Christianity Differs From Atheism in Being Faith-based

By Jeffrey Burton Russell

Atheists do not discover that life is meaningless; they simply declare it to be so.

The dictionary properly gives the primary meaning of faith as “confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing” and only the secondary meaning as “belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.” Sometimes faith is blind, in the sense that some Christians and some atheists have blind faith in their views. This entry considers Christian beliefs about Christian faith, atheist beliefs about Christian faith, and atheist faith.

Christians believe there are two types of Christian faith. One sort of faith is intellectual assent to a proposition or system; the other is moral assent in personal trust. The first type of faith includes belief that Christ rose from the dead, or that Christianity as a system is true. The other sort of faith is commitment to Christ as a person in whom we have absolute trust. Both types are necessary, though the latter is deeper. But these two primary types of faith have eyes wide open. They both require rearrangement of one’s life and priorities, and they show themselves in the practice of good works promoted by grace, the divine “current” that God is thought to charge us with. Some Christian thinkers emphasize that the intellect leads people to faith, while others emphasize that faith leads to knowledge.

Atheist ideas about Christian faith all are based on the secondary definition of the word: belief in something intellectually unproven. Of course, blind assent to anything, whether Christian or atheist, is foolish. But anti-theists ignore the role played by the intellect in Christian thought and interpret Christian faith as blind assent. They say that faith makes a virtue out of not thinking, that it’s easy to believe in something not real if you don’t stop to think that it couldn’t possibly be true, that those who preach faith are intellectual slaveholders, that faith is believing something with no evidence. John Haught observes that the anti-theist argument is a rhetorical strategy involving reduction of all Christians to biblical “literalists,” seeing the social role of Christian community as centered on abuse, reducing faith to mindless belief, reducing the role of reason and evidence to the realm of science alone, reducing reality to what can be known by science alone, and reducing the idea of God to a “hypothesis” that (by definition) can’t be demonstrated by science. Atheists insist on presenting God and science as alternatives, which is factually incorrect, because God is not an alternative to science as an explanation of natural events. Everyone seeks physical explanations of physical things.

The “God of the gaps” procedure—introducing God to explain phenomena that science hasn’t yet explained—is fatally weak. Although God “is the ground of all explanation: it is his existence which gives rise to the very possibility of explanation, scientific or otherwise,” serious Christian thinkers know that making God the cause of individual events explains nothing. An old college friend of mine used to joke that the easiest answer to a history question about the cause of World War I was, “It was God’s will.” Some Christians really do think that faith is an act of pure will without basis in reason. This “fideism” has generally been rejected in the mainstream of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant thought. Christians believe the entire universe is contingent upon God, who sustains it. Events we consider random may actually be contingent.

Atheism has its own “gap of a God.” Atheism, especially its current manifestation as anti-theism, is no less based on faith than Christianity. There is no empirical proof of atheism. The anti-theist assertion that there is no God is not a scientific statement, but an ideological one. And since it is ideological in respect to religion specifically, it is a religious statement. Anti-theists cannot avoid making religious statements. The American Humanist Association spent thousands of dollars plastering buses in Washington, D.C., with ads asking, “Why believe in a god?” The Freedom from Religion Foundation erected billboards that look like stained glass but declare “Beware of dogma” and “Imagine no religion.”

Faith in anti-religion is as much faith as religion itself. True atheists (those who really think about it) assert a complete philosophy of life as much as Christians do. But most atheists may be simply imbued with current materialist attitudes, living a religion-free existence by not thinking about religion at all. Some atheists honestly admit that their beliefs are a matter of faith, but most wear self-imposed blinders. Michael Devitt declares, “There is only one way of knowing, the empirical way that is the basis of science.” How could Devitt know that? Even the famous anti-theist Carl Sagan (1934-1996) noted we can’t scientifically “prove” we love somebody. Most lives, including atheists’ lives, have mostly to do with understandings that aren’t scientific.

