The following is the concluding segment of my three-part reflection on contemporary atheism and Christianity. Part One featured an introduction and review of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006). Part Two included a review of Alister McGrath’s response to the New Atheism movement, Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running On Empty? (Thomas Nelson, 2010).
Christians—as theists—cannot define atheism on their own terms, a definition which often involves theological language. I have often heard progressive Christians say that when confronted by atheists, they always ask which god they don’t believe in, and then proceed to counter, “I don’t believe in that god, either.” The point of atheism is that the person does not believe in any god, whether liberal and loving or capricious and judgmental. The rejection by atheists of Classical definitions of God does not inherently justify the reality of a non-Classical (say, Postmodern) God. Reframing the argument in theistic terms is not helpful for honest discussion.
But nor can atheists define theism or religion on their own terms, as Dennett does. Painting the bulls-eye around the arrow offers little more than confirmation bias, and also fails to move the conversation forward in any meaningful way. The problem, it seems, comes from an apparent lack of a mutually agreed-upon starting point.
If one wanted a decently valid and succinct argument against the existence of a benevolent deity, I think that Neil DeGrasse Tyson offers one of the best. Tyson, an astrophysicist, has stated on numerous occasions that he finds it difficult to believe in a god who loves and cares for creation when we live in a universe that is constantly trying its very best to kill us. The implication here (as in Dennett’s primary thesis) is that religious faith sprang naturally from the leisure time of human animals who had somehow discovered a way to fight back against this malevolent universe. In this sense, theology is little more than the privilege of philosophy afforded to those who managed to cheat nature via the first agricultural revolution and the congregating of homo sapiens into mutually supportive communities with sophisticated social structures that took the burden of survival off the individual and placed it on the collective. Even this claim falls short, however, despite its sensibility. Consider the case of Göbekli Tepe, the ancient Turkish site considered by many archaeologists to be the oldest known place of human worship. For decades, anthropologists assumed that the argument I outlined above provided a compelling rationale for the emergence of religion. It was recently suggested, however, that the construction of Göbekli Tepe pre-dates that of the Neolithic agricultural revolution that ultimately led to increased leisure time. This discovery has helped to re-write how anthropologists and historians have understood the origins of religious worship. Homo sapiens has been offering worship to supernatural deities since the very earliest stages of our evolution. Even when the reality of human life was, as Thomas Hobbes noted, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” in a universe that was unceasingly attempting to wipe us from the face of the earth by way of disease, famine, and natural predators, hominids still found the need to express wonder for the universe and to offer some sense of reverence to the force or forces that controlled it all. Of course religion should be studied—there are many questions left to explore. If the the theory behind theistic evolution (not “intelligent design”) is correct, at what point in our evolutionary process did we become cognizant of God? When we were little more than apes whose sole concern was to consume enough calories to survive each day, were we aware that a deity had been helping us along? We must explore these questions cautiously, with the understanding that they may never be decisively answered. It is not a question of the possibility of “breaking the spell,” but rather a question of sincerity and openness to truth, wherever that quest might lead us.
I have written these reflections as one who has spent a good deal of the last several years of my life on the fence between theism and atheism (though I have never personally considered anti-theism). In sum, I have no certainty either way. Though I would not describe myself as an agnostic, faith is not something I have been gifted with, nor is it something that comes easily. I often feel that I have little control over my beliefs; some days I wake up and believe most fervently in the Living Triune God and in the self-sacrificial example of Jesus Christ, and see the long arc of history culminating in a grand eschatological plan for bodily resurrection and the redemption of all creation. I pray and I sit in silence before a little altar I have constructed in my house, and I sense the immanence of the transcendent God with me there in my tiny room. Other days I wake up and know in my heart of hearts that humankind is just another animal stuck on a meaningless rock in a corner of the universe with no ultimate purpose except to live and die as best we can, thankful that our ancestors at least afforded us the luxury of leisure time for philosophical reflection (or perhaps cursing them for that very privilege). On the days that I share these respective convictions, they are each my most vivid reality.
I am skeptical of theology’s ability to provide any sort of certainty regarding physical reality, though I am hopeful of its ability to help humanity find meaning. Yet I am also made uneasy by the claims of secular humanism, which seeks to value human intellect and progress above all other aspects of creation. Many of the humanists I have conversed with have admitted that their humanism often insufficiently addresses our place among other non-human animals (which creates its own difficulty for me as a tree-hugging, animal-loving vegetarian), a glaring ignorance that I find highly problematic for a worldview that eschews religious faith as irrational superstition. In other words, it is hopelessly anthropocentric, whereas I find Christian theology provides hope for all creation in the Apostle Paul’s prophecy that God might someday become “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). Secular humanism also appears to have some sort of vague eschatology in mind, as well: a world in which human cooperation leads to a common welfare among all people. Dennett acknowledges his own “sacred values”: “democracy, justice, life, love, and truth (in alphabetical order)” (p.23). Ethically speaking, secular humanism encourages people to do what they can in service to these virtues, which happen to closely resemble the virtues of many religious folk.
Contemporary Christian theology can offer few serious and conclusive answers to the accusations of the New Atheists, primarily because the New Atheists (like many fundamentalist Christians) seem less interested in serious dialogue as their primary objective than in eradicating religion altogether. When both parties approach a conversation with the assumption that they are correct and must defend their positions tooth and nail, little progress will be found. “Those who refuse to participate (because they already know the answers in their hearts),” Dennett says, “are, from the point of view of the rest of us, part of the problem” (p.14). However, we do have much to teach and much to learn from moderate atheists who do not approach the question of theism from a position of epistemological superiority. Perhaps if we might align our values, if we can acknowledge a definitive starting point for theological (or “atheological”?) reflection, we might come to a more robust understanding of not only our own positions, but those of our sisters and brothers of different convictions, as well. It is unlikely that any definitive “smoking gun” answer will come along and satisfy the curiosity of theists and atheists alike. God is certainly not going away, and neither are atheists. But it is very likely that we might come to a deeper appreciation of the humanity of those on both sides of the debate, regardless of where we end up ourselves.
- Küng, Hans. Does God Exist?: An Answer for Today. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980.
- Loftus, John W. The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2010.
- Moltmann, Jürgen. God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.
- Onfray, Michel. Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. New York: Arcade, 2007.
- Willis, W. Waite, Jr. Theism, Atheism, and the Doctrine of the Trinity: The Trinitarian Theologies of Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann in Response to Protest Atheism. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987.