Part 1: Atheists should think outside the box
Every now and then, one reads in the press that “religion is irrational”. In fact, it occurs with increasing frequency – far more often than I would like, speaking as a churchgoer.
Or it might be “belief in God is irrational”, or someone might refer to “faith vs reason” as phenomena in mutual opposition. Or, belief in God might be frankly compared with belief in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus or someone even more remote and implausible.
This view of religious belief has been around for some time. What’s changed, besides the frequency of the statement, is the confidence with which it is made. It used to be a claim, now it’s more like a statement of accepted fact, as though it were preceded by “And, of course” or “As we all know”.
Although it’s a popular view in some quarters, it is demonstrably untrue.
Logic – a red herring
I’ve noticed that people of faith use reason just as anyone else does. It’s unavoidable: if you don’t apply the rules of logic (to draw reliable conclusions from stated facts and to reach consistent conclusions), you’ll get called on it every time and attempts at communication would just break down. This generally doesn’t happen. Whatever we people of faith are, we’re not irrational.
The reason Christians sometimes reach different conclusions from our critics is not that we don’t use the common logic, it’s because we rely on additional facts (about God) to begin with. I should say “factual assertions” as these facts are contentious.
Evidence – the real issue
Speaking from a scientific viewpoint, atheist apologists typically require empirical evidence (evidence which, ultimately, appeals to our senses) to support any factual assertion. This is why we theists might be told, “Come back with some evidence and we’ll talk.”
This is the actual objection to belief in God.
So, in public critique of theism, “reason” and “rationality” are actually a red herring. Some of our critics are aware of this (it’s obvious enough, after all). So, if you were to ask why they call us “irrational”, I can only surmise that it’s because that’s what they “were told”. Tracing it back through atheist whispers, I expect that the promoters of this view believe “irrational” makes for better polemical marketing than “not evidence-based”. And they’re right. Also, “irrational” is insulting, which is a plus for many of our critics.
Marketing considerations aside, the real objection to belief in God – the lack of “evidence” – is serious and important.
For the sake of argument, I accept that the required evidence is not available. I cannot demonstrate how to reliably observe God with the naked eye, with a telescope, microscope or other visual aid, or with any other sense or sense-enhancing technology. I can point to anecdotal evidence of millions of people who are neither idiots nor liars, but atheist apologists say this is of no value. This is unreasonable of them, but it is not the main problem with their objection to theistic belief.
Natural world vs Reality
The objection is misconceived at the outset. The demand for scientific proof of God derives from the idea (highly contentious) that everything is amenable to empirical or scientific inquiry. This may be true of everything in what is generally called the “natural world”, but the appropriate scope of a conversation about whether or not God exists is all of reality, not just the natural world. No-one has established that they are the same and there is no reason to assume that they are.
If I were somehow impartial on the subject (I can’t really pretend to be), I would observe that the atheists have rejected the theistic “delusion” and replaced it with an unproved assumption. And remark that this is hardly an intellectual advance.
Insistence on evidence limits the scope of the discussion about God, which falsely (and unfairly) skews the discussion towards no-God. God’s existence isn’t the kind of [alleged] fact that can be investigated empirically or scientifically.
I appreciate that science is indispensable and authoritative for inquiring into the natural world. And I understand why science-minded atheists might feel uneasy venturing into a discussion in which their scientific tools are of no use. However, the scope of the discussion should not be dictated by their methodology or convenience.
There is more directly analytical way of approaching the topic. The scientific (or “empiricist” or “materialist”) world-view is based on the following principle:
“It is reasonable to believe that a statement is true (including a statement about something existing) only if the truth of the statement is proved empirically (ie by “evidence”). It is reasonable to believe a statement might be true only if its truth is provable (at least potentially) empirically.”
I’ve done my best to represent the position correctly and fairly. The second sentence is added to accommodate the fact that science is still learning and, in honest hands, doesn’t make absolute claims about facts and knowledge.
The typical atheist believes the above statement of principle to be true. The truth of the statement has not been proved empirically. Nor is its truth provable empirically. The truth of the statement is assumed.
