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The Attraction of Atheism

If atheism is true, and there is no God, then everything really is all about me, and what I want, and what I can get. “My will be done, not Yours.”

Put your finger on the pulse of modern culture: it throbs with “me, me, me.” Advertisements tell me: “Indulge yourself! You deserve it!” I can buy my lunch and my coffee made “my way.” I flip open a magazine, or browse the best-sellers, to find ten easy tips on how I can have what I want, right here, right now.  

Put one way, this is selfishness. But it’s spun as empowerment, self-actualization. We are told to follow our hearts, seek our deepest desires, do what feels good. Indeed, if atheism is true, there is no ultimate purpose to life, so we might as well go for self-indulgence, whether through hedonism or through constructing one’s own “meaning” in life.

In contrast, if the Triune God is real, then such a focus on the self is ultimately destructive. Christians believe that we are alienated from God by the Fall, and damaged by our own sins; if we are left to our own devices, we will go wrong. To follow our own whims is to wander without guidance farther away from the path that leads to true self-knowledge in relationship with God who knows us completely. If God is who Christians say He is, then our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, not toys for abuse or pleasure. If God is who He has revealed Himself to be in Christ Jesus, then the path to true selfhood is the narrow way, the way of the Cross, the way of denial of self and love of God.

In other words, the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a significant obstacle to self-indulgence.

Atheism is a curious hybrid. On the one hand, as a worldview it provides for a rejection of civilization entirely. If there is no God, then there is no ultimate source of objective values, and we can make or break rules as we please; good and evil are reduced to preferences. I like chocolate ice cream and dislike murder. You like vanilla and enjoy killing small children. Sure, why not?

On the other hand, atheists don’t generally advocate anarchism and a return of barbarism. (Who would run the publishing houses to print their books?) In fact, atheists show a remarkable streak of optimism about human nature. The atheist feels, almost as an article of faith, that the human race is perfectible. Despite all the colossal failures of utopianism, especially the ones of the 20th century that ended in mass slaughter, there remains the idea that this time, we can get it right all by ourselves. We can perfect ourselves through legislation; through restructuring society; through genetic manipulation; through drugs; through psychology. We can make ourselves be happy – or so we think; it never works, but the atheist can only try again.

Atheism permits us to claim that we are in control of our selves, and thus our own destiny; it is the perfect faith for a culture that is obsessed with both perfection and self-will.

If we allow our Christian faith to be described in terms of personal gratification, we are selling exactly what the world is selling, just under a different brand name. Christ did not die for us so that we would be comfortable and happy today. He died for us so that we would be saved.

To die to self, to die to sin, is not a comfortable experience. Confronting one’s own sin and repenting of it yields sorrow, not happiness. Hope and peace lie on the other side of that repentance, but we must go through pain to get there – not around it.

If we allow Christianity to be all about fulfilling my needs, getting my prayers answered, feeling good about myself and my family, and improving my relationships, then we are making the same pitch as the atheists: it’s all about me.

And trust me, atheism is less demanding than Christian faith. I’ve been there; I know.

But in our frantic consumer culture, as we become less real and less present to each other, and even to ourselves, as we desperately project ourselves outward into the media to remind ourselves that we exist... we may slowly realize that atheism may promise easy self-fulfillment, but it delivers nothing but despair.

Christian faith is harder. It costs more; in fact, it costs everything. It also happens to be true.

Jesus told his disciples to count the cost. Why are we afraid to recognize that there is a cost?

For those who have sought to find themselves, searching high and low, grasping after all the good things of the world only to find them slipping from between their fingers, listen to the hard, true words of our Lord: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)

Comments

Holly,

I just want you to know that I read all your stuff. I may not comment on each and every one, but I read and re-read. You have a gift of communicating truth, particularly to this subject of atheism. My 21 year old son has bought into all of the concepts you describe. It is the most difficult for me to see him reject Christianity.

Your words have helped me understand the crisis of faith... not only in my son but sometimes in my own crisis of faith. I thank God for the time you put into writing this blog. I am most grateful.

Bluediamond, thank you for your kind words!

Our culture promises so much - that we will find fulfillment and happiness through material things, through a focus on the self. It's a trap precisely because it's so appealing. But it doesn't satisfy... I certainly was very stubborn and tried to "create meaning" for myself in a variety of ways, before realizing it just didn't work. My hope and prayer is that those who are still trying to find happiness and meaning without God will, eventually, recognize that it's not working, and start looking in a different direction.

I've also realized, over the past couple of years, that the siren song of the me-culture doesn't shut off just because I've become a Christian. It's been encouraging to me to speak with older, mature Christians who tell me there's no magical moment when you don't have to wrestle with these things any more; it's an ongoing process, with the challenges becoming different and more subtle as time goes on. They're far ahead of me on the journey to become closer to Christ, but it's encouraging to know it remains a journey.

Holly, do you have a blog devoted to your book?  I really would like a dialog.  It is hard to find places where Christians and atheists can exchange views rationally.  I would welcome any suggestions you or your readers have for such forums.

In reply to bluediamond you admit that you have known for a couple of years that materialism is an issue for Christians as much as it is for atheists.  How do you square that against your opening paragraph for this paragraph?  Are you just being hyperbolic for literary effect?

