Atheism from a Historical Perspective
From a historical perspective it is atheism that was old and the Christian faith and its good news that burst on the world as new. Once commonly called “atomism,” the genealogy of atheism can be traced all the way back through the Enlightenment to Roman poets such as Lucretius and his poem De Rerum Natura, and behind that to Greek philosophers such as Epicurus and Democritus and their philosophy of atomism.
It was precisely such a philosophy that contributed to the classical world a strong sense of fate and the futility of both life and human purpose. And it also provided the dark setting against which the brilliance of the hope of the good news of Jesus shone by contrast—as soon it will once again. But why the current aggression and rudeness? One obvious reason lies in the alarmed response from atheists to the collapse of the secularization theory so loved by the Enlightenment. The worldwide explosion of religion since the 1970s shows that religion is far from dying out as it was supposed to.
An Attempted Refutation of the Gospel
[In the middle of the 20th century a] young Russian communist went to a meeting one night where he heard a Christian expounding his faith. The communist was angry. How could anyone still believe such nonsensical superstition in these days? He went home, determined to write a refutation of Christianity that would settle the issue once and for all. In order to get the quarry properly into his sights, he found an old Bible and looked into it.
He didn’t want to waste more time than was necessary, so he decided to read the shortest of the four Gospels, that of St Mark. It was only much later, as he said, that he realized that God has a sense of humour. St Mark’s Gospel is exactly the book written for someone in that frame of mind: pulling no punches, getting directly to the point, portraying Jesus the Messiah bringing through his death and resurrection a kingdom that outshines all the political dreams of the world.
He read Mark again, then the other Gospels; then, sitting up through the night, the rest of the New Testament. By morning he was a believing, praying Christian. That man is Anthony Bloom, who went on to become one of the great Russian Orthodox bishops of our generation, leading his flock through intense suffering but always seeing reflecting the glory of God in the face of Jesus.
Seventy-one percent of Americans pray regularly. Even atheists backslide from time to time. I read somewhere (but I find it hard to believe) that a whopping 20 percent of agnostics and atheists sheepishly admit to praying daily! Take Henry, a sixty-four-year-old who describes himself as being “at the skeptical end of agnosticism.” In 2018 he told British pollsters ComRes, “I certainly wouldn’t classify myself as religious,” before describing a nightly routine of kneeling down by his bed to recite the Lord’s Prayer and pray for his loved ones.
Built By No One
Sir Isaac Newton had a perfectly scaled down replica of the then known solar system built for his studies. A large golden ball represented the sun at the center, and the known planets revolved around it through a series of cogs, belts, and rods. It was an incredible machine. One day while Newton was studying his model, an agnostic friend stopped by for a visit.
The man marveled at the machinery and asked, “Who made this exquisite thing?” Without looking up, Newton replied, “Nobody.” “Nobody?” his friend asked. “That’s right,” said Newton, “all of these balls and cogs and belts and gears just happened to come together, and wonder of wonders, by chance they began revolving in their set orbits with perfect timing.”
Five Thousand Churches
Fred Allen (1984-1956) was a famous American comedian, writer, and radio star. When fellow comic Jack Parr first met Allen, he burst out, “You are my God!” Allen replied with the characteristic wit of an improvisor, ““There are five thousand churches in New York and you have to be an atheist.”
Stuart Strachan Jr., Source material from Clifton Fadiman, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes.
The Good News of Atheism?
In his article entitled, “Where Are the Honest Atheists?”, Senior correspondent from the Week magazine Damon Linker made this statement regarding atheism:
“If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free—all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.”
Taken from Damon Linker, The Week, “Where Are the Honest Atheists?”
Certainty vs. Vulnerability
In this excerpt from his book Faith in the Shadows, pastor and author Austin Fischer shares a surprising truth about the need to be vulnerable with our own faith if we are likely to have a positive impact on unbelievers:
As a personal anecdote, I’ve always found that unbelievers are much less offended by the hypocrisy of our morality than they are the hypocrisy of our certainty. Every human, believer or unbeliever knows what it’s like to fail to live up to one’s beliefs, to fail to embody one’s moral ideals. Moral hypocrisy is a universal experience, so unbelievers can be remarkably understanding of our moral fragility because they know it too.
