Other Worldviews

Answering the New Atheists—Part 3

Author Greg Koukl Published on 09/01/2008

Read part 2 here.

Holier than Thou1

Hymns are usually written as anthems of praise to God. They extol His noble characteristics and recount the benefits of his favor. But atheists have hymns, too. They celebrate the freedoms of god-lessness and the virtues of a world bereft of the ravages of religion.

John Lennon’s sublime vision of Utopia is such a hymn. It is simply entitled “Imagine”:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one...

Lennon’s God-less Garden of Eden is the world envisioned by New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. They are convinced that religion is not only wrong, it is dangerous.

Hitchens titled one of his chapters “Religion Kills.” Richard Dawkins chose “Childhood, Abuse, and the Escape from Religion.” Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith is subtitled “Religion, Terror, and the future of Reason.” He recounts the bloodletting endorsed by the Almighty in a chapter entitled “In the Shadow of God.”

To reject the evil of religion, then, is to take the moral high road, the path to a better world: “Imagine all the people, living life in peace...” The point: Morality is on the side of atheism, not theism and religion.

The atheists’ challenge based on morality takes two forms. The first is the problem of evil in general. It is a common—and understandable—complaint. One doesn’t need a Ph.D. in theology to look around the world and realize something is desperately wrong. “If everything was designed,” Hitchens asks, “what are we to make of the designer who has subjected so many generations to barbarism, misery, ignorance, slavery and early death?”

Second is the problem of religious evil in particular: crimes done in the name of God, in defense of some theological doctrine, or in the furtherance of some religious goal. The New Atheists concur with Blaise Pascal who noted that, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

As you will see, though, both of these objections falter in fatal ways.

“Above Us Only Sky”

In previous issues of Solid Ground2, I have discussed at length why citing evil in favor of atheism is self-defeating. Here is that argument in summary form.

The problem of evil is only a problem if evil is real. To say something is evil, though, is to make a moral judgment. Moral judgments require a moral standard—a moral law—and a moral law requires an author. If the standard is transcendent, then the law-giver must be, too.

It would be self-defeating to acknowledge shadows, but deny light because light makes shadows possible in the first place. In the same way, it is self-defeating to complain that transcendent moral laws have been broken, yet deny that a transcendent moral law-giver (God) exists.

In a world bereft of God, there are many ways to characterize Hitchens’s “barbarism, misery, ignorance, slavery and early death”: sad, painful, unpleasant, even ghastly. Yet if God doesn’t exist, the one thing we can never do is call such human destruction tragic, or wanton abuse wicked. If God doesn’t exist to ground morality, the carnage ceases to be tragic at all, if by that word we mean a genuine breach of goodness.

Note that concepts like “evil” and “tragic” are parasitic on moral perfections. Evil is spoiled goodness. We already know this. Note the words we use to describe it: unrighteousness, immorality, impurity. Evil depends on the good. Where does such goodness come from, though?

This point was explored in the movie “The Quarrel.”3 The main characters, Hersh and Chiam, were boyhood friends who separated in a dispute over God and evil. Then came the Holocaust; each thought the other had perished. After the war, they reunite by chance and immediately become embroiled once again in their boyhood quarrel.

Hersh, now a rabbi, offers this challenge to the secularist Chiam:

If there’s nothing in the universe that’s higher than human beings, then what’s morality? Well, it’s a matter of opinion. I like milk; you like meat. Hitler likes to kill people; I like to save them. Who’s to say which is better?

Do you begin to see the horror of this? If there is no Master of the universe, then who’s to say that Hitler did anything wrong? If there is no God, then the people that murdered your wife and kids did nothing wrong.

If there is no God, it is hard to begin making sense of the notions of evil or moral tragedy to begin with. The events that trouble us are reduced to mere “stuff” that happens. There are different kinds of “stuff,” to be sure, some we like (Mother Teresa), and some we don’t (Hitler), but in a universe without of God it amounts to nothing more than “stuff” in the end. The irony is, if real evil does exist, someone very much like God must also exist, also.

But there is also a practical consideration. The great 20th Century British philosopher and atheist Bertrand Russell wondered how anyone could talk of God while kneeling at the bed of a dying child.

It is a powerful image. Like the three-word sound byte “Where was God?”, it strikes many Christians dumb. How can anyone cling to the hope of a benevolent, powerful sovereign in the face of such tragedy?

They might consider Christian philosopher William Lane Craig’s response: What is the atheist Bertrand Russell going to say to that dying child? “Too bad”? “Tough luck”? “That’s the way it goes”? No happy ending, no silver lining, nothing but devastating, senseless evil?

This is why Dinesh D’Souza asks, “Where is atheism when bad things happen?” The New Atheists are struck dumb while kneeling at the bed of a dying child. They cannot speak of the patience and mercy of God. They cannot mention the future perfection that awaits all who trust in Christ. They cannot offer the comfort that a redemptive God is working to cause all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. They have no “good news” of hope for a broken world. Their worldview denies them that luxury. Theism can do much better.

This problem has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not religious people are more moral than atheists, by the way. On balance, atheists can be as good as anyone else, it seems to me. The question is not whether an atheist can be virtuous, but whether he can make sense of either virtue or vice in a universe bereft of God.

The reality of evil in the world does not help the atheist. It hinders him. Rather than being good evidence against God, the presence of evil in the world is one of the best arguments in favor of God.

“Religion Kills”

There are two serious problems with citing religious evil as evidence against the existence of God. The first is logical, and the second is factual.

