When the Catholic missionaries came to my native India, they sometimes converted people by force. Even so, many Indians rushed on their own to embrace the faith of the foreigners. And why? Because they were born into the low caste of the Hindus. As long as they remained Hindus, there was no escape; even their descendants were condemned to the lowest rungs of humanity. By fleeing into the arms of the missionaries, the low-caste Hindus found themselves welcomed as Christian brothers. They discovered the ideal of equal dignity in the eyes of God.
To listen to prominent atheists, you get the idea that their sole cause for rejecting God is that He does not meet the requirements of reason. Philosopher Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say if he discovered, after death, that there is an afterlife. Russell pompously said he would tell God, “Sir, you did not give me enough evidence.” Yet unbelief, especially when it comes in the belligerent tone of a Russell, Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, is not merely a function of following the evidence where it leads. Rather, unbelief of this sort requires a fuller psychological explanation.
Let’s remember that atheists frequently attempt to give psychological reasons for the religious commitment of believers. In his commentary on the works of Hegel, Karl Marx famously said that religion is the “opium of the people,” meaning that religion is a kind of escapism or wish fulfillment. Along the same lines, Sigmund Freud saw religion as providing a cowardly refuge from the harsh realities of life and the inevitability of death.
I’m not convinced by any of these explanations. The God of the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—is a pretty exacting fellow. Wish fulfillment would most likely give rise to a very different God than the one described in the Bible. Wish fulfillment can explain heaven, but it cannot explain hell. Even so, my purpose here is not to dispute the atheist explanation for the appeal of religion. I intend to turn things around and instead pose the issue of the appeal of atheism. Who benefits from it? Why do so many influential people in the West today find it attractive? If Christianity is so great, why aren’t more people rushing to embrace it?
Some atheists even acknowledge that they would prefer a universe in which there were no God, no immortal soul, and no afterlife. In God: The Failed Hypothesis, physicist Victor Stenger confesses that not only does he disbelieve in God, he doesn’t like the Christian God: “If he does exist, I personally want nothing to do with him.” And philosopher Thomas Nagel recently confessed, “I want atheism to be true….It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God….I don’t want there to be a God. I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
The aversion to religion and the embrace of atheism becomes especially baffling when you consider that, on the face of it, atheism is a dismal ideology. Many atheists like End of Faith author Sam Harris and The God Delusion author Richard seem serene and almost gleeful about living in a world whose defining feature seems to be nature red in tooth and claw. This is an odd reaction, because as a number of evolutionary biologists like George Williams have admitted, Darwinism would seem to be a repulsive doctrine. Williams expresses open disgust at the ethical implications of a system that assigns no higher purpose to life than selfish bargains and conspiracies to propagate one’s genes into future generations. According to Williams, a moral person can respond to this only with condemnation! Yet Dawkins and others embrace Darwinism with genuine enthusiasm. Why are they drawn to such a philosophy and where, in its grim hallways, do they find room for such evident good cheer?
Biologist Stephen Jay Gould provides a clue. Pondering the meaning of life, Gould concludes that “we may yearn for a higher answer—but none exists.” Then he says something very revealing. “This explanation, though superficially troubling if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating.” In other words, the bad news is good news. Doctrines that might ordinarily seem to be horrifying—death is the end, there is no cosmic purpose or divine justice, free will is an illusion—can from another vantage point be viewed as an emancipation.
Emancipation from what? We have to probe deeper, and one way to do it is to go back in history, all the way back to the ancient philosophers Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius. Epicurus is mainly known today as a hedonist, and he was. But like Lucretius and Democritus, he was also a materialist. All three of these pre-Socratic thinkers believed that material reality is all there is. Lucretius and Democritus even suggested that man is made up wholly of atoms, an uncanny foreshadowing of modern physics. At the time that the pre-Socratics wrote, however, there was no scientific evidence to back up any of their mechanistic claims about the natural world. Why then were they so attracted to teachings that were completely without empirical basis?
Epicurus confesses that his goal is to get rid of the gods. He also wants to eliminate the idea of immortal souls and to “remove the longing for immortality.” Lucretius too writes of the heavy yoke of religion, imposing on man such burdens as that of duty and responsibility. The problem with gods, Epicurus says, is that they seek to enforce their rules and thereby create “anxiety” in human beings. They threaten to punish us for our misdeeds, both in this life and in the next. The problem with immortality, according to Epicurus, is that there may be suffering in the afterlife. By positing a purely material reality, he hopes to free man from such worries and allow him to focus on the pleasures of this life.
