What Your Atheist Neighbor Believes
By Doy Moyer
Atheism seems simple enough to define. It is the active belief that there is no God. Or is it a more passive failure to believe? Perhaps it is both. Hard atheists strongly oppose belief in God arguing that evidence is against God. Soft atheists, while not arguing that evidence disproves God, do not believe there is enough evidence to support God. Agnostics argue that we cannot know if there is a God, and so God has little practical value. There is a range of beliefs within the category of atheism. All hold to the same basic ideas: there is not enough evidence to believe in God, and (for hard atheists) evidence proves that God does not exist. In the last several years, the movement called the “new atheism” has grown, taking up the cause of advancing atheism. Leaders have included the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Larry Krauss, and Christopher Hitchens (deceased, no longer an atheist), among others. They have argued that modern science has conclusively demonstrated that God is not necessary.
Not only do the “new atheists” argue that there is no God, they are adamant that religion is bad for society. Taking their cue from Neitszche, who declared, “God is dead,” they believe that religion impoverishes lives and makes slaves out of people. They believe that atheism frees up the mind and body to live “authentically” (to borrow from Jean-Paul Sartre). They actively campaign against God and religion, particularly Christianity. Many new atheists have been quite evangelistic in their efforts, going so far as to buy billboard space or advertise on the side of buses. They are not content to let people live out their religious convictions; they are actively seeking to change those convictions and eradicate religion.
Of course not all atheists are so engaged. Many will simply be content to quietly live out their lives not believing, likely avoiding confrontations along the way. We should add to this number those who may or may not claim to believe in God, but live in an irreligious fashion as if God does not matter anyway. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psa 14:1). This category of atheist is more of the practical atheist, and the reality of God just does not matter to such a person.
Understand the Despair of Atheism
One of the more prolific atheists of the twentieth century was Jean-Paul Sartre. He recognized the despair that atheism brings: “The existentialist … finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that ‘the good’ exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky once wrote, ‘If God did not exist, everything would be permitted’; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or without himself.” (Existentialism is a Humanism)
Such quotes abound. Yet here is what we need think about. Understanding the despair of atheism shows that atheists are ripe for the Gospel of Jesus. They know they are missing something, and they cry out for more. While they hide behind a facade of intellectualism and scientific pretensions, they are desperately in need of that which the Lord offers: grace, mercy, and forgiveness. They are, after all, just like all of us. All have sinned. All need Jesus, and Christians must share that message. The atheist may reject and mock it, but once that seed is planted, we don’t know when or how it may take effect in a heart that has long denied God.
Here are some pointers for dealing with atheists:
- Don’t be afraid to challenge the atheistic worldview. Christians will always be opposed and mocked, but we have no reason to fear their intimidation (cf. Rom 1:18; 1 Peter 3:14). What the world thinks foolish (the cross) is the power of God to believers (1 Corinthians 1:18ff). Our defense is for the Lord who died for us.
- Deal in ultimates: what is the ultimate foundation for thinking? Intelligence, or mindless, lifeless matter? If the latter, what reason do we have to trust our thinking (knowing that such reason would itself have come ultimately from mindless, lifeless matter that itself came from nothing). I push this to show such is not a foundation for trusting reason. In my experience, atheists hate having to deal with ultimates and will often say, “we can’t know.” But if “we can’t know,” then they have at least gone from atheist (“there is no God” — which is based on what they think they know) to agnostic. If this is the case, atheism cannot be so hardcore. It certainly is not based on knowledge.
- Deal in universals, especially in moral issues: they will argue against objective morality, but then will issue universal statements about moral actions. I recently asked an atheist this question after he fussed about “homophobes”: Is the condemnation of homosexuality universally immoral? Think about that. He refused to answer, knowing that this would put him into the universally objective morality category. The fact is, they cannot be consistent here, for when pushed, everyone has a moral line that should not be crossed.
We do this, not trying to embarrass, but trying to get them to see the inconsistencies of a position that renders both thinking and morality pointless. If a worldview cannot make sense of itself, then surely it is problematic. Ultimately, the main idea is to point them to God and Christ, in whom all things both matter and make sense.