Materialist, atheist dogma is actually much more restrictive than religious dogma. As Stephen Barr notes, “While religious dogmas do not in fact limit the kinds of things one is able to think about, materialism obviously does. The materialist will not allow himself to contemplate the possibility that anything whatever might exist that [cannot be] completely describable by physics.” The materialist has put himself in his own straitjacket. His views banish God, souls, spirits—anything that is not part of the natural world—with the result that “there is nothing but nature. It is a closed system of cause and effect.” The materialist assumption is that there is not, cannot be, must not be anything beyond the physical. The materialist atheist says, “I don’t believe in God,” and he believes that statement emerges solely from the kilogram of matter called a brain. If so, then the statement “I” is not meaningful. My kilogram of matter produces the reaction “There is no God,” but my kilogram is only matter, like your kilogram—so what?

The buzzwords of physicalists are “nothing but,” “only,” “merely,” “simply, “no more than.” A human being is “nothing but” a collection of molecules. Francis Crick said, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” However, the assembly of molecules called Crick didn’t actually live that way. Barr, examining the ultimate circularity of physicalism, sums it up this way: “Materialism is true because materialism is true, because it must be true.” John Polkinghorne observes, “The very assertions of the reductionist himself are nothing but blips in the neural network of his brain. The world of rational discourse dissolves into the absurd chatter of firing synapses. Quite frankly, that cannot be right, and none of us believes it to be so.” Anti-theists, who claim to have better minds than others, don’t actually believe in minds at all. In fact they are engaged in a “polemic against the mind.” The alleged mind is nothing but an illusion produced by complex physical activities in the brain.

A note on vocabulary: The term “reductionism” is less useful than “physicalism” in defining this point of view, because mathematics and the natural sciences properly use a process called “methodological reduction,” which involves taking a problem, separating out subproblems, and trying to explain them in the simplest and most elegant terms that fit the empirical evidence. But atheist reductionists leap from methodological reductionism to reducing the cosmos to the sum of its material parts. “Scientism” also is a confusing term because “science” is an excellent method, while scientism (parascience) is a metaphysical assumption not rooted in scientific method. “Physicalism” is the word most often used for these concepts today. Physicalism implies that we should see the world with only one eye—the physical. If there is something beyond the purely “natural” or “physical” aspects of the cosmos, physicalism will never discover them, because it is by definition unable to discover them. The opinions of physicalists on the question are therefore empty of meaning unless they cease claiming to speak as scientists and speak solely as metaphysicians.

No physicalist I know of truly lives by his or her own expressed beliefs. To do so would be to become insane. To really and truly believe there is no meaning, even for a few days, is more terrifying than death. I’ve been there. If a person doesn’t, won’t, and can’t live by his or her own worldview, how can anyone take it seriously?

A corollary of the physicalist view is that ideas are not “real” and have no effect. The minds of Rousseau mind, Lenin, Jefferson, and Hitler had no effect on reality? Lennox argues that faith is a foundational basis, not only for ideological reductionism, but for science itself. The old Roman saying is “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” They might have added “Who would destroy the gods must first be made mad.” The anti-theists manifest theophobia, irrational fear of God, or at least fear of those who believe in God. While quoting statistics that show smart people are atheists, they know that religion is growing worldwide at a more rapid pace than ever. Even if they were to be successful in eradicating traditional religion, what would likely emerge is probably not what they expect. When people stop believing in traditional religion, they do not end up believing in nothing; they end up believing in anything.

Atheism and Christianity both rely partly on faith and partly on reason, so it is not faith against reason, but of two different faiths using reason against each other. As Einstein said, “What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos.” The evidence increasingly points to both harmony and directional purpose in the cosmos.

This post is an excerpt from the book Exposing Myths About Christianity by Jeffrey Burton Russell (IVP Books, 2012). It is used with permission. You can purchase this resource in its entirety here.


Published April 23, 2018

Jeffrey Burton Russell