Atheism has been on the rise within western culture since the mid-nineteenth century. Many scholars have given rebuttals to this movement and their arguments against God’s existence. However, it might be instructive for the western church to pause and ask: Can we learn anything from atheists and their critique of religion?
Some of the ideas that contributed to the rise of secularism began with John Duns Scotus (1266–1308). He departed from the teaching of Thomas Aquinas and others by positing that God shared in the attribute of “being” with all other things thought to have existence. This move softened the sharp distinction between God and creation. God was viewed as the highest being rather than as a mystery outside the subset of known beings.
Some think that William of Occam’s (ca. 1285–ca. 1348) denial that universals exist in reality and his claim that the simplest explanation is preferred to more complex notions further led to the domestication of God.
The Protestant Reformers rejected the authority of the Catholic Church. They advocated sola scriptura—the Bible alone as the one true authority. However, this led to doctrinal relativism, church division, collusion with secular powers, and the wars of religion from the 1520s to the 1640s. Two new theological ideas within Reformed theology demystified and secularized the supernatural Christian worldview. One was Zwingli’s rejection of Christ’s actual presence in the Eucharist (memorialism) and the other was Calvin’s affirmation of cessationism, which claims that God is no longer doing miracles after the apostolic period.
The scientific revolution saw supernatural explanations give way to natural explanations. God was no longer needed as an explanation for natural or human life. The Enlightenment taught people to think for themselves instead of accepting ancient, church, or biblical authorities. Certain knowledge is secured by rational deduction, empirical observation, and the scientific method. Moral standards could be derived from making social contracts within society based on the utilitarian principle “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Rational proofs for God’s existence were found unconvincing.
Finally, the devastation of the Lisbon Earthquake (1755) made people wonder why a loving and all-powerful God would allow such evils to happen.
Modern theoretical atheism can be traced back to Ludwig Feuerbach’s book, The Essence of Christianity (1841). Feuerbach argued that God can be explained as a projection of human attributes on the canvas of empty space. God did not create human beings in God’s image; rather, human beings created God in their image.
Karl Marx offered a socio-economic explanation for God and religion. They are the products of social and economic alienation caused by wealthy oppressors who use religion politically to keep “have-nots” from revolution. Religion is an opiate used to pacify the poor in this life and put their hopes on the next. Sigmund Freud put a psychological twist on Feuerbach’s theory of projection. God and religion can be explained as simply wishful thinking, an illusion, an infantile delusion for a father figure in an insecure and hostile world. Scientific materialists (Russell and Sagan) concluded that since no empirical proof for God exists, God is not a scientific or meaningful category. Nietzsche and Sartre maintained that humans are radically free and that the notion of God is inconsistent with human freedom; religion is an instrument of those in power to manipulate those under their control. The New Atheist movement (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett) contend that (1) faith in God is the cause of innumerable evils and should be rejected on moral grounds; (2) morality does not require belief in God; indeed, people behave better without faith than with it; (3) natural science sufficiently explains the origin of the universe and humanity; and (4) new brain research indicates that consciousness and morality evolved over time, affirming a naturalistic worldview.
Can Christians and churches learn anything from the rise of secularization and atheists? I think so. Here is a brief summary:
- God is not the highest being within our existence. God interacts within creation, but God transcends creation. God “lives in unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16).
- Doctrinal differences should not be settled by coercion, force, political power, violence, or war.
- The mystery of God’s presence in the Eucharist and in the world should be celebrated and embraced rather than domesticated and rationalized.
- Rational proofs for God’s existence are limited. They are largely ineffective for those who don’t already believe.
- The problem of evil is a real existential problem leading many people away from God.
- Feuerbach reminds us not to confuse the divine with the human. We project God in our image to some degree but God transcends human language and concepts.
- Marx reminds us that religion can be exploited and coopted by politicians and politics. God is for the poor and oppressed. The church is called to acts of mercy and justice.
- Freud reminds us that faith can be childish. Authorities shape our image of God. Christians are called to put away childish thinking (1 Cor 13:11).
- Nietzsche reminds us that religion can be used as an instrument of power and manipulation to quash and suppress human freedom and creativity, but Jesus came to set us free (John 8:36).
- New Atheism reminds us that Christianity has a checkered history, that Christians should be at least as moral as atheists, and that science needs to be taken seriously by the church.