There are two kinds of atheist: a rational atheist, whose disbelief in God is grounded on some rational reason he can articulate, and an irrational atheist, who hates a God in which he allegedly does not believe, grounded on various unseemly appetites emotions and passions passing with furious clamor through the echoing emptiness of his brain: anything from an infatuation with sin to a hunger for fads to a hatred of moral reality to an overdose of self-sanctimony. A rational atheist is one with whom one can have a rational discussion, and be a dispassionate as a judge in a courtroom. An irrational atheist has something wrong with his brain, and he belongs on a psychiatric couch.
I have noticed of late the rational atheists are disappearing and the irrational atheists blooming, and fear I know the cause.
In my youth, one could find from time to time an honest and thoughtful man who, not believing in God, could give a rational and honest reason for his disbelief.
He could say it would be a logical contradiction to believe that an omnipotent and benevolent creator could permit evil a place in his creation, since if the creator lacks the power to prevent it, the creator is not omnipotent, or lacks the motive, not benevolent.
Or the rational atheist could say an omniscient being possessing or bestowing free will was paradoxical, since only the acts of an unfree will can be foreknown.
The rational atheist could say that natural causes were sufficient to explain the cosmos and man’s role in it, so no inquiry into supernatural causes is needed.
Or a rational atheist could say that Christian theology was essentially the same as pagan mythology, and since even Christians admit the myths of other religions are manmade falsehoods, there is no rational way to defend the Christian myth as true while condemning all others false.
Finally, a rational atheist could point out various inconsistencies in the Bible or in Church tradition, or enormities committed by followers of Christ, to lend weight to any doubts one might entertain in taking the Bible or the Church as a trustworthy authority or trustworthy witness. This final argument is not meant to prove atheism is true, merely that skepticism toward Christian claims is justified.
I regret to report that, so far in my career as a Christian, not one of these rational atheist arguments has been encountered by me.
Indeed, one can read a more coherent argument against the existence of God in Thomas Aquinas, where he states the opposing position he intends to disprove, than you can find in any modern atheist tract.
Instead one encounters arguments not worth refuting, illiterate blither about Christianity and Science being at war, or ahistorical nonsense about the Jihad and the Crusades being somehow equivalent.
Instead one encounters spokesmen for atheism not worth speaking to. There was one fellow, a credentialed academic, who offered to debate with me. I was wary, but he agreed to my condition that he vow to avoid personal attacks, and so I thought that, for once, I would get some intellectual exercise against an opponent in my weight class. How wrong I was. His vow lasted not even through the first exchange, when he discovered that I did not believe what his bigoted idea of slack-jawed yokel Christianity said I should believe.
The fellow – out of courtesy I withhold his name – was unable mentally to process the idea that I was not adhering to the script, and so he insisted, yes, insisted that I believed what his script said I should believe. When I politely informed him that I believed what I said I believed, and not whatever make-believe he made believe I believed, he scolded me. He immediately brought out the whole infantile panoply of sneering condescension, mock astonishment, mockery, raillery and accusation, used by mean of limited intellectual means after they lose an argument. In this case, we had barely started the argument: I merely deviated from the script, and he could not cope. So much for his vow of civility.
And this jackanapishness is not the rare exception issuing from teenaged pens, but the mainstream of atheist apologetics from grown men, journalists and academics. The modern books promoting atheism are simply unconvincing, illogical, petulant, juvenile and jejune bilge water.
What happened to the rational atheist? Where did he go?
What has happened in the intervening years between Colonel Ingersol and Thomas Paine, Voltaire and Edward Gibbon, famous skeptics who made rational and trenchant arguments against Christianity, men of hefty intellect and solid learning, able to brandish a pen like a rapier, and this blundering band of fumble-brained bigots of the current era, who cannot articulate any argument, trenchant or otherwise, against Christianity, because they cannot argue at all, only carp and scold?
What made a whole generation of freethinkers less free and less thoughtful than their forefathers? The answer is easy to answer once one sees what the basic argument in favor of Christianity is.
