A Sign of Weakness with Christians
Almost a year ago I wrote an essay in which I chided Western Christianity for embracing shallow emotionalism. Sadly, this trend will not be stopped by the publishing of one essay from some obscure Christian in the northern reaches of the American Heartland. For generations Christians have been slouching toward a form of uselessness in the culture they reside in.
It is often said that the Church is ten years behind in the current trends. I am not sure if this is meant to be an insult or an encouragement. As I look at Scripture, I see the Church called to being different than culture not merely behind it. Moreover, Christians are commanded to be setting trends, not waiting to adapt to them.
One of the surest signs of weakness in Christians today is the adoption of the modes and means of society. None of these is worse than the inability to engage on an intellectual level. When faced with the reality that not everyone agrees with them, broader culture, by-and-large, engages in name calling and shaming. Try being a conservative on the average college campus today, you will be called NAZI or bigot or racist. Sadly, the average Christian has resorted to the same tactics. Instead of studying the beliefs (or lack thereof) of our opponents, we label them. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than with other religions.
Furthermore, this has extended to disagreements within our own religious worldview. One can be a conservative, Bible believing Christian, sharing almost everything in common with another Christian. But let there be one point of disagreement on doctrine and the name calling begins.
So, is it any wonder that when it comes to Atheists, Christians seem to be unable to engage civilly?
Atheist are not the Enemy of Christians
There may be no other group of people that are as loathed by Christians more than Atheists. Muslims and JWs and Mormons do not even come close. Consequently, this loathing has led to an overwhelming sense of hostility in broader Christendom. Admittedly, some of this is brought on by the New Atheist movement in America. This movement is intentionally hostile and vitriolic often targeting Christians and Christian organizations for attacks and smear campaigns bent on driving the Church from the public realm.
However, Christianity is not above reproach in this realm. As is the case with most schools of thought, Christians tend to fear what they do not know or understand. This is why one can look down the street as the JWs or Mormons are going door-to-door and see houses being shut-up tighter than Fort Knox. The average professing Christian doesn’t know a thing about Mormons and JWs. Instead of learning, they disengage.
So, it is with Atheism. Atheists provide a formidable front to the Church. As Christian thought is increasingly inundated and inculcated with emotionalism, Atheist are seen as the bright intellectual lights that Christian philosophers once were. Instead of engaging with Atheists the “normal Christian” runs from them terrified that they will be made to look the fool.
Anti-Intellectualism is not what the Bible Means by the Foolish Confounding the Wise
In 1 Corinthians 1 God tells us that it is the foolish things of the world that He will use to confound the wise. This is not some urging by God through the Apostle Paul for Christians to be morons to the glory of God. Instead, what Paul is saying to his readers is that the thought system of the world will see the thought system of Christians as overwhelmingly stupid and confused.
I have literally had well-meaning but confused Christians tell me that pursuing higher-education is a violation of the principles taught in 1 Corinthians 1. Yes, you read that right. According to these folks, in order to be used by God effectively, they need to remain as unfettered as possible from the way the world thinks and educates.
On the face this may seem like sound biblical thought. However, is that really what God would have us understand from that passage of Scripture? I would be negligent in my duties as a Christian evangelist if I said yes. Even in the early days of the Church we see that thought and philosophy play major roles in the ability of Christians to Advance the Gospel into the world.
Paul engages the Greek philosophers on Mars Hill in Acts 17. Luke, a physician, records the life of Christ in his Gospel account and also records much of Paul’s work in Acts. Jude engages intently with Gnostic thought in his epistle. He didn’t merely call Gnosticism names and run from it, he refuted it.
In order for Christians to best engage with the world we have to understand the world. This does not mean that we become immersed in the sins of the world. Conversely, it means that we should be learning how to engage on many levels.
The Accusation of Immorality
Frequently, Christians will label Atheists as being immoral. While I understand why they wish to do so, it is inherently wrong. Worse-still, it demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the principles of God’s Word.
