Reading an online newspaper the other day, I ended up, as I often do, on the religion pages. My attention was first caught by a long list of various world religions, followed by the descriptions of the beliefs and key practices of each one. Interestingly, I thought, atheism was among the many religions listed. And yet in describing the main beliefs of atheists, the first sentence declared: “Atheism is not a belief.” Can a belief-system accurately be defined as the absence of belief? Its very inclusion as a belief-system among alternative belief-systems seemed to negate its first belief.
Though atheism contends disbelief in God, it is rightfully placed among the many belief-systems that inform life itself. As the atheistic worldview offers certain perspectives about the world, like Christianity or Hinduism, it requires certain faith assumptions: that the world exists in ordered, knowable nature, that our senses and intellect are reliable in discovering truth, that there is a uniformity to nature extending from past to future. At the foundation of every worldview, a number of interconnected beliefs are held in faith. The question then becomes, which faith provides the most coherent foundation for understanding the world?
Some insist the atheist’s insistence of reason as the foundation for non-belief creates a tension of incoherence within the belief itself. “Reasons require that this universe be a reasonable one that presupposes there is order, logic, design, and truth. But order, logic, design, and truth can only exist and be known if there is an unchangeable objective source and standard of such things….Like all non-theistic worldviews, Darwinism borrows from the theistic worldview in order to make its own view intelligible.”(1) In other words, the very foundation of atheistic faith allows for an unstable structure of interpretation.
Either arrogantly or boldly, Jesus of Nazareth is one who proposes himself as a foundation for belief. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”(2) It may sound to some archaic or odd. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life… I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved… I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”(3) Others might note sounds of this bold and arrogant foundation in contemporary wisdom that occasionally cries out for something more certain.
In 1960, famed psychologist and avowed atheist Hobart Mowrer wrote an article entitled “Sin, the Lesser of Two Evils,” in which he decried the loss of humanity in our attempts to free ourselves from the notion of sin. “In becoming amoral, ethically neutral and free, we have cut the very roots of our being, lost our deepest sense of selfhood and identity. And with neurotics themselves, asking, ‘Who am I? What is my deepest destiny? And what does living really mean?’”(4)
At the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. there is a large wooden altar from a synagogue that was vandalized by Nazi soldiers who had come to remove the Jewish citizens of the city. Across the altar is a single phrase of Hebrew carved deeply into the wood. Though it bears the hack marks of axes that attempted to delete the words, the phrase is still decipherable. It simply reads: Know before Whom you stand.
We can attempt to eradicate the one at the foundation. We can dismiss the bold declarations of Christ as arcane or arrogant. But it will never negate his presence, nor his ability to answer in his very person the deepest questions of self and human identity.
A Slice of Infinity
(1) Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 130.
(2) Matthew 7:24-26.
(3) John 8:12; 10:9; 14:6.
(4) Cf. Hobart Mowrer, “Sin, the Lesser of Two Evils,” American Psychologist, 15 (1960): 301-304).