According to apologist Frank Turek, the basic argument in favor of Christianity can be nicely summed in three philosophical questions, and one historical question. The historical question is whether the testimony given in the New Testament is true. The philosophical questions are whether miracles can take place; whether God exists; and whether truth is true.
A rational Christian (for, yes, there are irrational ones) approaches these questions in reverse order. He first reasons that truth must exist on the grounds that even those who deny it affirm it. A man who says “there is no truth” is proposing that statement to be accurate and honest to its subject matter, that is, he proposes the statement to be a true statement.
Of the several arguments for the existence of God, the easiest to grasp is this: in order to deduce any truths about nature, one must affirm the principle that all effects spring from causes, that is, nothing comes from nothing. Hence, saying truth exists is tantamount to saying men can reason about it, which is turn implies that cause and effect exists.
Since nothing come from nothing, no effect can arise without a cause sufficient to explain it.
Now, we call the sum total of all natural events the cosmos. The cosmos either had a beginning, or not. If it had no beginning, then all chains of cause and effect reach backward endlessly to no first cause.
But this beginningless chain of events is like supposing we could see a line of railroad cars without a first car, that is, without an engine to impart speed to the second car. We see one car pulled by the car before it, which in turn is being pulled by another before it, and we wonder why this cannot continue endlessly. Perhaps we imagine is a train track that circles the globe, with each car attached to the one in front, and the whole line is in motion; or perhaps we imagine a track reaching across an infinite flat plain with an endless line of cars rushing past. But no matter how we imagine an engineless train, if there is no engine, we cannot imagine why these cars are moving at their present speed, and not ten miles per hour more slowly. We cannot imagine why they should be moving at all.
Likewise, whether one imagines the cosmos, as the Hindu does, as an endless circle of eternally returning events, or imagines it, as the Steady State theory holds, as an endless line reaching forever back into the infinite past with no first point, one cannot imagine what defines the cosmos in its current form. Something, the current speed of the railcars, or the current situation of the universe, comes from nothing, from nowhere, for no reason. But our first principle of cause and effect rejects this.
Hence from philosophical reasoning alone, we can deduce the cosmos must have had a beginning before which was neither time nor space, matter nor energy.
Again, since no effect arises without a sufficient cause, the cause of the cosmos must be something outside the sum of all natural events, but potent enough to cause them all. What is outside nature is supernatural. The cause which gave rise to time and matter must therefore be eternal and immaterial, that is, a timeless spirit. By definition, no physical event or natural reaction prompted this cause to become a cause, hence it must have been a mental event, a decision, a deliberate act of will, a fiat. But no decision takes place absent a decider, no deliberation without a deliberation, no act of the will without an actor, no creation without a creator. Therefore this cause is a person, or, at least a being with something like a personality, a will. Outside time, this creator logically must be able to see the beginnings and ends of all things within the time he creates, hence he is properly called omniscient; and being potent enough to cause all events within the cosmos, that is, having the power to set in motion all things that require power to set them in motion, he is the source and sum of all power, hence called omnipotent.
Hence from philosophical reasoning alone, we can deduce a creator, and deduce some of his attributes (supernatural, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient) which are rightfully called divine.
From this argument we can defend Deism, the watchmaker God of the philosophers, but not the specifics of the Christian faith. That defense rests on another type of argument, an historical argument. Christianity is not a philosophy, like Deism; it makes a specific historical claim, hence philosophical reasoning absent historical reasoning is insufficient to defend it.
(This, by the way, was the point my unnamed interlocutor pretended not to understand, claiming that what I was actually and truly but secretly saying was that Christianity was based on blind unreason. When I politely denied I had said or implied any such thing, and corrected his misquotes of me, he found himself unprepared to argue against a defender of the faith armed with reason, and so he addressed all his further magniloquence to Straw-Man Wright, and none to me.)
Now, miracles we can define as divine intervention: a natural effect or event arising from a supernatural cause. If no miracles are possible by definition, we need not look into the evidence or testimony of any particular miracle. If, however, even one miracle is shown to have happened, this opens the possibility that others have as well, and therefore each reported case of an alleged miracle must be examined on the merits of the historical evidence.