It is this statement which appears to give rise to the assumption that reality consists entirely of the natural world – amenable to empirical observation (or scientific inquiry).
The empiricist box
Most people, probably everyone, have a starting-point in their thinking – a starting-point from which they proceed forward and outward. They aren’t necessarily aware of it. My starting-point is God. The typical atheist’s is the above statement. You can discover someone’s starting-point by asking “Why?”. Whatever the topic, if you keep asking “Why?”, you will find yourself delving more deeply into the other person’s thinking, layer by layer and, when you no longer get a different answer, you’ve reached their starting-point. I’ll end with “Because of God” or “Because God is God”, or similar.
There is a serious logical advantage to the starting-point of God: I take a leap of faith to God and always acknowledge that I’ve done so, so my thinking is consistent. The atheist takes a leap of faith (to the truth of the above statement) and, from that moment, scorns leaps of faith. That sequence of thought is profoundly inconsistent, indeed arguably “irrational”.
I am not arguing here for the existence of God (or anything else supernatural), much less against science. I am identifying and critiquing the assumption that reality consists only of the natural world. This assumption involves locking one’s mind inside an “empiricist box” and believing that, because it’s a very large box (as vast as the natural world), it’s not a box at all. This box represents a self-imposed and arbitrary limitation on reality and one’s ability to apprehend it.
The empiricist box is no place to find out whether or not God exists. Even if reality does consist only of the natural world, this will not be discovered inside the box. To think outside such a commodious box might seem like a lot to ask, but a serious God inquiry has to be seriously intrepid.
No-one likes their assumptions being challenged, or even exposed. There was a time when a person like me could safely assume “the other person” believed in God as much as I do. That would be a while back. I’ve had to learn to mingle and discuss far away from this comfort zone.
Being only human, atheists and other sceptics also relish intellectual and social comfort. I can’t help but think the empiricist box is a place of refuge for the sceptic. Atheists are not all as triumphant and disdainful, or even as confident, as their public apologists. Besides, most sceptics are not atheists at all, they just “don’t know”: many are actually curious, while many others find the subject of God exhausting or frustrating, or embarrassing. Many others, of course, are simply not interested.
Because it is superficially impressive, the empiricist argument provides a pretext for dismissing religious claims on reflex and for not pursuing any genuine curiosity about God.
The argument is actually misconceived and irrelevant, which is a problem for those many atheists who value intellectual integrity and would like their disbelief to have a sound foundation.
Part 2: Morality and the human being
Atheists say that Christians often accuse them of being wicked. Such an accusation (which I’ve personally never heard in New Zealand) is not only rude but false: it is quite apparent that many atheists are very moral people.
However, this is despite their atheism. I say this because I suggest that atheists cannot explain their morals. The morals of virtually all atheists are inherited from Christianity – especially the very basic ideas that human beings are highly (and equally) significant.
After all, New Zealand’s secularism is post-Christian: it didn’t arrive out of the blue, like a baby delivered by a stork. Like a real baby, it was generated organically and possesses inherited traits.
Most atheists say they are moral relativists, who believe there are no “objective” moral requirements that apply to everyone. For them, what we think is an objective morality is just the set of moral constructs developed by our society. Other societies have theirs too and it is impossible to judge another society, no matter what it does, because there is no objective global standard.
Many moral relativists go further and say that relativism operates at the individual level: “my morality” and “my right/wrong” vs “your morality” etc.
As I understand it, moral relativism has long been discredited in philosophical circles. For example, when they promote “tolerance” of other views as being immune from criticism, they insist on this tolerance as an absolute requirement – which contradicts their whole position.
Leonard Cohen expresses this quite elegantly (which is hardly surprising) in his song There Is a War, which informs us –
There is a war between the ones who say there is war
and the ones who say that there isn’t.
In other words, despite all its talk of freedom, relativism is dogmatic.
In addition, relativism doesn’t capture the reality of moral discourse. When two people disagree about a moral question, their views are in conflict. However, if two relativists “disagree”, their views don’t conflict because they’re describing their respective moral feelings about the topic, not the moral character of the topic itself (because it has no objective moral character). Their supposed “disagreement” is like A and B discussing headaches, with A saying “I have a headache” and B replying “Well, I don’t have a headache”.
