Most objections to Christianity, or to religion more broadly, are hardly unique. So, encountering this fairly typical description of six “paths to atheism” seems as good an opportunity as any to address them.
I’ve come to realize that our objections to God’s existence tell us more about ourselves than about Him. Most can be boiled down to three basic realities of our psychology and the human condition:
1. The limits of the human brain to fully comprehend the world,
2. The human inclination to doubt, and
3. The human inclination to sin.
First, the limits of the human brain. The author of this post, blogger Chad Becker, begins with the question of God’s infiniteness. He simply cannot wrap his mind around the idea that God has existed for all of time. It is so obvious as to be cliche. Thus, this is his first path to atheism.
But is it really easier for us to fathom a point in time at which there was no universe and no God? Either way, we cannot comprehend God’s nature in the same sense that we can comprehend the nature of an orange. The part can never grasp the whole, and we are most certainly but a part of the universe we inhabit. Even if my thumbnail possessed consciousness, along with a vague awareness that it was part of something bigger than itself, could my thumbnail ever fully comprehend the human body in all its intricate complexity? Certainly not. But it would make even less sense for my thumbnail to cling to the belief that it was all there was, denying the existence of the greater body.
Becker also admits to being unable to fathom heaven (point six). To which I would respond that neither can anyone else. But saying “I’ve never been to the center of the earth; I just can’t imagine what it would be like there,” is not to admit that the center of the earth does not exist.
Religion is not the only field to offer seemingly incomprehensible conclusions; just look at science. People struggled to accommodate themselves to Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, Newton’s physics, and Einstein’s theory of relativity. When we study the world from a scientific perspective, as from a religious perspective, there exists the same condition of knowing something without fully comprehending it. I know that time and space are relative, but my brain still struggles with what that means. I know that God is infinite, but I am likewise at a loss to articulate all the implications of this concept. Don’t even ask for a precise explanation of the trinity. Likewise, even the best, most brilliant scientists struggle to explain the origins of human life or the exact nature of matter. We are time and again forced to admit that there is much we do not know. Thus, Christianity has always acknowledged the existence of mystery. The fact that we cannot comprehend something does not make it untrue.
Secondly, doubt. It is in many ways a mark of intelligence and maturity to be willing to doubt what one has been taught, especially when one encounters different teachings. The alternative would be to refuse to consider opposing views, insisting that one already possesses all the answers and therefore everyone else must be wrong.
So what are we to make of all the religious diversity we encounter? Becker admits this to be the true source of his doubt (point two). He realizes that if he were born into a Mormon family, he would likely be a Mormon. If he had been born in India, he would likely be a Hindu. Religion, then, is just each unique culture claiming an unfounded monopoly on truth. So what if Christians have a book they use to justify their claims? Islam has a book. Mormonism has a book. In Becker’s words, “Nothing distinguishes one religion’s claims as more valid on an evidence based level.”
While this is certainly a common objection in the modern, globalized age, it is not too difficult to dispense with. One can start by pointing to all the similarities between the world’s great religions. Doesn’t the fact that certain teachings crop up in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Taoism support their validity? Take, for instance, the obligation to care for the weak and needy, the understanding of man as a basically flawed being, the need to cultivate virtue, and the possibility of life after death.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis observes:
If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own… Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of doublecrossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two make five.”
The commonality of many belief systems from around the world supports natural law theory — the idea that we can use reason, common sense, and experience to arrive at a set of universal moral norms. Any child who has every screamed “That’s not fair!” has appealed to the idea of a universal code of human behavior that all should be able to recognize (though all don’t always follow). It is as if a moral code had been inscribed upon our hearts, a “conscience” if you will. If there is a universal, natural law (beyond mere human laws, which will vary), then there must be a universal law-giver, and this we know as God.
And yet while the world’s diverse cultures have long subscribed to a set of strikingly similar norms of behavior, they are not all the same, and they are not equal. In Hinduism, widows were once burned to death. Various cultures have practiced some form of human sacrifice. Around the world today, there are certain cultures that continue to victimize women and children. The Gospel of Matthew instructs “by their fruits you shall know them.” It is no coincidence that the very idea of human rights and women’s rights first emerged in a Christian context. Christians were the first to oppose infanticide, establishing the first orphanages to care for unwanted children. While some have perverted scripture to attempt to justify slavery, as Becker notes, Christians were also the first to abolish slavery entirely on the grounds that it was in fact anti-Christian.
