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

Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark's Darling Point and is the author of the book My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore? He's on twitter: @mpjensen

Comments (8)

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  • David Ashton
    March 21, 11 - 9:16pm
    Marx had one part right; in some places religion was used for control of the masses. I think in some places it still is.

    What atheists don't acknowledge is that they have beliefs. They think they are being logical and factual. I don't however blame them entirely, because we christians have often failed to follow through with Jesus' command to love one another, let alone love our neighbour.
  • Derek Hazell
    March 22, 11 - 6:47am
    I find Nietsche's critique of power fascinating in that it is still relevant today applied not only to religious power but also to non-religious power ... this shows that the problem is not religion per se but rather the misuse of power religious or secular.
  • David Palmer
    March 24, 11 - 2:14am
    Interesting how thw PM, an avowed religious non believer is a strong believer in AGW, even though at this stage we have seen very little of it.
  • Dan Baynes
    March 27, 11 - 10:16am
    What atheists don't acknowledge is that they have beliefs.

    Sometimes they do, but not often, and they try not to do it very publicly! On the other hand they're forever saying to us, "You're just saying/believing that because you're a Christian." In other words, in all sorts of debates on current issues they're simultaneously (a) concealing their own worldview, and (b) highlighting other people's.

    What are the lessons here for us? On (b), it strikes me that it's futile for Christians to try to hide their own, seeing as atheists are always on the lookout to 'expose' it/them. So let's not make any bones about it, but rather unmask atheists on (a). I.e., asserting that there's no God, life is an accident and meaningless, sexual choices are arbitrary etc. are all faith positions as much as anything the Bible teaches.

    So let's make sure to press them on this so that everyone sees the truth of the matter: that it's a clash of two worldviews. And we need to anticipate how they might try to obfuscate the issue. E.g. if they say something like, "How is disbelief in leprechauns as much a 'faith position' as belief in them?" we need to be quick to dismiss this as the irrelevant diversion that it is, since the Q. of leprechauns, fairies etc. has no bearing on how we settle cultural controversies....
  • Timothy Rutzou
    March 28, 11 - 5:50am
    Just to add one more name to the list of atheists, Ludwig Feuerbach, who influenced both Marx and Freud, in his book, Essence of Christianity, put forward the thesis that God was simply anthropomorphic projections: in short man* is not made in God's image rather man* creates God in our own image: God is nothing but man divinized. The reason I mention this (apart from its popularity) is because Karl Barth (theologian) famously wrote an introduction to the Essence of Christianity, wholeheartedly agreeing with Feuerbach, with of course, a Christian twist. Man has the tendency to create God in his own image - it is at the heart of all religions, and it is at the heart of sin (Rom 1). For this reason we need to stay close to Jesus and the revelation of God in the Bible, lest we continue in old habits and worship a creation and not the creator.
  • David Ashton
    March 28, 11 - 6:53am
    Man has the tendency to create God in his own image - it is at the heart of all religions, and it is at the heart of sin (Rom 1)

    Hence the history of the Roman Catholic church. I don't say this to be nasty. I have been reading a bit of church history in my Medieval history unit, and at some point human wisdon took over and Scripture was left behind.

    For e.g., Aquinas attempted to reconcile human philosophy (mostly Greek - Aristotle I think) with the Bible. The result of this is apparently the basis of all Catholic doctrine today. It's facinating to consider that Tyndale was burnt at the stake for translating the bible into English but Aquinas was made a saint.

    Some of the newer dominations - e.g. Pentecostalists - are replacing truth and fact with emotion. The history of christianity is littered with examples of compromises with the truth and outright borrowing of cultural concepts.

    I think atheists provide something useful, even if they get it wrong a lot; they make us aware that we don't know our bible well enough and make the contradictions in the way we live as christians more apparent.
  • Timothy Rutzou
    March 28, 11 - 7:52am
    FYI David - It was Aristotle. With the 'clash of civilizations' between the Islamic empire and Christendom; Aristotle's documents came back into the European world again. Until then they had little knowledge of Aristotle directly (it was all through another philosopher - Plotinus (a follower of Plato, and the dominant thinker: think a non-Christian Augustine).
    What Aquinas tried to do was to re-express Christianity in such a way that they could reach and dialogue with the Arabic world (in whom Aristotle was the dominant thinker). The result was mixed. Aquinas was able to equip many Christians through his works, theological and philosophical, which as you mentioned, formed the basis of Catholic belief for a long time (they are epic works and are foundational systematic theology in Church history). The problem is that Aristotelean metaphysics interpreted Christian theology (most notably - and famously- transubstantiation, which is Aristotelean, but is outside biblical thought).

    In the end, we are all philosophers and theologians, and 'all truth is God's truth'. And a great quirk of this is that the Atheists and Jesus end up on the same side- against our religious tendencies, against our own created religions and our own created gods - perhaps a bit of 'atheist suspicion' is also healthy in rooting out-in our own lives- created gods, created religions, opiums, wish fulfillments and crutches; so that our all is found in Christ.
  • Michael Canaris
    March 28, 11 - 1:42pm
    ...Ludwig Feuerbach, who influenced both Marx and Freud, in his book, Essence of Christianity, put forward the thesis that God was simply anthropomorphic projections: in short man* is not made in God's image rather man* creates God in our own image: God is nothing but man divinized...
    Alas, Euhemerus beat him there by at least a couple of thousand years, not to mention Sts. Clement of Alexandria and Cyprian of Carthage.