In re-defining Christian concepts of morality, the soul, free will and more, atheism is leaving our society hollow and directionless. By contrast, it is belief in the God of scripture which upholds and strengthens our understanding of meaning, truth and freedom, argues Alistair McKitterick
Belief in the God of the Christian Bible underpins much of how we understand ourselves as human beings. In attempting to undermine traditional and biblical concepts (such as soul, free will and meaning), new atheism (which denies that there is a god or anything like him) has had a profound effect on the self-understanding of young people today. It has changed the use of language in schools, universities and public discourse.
As Christians, we need to recognise this and challenge it. But we need not enter into this debate fearfully. We are in a strong position to push back on the corrosive effects of this use of language and regain much of the lost ground.
The collapse of morality
The collapse of morality under the influence of atheism has long been predicted - and long been refuted by the way in which secular cultures continue to move along with social order. It is not that atheism leads inevitably to anarchy but rather that atheism collapses morality and leaves ethics in its shadow. Many use the terms morals and ethics interchangeably, but that is a mistake. Ethics, and ethical systems, aim to work out the right thing to do in a situation. Morality is saying whether something is good or evil. There are good things that might be wrong (such as singing in a church during a pandemic) or evil things that might be considered right (such as killing in a war).
Love, truth and beauty all point to an ultimate personal origin rather than cosmic happenstance
Atheism denies the revealed nature of what is good - and therefore evil. If there is no God, we lose our source for what is good, because scripture reveals God is good (Luke 18:19). A good God reveals himself in the loving relationships we read about in the Bible. We learn what is good and evil from engaging with the biblical characters and, supremely, through the gospel accounts of Jesus. Without a good God who loves us and has shown us what it means to be good, and without God to justify our confidence in scripture, atheism suspects that our appeal to the Bible is a power play; an attempt to assert how society should be run. Without God, good becomes a human construct. It leaves us working out what is right or wrong based on ethical systems such as utilitarianism or democracy. The right thing to do is what maximises pleasure, minimises pain, returns greatest profit on investment, or what 50 per cent of a population plus one votes for. The appeal to the moral good collapses to an appeal to the emotions. If it ‘feels good’, its right.
The collapse of the soul
Under atheism, the soul is collapsed from being our core identity to simply a metaphor for being alive as ‘a living soul’; and the term ’soul-less’ only applies to shopping malls. For the materialist, who believes that all there is in the universe is matter and energy, there is no room for anything that can’t be reduced to photons and quarks, and that means there is no room for an immaterial soul. To be fair, it is tricky to talk about something that occupies and controls our body but doesn’t weigh anything or have any physical structure. How does something non-material interact with the neurons of our brains to move our arms and legs to order? Yet the same question could be asked the other way round: how could a mundane lump of proteins inside the dark bony cavity of our skull produce the beauty of dance, the creativity of art, the enchantment of a song or the love of a lover?
The collapse of the soul leaves human beings with an identity crisis. Who are we? If my identity is only physical, if I am only my molecules, then I certainly am not the person that I was when I was born, or when I was 5 years old, nor the person I will be when I am much older and frailer, because the molecules of my whole physical body are replaced many times over a lifetime. It makes it difficult to apportion blame for crimes committed by someone decades earlier: if we are just our molecules, then a different person committed that crime. If, on the other hand, there is something continuous throughout my life - namely my soul - then all my memories belong to the same person; me. Our character can change, and can even be redeemed, but it is my character that is redeemed, and it is my soul that is me. My body may change dramatically but my soul is my core identity.
Belief in the God of the Bible underpins much of how we understand ourselves as human beings
Atheism’s denial of the soul makes hope in resurrection impossible. Although Jesus’ human body died, his human soul continued to exist while his body decayed in the tomb prior to his resurrection. We have that same hope of resurrection that when we die, and our bodies decay or are cremated, we ourselves do not stop existing, because our core identity is our soul not our body (which, without a soul, is a corpse). Being without a body is not a natural state for us, and we long for the day of resurrection for ourselves, and those who have died in Christ before us. But it is the soul that assures us that it will, in fact, be each one of us who is resurrected and not just new physical beings that look like us.
The collapse of free will
Atheism has long targeted the idea of free will. It can’t cope with it. Sociology considers the determining forces of our environment on our actions, while psychology focuses on the hormonal pressures behind our choices and that determine our mood. Your choices, in other words, are not your own. You are conditioned to think, act and react by the world outside or the firing of neurons inside your head. No soul: no free will.
This view received support from a scientist called Benjamin Libet, who showed that, about a second or so before we decide to act, our neurons start to fire up substantially. It looked as though the choices we thought we’d made freely were actually controlled by the neurons in our brain.
Many still point to Libet’s work to support the materialist view of human beings, but Libet himself was not satisfied with this conclusion. He subsequently showed that there is no prior build-up of brain activity if we make a choice not to act. The decision to resist isn’t determined by our neurons. In his own words, he hadn’t proven the existence of free will, but he had proven ‘free wont’! We are free to say no. Neurons alone can’t explain our actions. He found an interesting correspondence to the Ten Commandments, where God commands us not to act in this or that way. We are tempted to act in all kinds of ways, but we are free to resist those impulses. We are free to choose, free to resist temptation, free to serve God.
The collapse of consciousness
One of the most daring collapses of atheism is the collapse of consciousness. The one thing that all of us know for sure is that we are conscious of ourselves in a way that no one on earth can simulate or replicate. It reminds each of us that we are uniquely made by God only once upon this earth. This first-person experience (that feels so real and so ordinary to us) is utterly mysterious and beyond all material explanations. Decartes’ famous phrase: “I think therefore I am” captures the importance of consciousness for understanding who and what we are.
