We’re used to Christian apologists trying to explain the logic of their faith — and atheists offering rebuttals that amount to “Christianity? Logic? HA!”
One of the more infamous books of that genre is I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek. It was one of those books that I had to read with a red pen next to me, just so I could mark up all the errors. (It was slightly less challenging than a mid-week New York Times crossword puzzle.)
So when I heard Geisler, this time with Daniel J. McCoy, had written another book, I had to check it out. A new challenge!
Their book, out today, is called The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw: Exposing Conflicting Beliefs (Baker Books, 2014) and it focuses on the supposed hypocrisy of atheists.
In the (abridged-for-space) excerpt below, the authors write about the problem with atheists who criticize the idea of submission.
(Note: I don’t normally post excerpts from Christian books — certainly ones that contain ideas I strongly disagree with — but I thought I would do so in this case because the topic concerns atheists directly.)
What starts badly enough, as favor toward the humans of earth, poisons into favoritism toward the people of God. As [Sam] Harris puts it, “There is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death.” Atheist magician Penn Jillette says simply, “Believing there’s no God stops me from being solipsistic [entirely absorbed with one’s self].” According to [Christopher] Hitchens, their salvation claim is solipsistic: “How much vanity must be concealed — not too effectively at that — in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan?” Says Harris, their gratitude is solipsistic: “It is time we recognized the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. It is time we acknowledged how disgraceful it is for the survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God.” Even the notion of sin, according to [Bertrand] Russell, is solipsistic: “Self-importance, individual or generic, is the source of most of our religious beliefs. Even sin is a conception derived from self-importance.” Hitchens explains, “‘There but for the grace of God,’ said John Bradford in the sixteenth century, on seeing wretches led to execution, ‘go I.’ What this apparently compassionate observation really means — not that it really ‘means’ anything — is, ‘There by the grace of God goes someone else.'”
It is our aim now to demonstrate, respectfully and without overstatement, that the atheist basically overturns the tables he has just set up. We just observed that the atheist repudiates the concepts of submission to and special favor from a divinity. Yet consider the following passage by Russell, out of his celebrated “A Free Man’s Worship”: “In this lies man’s true freedom: in determination to worship only the God created by our own love of the good, to respect only the heaven which inspires the insight of our best moments.” To thus call Russell a “worshiper” is probably a misinterpretation, yet no nonbeliever could deny that this patristic atheist was advocating some form of submission — submission not to God but to that which is created by our loftiest humanistic ideals. Similarly, the Humanist Manifesto 2000 claims, “As humanists we urge today, as in the past, that humans not look beyond themselves for salvation. We alone are responsible for our own destiny, and the best we can do is to muster our intelligence, courage, and compassion to realize our highest aspirations.” Although at first this declaration appears to denounce all forms of submission, it is truly a call to submission — to submit “our intelligence, courage, and compassion” to “our highest aspirations.” The aim is a uniting under our highest aspirations. We submit not as the loftiest creation of God’s hands but to the loftiest creation of ours. In other words, our freedom lies not in choosing not to submit so much as in choosing what to submit to. Submission is not the problem; rather it is to whom or to what one will submit. [Richard] Dawkins suggests a hypothetical:
Whether by detecting prime numbers or by some other means, imagine that SETI does come up with unequivocal evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, followed, perhaps, by a massive transmission of knowledge and wisdom… How should we respond? A pardonable reaction would be something akin to worship, for any civilization capable of broadcasting a signal over such an immense distance is likely to be greatly superior to ours. Even if that civilization is not more advanced than ours at the time of transmission, the enormous distance between us entitles us to calculate that they must be millennia ahead of us by the time the message reaches us.
Why is submission pardonable, necessary, perhaps even virtuous toward them but not to God? According to Dawkins, it’s a matter of whether or not the object of submission exists:
In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods?… The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way.
But is it merely a matter of whether or not the object of submission exists? Dawkins is obviously right that a nonexistent God is unworthy of our submission. Even submission accompanied by a certain worshipfulness is unproblematic in itself. It is even pardonable to submit to what has become godlike, only not to God. Submission is not the problem; God as object is.
So their repudiation of submission is half-repudiated.
We are not necessarily crying “Contradiction!” Just as a believer can wonder at how man is, in the words of Blaise Pascal, the “pride and refuse of the universe,” the atheist can affirm man as on equal footing with his evolutionary brethren and yet worthy of special dignity. Both can be true in their own sense. The inconsistency lies in the hypocrisy of the rebuke: “How dare you call me dignified; it insults my dignity.” One could argue that their name choice beats any religious self-designation in terms of grandiosity: “We [brights] are, in fact, the moral backbone of the nation: brights take their civic duties seriously precisely because they don’t trust God to save humanity from its follies.” We are not calling atheism religious. We are merely pointing out that special favor is not the problem. Apparently we humans can recognize dignity and even bestow dignity on ourselves, but God can do neither. Again, the problem is not favor toward humanity; the problem is God as source. To sum up, atheists want neither submission to nor favor from God, even though both seem to exhaust the possibilities in dealing with a God. Moreover, since neither submission nor favor seems to be the problem, the problem must be God.
The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw: Exposing Conflicting Beliefs is available on Amazon beginning today. I suggest buying a red pen while you’re at it.
(The excerpt is used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group.)