(N.B. Contents may differ from label)
The media portrays an ongoing battle between theism and atheism. Listening to Richard Dawkins talk you get the impression of a vast gulf between the 21st century dispassionate and objective person of science, and the mystical and self-deluded religious believer. Reading someone like Ken Ham, you get the impression of a yawning chasm, separating the 21st century godly Christian, honestly examining the evidence, and the atheistic scientist, desperately twisting and distorting the presentation of evidence to provide an atheistic theory of origins, deny God, and indulge in godless vice.
It was not always so. Recently I found it interesting to come across (in N.T. Wright’s book: The New Testament and the People of God) an account of the arraignment and martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, AD 155 or 156. Polycarp was asked by the Roman authorities to renounce atheism. That’s right, atheism.
…the Proconsul asked him if he were Polycarp, and when he admitted it he tried to persuade him to deny [his Christian faith] saing: ‘Respect your age,’ and so forth, as they are accustomed to say: ‘Swear by the genius of Caesar, repent, say “Away with the Atheists”’…
Pompey, arriving in Jerusalem in 69 BC found no image there, and assumed the Jews were atheists, and that remained the Roman view of the Jews’ religious status for well over a century. The Christians with their lack of images, and refusal to bow to Caesar, inherited the same label.
Christians have been martyred as atheists in one era, only to find themselves in entrenched battle with atheists in another. That caused me to question: How different is theism from atheism? Are we like the English and the Welsh, or the Kiwis and Aussies – very similar from a distance, the differences magnified out of proportion when the teams are competing in sport? How different should atheism and theism be? I concluded that there should be only a difference of One. In terms of the number of supreme Gods the scoreboard looks like this:
This causes theists and atheists alike to be very dissimilar to the pagan Romans, who had scores of gods and demi-gods. We can perhaps understand the Romans’ confusion, given that the only religions they were familiar with were replete with images of their gods.
Even though those with extreme views may not want to admit it, there are other points in which atheists and theists may not be so unlike. It is not inherent in theism that it should be anti-science, or anti-evolution, nor is it inherent in atheism that it should be anti-moral, or even anti-religion. Science, morals, and understandings (at the physical level) of the universe and of man are not accurate distinguishing features between atheism and theism, nor between humanists and Christians.
Of course, Christians often argue that the modern scientific empirical method (which contributed to the Enlightenment) originated in 16th and 17th century Christianity with Copernicus, Galileo and the establishment of the Royal Society in London. Whereas, people we might call fundamentalist atheists will say that religion was if anything a hindrance to science, which originated with the Greeks and Arabs, and was only rediscovered in the Enlightenment by people who rebelled against the established church views.
Similarly we may differ in our understanding of what morals are or how they came to us. People who call themselves atheists may argue that morals are an evolutionary or cultural development, relying on the development of altruism in groups, empathy, and human reason. Christians may well argue that modern day atheists have largely borrowed or inherited their morals from the (revealed) Judaeo-Christian tradition, and you won’t find those traditions of integrity, justice and compassion to the outgroup, the impoverished, the hopeless, enshrined in any other religious or arreligious belief.
These arguments have rights and wrongs, but they should not blind us to the fact that most people who profess atheism in our modern society are highly principled, and that most Christians in our modern society are keen to apply human reason and science in tackling the scientific and social issues that face us.
So back to the fundamental difference between theism and atheism. A difference of One. The One. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, The Lord is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4). “There is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came, and for whom we live: and there is but one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things came, and through whom we live.” (1 Corinthians 8: 6).
As Christians we believe the One God is the reason for our existence, for our use of reason and delight in finding out and caring for his world through science, for our desire to follow his principles and live with integrity, justice and compassion. The One God is the reason we do not believe the universe and our lives are meaningless. This is the essential difference between atheism and theism.
There is one other point to discuss in this difference. Regardless of one’s principles, it is actually very difficult to live out atheism with integrity and consistency. In the absence of a supreme God, it is all to easy for arbitrary demigods to rule our lives – e.g. the Careers board game triad of Fame, Fortune and Happiness. This is nowhere more evident than in the slogans of the fundamentalist atheists on the London buses, which essentially distil the message of the ancient Greek Epicurians – see illustration.
Such demigods pit humans against humans – Fame, Fortune and Happiness are extremely difficult to share around equally. This is a valid critique of atheism. Like the emptiness of the quantum vacuum, the emptiness of the god field in atheism may be more apparent than real. I believe that the Christian heritage is still acting as a restraining influence against the full expression of the “anything goes” philosophy.
However, we should beware of labels. Christians often behave as though they worshipped the same demigods. People who do not wish to believe in any God are all individuals, humans in need of a healing God, just as Christians are. We share much more than the rhetoric suggests: we can share a disciplined curiosity about the world, we are able to share a concern for the earth and for other people.
Let us be careful then, that our critique of atheism centres on the right difference, and let us not allow rhetoric and rivalries to create false distinctives that distract from that one difference.
“A” small letter in one sense; but the true distinctive is the immeasurable One.