Author: Craig Branch –
Atheism: from the Greek a (without) and theos (deity or God). It is a word commonly understood as meaning a denial of the existence of gods. The most fundamental question of religion, of spiritual experience, and of philosophy is: Is there a God? And if there is a God, what difference does it make? And can I know this God personally? Can I know the answers to these kinds of questions?
The Bible affirms the existence of God. It also affirms-and historical observation tends to confirm it-that human beings have an innate and universal knowledge of God. The Old and New Testaments assume man’s natural, normal state includes the knowledge of God and thus atheism is abnormal. As Paul wrote,
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Rom. 1:18-20)
But despite these clear biblical teachings, there are people in the world who claim differently. They claim that they do not believe in God and that God’s existence is not as evident as Scripture says it is.
ATHEISM AND ITS VARIETIES
The Bible reveals that because of his sinful nature, man tends to suppress his knowledge of God in varying degrees. Because of the abnormality of atheism, man tends to invent or create artificial gods that are more to his liking than the true God-gods he can manipulate for his own interests-and this explains the origin of false religions and cults (cf. Rom. 1:18-25; Deut. 13:1-4). God’s Word tells us that this rebellion can go so far as to deny the existence of God altogether. God calls such rebels “fools” (Ps. 53:1; 14:1). But the word “fools” does not mean “dumb.” In Scripture, the fool is one who lacks wisdom, mocks guilt, is quarrelsome, and is morally licentious (Ps. 10:4).
Closely related to atheism is agnosticism. Agnostics claim to be unable or unwilling to accept either dogmatic atheism or dogmatic religious claims. They claim to suspend belief on the question of God’s existence. However, even though agnostics may say that they do not positively deny the existence of God, they live as though God doesn’t exist. They are, in effect, practical atheists.
It is helpful to differentiate atheism into three classifications. First, there is philosophical atheism which rejects belief in a personal God. But, one could be an atheist of this sort and still hold to the existence of an impersonal “god” or force or energy that is characterized as divine in some sense as in pantheism or panentheism (e.g., Buddhism and New Age).
Second, there is dogmatic atheism which is the absolute denial of any god whatsoever (which is what most people understand when they hear the term “atheism”). And third, there is practical atheism in which, like the agnostic mentioned above, one does not explicitly deny the existence of God, but lives his life as if there is no god.
THE GROWTH OF ATHEISM IN OUR CULTURE
The philosophical foundations of atheism in the West can be found in the development of 19rh century Darwinian evolution and the philosophical writings of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Fredrick Nietzsche. In the 20th century, there have been influential atheistic thinkers who were Marxists, existentialists, Freudians, and logical positivists-all of which espouse an atheistic outlook.
Studies have shown that in some countries which have a long tradition of religion and morality, respondents to even anonymous surveys are reluctant to identify them selves as atheists apparently because of a perceived negative stigma attached to that form of belief. In Muslim countries like Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, there is some actual fear of being found out if one so designates himself. For example, one study asked if the respondent affirmed that they did not believe in a god, and asked a second question if they are an atheist. A representative sample of the results was 29% of Latvians, 41% of Norwegians, 48% of the French, and 54% of Czechs said they didn’t believe in God, but only 9%, 10%, 19%, and 20% respectively self-identified themselves as an atheist.2
In America, recent studies reveal that atheist-agnostics make up one in eleven (9%) of the population, or approximately 20 million people. Significantly though, this number has doubled in the past twenty years. Also important to note is that the proportion of atheists and agnostics increases among the younger citizens. While only 6% of elders (ages 61+), and 9% of Boomers (ages 42-62) embraced atheism, 14% of Busters (23-41), and 19% of Mosaics (18-22) did so.3 Also, a recent Barna study, revealed that while most Americans still embrace a traditional view of God (66%), this number is down from 71%, just one year ago.4
One of the factors contributing to the growth of atheism in America could be immigration. Even though atheism rates are declining in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China due to the loss of Communist influence, in other formerly “Christian” countries, atheism-agnosticism percentages have grown exponentially. The following are statistics on atheism-agnosticism from several nations:
|Sweden (46-85%)|Canada (19-30%)|
|Denmark (43-80%)|Spain (15-24%)|
|Japan (64-65%)|Italy (6-15%)|
|France (43-54%)|Bulgaria (34-40%)|
|Germany (41-49%)|Australia (24-25%)|
All the nonbelievers in God combined rank fourth in the world’s population after professing believers in Christianity (2 billion), Islam (1.2 billion), and Hinduism (900 million). Atheists-agnostics number approximately 750 million worldwide. [^5]