Anyhow, I have found that people who call themselves relativists don’t really seem to mean it. They use it to ward off criticism directed at them: “That’s just your right and wrong (etc)”. But, when they criticise others, they tend to speak very dogmatically, as though there is an objective standard (which they don’t explain).
It is tempting to disdain relativism, but it remains important because a large number of people nominally subscribe to it.
Objective secular morality
Some atheists do acknowledge that morality consists of objective rules, or at least principles, that apply to every individual and every society.
Some atheists believe that basic “moral” behaviours (eg altruism) evolved in order for societies (or humanity itself) to survive.
I accept evolution, but it just “happens”, it doesn’t give value and has no authority. We don’t obey moral rules (eg behave altruistically) just because we find them in our midst. We need a reason to obey them, don’t we?
If we are urged to obey for the sake of the survival of humanity, we can still ask why humanity “should” survive. There is an epic urge to survive, but this is different from “should”. Especially nowadays, when some say we shouldn’t survive because of the harm we’ve caused to the environment.
Other atheists try to develop an objective secular morality from the ground up. I’m aware of two approaches: consequentialism and positivism.
The first is Consequentialism: This approach to morality says an action is right or wrong according to its consequences. Sounds good at first, but –
- By speaking of good and bad consequences, this approach again assumes certain values (eg survival or well-being) and just imposes them. Besides, whose well-being are we supposed to value, and why? Just humans? All humans?
- Consequentialism rests on the idea that the ends justify the means, and we all know how ruthless and dangerous that can be.
- A consequentialist moral rule is only a rule-of-thumb. If lying is morally wrong because it usually does more harm than good, I must still decide what consequences my specific intended lie will cause.
- This decision could take ages! Every action has myriad consequences that go forever. Unworkable.
- Even if I have the time to devote to this, I can only consider the foreseeable consequences: the actual consequences are yet to occur. A consequentialist can’t judge an action until afterwards. We need to know beforehand! Unworkable.
- Workable or not, any rules emerging from consequentialism are made by human beings. I end up being completely subject to majority rule. We know the majority can be wrong, which reminds us that the majority has power, not moral authority.
- Consideration of consequences is an important element of moral decision-making, but it’s not all there is to it.
The alternative approach is Positivism: the rules identify behaviour that is considered to be inherently right or wrong. EG lying is inherently wrong, wrong by its nature, no calculations are needed. This is more realistic and workable as it relies on an intuitive repugnance for lying rather than a remote sense that the lie might do more harm than good.
However, secular positivism also assumes values and also subjects us to the dubious moral authority of the majority of human beings.
The human being
When all the theorising about morality is done, nothing beats a rich definition of the human being as a reason for us to behave well towards each other.
Christians believe each human being to be extremely significant and and all humans equally so, regardless of other characteristics, because we are made in God’s image and likeness. This Imago Dei is the trump card. Loving people and giving them justice makes immediate sense because of what they are: a human being demands love and justice simply by being a human being.
Of course, secularists reject all this delusional nonsense and direct our attention to “the evidence”. According to the evidence, human beings are no more than the latest gorilla upgrade, the planet’s most complex organism and top predator and that each of us is a mixed bag of kindness and malice. If this is all a human is, it makes equal sense to hate them as to love them.
Atheists talk about justice because they believe in equality. Good, but the evidence says people are not equal. Look around: many differences are socially constructed, but there are also real inherent superiorities (eg intelligence, strength, agility, prowess, disposition).
Atheists have not yet identified (or even imagined) anything compellingly lovable to replace the Christian “delusion”. The basics of post-Christian secular morality are really a memory of Christianity.
It may be that the atheists’ difficulty in explaining the value of the individual human being has helped give rise to the new ethos, which I’ll call “identity ethics”. While this ethos pays lip-service to “human rights”, it has actually moved far away from the idea of valuing each person individually. Identity ethics sees only groups.
Groups are certainly important, but only because they are groups of individual human beings: the value of the group is the result of simple arithmetic.
