When Atheists Admit that Atheism Isn’t Enough
Recently, several atheists have conceded that atheism can’t sustain a thriving social order — which should press us to ask, “Why should anyone regard an unlivable system as true?”
What if atheism isn’t capable of sustaining a social order in which human beings can thrive? Many Christians have argued that atheism lacks this capacity — but, recently, a number of atheists and agnostics have conceded that their commitments are incapable of producing a flourishing social order.
What Atheists and Agnostics Are Beginning to Admit
Scottish historian Niall Ferguson is a lifelong atheist. Yet he admits that “atheism, particularly in its militant forms, is really a very dangerous metaphysical framework for a society.” Without personal faith woven throughout the fabric of a society, we as humans will behave — according to Ferguson — “in the most savage way.” Ferguson goes so far as to assert that people should attend church, regardless of whether or not they believe what they hear.
I do think we should go to church. We don’t have … an evolved ethical system. I don’t buy the idea that evolution alone gets us to the moral. … With the inherited wisdom of a two-millennia old religion, we’ve got a pretty good framework to work with.
Other agnostics and atheists have made similar concessions. Roger Scruton was an atheist, according to several of the philosopher’s closest colleagues. Yet he saw Christianity as part of the soul of Western civilization and loathed the reductionism of the so-called “new atheism”:
Richard Dawkins and his followers have recycled the theory of evolution not as a biological theory but as a theory of everything — of what the human being is, what human communities are, what our problems are and how they’re not really our problems, but the problems of our genes: we’re simply answers that our genes have come up with, and it’s rather awful to be the answer to someone else’s question, especially when that thing is not a person at all. Nevertheless people swallow that.
Atheist political commentator Douglas Murray sees the sanctity of individual human lives as a necessary foundation for the social order, and he admits that this notion is distinctly Judeo-Christian. As a result, he sees only three options for a post-Christian society: (1) abandon any pretense of commitment to the value of human life, at the cost of the social order, (2) quickly formulate some atheist version of this value, or (3) preserve the social order by returning to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Agnostic author Charles Murray speculates that the survival of the American republic will require a resurgence of Christianity. In the book Dominion, fellow agnostic Tom Holland recognizes that even critiques of Christianity must borrow concepts from Christianity to make these critiques reasonable.
So what should be made of these concessions from agnostics and atheists?
Simply this: A consistent atheism is not livable — or, at the very least, it’s not livable in any way that consistently cultivates human flourishing or causes cultures to thrive.
The history of Christianity is riddled with failures and shortfallings. Nevertheless, Christianity and a handful of other religions have a track record of creating thriving cultures — an imperfect record, yes, but they do have one. Atheism does not.
How Puddleglum Found His Faith Again
When atheists admit that living a life grounded in religion is preferable to living consistently within their own worldview, I am reminded of a scene that features my favorite character from The Chronicles of Narnia.
The character is Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle, and the book is The Silver Chair. Puddleglum has had his mind muddled by the empiricist logic of a wicked witch, and he’s no longer certain if the great lion Aslan and the realm of Narnia are real at all. Puddleglum finds his faith again, but the solution to Puddleglum’s struggle with skepticism is neither blind belief nor empirical evidence. It is, instead, a recognition that a life lived with faith in Aslan and Narnia is better and more beautiful than the alternatives. In the moment when this epiphany becomes clear to him, Puddleglum declares to the witch-queen,
Suppose we have only dreamed and made up these things like sun, sky, stars, and moon, and Aslan himself. In that case, it seems to me that the made-up things are a good deal better than the real ones. And if this black pit of a kingdom is the best you can make, then it’s a poor world. And we four can make a dream world to lick your real one hollow. … As for me, I shall live like a Narnian even if there isn’t any Narnia. So thank you very much for supper. We’re going to leave your court at once and make our way across your great darkness to search for our land above!
Even if his faith in the existence of Narnia is dubitable, Puddleglum recognizes that life is better with this faith than without it. Puddleglum does not choose faith because he has successfully eliminated every possible doubt; the Marsh-wiggle believes because he recognizes the witch’s skepticism as a hollow and joyless husk.
Of course, this moment does not come without a cost. What brings Puddleglum to this point of epistemic clarity is his choice to plunge his feet into the flames in the witch’s throne room. He undertakes his quest for a “land above” on soles that are scarred.
The Best Witness that a Believer Can Give
A renewed recognition of the good of Christianity in our society is unlikely to take place without some measure of pain as we engage with those who despise what we believe. And — admittedly — an atheist’s admission that the Christian tradition is beneficial for society is a far cry from a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. The medieval and modern eras are filled with moments when a recognition of Christianity’s social utility coupled with the absence of personal faith produced horrific distortions of the Christian tradition. Nevertheless, one test of the truth of a particular commitment is whether or not a life that is consistent with that commitment contributes to human flourishing. In simpler terms, is this commitment livable?
A number of atheists and agnostics now freely admit the unlivability of their systems of thinking. What they have apparently not recognized yet is the fact that what is unlivable is also unlikely to be true. As we await this recognition, the best witness that we can provide is a Christ-filled community that is winsome, buoyant, delightful, and clearly distinguishable from the defective cultures around us. Such a life demonstrates to the world not only the verity but also the livability and the joy of authentic Christian faith.