Last week an apologist friend of mine posted a fairly common atheist challenge to a private Facebook group. The specific version is this:
"Why are you so AFRAID of atheism? What is it about thinking you have a big daddy in the sky that you need to believe in that you just can't let go of? Aren't you arguing because REALLY you are AFRAID it is all just a big lie and you know that all your cherished religious beliefs are false?"This challenge has three individual questions that need to be addressed on their own. Let's look at the first one.
Why are you so AFRAID of atheism?
When I first saw this question I wasn't sure why it was asked. The reason is that it assumes that the theist IS afraid of atheism. Many could put forth reasons for why atheism is nothing to fear. The chief one would be that if God does not exist, then there will be no one to account to after death for the lives we lived. If there is no one to account to, then why not live like you want? Atheism offers a freedom to follow our desires without fear of eternal consequences. As long as we are acting within the confines of the cultural laws, we don't even have to fear consequences while we're alive. Further if we don't like a law, all we have to do is rise against the law, and it will eventually be changed. Cultural relativism rules the day.
But on the other hand, the fact that if God does not exist that cultural relativism DOES rule the day is precisely what IS to be feared of atheism. There is an inherent danger in trying to change cultural laws. When a society has established a law, those who break it will be punished, and those who stand against a law will be stood against. If there is no higher law that the enforcers of the laws of the land are also held to, there is no reason to prevent them from breaking their own laws to ensure the perpetuity of the current laws of the land. I'm referring to suppression of the people who want "reform" by means that go against the laws of the land. Denial of free speech, denial of assembly, or even denial of life (murder) are all examples.
In such a world, if there were enough people who believed there was nothing "wrong" with discrimination and suppression of free speech, all they would have to do is rise against the laws that outlaw those practices and change those laws to allow the behavior. On the more extreme end, rape and murder could even be made legal if enough powerful members of the society desired it. There is a legitimate fear while alive of having no higher moral responsibility just with the first examples, not to mention the second set.
Even though I might say that I don't really fear atheism because of the absence of an after-life, I have a reason to fear it in this life. The atheist is, no doubt, thinking of the advantage and forgetting about the disadvantage- until they become the victim.
What is it about thinking you have a big daddy in the sky that you need to believe in that you just can't let go of?
Suppression and Wars
I have several: The first is related to my response to the first question. The fact that history is replete with wars among people of differing ideologies demonstrates what happens when people do not recognize a standard by which they are all accountable. If a standard does exist, then there is the chance that war will end, but if a standard does not, then there is no chance that war will end. No two cultures have ever completely agreed on everything, and since evolution is driven by survival, the desire to eliminate competing ideologies (preserve one's own culture's ideologies) will continue. Keep in mind that even though Christianity holds to God's existence and the possibility to the end of war, it predicts that it will not happen on earth because of man's sinfulness. The presence of war in history is not a defeater for the truth of Christianity, but rather a confirmation.
Problem of the Problem of Evil
The second is my recognition of what we know is evil. Atheists are constantly bringing up the problem of evil. They complain about all sorts of "evil" things that happen to people by natural causes and by other people. Most of the time, this challenge is not offered from the perspective of atheism, but from within Christianity- the charge is that existence of evil is incompatible with Christianity. Even though, the problem of evil is not a real problem in Christianity (resolved via man's free will, God's higher purposes, or a combination of the two), atheists still offer it because of its rhetorical power. But why does it have rhetorical power to persuade people? The problem of evil appeals to what people know IS evil. This knowledge raises the emotions which causes us to react. The problem is that if we didn't truly KNOW that certain actions are evil, then the emotions would not react in such powerful ways.
The less that we understand something to be evil, the less emotionally attached we are. The less emotionally attached we are, the less rhetorical power that challenge will become. Ironically, a good indicator of the true acceptance of atheism is the lack of reaction to the problem of evil. The less people react to this atheist favorite, the more they should understand they are making an impact. The more that people react to the problem of evil, the more we should understand that God's existence is becoming more evident to these people.
Problem of No Logic
The third is that without a transcendent being who is the grounding for reason and logic, I am stuck with thinking that evolution is responsible for the convention of logic that we currently use. Since the result of evolution is survival, and man has believed in something false for so long (God's existence, in this case) as a result of his evolution, evolution cannot be trusted to favor what is true. Because evolution cannot be trusted to favor what is true, I cannot even believe that logic and reason (generated by evolutionary processes, ultimately) are trustworthy. If my logic and reason leads me to believe that God does not exist, why should I believe it? If my logic and reason leads me to believe that God does exist, why should I believe it? Certainty of anything goes right down the tubes, if God does not exist, including our certainty of his existence or non-existence or any evidence that leads us to either (or neither) of those conclusions.
