It’s common for fundamentalists to assert “there’s no such thing as a true atheist”. Why would they say this? It seems to be in direct contradiction to obvious empirical evidence. It wouldn’t be the first time a fundamentalist has denied evidence, but what is the motivation for calling millions of people liars?
I think it’s because the existence of atheists is a threat to evangelical beliefs. I don’t mean that evangelical Christians feel threatened by atheists. I mean that, if the God evangelicals describe were real, there would be no atheists. Let me explain.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the world is roughly as evangelical Christians say it is. God is real; Jesus rose from the dead. Those who accept this go to heaven; those who don’t, go to hell.
And now let’s imagine two possible worlds. In world 1, there are some atheists. In world 2, there are none; God has made sure that, as a minimum, everyone is instinctively aware of his existence.
World 1: Atheist land
By ‘atheists’, I don’t mean people who dogmatically assert there is no God. I mean people who simply see no reason to suppose that God exists, and don’t, for the same reasons most of us don’t believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Russell’s teapot.
In this world, let’s be clear, the atheists are wrong. God does exist, and atheists just don’t know it. Atheists may be well-intentioned, truth-seeking individuals. They may strive to live moral lives. They may even be more than willing to believe in God, given a reason to do so, but – given that they see no such reason – they find that they cannot.
Atheists, then, are tragic and sympathetic figures. They should be the recipients of a great deal of charity by Christians. After all, they are doomed through no fault of their own.
What would God be like, in this world? Surely, he would be evil. He would have created people purely to destroy them. And not just destroy them, but subject them to eternal torture. The evangelical Christian says “God doesn’t send anyone to hell; people choose not to go to heaven by rejecting him!” In this world, that is not true. These atheists may gladly have accepted God, but they just didn’t know he existed. God is like a child who invents a game, doesn’t explain all the rules, and then mocks people for losing.
Of course, some fundamentalists are perfectly happy with this world. They say that we all deserve eternal damnation, and that Almighty God is under no obligation to save any of us. It is only in his mercy and grace that he saves anyone at all, and we must be grateful for that.
For other Christians, this can’t be reconciled with a God of love. And so they propose a rather radical solution: There’s no such thing as a true atheist.
World 2: Atheist-free
The proof text for this is Romans 1:20
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Everyone is born with an innate sense of God, so there’s no such thing as a non-believer. In this world, ‘faith’ doesn’t mean ‘believing in God’, it means ‘following God’. An atheist is someone who, against their true knowledge, chooses to reject God.
In this world, atheists are intellectually dishonest, wilfully rebellious against God, and frankly deserve what’s coming to them. It makes sense to vilify atheists, because they are corrupt.
In this world, God is much nicer. All he asks of people for salvation is that they follow him. This is not much to ask, since he has made it easy, and since everyone knows about him. Anyone who goes to hell has clearly rejected God, and while that’s a tragedy, it was their own decision. You could even argue that God would be restricting their freedom if he made them go to heaven when they had chosen otherwise (although a response might be that a loving parent sometimes does things in their child’s best interests even when the child protests).
World 2 is the world most evangelicals believe in.
That’s why atheists take so much abuse from some Christians. If their God sees fit to destroy atheists, clearly they are not that valuable.
This is why Carnun’s guest post, Would you believe in God if no one ever told you? got such a huge response. Many evangelicals share my intuition that World 1 is incompatible with a loving God. If atheists exist, their God cannot be who they say he is.
Unfortunately for them, atheists do exist. There are millions of us, and to deny this is to call all of us liars. Of course, some (world 2) Christians find this rather easy to do. If we’re prepared to deny God, we could deny anything. Clearly, we can’t be trusted.
But I suspect some of them have a gnawing suspicion that at least a few of us could be telling the truth. And that’s a problem, because a good God wouldn’t send people to hell simply for having no idea he exists.