The Idea of Atheism
What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks. -Inception
According to the study of rhetoric, one can never understand another’s argument until he fully understands his point of view. The basis of our beliefs, including the way we interpret morality, cause-and-effect, social order, reciprocity, existentialism, and fairness, grows to shape and define who we are. These ideas become assumptions that underlie each of our opinions, arguments, and decisions. When two people have differing assumptions about the world, confusion, cacophony, and contention arise. This type of discord is evident between many groups of people: artists versus engineers, Democrats versus Republicans, Navy SEALs versus pacifists, etc. One of the most striking differences is that between atheists and Christians.
It is amazing how pervasive one simple idea can be. To most Christians, the belief that God exists has never been questioned. Our entire lives, we have been taught to believe in and rely on the power of God. As we have practiced, reiterated, and become convicted to this belief, it has formed a foundation for everything else—our desires, our values, our priorities, and our decisions. Some of these are conscious efforts, but a larger fraction emerges effortlessly, naturally extending from that one, deeply ingrained conviction that God exists. The idea of deity is so strongly implanted that we frequently take it for granted; though it serves as a foundation for nearly every other belief, it easily passes unscrutinized in the background. It has become so commonplace in our lives that we fail to recognize it for what it is: the source of our values and our priorities.
In high school, a good friend of mine used to ask me questions about my religion. “Why don’t you smoke?” was one of them. “Why don’t you support homosexual marriage?”
“Smoking is against my religion,” I explained. “Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God; homosexual marriage is a mockery of the sacred gifts of procreation.”
He was respectful, but I could tell that he was dissatisfied, frustrated, and even a little angry, at my answers. Until a few weeks later, I didn’t understand why. Eventually, he asked me another question. “You’re so smart,” he said. “How can you believe in God?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean,” he repeated, “you’re smart. But you still believe there’s a magic man up in the sky.”
I was struck and surprised by what he had said. At first, I was a little offended. Not only had he spoken blasphemously, but he had also insinuated that I was childish. However, the more I pondered his question, the more I realized that he hadn’t been meaning to offend me. Actually, he was genuinely confused.
Atheists, like Christians, have been formed by a singular idea, which extends to all parts of who they are. Though the integration process is the same, the idea couldn’t be more different. To them, God does not exist. Because this is their underlying belief, they do not understand God in the same way that Christians do. To many of them, “God” is similar to Santa Clause: a mysterious, magical being who somehow rewards people for good behavior. Of course, to an atheist, such a person does not exist. By extension, in order to believe in Him, a person would have to be either ignorant or self-deceiving.
It is no wonder that my friend was frustrated, and even angry, with the way I had answered his questions. “Smoking is against my religion,” I had said. “Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God…” From my experience, God was never wrong. The philosophies of men changed with every generation, but God’s truth was eternal. From my friend’s perspective, however, God did not exist. To say that something was “against my religion” or that “God” had instructed me to do something, was to say that I was setting aside my own rationale to conform with the ignorant traditions of parents, grandparents, etc. In my friend’s mind, religion was a lie. In fact, he once told me, he believed that it had been established by people who were hungry for power. “If you can get people to believe that their salvation depends on obeying you,” he explained, “—but, of course, you’ll say ‘God’—you can get them to do whatever you want.”
As a Christian, I was always taught that God communicates to the heart and that I should rely on my feelings to understand His will. My friend, to whom there was no God, tended to be more intellectually-focused. As I learned to examine the world from his perspective, I realized that I must have seemed very naïve. It was as if he had asked me, “How do you ‘know’ that God exists?” and I had responded, “Because I feel it! I feel that He loves me.” To my friend, an intellectually-driven atheist, my feelings were irrelevant. He had asked me an intellectual question, and I had given an emotional answer.
On Facebook the other day, I saw a picture with the caption, “How do you explain a rainbow if there is no God?” Again, the argument was largely emotionally-charged; the author meant, “The beauty of the world strengthens my testimony that God created all things.” His specific question, however, disregarded what science has already explained. When water particles condense in the air, they behave as prisms, filtering and refracting white light. Once separated, the light settles according to wavelength in adherence with the familiar color spectrum—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. The author, who had merely intended to express admiration, unwittingly discounted the value of science. To many atheists, science is a nigh-religious endeavor. When a person—especially a Christian—so brazenly overlooks its value, it may be difficult to maintain tolerant feelings.
Currently, relations between Christians and Atheists are strained. A large portion of the problem lies in communication. When my friend asked me why I choose not to smoke, disapproved of homosexual marriage, and decidedly believed in a Creator, my responses seemed inadequate to him because they were not in terms of things that he valued. Instead of mentioning my feelings or referring to the authority of my Church, a better approach would have been to step away from emotional reasoning and explain, in scientific terms, the cause and effect that led to my convictions. In the end, he still probably wouldn’t have agreed with me—but, in the very least, he would better understand my arguments and be more inclined to respect my decisions.