Awhile back, I made friends with an atheist. Not just someone who doesn’t attend church and doesn’t know enough to refer to themselves as an agnostic, but an honest to goodness atheist.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “You just now befriended an atheist? What kind of a sheltered and exclusivist life do you live?”
In my defense, I’d like to say two things. First of all, I live in Colorado Springs, CO, which is essentially the Mecca of American Evangelicalism. Even if there are atheists all over this city, most of them aren’t too vocal about it. Second, I’ve known plenty of people who are atheists for years now. I just haven’t hung out with them on a regular enough basis to say that we are actual friends, as opposed to just friendly acquaintances.
All of this has got me thinking about atheism, at least a lot more than I normally do. As such, I thought I’d share a thought that I have toward those that do not believe God exists.
In my estimation, there are two types of atheists.
The first type are those that are genuinely open to the possibility that God might exist, but an equally genuine assessment of the evidence has left them concluding that the most plausible answer is that He doesn’t. I don’t know for certain, but from what I gather I’m willing to bet my new friend falls into this first category. These are the sorts of atheists you can have a conversation with, an authentic exchange of ideas and beliefs. They’re open to apologetic discussion, and they’re probably perfectly happy to argue things from their end as well.
The second type of atheists are those that simply don’t want to believe in God. It could be that they don’t like the idea of someone knowing their every thought and move. It could be that they’d prefer to believe that there’s no postmortem accountability for their lives. Or, it could be something else. But, at the end of the day, their atheism grows not out of a fair assessment of the relevant evidence, but out of a personal and emotion disdain for the idea of God.
In his book, The Last Word, atheist philosopher and professor at New York University, Thomas Nagel, provides a stark confession:
In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper – namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.1
I can join my atheist brothers and sisters in condemning “objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence,” even (especially) those that have come from my own religious tradition. I can dialogue and reason through the rejection or acceptance of what some might deem “superstition” or “evident empirical falsehoods.” But what do you say to someone who confesses “I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that”?
On the one hand, I find Dr. Nagel’s confession to be disheartening. I can describe a God that is beautiful, the sort of deity that it would be a joy to know. I can cry out in defiance against views of God that see Him as a heinous monster. And I can point to Jesus as the definitive revelation of God’s character and declare that God is nothing like the monster He is often portrayed to be. But, try as I might, I simply cannot change what a person wants.
If someone doesn’t want to believe in a God, then that is their prerogative.
On the other hand, I find Dr. Nagel’s confession to be refreshingly honest. It doesn’t feign intellectual superiority over religious believers. It doesn’t presume to have mastered each and every piece of evidence that could be brought to bear. It’s raw and genuine, and I like that.
While I have no doubt that many atheists genuinely fall into the first category, I suspect that many others (particularly those that display an emotional ire toward theism) would more properly fall into the second group, but are too proud to display the same sort of transparency as Dr. Nagel.
Furthermore, it seems to me that these same two categories could be applied to people regarding virtually any belief.
Several years ago, I was a youth pastor in a church. After almost a year of youth ministry awesomeness, I started catching a lot of heat from some of the congregants over a few of my less-than-usual theological beliefs, most notably my belief that hell will not be a place of eternal conscious suffering.2
In the midst of what eventually turned into a witch hunt, a recurring argument kept coming up. Now, of course, how people worded it would vary. But the sentiment was consistent. Regardless of any scriptural or rational evidence I might offer to the contrary, a lot of folks simply wanted hell to last for all of eternity. Although nobody was willing to come out and say it, I quickly caught the idea that many of them had someone that they knew (whether personally or by reputation) that they really wanted to see burning in hell forever. Since none of these good church folk suspected that they might find themselves in the infernal flames, they decided that it would be best if the others, those wicked people who did evil things (or perhaps just believed the wrong stuff), should suffer the unending nightmare of the traditional view of hell. And to be quite honest, I got the sense that one or two of these people would like me to end up there as well.3
What is more, I had one church leader exclaim to me that if he believed for one second that hell would be anything less than eternal conscious torment, he would simply stop being a Christian. As it turns out, his entire faith was built upon a fear of unending suffering.
All of this to say that each of us would do well to take a page out of Nagel’s book. If you hold the view that you do (on any belief) because you’ve done the hard work of assessing the evidence with an open mind, willing to follow the evidence wherever it may lead, then good for you! Keep it up. However, if you hold the beliefs that you do out of a stubborn desire for them to be true, then it becomes much more difficult to evaluate the evidence for and against it with an unbiased eye. When that happens, your conclusions will always prove your presuppositions, because they’re not allowed to do anything else. And if that’s you, all I can ask is that you at least be honest about it.
Anyhow, just something to think about. Thanks for reading!
1: Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford University Press), 130.
2: For more on that, you can check out my Biblical and Supporting Arguments for Annihilationism, which is really an adaptation, Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology, 2nd ed. (Baker Academic, 2009), 286-91.
3: That's not an unfounded dig at these people. I've actually been told that I will burn for eternity in the flames of hell precisely because I don't believe that anyone will burn for eternity in the flames of hell.