Historically, one of the most attractive features of atheism has been its claim to stark realism. No matter how unappealing a godless universe may turn out to be, atheists claim to be committed to adhering to the truth at all costs. However, in this essay, I would like to show that at the very heart of atheism are several extremely unexpected paradoxes, areas in which atheism is shown to be in tension with a commitment to realism and a life consistent with truth…
I want to summarize the paradoxes I believe are inherent to the atheism.
1. Truth-seeking. If a truth-loving God doesn’t exist, then truth-seeking is neither intrinsically good nor morally obligatory. Therefore, paradoxically, the Christian has grounds to urge all people to seek the truth and to claim it is their moral obligation to seek the truth whereas the atheist has no grounds to urge others to seek the truth or to claim it is their moral obligation to do so.
2. Moral reflection. Suffering and evil in the world is so prolific and horrendous that we instinctively avoid thinking about it to preserve our happiness. If Christianity is true, then all suffering and evil will one day be destroyed and healed. If atheism is true, suffering and evil are pointless and will never be rectified. So, paradoxically, a Christian gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering by reflecting on reality (as he perceives it) while an atheist gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering only by ignoring reality (as he perceives it).
3. Moral motivation. If Christianity is true, then all of our moral choices have tremendous, eternal significance. If atheism is true, then none of our moral choices have any eternal significance. So, paradoxically, the Christian gains the motivation to act morally by reflecting on reality (as he perceives it) while the atheist gains the motivation to act morally only by ignoring reality (as he perceives it).
None of these observations imply that atheism is necessarily false or that Christianity is true. But I hope that they do cause atheists some serious reflection. At least in these three areas, there is a conflict between the general perception that atheists live a life of realism, facing the truth about reality squarely, and the philosophical and psychological reality of atheism itself. In contrast, Christianity not only provides a basis for the idea that truth is of intrinsic value, but provides resources to enable the Christian to conform his beliefs and behavior to the truth. I would like to gently suggest that those who value truth-seeking and realism should consider whether atheism can justify or support either of these ideals.
Logic may be viewed, perhaps, as a machine which is designed, at best, to be such that when we feed into it certain data and turn the logic crank, we inevitably get certain conclusions out the other end. Logic is designed to give inevitably true results starting from known true–or assumed-to-be-true–premises. Logic is a wonderful tool when we want only logical conclusions. We should not reject such a machine merely because it is not equipped to handle all of reality. The scientist who commits himself to use a logic machine is doing wisely, qua scientist, for use on data of science. But if he feeds into that machine convictions that there is no God, or ignores God because He is not in his corpus of data, and then draws from his logic the conclusion that God does not exist, his conclusion is irrelevant. Logic is a tool; it should not be made into a religion.
An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three, but not suitable to half-past four. What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century.
We should be grateful to Freud for pointing out ways in which we humans deceive ourselves about our real motives. He suggested that many of our actions arise from very dark sources which we hide from ourselves . . . But the essence of what Freud said was suggested two and half thousand years before him when Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful about all things and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” . . .
Whenever I hear a man arguing against the existence of God, or simply brushing aside the very possibility, I want to say to him, “What are your feelings on the subject? Are you arguing to justify a conclusion your heart has already reached?” I want to probe further and ask why he has certain attitudes to God… I say to myself, “you are running away; you are making excuses to avoid the truth; you have a deceitful heart, so be honest.”
When people are brought face to face with Jesus, they either hide from him behind a hedge of rationalizations, or they come into the open and admit the truth. Caiaphas was a beautiful example. Pushed into a corner by Jesus’ behavior at his trial, faced with all that Jesus had said and done, he says “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” “I am”, said Jesus. “There you are”, said Caiaphas, in so many words, “the man must be a fraud. I have an excuse for all my hostility to the man. I disliked him all along because I knew he was a fraud and a madman. I was beginning to think I disliked him because he was right and I was wrong. But now I have a beautiful rationalization for all my opposition. I am really a very holy man who detests blasphemy and my righteous soul is revolted by such wickedness. What a relief to be a good man after all.” God does try the deceitfulness of men’s hearts by bringing them in front of Jesus. That is what the day of judgment will amount to: just being face to face with Jesus. When we see Him we shall find that all our excuses will vanish away and we shall find ourselves revealed for what we really are . . .
We discover that men actually hate God, particularly the ones who have most eagerly tired to explain Him away. That is why Jesus calls himself the Truth. He brings all our hidden attitudes into the open. He exposes the shams, the false support . . . There is no hiding from Him. He reveals the true reasons for our behavior — not our glib rationalizations.
What brings life meaning? Three components: wonder, truth, love, and security. In our infancy, the sense of wonder; in our youth, the understanding of truth; in our middle years, the experience of love; and in our old-age, the confidence of security. And we have found out through life that many of the things we give to each other as security do not really add up to much. We want something that goes beyond these three score years and ten…
The older you get the more it takes to fill your heart with wonder, and only God is big enough to fill it. Meaning comes from wonder, truth, love and security. And God, who is the perpetual novelty, who gave us a Son who is the way, the truth, and the life, who loved you and gave himself for you on the cross, and says, “Because I live, you shall live also,” that’s when meaning comes in, when these four components deal with the questions of origin, meaning, morality, and destiny, and bring that coherence into your life.
Is it really so arrogant and intolerant to think you know the truth? Let’s start with simple cases. I happen to know that the potato salad is spoiled, and the last three diners got sick just from eating it. Would it be arrogant for me to warn the others? You happen to know that the public library is this way, but the motorist who asked me for directions is headed that way. Would it be intolerant for you to suggest that he turn around, and tell him why? Is it really so arrogant and intolerant to think you know the truth? Let’s start with simple cases. I happen to know that the potato salad is spoiled, and the last three diners got sick just from eating it. Would it be arrogant for me to warn the others? You happen to know that the public library is this way, but the motorist who asked me for directions is headed that way. Would it be intolerant for you to suggest that he turn around, and tell him why?
Of course no one takes this line about potato salads or highways. On the other hand, people do take this line about who God is and how to live. “God and how to live are matters of opinion,” they say. “Where things are and what you can safely eat — those are matters of fact.” Yes, of course they are matters of fact, but they are opinions too. After all, people may have different views about just what the facts are. The other diners might be of the opinion that the potato salad is wholesome. The lost motorist might be of the opinion that his general direction is correct. Surely that wouldn’t make me arrogant to contradict them.
Differences of opinion arise even in the sciences. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould is of the opinion that Darwinian evolution is a fact; biochemist Michael J. Behe is of the opinion that it’s not. Each scientist says that he’s right; each scientist says that the other is wrong. Does that make him arrogant or intolerant? Not necessarily — although, of course, he might be. The rule is that each one should offer evidence for what he thinks, listen to the evidence offered by his opponent, and not try to shut him up. That’s how science is supposed to work. Arrogance doesn’t come from having convictions; it comes from having the wrong convictions about how to treat people who don’t share them with you. Humility doesn’t come from not having convictions; it comes from having the right convictions about the importance of gentleness and respect.
What gives the myth of the intolerance of knowing truth its strength? Its power comes from a picture — not a photograph or a painting, but an image many people carry in their minds. In the picture, a man is being burned at the stake. He’s there because other people, who say they have the truth, are angry with him for saying that they don’t. I agree that such a thing should never happen. But in my mind is a different picture. In mine a man is also being burned at the stake — I almost said, being hung on a cross. He’s there because other people, who say there isn’t any truth, are angry with him for saying that there is.