Following some links from the resource I cited before, I found a good paragraph about why Atheism is Not a World View:

A world view is a “a comprehensive conception or image of the universe and of humanity’s relation to it.”  … Although atheism by itself does not offer any guidance on how to conceive of the universe and humanity’s relation to it, it does exclude certain options — namely, those centered around some god.  Excluding certain types of world views as options does not, however, qualify as a world view itself; at most, it might be part of a world view.  Atheism is certainly not comprehensive in anything it might have to say, not even if defined narrowly.

Holly,
Welcome to the flock. I am so glad you are here. I love your use of words. I have added you to my favorite blogs and would be honored if you liked my sentences enough to do the same.

Peace,
Mark

I am a new reader over from the Christian Post where you argue that Christianity Really Does make Sense.  I would like to know more about that, since my longish spiritual journey has led me to the opposite conclusion.

I am looking forward to a dialog on most of the points raised there, but I guess it would be most polite and constructive to stick to one blog post at a time! So you start off here with:

If atheism is true, and there is no God, then everything really is all about me, and what I want, and what I can get.

I have to ask, was that true for you when you were an atheist?  Atheists are just Selfish?  I know this a popular assertion among Christians, but it seems like a tired canard to me.  In any case, such speculation is entirely tangential to question if God is real.

if atheism is true, there is no ultimate purpose to life

I don’t disagree, but I do not find such a conclusion troubling, and you are appealing to the consequences, not making a logical argument.

so we might as well go for self-indulgence

That does not follow.  Again, was this how you behaved when you self-identified as an atheist?

as a worldview [atheism] provides for a rejection of civilization entirely

Atheism is orthogonal to anarchism.  Besides that, Christians are also sometimes compelled to civil disobedience, so you could make a similarly vacuous assertion that, as a world view, Christianity provides for a rejection of civilization entirely.

atheists don’t generally advocate anarchism and a return of barbarism…  atheists show a remarkable streak of optimism about human nature.  The atheist feels, almost as an article of faith, that the human race is perfectible.

Thanks for all that!  Doesn’t pretty much contradict all the negative stereotypes you were trying to spin with post?

[Christianity] also happens to be true.

Which articles of yours do you think best makes such a case?  I would prefer to dialog in context.  Thanks!

Hi Beetle,

I appreciate your response to my essay, and I'll try to address your questions as best I can.

One thing that's important to note: in this very short essay I am not trying to make an argument for the truth of Christianity, or the falsity of atheism. My intent was (and is) to lay out some of the factors that make atheism attractive, primarily because many Christians don't understand that it could be appealing at all. In a sense, I'd like Christians to take atheists more seriously.

You noted my point that "atheists show a remarkable streak of optimism about human nature." (etc.) and commented: "Thanks for all that! Doesn’t pretty much contradict all the negative stereotypes you were trying to spin with post?"

Note that I was discussing atheism (the philosophical position), not atheists (the people who hold to atheism). One of the most notable things about atheists, in my view, is that for the most part they don't seem to live the way it would be reasonable for them to live, if atheism is indeed true. I think this inconsistency is interesting, and suggestive that maybe there are things that atheists believe, at a deep level, that don't square with atheism.

I wrote, "If atheism is true, and there is no God, then everything really is all about me, and what I want, and what I can get."

You asked: "I have to ask, was that true for you when you were an atheist? Atheists are just Selfish? I know this a popular assertion among Christians, but it seems like a tired canard to me. "

It's interesting that you use the word "selfish," because I didn't use that word. "Selfish" is a negative word that only has meaning if we value the opposite, that is, to help others at our own expense. If there is no ultimate source of morality, then there is no meaning to saying that something is selfish. We don't say that a tree is selfish for extending its roots to get all the water it can, even if that means that there's not enough water left for the shallow-rooted grass around it.

When I was an atheist, I believed that there is such a thing as good and bad, and that it was right for me to do certain things, and wrong to do others. However, as an atheist, ultimately it was up to me to decide what the standards were. How good is good enough? Is it enough to just not harm others, or do I have to actively help them? At a deep level, that's what I mean by "it's all about me." Even if I devote my life to serving others, if atheism is true, then I'm the one who gets to decide that serving others is a good thing.

You also commented: "In any case, such speculation is entirely tangential to question if God is real."

In a sense, you're quite right. However, the fact that we can have a discussion about selfishness at all suggests that there is some sort of deeper source of values outside of my own preferences -- and that's not tangential at all to the question of God.

Regarding the truth of Christianity: I myself don't have a lot of writing that makes the case for Christianity, simply because my own interests lie more with exploring the Christian life from inside, and looking at its intersections with culture. Fortunately, there are many excellent writers who do address these points.

I recommend the work of J.P. Moreland; the book "Does God Exist" (a debate between him and atheist Kai Nielsen) is excellent.

I also suggest the work of William Lane Craig- he has an excellent website, www.reasonablefaith.org that I recommend.

Lastly, I recommend C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.

There are a lot more great books, but these would be a great start!

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About
Dr. Holly Ordway is a professor of composition and literature. She speaks and writes regularly on literature, especially fantasy literature and poetry, and literary apologetics.


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