Atheism From a Recliner
“…and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together…” (Gen 3:7)
Atheists attempting to work out the worldview implications of their (un)belief-system appear to be on the rise these days (for an excellent handling of one example from a Christian perspective, see here). I recently came across another example in the form of a Washington Post article by biology professor PZ Myers, titled, “An Atheist’s Guide to the Good Life”–suggesting, predictably, that “the Good Life” means a life without God. This atheist exposition is intriguing in that it appears to signal a developing pattern (both chronologically and in rhetorical flourish) of disciples of Hitchens and Dawkins: they aren’t interested in advocating for atheism at all, at least not directly. Instead, Myers and his ilk are content simply to assume their atheism from the outset and lob verbal volleys at those who dare to disagree with them [as a side note, I actually appreciate the greater philosophical transparency of this new approach, but that is another matter…].
“Atheism,” Myers asserts, “is the default position. You don’t have to do anything to be an atheist, but you have to work awfully hard not to be one…” So, settling back into his intellectual Lay-Z-Boy, Myers undertakes to educate believers about all the “baggage you can throw off the ol’ Conestoga Wagon of life, the stuff that we know is completely unnecessary because atheists have traveled the trail without it, and come out just fine.” What follows is an unapologetic screed against church worship, prayer, the desire for divine forgiveness, the hope of life after death, and more.
Myers clearly enough rejects biblical revelation and derides those who accept it, but those are not the features of Myers’ piece I want to highlight. No, my hang-up is that Myers claims that atheists “do good because we’re happy to help our communities and see our fellow human beings thrive”; that it is “right and appropriate” to feel guilty if you harm another human being; that when we lose a loved one “the right and good thing to do is to mourn and honor the memory of the dead.” All this, he asserts, after telling everyone who believes in the power of prayer that “no one is listening” to their “futile babbling,” or that we may be sexually intimate with anyone (anyone?) we choose since there really is no “divine foundation” for the rules that have guided human relationships from time immemorial. The self-described “happy atheist” is “happy,” he explains, because there is no transcendent purpose to guide life’s decisions, no plan according to which all is moving, no divine foundation for interpersonal relations, and therefore no rules to norm our behavior. No rules, we might add, except for the ones Myers deems “right and appropriate.” No obligations, except those that Myers is “happy” to fulfill.
All this brings up a question for those thinking about cozying up to modern secular unbelief alongside Myers: exactly why, and on what basis, does he leaven his atheism with lumps of meaning, purpose, and moral obligation? Why does he mock God with one hand while motioning “Shh!” to his more violent atheist comrades with the other? Why does Myers, an atheist who counts himself among “the freest people on Earth,” confound himself with such contradictions?
One answer–a somewhat harsher one–is that PZ Myers is not a courageous atheist; he is a selfish one, as we all once were in one form or another (cf. Titus 3:3). He is eager to preserve for himself enough cultural respectability to be seen as an enlightened secularist without embracing the moral blindness that it really demands. He wants to run for intellectual touchdowns against the Christian theist while stiff-arming the epistemological obstacles that stand in his way. He is the inconsistent atheists’ Heismann trophy winner.
Another answer–a deeper one–to the question posed above is that Myers, despite his insistence that he is an undesigned biological happenstance somehow morally accountable to other biological happenstances, is actually made in the image of God. As such, he is confronted by the personal presence and covenantal demands of this God with every tweet, every chortle, every breath he takes, every volley he lobs at Christians. But instead of repenting of his arrogant refusal to submit to the sovereign authority and care of his Creator, Myers, like our first father, Adam, runs from God and attempts to hide himself in the forest that owes its very existence to divine generosity. In other words, he purports to co-opt for atheists what only God can and does give–the possibility of respect for human dignity, the pleasure of productivity, a longing for life in the face of death–and stitches these gifts together to adorn his supposed autonomy when at most he only masks his shame (cf. Gen 3:10). Myers portrays these as the fruits of his default position instead of acknowledging that he has ripped these fig leaves from the life-giving soil of their God-given purpose. With a certain biological self-consciousness, Paul foretells the real result of this kind of thinking: “[T]he end of those things is death” (Rom 6:20-21). When set against their Maker, those covering leaves shrivel up and expose the nakedness of a rebellious creature of the dust.
Myers, however, is right about one thing: you don’t have to do anything to be an atheist. It is the “natural” disposition of every human being (Eph 2:3; cf. Ps 51:5; Jer 13:23). The good news is that, in a certain biblical sense, you don’t have to do anything to become a Christian either. Repentance and faith in Christ are the effects of God’s breathing new life into our dead hearts. Christians are those who have been raised to walk in newness of life by a power not their own (Rom 6:4). All this from a Savior who has planted us in Himself that we might grow in the light of His presence (cf. John 15:5). To be grafted into Him is true liberation and an other-wordly happiness, for if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed (John 15:11; 8:36).