Atheism Gets a Facelift?

  • Sumo

Today (5/26/10) I encountered, while online, an article bearing this title: “Does Atheism Need to be Rebranded?”

I wasn’t sure what to expect, having come to this article from a link on another site. But the topic was indeed atheism, and specifically one devotee’s campaign to improve atheism’s public image.

The reporter focused the views of a visual arts student in New York who operates a website called Illuminated Atheist  ( She described his site as a “media outlet and community for the modern, friendly atheist,” featuring “essays and artwork that explore the best aspects of non-belief.”

You can find the piece here.

The article, which originally appeared on, included this statement from the student/proponent of atheism: “Atheism is quite often mistakenly seen as a cold and distant world, rather than the beautiful, important, and engaging philosophy that it is. Viewing the world in a rational manner, as we understand it through science, in no way removes the significance of life or the lives humans live, rather it gives us understanding and appreciation.”

Then the reporter chimes in with her own endorsement: “Does atheism need to be rebranded? Yes, it probably does. There’s the misconception that atheism robs the world of wonder. And while it’s hard to argue about what’s subjectively ‘wonderful,’ plenty of people love discovering the naturalistic explanations science provides. I think the logic of evolution and natural selection is a beautiful thing, and more inspiring, even, than an inflexible religious account that doesn’t allow much room for further inquiry.”

The message comes across clear. Atheism has too long been wrongly cast as “cold,” unengaging, uninspiring, and unattractive—and hence held in unjust disrepute. The time has come to topple these unfair portrayals and let atheism’s compelling truths win the adherents it deserves. That is to say, drawing believers away from their faith.

At the time I encountered the article, 24 people had posted comments on it, and all 24 had given the article a thumbs up.

Maybe this puts me out of step, but I won’t be giving a thumbs up of my own.

I am a believer. I was once a nonbeliever myself, having fallen away from the faith in adulthood. But I studied and reasoned my way (back) into belief.

I know the sentiments atheists embrace. I embraced them myself. But they are not everything they seem.

Let’s consider, for one thing, the counterpointing of science against theism. That’s how we see the debate cast so often today. Faith versus science. It wasn’t always so. The faith-vs.-science dichotomy is a relatively recent trend, in terms of human history. Until as recently as the 19th century, science was not deemed a rival to religion, at least not in any serious sense. Philosophy, maybe. But not science—Copernicus and Galileo notwithstanding.

Regular readers of my work know that I have been a fan of the long-running ABC-television show Lost. The plotline in that series has made much of a competition between two main characters, John Locke and Dr. Jack Shepherd, who are at one point described as, respectively, a “man of faith” and a “man of science.”

That’s how the competition for human beings’ hearts and minds is framed today. Not only does popular culture treat science as the necessary, even obvious, alternative to faith, but the average noncommittal human being, in his common discourse, has come to pose the issue in those terms—that one either rests on faith, or rests on science.

But what does it really mean, to confront faith with a (presumably alternative) option known as science? We cannot take it to mean that Christians do not believe in science. All individuals in modern civilized society are more than accepting of science—we are dependent on it for our livelihoods and we observe it and put our “faith” (in the sense of trust) in it daily. So “science” in that sense cannot be what is meant here. Rather, we surmise that the atheist who speaks of science as an alternative to faith is speaking of science as, potentially, an answer to life’s ultimate questions. He is speaking of science as something from which to obtain answers—answers that the Christian likely would not accept—at least not in the way the atheist accepts them. If we are not dealing in such terms, then the whole question disintegrates into meaninglessness.

The atheist thinks of science as his viable alternative to the faith that comprises the believer’s mindset, in that, for the atheist, science will be the determinant that will yield whatever answers are to come his way, if answers are to be unearthed at all. How did we get here? Is there meaning to life? Is there life hereafter? Were we created by a divine being or did we simply come into existence as some kind of inexorable physical process that had no divine origins? The atheist might harbor doubts as to whether these questions will be answered, but he is convinced that if they are to be answered at all, they will be answered by science, not by any form of religion.

I hope I have stated the situation fairly. I have tried to make the question as clear as possible before assaying to answer it.

I believe that the faith-vs.-science proposition, if/when it is seriously posed before any individual, translates into a logical fallacy known as a “false dichotomy.” A dichotomy is (to cite the definition from the online source “any division into two mutually exclusive, opposed, or contradictory groups.”

But to be more specific, this fallacy in question belongs to the class of false dichotomies known as “false opposites.”

Wikipedia defines “false opposites” as dichotomies that occur “when two extremes or opposites are presented in an argument, when in reality only one of those choices presented is, in actuality, physically possible. This usually occurs when a physically possible opposite gains an opposite through the human desire to constantly have a balance (through the creation of false opposites).”

It’s not that faith doesn’t exist. It’s not that science doesn’t exist. It’s that science, when placed in opposition to faith as a viable alternative to faith, disqualifies itself, by its own definition.

This might be better observed by looking at a different example of false opposites. Let’s consider the longstanding distinction made between the “sacred” world and the “secular” world. I submit that the same fallacy occurs there.

Here’s how defines “secular”: “of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal.”

Temporal, of course, means not eternal. It refers to that which is governed by time.

The way those two terms—sacred and secular—are used in common discourse, they stand for opposite poles of daily life. Perhaps, in many people’s minds, they stand for a two-partite division of all human affairs. Everything we encounter in our lives can be placed in the “sacred” realm or the “secular” realm. This makes for a handy way of making distinctions.

