Posted on Feb 27, 2013 by Tom Gilson
- Atheism, Faith, and Violence: So Close Yet So Wrong
- Atheism, Faith, and Violence: Focus on Atheism
Last time in this series on atheism, faith, and violence, I took a very brief look at Richard Dawkins’s misunderstanding of faith: specifically, that it’s not just the fact of faith but also its content that matters.
That was the first of five items I said I would cover in pursuit of the question Dawkins raised: is there a more logical path from faith to violence than there is from atheism to violence?
The answer to that quite obviously is yes, provided that the faith in question is one that endorses violence. Islam does, according to many common interpretations. Christianity does not, according to all of the most common interpretations.
As for atheism, there’s no logical path at all from there to violence (although see Case 2 below). That might sound as if I’m agreeing with Dawkins. Far from it, and the following explains why.
I’ll make my case twice, on two levels, starting with a version that does not expect any agreement with biblical thinking, and then moving from there to one that takes biblical thinking to be generally true.
Case 1: Atheism Is No Help Against Human Violence
“Atheism is not a belief. Atheism is merely the lack of a belief in God or gods.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that. It is one of the chief Internet Atheist mantras I’ve been told that rocks are atheistic: they don’t believe in God or gods. When you probe for what atheism is according to atheists, what you find is one big negative. There’s nothing there. There’s no belief, only a specific disbelief.
That’s what they say, at any rate. In actual fact, most contemporary atheists, especially in the New Atheist camp, hold a positive belief in all or most of the following:
- Reality consists of matter and energy interacting according to necessity and chance, and nothing else but that
- Human beings are essentially the same as animals, differing only in our complexity and in a persistent illusion of free will, self-hood, consciousness, purpose, and meaning
- Human morality, originally produced for the purposes of group selection, is now a matter of human opinion, whether on an individual or a cultural level.
I could add more, but you get the picture: for most New Atheists, there really is a definite set of positive beliefs associated with atheism.
Now, then, does any of that lead logically toward violence? Not really. But here’s the kicker: it doesn’t lead away from it, either. And that’s a fatal flaw, for there is violence wrapped up in the heart of humankind. In small ways or in large, we all push our weight around, unless we restrain our impulse to do so. We do this in subtle ways: gossiping, maneuvering politically in the office, getting grumpy with our spouses and refusing to help at home. Sometimes we do it more openly: fighting at home, backstabbing at the office, lying on Internet sites. Some of us commit crimes against life and property. A few even gain enough power to multiply those crimes upon millions in their own country.
And this is indeed the human condition: we push our way around to the extent that we have power to do so, unless we restrain ourselves. And there is nothing in atheism to restrain us. How could there be? There’s nothing in atheism at all, if we accept the atheists’ doctrine that atheism has no doctrine.
Even if we look deeply into common New Atheist positive beliefs, such as those I bulleted above, there’s nothing there to provide moral restraint. Suppose someone decides to set aside his or her culture’s morality. There’s nothing in atheism to tell him or her it’s wrong—nothing but social pressure, that is, which is only superficially different from violence itself. That’s how I regard peer pressure that attempts to control me and my values—don’t you? It’s pushy. It’s one of those subtle forms of violence I alluded to earlier.
So when a Stalin or a Mao kills millions and millions of people in the name of atheism — for they did do so in the name of atheism, whether atheists like that fact or not — we might not be able to say “atheism caused this.” But we can say, “atheism opened wide the door for this.”
Biblical Christianity, in contrast, could never permit that. It doesn’t even endorse gossiping or backstabbing, much less theft or murder (remember the Ten Commandments?).
Other religions might or might not open the door for violence; it’s not my purpose here to comment on that. But atheism does, whereas biblical Christianity does not.
Case 2: Atheism’s Rebellion Against God Overflows Into Violence Against People
Atheism, the denial of God, is also the denial of the Good, the True, the Right; for these are completely wrapped up in who God is. Atheism is the rejection of God’s love. Therefore to reject God is to distance oneself from the source of all goodness, including the power to do what is good.
This is not to say that every atheistic act is overtly immoral, or even that atheists’ actions are necessarily worse than believers’. It is to say, however, that atheists’ every thought and deed is tainted by rebellion against God. To live a life of denying God is to say, “I don’t need God, I can do this on my own;” which is to deny the One who created us, loves us, sacrificed himself for us on the Cross, and offers us his life forever.
Think of it: to deny your father or mother while they actually love you and are doing what is actually good for you—not just trying or hoping to do what is good, but actually doing it—would be an act of violence against them. The same is so for denying God, only much more so.
A life of atheism is a life of self-reliant, self-centered rebellion against God. That self-orientation often overflows into overt violence against others.
I must clarify again what I am saying. I am not saying that every atheist is violent toward others. I am saying that every atheist is in a state of rebellion against God, and that for some, that rebellion overflows into overt violence. For those persons, their atheism does more than permit violence. It causes it.
And so we see that Dawkins is narrowly correct in some cases, viewed from a certain limited perspective: to the extent that atheism is non-belief (or to the extent we’re willing to believe that of atheism) it does not cause violence. Rather it opens wide the door for humans to express our violent proclivities without restraint. For some persons, though (and based on a biblical perspective), atheism is a direct cause of violence, as its hatred for God overflows into anger, hatred, power-seeking, and eventually violence toward others.
I’m sure that the biblical perspective I’ve described in Case 2 will bother some non-believing readers. I remind you that the first case I have presented here is enough to knock the legs out from under Dawkins’s position (for which see here). And I invite you to consider this: If it were true after all that God exists, and that he is the source of all that is good and right, wouldn’t it be likely that rejecting him would result in a life that is deficient in what is good and right—either in a covert way (simply holding an attitude of denying God) or in overt ways like subtle, open, or even blatant violence?
Before you reject this thesis, think of what it might mean if it were true.
Our Common Condition, With A Way Out Of It
One final word. Rebellion against God is humans’ natural state. We all started in it. God has drawn some out of it, and invites you and all others to come out of it as well. To turn away from that rebellion does not make any of us perfect, for believers lapse into it more often than we would like to be true. Still, to the extent that we align our hearts and lives with God, to that extent we align ourselves with what is truly good. To the extent that we resist that, to that same extent we resist the good. That’s true for believers. As one who has experienced God’s goodness, I invite you warmly—and urgently!—to taste of it yourself.