President says “God” way too much. In fact, God is mentioned way too much everywhere. “Have you ever seen God?” they ask. “Then don’t bring your silly, old-fashioned religion around here.” When theists try to assert their beliefs in the face of this onslaught, they are beaten down by accusations of theocracy.
For people who claim not to believe in the supernatural, atheists are sure haunted by phantoms of radical Christians bent on instituting a new inquisition. I’ve never met these Christians. And I hang around with quite a few Christians. I’m not saying they don’t exist, I’m sure there are some out there. There’s always some. But I am saying they don’t make up the vast majority of Christians. Our complaint is not that society has become indifferent or neutral to religion, but hostile. We do not seek endorsement for our faith, but acceptance. We ask, “Can you prove us wrong? Then why the hatred? Why the insults? Why the fear-mongering?” We seek Truth. And we are not self-centered and shortsighted enough to think that the only truth worth acknowledging is the truth that comes from mankind.
Why isn’t atheism more widely accepted? Why has atheism seen its golden age pass? Because it has been revealed as the intellectual fraud that it is. Most people in America today rightly see atheism as merely an excuse to ridicule the beliefs of others. Atheists love to do that, and they feel they can do it with immunity since they feel they have no beliefs that can be criticized. They can inflate their egos with witty logic, questioning answers but never answering questions.
I once asked how we can be expected to create a worldview around an unanswered question. How can atheists leave an important question such as “is there a god?” unanswered? It is my opinion that they do not. They answer the question with a “no.” But, they would not admit that, since such an answer is not logical. It is a belief, just a belief. It is not supported by scientific evidence. It is not supported by logical arguments. Therefore, the atheist’s claim that he makes no claim appears dishonest. His attacks on the beliefs of others appear fraudulent. That is the conclusion to which we come. That is the conclusion of atheism.
I have to admit, the more I think about it the more the Argument from Design seems to be true. I have never thought that argument to be very convincing. Most non-believers would say the argument is nonsense because the universe is just an accident. Well, maybe so — but an accident that is governed by natural laws. Were these laws just an accident? Our study of the universe seems to indicate that the universe takes random input, processes it, and produces a thing of immense beauty which can be appreciated on every scale. Kind of like those computer programs that take random pictures and organize them to create a mosaic. But, while the universe may seem to operate by natural laws, its creation seems to defy those natural laws.
A few weeks ago (April 2005), Christianity Today featured an article about Antony Flew, a very prominent atheist who has recently changed his mind. What caused this change of heart? According to the article, “he cites his affinity with Einstein who believed in ‘an Intelligence that produced the integrative complexity of creation.’” Integrative complexity of creation? Sounds like the Argument from Design to me.
But many atheists and agnostics dismiss Flew’s change of heart, saying he’s just an old man facing death and is essentially taking Pascal’s Wager. But Flew makes it very clear that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife. He tells Christianity Today, “I don't want a future life. I have never wanted a future life.”
He also makes it very clear that he is not a Christian, and “detests any notion that a loving God would send any of his creatures to eternal flames.” This is a problem many non-believers have with theism. Flew does say that he plans on reading C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce in an attempt to understand the Christian idea of judgement. I hope he pays special attention to the line,
If you believe in the eternal soul, then you must believe that something happens to the soul when the physical body is no longer able to hold it. Is it right for a soul who has spent a lifetime denying God to be forced into the presence of God where angels sing, “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” (Rev 7:8)? As one theologian put it, God is not a divine rapist. He is a loving God, in fact He is Love, but God is not going to force His love upon us.
So, it is not God’s wrath that sends the non-believer to hell, but it is His justice, and His respect for our choices. Those who choose to live without God will live in eternity without God, just as they wanted. While believers submit themselves to the will of God, non-believers exist outside of God’s presence and are free to live as they see fit, a miserable experience according to Lewis.
The conclusion we should come to now is this: our greatest sin is placing ourselves on God’s throne. Indeed, this was our first sin (Gen 3:1-6), it is the subject of the first commandment (Exo 20:3), and it is the only unpardonable sin (Matt 12:30-32). Love, Peace, and Truth come only through faith in Christ because Christ is the Light of the world. The refusal to accept this is arrogance, selfishness, and blasphemy. As long as a man maintains this refusal, he cannot be saved. This is the guilt of Atheism. It refuses to accept an authority higher than man, and claims that man is the only arbiter of truth. Atheism insists that there is no truth that cannot be detected by human senses or understood by human logic. Any claims that are beyond the senses or logic are regarded by Atheism to be merely superstitions and myths. For this reason, Atheism is self-centered and shortsighted and therefore not valid.