In reply to Monday’s “How to Chase Away an Atheist” post, Benjamin Robb wrote:
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.