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The Psychology of Atheism

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Answers to questions concerning the existence of God are continually demanded by atheists. Why is that? Is it that not all of the atheist's questions have been answered? Actually, they have all the answers they need, and they understand them. So if there is a God, then why are there atheists? In "The Psychology of Atheism," Dr. Sproul explains that it is not a lack of information that is keeping the atheist from believing, it is something else.

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Making Atheism Enchanting

  2. article

    Old Answers to the New Atheism: An Interview with Peter Hitchens

  3. blog-post

    What Is Practical Atheism?

Making Atheism Enchanting

Gene Edward Veith

The old atheists maintained that belief in God is not true. The new atheists maintain that belief in God is not good. The atheists’ problem, though, is that however much they attack belief in God, their own worldview lacks all appeal. They get hung up on the last remaining absolute: Atheism is not beautiful. It is so depressing .

If there is no God and this physical realm is all there is, life is pretty much pointless. A person might believe such a bleak worldview, but no one is going to like it. The old atheists, to their great credit, usually faced up to the implications of their disbelief. Walter Berns, writing in The Weekly Standard (February 4, 2008), sums up the worldview of Albert Camus, as expressed in his novel The Stranger :

Meursault, its hero (actually, its antihero), is a murderer, but a different kind of murderer. What is different about him is that he murdered for no reason — he did it because the sun got in his eyes, à cause du solei — and because he neither loves nor hates, and unlike the other people who inhabit his world, does not pretend to love or hate. …As he said, the universe “is benignly indifferent” to how he lives. It is a bleak picture, and Camus was criticized for painting it, but as he wrote in reply, “there is no other life possible for a man deprived of God, and all men are [now] in that position.

But although Camus may have aniticipated the mindless, non-reflective godlessness of our culture, his world-view has little to commend it. By his own admission, throwing out God also throws out meaning, joy, and everything that makes life worth living.

Enter Philip Pullman, the British author of children’s stories. Out of his hatred for C. S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia,” Pullman resolved to write a fantasy series that would do for atheism what Lewis’ fantasy series did for Christianity. Thus was born the trilogy “His Dark Materials.”

The first volume, The Golden Compass , was recently made into a movie, which, despite its elaborate and expensive special effects, bombed at the box office, illustrating what he is up against. But the trilogy is enormously popular, especially among teenagers and young adults, having sold some fifteen million copies.

The story has to do with multiple worlds, marvelous adventures, and an epic conflict between good and evil. Except that, in line with the new atheism, God is the evil one and Satan is the good guy.

Pullman, as in the old Gnostic texts, portrays God the creator as a cruel, tyrannical “Authority”; Satan is the liberator; and Adam and Eve were right to eat the forbidden fruit. In Pullman’s fantasy, the church, headed by Pope John Calvin, is all about black-robed clerics sneaking around establishing inquisitions and spoiling everyone’s fun.

The books, though, are imaginatively stimulating. The fantasy is exciting, well-written, and pleasurable. And, as with other fantasies, the story is idealistic and even inspiring.

Here, in a quote from the second volume of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife , is how Pullman portrays the virtue of Satan’s rebellion and of the cosmic struggle against the Authority:

There are two great powers…and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.

The prose evokes a stirring heroism — again, like traditional fantasies — but the enemy of knowledge, wisdom, and decency in this anti-Narnia is God and His evil minions in the church!

The central image of the Pullman books is the “dark materials,” a term taken from Milton, whose Paradise Lost the author turns upside down. This “dust” is the stuff of love and consciousness. In fact, it turns out that everything is made out of this dust, which is the essence of both spiritual and physical existence. This is true even of the Authority, who turns out to be just another physical being, an old, senile relic who dissolves back into dust once he is dragged into the light.

This is nothing more than classic materialism, of course, which insists that matter is all there is, so that everything that exists is made out of particular tiny bits of matter called atoms. Pullman glorifies and mystifies this “dust.” How wonderful it is to have evolved into so many wonderful things! And when we die, we go back to dust. As Pullman puts it in the last volume, The Amber Spyglass , when people die “all the atoms that were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. They’re just part of everything. And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you.”

Pullman mystifies materialism and turns atheism into an actual religion. In doing so, however, he does what the old atheists have always falsely accused believers of doing: indulging in irrational wish-fulfillment and constructing an escapist fantasy.  

Old Answers to the New Atheism: An Interview with Peter Hitchens

Peter Hitchens

Many Christians are aware of the hostile atheism of Christopher Hitchens. However, few Christians are aware that his brother, Peter, was also for many years antagonistic toward Christianity and a self-avowed atheist like his brother. Unlike Christopher, however, Peter is a prodigal son who has returned home. The story of the way God used simple beauties, such as architecture and painting, to draw Peter to faith is truly moving. Many Christians have wondered what is going on inside the heads of atheists to make them so angry. In this interview, Peter Hitchens gives us a glimpse into his life and thought as a Christian who was converted from atheism.

