Everyone cares about the important questions of life. But let’s be honest: most of us don’t have the passion or the drive to study them at a deep level. Plus, we probably aren’t enticed at the prospect of working at Starbucks after earning a degree in philosophy. (Sorry, philosophy majors. You know it’s true.) Still, it can be helpful to wrestle with questions and to see how people of different worldviews engage one other. In particular, I’ve been thinking about atheism. Atheism and agnosticism have been on the rise in younger generations in the US. According to research by Barna, Generation Z (the generation after millennials, born 1999-2015) is more than twice as likely to identify as atheist in comparison to the general adult population, although that statistic is still relatively low at 13%. Add to that those who consider themselves agnostic and of no religious affiliation, and the number rises to 35%, a large portion of a generation. Why are we seeing these trends? I’m sure there are several reasons, but for the purpose of this article, I want to pose four conversation starters that I believe bring to light some weaknesses of atheism in particular.
1. What Hope Does Atheism Offer in Comparison to Religious Hope?
I like to make a distinction between generic hope and religious hope. Generic hope refers to the hopes just about every human being shares–hope for a good life, financial success, good health, a good family, our politics to win, our communities and people around us to do well, emotional fulfillment, etc. The nature of religious hope really depends on the religion, but speaking as a Christian, there is beautiful hope that Jesus adds to life. There is hope for personal calling and meaning in life. We are made for a purpose and can fulfill that purpose through a relationship with Jesus and in service to him. There is hope in the face of adversity. Even if my family struggles, I become poor, my politics loses, evil triumphs in my community or nation, my health deteriorates, people dislike me, and I die, Jesus gives me strength in the face of these difficulties and a positive expectation that God can turn bad things around for good. He gives me hope of eternal life after death. He gives me hope for God’s justice and goodness to break forth here and now and the conviction that his justice will finally prevail when Jesus returns to judge the world and evil will finally be put down. He gives hope even when he calls us to sacrifice for his sake, knowing that when we lose things for his sake, we find life and blessing in him. He provides peace, comfort, and growth in all things.
What hope does secular humanism offer in the face of adversity? Atheism seems easy to hold if you’re a person of privilege, but what does it offer you if your health fails, if your politics loses out, if you end up poor, if you experience evil triumphant, if you feel lonely and misunderstood, and, ultimately, when you face death?
2. What Is the Basis for Morality?
I have a hard time seeing any unifying, universal moral code emerging from atheism. That’s not to say that people of no belief or of uncertain belief aren’t moral people–many of them are. They do some good things, and often they want to make the world a better place. But how would you describe what is good, what is right, and what we ought to do from an atheistic framework? Why should we do any of it? Where does the moral impulse come from? Surely the basis for morality is not indulging whatever desires I find inside myself; I see a lot of ugly impulses within me alongside some good ones. People do a lot of nasty things in the name of being true to themselves: divorcing a spouse we find boring, sloughing off responsibility, saying awful things about someone behind their back, or cutting corners to make money. Does morality come from group consensus and majority rule? That varies from place to place. In the early 20th century, the majority of Americans supported Prohibition. Then they didn’t. What about abortion, which continues to remain a closely contested issue in public opinion polls? Didn’t the majority of Germans go along with Hitler’s Nazism? Surely there’s more to morality than public opinion, and we often cling to our beliefs despite what the majority may think. Will you say there is no final truth or morality, that everything is simply subjective interpretations competing for supremacy, that it ultimately doesn’t make any difference which truth you choose? That makes sense to me in an atheistic worldview, but seems anemic in actually bringing people together, binding up the world’s wounds, and standing against evil. Plus, I haven’t met a soul who is totally relativistic in their morality–there would be no reason to critique anyone or anything. Total relativism seems simply to be an invitation to a life of inertia.
