Historically, one of the most attractive features of atheism has been its claim to stark realism. No matter how unappealing a godless universe may turn out to be, atheists claim to be committed to adhering to the truth at all costs. However, in this essay I would like to show that at the very heart of atheism are several extremely unexpected paradoxes, areas in which atheism is shown to be in tension with a commitment to realism and a life consistent with truth. I’ll work out these paradoxes in three areas: truth-seeking, moral reflection, and moral motivation.
One of the most interesting paradoxes inherent to atheism involves the intrinsic value of truth-seeking. All of us seem naturally inclined as human beings to seek the truth for its own sake, not merely for what benefits the truth can provide. For instance, if someone told us “Believe this religion not because it is true, but because it will improve your marriage and help your career,” most of us would be revolted. And rightly so. But herein lies the first problem: it is very hard for atheists to explain why seeking the truth is intrinsically good or why we are obligated to seek it.
Most atheistic theories of morality appeal to human flourishing as the ultimate good. On this view, what is good is whatever leads to human flourishing. And while that definition does solve some problems, it leads to the very difficult conclusion that truth and truth-seeking are not ultimate goods. Indeed, if seeking the truth on any given subject would diminish human flourishing, then seeking that truth would be evil; we would be morally obligated to avoid or suppress knowledge of that truth. A simple example is an elderly Christian woman on her deathbed who faces death joyfully because she believes she is going to be with God and her dead loved ones. Assuming for the sake of argument that atheism is true, is it good for her to seek to know the truth of atheism? It would seem that the answer is no. Learning that atheism is true would only make her miserable without providing tangible good (i.e. flourishing) to anyone else. Moreover, it seems that if she were to accost a passing atheist with the question “Is atheism true after all?”, that atheist would be morally obligated either to lie to her or at least to steer her away from the truth of atheism, lest he lead her into misery.
Examples can be easily multiplied, but the essence of the problem is that no atheist can claim that truth-seeking is an intrinsic good or a moral obligation. As a Christian, I can affirm that truth is good and morally obligatory because God loves the truth and commands us to seek it. But if an atheist were to urge me to throw off my religious delusions and embrace the truth of atheism, I would respond “Why? I am happy as a Christian and Christianity has made me into a more loving, compassionate, and generous person. If Christianity is true, then I understand why I am obligated to seek the truth. But if atheism is true, why am I obligated to find out?”
Another paradox has to do with deliberate, sustained moral reflection on injustice and evil in the world. All of us recognize that the world is suffused with human misery. But many of us give relatively little thought to suffering until it absolutely forces itself into our consciousness. Why is this? Self-protection. We rightly recognize that if our hearts were truly moved by every hurt, every loss, and every tragedy that we witnessed, they would break. Although we all recognize that empathy is one of the greatest moral virtues, we recoil at any level of empathy that threatens our own happiness and emotional stability. That is why we vacation in luxury resorts well away from the slums, prefer romantic comedies to documentaries, or inure ourselves to violence until we can shrug off images of the maimed and weeping on television.
The paradox of atheism is that the atheist, while usually committed to living a life consistent with reality, cannot bear reality as he believes it actually is. If all of the suffering and horror of this world is truly pointless, if there will be no redemption, no justice, no healing, and no restoration, then it is emotionally almost impossible to stare reality in the face on a daily basis. The best possible outcome is to live a life of hopeless, existential despair. But it is far more likely that we will simply build a thick, protective wall of fantasy around us, constructed of hobbies, games, sports, fashion, or romance as a barrier against truths we would rather not face.
Now I am certainly not implying that avoidance of the hard realities of suffering and evil are characteristic only of atheists. Christians face precisely the same temptations. The difference is that Christianity offers resources to face even the worst parts of reality without flinching and with assured hope. If Christianity is true, then even the most devastating horrors of this existence will be redeemed. In fact, Christianity claims that the greatest tragedy ever to occur in human history -the torture and murder of God’s Son- was the very means which God used to save the world. So while the atheist can only preserve his emotional stability by either hiding from reality as he believes it actually is or by hardening himself to it, the Christian gains emotional stability, empathy and hope as he exposes himself to and embraces reality as he believes it actually is. Indeed, Christian spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible study can be seen in this light: reminding ourselves of reality as it actually is and then seeking to conform our thoughts and behavior to it.
