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Is it okay to give atheists the benefit of the doubt?

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Tuesday morning Jackson’s WTWZ 1120 AM, “The Tradition”, aired a lecture that discussed the legacy of Immanuel Kant, specifically how it related to historic arguments in favor of Theism. The lecturer explained how Kant, though not an atheist himself, asserted that it was not possible to deduce God’s existence by observing the external world. This assertion, the lecture said, was a rejection of centuries of conventional wisdom found throughout Europe’s universities during the Middle Ages. The lecturer went on to contrast Kant’s perspective with that of the apostle Paul, as it is expressed in Romans 1.

1. Paul says the created world leaves people no excuse for disbelieving in God

In Romans 1, Paul discusses how the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all forms of ungodliness. Paul says that people have no excuse for disbelieving in God because the world God made is evidence enough and leaves them with no excuse. Nevertheless, people suppress the truth they innately know and, Paul said, they prefer to worship created things rather than the Creator.

The lecturer closed the program by stating his own firm conviction that there are no real atheists—actual, sincere disbelievers in God’s existence. He said that when he is challenged to debate the rational basis for Theism, he likes to “lay all the cards on the table” and be very up front with people. He tells people that, though he’ll be happy to discuss with them the rational reasons for believing in God, he believes that they already know that God exists and that their problem is that they don’t like the fact that he exists. The lecturer appears to interpret Paul’s comment in Romans 1—the created world testifies to all people of God’s existence—to mean that all people are born with an innate awareness of God.

2. Not all atheistic objections are mere smokescreens; some may be sincere

There is a great deal of truth in the approach articulated by the lecturer. It is troubling, though, that he would, as it were, paint atheists with such a broad brush, apparently assuming that they are all the same. No doubt, for many disbelievers in God’s existence the intellectual objections are merely smokescreens, desperate attempts to keep God out of their life, although they, in their heart of hearts, know he is real. However, is it fair to assume that all atheists are operating from the same premise?

C.S. Lewis, himself an atheist for the first half of his life, could refute atheism very compellingly in his apologetic works. Because he himself had for so long cherished the objections he was now striving to respond to, he took them seriously and understood how convincing they could sound. Though he didn’t excuse unbelief or trivialize its seriousness, Lewis affirmed the legitimacy of “honest unbelief”, rather than assume that all unbelievers are, at the end of the day, claiming to disbelieve in something that they do innately believe in.

Just as there are some religious people who approach God with purer motives than others—some more altruistically, and some more for what they can get from God—there are no doubt some atheists who have purer, more laudatory motives than others. In other words, some atheists are no doubt “sincere”. That’s not to say that unbelief, so long as it is sincerely clung to, is okay. Unbelief is dangerous and harmful to the soul, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t ever sincerely adhered to.

3. “Suppressing the truth” has both an individual and a societal element to it

If it is possible to sincerely disbelieve in God’s existence, what then are we to make of Paul’s assertion in Romans 1 that what may be known of God via the created world leaves people with no excuse for disbelieving in him? Paul says that the human race’s denial of the true God is not so much a result of ignorance, but more a result of suppressing what it knows to be true. This is true, when speaking of humanity in general, but not exactly the case in every individual circumstance. For example, it is one thing for a person who grows up in the Bible belt to throw off his religious past and embrace atheism when he comes of age. It is quite another thing for a person who grows up in communist China or oppressive North Korea, who has been told day in and day out all his life that God is a figment of human imagination, to embrace atheism.

In one case, it’s easy to see how there could be a measure of “suppressing the truth” occurring. In the other case, the person may have been so inundated with an atheistic worldview from the cradle, that whatever innate consciousness of God she may have been born with has been so stifled that she can hardly be expected to be aware of it.

In one case, the person may have been presented with compelling reasons for believing in God and yet, by an act of the will, chosen to reject Theism. On the other hand, the person may have never met anyone who seriously affirmed God’s existence. In her circle, all her life it may have simply been a given that atheism is correct. She may have never heard compelling reasons for God’s existence and she may have never consciously chosen atheism; she may have simply subconsciously imbibed it because it was what he witnessed all of her peers affirming. She hasn’t so much suppressed the truth in her own heart as much as the society around her has done it for her. That’s not to say she’s not accountable for herself.

3. Conclusion

If nothing else, it seems somewhat uncharitable to hold the ex-Christian turned-atheist in America to the same standard as the atheist growing up in an environment where atheism is simply the atmosphere you live and move and have your being in. In one case, skepticism could be a smokescreen. In the other case, it could be honest, sincere, and held by someone genuinely interested in finding solid answers. This type of skepticism appears to have been the kind held by the early 1930s C.S. Lewis, shortly before his conversion. God was moving him along in a Christ-ward direction, but he kept getting hung up, honestly enough, with intellectual problems he couldn’t seem to resolve satisfactorily.

Brennan Manning, prolific writer of Christian devotional material that he was, once said that whenever he saw images of children starving to death he was tempted, even if only briefly, to doubt the existence of God. Perhaps the lecturer on WTWZ has never seriously entertained doubts about God’s existence. If so, it’s understandable why he may view skepticism the way that he does. Personally, I’ve grappled with numerous intellectual objections to God’s existence both before and after becoming a Christian so I can relate to the terrifying moments of wondering if, when it’s all said and done, God is really up there. Wondering if, after death, there really will be anything waiting on the other side, or if existence will simply end.

I realize that, had I chosen atheism, part of the reason could very well have been a desire to be independent from the interference of God’s divine authority in my life. On the other hand, I realize that part of my attraction to a religious worldview is that it gives me the benefit of, when critiquing others, having the weight of “Thus saith the Lord” behind my position. It gives me a platform to seemingly legitimize or sanction my own innate judgmental outlook towards the people around me.

What does that prove? Not all atheists choose atheism with the worst of motives and not all religious people choose Theism for the best of reasons. Religious and irreligious, we all alike are sinners and the decisions we make are, apart from the Holy Spirit, always tainted with sin. Let us refrain from assuming that all skepticism is motivated by a desire to evade the truth. Some of it is, certainly, but only God really sees what’s going on inside another person’s heart.

Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism, explained that part of what “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” requires of us is to refrain from speaking negatively other people. Luther says we are to “put the best construction on everything”. What does this mean in the specific discussion at hand? If people say they have honest doubts, let us assume, unless overwhelming evidence to the contrary presents itself, that they really are honest doubts. Let us give people the benefit of the doubt and assume the best we can of the people with whom we interact—Christians and atheist alike.

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