Obviously, atheists comprise a very important mission field. This is one of the reasons for this issue of Areopagus Journal. But there are addition al reasons. There is currently a growing movement of militant atheism in our culture (and beyond). This movement is best exemplified by a growing volume of books that have been making it to the NY Times bestseller list in the past three years. There have always been occasional books extolling atheism like Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian. These books, however, had a limited popularity. But the new wave of militant atheists’ books differ in that they not only argue for the superiority of atheism, they aggressively accuse Christians and other religious people of being insane, evil, and dangerous, and propose the need to actually outlaw religion. And these books are finding a large, receptive audience.
This recent string of assaults began with Sam Harris’, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the End of Reason (2004). This work was followed by Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006), then Harris’ follow-up, Letter to a Christian Nation (2007), The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006), Atheist Manifesto by Michael Onfray (2007), God – the Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger, and the current bestseller, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens.
The popularity of these books is indicating a disturbing growing trend, one made even more disturbing by the aggressive militant rhetoric of these atheists. Sam Harris, for example, fires polemical blasts at religion claiming it to be the source of most human misery. He stated that the grievous harm caused by religious conviction “is what makes the honest criticism of religious faith a moral and intellectual necessity. “6 He encourages Christians to consider the possibility that
The biblical God is a fiction, like Zeus and the thousands of other dead gods whom most sane human beings now ignore. Can you prove that Zeus does not exist? Of course not. And yet, just imagine if we lived in a society where people spend tens of billions of dollars of their personal income each year propitiating the gods of Mount Olympus, where the government spent billions more in tax dollars to support institutions devoted to these gods, . . .where elected officials did their best to impede medical research out of deference to The Iliad and The Odyssey. . . .This would be a horrific misappropriation of our material, moral, and intellectual resources. And yet that is exactly the society we are living in. This is the woefully irrational world that you and your fellow Christians are working so tirelessly to create. [^7]
Richard Dawkins’ rhetoric against religion is even more vitriolic:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist,
infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, mega-lomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.[^8]
In addition to the militancy, atheists are intentionally organizing and strategizing on how to minimize the permissibility of religion in society and enhance the growth of their own group. Recently, atheists held a conference at the Jonas Salk Institute in California where Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, physicist Steven Weinberg and others passionately called on scientists and intellectuals to “actively combat religion,” stating that “anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.”9 Dawkins compared this new militant atheism movement to the homosexual movement in the sense of being a time of “coming out of the closet” and challenging public opinion of atheism. They have even decided to use the term “Brights” to identify themselves much like the homosexual community has adopted the term “gay.” The participants of the conference now have a new agenda: to raise awareness, reframe the issues, and change the language. 10
Many atheists believe the real battleground is in the classroom-from elementary school through college and public libraries. They intend to increase their focus on distributing videos, not just on evolution, but also emphasizing its accompanying philosophy of naturalistic materialism. They also intend to influence educators, school board members, and educational policy makers. 11
Allow me to recommend a book by Alister and Joanna McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion?. Alister McGrath was an atheist, earned degrees in chemistry and molecular biology at Oxford (where Dawkins is a professor), and later became a Christian and is now an influential scholar with a special emphasis on Christian thought and issues in science and religion. His wife, Joanna, earned her degree in experimental psychology and clinical neuropsychology at Oxford, as well as subsequent studies in Christian theology. The McGrath’s point out that even though the leading atheists like Dawkins accuse what they call “dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads” of being immune to arguments (since they are “deranged, deluded, deceived, and infected by a malignant God virus”), they and many other Christians are able to effectively demonstrate the weak nesses of the atheists position and the convincing strengths of the Christian worldview.12
It also damages the militant atheists’ case that some very well-known and prominent scientists are religious. A real embarrassment to Dawkins and company is Dr. Francis Collins. The militant atheists claim that no legitimate scientist could be a Christian. It’s an oxymoron. Yet Collins is one of the most respected scientists in the world. He is the head of the international Genome Project who has successfully mapped out the human DNA. He has written a book, The Language of God, in which he affirms that science and Christianity can harmoniously co-exist .
