In reply to Monday’s “How to Chase Away an Atheist” post, Benjamin Robb wrote:
I am wondering what you think of author Richard Dawkins’ observation: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
Richard Dawkins is a formidable apologist for atheism. His statement here sounds quite reasonable . . . but is it accurate when applied to Christianity? Are Christians “atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in?”
No. An atheist is someone who categorically denies the existence of a deity. Most other religions are based upon belief in one or more supreme beings. Christianity has specific things to say about God, but finds commonality in asserting the existence of a supreme being. More broadly Christians and other religions posit a spiritual reality in addition to (or along with) what is physical.
Let me quote from my well-worn copy of Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis:
I have been asked to tell you what Christians believe, and I am going to begin by telling you one thing that Christians do not need to believe. If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. (Book II, Chapter 1)
Christians need not be “atheists” about other belief systems. I would disagree with much of what Islam teaches, but certainly can agree with Muslims about the monotheistic reality of the God of Abraham and Moses who created everything that exists. That is not an atheistic response to Islam, but rather disagreement about the nature of God, whom we agree exists. Even a pantheist or “pagan” and I could affirm together a spiritual reality which transcends the material.
When I was in India a few years ago, I was still an unChristian. I had the chance to explore Hinduism during the month I spent there. A devout Hindu told me, “We do not believe in many different gods, but in many manifestations of the one god. Similar to Christians who believe in One God but in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as manifestations of that God.”
Certainly there are critical differences between the nature of Hindu “manifestations” and the Christian Trinity, but there is an element – Lewis would call it a “hint” – of what Christians would identify as the truth. There are these hints in most religions of the world, especially in ancient systems of belief.
Later in the same chapter, Lewis writes:
The first big division of humanity is into the majority, who believe in some kind of God or gods, and the minority who do not. On this point, Christianity lines up with the majority – lines up with ancient Greeks and Romans, modern savages, Stoics, Platonists, Hindus, Mohammedans, etc., against the modern Western European materialism.
Lewis answers (or pre-answers) Dawkins quite well. Lewis, and I, would disagree with Dawkins that “we are all atheists about most of the gods societies have ever believed in.” Not when you include Christians in the “all.”
Please note that I did not address the truth or falsity of Christianity or of other religions in this post. I intentionally narrowed my focus to respond to Dawkins’ statement as it applies to Christians.
Thanks Benjamin for the query. I invite all readers to join the conversation.
I think the purpose of Dawkins’ quote is an attempt to get religious people to understand atheists better.
Something akin to “I don’t believe in Jesus. But you don’t believe in Thor. So, we have that in common.”
Whether he succeeds in his purpose is open to debate, of course.
That’s a more generous reading of the quote than the way I interpreted it. I guess depending on the context it could be either looking for common ground or tweaking religious people. My impression of him is that he is not usually so conciliatory but rather more confrontational. Thanks for the different perspective.
As for Thor, I always enjoyed him in the “Marvel Super Heroes” cartoons when I was a kid.
It really just depends how you define the word, early Christains were persecuted for being ‘athiests’ according to the Roman authorities and Socrates was also executed for refusing to believe in the right gods, nowadays we would probably describe this as heresy but you could call refusing to believe the divinity of Jesus ‘atheism’ if merely defining it as lacking a belief in a particluar god. Catholics and Protestants were calling each other ‘atheist’ in the 30 years war.
However, the modern term decribes the position I am personally in which is where I would agree with you, I do not believe in any god, gods, supernatural or divine presence, here in this universe or in any plane as yet undiscovered by science.
That’s a really good point.. How DO you define an “atheist?” Even in the more modern sense, there are subtleties of difference between saying there are no gods and saying one does not believe in any gods. Then there’s the distinction between atheists and agnostics. Thanks for posting – I appreciate the conversation.
I’m sure there are several Christians (sorry, “Christians”) out there who would categorically disagree with the central tenet of this blog post (not I’m not one of them). “We cannot have anything in agreeance with Islam / Paganism / athesists / etc. They are categorically *wrong*” I really hope to be the one to show them the C. S. Lewis quote, as I’m sure most of them worship C. S. Lewis. Probably won’t change anyone’s mind, but just to be there to hear the sound their brain makes from their intransigence hitting a beloved author they categorically agree with would be fun to hear. 🙂
C. S. Lewis wrote a great deal of stuff, essays, fiction, criticism, etc. His views evolved over time. The biggest change was of course from atheist to Christian. But his Christianity was not systematic, and the his adoption as sort of patron saint of conservative Christians ignores things like his embrace of Darwinian evolution as well as what you point out in your comment. I enjoy Lewis not because he is some sort of monolithic touchstone, but because you can see the gears of his thoughts working as he writes about his faith and its implication in the world.