I promised Scott Gray that I would take on evangelicals today, but I find that I have more to say about atheism. Some of it will overlap with what I said yesterday, and some of it will be different. Like some of my recent posts, it will have a lot of rambling, but it will hopefully be good, thought-provoking, insightful, edifying rambling.
When I was at that Bible study meeting–the one in which the leader said he was glad he was not a non-Christian–my mind turned to something specific: I thought about professors I knew who fought with one another for prominence in their departments. Most of these professors were atheists, agnostics, or not that religious.
Why is this important? Well, suppose that there is no God, and that this life is all there is. If that were my belief system, then I would want to get the most that I can out of this life. I would want to make my mark on the world rather than fading into obscurity. I’d be in continual competition with people as I pursued my desires. Also, since I wouldn’t be satisfied with God or eternal things, I’d seek my thrills in what the temporal world has to offer (e.g., power, money, sex, prominence, admiration from others, etc.).
Of course, on some level, the above paragraph describes me anyway. It also fits other Christians. Let me draw on my daily quiet time to illustrate what I mean. I am reading the Book of Micah right now. Like a lot of the biblical prophets, Micah criticizes the false prophets of Israel. In Micah 3, Micah accuses them of being prophets-for-hire. They may indeed have had the gift of prophecy at some point, for v 6 promises that they will have no visions or revelations, which only makes sense if they once had these things. But, at some time, they decided to go for the gold. They did not speak truth to power, but they told the powerful what they wanted to hear, even though those very people were oppressing the poor. After all, the people with power had the money, so they could give the false prophets what they wanted: a comfortable lifestyle.
My point? This world was more real to the false prophets than God was, and so they tried to improve their temporal lot. And that is true with many people inside and outside of the body of Christ: we try to make our mark in this world. Sadly, a thought that enters my mind when I encounter people is, “How can this person help me?” And that’s the way the false prophets were operating: they figured that the rich people could give them a comfortable lifestyle, whereas their lowly victims could not. And so they prophesied divine favor for the rich, even as they ignored the plight of the poor. They did not think that God could take care of them, since, as I said, the world around them was more real in their eyes than God.
So is God necessary for morality to exist? On some level, yes. On some level, no. Let me explain. I get annoyed with Christians who act as if a divine super-cop is the only possible basis for morality, for I believe that morality by itself has practical benefits. Whether there is a God or not, we would all feel better in a society in which people did not kill, steal, lie, or commit adultery, and chose instead to love and help one another. But a lot of us do not have this sort of long-term vision. I know I don’t. A good society often appears to me to be an abstract and unattainable ideal, plus I usually do not think that anything little old me does can have grand consequences for society as a whole. And so I tend to act according to what benefits me at the moment, without regard for the bigger picture. So is a divine super-cop who enforces moral laws on an individual basis necessary for me to be moral? Yes, and I would say that this is true of many others as well.
Of course, I don’t kill or steal, but there are times when I act with selfish calculation. And this brings me to another point: I often do not succeed in getting what I want. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church once gave a sermon on greed that caused me to think. He said that a poor person can be greedy if he thinks about wealth all the time and resents rich people. His covetousness is still there, even if he does not have what he wants. And that fits me to a T. I may not have all the power, money, or women I desire, but if I resent those who do have them, then my heart is attached to this world. And that is something that leads to hatred, strife, and jealousy. These things have a negative effect on others, and they also rob me of any peace of mind.
Here’s another thought: I look at my life with Asperger’s, and I blame God. I wonder why I had to be cursed with this sort of life. Come to think of it, why does anyone have to go through life with a handicap? But an atheist would not necessarily bemoan the unfairness of life. Since she does not believe in a God, she is not exactly expecting fairness. For her, the afflicted person simply has to endure the cards he’s dealt, as he finds some way to move on.
So perhaps this is a positive aspect of atheism, and maybe I can somehow incorporate it into my Christianity. But, overall, I have problems with the atheistic worldview because it sees this life as all that there is. And, when one holds that perspective, he or she may tend to idolize this world. And once that happens, selfishness can result, along with its negative consequences.