Here’s the essence of the logical problem. When faced with the claim that religion—even Christian religion—has been responsible for more wars, wickedness, and wanton evil than anything else in history, what if I simply responded, “You’re right. So what?” Even if I agreed with that analysis (I do not), what would follow? What would that fact alone tell us anything about the legitimacy of religion or the existence of God?

The answer is, it would tell us nothing at all about those two things. Here’s why: You cannot legitimately infer anything about God’s existence or the possibility of religious truth simply from the behavior of religious people or the teaching of some religions. This becomes obvious when you break the various forms of the argument into their unadorned parts:

  • Some religious people do evil. Therefore, religion itself is evil.
  • Some religions teach evil. Therefore, all religions are evil.
  • Some religious people do evil, and some religions teach evil. Therefore, God does not exist.

When the reasoning is stated simply, absent the rhetorical garb it is usually clothed in, it instantly becomes obvious even on casual reflection that none of these arguments are valid. Even if the premises are true, the conclusions do not follow.

You couldn’t properly conclude, for example, that God does not exist or that Jesus was not the Savior simply by citing acts of violence done in the name of God or Christ. This might tell you something about people. It tells you nothing about God or His Messiah.

Turn the argument around the other way and the flaw becomes even more obvious: “Christopher Hitchens believes God does not exist. Hitchens is an immoral man. Therefore, God does exist.” Even if it were true that Hitchens were immoral (I’m not commenting either way), this fact alone couldn’t possibly confirm theism.

But there is a second problem with the “religion kills” argument, this time empirical, not logical. The atheist is in no position to object to carnage done in the name of God because atheistic ideologies in the 20th century have been responsible for the greatest blood-letting in all history—to the tune of over 100 million bodies for communism alone.4 “Marx has a lot more blood on his hands than Christ—other people’s blood, I mean,” Columnist Mark Steyn quips, “but the hyper-rationalists are noticeably less keen to stick him with the tab for the party.”5

Richards Dawkins has a response:

“If we accept that Hitler and Stalin shared atheism in common, they both also had moustaches, as does Saddam Hussein. So what? ....Individual atheists may do evil things, but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism.”6

Dawkins’s rejoinder completely misses the point. I said above that nothing can be inferred about the existence of God simply from the evil acts of professing theists because nothing about belief in God per se entails such behavior. (The same could be said for moustaches.)

This is not true of atheism, however. There is a certain natural affinity between particular world views and behaviors and lifestyles that seem logically to flow from them. Atheism doesn’t require mass murder, but it has few ideological resources to resist it. Dawkins is strangely myopic here when it comes to the consequence of ideas.

Joel Engel reflects:

Let’s imagine six billion people who believe that flesh and blood is all there is...that Hitler and Mother Teresa, for example, both met the same ultimate fate. Common sense suggests that such a world would produce a lot more Hitlers and a lot fewer Teresas, for the same reason that you get a lot more speeders/murderers/rapists/embezzlers when you eliminate laws, police and punishment.... Nothing clears the conscience quite like a belief in eternal nothingness.7

I think it is fair to ask why anyone should expect that a world without God, Heaven, or Hell would lead inexorably to oneness and world peace, Lennon’s “brotherhood of man.” If someone thinks divine accountability is an inferior means of securing moral order, then anarchy is the answer to the world’s ills. I presume, however, that Mr. Dawkins locks his latch at night, and not because he has deeply religious neighbors.

Theists are banking on God, and history is on our side. The record shows that the greatest evil has always resulted from denial of God, not pursuit of Him. Just count the corpses.

Sheep and Goats

There is no question that some religious people and some (false) religious teaching have caused tremendous evil. So has true religion (Christianity) falsely construed or inconsistently practiced. Regarding Christianity, though, an important question needs asking: Is oppression and bloodshed either a religious duty of Christianity or a logical application of the teachings of Christ? If not, then violence done in the name of Christ cannot be laid at His door.

Imagine yourself a builder who sends out crews with detailed, written instructions for their work. Instead of building, though, they destroy. Would you be responsible? That would depend on one thing: the written instructions. One can’t hold Christianity responsible when so-called Christians violate the written instructions. The fault is not with Christ, but with people who disobey Him.

Jesus was quite clear on this: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). His command to love extended even to one’s enemies (Luke 10:29–37). He also warned of interlopers, wolves in sheep’s clothing. His assessment of them is withering: “I never knew you. Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23).

The Apostle John reflects the same view:

“By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: Anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10).

Nothing in Christian teaching itself mandates forcible conversion to the faith or coerced adherence to Biblical doctrines. The teachings of Christ do not lead logically to wanton bloodshed. Well-meaning Christians say and do silly and even dangerous things, often simply out of ignorance, but sometimes out of malice. This is not an excuse, but it does show that the problem is with Christians, not Christianity. By parallel, there may be charlatans in the medical profession, but that does not mean there isn’t real disease or legitimate doctors to treat it.

Someone once said, “You can’t hold a religion responsible for the crimes of its heretics.” It is not God’s fault when so-called Christians disobey the written instructions. Since oppression and mayhem are neither religious duties for Christians nor logical applications of the teachings of Christ, violence done in the name of Christ cannot be laid at His feet.

The New Atheists have failed to carry the day. Nothing that the recent wave of critics has said or written even comes close to undermining the intellectual or moral credibility of theism or Christianity.

John Lennon has invited us to dream. But there is a difference between believe and make believe, trusting what is unmistakably real and what one simply imagines. In the real world, reason, science, and morality all point so forcefully to God’s existence that we can still say confidently with the Psalmist, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”