Friday, September 24, 2010

Thank God For Atheists

 I just finished reading “Good Without God” by Greg Epstein. It is subtitled, “What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.” Epstein is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University. What is a humanist chaplain? Isn’t that title an oxymoron?

A friend loaned me the book. In return I suggested he read William Young’s “The Shack.” I am now a bit embarrassed that I suggested such a lightweight book, whereas he loaned me such a heady volume. It turns out that “Good Without God” is a sort of “Purpose Driven Life” for atheists – but much better written. He even references Rick Warren in his book several times.

You might wonder what a Baptist preacher is doing reading a book about atheism. Well, it turns out that even atheists (he prefers the term Humanist) have a spiritual life. They just don’t attribute it to the Spirit.

In fact the whole volume is an attempt to answer the oft-repeated accusation (voiced by Warren) that there can be no morality without belief in God. To quote Dostoevsky, “Without God all things are permissible.” Epstein counters that argument and builds a case for a humanistic ethic.

The strange thing is that I have been arguing Epstein’s case for years. Whenever Christian colleagues would say that there is no morality without religion, I would argue the contrary. In my experience nonreligious people are just as “good” as Christians. There are studies to back up my argument. For example, in spite of all their talk of “family values” the rate of divorce among evangelical Christians is actually higher than nonchristians!

There is something in human nature that naturally produces ethical systems. You see it throughout history and across cultures. I have argued that ethics is a human phenomenon rather than a religious one. As a Christian I attribute this to the natural revelation of God in human conscience. But those who do not believe in a Creator have no need to find a heavenly cause for the ethical instinct.

As I read “Good Without God” I found it very spiritual, even religious. I guess it is the way he defines atheism. He sees people like the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, American Deist Thomas Jefferson, and even Christian philosopher Paul Tillich as closet humanists. Epstein sees the religion of these men as a nascent form of atheism.

But for all his insights, Epstein falls into the same trap as all atheists. The God that he rejects is not God. It is an image of God; images of God are, by nature, false gods. At one point he quotes his mentor Shewin Wine as saying, “Sometimes the nicest thing you can say about God is that he doesn’t exist.” That is true; the God that atheists don’t believe in doesn’t exist. I don’t believe in that god either.

God is by definition beyond definition. All definitions are by nature idols. As a cultural Jew (he refers to himself as a “Humanist by faith, a Jew by cultural heritage, and a Humanist chaplain and rabbi by profession”) Epstein knows that the first two commandments are not to worship other gods or make images of God. Doctrines are mental images. Theology is an image-making endeavor.

In this regard the atheist is the believer’s best friend. The atheist is an iconoclast, relentlessly tearing down the idols erected by his theistic brethren. Atheists believe that when all gods are revealed to be false, there is nothing left to believe in. From my perspective, when all the man-made gods are shown to be false, what is left is God.

Contemporary atheists do Christians a great service, and we should listen carefully to their voices. They relentlessly expose the idolatries and falsehoods in religion, and thereby reveal the true God.  The Greg Epsteins, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens of the world teach more about God than most popular Christian authors these days. Thank God for atheists.

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