The Challenge of Atheism

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Some years ago, an Anglican bishop in Britain recorded a radio series on the challenge that atheism presented to Christianity.  His analysis was brilliant.  Atheism, he said, holds that God is ontologically superfluous, ethically redundant, and morally repugnant.  The first objection—which involves the origin of things—is easy to explain.  After all, it is as easy to imagine that matter and energy have existed eternally as it is to imagine that a God has existed eternally.  In fact, it is much easier because we know that matter and energy do exist now.  The idea that a creator is needed to explain the existence of things is surely anthropomorphism, a fancy based on the assumption that there must have been a creator to create the things of the natural world, since we create the things of the human world, and that is a belief held by people of many religions all over the world.  But it is actually the first step of an infinite series, for the next, unasked, question is, “Who or what created God?”  And then, “Who or what created that?”  And then . . . .


The second objection—that God is ethically redundant—is also simple to explain.  It is an obvious fact that there are many good people who do not believe in God.  Such belief is not necessary to make people good (and two thousand years of Christianity suggests that it has very little effect, if any—to say nothing of the other religions).  This is so obviously true that Dante created a separate realm in the Inferno for the “virtuous pagans,” who live there untormented.   Five centuries before Christ, Confucius (a very good man) stated the Golden Rule in its negative (and more reasonable) form:  “do not act towards others in ways that you would not like to have them act towards you.”

The core of Confucius’ doctrine is the same as that expressed by Hamlet in his instructions to Polonius.  When asked to look after the actors, Polonius says, “I will use them according to their desert.”  Hamlet chastises him, “Ods bodkins, man, much better:  use every man after his desert, and who shall escape whipping?  Use them after your own honor and dignity:  the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.”  Confucius asks us to become “great” men rather than “small” ones by choosing to be virtuous, and we should do this because it is obviously the right thing to do.  Surely this view is more ethical in terms of the quality of the choice we are asked to make than one which bribes us with the reward of paradise if we choose the right path—and threatens us with eternal punishment if we don’t.

Who could listen to the words of Marcus Aurelius, a pagan Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, without recognizing the voice of a good man.  “Does someone do you wrong.  Ask what notions of good and evil he carries with him and you will feel compassion instead of surprise and anger, for your notions of good and evil may not be much different from his.  But if they are, it is even easier to be gracious to one who sees the world so much awry.”  Or, “when you have done a kindness, what more would you have?  Is it not enough that you have acted in accordance with your nature?  Do you want a reward for it.”


It seems clear that one can reasonably think that the notion of God is unnecessary to explain either the existence of things or the desire to behave well to others.  It may not seem so clear that the notion of God is morally repugnant, yet this is precisely what made the great Classicist, Gilbert Murray, become an atheist.  As a child, he hated the cruelty to animals that was a part of his growing-up in Australia.  Then he read the story of the Gadarene swine.  How could a loving God, one who is said to care for every sparrow that falls, have killed a herd of pigs in that callous way?  The sensitive boy could imagine the agony of the dying animals.  The God of the story apparently wasn’t bothered.  (Sadly, the Old Testament God loved blood sacrifices, his reason for preferring Abel over Cain.)

In fact, the notion of a God who cares for every sparrow that falls has no foundation in natural history.  Coots have around ten chicks, and when they are about six weeks old the mother begins to peck to death those that approach asking for food.  She stops when the size of the family has been reduced by half.  Seen as a mechanism for producing a good clutch-size of self-sufficient chicks—a mechanism that has evolved through selection pressures—this is perfectly sensible.  It is not easily seen as the plan of a caring God.  Coots aren’t alone in this.

If one chooses to restrict one’s search to the Bible, there is no lack of material.  Yahweh afflicts Job and destroys his family as an exhibition of his influence over the poor man, and all for the benefit of The Adversary. Why does he feel a need to prove himself?  In another of his tests, He has Abraham prepare to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Why does an omniscient being have to test people to find out what they are like, or to score points on an opponent?  (And what would we say, today, about a man who hears voices and says that God wants him to kill his son?  And why should all of this Godly intrusion into history have been commonplace 2500 years ago, and not be clearly present now?)

Perhaps the best example of what atheists see as the repugnant nature of the Christian God is a notion that is central to Christianity.  God created the peoples of the world, but provides salvation only to the few who have been given his message and accepted it.  Moreover, this message is one that doesn’t appeal to reason or to one’s better feelings (remember the church father, Tertullian, who said, “It is certain because it is impossible”).  Nonetheless, we are supposedly doomed to eternal punishment if we don’t accept it, and all of those who have never heard the message are doomed anyway

For all of these reasons the Christian God is offensive to many who have a highly developed moral sense.  There is a terrible irony in this.


Atheists are often said to claim that God does not exist–which is nonsensical buncomb!  Many or even most atheists are intelligent people, and they know that sweeping generalizations like that cannot be proven; thus, they cannot be matters of belief.  To not-believe that God exists is not the same as believing that God does not exist.  I have no reason to believe that sentient alien beings exist, but I do not take the position that they don’t exist.  Who knows?  When we gather sufficient actual evidence on the matter, it might make it seem to be likely.  Atheists don’t think that it is likely that God exists, but they don’t disbelieve in his existence.

Agnostics are just sitting on the fence.  They should recognize that to say that they don’t know whether God exists or not is just to say that they do not hold the believe that she/he/it exists.  They are actually atheists.