An atheist was visiting Scotland, and one fine spring day he decided to row across beautiful Loch Ness. Suddenly, halfway across the lake, the Loch Ness monster attacked and grabbed him from his boat. The atheist panicked and shouted “God help me!” In an instant, the monster opened its jaws, plopping the atheist back in his boat, and then swam away. A voice from the heavens boomed, “You say you don’t believe in me, but now you are asking for my help?” The atheist looked up and replied, “Well, ten seconds ago I didn’t believe in the Loch Ness Monster either!”
Last week an article appeared with the provocative title, “Scientists Discover that Atheists Might Not Exist.”[i] As you might imagine, the headline caught my eye. It seems an outlandish premise, silly even. With Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and other disciples of the “New Atheism” school selling books by the truckload, with first-world participation in organized religion flagging, in our highly secularized and technological society, of course there are atheists.
Or maybe not. Pascal Boyer, a Washington University anthropologist and scientist of memory, says “Humans are pattern-seekers from birth, with a belief in karma, or cosmic justice, as our default setting…a slew of cognitive traits predisposes us to faith.”
Graham Lawton, the deputy editor at New Science magazine and (paradoxically) an avowed atheist himself, adds, “Atheism is psychologically impossible because of the way humans think.”
What, exactly, does this mean? We’ll come to that. But first, it’s worth noting that this tension is nothing new. A century ago, one of the most ardent public atheists was the celebrated science fiction author H.G. Wells. Wells was, as one historian puts it, “the apostle of scientific materialism and the deadly foe of organized faith.”[ii] And then the First World War erupted on the world stage. Wells, like the rest of Europe, watched in horror as nations slew nations, as a generation of young men evaporated. In 1916, Wells published a novel, Mr. Britling Sees It Through, which became an international bestseller. The main character, Britling, loses a son in the Great War, after which he experiences a religious conversion. H.G. Wells, the consummate atheist, reflects upon Mr. Britling’s new life with these words:
“Religion is the first thing and the last thing, and until man has found God and been found by God, he begins at no beginning, he works to no end. He may have friendships, his partial loyalties, his scraps of honour. But all these things fall into place only with God. Only with God. God, who fights through men against Blind Force and Night and Non-Existence; who is the end, who is the meaning….It was as if [Britling] had been groping all this time in the darkness, thinking himself alone amidst the rocks and pitfalls and pitiless things, and suddenly a hand, a firm strong hand, had touched his own. And a voice within him bade him be of good courage….God was beside him and within him and about him.”[iii]
If as dedicated an atheist as H.G. Wells can, in a vulnerable time, write so passionately of the reality of God and our connection to God, then perhaps we must explore more deeply the prospect that atheism is, after all, impossible.
First, statistics. Twenty percent of Americans presently claim to have no religious affiliation, but only two percent actually claim to be atheists.[iv] That number diminishes even further when the definition of atheism is pressed. The God described by many who claim the title atheist—Christopher Hitchens falls here—is depicted as a kind of superman in the sky, bigger than we are but characterized by all the jealousies and foibles we share, a god who spurs men to war, a god who arbitrarily picks and chooses who to favor and who to condemn, a god who is sometimes a thinly-veiled deified nationalism, a god who is sometimes the cosmic bad parent.
But here’s the thing: I don’t believe in that god either, and I suspect neither do you. That god is a straw man, a caricature, and denying its existence is not atheism. In fact, I’d say denying that god tantamount to good faith. We should deny such a god, especially if and when Christian churches claim that this description characterizes the God of Jesus Christ.
What, then, is genuine atheism? It is what philosophers call material reductionism. It is the denial of any transcendent reality, any spiritual dimension beyond what we can touch, see, and feel. According to genuine atheism, the cosmos is just inert matter and empty space. There is no enlivening energy, no spirit, no purpose, and no pattern to the universe. The experiences we have of any of these things are illusions, tricks of consciousness. There is no meaning beyond the meaning we make. And therefore, there is no ultimate good and no ultimate bad. All moral choices are merely human constructions. There is no transcendent bar by which can judge virtue or vice. What one generation calls good is good for it, regardless of the horror with which it may be viewed by a later generation. Furthermore, we are alone. Whether in the heights of our joy or the depths of our sorrow, no one hears us laugh or hears us cry. Our voices project only into a cosmic void.
That is genuine atheism. We might as well describe it fully and starkly. And it is against that, the scientists in last week’s article say, that the human psyche ultimately rebels. We are hard-wired, it seems, to believe that there is such a thing as Good. We are hard-wired, it seems, to believe that that this goodness has a gaze, and its gaze is directed towards us. We are hard-wired to believe that the Good creates this world with purpose, and that we ourselves are created to seek that purpose and live in harmony with it.
As an example of how this bears out, universally across time and culture the narrative arc of human literature—of our stories—bends toward the redemption of evil and the triumph of good, so much so that stories which diverge from this pattern stand starkly out.
Our own Christian tradition has a name for the Good. We name it, because we experience it as a Spirit who knows us individually and beckons us to know it. We name it God. And of that God the Apostle Paul speaks with such eloquence today that we know that he knows this God intimately. These are some of the most beloved words in Holy Scripture. Paul says:
“When we do not know how to pray as we ought, that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit…We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose…What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?…For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:26-39)
Paul articulates in Christian language that reality, that belief, which runs deeper than any other in the human psyche, or, we can say, soul. It is the belief that God knows us, that God has created us as agents of God’s purpose—co-creators of God’s plan for the world—and, most importantly, that nothing in this world can ever separate us from God’s love.
The question is, then, why is it in the marrow of humanity to believe this? Why does the human psyche cleave to the belief that the world is enlivened, that there is more to the cosmos than the material dimension? Evolutionary biologists will say this belief has an evolutionary function. It helps us survive. They are right. They say the same thing about love. Biologists explain that the depth of our love for our children leads us to protect them fiercely, thus preserving our genetic line. But we know that the evolutionary explanation doesn’t exhaust the meaning of love. Love—the love we have for our children, our mates, our friends—is, for many, the truest, the most real thing we know. The actuality and meaning of love plumb far deeper than its evolutionary function.
Our belief in God is the same. Yes, we have retained it across the eons because it is helpful to our survival and functioning, giving us comfort in the face of an otherwise uncertain existence. But we have also retained it because it is true, because God is real, and we are built to know him. With surprising irony, H.G. Wells says it best: “Until man has found God and been found by God, he begins at no beginning, he works to no end. He may have friendships, his partial loyalties, his scraps of honour. But all these things fall into place only with God. Only with God. God, who fights through men against Blind Force and Night and Non-Existence; who is the end, who is the meaning.”
So it has always been. So it will always be. Thank goodness, and thank God.
[ii] Jenkins, Philip. The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, pg. 114.
[iii] Ibid, 114-115.