Christian Atheists?



By Brett Alexander Miller

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merica is filled with missionaries – religious and otherwise. Both theists and atheists say they have a particular message the world needs to accept, and though each group places itself on opposing sides on the issue of God’s existence, allegiances change when it comes to other matters. The strangest example is no doubt the unspoken unity between mainstream Christianity and mainstream atheism on man’s ultimate purpose: personal happiness. It’s on this subject that many zealous believers and zealous nonbelievers often join hands in complete agreement.


John Gray, an English philosopher and atheist, recently wrote in the Guardian that a particular form of atheism, very prominent here in the West, is dubiously connected to long-standing western values – that is, connected to a modern system of morality that celebrates ethics of equality, personal autonomy, community, and human flourishing. Yet, as his article points out, atheism throughout history has not always gone hand in hand with these modern ideals: it has often in fact been used against those very values.  Gray cites German biologist Ernst Haeckel, the “German Darwin”, as a case in point:


“Hostile to Jewish and Christian traditions, Haeckel devised his own ‘religion of science’ called Monism, which incorporated an anthropology that divided the human species into a hierarchy of racial groups. Though he died in 1919, before the Nazi Party had been founded, his ideas, and widespread influence in Germany, unquestionably helped to create an intellectual climate in which policies of racial slavery and genocide were able to claim a basis in science.”


John Gray’s point is not that atheism necessarily leads to racism or mass murder, but the opposite: Haeckel’s atheism arbitrarily adopted those positions without sufficient logical grounding to do so.  Gray argues that such a connection between atheism and racism was not based on science, as atheists claimed at the time (since science would later debunk eugenics), but rather it was an unfounded decision – a leap of faith, if you will – based on accepted cultural beliefs typical in the early 1900’s concerning race. The problem with modern atheism, however, is that it likewise derives its fundamental goals from modern culture, not empirical data. Gray explains:


“If an earlier generation of unbelievers shared the racial prejudices of their time and elevated them to the status of scientific truths, evangelical atheists do the same with the liberal values to which western societies subscribe today – while looking with contempt upon ‘backward’ cultures that have not abandoned religion.”


Gray is making a case against a particular strand of atheism: one that claims that its values and moral code come from science when really it is merely imitating the larger popular culture.  The “evangelical” New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who push for their (absence of) beliefs about God often claim that the values which people highly cherish, such as personal happiness, mostly are served by adhering to their convictions.  The Atheist Good News, therefore, might be summed up as, “Repent from God, and you will be happy and free, and there will be peace on earth.” In other words, the pursuit of happiness, the quintessential value of the 21st century, is found in the Way of Atheism.


Evangelicals, the Christian ones anyway, are often eager to say just the opposite: “Turn to God, and personal happiness and freedom will be yours.” But wait a minute.  Haven’t we just put ourselves in the center of Gray’s devastating critique of pop atheism?  Have we ourselves made a leap of faith and subverted our system of belief to the modern culture’s value system without any (biblical) reason of doing so?  Look at some modern conservative slogans:


“Repent and you’ll go to heaven, otherwise you’ll experience everlasting punishment for your sins.” “Don’t miss life’s best. Find God.” “Only with Jesus can you reach your full potential!” “Let’s fill up on the things God says about us and watch our lives turn completely around.” “Think about the people that you hurt when you sin and think about what sin does to your soul (hint: it’s not good for you!). Think about the bad things that that guilt leads you to do.”


That last reference was from WikiHow on how to repent, in case you were wondering.  Yet every quote is cut from the same piece of cloth; “If you really care about your happiness, you’ll turn to God.” The evangelical Christian and the evangelical Atheist may advocate opposite views of life, but the carrot on the end of the stick is one and the same: personal contentment.


We modern people have trouble understanding the significance of that last statement. Like fish being told about the prevalence of water and responding, “What’s water?” We ask why anyone would not make happiness their goal in life.  Sure, we all have different ideas on how to be happy, but to question the pursuit of personal satisfaction is paramount to questioning our need for air and water.  Is there even an alternative? Why wouldn’t human flourishing be our primary motive for our choices?


Here is where Gray’s analysis strikes a nerve for us Christians: just as mainstream atheism is a mirror reflecting trending cultural values and expectations, so too is evangelicalism, whenever Christianity is centered around popular values in our cultural climate (e.g. “Look at how great things turned out for me since I was converted!”).  In both popular atheism and popular Christianity (and almost everything in between), the happiness of man is the ultimate end of our endeavors, regardless if science or Scripture might say otherwise.


Now the shoe is on the other foot


For Christians looking at the Bible, various results of salvation seem to pop up: treasure in heaven, peace and intimacy with God, freedom from the power of sin, and more. Happiness also is part of the package: “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be satisfied.” But while the Bible categorizes our contentment and peace of mind as a byproduct of faith, evangelicals have often elevated it to the prime-product, the ultimate motivation by which all else must be tested.  The verse now reads, “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for happiness!” So God is obeyed because He makes us happy. God is worshipped because He has kept us from unhappiness. Some fire-and-brimstone types might replace ‘unhappiness’ with ‘hell’ – but don’t be fooled, it’s the same argument. The nuance is only one of style.


If indeed, modern evangelicalism has made the happiness of man the ultimate goal of Christianity, and God is but the means to that end, then it too, like modern atheism, has essentially been swept up in the currents of our culture. We have used the Bible to elevate a biblical value to an unbiblical level, or as J.I. Packer said, “Our business is to present the Christian faith clothed in modern terms, not to propagate modern thought clothed in Christian terms. Confusion here is fatal.”


Man’s happiness is not the chief end of God, and neither should it be the Christian’s chief end. We don’t exalt God so that He might exalt us, but merely because God is worth our love.  “If you go to God to make your life better, you’re not going to a God, you’re going to a butler” as author Timothy Keller puts it. The Bible presents salvation ultimately for the glory of God, not man’s, happiness.  That’s why Christ’s synopsis of Paul’s conversion in the Book of Acts is so shocking to us: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Jesus Christ saves people not to help them in their (very Americanized) pursuit of happiness, but to demonstrate His worthiness through their salvation.  If flourishing happens to be part of the package, praise God for that, too!


Nobody suffers for things they consider cheap. It’s easy to see how much a man values his career, family, savings, or reputation when he goes to extravagant lengths and experiences incredible pain to preserve them.  Likewise, a Christian who endures sorrow upon sorrow to stay faithful to God shows that her delight is not in her own personal flourishing, but in knowing God in all his glory and value.


When evangelicals embrace this, our culture will begin to see that believers and nonbelievers are not merely hiking in different boots on their way to the same mountaintop, but are actually climbing two very different mountains. Then the question won’t be who will make it all the way to the top, but which mountain is worth the climb?