Taking atheism seriously

Most of the responses I’ve seen by Christians to the “new atheism,” whether in print or online, have come in one of two forms: combative defensiveness or smug complacency. The first is exhibited by those (usually self-appointed) defenders of the faith who take to the ramparts to refute the atheists arguments with their own knock-down syllogisms. The second is more commonly found among the somewhat more “sophisticated” believers who hardly consider the new atheism to be worth engaging because of its crude and simplistic depiction of religion or its philosophical missteps.

While there may be something to be said for both of these approaches (and I’ve probably engaged in each from time to time), I think that they represent a missed opportunity. If Christians want to present a credible witness to the world, they need to engage with atheism and the experiences that give rise to it.

One obvious source of fodder for atheism is the experience of great suffering or horror at the vast amount of suffering in the world–experiences that rightly call forth a cry of protest. Christianity has a long history of responding to this kind of experience, although one that has met with mixed success to say the least.

But maybe a more prevalent cause of atheism is that, for many people, God’s existence is simply not obvious. There do seem to be some souls blessed with a persistent awareness of the divine presence, but for many people–including many believers–this is simply not the case. More prosaically, many people live their day-to-day lives perfectly well without feeling any need to invoke God at all. They make sense of the world around them–as well as anyone can–using the language and conceptual framework of the natural and social sciences, or common sense, or folk wisdom, or some pastiche of these. As far as our daily routines go, the empirical world can easily appear as a “closed” system that we can navigate without resorting to the “God hypothesis.”

Now, there may come times–what have sometimes been called “limit-experiences”–where otherwise secular people catch glimpses of something “more.” This might be awe at the beauty and vastness of the natural world, an encounter with one’s mortality or the mortality of others, or the experience of a love that seems to transcend what is naturally possible. But these are not usually overpowering enough to provide an iron-clad refutation of the “practical atheism” of everyday life. Faith is when we take the next step and trust that these experiences tell us something deep and true about reality.

My point here is not to say that atheism is intellectually superior to faith or that it makes better sense of our experience–it’s that our experience is at best ambiguous between faith and unbelief. I think Christians need to be more willing to enter into the experience of unbelief sympathetically. (Tomáš Halík’s Patience with God, which I read recently, is one Christian response to atheism that is exemplary in this regard.) As long as Christians’ response to atheism is defensiveness or dismissal, they are failing to engage with a form of experience–the experience of God’s absence as Halík puts it–that is very common in our world. (Indeed, Christ himself, we’re given to believe, experienced the absence of God on the cross.)

A better model of response is one analogous to the model of engaging appropriately with other religions: dialogue and sympathetically trying to understand the other’s perspective from within. Given that most Christians in our society probably find themselves experiencing God’s absence at least some of the time (I’d say this is an understatement in my own case), this should in principle be less difficult than sympathetically entering into another’s religious experience.

Of course, there will always be some atheists who have no desire to enter into any such dialogue. For people like the “four horsemen” (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett) the goal is the extinction of religion, not mutual understanding and possible transformation. But there’s no reason to think that this must be the attitude of all or even most atheists. And for Christians, such a project seems like a much better way of putting the command to love our neighbor–including our atheist neighbors–into practice.

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4 thoughts on “Taking atheism seriously

  1. I think the point that the new atheists often only deal with religious fundamentalism is true too of religious apolgists usually only dealing with fundamentalist athesim. I used to be an atheist and haven’t really changed in my ethical views since becoming a Christian.

  2. I haven’t–but after checking out the description at Amazon, it looks like I should. (I saw Westphal give a lecture once and was pretty impressed.)

    Thanks for the tip!

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