What unbelievers fail to understand is how we can pretend to be certain of things we obviously cannot be certain of…I once spoke with an atheist who told me he would love to hear me explain the coherence of Christian faith, but not until I admitted that, while a believer, I was also uncertain about my beliefs.
I asked why and he curtly responded, because I haven’t any time to waste talking about something this important with someone who lacks the decency to admit we are two uncertain human beings trying to make sense of mysteries. I know that I am an uncertain human. Do you?” Sadly, at the time I did not, so our conversation floundered on the shoals of my unacknowledged uncertain (or humanity).
Faith is not the absence of doubt. Faith is the presence of love.
Taken from Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt by Austin Fischer. Copyright (c) 2018 by Austin Fischer. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Dueling Fish
One of my friends developed a PowerPoint presentation with a set of “dueling fish” images to illustrate this point. In the first image, a believer puts a Jesus fish on his car. Then his atheist neighbor responds with a Darwin fish. Then the Christian takes off his Jesus fish and replaces it with a Jesus-fish-eats-Darwin-fish.
On and on the slides go, until the audience is laughing at the absurdity of it all. Here’s my question: What are the odds that the Christian and atheist dueling with their car decals will ever sit down to discuss their perspectives? Not very good. It’s much more likely they’ll become cynical and angry and communicate even less. Unless we learn to think more clearly and dialogue more openly, our society is in for a rough time. Thoughtfulness is vital for everyone. But as a Christian I feel the need to start in house. Jesus followers ought to lead the way.
The Growth of the Nones
In North America, the fastest-growing segment of the population, categorized according to religious affiliation, are the “nones,” meaning those who are done with formal religious affiliation. This includes the dechurched, who account for the largest category of unchurched people in the younger generation.
Life Without Hope of Resurrection: An Atheist’s Explanation of the Human Condition
Sometimes it is helpful to see what life looks like on the other side of faith, that is, for those who believe that God does not exist. Bertrand Russell, the renowned philosopher and avowed atheist, had this to say about humanity from the perspective of an atheist:
His origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms . . . No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave .
. . All the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system. . . The whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”
For those who choose to believe we are merely a collection of atoms, this is the stark reality of life: once it is over, it is completely over.
No Such Thing as Atheism
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
David Foster Wallace, 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Speech, “This is Water”
The Practicality of Belief in God
In his June 1749 letter to Voltaire, the French Atheist Denis Diderot famously ruled that is is “very important not to mistake the hemlock for parsley; but to believe or not believe in God, is not important at all…[God has taken his place among] “ces très sublimes et trés inutiles vérités” (those very sublime and very useless truths).
But one does not have to become an atheist to lose a feel for God’s importance. Many people simply immerse themselves in the practical affairs of life, in pleasure seeking or in maintaining an illusory identity. They do not defy God or attempt to use God as a means; they just do not think about God or examine themselves before God.
Ted Turner Losing His Religion
Ted Turner. He is 71 years old (written in 2014), and still in the news. With a net worth estimated around $2.3 billion, Turner has made an impact on cable television, news reporting, and major league baseball. He has given $1 billion to United Nations causes, and was once married to Jane Fonda. Through it all, Turner was never boring. Outspoken at every turn, Turner’s few missteps have included harsh statements about Christianity.
“Christianity is a religion for losers,” he said in 1990. On another occasion, he joked that the Pope should step on a land mine. He once asked some of his CNN employees who were wearing ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday, “What are you, a bunch of Jesus freaks?” Turner even blamed his divorce from Fonda on her decision to become a practicing Christian.
Interestingly, Turner grew up in a Christian Home, and at 17, planned on being a missionary! “I was very religious when I was young,” Turner told Michael Eisner. “I was a born-again Christian. In fact, I was born again seven times including once by Billy Graham. I mean, I know it inside and out.”
Bur Turner lost his faith when he watched his sister die from a rare form of lupus, at the age of 20. For five years, turner said, “I prayed 30 minutes every day for God to save her, and he didn’t. A kind and loving God wouldn’t let my sister suffer so much. I said, ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with you.'” In short, the concept of suffering separated Ted Turner from his faith in God. (Sources: “Conversations with Michael Eisner,” CNBC.com, Fortune magazine article, May 26, 2003.)
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Atheism. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!