Identity ethics doesn’t get this. After all, it creates the groups – herds, really. Identity ethics displays the astonishing arrogance of beholding a spectacularly complex and unique human being and allocating them to a herd by reference to a handful of characteristics (sex, “gender”, sexual orientation, race). So much about each person is simply ignored! Then the herders tell us which herd is “good” and which is “bad”.
Identity ethics is spurious, of course, but it must be taken seriously because it has become so powerful (and dangerous). While many atheists are on the political Left, the more serious among them may have to break ranks from identity ethics in due course, for the sake of intellectual integrity.
Part 3: “I don’t want it, so it isn’t there!”
So far, this series on atheism has discussed whether we theists are necessarily “irrational” (Part 1) and whether morality is viable without God (Part 2).
I’ll now briefly canvass some of the other things atheists often say.
Two seemingly peripheral arguments
A common reason for rejecting God seems to be: “There are thousands of religions, most of them mutually incompatible, they can’t all be true.”
- You’d have to look hard to find “thousands”. Anyway, however many there are, my response is “If you are curious, you will do the work of inquiring, just as a serious scientist does when faced with a difficult and complex natural question. If you are not curious, or not willing to do the work, just say so”.
- This atheist assertion insinuates, “Religions can’t all be true, so none of them is”, which is clearly illogical. One of them could be true, the atheist just doesn’t know which one. The pervasiveness of theistic belief (globally and throughout history) should really make a genuine sceptic curious.
The “onus of proof”
You will often hear atheists say it is up to theists to prove God’s existence. This made better sense when Christians were doing the talking while the atheists just appraised the arguments.
- This has changed, atheists now make a positive assertion “You may not claim a fact unless there is empirical/scientific proof of that fact”. They are now on the front foot, pushing their [limited and limiting] theory of knowledge.
- We do wish to persuade about God, but it’s not a matter of “proof” (see Part 1). As I understand the dynamics, we Christians commend our faith to others. I haven’t noticed any Christians insisting on belief in God – not recently, anyway. By contrast, atheists insist that it is only permissible to talk facts (including facts about God) if those facts are proved empirically/scientifically. This insistence swings the onus of proof onto them: they may no longer assume this view and impose it, they must establish it.
- It is worth remarking that the location of the onus of proof has no bearing on the issue of whether or not God exists: it’s just a discussion protocol.
I mention these arguments, not because they are intrinsically important but because they come up so frequently. They have negligible logical value as arguments. Really, they seem to me to be excuses rather than arguments – attempted justification for not believing and for not being inquisitive. Another refuge, like the “empiricist box” (Part 1).
It doesn’t hurt people like me to acknowledge that not wanting God to exist is entirely understandable. We all value our autonomy and we’re all at least half-inclined to resent authority. Even faith (a shifting, moody thing) is not a 24-7, airtight defence against this.
I wouldn’t be surprised if simply not wanting God to exist turned out to be the central point. And, to the extent that Christians can empathise with it, a meeting-point.
“Christianity is not ‘good news’ but bad news”
Atheists often say Christianity is evil and offer a bundle of “proofs” which have become familiar – war, forced conversion, the Spanish Inquisition, witch-hunting, tolerance of slavery, the oppression of women and gays, the suppression of science and, more recently, protected paedophilia. To this list might be added Old Testament violence and the “immoral” nature of the doctrine of Redemption by Christ’s death.
Sometimes, atheists add that they would refuse to worship a God who is behind all of this – a strange assertion that wants to sound heroically defiant, but can’t be if there is no God.
Atheists should hesitate before offering moral judgments (see Part 2) but, on the other hand, Christians should not rely on this to avoid discussion of wrongs we know the Church has done. After all, the Church consists largely of human beings and has wielded enormous power – a notoriously dangerous combination. For the most part, though, the proofs rely on the hasty acceptance of information that is skewed or incomplete.
Christianity’s track record
This is no trivial matter because it is difficult to recommend Christ if history shows that accepting this recommendation is a bad idea. In the final part of this series, I’ll mention some books that help set Christianity’s track record straight.
