Religious people are often found describing atheistic stances in ways that seem overwhelmingly uncharitable. They will summarize the atheistic position in a way that no atheist would agree with. It is sort of the cartoon version of the belief. Of course, atheists do the same to Christians, and this happens frequently when people disagree with each other. What I have always tried to do is to represent their views fairly, but also indicate that atheism leads one to certain views that are absurd. But in this article, I would like to approach from a different angle. Rather than laboring to show what atheists should believe, as a consequence of their atheism, I would like to answer the question: if I were an atheist, what would I believe?
Note well that the question is not, “what do all atheists believe?” because that is sort of like asking, “what do all Danes believe?” So I am not trying to caricature atheism or place a heavy yoke upon the shoulders of atheists. I am not even saying that atheists should believe these things. I am just saying, if I were an atheist, these are the stances that I would take.
I would disassociate myself with the New Atheists. For those of you who do not know, the New Atheists are contemporary atheists who are known for their ardent campaigning against religion. They are those who would be guilty of caricaturing religion, demeaning religious people and accepting the commission of Professor Richard Dawkins at the Atheist Reason Rally, in which he said, “Mock [the religious]. Ridicule them in public.” The New Atheists are the crowd that, in their atheism, has found an outlet for their anger toward religious people and an outlet for asserting the intellectual superiority that they know they have.
To that end, Professor Dawkins has suggested that atheists should style themselves “brights.” The implication is obvious. They are bright, by virtue of rejecting religious dogma. They congratulate themselves when they pose easily answered questions, like Who Created God? This self-aggrandizing behavior is the height of repellent to anyone with respect for people independently of their religious views. If I were an atheist, what would I believe? I would labor to ensure that I distanced myself from the New Atheists.
Of course, as a Christian, I sometimes have to dissolve assumptions that people make about me. When people learn that I am a Christian, they may instantly think that I am a young earth creationist. They may instantly associate me with every Christian they have ever met. If I were an atheist, I would also separate myself from the New Atheist movement, and I would be highly critical of them.
I would believe that the universe is just a brute fact, and came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing. One of the arguments that I have defended for the existence of God is the Cosmological Argument. The Cosmological Argument suggests that everything that exists requires an explanation of its’ existence. It is unthinkable to hold the position that the universe just popped into being, uncaused, out of nothing. It must have an explanation of its’ existence. As the cause of nature, space, and time, it must be supernatural, spaceless, and timeless. (I offered a fuller treatment of this argument in my article Why Does Anything At All Exist?)
With regard to this argument, if I were an atheist, what would I believe? As an atheist, I would probably have to deny that premise. I would have to deny that everything needs an explanation of its’ existence. As Bertrand Russell argued, the universe is just a brute fact. It just exists, and that’s all. When faced with the fact that the universe has not always existed, that is, it had an absolute beginning, I would be forced into the position, in the words of the atheist Quintin Smith, “the universe came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing.” When confronted with the absurdity of that statement, I would comfort myself with the notion that sophisticated academics hold this view. I would underline it with the reality that the human brain was not evolved to grasp deep philosophical truths. It was not evolved to understand the mysteries of the universe. It was evolved to survive.
Now the problem with this view is that it is, essentially, nihilism. If not, then it is just a step or two away from it. If the alternative to belief in the existence of God is that the universe just popped into being, uncaused, out of nothing, then I struggle to see how it is that the atheistic view would be more intellectually satisfying. If I saw a turtle sitting on a fence, I would not be compelled by the idea that it is “just there,” a “brute fact.” I would take no solace in the idea that a sophisticated academic thought that. In short, I would win the debate with the atheist version of myself over the Cosmological Argument for God’s existence.
I would believe that the value that human beings give each other was just a product of human evolution. As human beings evolved, solely for the propagation of DNA, they realized that it would usher their species into longevity if they cooperated with each other. If they developed these communities, worked together, and treated each other nicely, they would flourish and they would survive. With that cooperation came the concept of human value. We value human beings over and against the other members of the animal kingdom, not because we are inherently more valuable, but because we have it ingrained within us to cooperate with our own species. But today, the contemporary man is enlightened. He is aware of his roots. He is aware of why he values his fellow man.
If I were an atheist, what would I believe? I would be aware of why I value my fellow man. If I were an atheist, I would have preferred to be ignorant of this reality. I would prefer to think that human beings do have value, and just not think about why that is. But I imagine that the atheistic version of myself would scarcely be able to remain in such philosophical ignorance. I would want to know why I value other human beings. I would question these things. But since human morality evolved in precisely the same way as the goat, the sheep, and the chicken, I would be left in despair, and following my beliefs to its’ logical and necessary conclusion, I would become a moral nihilist. I would deny that human beings really had any value at all. But I would live as if they did, and tell myself that I did that for the sake of my sanity.
I would believe that the Bible could not be investigated historically. Often to justify our faith, we apologists will argue that the resurrection of Jesus can be investigated on a historical basis. We can look through the corridors of history and exclaim that there are some things that just cannot be explained naturally. The empty tomb narrative, the burial account of Jesus, the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and the belief of the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead, all serve as a good inductive argument that in fact, Jesus had risen from the dead. Since a good historical argument can be made for all of these, there is little that remains that the atheist can say.
If I were an atheist, what would I believe? How would I escape this? What I might indicate is that a miracle claim is not something that can be investigated historically. What scientists and historians adopt is what is known as methodological naturalism. This is the adoption of a process of investigating the natural world via natural means. We do not invoke the supernatural in our scientific exploration because that would be too unordinary and really, could be invoked anywhere. We might resolve the historical quagmire of the fall of Rome by saying that demons made Rome fall. We might look on any number of historical events and invoke God or demons or some other supernatural shenanigans. While it may be the case, it is just not a very useful resource when examining the natural world. If I were an atheist, what would I believe? I would believe that the Bible was not receptive to this sort of scrutiny.