But we have just defined a miracle as a natural event arising from a supernatural cause. The creation of the cosmos, by definition, must be such an event, since nature did not exist before time and matter and the sum total of nature we call the cosmos existed. Hence miracles are possible.
This leaves us with this question of the historical accuracy of the testament affirmed in the New Testament. Not being a philosophical argument, the persuasive value here depends on the weight given the evidence, and each bit of evidence must be examined prudently both in its own right and in how it fits into the historical picture, and whether any pertinent personal experience coheres with the model of the world thus presented, or contradicts it.
(A man who has seen a ghost, for example, and has no reason to doubt his senses, has an experience that coheres with at least some versions of reportedly supernatural events, but this experience does not necessarily cohere with a purely naturalistic explanation to explain away such reports, since such explanations would call him a victim of hallucination, or a fraud.)
Such a minute historical argument is far too tedious to repeat in this short column, but the conclusion of any honest examination of the record is brief enough to utter in a sentence: no one disputes the testimony of the Gospel for historical reasons, only for philosophical reasons.
No one says, for example, that since a manuscript contains a report of a miracle but also of many other anachronisms or things contradicted by other sources, that manuscript is false and hence the otherwise credible the miracle ought not be believed. The skeptic only ever argues that, taking it as given that miracles do not exist, a manuscript containing a report of a miracle is by definition unreliable, even if it contains no anachronisms and the non-miraculous events so reported are confirmed by other contemporary sources.
But the alleged historical untrustworthiness of the Bible is always the starting point of the so-called freethinker who wants to erode the authority of the biblical testimony.
Yet these arguments rapidly founder when the standards applied to any other historical argument about the reliability of an ancient documents are employed: the fact that the Bible has more copies, more contemporary or near-contemporary confirmation, than any other ancient document undermines any legitimate skepticism. There is more evidence that Jesus Christ existed and said and did the things he is reported to have said and done than there is evidence that Julius Caesar existed and did what he is said to have done. There are more and clearer documentary evidence that Saint Paul existed than Cicero. And so on.
The freethinker soon finds his historical nitpicking at the Bible is futile unless he addresses and audience that already, and for philosophical rather than historical reasons, does not believe in miracles.
But, as we have seen, to disbelief in miracles requires eventually a disbelief in the creator, which, in turn, requires either a disbelief in cause and effect, or a disbelief in the cosmos, or a disbelief in the truth, or (what amounts to much the same thing) a disbelief in man’s ability to know the truth.
Each step takes about a generation or two to trickle down through the philosophical and academic world and into common parlance. Hence, starting in about the 1870s, Bible scholarship ironically called Higher Criticism was all the rage among German scholars, and many results were noised about which have since been exploded.
In the Victorian days, one generation later, the idea of a universe without a creator was promoted either tentatively or zealously by Darwin, Freud and Marx, all allegedly in a scrupulously scientific and progressive way. Marx has been as thoroughly discredited as it is possible for a mortal to be: not even hardcore Marxists take him literately any more; Freud is discredited; and the scientific opinion within my lifetime slipped from Darwin being held as an unquestioning part of the standard model of the universe, to merely a strong, but unprovable, hypothesis with many gaps and unanswered questions, paradoxes, and lapses. The fossil record does not show the continuous and gradual descent with modification Darwin proposed, and theories of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ propose no mechanism for what causes the equilibrium to remain stable for some geological eras, or to erupt into multiplicity in various ‘explosions’ of new species appearing in the fossil record.
In any case, while Marxism and Freudianism are incompatible with Christian notions of the dignity of man, Darwin, despite the claims of Biblical literalists, is not. The freethinkers have an insufficient basis just on Darwin alone to erect their vision of a materialistic universe where life arises from nonlife nondeliberately, and selfawareness arises from nonselfawareness nondeliberately, and someone the selfawareness becomes aware of the laws of morality, which no one deliberately invented, but seem to be discovered as if pre-existent.
These ideas trickled down into common parlance from the Turn of the Century to gain greatest cachet in the 1930s, lending glamour to Nazism and Communism and other scientifically eugenic schemes for godless utopia. These ideas were debunked slowly during the postwar years as another generation of intellectuals came to the fore in the 1960s.
