Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.” So writes the Nobel Prize-winning American physicist Steven Weinberg. His observation has become a standard mantra of the new atheism. So how should a Christian respond? We will leave the Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, and Jedi Knights to respond for themselves, although we note in passing that it is another fundamental belief of the atheist creed that all religions are essentially the same — hence the oft repeated statement or accusation that “atheists do not fly planes into skyscrapers.” It may have escaped the new atheists, but neither do Presbyterians, Catholics, or Southern Baptists!
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins repeats Weinberg’s claim that religion is a virus that infects the human race and causes otherwise “good” people to behave in a way which is dangerous and evil. Given Dawkins faith in empiricism, what is his evidence for this sweeping condemnation? His major evidence appears to be 9/11 and Fred Phelps of Godhatesfags.com infamy. The new atheists also declare that we are all implicated in the “extremist” forms of Christianity (and Islam) because we keep silent and because they are just being consistent with the Scriptures! Apart from the danger of taking our theology from atheists, let me point out unequivocally that Fred Phelps has nothing whatsoever to do with any form of biblical Christianity. His “gospel” is a self-serving rant from the pit of hell and is utterly repudiated by all biblical Christians.
We could have endless fun ridiculing the inconsistencies and ad hominem attacks of Dawkins and his friends, but that would be like shooting ducks at a fairground, and some of our brethren do not think it is “nice.” (Although the methodology of Elijah in 1 Kings 18:27, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened,” does have a lot to commend it.) So, what other approach can we take?
We could point out that Dawkins’ view is a simplistic and fundamentalist Hollywood fantasy view of the world that divides humanity into the good guys and the bad guys.
We could admit mea culpa, and agree that religion has done a great deal of harm. Furthermore, although we would not accept that all religions are the same, we must also acknowledge that many bad things have been done in the name of Christianity and that the name of God has often been blasphemed amongst the Gentiles because of those who have inconsistently professed the precious name of Christ.
And then we could swap accusations, gently reminding our new atheists that when atheism has become the state philosophy, it has rarely lead to an outbreak of love and peace. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler, and others who also shared the belief that religion is a virus that needs to be eradicated, are hardly shining examples of the good that atheism has brought to the world. At least they were consistent in following their prophet Nietzsche who declared, “I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity, the one great instinct for revenge for which no expedient is sufficiently poisonous, secret, subterranean, petty — I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind.”
We could point out that Western civilization, including the science and morality that Dawkins and the new atheists profess to love, is rooted in Christian teaching. We could indicate the numerous examples of Christians who have built hospitals, set up schools, and provided multiple social work programs. Dawkins, of course, would argue that people would have done this anyway and that atheists are just as moral and virtuous as Christians. Thus we end up in a kind of spitting contest where Christians could easily demonstrate that we build more schools, paint more pictures, and heal more people than members of American Atheists. But that would ultimately prove nothing. As Christopher Hitchens points out, one could just as easily argue that Hamas provides a great social welfare program in the West Bank.
We need more than this. The proof that Christianity is a force for good rather than evil is found in the outworking of the great biblical doctrines — the teachings about Christ and humanity that provide us with the explanation as to why our world is in such a mess; the motivation for us to do something about it; and the means whereby we can.
In the words of George Thorogood, we are “bad to the bone.” We do not believe in “good empires” and “bad empires,” “good” people and “bad” people. We accept the biblical teaching that all humans and all areas of human life are infected by sin. Religion is not the virus. Sin is. As a result, religion becomes a tool for human sinfulness. Rather than the simplistic and foolish optimism of the new atheism, we know that human beings are inherently and deeply flawed. Christless religion only adds fuel to the fire, but take away all religion and we will still have the fire. As G.K. Chesterton so masterfully wrote in a letter to The Times: “Dear Sir, What’s wrong with the world? I am.” The loss of this basic doctrine thanks to an unjustified Enlightenment optimism was a major factor in the genocidal regimes of the twentieth century, the failed atheist century. The philosopher John Gray, no friend of Christianity, summarizes it neatly: “As we understand it today, utopianism began to develop along with the retreat of Christian belief” (Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia).
Human beings have a sense of God. The law of God is written in our hearts. Even Dawkins admits that there is an inherent God consciousness in children, but he attempts to explain it away by regarding it as an “evolutionary misfiring.” The biblical explanation is much simpler. We are created in the image of God. We are created with a capacity for relationship with our Creator. We do have a “God-shaped hole.” The trouble is that we attempt to fill that hole with anything or anyone except God. We invent our own religions, we create our own idols, and we even deify ourselves. It is little wonder that the hole is not filled and that the result is discord, frustration, anger, and brokenness. Idolatry is false religion. It is an argument for, rather than against, true religion.
Jesus Christ and Him crucified is the divine surgery that fixes the problem. We do not need to be patched up. We do need forgiveness, grace, mercy, a new heart, and a new birth. The cross deals with every aspect of human sinfulness, individually and communally. It is through the cross that the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts. The Beatles were right to sing, “All you need is love.” They just did not know what they were singing about. This is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent His Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sin.
The Sovereignty of God
Jesus is Lord and Savior. Everything comes under His lordship. There is no area of life that is not His. Therefore those who belong to Him, go on to live for Him in every area of life — in education, family, work, sport, politics, healthcare, social work, and entertainment.
Rooted in these great biblical doctrines we then go on to produce fruit. Christians are not utopians or religious moralists. We do not think that we can legislate to make people moral, or that there is some kind of religious band-aid that will soothe over the deep wounds in humanity. Neither are we pietists who retreat into our religious communes. We are salt and light in a world that is tasteless and dark. Because we have come to know the love of Christ, we cannot but reflect and share that love. The love of Christ constrains us. According to his secretary, Traudl Junge, Hitler despised the church because “only mankind and above all the church have made it their aims to keep alive the weak, those unfit to live, and people of an inferior kind.” Exactly. The history of the Christian church is full of people who, having been ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven, are then set free to serve the living God and do so by going on to keep alive the weak, heal the sick, fight injustice, feed the hungry, visit the prisoners and demonstrate in their life, words, and deeds the mercy and compassion of God.
It is ironic that in 2007 members of the British Parliament listed as their favorite summer reading two books: the first being Dawkins’ The God Delusion, the second, William Hague’s wonderful William Wilberforce. Whilst the Dawkins rant exemplifies the irrational and deeply rooted hatred of humans for God, the life of the great anti–slavery campaigner Wilberforce demonstrates what a powerful force for good is a forgiven sinner in the hands of a gracious God. Wilberforce exemplifies the great argument of Jesus against the new atheist creed that all religion is de facto evil: Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.