Are There Any Real Atheists?
John C. Rankin
Over the years, I have addressed a number of forums with avowed atheists, as well as with self-defined secular humanists. I also have many other interactions with such professed skeptics of the Bible. In all cases, I have enjoyed my conversations, and regard them all as friends.
But too, I have yet to be persuaded that their beliefs are intellectual in nature. Rather, what I see is people who have experienced broken trust in their lives, to such an extent that they say they do not believe in the good Creator. Their atheism, secular humanism, skepticism – or however they describe it – is in fact a reaction to broken relationships in some capacity. And not without cause, in terms of human experience. You can see this in a book by Paul C. Vitz of New York University: Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism. Thus, the question is whether, first, they have seen a truly biblical faith lived and articulated, and then second, it becomes a matter of the will – are they willing to believe that God is good in spite of human suffering?
There are two choices here: Either God is good, and suffering is due to our wrong choices, from which he rescues us through Jesus; or there is no ultimate goodness in the universe, so who cares, and against whom can a complaint be lodged?
In terms of atheism, an example is the eight Mars Hill Forums I addressed with avowed atheist Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He initially praised my hospitality to his unrehearsed questions, an honest friendship was in place, but then he turned sharply, and cut off all communication.
Dan used to be an evangelical minister, and even to this day still receives royalties for Christian songs he wrote in the 1970s. His stated reason for becoming an atheist was couched in terms of losing faith in what he now believes to be no more than fairy tales. In our first forum, in New York City in 2004, Dan’s argument was not with the church, per se, but was an explicit argument with God, charging God with being evil. I asked Dan why he was arguing with a god he does not believe exists, and he just returned to arguing with God.
In the subsequent forums this was still the case, until finally he said he was arguing against the literary concept of God. So I asked why he would devote the prior two decades to arguing against a literary device. As well, I asked him if he believed in anything positive. He wants “freedom from religion,” but what does he want freedom “for?” He could not answer without returning to the negative “freedom from.”
And indeed, this is the nature of “atheism,” which in its Greek roots means “without God.” A negative. Thus, if atheism indeed comports with reality, why must it always root itself in a negative? Or is reality negative, and thus we will all die miserable and forsaken in the face of a hostile, cold and uncaring cosmos that will swallow us up just as it spit us forth? And if reality is negative, there can be no good, and thus no basis to protest “evil.” So why argue against a non-existent god that is supposedly evil?
In all eight forums, something remarkable and unexpected happened. People repeatedly told me that they saw a supernatural evil at work over and in Dan’s life, with concrete examples, with multiple eye-witnesses. Dan was quite aggressive with believers with whom he interacted. At one point, in my presence, he was arguing with a teenager that she should renounce Jesus on the spot. This was in a church that gave him hospitality, in the presence of her father, and with a non-human evil and anger taking over his person in the process.
To hear this perspective once or twice, and for me to have the same concern – well, this can be dismissed as uncertain in nature. But by some 15-20 different people, reflecting a wider consensus yet, in eight different contexts over a two-year period – this is a different matter. So, after the last forum, in an email exchange, I brought this matter up with Dan, in my customary openness. He became furious, saying that I was calling him “demon-possessed.” Well, I did not use that language, the apostle Peter was rebuked far worse (Matthew 16:23), and those who were afflicted by demons had deliverance in the name of Jesus if they sought it.
Dan demanded me immediately to apologize. Now this is interesting. To apologize for believing there are demonic principalities is to first apologize for believing in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And of course, that would suit him well.
But at the deeper level, if Dan is a true atheist, then to hear people say that demonic powers have control in his life would be nonsense. It would be water off a duck’s back, since he “knows” that demons do not exist. It would be something to laugh at, and then point out how superstitious and out of touch with reality such Christians were. But no, Dan became very angry, and when I did not “apologize,” he told me never to contact him again.