As a Christian, I think that this is a very heavy argument that has been made. Yet at the same time, that does nothing to answer the data that we have. It seems to suggest that we must answer the evidence within a naturalistic paradigm. But if there is not a naturalistic answer, then none of our answers will make sense. As an atheist, I would have to assume that the disciples hallucinated Jesus. But as I pointed out in my article, Several Reasons The Disciples Did Not Hallucinate Jesus, that just would not work. I think that I would win the debate with the atheist version of myself just by going back to the evidence.
I would deny that the universe was finely tuned for life. Many atheistic scientists have come to believe in some sort of design on the basis of the existence of the anthropic constants. An anthropic constant is something which, if it were altered even a little, then life could not exist. If gravity were altered, planets could not form. There are 122 anthropic constants. This discovery has converted atheists, such as Anthony Flew, to believe in design. It has jettisoned the Intelligent Design movement and has led scientists to say things like, “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggest that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics.” (Fred Hoyle).
Now, the atheist has may resources on this topic available to him. But it is probably the most convincing argument, in the eyes of the scientist, to believe in God. If I were an atheist, what would I believe? How would I resolve this? There would be a few ideas that I would toy around with. First, I might consider that this universe was just very lucky. But ultimately, I would reject that. That is sort of like saying that there is a pile of a billion white balls, and one black one, and when I reached in to grab one randomly, I pulled out the black ball. I could say that I was just “very lucky,” or I could say that somebody placed the ball in such a way that I would find it. Rather than saying that the fine-tuning was due to chance, as I said, I would deny that the universe was finely tuned for life. I would deny that the anthropic constants exist at all. I would say that in another sector of the universe, different factors could exist to allow for another life form.
If I were to encounter my atheist counterpart, I would indicate to him that these constants are not anthropocentric. The force of gravity, for instance, if it were altered, would prevent planets from being formed. Most scientists that I am aware of affirm the existence of fine-tuning. What he would need to wrestle with was how he was going to interpret the fine-tuning.
I would find the gospel message offensive. If you will permit me, I will preface this a little by explaining the message of the gospel. Human beings are fallen creatures. Humans are criminals in the eyes of God. We have all sinned against him. Since God is good, he must punish those who are guilty. If he were to let a single sin go, he would no longer be a good judge. He would be akin to the corrupt judge who takes bribes and lets the guilty go. But since God is good, he must punish guilty. Since we are all guilty, we all await God’s judgment. But God became a man, Jesus Christ. Jesus was the human image of the invisible God. He lived a life without ever sinning. When he was murdered, all of the wrath of God that we deserve was placed upon him. It pleased the Lord to crush him. Our unrighteousness was put on him so that his righteousness could be put upon us. Three days later, he was raised from the dead. Now we need only put our trust in him for our salvation, and the moment we do that, we will be given the free gift of eternal life.
If I were an atheist, and somebody told me of this, how would I react? If I were an atheist, what would I believe? I suggest that I would be offended. I would say that it was monstrous. I would say that a person is sent to prison, not because they are being punished for their crimes, but so that they can be rehabilitated. The Christian conception of justice seems primitive. It is akin to whipping criminals in the courts. But to the modern mind, we have advanced to the level that we now know that the penal system is only for rehabilitation.
The problem with this is that the penal system is not only for rehabilitation. Criminals do deserve to be punished. Suppose for a moment that there were a man who wanted to rape a child, only once. He wanted to get it out of his system. So he did it, and then he was done. In fact, he felt guilty. He repented of it. He was instantly changed and instantly regretted it. If the penal system is only for rehabilitation, then my atheist counterpart would have to concede that this man should just be instantly released. But that is patently ridiculous. Secondly, I would argue that my atheist counterpart was making moral judgments that he had no right to. He believes that human beings do not have intrinsic moral value, but he lives as if they do. This is radically inconsistent. I think that on this front, I would win the debate with my atheist counterpart.
I would be a mean-spirited, sarcastic and self-aggrandizing. Again I indicate that I am not talking about all atheists. Some atheists really are kind people, charitable people who are humble and easy to talk to. Everybody has different personality demerits. This is a self-analysis. Apart from the grace of God, I would be a mean-spirited, selfish and arrogant individual. I would not indulge in the pursuits of the New Atheists, of being mean to the religious, but I would be a mean person, just because, that is what I am, apart from the grace of God.
If I were an atheist, what would I believe? Well, as an atheist, I would not be regenerate, born again by the power of God. If I were not born again, I would have to just follow my genetics where they lead and dance to my DNA. I would see no point to restrain it. As an enlightened atheist, I would know that the reason that I feel the desire to cooperate with people is just for survival. But if I do not care about survival as much as I care about my own personal triumph and happiness, then there would just be nothing to stop me from behaving any way that I want. Of course, I would not rape, murder, or steal. I would do what I want. I have no desire in me to rape, murder, or steal. But I would treat people just as my unrestrained nature tells me to treat them. As Jeremiah 17:9 tells us, “the heart of man is wicked an deceitful above all things.”
If I were an atheist, what would I believe? The reason that I wrote this was, again, not to say that this is what all atheists believe, or what atheists must believe. I wrote this as a thought experiment about what I think that I would believe if I were an atheist. Of course, I am not an atheist. I am a Christian, saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But if I were not an atheist, this is what I would believe and how I would behave.
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