Turnabout: Questions for Atheists

Patheos Blog

Turnabout: Questions for Atheists

In my experience, atheists usually assume that atheism (or its approximations) is the only reasonable position. They demand that Christians give an explanation of their beliefs. Thus, all the questions are directed to Christians: Why do you believe A? Why do you believe B? The assumption is that A and B are irrational positions.

But honesty demands equal turnabout. Jürgen Habermas, a well-known and highly respected atheist thinker, reports that when he began examining his own beliefs, he had to admit that he daily uses convictions that actually have deeply Christian, not atheist, sources.

For instance, the belief that science is capable of unlimited progress. This belief assumes that the universe is rational and understandable, so that human intelligence can keep penetrating to and uncovering its secrets. But, we need to ask ourselves, where does that belief in the intelligibility of the universe come from? As with other beliefs we had taken to be atheist, its actual basis is the view that an all-seeing, rational force governs the inner life of the cosmos. Intelligibility suffuses the universe through and through. It is in all its parts intelligible and able to yield up its secrets to science little by little, progressively.

This conviction is not itself based on science; rather, it is a belief, with obviously some after-the-fact evidence in its favor (namely, the progress of science until now). At the same time, an optimistic account of human intelligence faces immense obstacles: the immense folly, evil, and sustained irrationality humans are prone to, in almost every age. The death camps of Nazi Germany and the vast human cruelty practiced in the gulag of the Soviet Union, for example.

Other atheists have been willing to face the fact that two systematically atheistic regimes of our time, Hitler’s Nazism and Stalin’s Communism, laid down a record as two of the cruelest, most murderous, and most smothering of free thought in history. How do atheists defend the role of atheism in these regimes?

"Apocalypse V: Second Horseman of the Apocalypse - War" by Karen Laub-Novak. Used with permission.

The great American Tom Paine, scourge of the contradictions he found in the bible and protagonist par excellence of reason, begged the leaders of the Revolution not to take up atheism. He begged them, because with atheism as a starting point they would lose all rational ground for defending human rights. The French could choose a declaration of rights for themselves, but without God any such declaration was but a set of subjective preferences, without any objective grounding in human nature – or the Creator. Look what happened: They embraced atheism. Vast bloodshed ensued.

Nietzsche similarlywarned Europeans not to gloat about the “death of God,” for if there is no God, then there is no justification for holding that reason rules this (often mad) world. Without God, what are human rights? Just the preferences of some people in some places at some times? Wow! Not much protection there.

Further, unless I am mistaken, many Darwinists are forced to explain the rationality of the world in terms of chance. Whence reason? By evolution through mutation and natural selection, yes, if that is what the evidence suggests. But by eons of pure happenstance and chance? Now there’s a foundation for believing in the power of human reason and the progress of science. Reason based on chance. Yikes!

In 1991 Irving Kristol marked the death of secular humanism, by which he meant a view of the world from which God is absent. He noted two fundamental defects in secular humanism. First, it has no way of proposing a moral code, for such codes come only from the long experience of human communities, and these affect moral behavior only if individuals “are reared to look respectfully, even reverently, on the moral traditions of their forefathers.” They depend “on the faith that one’s ancestors, over the generations, were not fools – and that they have much to teach us.”

Secondly, “no community can survive if it is persuaded – or even suspects – that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe.”

I would add that attentive experience in the twentieth century taught many that when thugs hold life to be meaningless, no argument moves them to desist from unimaginable cruelties. You tell them, “That’s wrong!” They reply, “Says you.

You tell them their claims are not true. They laugh.

True, many atheists live good and noble lives, like the hero of Albert Camus’ The Plague,Dr. Rieux. But when Rieux explains why he acts so selflessly, he talks like a Christian. Nearly all the atheists I know believe in solidarity with the poor and compassion. They didn’t get any of that from pagan philosophers – or from science.

Besides, when you listen carefully to what those who call themselves atheists actually hold, you discover that three-quarters of them say they are actually agnostics. They can’t prove that God does not exist. They just don’t yet see any evidence that He does.

Of course, the only thing atheists count as evidence is what their senses can grasp. But serious religious traditions, thinking ones, stipulate from the beginning that God cannot be seen. Nor tasted, heard, touched, or smelled. No one sees God. God is spirit and truth. Looking for God by looking for sensory evidence is doomed to failure. God is not a bodily thing.

You can’t find God by looking for another body in the universe, like a planet.