Look, if your best argument against an atheist in any conversation/argument/debate is, “Yeah well, you are immoral.” You are already done for. You’ve lost the argument before it ever began. Additionally, you’ve exposed your view that morality is inherently something only you can do. On its face this seems true. But it isn’t. Surely Christians should be moral people. However, the morality of Christians is contingent upon their relationship to Christ and their desire to be conformed to His image.
Atheists, JWs, Mormons and others are not only capable of being incredibly moral people but are often outwardly far more moral in appearance than many Christians. This is not to say that a Christian can be immoral because they have Christ. That would be Antinomianism. Instead what it means is that many times the professing Christian world is full of incredibly perverse and sinful people making excuse for their license. While at the same time, Atheists will strive to live outwardly moral lives for a plethora of reasons. Many ranging from societal mores to personal convictions.
Christians and Atheists Draw Their Morality from God
For Christian and Atheist alike, morality flows from God. He has not only revealed Himself to all of mankind through natural revelation, think Romans 1. But He has also written His law on the hearts of all people. And as basic as this may sound, this is why everyone knows that is wrong to steal and murder and so on.
While Atheist will make arguments for morality based on cultural and societal norms, the Christian argues for a universality of certain moral norms based on the transcendence of God across those cultures. Thus, while Atheist have argued that morality can shift with time and influence, but that it is always wrong to murder and eat infants, Christians will lean on this being wrong because God has declared it so. This may seem like intellectually weak argumentation. Yet, it is the only argumentation that allows for consistency.
Thus, when I hear professing Christians label Atheists Immoral for not believing in God, I cringe. Here is why. The argument implies that belief generates morality. Therefore, righteousness will rightly flow from that morality. But many Christians today have forgotten that in his epistle to the Church, James rebuked his readers with this, “You say you believe. That’s great. But even the demons believe, and they tremble…”
Admitting My Presuppositional Leanings
It is arrogance to claim that your belief in God makes you moral over someone who states they don’t know there is a God. Moreover, belief is not the same as being regenerate. There are pagan cultures all over the world that worship gods made of wood and stone and precious gems. But why do they do this? They do it because they know a god exists. But they do not know the true God.
Thus, it is with the Atheists who claim that they do not know there is a god but still live moral lives. Their actions betray their confidence that there is no God. In a conversation with several young collegians at the University of Northern Iowa I spoke about the concept of Universally Preferable Behavior (UPB). This atheistic concept was developed by Libertarian Philosopher Stefan Molyneux. While overall not wholly his idea, he was one of the first modern thinkers to write it down and publish it in book form.
UPB is basically the idea that morality is determined by whatever is best for society. Whether that society be a small local group of individuals or wider humanity. It is universally better for men and women to live monogenous lives and to refrain from stealing and murdering one another. The greater good of the whole is served by these things. The society stays cohesive and human flourishing becomes possible and normative. Thus, when “cavemen” learned to stop murdering one another for meat and mates, they were able to band together and conquer nature and then do better than eking out meager subsistence.
My argument is always going to come back to “By what standard?” I have profound respect for Molyneaux. Yet his development of UPB is based off an external objective of what defines human flourishing.
It would behoove Christians to be careful in uttering condemnatory statements about the morality of people who claim there is no God. Instead, the best way for Christians in WCC to argue with Atheists is to begin to understand the worldview and address that. I am not calling for all Christians to become Presuppositional in their apologetic approach. (However, I do believe it to be the best way to argue against secular atheism.) I merely suggest that Christians become versed in the worldviews that cause them the most consternation.
It is in this practice that we become models of what God was teaching in 1 Corinthians 1. So, even an ignorant, undereducated simpleton like me can become capable of dismantling faulty worldviews. We do this, not with our minds set on defeating our opponents. Instead, our minds will be set on preaching the Gospel to humbled hearts. All of this is done to the glory of God!
Soli Deo Gloria!