Setting history (and even the present) straight doesn’t present the Church as simply good: it isn’t, there’s a lot of wrong in it. In a sense, this is unremarkable (awful, but unremarkable) to the extent that the Church is a human institution, especially given the amount of power the Church has wielded. Although “unremarkable” logically, we Christians must taste and digest the impact of all this wrong on those who expected better of the Church, especially when they were taught to expect better.
After all, some critics of the Church have not just read about its wrongdoing, they’ve experienced it – whether by observation or direct impact. Eye witnesses and victims are not armchair critics: there is trauma and post-trauma rage out there.
For some, clear thinking about the Church must be preceded by healing – as in any damaged relationship. Apology, forgiveness (perhaps forgiveness even in the absence of apology) and, very likely, more reconciling work and healing work after that.
If the baby hasn’t gone out with the bathwater, it might (just might) help these people to consider the possibility that God is as appalled as they are at some of what the Church has done. If their sense of irony has survived the hurt, they might note with interest that the sins Christ died for were all sins over humanity’s time entire time here – including the then-future sins of His very own Church.
Returning to the armchair critics, it seems to me that the dark side of the Church’s track record often serves as just another excuse for not being inquisitive about the Church’s mission and, more important, about who commissioned it.
The doctrine of Redemption
The attack on this doctrine is a separate matter, and is entirely misconceived. Our critics liken it to the ancient ritual of “scapegoating”, where a village would seize a goat, load it up with paraphernalia representing the village’s sins and drive it into the desert so that the sins (and the goat) are never seen again. Christians believe Christ volunteered to, so to speak, “carry our sins into the desert”, that He did this long ago without any urging from us, that He returned in excellent condition and that He now asks us whether the sins He bore included ours. We say Yes, not to be cruel, but out of common sense and awe-struck gratitude. It’s opportunistic, I suppose, but accepting a gift always is. It would be unspeakably stupid to decline.
Part 4: Who are these atheists, anyway?
This final Part on the series on atheism is less concerned with argument and more focused on who we’re talking about (and with).
I’ve decided now to refer to “non-theists”, as non-belief in God ranges from frank atheism (“There is no God”) to agnosticism (“I don’t know”) with each position having its own spectrum and labels not being applied consistently. Non-theists sometimes describe themselves as “rationalists”, “realists”, “sceptics”, “humanists” or “secularists”. However, they all reside in the “empiricist box” (see Part 1).
Needless to say, non-theists vary because they are human beings with myriad characteristics and experiences. I can mention some.
A range of positions and reasons
The most serious non-theists are those atheists who are intellectually attached to the evidence argument: if there were a God, it would have been proved by now. Their demeanour varies: some triumphalist and rude, some civil, some indifferent.
- Ordinarily, atheists are a smallish subset of non-theists but, in this era of maximum self-expression, the number is probably artificially inflated.
The most visible non-theists are those who have a strong dislike of religion, especially Christianity:
- This dislike may arise from their understanding of the general and historical conduct of the Church – often a genuine misunderstanding (based on what they’ve “heard”) that can be treated with information.
- Illumination is not effective when the misunderstanding is deliberate – due to prejudice or even organised enmity. Socialists, for example, oppose Christianity as a matter of ideology, will contradict and abuse it at every opportunity and intend to bring it down. This stance can be found in many places, people and discussions: it doesn’t always call itself Socialism but, on the other hand, the Socialism brand is being laundered and relaunched despite its appallingly murderous history.
- Or the dislike may be the result of bad experiences within the Church – a story which needs to be seriously listened to before mentioning “babies and bathwater”. Many are angry: mere indignation for some, while for others it is real hurt.
- This anger is sometimes directed at God, not at religion. If a believer is angry with God, and doesn’t address the situation properly, the anger can take them far away – eg I might “punish God” by proclaiming that I don’t believe in Him.
Determined personal sovereignty and autonomy is another path to non-theism: “I don’t need a God to feel significant or secure”. Or, “I’m very clever and educated, I’ll take it from here”. Or simply, “No-one’s the boss of me!” More attitude than rationale.
Others were raised as non-theists and, like some Christians, think habitually and speak by rote.
Some non-theists call themselves “sceptics”, but I have found that they are typically half-sceptics – sceptical about God and the supernatural but not about their own claims about rationality and evidence (or the social and moral positions put forward by the Left).
