Atheism remains an important challenge to faith throughout the Western world, especially in the United States. Many of its critics believe that the movement has lost its way and that its intellectual credentials and cultural appeal have dwindled in recent years. I completely disagree. Atheism is, of course, a “godless” worldview under which nearly every claim and nuance of “faith” is ridiculed as nothing less than a centuries-old fairy tale. As a matter of course, atheism has typically meant a lack of belief in gods. Although this might sound like mere semantics at first blush, atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; rather, it is a lack of belief. Some older lexicons define atheism as “a belief that there is no god.” Atheism has not gone away. In fact, it has morphed into a militant attack on Christianity itself.
Diagoras of Melos
Who created atheism? Atheism—or at least the idea that would today pass for atheistic—seems to have begun in the 5th century when Diagoras of Melos (ancient Greek poet and sophist) declared that there were no gods. Atheism contrasts with the word theism, which, in its most general form, is the belief that at least one deity exists. Etymology of the Greek word ἄθεος (atheos) means “without gods.”
American Atheists is a movement founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair in 1963. O’Hair filed suit in 1959 on behalf of her son who was forced to attend Bible readings in his school and was a victim of harassment at the hands of school employees after he declined to participate. The Murray v. Curlett case was consolidated into Abington School District v. Schempp and was decided on June 17, 1963. This landmark case held for the first time that state-mandated prayer and Bible readings in public schools were a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. That year, the Society of Separationists (the precurser to American Atheists) was founded.
It’s been 134 years since Friedrich Nietzsche declared “God is Dead” (or Gott ist tot, in German), giving philosophy students a collective headache that’s lasted from the 19th century until today. It is, perhaps, one of the best known statements in all of philosophy. The death of God didn’t strike Nietzsche as an entirely good thing. Without a God, the basic belief system of Western Europe was in jeopardy. Nietzsche was an atheist during most of his adult life, and didn’t mean that there was a God who had actually died; rather that our idea of one had. After the Enlightenment, the idea of a universe that was governed by physical laws and not by divine providence was considered to be reality.
Philosophy argued that governments no longer needed to be organized around the idea of divine right in order to be legitimate, but rather by the consent or rationality of the governed. Philosophers said large and consistent moral theories could exist without reference to God. Europe no longer needed God as the source for morality, value, or order in the universe; philosophy and science were capable of doing that. This increasing secularization of thought in the West led the philosopher to conclude that not only was God dead but that human beings had killed him with their scientific revolution—their desire to better understand the world. Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols, “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident… Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole.”
Atheism is on the March
As many atheists know, to not replace God with a new philosophical structure providing meaning can be a cause of existential dread. Are we at risk of becoming a society struggling with our own meaninglessness? Are we at risk for nihilism? Are we more vulnerable to ideologies and con men who promise to do what God used to do for us and society? While Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the future, the non-religious are less so than the spiritually-minded. It seems Nietzsche may have been wrong in the long run about our ability to deal with the idea that God is dead. Interestingly, Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said, “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
It would seem that atheism has become a religion onto itself.
Richard Dawkins’ international bestseller The God Delusion has been called a “hard-hitting, impassioned” book in which he is said to eviscerate the arguments for religion and demonstrate the “supreme improbability” of the existence of a supreme being. Proponents of his militant atheism believe Dawkins “makes a compelling case that faith is not just irrational but potentially deadly.”
Dawkins, in his Preface to The God Delusion, writes, “If you feel trapped in the religion of your upbringing, it would be worth asking yourself how this came about. The answer is usually some form of childhood indoctrination. If you are religious at all it is overwhelmingly probable that your religion is that of your parents. If you were born in Arkansas and you think Christianity is true and Islam false, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you had been born in Afghanistan, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination. Mutatis mutandis if you were born in Afghanistan.” Dawkins’ militant attitude spills over from mere personal disbelief in God; he attacks Christian parents who, as he puts it, brainwash their children. He writes, “I want everybody to flinch whenever we hear a phrase such as ‘Catholic child’ or ‘Muslim child.’ Speak of a ‘child of Catholic parents’ if you like; but if you hear anybody speak of a ‘Catholic child,’ stop them and politely point out that children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics.”
Atheism has not typically been antagonistic to religion. Even Diagoras of Melos simply believed life would be better without a god lording it over everyone. Nietzsche believed God was dead because unbelief killed Him. Psychology Today believes militant atheism is a myth. Not so fast. Julian Baggini, a committed atheist author, summarizes militant atheism rather eloquently. He writes, “Although atheism is not necessarily hostile to religion, there are, of course, some atheists who are hostile to religion, and not just fundamentalist religions… Atheism which is actively hostile to religion I would call militant. To be hostile in this sense requires more than just strong disagreement with religion—it requires something verging on hatred and is characterized by a desire to wipe out all forms of religious beliefs. Militant atheists tend to make one or both of two claims that atheists do not. The first is that religion is demonstrably false or nonsense, and the second is that it is usually or always harmful.”
Richard Dawkins is beyond any doubt the new high priest of the militant atheist movement. Upon release of The God Delusion, he officially declared war on religion in general and Christianity in particular. He has made it clear that he will not rest until he has completely defeated God and religion. Philip Johnson said, “After reading a great deal of this bombast, I have come to the conclusion that Richard has never assumed the duties of a Professor of the Public Understanding of Science—a position he holds due to the patronage of a zillionaire from Microsoft. He seems to lack the intellectual confidence to say anything of substance, so he sticks to the very safe path of appealing to the materialistic prejudices.”
But what of Dawkins’ arguments themselves? The God Delusion is little more than an aggregation of convenient (if not embellished) factoids, suitably overstated to achieve maximum impact, and loosely arranged to suggest that they actually constitute some element of Socratic reasoning. This makes dealing with its so-called arguments a little problematic, in that the work frequently substitutes aggressive, bullying rhetoric for serious evidence-based argument. Dawkins often treats evidence as something to cram into his preconceived theoretical (perhaps theatrical?) framework. Religion is persistently and consistently portrayed in the worst possible way.
Perhaps Michael Caputo gives us some hope in his We Believe in God: The Greatest Artists, Musicians, Philosophers, Scientists, Writers and Poets Believed in God.