So, what is reality in this case? I do not know Dan’s heart or experience beyond the outward reality of our interactions. And I enjoyed my public and one-on-one conversations with him. But this much I can say. If someone has known God, and tasted of the powers of the coming age, and turns away, but then runs into demonic evil, where does he turn if he will not repent of his sins? Only denial will be possible. But it becomes a denial of reality, and any reminder of that reality will only cause further anger and despair, a shrinking humanity.
A double CD of our last two forums can be purchased from the TEI webstore, Mars Hill Forums #116-117).
In a happier capacity, I was invited in 1991 to address a meeting of the Democratic and Secular Humanists (DASH) of Boston, meeting at the Phillips Brooks House in Harvard yard. The invitation came through a secular friend. Secular humanists may include some atheists, but for the most part they would describe themselves as agnostic. But the same lack of a positive foundation is in place, the same reality of reactions to broken relationships surfaces consistently.
The leaders advertised the meeting as one where their friends could come and hear an evangelical minister who “loves to be raked over the coals by skeptics.” So they had their best turnout of the season, I was told, about 50 people filling the room – with comfortable chairs and couches, surrounded by historic art and architecture, and with many people cross-legged on the floor as well. I simply sat in one of the chairs and started the conversation.
The evening went so well that a dozen of the secularists invited me out to a restaurant and bar afterward to continue the conversation. But I was only able to join them briefly, in order to get the “T” and connect to the last train to the North Shore of Boston where I then lived.
As part of my presentation I said that any expression of order in the universe must come from a greater Order, and that there is no evidence in all human knowledge for a lesser order producing a greater order, for nothing producing something.
One man in particular interacted with this question. We had come to the point of the Hot Big Bang as a credible scientific theory. I then asked him what came before the Big Bang.
He paused, then answered, “Eternal matter.”
I responded, “What then, in intellectual terms only, is the difference between believing in eternal matter on the one hand, or an eternal God on the other hand? In both cases, we are accepting something greater than space, time and number, and something beyond our finite capacity to grasp.”
His pause was longer this time, then he said, “Theological baggage.”
As we conversed more, unpacking these two words, it was clear he did not want to admit the possibility of a personal God. He feared that “believers” would then take the license to “shove religion down his throat.” In other words, his resistance to the Gospel was at the ethical level – “do not violate my person” – not at the intellectual level. It was a visceral reaction of believing the Good News to be bad news.
The Center for Inquiry, outside Buffalo, is part of the world’s largest secular humanist organization, and this was their Boston chapter. I have addressed forums with a good number of the Center’s leaders, enjoyed my friendships accordingly, beginning with their founder, Dr. Paul Kurtz. On their website (centerforinquiry.net), they start with as positive a statement as possible:
“The mission of the Center for Inquiry is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.”
But its text then starts with the negative: “To oppose and supplant the mythological narratives of the past, and the dogmas of the present…” And when its mission is summed up, it focuses on the negative:
“Fostering a secular society requires attention to many specific goals, but three goals in particular represent the focus of our activities:
- an end to the influence that religion and pseudoscience have on public policy
- an end to the privileged position that religion and pseudoscience continue to enjoy in many societies
- an end to the stigma attached to being a nonbeliever, whether the nonbeliever describes her/himself as an atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker or skeptic.”
Now, it is good to oppose what is evil or harmful. But how can evil be understood without defining and giving evidence for the prior good? There can be no reactive without a first proactive. So this is my invitation to my secular friends. Can they root all their concerns first in a completely proactive sense? And for the many positive values in which they believe, as in many cases so do I – what is their ultimate sources or Source?
If the Good News is seen as bad news by skeptics, we who are believers have two matters to consider. First, are we truly living the Good News? Namely, do we react to the reactions of skeptics, or do we have the confidence to maintain a completely proactive foundation to all we say, believe and do, so that the Good News can be seen for its true goodness? This is our calling as image-bearers of God. Second, if we have committed ourselves to embracing the proactive nature of the Good News, then it enables the skeptics to more directly deal with God. They become empowered to own their own choices in God’s sight, and for us likewise to have already embraced the same, this is good for all of us equally.