As a Christian, the notion of universal standards given by a sovereign creator God has much that is attractive to it. Our all-knowing, loving God designed things to be a certain way. We hurt ourselves, others, the created world, and God himself when we go against that way and sin. Not to mention God will hold us responsible for our choices. Things tend to go well and there is flourishing and blessing when we live according to the way God designed things to go. The basis for morality lies with an ever-present God who applies standards and truths to all people at all times in all places, and there are rewards and punishments according to how we measure up to God’s will.
That’s not to say all Christians agree on everything. If you look for 2 seconds, you’ll find that Christians don’t. We human beings are limited–we will not understand God fully, nor will we fully comprehend all reality. This invites us to humility, to acknowledging that we don’t know everything about God and the world, that we could be wrong about a lot of things, and that there’s always more to learn. I take comfort in knowing that I’m not the source and arbiter of all truth. Jesus is. Yet I trust that Jesus is able to make himself known to us in a way that we can understand sufficiently for God’s purposes for our lives. And the fact that God knows all truth and is the evaluator of all moral action gives urgency for us seeking truth and seeking to live a moral life, even when what’s right is not easily discerned. Jesus is the one who reveals what is true, who vindicates what is good and true in life, and ultimately he will judge the world according to his truth. I am called to always be learning the truth as best I can, to be shaped by his truth, and bear witness to his truth.
Further, many secular humanists in the West hold to a bastardized version of Judeo-Christian values. Consider the value of the equality of all people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, socio-economic status, etc. That’s straight from Genesis 1:26-27, Romans 2:6-11, and Galatians 3:27-28. Apart from a belief in God making all people of equal worth, why might you believe human beings are of equal value from a secular perspective? Why might you think we should all have certain rights? The values of equality, family, justice, compassion, meaningful work, loving your neighbor, and more all make sense from a Christian framework. God created human beings and the world to be a certain way, and it’s easy to see how those values have made their way into our politics. But strip away the original theology from which these values arose, and suddenly it becomes a lot harder to justify exactly why we hold certain values from a secular perspective.
Again I ask, what is the basis for morality? Can you unify people and hold people accountable to some common standard from an atheistic perspective? What impetus is there for pursuing truth and goodness in secular humanism? Can it escape the center of truth being the individual?
3. What Caused Existence?
I see secular humanism caught in a bind when it comes to origins–either it can’t break out of an infinite regression of causes, or it believes in an unconvincing necessary being. I’m referencing the cosmological argument, an argument for God’s existence that St. Thomas Aquinas appropriated from Aristotle concerning an unmoved mover/uncaused cause/necessary being. I think it has a lot of explanatory power when it comes to understanding origins. The argument utilizes deductive reasoning, saying it is more sensible to believe there is a creator who is eternal and exists outside the standard line of cause and effect than it is to believe in an infinite regression of causes. (An infinite regression of causes is never being able to break out of “What caused that? And what came before that? And what came before that?” on into infinity.) If there is not a being who is outside the standard chain of cause and effect, then it seems likely that time itself wouldn’t exist and life wouldn’t exist, because an infinite regression of causes would mean we never could get back to a definitive beginning of existence. Since we experience time, it seems likely that there was a definitive beginning to time. It makes more sense to believe there is an unmoved mover, an uncaused cause who is outside the standard conception of cause and effect, upon which all of existence depends, who by necessity kickstarted this thing we call life. We Christians and other theists call this being God, and given the nature of existence, the theistic conception of God seems to have a lot of explanatory power.
I once saw an atheist philosopher posit “Nature” as his necessary being and uncaused cause. I’m not sure he really defined what “Nature” is. Is it personal? Does it have a will? If so, “Nature” sounds a lot like God. Or is it just the laws of nature? How likely does it seem that impersonal laws of nature would exist outside the standard line of cause and effect, would start an interdependent world that evolved into creatures that feel and decide, much less human beings who have such high level intellect, emotions, and will? Creatures like human beings seem probable if they are the creation of a God who has mind, emotions, and a will, but to have these kinds of creatures produced by the impersonal, non-willing laws of nature? That seems quite unlikely.