We are not deceiving ourselves when we think of ourselves as incarnate souls made in the image of the living God
Atheists have tremendous difficulties with consciousness. Some say it must simply be a trick played on our brains by our brains to make (our brains?) think that we have a separate unique identity. In reality, so the argument goes, you are nothing but trillions of cellular robots each of which does not know you or care about you. An alternative argument put forward is that, somehow, all matter must have some degree of consciousness - rather like an electrical charge or magnetism - so that when enough matter of the right kind is organised together, it achieves a threshold of self-awareness. It is the view that says perhaps, in some way, big rocks do have opinions. Consciousness is a serious problem for atheists because neuroscience (or any other kind of science for that matter) has no handle on this real, subjective experience. It forces them to consider that there might be more in this universe than matter and energy. For Christians, that ‘something more’ is the soul.
The collapse of design
Atheists, obviously, don’t believe that God created the universe and life in all its beauty. There was no designer with a plan in mind, no thoughtful intention or creative expression of any kind. Everything came about through chance (such as just the right values for the physical constants) or physical law (such as the law of natural selection). Sometimes ‘Mother Nature’ is given the credit for designing and creating the marvels of life in the world, but it is hollow praise when there is no one there to receive it. We’ve lost the instinct to acknowledge the designer.
We have been trained out of praising God for designing the flight of the butterfly, the song of the whale or the scent of a rose.
But excluding design from nature is ideology, not science. There are plenty of examples where the best scientific explanation for understanding the origin of the natural world really is design. The DNA in every living cell defies a natural source and looks, for all the world, like an exquisite computer code from a brilliant programmer. The sudden arrival of some plants and animals in the fossil record (such as bats and flowers) doesn’t point to gradual change from one thing to another. And of course, the unique human experiences of love, truth and beauty all point to an ultimate personal origin behind it all rather than cosmic happenstance. We have been trained out of praising God for designing the flight of the butterfly, the song of the whale or the scent of a rose. Many still deny design in nature but it takes an extraordinary leap of faith in the unproven power of brute dead matter to believe it all came about by chance and law. We should recover our childhood instincts to see a world full of wonder, purpose and design and learn again to see God’s handiwork all around us.
The collapse of science
One of the more surprising things to flow from atheism is the inevitable collapse of science itself. This is particularly awkward for those who see science as a substitute for religious faith. The collapse of science as an atheist endeavour comes from two sources. First, if atheism leads to the collapse of the soul, with its individual free will and conscious mind, then who is doing the scientific experiments? Is science just a self-perpetuating machine? An inevitable, unconscious process? The practice of science requires the very free-thinking, critical minds that materialism tends to deny.
Secondly, the pursuit of science is the pursuit of truth. We want to know what is truly going on in the system or process under examination. Not all science arrives at the truth, and sometimes experimental failure is as valuable as success, yet the pursuit of truth through evidence, logic, reason and argument is always the goal. But reason and truth are not physical quantities themselves. You can’t measure how long truth is or weigh a logical argument. They are mental categories that science itself depends on but are not themselves scientific. They are personal concepts that we share. If atheism reduces a person to matter and energy, can we trust our soulless, material brains to guide us towards truth? Can science be meaningful without the concepts of truth, goodness and love to act as guidelines and goals?
It is belief in God that shores up the practice of science: it is done by the embodied souls of men and women following the evidence in their search to find truth in the universe and extend our understanding of it. It is belief in God that provides a strong foundation for truth, logic and meaning: science and reason collapse under the weight of atheism.
The collapse of meaning
Atheism sees the universe as empty of meaning, a cosmic accident, with the solar system just the local yard for a non-descript, run-of-the-mill planet that happens to have our version of living systems on it. No doubt, they postulate, life is common in the universe, and that life comes and goes as nearby stars explode or hungry black holes consume whatever natural selection has produced on that particular planet. No one is there to witness, no one to pass on the story of life on that unfortunate rock. And our own frenetic activity on this cosmic blue dot will also, one day, succumb to solar death of one form or another. Will we have developed machines to transport us somewhere safe, where the story of our existence can be told and extended, or will we, too, be a tragedy upon a stage with no audience to applaud our dramatic demise? These existential questions of meaning and significance haunt the thoughts and dreams of atheists.
If atheism reduces a person to matter and energy, can we trust our soulless, material brains to guide us towards truth?
Could it be that our world is part of a story that allows its players to improvise upon a theme, and where the narrative anticipates a grand finale that makes sense of all that has gone before? The hopes and fears of billions of people demand that suffering be vindicated, injustice judged and promises fulfilled. Belief in God offers a story that is big and complex enough to resolve all of this through faith in the storyteller. It sees scripture as the authorised metanarrative of the world so far. For atheism, the story of the world ends in blank pages, and the ink on those pages already written dissolves in the sea of time: meaning collapses, both now and forever. But for those who believe in God, the story has just begun.
The collapse of Atheism
Atheism collapses so much of our self-understanding and leaves us hollow and directionless. There is a dissonance between what the new atheists say about the material, goalless organisms called humanity and how they actually live, in loving families and societies. By contrast, it is belief in the God of scripture which upholds and strengthens the language of meaning, freedom, truth and morality.
We are not deceiving ourselves when we think of ourselves as incarnate souls made in the image of the living God who has designed and created a world especially for us, to love and serve him and to steward in his name. If atheism undermines our self-understanding, then both scripture and science undermine the pillars of atheism, and its eventual collapse is something that Christians can pray for and anticipate with joy and relief.