In Defence of Atheists: in which I attempt to chop down the mightiest garden shed in the neighbourhood with its own petard.

Picture the scene. In a student living-room, five or six undergraduates sit on standard-issue furniture and beanbags and Explore Christianity. The room is comfortably twilit, and tea, coffee and cake have been made liberally available. The debate is a serious one. The topic could be any one of several. Perhaps someone says that Occam’s Razor is really blunt, or someone else sits back and says, well, if you want to bring in special revelation. As some of those present grow animated, others look more and more confused. When the non-Christians all leave to go to Sainsbury’s, the Christians stay behind and argue through the exact same material, all over again, amongst themselves.

Another scene: the college dining-hall at breakfast time. At one of the long parallel wooden tables, an assortment of friends and amicable fellow breakfasters gathers. Suddenly, from the middle of a conversation about, say, medieval iconography or Ancient Greek puns, someone turns, looks up the table and calls on the Christians present for a point of information. Half the breakfasters raise their heads, and, for a moment, weirdly, the random mixture of acquaintances divides into two distinct camps.

I present these scenes, not because I want to write about studentdom as such, but because they happened and I found them disquieting.

There are unavoidable senses in which Christians are (or, should be) distinct from those who are not Christians. Some of these, in some places and times, could get you killed or locked in a shipping container; in more tolerant contexts, it may feel only like a special form of social awkwardness if you really do believe that there is always one more member in any given party than can actually be counted.

But sometimes, clearly, Christians do also make themselves appear distinct in unChristian ways. Christians are not supposed to unite for the sake of in-jokes, cliquiness, or attempts to show that their garden shed is bigger than anything in particular.

My garden shed.

My garden shed.

So, how should we, as Paul says, ‘conduct ourselves wisely towards outsiders’—when those ‘outsiders’ are really our friends and colleagues and family members—when, as can happen, the grace and Christlikeness in our relationships comes mostly from their side?

Here is something I think we should not do.

We should not be like the boy who stood up in church to give a word of knowledge, told a girl that she had a pain in her lower abdomen, and, when she said that she didn’t and she should know because it was her lower abdomen, replied that he knew she did and obviously she didn’t have the faith to feel it. This is, thankfully, a fictional example. But it is not entirely dissimilar to a claim that is sometimes made about atheists, both in their presence and in their absence:

the claim that atheists really know that atheism is false, but are out to suppress God and everything that is Good […]

I quote from this post, which discusses an especially startling instance of the phenomenon. (If you are short of time for blog-reading, please do change channels at this point.)

Wanting to be sure, I asked the preacher whether this is what he meant. The response: “You can be very intellectual in your mocking, but it is mocking nonetheless […] If God exists, then that’s what it is.”

A claim was also made – I forget the exact wording – that this idea, that non-Christians know that Christianity is true but suppress that knowledge – is “fundamental” to Christianity.

Startling, as I said. But I have heard atheists being told this to their faces. I have heard it said that atheists, by not believing in God, necessarily imply that they themselves are bigger, cleverer and more generally remarkable than He is. The preacher mentioned in the quote above is not alone. Where did he get his ideas from?

I would bet a cup of tea and a piece of cake if I was the gambling type that any preacher claiming such things about atheists is likely, at some point, to whip Romans 1 out of his Swiss Army knife. Verse 18:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

I find I can understand this verse in more than one way. Perhaps Paul means all men—humans, that is: humanity acting en masse. Remove the comma, however, and perhaps he means some men in particular, those who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. Then perhaps, one might think, some especial category of men is meant: maybe this is what Jews said about Greeks, or what Greeks said about barbarians, or what barbarians said about Jews, or what everyone said about someone.

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

I suppose the evangelical view is that by ‘they’ Paul means everyone, but the apparent view of the evangelist in mid-flow is that he means atheists, and especially those particular atheists who happen to be listening. Under the assumption, it seems, that these verses are not only about the whole community of mankind, but about each and every person’s psychological construction, the verses get pointedly applied to individuals, who apparently know God really, but have suppressed that knowledge (right down to their lower abdomen) and chosen sin. The passage lists various bad things that ‘they’ have done, and there are many discussions to be had, but we’ll skip to chapter 2:1, where Paul pivots on an important word and importantly changes the pronoun.

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.

They have no excuse. You have no excuse. Perhaps Paul does just simply find that chapter 2 naturally develops from chapter 1: we are all in the same boat, and cannot pass judgement. But perhaps, or perhaps also, one speculates, chapter 1 is a set-up: Paul says the kind of things that his readers would like to think about whoever his readers mean by ‘they’, teasing their judgemental attitude out into the open, into the light. At any rate, in the long blood-from-a-stone process of Paul’s working out of his ideas in Romans, we cannot have chapter 1 without chapter 2, and if, in reading chapter 1, we think we know who he means by ‘they’, and condemn ‘they’ in any public or private manner, then chapter 2 catches us red-handed. We cannot, if we have any respect for Paul at all, use his ‘they’ as a stick to beat atheists with and altogether ignore his ‘you’, his anxiety that his Christian readers should not ‘presume on the riches of God’s kindness’, should not assume superiority, but that they should ‘by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality’, ‘honouring God as God and giving thanks to Him’.

“But surely chapter 1 is still true?” I hear you cry. “Surely we can still believe, discuss, meditate upon what it says about humanity as a whole?” Well, yes, admittedly there are several ‘perhapses’ in this post about chapter 1. The Epistle to the Romans is overall a bit beyond me. The point (I think) is this. Common humanity suggests that it is rude to tell someone they believe God exists really and have ‘suppressed’ their knowledge to the extent of atheism. Common sense suggests that we can’t actually know whether a given person has in fact done this. Perhaps one atheist has really encountered and ignored Jesus, but it seems to me that his atheism has honesty and integrity; perhaps another has really never seen any reason to believe that there is a God, but it seems to me that his arguments to that effect are underhanded, snide and calculated. What I learn from Romans 2 is that, whatever I think Romans 1 says to the situation, even if I think it means that all non-believers are believers in denial, still, to use Romans 1 to pronounce his impending doom is not a permissible use of Scripture, any more than it is cricket. Because what I learn from Romans 2 is that in both cases my first responsibility as a Christian is to jolly well give up judging him.

Who am I to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.


Definitely not cricket.

Definitely not cricket.

After all, atheism as such is not what we are being saved from:

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!

‘Atheism’ is not synonymous with ‘sin’, and The Christian Question is not really whether we should believe in God or not (which is not to say that that’s not also a worthwhile question), but how we are going to respond to Him if there is one.

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.

Did they deliberately refuse to receive him, or did they just not realise he was there? Which would have been worse: simply not grasping the point about who Jesus was, or grasping it, and then resisting him, rejecting him, denying him? The honest atheist is perhaps doing better than the cowardly or the rebellious Christian. But fortunately we can all come back:

When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”

I cannot follow Jesus and judge people; I cannot follow Him and behave falsely to my non-Christian friends, acting over-confident in argument, pretending not to have doubts and confusions, playing salesman for Christianity, or, conversely, avoiding God-discussions altogether because I don’t know how to handle them. One might as well be honest: I do badly want people to know Jesus. But if anyone came to Him in such a way that I could feel that I’d had a hand in it, I would fall into a nasty kind of pride—I would feel like a Successful Christian, and be walking away from Jesus myself. If Jesus is there, we all need Him just as much as everyone else does. We are all in the same boat, and need to find out whether or not we are going to get out of it and walk on the water.

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