The fool says …
Atheism does not spring from superior rationality. It is the fool, says the psalmist, who says in his heart there is no God (Psalm 14:1). Indeed, the verse ends by tracing this atheistic conclusion not to a powerful intellect but to a corrupt heart.
Today we are witnessing a new-found zeal on the part of secular fundamentalists. Richard Dawkins says nothing mild – nor particularly accurate – when he rails against the God of the Old Testament as a ‘fiercely unpleasant God, morbidly obsessed with sexual restrictions, with the smell of charred flesh, with his own superiority over rival gods and with the exclusiveness of his chosen desert tribe’.
Somewhat bewilderingly, Dawkins claims that religion is, at one and the same time, a truly horrible superstition and a comforting delusion – devised by human beings to distract them from their sufferings. It’s difficult to see how it could be both.
That doesn’t bother Dawkins, of course, who presses on to assert that religious instruction is a form of child abuse and that governments should put a stop to it. Presumably, we could all sleep more soundly at night if police were posted outside every Sunday school.
Sam Harris has also rushed into print to declare that all religion, especially Islam, is unreasonable, uncivil and dangerous. Michel Onfray has issued the Atheist manifesto, while Christopher Hitchens has declared, God is not great: How religion poisons everything. They all echo Dawkins, who declares that ‘faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument’.
Actually, it is Dawkins and his ilk who come across as having closed minds. It reminds one of Bozo in George Orwell’s Down and out in Paris and London who ‘was an embittered atheist (the sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike him) … He was a very exceptional man’. Not so exceptional, says the apostle Paul, for all the descendants of Adam are by nature ‘alienated and enemies in [their] mind’ (Colossians 1:21).
Others, milder in their rejection of the faith, are nevertheless practical atheists. John Piper warns that ‘the greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie … And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil but of the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognisable and almost incurable’.
In Jesus’ parable of the great supper, there are some pretty boring excuses. One can’t come because he had bought a field, another wanted to try out five yoke of oxen, while a third had married a wife (Luke 14:18-20). They may be more civil about it than Dawkins, Hitchens and Onfray but they reject the gospel of the kingdom just as firmly.
Ultimately, none reject God’s coming to us in Christ because they are superior in knowledge and wisdom but because they are worldly and fallen.
Jesus told the Jews that they could not believe because they received honour from one another and not the honour that comes from God (John 5:44). They were not rational and objective judges weighing up the evidence before them. They were proud rebels who needed to lay down their arms.
Why did Felix tremble when Paul preached about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come? Precisely because there was little righteousness and self-control in his life and good reason to fear the judgment to come. But, of course, he couldn’t admit that to himself or others. Instead he told Paul, ‘Go away for now; when I have a convenient time I will call for you’ (Acts 24:25).
It is all smoke and mirrors. We may be eloquently hostile; or we may be laid back and indifferent; or we may be protective of our standing in the community – but in each example lurks the heart of a fool. God does not address us as impartial philosophers or respectable bystanders but as sinners with sinful hearts.
‘This is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For everyone practising evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed’ (John 3:19-20).
Behind the aggressive atheism of a Dawkins and the worldly indifference of the man who bought a field, is the same heart – foolish, corrupt and dead before God. And so it will remain until the Spirit of God brings about the new birth. Richard Dawkins, like Nicodemus, you must be born again.
The author is minister of Revesby Presbyterian Church, Sydney