Bertrand Russell, the most prominent atheist of the 20th century, was asked what he would say if upon death he discovered God really did exist. Russell said, “I will tell Him He just did not give me enough evidence.”
Is lack of evidence the real problem for atheists? Not according to Scripture. Romans 1:18–20 tells us the problem with unbelief is not the absence of evidence but the suppression of it. Furthermore, Paul argues that suppression of the truth is done “in unrighteousness” and in verses 24 through 32, he lists the ensuing unrighteous deeds.
Lest one be tempted to think this a convenient way to dismiss atheists, we turn to their own thoughts on the matter. In a candid moment, atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel admits, “I want atheism to be true.... It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God.... I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
Nagel doesn’t want the universe to be like what? Noted atheist Aldous Huxley explains: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning...the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation...liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.” Russell concurs, declaring, “The worst feature of the Christian religion is its attitude toward sex.”
My interaction with atheists in Berkeley has only confirmed these admissions. In March, I took 26 juniors and seniors from Capistrano Valley Christian School on my second of three Berkeley mission trips this spring. I asked one of our atheist speakers, a former Christian, to address morality in an atheist’s worldview for these students.
During the Q&A, one perceptive student asked if this atheist’s personal moral standards have changed since his conversion to atheism. His confession was startling. “Absolutely,” he replied. “When I was a Christian, it was wrong to have sex with two girls at the same time. But as an atheist, I have no problem with it. In fact, it’s kind of the point.”
And there you have it. Atheism provides an intellectual shelter for sin. If there’s no God, there’s no objective moral law or Lawgiver. If there’s no moral law, the self becomes the final arbiter of “right and wrong.” I do what is right in my own eyes.
Of course, Christians can’t lead with a psychological assessment of atheists before refuting their arguments. As C.S. Lewis has said, “You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong.” However, once we have dismantled atheist’s arguments, examining motivations for unbelief is completely legitimate. And the Psalmist’s conclusion rings true: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good” (Psalm 14:1).
Before I allow students to dialogue with atheists, I discuss the various sources of unbelief. When an atheist claims he merely follows the evidence, I encourage students to take it with a grain of salt. More importantly, I have students reflect on their own motives and current struggles with sin, knowing we’re all candidates for self-deception.
That’s why apologetics properly done, engages head and heart, recognizing that at the end of the day, intellectual assent alone is not enough. In addition, “every knee [must] bow...and every tongue [must] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11).