Problem of Emotional Appeals
If logic is grounded, then there is a proper way to reason. If there is a proper way to reason, then there is also an improper way to reason. These improper ways to reason are called fallacies. Just as there are many ways to not do something to achieve an end, there are also many ways to not reason to come to sound conclusions. Quite a few fallacies in reasoning are based on emotions. But there are also proper appeals to emotion. When the emotion is the result of something that reflects reality, then that emotion can be appealed to.
Let's go back to the problem of the problem of evil above. Notice that the atheist must appeal to emotion for the problem of evil to have any impact. Ironically, this is not an improper appeal to emotions, because the emotions are based on something true (the fact that an action IS evil), but it is only a valid appeal if Christianity is true. The atheist must rely upon the truth of God's existence in order for his argument against God's existence to have impact.
In short, what I can't let go of is the idea that reason has a foundation, that evil actually exists, and that suppression, war, rape and murder all fall into the category of evil. If atheism is true, all of these must be let go.
Aren't you arguing because REALLY you are AFRAID it is all just a big lie and you know that all your cherished religious beliefs are false?
Who Likes To Be Wrong?
First off, let's acknowledge the fact that most people don't like to be wrong. I don't like to be wrong (most of the time). When we admit we are wrong, we are also admitting that something was wrong with our reasoning, and that perhaps even admitting that all the time of our life and that all the resources we have spent dedicated to that false conclusion were wasted. There is a lot to lose if we are wrong. The fear of those realities can be a powerful driving force behind trying to find how a belief can be reasonable and reflect reality. But the theism/atheism debate is unique with regard to the first thing on the line- admitting that our reasoning was wrong. As I showed above, if atheism is true, there is no "wrong" way to reason because evolution is the source of reason, and evolution's is driven by survival, not what is true. So, if atheism is true, the "wrongness" of our reasoning is not really on the line. I know that should be a confidence boost for the atheist, but its really more of a confidence depressant. If atheism is true, admitting your reasoning is wrong is really nothing to fear, unless you know that reason truly has a foundation.
If atheism is true, then recognizing the "wrongness" of your reasoning is not that big of a deal and should not be feared. So, let's look at the second motive for fear of being wrong- admitting a wasted life and resources. The key here is the word "waste". "Waste" is a word that indicates that resources were used where, when, or how they should NOT have been in order to achieve a specific goal. But a specific goal implies a purpose. If we are to say that our lives and resources were wasted, then we admit that there is another purpose that we SHOULD have been trying to achieve with our lives and resources. If atheism is true, then there is nothing outside ourselves to determine our purpose at any specific time in our lives. Because of this, nothing was actually wasted, and since nothing was actually wasted, we don't have to admit that anything was actually wasted. Why be afraid of something we need not admit?...unless you know that it WOULD BE wasted, thus implying an actual purpose set outside of yourself, which would require a Purposer for your life. Then and only then would this appeal to fear be valid.
One Big (In)valid Appeal to Emotions
Second, we should recognize that this question is an appeal to emotions altogether. Initially, it is difficult to tell for sure if this is a valid or invalid appeal to emotions. Appealing to fear is a form of the genetic fallacy- concluding that something is true or false based on the source (motives, in this case). Yet, if God does not exist, then the appeal to fear is valid because it reflects something true...but the appeal to an emotion that is the result of something true only works if reason has a foundation for giving us truth. Only if God exists, does the foundation for logic exist. Only if a foundation for logic exists, does a foundation for claiming an argument to be valid or invalid have any relation to reality. Thus if God does not exist, this appeal to emotions cannot be considered invalid, but neither can it be considered valid. If the atheist wishes to claim this to be a logical argument that should persuade because of its sound reasoning, they must first acknowledge God's existence to give their reasoning any authority.
The "best case scenario" for this appeal is that if God does not exist, it is merely an appeal to the emotions with no bearing on reality at all. The "worst case scenario" for this appeal is that if God does exist, it is an invalid appeal to the emotions and should not even be considered by any reasonable person.
People can and do argue against atheism due to fear. Some reasons are legitimate, while others may not be. However, fear of atheism's implications, when investigated, reveals several other reasons that people argue against atheism; and many more exist that are independent of the fear of atheism's implications. As Christian apologists, we do not need to completely dismiss this challenge as being an invalid appeal to emotions. Let's give it credence where it is due. Ultimately, this challenge can be turned on its head and used to demonstrate powerful reasons for accepting the truth of Christianity. There are some things to fear from atheism, but this challenge is not one of them.