Tabletalk: Some of our readers will not have read your book, The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, by the time this goes to print. Specifically, what are atheism’s three failed arguments?

Peter Hitchens: Atheism has dozens of failed arguments. The ones I felt qualified to deal with were these: that religion, and specifically Christianity, is a major cause of conflict; that an effective moral code can exist without a belief in the eternal; and my brother’s claim that the Soviet regime was religious in character.

TT: In The Rage Against God, you describe yourself as being a part of “robust English Protestantism.” What does that mean?

PH: Oh, it’s a contrast to what in my schooldays would have been called the soppy sort of Christianity, a vaguely effeminate, stained-glass piety of incense and ritual, as opposed to a strong-voiced, earthy, unsuperstitious faith.

TT: What was accurate about your headmaster’s suggestion that the deaths of those you loved would change your atheistic stance? How does the death of a loved one challenge atheism at its core?

PH: Death is the great reminder that this life is limited, and that it may not be the end. For most of our lives, we behave as if this is not so. It is only when death touches those close to us that we are forced into this understanding, especially in a modern world where death is kept at a distance, ignored, undiscussed, and shuffled off into corners.

TT: What is the major failure of Christian education in the modern West?

PH: Its lack of poetry. The abandonment of the great poetic text of the King James Bible (and of the Book of Common Prayer, for those to whom it once applied) has rendered Christianity banal and chilly to three generations. Much of what Christ said is communicable in poetry, which contains meanings prose is unable to express. The same could be said for the abandonment of much of the church’s classical musical tradition.

TT: Contra Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, how is the raising up of children in Christianity decidedly not child abuse?

PH: Why presume guilt? The accusation is grotesque and baseless. Let them be challenged to show why it is, if it is. And to withdraw if they cannot.

TT: Is there any advice you can give to believers in America on how to be faithful to Christ as our country becomes more blatantly and unapologetically secular?

PH: Not really. Don’t expect to be popular, perhaps — and even learn to enjoy being unpopular. Christians in parts of the world where Islam or secularism are triumphant will have a rough time in this world, and so will be more interested in the importance of the next world than they might otherwise be. I believe Egypt’s Coptic Christians actually give thanks for this, as it strengthens their faith. I like being safe and comfortable far too much to welcome the idea, but I have to admit that it seems to me that the Copts have a point. They live more closely with Christ than we do because they must swim against the stream.

TT: In what ways can we show our love for friends and family who are atheists and who may have succumbed to the intolerance prevalent among many atheists today?

PH: Not, I think, by pressing our case on them, nor by returning intolerance for intolerance. People choose atheism. It is a deliberate and conscious act, involving far greater certainty than I can muster on this subject. They do this for a reason. If you can find out what that reason is, then you argue rationally with them about it . This may benefit any uncommitted people in your audience, but will probably make no impact on them. The chances are that they have rejected Christianity because they have correctly understood what it involves and do not wish to follow it. And they believe, as a logical result of this view, that Christianity, as a force, should be driven out of modern life.


Peter Hitchens, brother of prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011), is a British journalist, author, and broadcaster. He has authored five books, including his most recent The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, in which he walks the reader through the struggles that led him to atheism and, ultimately, what caused him to see the system of atheism as unsustainable and embrace Christianity.

What Is Practical Atheism?

R.C. Sproul

The organized church is torn with strife and distrust. Ultimately, the battle is not so much between conservatives and liberals, evangelicals and activists, or fundamentalists and modernists. The issue now is between belief and unbelief: Is Christianity true or false, real or unreal?

What is deadly to the church is when the external forms of religion are maintained while their substance is discarded. This we call practical atheism. Practical atheism appears when we live as if there were no God. The externals continue, but man becomes the central thrust of devotion as the attention of religious concern shifts away from man's devotion to God to man's devotion to man, bypassing God. The "ethic" of Christ continues in a superficial way, having been ripped from its supernatural, transcendent, and divine foundation.

Practical atheism appears when we live as if there were no God.

Biblical Christianity knows nothing of a false dichotomy between devotion to God and concern for man. The Great Commandment incorporates both. It is because God is that human life matters so much. It is because of the reality of Christ that ethics are vital. It is because the cross was a real event that the sacraments can minister to us. It is because Christ really defeated death that the church offers hope. It is because of Jesus' real act of atonement that our forgiveness is more than a feeling.

The church's life and her creed may be distinguished but never separated. It is possible for the church to believe all the right things and do the wrong things. It is possible also to believe the wrong things and do the right things (but not for very long). We need right faith initiating right action. Honest faith—joined with honest action—bears witness to a real God and a real Christ.

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