Can secular humanists break out of an infinite regression of causes in their understandings of origins? If not, it seems likely that secular humanists will never be able to be anything but agnostic when it comes to origins. Can they believe in a sensible necessary being besides God? So far, I haven’t been convinced. I’m in favor of continued scientific exploration of origins, but it seems safe to infer that something powerful and personal, outside the standard line of cause and effect, got this whole thing going. God seems to be the most sensible candidate to me.
4. How Do You Make Sense of Widespread Religious Experience?
In other words: are all of us religious folks foolish when it comes to understanding accurately our own experiences? That seems to be the impression we get from the New Atheists, though not all in the unaffiliated camp would be so antagonistic toward religious people. While I do confess that people can go weird places when it comes to religion, people also can go weird places in their atheism (look at Stalin, Mao, & Pol Pot). Surely the intuitions and experiences of the vast majority of the people throughout history and in the world today aren’t total rubbish. According to a 2012 study, Pew Research Center found that only 16.3% of the population of the world could be classified as “Unaffiliated,” their catch-all term for atheists, agnostics, and people who don’t subscribe to a particular religious tradition. But even within that 16.3%, some of them hold spiritual beliefs “such as a belief in God or a universal spirit,” which wouldn’t jibe with most expressions of atheism. Are the majority of people in the world mistaken when it comes to reporting religious experience and belief in a spiritual reality?
What about miracles with medical documentation? A famous site of Catholic pilgrimage and devotion is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, located in the town of Lourdes in southwestern France, where there have been 70 miraculous healing reports recognized by the Catholic Church. Several of these healings have medical documentation that has been evaluated by the International Lourdes Medical Committee, “an international panel of about twenty experts in various medical disciplines and of different religious beliefs,” who comment on whether the recovery is medically explicable or not based on the evidence available. Similarly, Dr. Candy Gunther Brown of the Religion Department of Indiana University published a study in Southern Medical Journal of research conducted at a Pentecostal meeting connected with Iris Ministries in Mozambique. They obtained permission from several volunteer subjects to use medical technology to measure the subjects’ hearing and vision. They later measured these same subjects after they received healing prayer, and recorded significant improvements to the hearing and sight of several.
Further, Christianity isn’t the only religion with reports of spiritual power encounters that change people. Dr. Edith Turner (now deceased) was an anthropologist who, along with her husband Victor, was studying the Ndembu people in Zambia. An anthropological practice is to “go native” and participate in the rituals of the people you study as though you believe in them yourself, even if you don’t. Dr. Turner went native, and throughout her career reported things such as healing, clairvoyance, a witch doctor extracting a bad spirit from a sick woman’s back (it came out in the form of a gray blob), trances, and more. She became an adherent to a shamanistic form of religion in the aftermath of her experiences.
How would secular humanism respond to the majority of people in the world reporting spiritual encounters? What about the encounters that profoundly change people, and the ones with corroborating testimonies and medical documentation? I don’t deny that there are fakers out there when it comes to faith healing and spiritual power, but there are multiple stories that seem extremely difficult to controvert.
In conclusion, secular humanism struggles to articulate hope beyond the generic hopes everyone shares concerning life, with no hope after death. I have not seen it offer a believable concept of universal right and wrong, as well as a basis for a unifying morality. The origin of life is a mystery, and we cannot sensibly understand it or see an overarching purpose behind it. It is dismissive of widespread religious experience, spiritual power encounters, and documented healings. In short, I fail to see how this is a more compelling worldview than the Christian faith. In Christianity, you have strong hope, a sensible morality, a framework for understanding origins, and a loving God you can encounter by experience. Logic and argumentation alone cannot prove God, but it can lead us to to dip our toes into the waters of faith, to “taste and see that Lord is good.” My encouragement to Generation Z is to search, study, and give yourselves over to the means of grace for a few weeks. See if Jesus won’t meet you there.