While similar to other religions in its basis in natural law, Christianity is also unique. It is the only religion to claim to have been founded by God Himself. Muhammad is to Muslim’s but a prophet; Buddha and Confucius were to their followers but wise teachers. Yet Christians believe that Jesus was and is God, the Word made Flesh. No other religion has anything like the Incarnation or the Resurrection. No other religion can provide as firm a foundation for human rights. By becoming human Himself, God endowed humanity with a unique dignity and worth. This fact should be enough to make us pause and consider Christianity as more than just one of many moral systems from which to choose.
People often criticize Christians for trying to convert people of other faiths, as if such an action was based in a negative judgment of their existing faith. But imagine we are all in a river (life), headed for a great waterfall (death). The end seems inevitable, except there is a narrow stream – partially obscured by branches – leading off to the safety of land. Would we criticize someone for venturing out into the raging waters to help others reach the stream of salvation? Or would we more criticize the one who contents himself with his own salvation, letting others choose their own way though knowing it leads to ruin? The latter course is “tolerant,” the former loving.
Becker’s fourth and fifth paths to atheism stem from a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the Bible, which is not one book but a library of seventy-two books, varying greatly in their authors, contexts, and purposes, collected and compiled over the centuries. A mass of writing such as this cannot be expected to be fully understood without a great deal of careful study. If one is intent to cherry-pick verses, it can be easily misread and misunderstood. (This is why the Catholic Church has always pointed to the need for authority in interpreting scripture, and why Luther’s Reformation wrought so many conflicting interpretations.)
However, it is impossible to consider the Bible as a whole and miss the essential message of God’s love for humanity and the importance of compassion and repentance. In his effort to instruct humanity, God did not begin by unloading the entire truth in one sitting, just as we would not begin instructing a child in Shakespeare and Einstein. We would first prepare a foundation, instilling basic concepts of reading, writing, and arithmetic. A child passes through many teachers in his life to prepare him to for his ultimate career, just as God sent many prophets to prepare the way for His Son. In the Gospel, Jesus clearly states that he is establishing a new covenant, not to replace God’s covenant with Abraham, but to complete and perfect it.
The third human obstacle to understanding God is a big one – sin. Beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden, the very first sin sprang from doubts about God’s ultimate goodness (the idea that He might be selfishly hoarding wisdom) and the desire to be like Him: to possess knowledge of good and evil. At the root of all sin is rebellion against God; specifically the desire to replace His judgment with our own. Returning to natural law, C.S. Lewis states:
These, then, are the two points I want to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious desire that they should behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.
A consequence of human sinfulness is that we live in a pretty messed-up world, a world where even professing Christians do terrible things – not because they are Christian, but because they are human beings, and therefore fallen. The schoolyard bully knows full-well that it is wrong to pick on the weaker kids. He does so anyway. But we humans are also masters of self-delusion. Often at the earliest sensation that what we want to do is wrong, we come up with elaborate justifications, even telling ourselves that it is all for the best.
In Becker’s third point, he criticizes Christians as narcissistic for attributing all the good in their lives to God, as if God cared more about them scoring an “A” on that test or landing a new promotion than the welfare of the millions of people in the world left to suffer. Certainly Christians are not immune from the very human vices of narcissism and vanity. All that is good in our lives does ultimately trace back to God, but what the world calls good is not what God calls good. For example, most people long for riches and would thus celebrate an increase in their personal fortunes. But from the perspective of one’s soul, riches may impede the path to heaven and eternal life; thus they can be bad. As Christians, we should perhaps begin to thank God more for the challenges and obstacles in our lives, especially those that provide opportunities for spiritual growth, and get rid of this notion that God just wants us to be happy and comfortable.
All this talk of sin makes atheists like Becker especially uncomfortable, as it leads to the most abhorrent of states – guilt. This is no surprise, as the creed of postmodernism may as well be “always feel good about yourself, no matter what!” How terrible to sense that one may not be as good as one would like to believe! How awful to imagine that one’s sexual desires should sometimes (as in the case of homosexuality and adultery) be suppressed and not indulged! How can man ever be truly happy if he is always obsessed with following rules?!
To Becker, there should really only be one rule – “just be a nice person.” In this very popular line of thinking, we should stop preaching our “thou shalt not’s” and just leave people alone for goodness’-sake. Remove the warning lights and the guardrails. Because the last thing we would ever want is to make someone feel like they are not “just fine the way they are,” like they have the potential to be so much more, like this life is not the end. Becker finds the very concept “gross,” and he is glad to be free of it. But returning to the analogy of the waterfall, is it “nice” to watch as people float by towards the waterfall, oblivious to the impending disaster? Or is it at best moral laziness and cowardice? The path of repentance is uncomfortable to be sure, but the path of sin does not lead to happiness, in this life or the next.