Most non-theists are agnostics. This position is more understandable than a dogmatic “Ain’t no God”.
On the other hand, “I don’t know” is often a cover for “I don’t care”. It seems strange not to care that there might be Someone who made the cosmos and is in touch with humanity, but we continue to hear “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it”.
For some, “I’ll cross that bridge” is another pretext for avoiding a difficult issue. We should recognise that delaying consideration (and the “risk” of believing) is understandable, just like not wanting God to exist.
Some people prefer agnosticism because they believe it can accommodate spirituality. (Oddly, even some atheists are into this.) Of course, this “spirituality” falls short of belief in a God who is a Person – especially, a Person with, shall we say, “strong opinions” (who needs that?!). I think they’re trying to have their cake and eat it:
- A yearning for “the spiritual” is extremely common and entirely natural (a hint at the real yearning for God).
- However, with no connection with God or the supernatural, “spirituality” is just a species of strong emotion.
- True atheism – “truth is about reason and evidence” – is hard to market. No-one wants to think of themselves as a left hemisphere on a stick, so no wonder non-theist advocates use hard-sell. Enhancing non-theism with “spirituality” is smart marketing, but that’s all it is.
A “useful delusion”
There is another view that is worth mentioning. Some non-theists are so far from hostile that they consider Christianity to be useful and beneficial even though it’s based on a delusion.
The various non-theistic views about theism could actually be presented as:
- deluded, irrational and dangerous;
- deluded, irrational and harmless;
- deluded, irrational and beneficial.
Don’t confuse an …ism with an …ist
At risk of stating the obvious, a conversation with a non-theist is not a conversation with an embodiment of non-theism but with a fabulously complex and unique human being who is in God’s image and likeness, loved by God and in humanity’s shared predicament and who has an irrefutable claim on everyone’s love.
Atheism and politics
Visiting an atheist site, I once asked “Are there any conservative atheists or are you all Lefties?”. I was told, “If you’re smart enough to be an atheist, you’re probably smart enough to be progressive”.
Like much of academia, the media, the education system, much of government and parts of the Church, popular non-theism seems to have been infiltrated and largely taken over by “progressives” – to be politically allied with third-wave feminism, the LGBTIQ lobby and other “diversity” lobbies, and united with these in protecting Islam from criticism.
It is strange that such independent thinkers (a claim which non-theists often make to distinguish themselves from Christians) should all of a sudden be of one mind about such difficult and complex issues, especially when you consider that –
- trans activists tend to ignore or oppose the “factuality” of science, which serious non-theists ordinarily value; and
- in an Islamic theocracy, non-theists would fare as badly as feminists and LGBTIQ folk.
As far as I can tell, the only thing these groups have in common is a, shall we say, “warm dislike” of Christianity. I don’t know how else to make sense of this outlandish alliance.
Some non-theists have avoided being ensnared by these movements – some, because they are more seriously dedicated to reality and reason; others, because they regard Christianity as a “useful delusion” (see above).
The latter group quite sensibly suggest that something useful and beneficial shouldn’t be discarded until it can be replaced by something better. And they believe that some aspects of modern secular morality (identity politics, essentially) are defective and dangerous.
The former group want to develop a more reasonable system of God-free ethics (see Part 2: “Morality and the human being”).
It is possible to have positive ethical and political conversations with these more independent non-theists. There is likely to be mutual acceptance of the starting proposition that human beings are highly, and equally, valuable – if the non-theists don’t deride our “deluded” reasons for believing this and we don’t berate them for having no reason at all to believe it (see Part 2). From that starting-point, a lot of positive discussion and common action are possible.
Some very good books
Before closing, I must bring to your attention four excellent myth-busting books that together respond to most charges laid at the door of Christianity:
- Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014) – a history of religion and war – wars, past and present, are usually complex
- Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (2011) – a very insightful look at the Old Testament generally, but especially those passages that our critics like to highlight
- Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (2018) – Christianity did not spread only because it was adopted by the Emperor Constantine
- David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009) – covers several bases, including Christianity and science, the Spanish Inquisition, witches and slavery.