Despite their rhetoric, the new militant atheist’s dismissal of God and religion is baseless and misinformed. We have put together this issue of Areopagus Journal to help you see why.
IN THIS ISSUE
We will not in this issue give a point-by-point response to the militant atheists’ arguments. Rather, we will simply lay out some of the impressive evidence for the existence of God. We begin with an article by Greg Ganssle, lecturer in the philosophy department at Yale University and a research fellow with the Rivendell Institute, entitled, “The Universe Points to God.” In this article, Greg shows, first of all, that the amazing fine-tuning of the universe for life points to the existence of an intelligent designer of the universe. Secondly, he shows that the universe must have had a beginning- it is not eternal-and therefore very likely had an eternal, personal Creator.
In our Second Article, ARC’s Steve Cowan provides two other kinds of arguments for God’s existence based on facts about human knowledge in his piece, “God, Morality, and Knowledge: Two More Arguments that Point to God’s Existence.” First, we have moral knowledge. We know that some things are objectively right and other things are wrong. Secondly, we have knowledge per se. We believe that we know things like 2+2=4 and that the sky is blue. Steve shows that knowledge in general and moral knowledge in particular would not be possible unless God exists.
Lastly, Ray VanArragon, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bethel University, contributes the article, “Must We Have Evidence for God?” Many atheists and skeptics allege that belief in God is irrational unless we have compelling arguments for God’s existence.
Though there are good arguments for God’s existence (as our other articles show), Ray demonstrates that such arguments are not necessary for rational belief despite the claims of skeptics to the contrary.
An important goal we are striving for in this Areopagus Journal is to exhort our readers and the church to do some serious self examination. David Kinnamen, president of the Barna Group addresses our concerns well in a soon to be released book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity -and Why it Matters. He writes,
It is important for Christians to understand the environment and the perspectives of people who are different from them, especially among young generations whose culture is moving rapidly away from Christianity. Believers have the options of ignoring, rejecting, or dealing with the aggressiveness of atheists and those hostile to the Christian faith. By their own admission, Christians have difficulty handling change, admitting they are uncertain of something, and responding effectively to divergent perspectives. These characteristics make the new challenges facing Christianity even more daunting. 13
It is our prayer that the truth in these articles will be used by God the Holy Spirit both to equip Christians and to open the minds and hearts of unbelievers. May you be encouraged by the words of Sheldon Vanauken whom C.S. Lewis had befriended and pursued while they were at Oxford:
There is a gap between the probable and the proved. How was I to cross it? If I were to stake my whole life on the risen Christ, I wanted proof. I wanted certainty. I wanted to see him eat a lot of fish out of my hand. I wanted letters of fire across the sky. I got none of these. And I continued to hang around on the edge of the gap. . . .It was a question of whether I was to accept him-or reject. My God! There was a gap behind me as well!
Perhaps the leap to acceptance was a horrifying gamble-but what of the leap of rejection? There might be no certainty that Christ was God-but, by God, there was no certainty that he was not.
This was not to be borne. I could not reject Jesus. There was only one thing to do once I had seen the gap behind me. I turned away from it and flung myself over the gap towards Jesus. 14
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