Friday, November 18, 2011

Thank God for atheists?

The Russian proverb tells us that “perfect” is the enemy of “good enough”. So it is.

I’ve argued before that, in our spiritual lives, God demands “perfect” from us in order to get “good enough”, that if we merely shoot for “good enough”, we fall short. He does this for our benefit, not His own, to get us to “be all that we can be”. Athletes don’t compete for “honorable mention” (cf. 1 Cor 9:24-27); actors and musicians don’t settle for a “tolerable” performance; cooks and bakers don’t aim to make their food merely edible. As Richard Nixon (ironically) growled to an aide that suggested he make his administration remembered for “competence”, “Hell, if all we do is manage things ten percent better, we’ll never be remembered for anything.”[1]

I mention this because in the reality of blogging, as in many other spheres of life, external pressures push us for settling for “good enough”. The more frequently you publish, the more likely your blog will come up on the first page of Google, Bing and Yahoo. To increase your chances of making a difference in one person’s life, you have to increase your readership; that’s the only justification for blogging, as far as I’m concerned … I can do other things to make money.

This inevitably means that you’ll publish posts that, on re-reading, will disappoint. Only one so far has been so bad I had to delete it. Yesterday’s post said more or less what I mean, but it leaves open a big question: “If atheism is so unattractive and unpersuasive, then why is atheism growing?”

First, in the interests of space, I’m not going back into the issue of which has the “better” arguments. Obviously, I hold that Christianity does; just as obviously, Hemant Mehta holds that atheism does. There are bad reasons to become a Christian just as there are bad reasons to become an atheist; paralogisms succeed despite their illogic because they engage our emotions, our prejudices, our desires … everything we usually exclude when we speak of reason.

If atheists succeed at anything — if there were reasons Christians should be grateful for the presence of atheists — they first succeed at forcing us to think through our reasons to believe. In this much, there’s value even in a caustic jibe, such as “believing in an invisible man in the sky”: in explaining why God is not “an invisible man in the sky”, we find we don’t believe it either. The “invisible man in the sky” is inherently unreasonable; the infinite, all-powerful, immaterial Creator who exists beyond Time and Space is not. In giving our reasons to believe (cf. 1 Pt 3:15), we find that our faith is both reasonable and reason-able, that Faith and Reason are not mutually exclusive … indeed, that faith[*] in first principles and axioms precedes the deductions and inferences we call reason that follow from them.

Second, and more profoundly, atheists succeed at calling out Christian hypocrisy and division. We need the constant reminder that these things ultimately work against the spirit and meaning of the gospel message, that Christ, the apostles and Church Fathers never intended an “invisible unity of believers” but rather a visible and physical communion — in the words of Tertullian, “a body knit together … by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope” (Apology, 39). G. K. Chesterton gives us a sound critique on this point:

Of course, I mean that Catholicism was not tried; plenty of Catholics were tried, and found guilty [Ouch! A touch, a touch, I do confess it!]. My point is that the world did not tire of the church’s ideal, but of its reality. … [T]he great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived (which must mean over-lived), but by not being lived enough. Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.[2]

In truth, there isn’t a charge we can lay to the postmodern world that isn’t equally an indictment of Christian failures. As a quick example, the Madonna and Child and the manger scene are powerful images/symbols/stories of love, both human and divine, and therefore packed with dynamite; yet we Christians have done a terrible job of applying that dynamite to explode the four prison walls of materialism. Indeed, the imagery of St. Nicholas and his gifts of charity that imitate the gift of God’s grace given to us from that first Christmas morning we have allowed to be crassly subverted into the materialist monstrosity called “Santa Claus” with his bag full of toys … a very poor second.

I don’t think there’s one single reason why atheism is growing. In fact, I can’t say it is growing, save in the goldfish bowl of the First World, and only in the manner that philosophies and movements grow and subside over time. Some atheists will cherry-pick certain measures from more secularized cultures to brag about how much more successful they are; however, the measures they leave behind or ignore remind me of St. Paul’s line about people saying “peace and security” (1 Thess 5:3). Nevertheless, to the limited extent that atheism is growing, it’s indicative of how grave our failures are and how much we need to convert ourselves before we can convert them.

Certainly, God desires the salvation of souls; in the end, though, he gives us the freedom to say with Satan, Non serviam. “There are only two kinds of people in the end,” George MacDonald tells the narrator in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, “those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”[3] In the mercy of God, no soul that hates Him and denies Him rightful worship will be forced to suffer His Presence for eternity: thus there is a Hell.

But if it is our task to bring not only ourselves but others to God, it doesn’t follow that we can’t learn from our opponents that which we need to strengthen our own faith. There is nothing that defines and strengthens character so much as opposition, unless it be suffering and loss. We need friends, but we can also benefit from having enemies.

[*] I.e., “objective certitude regarding the truth of [something] known”, which is how Claude Tresmontant explains the meaning of the Greek word pistis, translated in the English Bibles as “faith” (Tresmontant [1989], The Hebrew Christ: Language in the Age of the Gospels [Kenneth D. Whitehead, trans.], Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, p. 151).

[1] Safire, William (1975). Before the Fall, p. 690. In Paul F. Boller, Jr., Presidential Anecdotes (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), p. 327.
[2] Chesterton, G. K. (1910). What’s Wrong with the World. Retrieved Nov. 18, 2011 from G. K. Chesterton (; bold type mine.
[3] Lewis (1946). The Great Divorce. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p. 75.