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In Defense of Atheists

The Case for Atheists Surian Soosay

Surian Soosay

Rachel Lu - published on 06/05/14

At least they're honest about rejecting religion - unlike the spiritually lukewarm majority.

Does America need more respect for atheism? That may seem a funny question coming from a Catholic, but hear me out.

I know a lot of atheists. In the academy, you meet plenty. Many have chips on their shoulders, because they’re convinced that America hates them. They can actually make a pretty strong case for this. Christianity may not exactly be hip nowadays, but atheism isn’t either.

If you want to run for office, you may not openly declare yourself to be an atheist. You may call yourself “nondenominational” and somehow never to make it to church. In fact, though, it’s probably better if you do go to church. Despite their discomfort with serious religion, even political liberals appear to regard church attendance as a moral positive, and a recent study showed that self-professed liberals are especially likely to exaggerate their level of religious observance in social settings.

Liberal journalists sometimes try to use this as evidence that our society is really pro-religion, and that complaints about infringement of religious liberty are just evidence of paranoia and attention-seeking. Actually, though, there’s no reason why society can’t marginalize (open) atheists and (serious) religious believers alike. What we really have today is a triumph of the lukewarm.

Religion, for many Americans, today serves as a kind of character varnish. It has no serious role in telling us how we should live, but it shows civic-spiritedness and a general goodwill towards men. If you want to be a popular public figure, it’s best to be nominally affiliated with some church but not to take it too seriously. Alternatively, you might formally profess a serious faith while ignoring its teachings every time they conflict with the trendy political and social views of your day.

Against this backdrop, atheists openly proclaim that there is no God. This is distasteful, in the first place, because it gives the game away. Plenty of modern people have de facto abandoned God, but making it official is just uncomfortable. It gives the lukewarm middle unwelcome glimpses of the extent to which they really have walked away from the beliefs and traditions that gave meaning to the lives of their ancestors. It’s far more pleasant to think of ourselves as retaining those traditions, but in a “more nuanced” way. Atheists make it harder to hold up that pretense.

Atheists also press the possibility that metaphysics might matter. Their claim to be more thoughtful and reflective than the rest of us is in many ways just a conceit, but if the control group is comprised of what Christian Smith has termed “Moral Therapeutic Deists” (people who profess religious faith, but view God as a kind of vacuous teddy-bear figure who just wants us to be nice to each other), they may actually have a point. It takes more integrity to admit that God has no role in your life than to pretend like he does for appearances’ sake. Even from the perspective of faith, we might have a kind of admiration for the person who admits that he doesn’t serve the one true God, just as we admire the alcoholic who finally owns up to this identity.

There is a difference, of course: confessed alcoholics are generally trying to change, whereas atheists are often proud of their godlessness. And it would be easier to love them if they weren’t always engaging in juvenile antics, such as this latest attempt to have “In God We Trust” removed from American currency. (Get over it, atheists. I assure you, this motto is not doing much to inspire trust in God.) Too often atheists are as philosophically facile as they are breezily superior, in Richard Dawkins-esque style.

That, however, is all the more reason to give atheists more of a platform. If, as I believe, secular materialism is the great spiritual enemy of our age, we don’t want it lurking in the disreputable shadows. Better to coax it out into the public square where we can do battle openly and joyfully. As its most self-aware proponents, atheists give us the best chance to engage in that spirited struggle. Some, given a philosophically respectable opposition, may find themselves convinced. But even if that doesn’t happen, onlookers may be inspired to leave behind their lukewarm complicity with perdition to seek more fitting spiritual food.  

God tells us in Revelation 3.16 that he will spew the lukewarm from his mouth. Living in a lukewarm age, it may be time for the “hot” and “cold” extremes to develop a greater respect for one another, in the interests of fighting this common enemy.

Rachel Luteaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and writes for Crisis Magazine and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.

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