Atheism’s Unhappy Unrealities
Atheism doesn’t mix very well with reality. It leads directly to denying humanity, as I’ve been saying, but that doesn’t just mean atheism is wrong. It’s also grievously sad. For all the conflict they raise against Christianity, I still try to keep that in mind in conversation with atheists. I do better when I don’t just focus on what’s wrong, but also on the life they’re missing out on.
What they’re missing is obvious enough from scripture, but sometimes I find it valuable to show it from their own words. I saw it more than once over this past weekend.
The first was a line I ran across from Sam Harris, whose post-9/11 book The End of Faith is often credited with launching New Atheism. During the heyday of that movement, in a 2010 TV interview, Harris mocked Christians for believing in a God who “created the universe to have a relationship with one species of primates – lucky us. And he’s got galaxy upon galaxy to attend to, but he’s especially concerned with what we do, and he’s especially concerned with what we do while naked.”
It was an echo from his earlier Letter to a Christian Nation, where he’d written “In fact, relieving suffering seems to rank rather low on [Christians’] list of priorities. Your principal concern seems to be that the creator of the universe will take offense at something people do while naked.”
Scoffing at Christians
The idea behind this is clear: Christians don’t need God because He’s real. We use “God” because we’re sour bigots, and our “God” helps us control people. Especially to keep them from doing things we think are icky.
My second example is the sports journalist Pierre LeBrun, quoted by Joseph D’Hippolito here at The Stream last week. LeBrun was displeased with a National Hockey League player who decided not to wear a practice jersey supporting homosexuality and transgenderism. “Don’t hide behind religion,” he tweeted.
The player’s religious convictions were unreal, as far as LeBrun was concerned. I suspect he’d say the same for us all: “God” is just a mask Christians use to cover our anti-sex bigotry. I guess he thinks that’s icky. (If he were right, it would be.) But God, for him is just an anti-sexual human invention.
Harris agrees, though even in these short quotes he also manages to make the faith out to be self-centered and deluded. Look how big the universe is! He says. And we think God has time to spare for us? Well, yes, actually, I do. No problem at all. I’ve heard a lot of objections to the faith, but few as easy as this one. We worship an infinite God. Infinite! An infinite God who’s busy attending to hundreds of billions of galaxies still has infinite resources for attending to other things. So why Harris thinks there’s a problem there is beyond me.
Yet the mockery flows on so fast it looks to me like he loses track of what he’s actually aiming at. He scorns the idea that God “created the universe to have a relationship with one species of primates.” (Italics added.) It’s much the same as what I wrote last week: naturalistic (atheistic) evolution robbing humans of humanness. Harris doesn’t need to compare us against the whole universe to strip humans of all significance. He can do it right here by making us just one animal among many.
Stripping God Down to Human Size
Yet even here he has God wrong. No Christian believes God created the universe to have a relationship with us. We came along as part of the package, so to speak, and a very special part in His eyes. Above all else, though, He created it for His own glory and joy.
Should we consider it strange, then, that He created it so huge? I advise you not to answer right away, not until you’ve decided whose standard of hugeness you’ll use. To us, the cosmos is immense beyond comprehension. To God, not so much. Not at all, actually! I think we can safely say He considers it big enough to display His glory the way He wants it it to. He could just as easily have made it billions of times bigger. He didn’t, because … well, He didn’t. It was His choice, that’s all. He certainly didn’t cut it short on account of problems with time or inventory to work with!
Likewise you could ask, “Could God make a universe that kept Him so busy, He didn’t have time for people?” Same answer.
So, you could ask a dumb question like, “Could God make a universe so big He’d need a telescope to see it all?” You could ask, but it would be silly. Likewise you could ask, “Could God make a universe that kept Him so busy, He didn’t have time for people?” Same answer.
So what that we’re small compared to the whole universe? What could that possibly have to do with how God might view us? Harris talks about astronomical measurements, comparative statistics, and the like. But when he says that affects religion, he’s also speaking assumptions about God Himself, that God wouldn’t have the time or the heart to worry about small things like people. How does he know that about God? Do you see how much theology he’s sneaked into his atheism?
Stripping Humans Down to Nothing Size
Today’s atheist thought starts with “there is no God,” and leads consistently to, “Humans are insignificant. Everything we think is truly human is an illusion instead.” It’s wrong, but do you see how sad it is, too? How do they fill that de-humanized void?
All kinds of ways, actually: Personal autonomy. Personally-developed meaning and purpose. Helping others (even though they’re insignificant, too). Power. And pleasure. Especially pleasure of a certain kind.
Making Nothing Out of What They Value Most
Harris mentions sex in both quoted passages, and it strikes me as almost sadder and more mixed-up than the rest. What is sex? Harris calls it something people do while naked. That’s it. Why would God care? It’s not as if it matters much, right?
Wrong. Dangerously wrong, and grievously wrong.
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Sex is the most intimate connection two humans can make, or at least it can be. It’s the crucial first step in growing every future generation. It can be the best and surest route to building up another person in the love, or the quickest possible tactic to use someone else to feed your power-hungry ambitions. It’s the single most potent force in the world for building love or for destroying relationships.
And despite all that, Harris doubts it’s important enough for God to take notice of it.
It’s amazing, in a way: He’s taken the one universal ideal our culture worships, and stuffed it down into nothingness: “something people do while naked.” Sure. The couple checks into the hotel on their wedding night, saying, “Well, here we are. Not much else going on. I suppose we could do something.”
If sex is just “doing something while naked,” then love, marriage, and just about everything else important goes down the tubes along with it.
Let’s Show Them a Better Reality
God has a purpose for sex, and it’s good. Very good. It’s totally designed for human flourishing (one of Harris’s favorite phrases) and for “relieving suffering,” to quote him directly again. God’s design is meant not just to heal but to stave off the suffering of temporary stabs at false intimacy, and temporary families where children have temporary parents.
I’ve been talking about Sam Harris and sex, but it isn’t just Harris, and it isn’t only about sex. What you see in this short snippet, you see almost everywhere. It cascades, it flaps, it falls, it fails. If you bring God low, you bring humans far lower. You destroy the very things with which people try to replace Him.
God has so much better to offer us! So you can call atheism wrong, because it most certainly is. Call it sad, too, though, especially the next time you talk with an atheist about these things. Help them see how much better the world really is. Because God loves them. And because you care.
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.