One final paradox has to do with moral motivation: what are the effects of atheistic belief on our desire to behave morally? Most atheists adamantly affirm that they do not need God to do good. In this I agree: we do not need to believe that God exists in order to recognize that love, justice, and compassion are good or to behave morally. These values can be important to atheists as well as to Christians. So here, I am not asking whether atheists can do good. Rather, I am focusing only on the impact that atheism has on our moral motivation.
If atheism is true, then the universe is one without ultimate moral meaning, significance, and accountability. When you die, you rot. When everyone you love dies,they rot. Two hundred years hence, no one -not even your own descendants- will remember you. And a few billion years from now, when the universe undergoes heat death and all the stars burn out, none of your choices will have made even the slightest difference.
Let us imagine that we spent one hour each day reminding ourselves of this reality. Now let’s imagine we face a moral choice. The opportunity to cheat on a test. The chance to make a little extra money in a slightly dishonest way. The ability to cheat on our boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse when we know it will not be detected. Or, given the last section, let’s imagine making major life decisions. Which career to choose: one that is lucrative or one that will benefit others at our own expense? Which house to buy: one that is large and expensive, or a modest one that would allow us to give generously? If we have spent the previous month reminding ourselves that our choices have no eternal moral consequences, are we more or less likely to resist our temptations and make the morally right choice?
Let me again emphasize that I am not asking whether the atheist can still value morality or engage in moral behavior. I am taking atheists at their word when they insist that these things are important to them. I am instead asking a purely psychological question: would reflection on the ultimate meaninglessness, transience, and unimportance of your moral actions in a godless universe make you more likely to resist temptation? I think the answer is obviously no. Hence we have a third paradox. To the atheist who really does value moral behavior, it seems he is obligated to avoid thinking about the implications of his atheism, lest it weaken his moral resolve. The atheist gains moral motivation only by hiding from reality as he actually believes it is. In contrast, the Christian worldview emphasizes that every one of our moral decisions have eternal implications, that every one of our actions can bring joy or grief to our Creator, and that we will one day be held accountable for our whole lives. So the Christian gains moral motivation by reflecting on reality as he believes it actually is.
In conclusion, I want to summarize the paradoxes I believe are inherent to the atheism.
- Truth-seeking. If a truth-loving God doesn’t exist, then truth-seeking is neither intrinsically good nor morally obligatory. Therefore, paradoxically, the Christian has grounds to urge all people to seek the truth and to claim it is their moral obligation to seek the truth whereas the atheist has no grounds to urge others to seek the truth or to claim it is their moral obligation to do so.
- Moral reflection. Suffering and evil in the world is so prolific and horrendous that we instinctively avoid thinking about it to preserve our happiness. If Christianity is true, then all suffering and evil will one day be destroyed and healed. If atheism is true, suffering and evil are pointless and will never be rectified. So, paradoxically, a Christian gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering by reflecting on reality (as he perceives it) while an atheist gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering only by ignoring reality (as he perceives it).
- Moral motivation. If Christianity is true, then all of our moral choices have tremendous, eternal significance. If atheism is true, then none of our moral choices have any eternal significance. So, paradoxically, the Christian gains the motivation to act morally by reflecting on reality (as he perceives it) while the atheist gains the motivation to act morally only by ignoring reality (as he perceives it).
None of these observations imply that atheism is necessarily false or that Christianity is true. But I hope that they do cause atheists some serious reflection. At least in these three areas, there is a conflict between the general perception that atheists live a life of realism, facing the truth about reality squarely, and the philosophical and psychological reality of atheism itself. In contrast, Christianity not only provides a basis for the idea that truth is of intrinsic value, but provides resources to enable the Christian to conform his beliefs and behavior to the truth. I would like to gently suggest that those who value truth-seeking and realism should consider whether atheism can justify or support either of these ideals.
Neil Shenvi is a member of the Summit Church and works as a research scientist in the Department of Chemistry at Duke University. His full bio and testimony, along with more of his writings and apologetics resources, can be found here on Neil’s personal website.