I believe in God’ — this is the first confession of almost all religions. But the next question leads to as many answers as there are religions. Which God?
Some assert that there is no way we can answer questions about God. Known as ‘agnostics’ they forego any claim to certain knowledge of God. (As a matter of fact, they are very certain of this!)
Then, there are others who believe that there is no God. They are called atheists. In many ways, atheism is more consistent than agnosticism.
The agnostic’s approach is a cop-out. The atheist throws down a chilling challenge to any God who is there and asserts: ‘You are nothing!’
On the level of conduct, there have always been many ‘practical atheists’, people who claim to believe in God but live as if he does not exist. But today there are many who are atheists as a matter of philosophical conviction.
We all know that Communism needed the premise of atheism for its ideas to flourish. Less known is the fact that, in 1925, the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism was established, to be succeeded by the League of Militant Atheists.
Their avowed intent is to propagate atheism through literature and placements. I recently watched a documentary report on TV about atheists campaigning on campuses.
One leader said flatly: ‘We are committed to no god but ourselves!’ But what makes people adopt atheism?
Why deny God?
It may simply be a person’s despair over the multitude of truth-claims. A person who rejects the religious tradition in which he was bred, and studies the alternatives on offer, can end up in despair.
Even if he chooses to look only at monotheistic options, which of the three great religions should he consider? Judaism, Islam, or Christianity?
And if he opts for Christianity, which of the motley groups of churches and denominations (let alone sects and cults) should he try? Opting for atheism is less confusing.
Yet not opting is not an option! In rejecting all claims, the atheist makes his own claim — there is no God. In other words, atheism becomes a religious confession, an alternative religion!
But it is a religious confession that provides no control over belief or behaviour; no knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. By rejecting the option of God, the atheist opens himself to any kind of belief.
G. K. Chesterton put it well: ‘When men cease to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything’. Atheism is an altar of despair masquerading as a denial of God.
The hand of the Lord
Atheism often boasts of itself as the scientific choice. This claim is nurtured by the false (and unscientific) premise that all that is true is a matter of scientific observation.
By ‘observation’, moreover, they mean the five human senses and the scientific tools that extend their range. Any conclusions beyond this ability to observe and quantify are deemed unscientific and speculative. That includes religious concepts.
But what could be more inconsistent than to limit one’s system to observable phenomena, and then make pronouncements about the non-observable?
For if God stands outside what can be observed and quantified in the laboratory, the most that can be said is ‘I cannot tell!’
To conclude that there is no God because he is not observed scientifically is to stray far beyond science’s self-imposed limits.
Christians contend that, viewed objectively, even observable phenomena point to God. Job, even in a severe trial of faith, expresses this eloquently:
But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you
And the birds of the air and they will tell you;
Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you;
And the fish of the sea will explain to you.
Who among all these does not know
That the hand of the Lord has done this,
In whose hand is the life of every living thing,
And the breath of all mankind? (Job 12:7-10).
In the language of Christian theology, this is called General Revelation. God discloses himself to all mankind through natural phenomena (Romans 1:20).
Yet men are blind, both to God’s work in creation and to their own limitations. Atheism is like a man facing a high wall that he cannot scale. Refusing to admit his smallness, he concludes that there is nothing more beyond the wall.
Confronted with the claims of God, the atheist runs up against the one who dwells ‘in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see’ (1 Timothy 6:16). In his pride, he declares: ‘I cannot see God because he does not exist!’
Selfishness and sin
Atheism is really an exercise in selfishness and sin. It is every sinner’s ambition to sin with abandon. However, there is this thing called conscience.
Although it can become hardened, conscience does something we dislike but cannot escape. It accuses us of wrong! (Romans 2:14f). This accusation is intensified when it stands on a serious belief in God, especially when he is recognised as the just Judge of all the earth.
To remove God from one’s thoughts is an attempt to quiet the conscience. For then wickedness can be indulged with abandon without the discomfort of a tender conscience that speaks in moments of silence.
Rightly did the psalmist observe: ‘The wicked in his proud countenance does not seek God; God is in none of his thoughts’ (Psalm 10:4).
Paul sees this as the well-spring of sinful indulgence. ‘Even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind’ (Romans 1:28).
To have a knowledge (or consciousness) of God, even in a non-Christian society, is to guarantee some decency and civility in human relations.
Of course many crimes have been committed by ungodly men in the name of God! But so long as some silhouette of God’s character is retained in men’s knowledge, there is restraint. God’s justice restrains our proneness to be unjust; his compassion confronts our cruelty; and so on.
General revelation in creation, and the imprint of God’s law in human conscience, together leave man with an inescapable sense of God. For God is ‘not far from each one of us’ (Acts 17:27).
What, then, of atheism? It is the unnatural option. The sense of God is still present even in the atheist, but he beats it into silence so that he can go on with life without accusation.
Reformed theologian Robert Reymond makes this case: ‘All this means that there is no actual atheist. There are only theists, some of whom claim to be atheists. But God’s Word declares that these atheists are not real atheists; they only attempt to live as though there is no God.
‘But they know in their hearts that he is “there” and that he will someday judge them for their sin. They are theists who hate, and attempt to do everything they can to suppress, their innate theism.
‘Their “intellectual problems” with Christianity are in reality only masks or rationalisations to cover up their hatred of God and their love of and bondage to sin…
‘Thus their atheism is their unproven “grand assumption” — an assumption, by the way, with which they cannot consistently live!’ (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, p.143).
Atheism is the option for those who, in despair, refuse to think through the implication of truth-claims. It is also the option of the proud who thinks science is the new omniscience.
But above all, it is the option of the transgressor who wants to travel the road of sinfulness without the cargo of conscience.
In the final analysis, atheism is dehumanising. It is not the way of a man who respects his own humanity.
It is not surprising that the Bible spends little time addressing atheism as a philosophical option. The New Testament uses atheios in only one place. Paul writes of some who are ‘with no hope and without God in the world’ (Ephesians 2:12).
The Old Testament Hebrew has no word at all for ‘atheist’. But in a memorable statement, the psalmist exclaims: ‘The fool has said in his heart, “there is no God”’ (Psalm 14:1; 53:1).