Not that Epicurus was a hedonist in our modern sense. He counseled that people control their sexual impulses and subsist on barley cakes and water. He was less concerned with wild pleasure than with minimizing suffering, what he termed “freedom from disturbance.” Even death, he said, is a kind of relief, because our atoms dissipate and there is no soul to experience the lack of life or to endure the consequences of a life to come. In sum, Epicurus advocated a philosophy and a cosmology that was purely naturalistic in order to liberate man from the tyranny of the gods. And so did Lucretius, who sought through his philosophy to “unloose the soul from the tight knot of religion.” For these men, their physics was the ground of their ethics. As Ben Wiker puts it, “A materialist cosmos must necessarily yield a materialistic morality.”
Here is a clue to the moral attractiveness of Darwinism. Darwin himself wrote that “he who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” He was implying that a better understanding of our animal nature might radically change the way we view morality. So the appeal of Darwinism for many is that it eliminates the concept of a “higher” human nature and places man on a continuum with the animals. The distinctive feature of animals, of course, is that they have no developed sense of morality. A gorilla cannot be expected to distinguish between what is and what ought to be. Consequently Darwinism becomes a way to break free of the confines of traditional morality. We can set aside the old restraints and simply act in the way that comes naturally.
From Darwin’s own day, many people were drawn to his ideas not merely because they were well supported but also because they could be interpreted to undermine the traditional understanding of God. As biologist Julian Huxley, the grandson of Darwin’s friend and ally Thomas Henry Huxley, put it, “The sense of spiritual relief which comes from rejecting the idea of God as a supernatural being is enormous.”
And from Julian’s brother Aldous Huxley, also a noted atheist, we have this revealing admission: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently I assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption…For myself, as no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was…liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.”
As the statements of the two Huxleys suggest, the reason many atheists are drawn to deny God, and especially the Christian God, is to avoid having to answer in the next life for their lack of moral restraint in this one. The Huxleys know that Christianity places human action under the shadow of divine scrutiny and accountability. Christianity is a religion of love and forgiveness, but this love and forgiveness are temporal and, in a sense, conditional. Christian forgiveness stops at the gates of hell, and hell is an essential part of the Christian scheme. The point here is not that atheists do more evil than others, but rather that atheism provides a hiding place for those who do not want to acknowledge and repent of their sins.
In a powerful essay, “The Discreet Charm of Nihilism,” Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz argues that in order to escape from an eternal fate in which our sins are punished, man seeks to free himself from religion. “A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged.” So the Marxist doctrine needs to be revised. It is not religion that is the opiate of the people, but atheism that is the opiate of the morally corrupt.
If you want to live a degenerate life, God is your mortal enemy. He represents a lethal danger to your selfishness, greed, lechery and hatred. It is in your interest to despise Him and do whatever you can to rid the universe of His presence. So there are powerful attractions to life in a God-free world. In such a world we can all model our lives on one of the junior devils in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Belial, who was “to vice industrious, but to nobler deeds timorous and slothful.” If God does not exist, the seven deadly sins are not terrors to be overcome but temptations to be enjoyed. Death, previously the justification for morality, now becomes a justification for immorality.
The philosopher who best understood this “liberation” was Nietzsche. Contrary to modern atheists who assure us that the death of God need not mean an end to morality, Nietzsche insisted that it did. As God is the source of the moral law, His death means that the ground has been swept out from under us. We have become, in a sense, ethically groundless, and there is no more refuge to be taken in appeals to dignity and equality and compassion and all the rest. What confronts us, if we are honest, is the abyss.
Yet unlike Matthew Arnold, who saw the faith of the age retreating like an ocean current and was terrified by it, Nietzsche in a sense welcomes the abyss. He is, as he puts it, an “immoralist.” In his view, the abyss enables us for the first time to escape guilt. It vanquishes the dragon of obligation. It enables us to live “beyond good and evil.” Morality is no longer given to us from above; it now becomes something that we devise for ourselves. Morality requires a comprehensive remaking, what Nietzsche terms a “transvaluation.” The old codes of “thou shalt not” are now replaced by “I will.”
My conclusion is that contrary to popular belief, atheism is not primarily an intellectual revolt, it is a moral revolt. Atheists don’t find God invisible so much as objectionable. This is something that we can all identify with. It is a temptation even for believers. We want to be saved as long as we are not saved from our sins. We are quite willing to be saved from a whole host of social evils, from poverty to disease to war. But we want to leave untouched the personal evils, such as selfishness and lechery and pride. We need spiritual healing, but we do not want it. Like a supervisory teenage parent, God gets in our way. This is the perennial appeal of atheism: it gets rid of the stern fellow with the long beard and liberates us for the pleasures of sin and depravity. The atheist seeks to get rid of moral judgment by getting rid of the judge.