From the May/June, 2010 issue of Touchstone

Atheism’s Gift by Christopher Killheffer

Atheism’s Gift

Christopher Killheffer on the Good Questions That Dispel False Beliefs

In discussing the nourishing character of Scripture, C. S. Lewis noted the importance of confronting the Bible in all its moods and voices, even “something in itself so anti-religious as the nihilism of Ecclesiastes.” It’s a striking idea, that Scripture should speak in the tones of the anti-religious, and perhaps it’s an even more striking idea to suggest that exposing ourselves to those caustic tones could somehow be beneficial to us. What good could a blast of anti-religious nihilism do for a Christian life?

It’s a question well worth asking in our own day, when anti-religious forces, especially the proponents of atheism, are both on the rise and growing more confident in their challenge. Richard Dawkins’s much-discussed The God Delusion is only the most successful of many recent books by the so-called New Atheists, a school whose newness is found mostly in the assertiveness and even aggressiveness of its tone.

An Ad Campaign

While these authors are at times shrill and belittling, other atheists and atheist groups have pursued gentler, more appealing ways to promote their message. Groups in Europe and North America have developed clever, attractive ads that are displayed on billboards and city buses, usually during the Christmas season. One of last year’s ads, sponsored by the American Humanist Association, showed smiling atheists in Santa hats, with the text: “No God? No problem. Be good for goodness’ sake.”

These ads avoid the deliberate offensiveness that mars much of New Atheism—compare their tone to that of Christopher Hitchens, whose most recent book is titled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. And yet this more amiable campaign has met with outrage from many Christians. A dean at Liberty University complained that the ads were the work of “the ultimate Grinch.” Bishops in Spain called them “an attack on all religions.” Some groups have led efforts to pressure advertising companies to pull the ads. When an ad campaign in the UK came to a close, the director of Christian Voice cheered that “the forces of darkness are in retreat.” Apparently, the ads have even inspired violent reactions: Some billboard companies reported receiving threats, and ads in some places have been repeatedly vandalized.

Emphatic denunciations, demands that disagreement be silenced, the identification of opponents with evil powers: Such a posture of besieged defensiveness has characterized the Christian response not just to this particular campaign, but often in the overall dialogue with a culture that does not understand or accept our beliefs.

The Ichthys Battle

Perhaps the most emblematic example of the over-heavy counterpunch is to be found in the silent battle that has been taking place on the backs of cars in recent years. The ichthys symbol, with the name of Jesus inscribed inside the silhouette of a fish, has been displayed by Christians for many years—a graceful, non-aggressive expression of faith. Atheists responded with a witty modification that illustrates their view: an ichthys that has grown tiny legs, with Darwin’s name replacing that of Jesus.

The response of many Christians has been to chuckle with appreciation and go on displaying the original Jesus ichthys. But others have brought out a new version: a large Jesus fish, with mouth wide open, gobbling up a smaller Darwin ichthys. That image sadly captures what we’re losing in these counterpunches; in this exchange we, not our opponents, have replaced a graceful and confident image of Christ with one that is a caricature of intolerance and aggression, unable to respond to a clever barb with anything but a club.

That kind of response does no good for the cause of spreading the gospel, signifying as it does a religion that has little confidence in its own truth. But aside from what we’re losing in the public debate, we are also missing an opportunity to grow in our own faith, and perhaps even to have our faith purified. If we listen to atheist messages with curiosity rather than defensiveness, we will find that many of them are not simply poking us in the eye; their content is often interesting and may possibly even be useful in helping us better understand what we do and do not believe.

Listening to the Challenger

An example of how listening to atheism can benefit us may be seen in Pope Benedict XVI’s recent book Jesus of Nazareth. The book is a meditation on the early life of Jesus, often movingly expressed, but by far the most powerful and striking points come when Benedict brings into discussion the views of those who do not see Jesus as the Christ, or even as a good man at all. Throughout the text, Benedict carries on an extended, respectful dialogue with Rabbi Jacob Neusner, and then, as he turns to the Beatitudes, goes so far as to invoke the angry attack of Nietzsche.

Benedict does not simply state where he thinks Nietzsche is wrong; he gives the philosopher room to speak his own mind, even quoting him, so that in the middle of this meditation on Christ we find the words: “What can be the greatest sin on earth so far? Surely the words of the man who said, ‘Woe to those who laugh now.’” Benedict not only quotes this cry of protest, he affirms the importance of its challenge, sincerely asking Nietzsche’s question in his own words: “Is the direction our Lord shows us in the Beatitudes and in the corresponding warnings actually the right one? Is it really such a bad thing to be rich, to eat one’s fill, to laugh, to be praised?”

The pope allows this challenge to be heard and seriously considered because it helps us see more clearly what the Beatitudes really are. We have all heard countless times from the pulpit that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus “turns the values of the world upside-down.” But how easily those words glide over us, leaving no impression at all. Nietzsche’s protest, containing the palpable anger of the natural man, allows us to feel the impact of that inversion of values that Christ preaches; it forces us to consider, perhaps for the first time, what those explosive sayings of Jesus actually mean and whether we have any intention of following them.

What would happen if we were to follow Benedict’s example by bringing a spirit of openness and curiosity to our own dialogue with the anti-religious? Consider the ad on the bus, with its text, “No God? No problem. Be good for goodness’ sake.” That final phrase is a beautifully succinct statement of one of atheism’s more compelling objections. What good is virtue, they are asking, if it is done for the reward of heaven? Isn’t there something more noble and real about goodness that is not done “for credit”? Isn’t goodness actually robbed of its essential character when it is really only a mask for self-interest?

These are very good questions, and ones we perhaps don’t often ask ourselves. They may not occur to us, but they certainly occur to atheists, who tend to see our religion as resembling the childish philosophy embodied in the holiday song the ad is quoting: “You better watch out, you better not cry . . . Santa Claus is coming to town.” Christianity itself does not see God as a Kris Kringle coming round to give out candy for good behavior and coal for bad, but has that idea crept into our own belief? What do we actually mean by “heaven”? A reward for goodness, or the enjoyment of goodness for its own sake?

A Sharpening Tool

These are questions that may be discomfiting if taken seriously; we’ve certainly all known Christians who seem to make an idol of “salvation,” as if it is something separate from goodness and God, but it’s easy to miss how much this view clouds our own belief. The gift of atheism among us is that it can, if we take its challenge seriously, help clear away those clouds, leaving us a faith that is purified of naïve and alien ideas.

Lewis, considering the problem of salvation-idolatry, pierces the fog with his characteristic precision: “God cannot give us happiness apart from Himself; there is no such thing.” It’s no accident that such clarity is found in a man like Lewis, who took full advantage of the atheism that surrounded him, who indeed welcomed the openness of its challenge as a means to sharpen his own thought and faith.

Christopher Killheffer works at Yale University Library and on a farm near New Haven, Connecticut, where he is a parishioner of St. Mary's Church.

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