Thank God for atheists

Thank God for atheists December 17, 2011

What I mean, of course, is “Thank God for allowing atheists to be atheists.” I DON’T mean “Thank God for atheism!” But I also think atheists do Christians a service–unintentionally, of course.

My thoughts today are stimulated by the passing of famous atheist author Christopher Hitchens (who died Thursday). Hitchens was, of course, the author of the 2007 book God is Not Great (which is anything but a great book). And they are sparked by an article in The New York Times by Jennifer Schuessler about Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga who, in his new book Where the Conflict Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism, argues that theists should stop merely defending belief in God as not irrational and go on the offensive to show (as he has spent a lifetime showing!) that ONLY belief in God is rational.

Like most of you would be, at first I was a little shocked to read that Peter Rollins, a postmodern Christian prophet, led his community IKON in “giving up God for Lent.” They agreed to spend Lent reading the likes of Hitchens, Dawkins and others of the “new atheism movement.” Why would anyone do that? Well, perhaps for the same reason that I required my students (at a Christian university where I previously taught) to read In Defense of Secular Humanism by atheist philosopher Paul Kurtz. Then I invited the president of the local Humanist Association chapter to come to my class and interact with us. Of course, that’s not all we read and he was not the only visitor to the class. (We also read books of Christian apologetics which was the subject of the course.)

So, let me explain further.

First, I don’t really believe there are true atheists. As Paul Tillich well pointed out, everyone has an ultimate concern and the object of their ultimate concern is their god. He called secular humanism as quasi-religion and the U.S. Supreme Court picked up on that and used it in a ruling about religion in the public square.

Second, every atheist I have ever read or met does not reject the God I believe in and worship and serve. The ones I know are rejecting an idol (and, of course, replacing it with one of their own making)–e.g., the God of the gaps, the deus ex machina of bare theism or the all determining reality of Calvinism.

Third, atheists do Christians a service by making us pay attention to what we believe and why. If it were not for atheists, there would not be the amazing renaissance of Christian philosophy that Alvin Plantinga rightly points to in his New York Times interview. We probably wouldn’t have the likes of Plantinga, Keith Ward, Richard Swineburne, et al.

Fourth, atheists do Christians a service IF they force us to purify our theism of elements foreign to Christianity. Is our “God” too often a projection of our ourselves or ideal selves into the heavens? Is our “God” too often a mere object, a prop to support our cultural values? Is our “God” too often a mere explanation for what we cannot yet explain so that he gradually disappears as science fills in those gaps?

Several modern and contemporary theologians have identified atheists as allies of true Christianity in its battle against “religion.” Barth praised Feuerbach for helping Christianity overcome its captivity to culture religion; he found Feuerbach an ally in his attempt to promote a non-religious Christianity that tried to correct the German tendency (and probably human and even American tendency!) to identify God with the cultural ideal. Bonhoeffer, of course, wrote about “religionless Christianity” in Letters and Papers from Prison. Jurgen Moltmann was stimulated by atheist philosopher Ernst Bloch to say that only a Christian can be a good atheist. Now, Peter Rollins (in his most recent book Insurrection) is promoting a form of Christian atheism–one that denies and rejects a bland theism that treats God as an object–as the explanation for things or the support for our own interests.

Fifth, having said all that, I do think that belief in a god, the sole supreme being, the creator and moral governor of the universe, is more rationally satisfying than its denial. I think Mortimer Adler’s wonderful little book How to Think about God is a good example of how that can be demonstrated. Hans Kung’s book Does God Exist? is compelling. Adler uses a form of the cosmological argument to show that without belief in god there is no explanation for the universe. Kung uses a form of the moral argument to show that without belief in god there is no escape from nihilism. These arguments have value when believers in a deity (theists) are up against aggressive atheism (e.g., in some secular schools).

However, I think that far too many Christians especially in the Western world tend to think of God along the lines of what Christian Smith calls “therapeutic, moralistic deism” and/or tend to think of God as the prop, the support for their own happiness and personal fulfillment. Rollins is right that atheism can be a kind of therapy for those idolatries.

So, where should Christians turn to find a true alternative to atheism and theism? Nicholas Ludwig Count von Zinzendorf said “If I did not believe in Jesus, I would not believe in God.” I think this was best interpreted and lived out and proclaimed by his distant spiritual descendent Christoph Blumhardt who cared nothing about a vague God of explanation (theism) or God as security blanket. Blumhardt (who inspired both Barth and Moltmann) preached a God of the future Kingdom who both loves us all AND judges all our ego-centered attempts to use God and religion for our own purposes. Blumhardt’s motto was not “Believe in God” or “Fight atheism” but “Die so that Jesus may live!” In other words, live solely and exclusively for the coming Kingdom of God in the here and now. That’s authentic Christianity and atheism can be one tool that corrects us and turns us in that direction and away from reliance on arguments or proofs or angry denunciations of atheists.

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