The atheists are right
Hence are we called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free from all impurity.
Justin Martyr (103-165), First Apology VI
I should like to propose a thesis that may seem somewhat unlikely for a Christian theologian: namely, that the atheists are right.
Or, at least some of them are. Insofar as they contend against the existence of God, or attack the authenticity of the Bible, or pit faith against reason, I would say they are badly mistaken.
But there is another form of atheism, which Professor Merold Westphal of Fordham University calls ‘the atheism of suspicion’. This form of atheism is represented by the works of those great nineteenth and early twentieth century figures Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and to some extent Darwin (or at least, his descendants). The work of these scholars serves to expose the bad conscience of much religious belief.
They were less interested in evidence than in motives. In their different ways they believed that they could undermine belief in religious propositions by showing that believing often served less than pure ends. As Westphal puts it, “Its target is not the proposition but the person who affirms it, not the belief but the believer.”
What the thinkers thought
For Karl Marx, religion serves as an instrument of social control by which the upper classes can maintain their wealth and prosperity. As he put it, ‘religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.’
Freud views our religious beliefs as an expression of wish-fulfilment. We ‘tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be."
For Nietzsche, religion is an expression of the ‘will to power’ of the priestly class. Christianity has taught self-denial and hatred of the body. It has tried to ascribe meaning to suffering and therefore teaches people to accept their feeble lot.
Though Darwin himself did not pursue this line of thought, his descendants have pointed to the evolutionary advantages of the religious sense. Religion has offered a sense of cohesion and unity for tribes and nations which advantaged them in developing as cultures. Furthermore, recent studies of the human brain have shown how we are naturally receptive to religious ideas at the level of our physiology. If we are religious, then, it is because we have evolved to be so.
The best response to the atheism of suspicion is actually to acknowledge that much of what they say is exactly true. We don’t have to be expert historians to recognise that Christianity has been used as an instrument of exploitative social control, a means for justifying greed and imperial expansion and the excuse for maintaining social privilege. It has been the cloak for nefarious sexual activity on a mass scale. It has been the faith of warmongers. It has been the religion of comfortable decency, and a screen from reality. People have lined their pockets in the name of Jesus Christ.
But this is not news to readers of the Bible. Holy Scripture itself contains a withering attack on the abuses of religion and the false motives of the religious. And it is not just that it scoffs at the idolatry of the nations that surround Israel (think of the showdown between Dagon of the Philistines and the Ark of the Covenant in 1 Sam 5). It is not just that it condemns the barbarism of pagan religious practices (like offering children to Molech in Lev 18:21).
It is that the Bible exposes the false and corrupt worship of the true God. Think of the work of the prophet Amos. Amos recalls the swaggering of the Israelites at their own religiosity:
Burn leavened bread as a thank offering
and brag about your freewill offerings—
boast about them, you Israelites,
for this is what you love to do... (Amos 4:5)
And yet this takes place alongside brutal and callous exploitation of the poor and oppressed. There is no doubt for Amos as to the severity of God’s judgement on this hypocrisy. It is the believers who have most to fear from the wrath of God.
Jesus’ own ministry could well be characterised as a savage critique of the abuses of religion in the same vein as the prophets of old. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, it is the religious leaders who are exposed as heartless and self-interested. The sharpness of the critique is heightened by the fact that it is told in response to a question from a religious leader. Jesus’ attack on the corrupt temple economics, recorded in all four gospels, is surely not an attack on the whole idea of the temple itself but on the way in which it can become a system of preserving power.
And the condemnation of a self-serving Christianity continues in the era of the apostles, too. Paul is relentless in exposing the prestige-seeking super-apostles. The story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts is a reminder of the potential for hypocrisy that lies within even the community of true faith.
The Bible is relentless in its announcement of God’s particular judgement on those who use the name of the true God in the cause of their own interests. Its teaching on hell, for example, is addressed most especially as a warning to those who count themselves as among God’s people – the complacent, the self-regarding and the hypocritical. The ‘atheists of suspicion’ very usefully remind us that even the truth can be commandeered by falsehood.
But that is not the end of the story. Even someone like Freud would acknowledge that the question of motive and purpose is not the same as the question of truth. That someone believes the truth falsely or for corrupt reasons does not make the truth untrue. It corrupts his or her witness to the truth, but that’s all. A comparable example might be the recent publication of the emails of a group of climate-change scientists who were plotting to distort their findings. This was bad behaviour, certainly; but it has precisely no bearing on whether human induced climate change is true or not. We may be indeed predisposed by evolution to be religious – but so what?
What’s more: it is worth remembering that the atheists of suspicion are open to a bit of suspicion themselves. Could it not be argued that their unbelief served their interests just as much as believing served the interests of others? Doesn’t unbelief have its own comforts – especially the thought that my actions are not open to a final judgement? Can’t it be just as much of crutch as religious belief can? Doesn’t unbelief make me conveniently my own moral arbiter? Hasn’t unbelieving been also used in the cause of greed, sexual exploitation, tyranny and corruption?
Feature photo credit: Inha Leex Hale