Answering Atheism

Atheism is experiencing a resurgence. And that’s not a bad thing. We have experienced at least three different forms of atheist resurgence in the past century, and the current one is refreshing by comparison to the others.

One was the literally militant atheism that took hold in communist regimes in the middle of the 20th century. Expressions of faith in God were criminalized and adherents were persecuted. Some believers boldly stood their ground — many more didn’t. The ranks of the faithful were decimated by violence and fear.

A second form of atheism is the apathetic agnosticism that has prevailed in much of the Western hemisphere and in America to this day. If this apathetic agnosticism isn’t strictly atheism, it might as well be. It holds that it doesn’t matter much whether there is a God or if he doesn’t really exist.

In apathetic-agnostic societies, religion is a curiosity at best. Those who are willing to express their belief in God are considered fanatics. To mention God at a social gathering is a faux pas, and to mention him in a business meeting in anything but a joking way is almost unthinkable.

A third form is argumentative atheism. This was the form of atheism that prevailed in the world of the 19th century. It was an atheism that didn’t seek to destroy believers but vigorously sought to dissuade them. Questions about God were bandied about in universities and in public lectures. Poets, philosophers, novelists and playwrights all had their say.

Today’s rise in atheistic literature looks most like this third kind of atheism — but with important differences from the days when George Bernard Shaw and Charles Darwin were holding forth in public halls.

Back then, thinkers spoke a common language, based on rules of reason and logic that were widely shared. Ironically, the language of reason that Catholic scholastics perfected allowed these atheists to make their cases.

Today, there are many new works assailing religious belief, but they don’t have the academic vigor of the 19th century scholars. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great rely on arguments that religious scholars heard and discredited long ago, as Alister McGrath points out in our “Inperson” interview this week.

But something else distinguishes today’s argumentative atheists from those of yesteryear. In the 18th and 19th centuries, atheists were rebels. They could point to a time in their audiences’ memory when their ideas would have been forbidden in polite society.

Atheists today also try to hark back to a time when their ideas weren’t tolerated by a society that was afraid to be challenged. But to do so, they have to refer to discredited tall tales that were given their form by anti-Catholic propagandists. Look up the truth about the Spanish Inquisition and Galileo’s trials at to see what we mean. In addition to the real scandals of Christians — scandals that Pope John Paul II felt compelled to apologize for in the year 2000 — the telling and re-telling of these dark legends has been a quick way for argumentative atheists to establish their credibility.

Christians should relearn the arguments for belief. McGrath’s book is a good place to start, along with such classics as C.S. Lewis’ Miracles and Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man.

But we should also take a cue from the atheists’ playbook and begin telling not tall tales, but the facts of the persecutions by atheists that began in the 20th century and continue to this day in China and elsewhere.

We should point to the new Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C., as a fresh reminder of the death toll that militant atheists piled around themselves when they were given the chance.

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression by Stephane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panne, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek and Jean-Louis Margolin lists by country the number of people murdered under communist regimes. Cal Thomas recently cited the numbers:

Killed were some 65 million (and counting) in China; 20 million in the Soviet Union, 2 million (and counting) in North Korea, 2 million in Cambodia, 1.7 million in Africa, 1.5 million in Afghanistan, 1 million in Vietnam, 1 million in communist Eastern Europe and 150,000 in Latin America.

Today, believers are the besieged “rebels” whose position has been persecuted and threatened. We should tell and retell the stories that show the ultimate end that atheistic systems reach.

Chesterton once said that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” We should welcome the resurgence of argumentative atheism. It’s a good chance to remind the world that we can now say atheism has been tried — and found to be wanting, difficult and destructive.