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One of the most frequently asked questions in my lectureships concerns whether there really is such a thing as an atheist. Are there reasons why atheism makes sense? Somehow, many people seem to believe that there is no such thing as a real atheist. We hear catchy sayings like “There are no atheists in foxholes.” That suggests atheists are actually hypocrites who, for various reasons, pretend not to believe in God even though they do.
Having been an atheist for many years, I know that such suggestions are not valid. Many people genuinely believe that there is no God. There can be various reasons for a person denying the existence of God. We want to share three of them with you from our own experience:
REASON 1. The lesson of history has been that religion has consistently opposed science and human advancement. As we look back to Galileo, Copernicus, Pasteur, and virtually every great scientist of the past, we can see religionists opposing their ideas. History tells the stories of scientists who were persecuted because their theories conflicted with the traditional religious views of the day. Even today, religious opposition frequently works to stop scientific advancement. A percentage of college-educated atheists are atheists because they view religion as a stumbling block to human progress. For them, that is why atheism makes sense.
RESPONSE. In the past religion has, at times, blocked science when men followed tradition, not the Bible. Even today, however, we have Christians who oppose science because of traditional beliefs or because of human religious teaching. The atheist certainly has a valid complaint here. The only problem with his argument is a failure of atheists to realize where modern science started and that it cannot stand alone.
First, look at where modern science started. It began with the recognition that if God conceived the creation, it must display intelligence with logical and understandable order and design. If we believe that nature is a product of blind, random chance, then we would expect it to be random and chaotic and incapable of being understood. Science began when humans realized that the creation and its design could be understood and studied.
Secondly, what we mean by “science can't stand alone” is that it cannot determine the uses humans should make of its discoveries. Many times religious concerns about the moral implications of a scientific discovery are construed as attempts to stop science when they are actually an attempt to give science intelligent and productive direction.
ADVICE. We who believe in God need to make sure that if we oppose a scientific effort, our opposition is based on Christian principles from the Bible and not on tradition. We also need to be sure that we do not rely on pseudo-science and false science to back up our efforts to reach the skeptic. We must urge ourselves and others to think and examine, not accept and follow.
REASON 2. Some argue that religion causes nothing but trouble, hostility, suffering, and discord. History is full of religious wars. We could point out the Crusades, more recent conflicts in Northern Ireland, and in much of the Middle East spilling over into terrorism in the United States and western countries. Examine the internal problems of religious groups, including hypocrisy, bickering, hostility, and abuse. Look at the prominent religious leaders who are guilty of immoral actions. Look at the money raked in by glib, fast-talking con-artists who build religious empires for their own pocket. They exploit the very people they pretend to help. In simple terms, religion does not seem to work.
RESPONSE. Who among those of us who wear the name “Christian” would want to deny all of those charges? We can cry out that these are human errors and not God's. However, if faith in God does not work for us, how can atheists rationally believe it is going to work for them? Today the body of Christ is afflicted with people who claim to be Christians while they single out other Christians to attack as they display anything but a Christian attitude.
What the atheist is missing in this argument is that hypocrisy is not solely a function of religion. You find hypocrisy at work and on the golf course. There has only been one person who ever lived who was entirely free of hypocrisy, and he was the Son of God. Because one atheist was a murderer, can we legitimately say that all atheists are murderers? All humans fall short of what they should be. The most fundamental difference between atheism and Christianity is that Christianity recognizes that fact and functions in spite of it. Atheism relies on humanism which tries to deny the existence of sin while pointing out the sins of religion.
ADVICE. Those of us who wear the name “Christian” need to do a better job of pointing people to Christ and the Bible rather than to preachers and buildings. As long as we are “preacher-oriented” and “building bound,” we will continue to reinforce the arguments of the atheists. When we convince people about Christ and the truth of the Bible, the errors of humans will not be relevant. We must live out the faith we claim to have so that others can see Christ in us. Only then can we can show them that following Christ brings real peace.
REASON 3. Christianity does not work. If there is a God, why does he not act when things get rough? Why do even the best Christians find themselves afflicted with disease and loss and even death? Why do so many Christians experience nervous breakdowns, broken marriages, hostile children, alcohol and drug problems, and all of the other bad things which are a part of the world today? One man recently wrote to me, “Christianity only works for those who would do okay without it.” Another wrote, “The only thing I can see in prayer is its therapeutic value. Certainly, Christians who are physically afflicted do not have a better survival rate than afflicted atheists.” A third said, “I do not know of any Christian man in my community that does more good, is more generous, or is more successful than my neighbor, who is an atheist. If God is real and Christianity is really worth anything, why is that true?”
RESPONSE. This challenge goes to where most Christians live. Can our friends tell any difference between us as Christians and our neighbors who are not? There are two major problems here. The first is that erroneous claims by some religionists have fouled the air. Some who wear the name Christian convey to the world the idea that Christians have diplomatic immunity from all problems. They preach what some call a “health and wealth gospel.” They teach that no person who is a real Christian will ever be sick or fail.
The truth is that God never gave Christians diplomatic immunity from problems. The emphasis on present-day miracles and the use of television to promote the claims of “faith healers” have given atheists much to criticize. Atheists, and even many believers, do not understand the advantages a Christian enjoys. When the Word of God says things like, “Ask and it will be given to you, Seek and you will find;” it is not speaking of physical and material things. God has not promised that Christians will have health, wealth, and freedom from problems. What he has promised is that he will bless those things we do to serve him. There is no greater joy, fulfillment, satisfaction, or thrill than to see God work through us to accomplish something we could not possibly do alone.
In dealing with infidelity in a mate, the difference between an atheist and a Christian is that Christians can rebuild the marriage. The difference between the two in dealing with an alcohol or other drug problem is that the Christian can overcome it with God's help. In dealing with death or tragedy, the Christian can cope and go on and continue to have a fulfilling life. In dealing with failure, the Christian can be secure and confident that it does not affect our eternal destiny.
ADVICE. We must convey to the world around us that when Christ lives in us, and we are spirit-filled people, we are not walking around two feet off the ground behaving as mystics. We Christians need to let the world know how much of a positive change God has made in our lives. Too often non-Christians view the church as a group of somber, unhappy, irrational, mystical, illogical, unintelligent, hypocritical people who are out of touch with reality. This third reason why atheism makes sense is one that we can easily disprove as we can laugh, love, enjoy life, and logically and rationally defend our faith.
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