2/25/14 Jan about 55
What’s up with atheists? Lately, in my outreach conversations, I’ve encountered more and more people who claim atheism. One such person would be an older gentleman I talked with last night at Starbucks, named Jan, who is Jewish by heritage but atheist by belief. I asked about the development of his beliefs, his thoughts about God and religion, and his motivations in life and hopes for the future. Jan would be a classic example of some patterns of belief I’ve noticed among atheists that are very different from what I had assumed before I started talking to them. Before, I might have figured they must lead unusually sinful lifestyles that cause them to want to deny God and religion and the possibility of judgment. But the common thread I’ve noticed is very different. The atheists I’ve talked to have all been very concerned about proving their moral superiority. They were all concerned about being “good”, but without reference to God or religion, and they try to define “goodness” in a way that gives them the moral advantage, usually in many or all of the following ways:
1. Most have said they don’t need the rewards or punishments of religion to be good; they just believe themselves to be good people naturally. They try to be good without God, and believe the religious actions of others are usually just done for eternal reward and are thus selfish and immoral;
2. Most see themselves as more tolerant than people of faith, viewing tolerance as one of the highest virtues and giving themselves the moral upper hand. Some refer to “coming out” as atheists in a way similar to the gay movement, viewing this as an act of moral courage and the chance to look morally down upon those who would criticize them as atheists. For this reason, many say they don’t care what other people believe, unless this tolerance is trumped by #3, below:
3. Most believe reason is automatically morally superior to faith, seeing reason and science as inevitably leading toward progress, and religion and faith as holding humans back, with a growing number viewing religion not only as backward but a threat to our species and deserving of active opposition. Their fight to save humanity from religion may also involve environmental issues, overpopulation, social justice, etc., all tainted by a certain moral smugness over “backward” believers whom they believe promote conflict or discourage scientific progress;
4. Most of the atheists I’ve talked to seem sincere in their disbelief, so that in their eyes declarations of faith in God would be intellectually dishonest, and therefore, immoral. I can sympathize with them on this; it reminds me that my own faith is a precious gift of God and that I could easily be in their shoes, but it doesn’t seem to occur to them that many non-atheists have had genuine spiritual experiences that would make denying their beliefs equally intellectually dishonest.
So, why are these atheists so concerned about proving their moral superiority? My guess is, as Paul asserts in Romans 2, that like anyone they too have God’s moral law “written on their hearts” – and they can’t escape it. Deep down, maybe even subconsciously at this stage, they know they will be held accountable. Many, like Jan did yesterday, are quick to assert their supposed goodness without my even asking. He seemed to expect a battle of claims to moral superiority, but I didn’t give him one. Instead, I pointed to my own moral failures as compared to the Ten Commandments, allowing him to see his own in comparison, and asserting that I don’t deserve to go to heaven but need mercy and forgiveness instead. By this I defused an argument, yet shared our need for forgiveness at the same time. Jan may not have believed me, but at least he didn’t have a smug Christian to fuel his unbelief.