The secular-vs.-sacred dichotomy is so ingrained in most people’s minds today that people do not  trouble themselves over questions of its aptness.

But notice this: The sacred world does not define itself in terms of its differences with the secular world. In fact, the sacred world—the world of religion, of faith, of eternity and ultimate meanings—knows itself to be inseparable from the so-called “secular world,” a world that has sought a kind of separateness that it might know itself.

All things are part of God’s world, and all affairs—not just divine but human—are God’s affairs—sacred affairs. So the sacred does not differentiate itself from the secular. It is only the secular that differentiates itself from the sacred.

We see this in the way that the words are defined. We saw the definition of “secular,” above. Its entire meaning derives from an “all but.” All but the religious. All but the sacred. All but the eternal. It defines itself in negative fashion. The sacred world, however, defines itself without any regard for the secular, or even for the idea that such a thing as the secular could exist.

From this standpoint, then, the “secular” is a false opposite to the “sacred.”

We could probably, if we tried, find some question upon which the sacred is a false opposite to the secular. But such a question would not be one of ultimate meanings, and that is the subject that occupies us here.

In some of the sermons I have given, I have tried to establish in my hearer’s minds a deficiency that attaches to the word “secular,” in its popular use. I say this: “The secular world can be defined as the whole world, with eternity backed out of it.”

The whole world, with eternity backed out of it. So if someone in the world has decided that he lives by a purely secular worldview, then, whether he realizes it or not, his worldview will never bring him an avenue to eternity, nor a hope for achieving it. He might recognize that he has shunned religion, but he still might shelter some notion that somehow, in his journey through life, he will encounter some truth that will point him toward ultimate happiness, or at least some kind of grasp of the meaning of life.

But these things will always evade him, and they will do so because his only world—the secular world—is by definition a world that excludes these things.

This is what I mean by the idea of a false opposite. When we look at the secular world as opposed to the sacred world, we are not looking at two equal-but-opposite ways of answering ultimate questions. We are not looking at that because the secular world has taken itself out of such considerations.

Now, I submit that the same kind of false opposite pertains when we turn to the issue of faith-vs.-science. It is not so immediately clear, but it is there. Science defines itself rather the same as the secular world defines itself. Science defines itself more by what it is not than by what it is. Science restricts itself to only observable or measurable or detectable phenomena.

Science insists on confining itself to the five senses and to logic, while eschewing any measures that touch upon the metaphysical, the spiritual, the moral, the ethical, the ineffable, the eternal, the ethereal—any realm not reachable by the senses.

There is something unreasonable, illogical, in putting science up against faith, because science exempts itself from such considerations. It has always exempted itself from such considerations.

I raise these matters not so much because I think I might change the mind of any confirmed atheist. I fully expect that the confirmed atheist will go on shunning Christianity and other forms of religion. I’m not hopeful of swaying him by this discussion.

He may say that Christianity is false. He may say that science disproves Christianity’s accounts of the world. He may say that such disproving convinces him that Christianity is not worth following.

All that is possible, maybe even likely, for him. But if the atheist rejects Christianity and then says he is getting from science what he did not get from Christianity, he is only fooling himself. Science itself disavows such conclusions.

What I am more concerned about than the confirmed atheist is the unconfirmed, seeking individual who is torn between two choices. I am concerned that this individual not be told that his choice is between faith and science. It was never between faith and science.

The choice for him, and for anyone, is, first of all, between faith and disbelief. We all make that choice, whether we think we have or not. Only then does the nonbeliever take his solace (or not) from science. But whatever he takes from science is only what science has to give. And it is clear that science will have nothing of the most important questions in life.

The divide between atheism and theism has never changed. What the atheist gives up—and every atheist gives up something, whether he admits it or not—has never changed. It was said as well 181 years ago as it will ever be said. In his opening remarks of his 1829 debate with the atheist and social reformer Robert Owen, on the topic of “the Evidences of Christianity,” Alexander Campbell spoke these words:

“It is not,” Campbell said, “the ordinary affairs of this life, the fleeting and transitory concerns of today or tomorrow: it is not whether we shall live all freemen or die all slaves; it is not the momentary affairs of empire or the evanescent charms of dominion—nay, indeed, all these are but the toys of childhood, the sportive excursions of youthful fancy, contrasted with the questions, What is man? Whence came he? Whither does he go? Is he a mortal or an immortal being? Is he doomed to spring up like grass, bloom like a flower, drop his seed into the earth and die forever? Is there no object of future hope? No God—no heaven—no exalted society to be known or enjoyed? Are all the great and illustrious men and women who have lived before we were born wasted and gone forever? After a few short days are fled, when the enjoyments and toils of life are over, when our relish for social enjoyment and our desires for returning to the fountain of life are most acute, must we hang our heads and close our eyes in the desolating and appalling prospect of never opening them again—of never tasting the sweets for which a state of discipline and trial has so well fitted us? These are the awful and sublime merits of the question at issue! It is not what we shall eat, nor what we shall drink, unless we shall be proved to be mere animals; but it is, Shall we live or die forever?”

Those “desolating and appalling prospects” are the starting points, the first principles, of the atheist. If he wants to “rebrand” atheism, so as to pull more believers into the ranks of the lost, then so be it, but I plan to have nothing of it. If he feels he is friendly and happy, then let him be friendly and happy. But I maintain that he will not sway me by such friendliness or signs of happiness, to the detriment of my faith and the loss of all that God has stored up for me.

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