And so, confronted with a century of being driven back, step by step, failure by failure, the freethinkers in my generation in the 1960s, who still were capable of reason in the long lost days of my youth, had to abandon the last branch of the tree where atheism could hide. Rather than confess that the universe must have a creator, and that therefore miracles must exist, and that therefore the reports of miracles in the Gospel are not automatically incredible, the freethinkers preferred to go full postmodern, and deny that truth exists. The only way to defeat the one historical question and the three philosophical questions proving and supporting Christian belief as reasonable, was to go full stupid, and deny that truth was true. So they sawed off the branch on which they were sitting.
This is the philosophical stance called Nihilism. It is an adoration of nothingness, the belief that all accounts of the universe are merely narratives, perhaps erected for utility or for sinister political purposes, but in any case, none having any special priority over another. All truth is a personal decision, like picking your favorite clothing to wear, and all philosophy is dead. But if all philosophy is dead, then all philosophies are irrational, including that philosophy believing in no grand truths called Nihilism. Nihilism is the only philosophy which, by definition, calls itself irrational.
This doubling down on unreason took place throughout the academic world, and, later the media world, trickling down to common parlance in the 1990s, after I was graduated from college and law school. The academic, intellectuals, and elite, as a consensus, slowly but surely made the decision that they would rather embrace unreason than admit belief in God was reasonable.
And so they did: all the absurdities of political correctness, that is, the self-refuting idea that one must believe what is politically expedient is true rather what is true is true; all the absurdities of multiculturalism, that is, the self-refuting idea that the moral, political, philosophical and scientific progress of the West is no better than the backwardness and barbarism of cultures lacking that progress; all the absurdities of moral relativism, the self-refuting principle that there are no principles, and that is it absolutely evil to believe any evil is an absolute evil; and in a word all the nonsense of our utterly insane and irrational intellectual class, all of it springs from this turning point in the intellectual retreat from Christianity.
In my youth, it was possible for a man to believe in absolute truth without believing in God. All rational atheists so believe. In the modern climate, it is realized that the belief in absolute truth forces one eventually to recognize that any belief in law implies a belief in a lawgiver one is morally bound to obey; absolute standards apply regardless of any location in time and space, hence are not bound by time and space; hence absolute moral standards imply the existence of a lawgiver unbound by time and space, hence immortal, hence supernatural: in other words, God. While it is a logically self-consistent philosophical position to hold, as I did, that moral law can be objective without a God to legislate it, one finds that the intellectual elite of the West cannot maintain that position: because the emotional reason why they wished to escape from God in the first place was to escape the moral law. A God who makes no moral law, something like the Force in Star Wars, causes the modern elite no distress, hence the popularity both of misconstrued Buddhism and abortive theosophy and occult spiritualism among the moderns.
In order to promote and protect sin, even well educated men, once they lose the belief in God, soon find themselves unwilling, or perhaps unable, to articulate any rational reason defending the position. The habit of argumentation falls to one side. Schools no longer teach intellectual rigor, and men can get doctorates these days without ever once, not once, participating in an honest question and answer about any intellectual matter.
The ability to entertain an idea without believing that idea is lost. The art of debate is lost.
And the atheists, by their own unwillingness to look truth in the face, lobotomize their own ability to support or defend their position. It becomes merely an emotional decoration to their life, a plume for their cap, something they stock on the shelves of their empty brains like bric-a-brac.
Sin darkens the intellect. The reason why is because reason shows the sinner what his sin really is. Fleeing from his own understanding, he reaches the point of no return: either he abandons sin, and repents, and embraces the cold truths of reason, or else he doubles down, embraces sin more closely, doubles the dose until he overdoses, and abandons reason.
And that is why, if you want to hear a rational and rigorous argument defending the atheist position, you have to go to Thomas Aquinas, or come to me.
Photo by Evgeny Sergeev / Getty Images
John C. Wright is a retired attorney and newspaperman who was only once hunted by the police. He is a graduate of St. John College (home of Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books Program“). In 2004 he foreswore his lifelong atheism and joined the Roman Catholic Church. He has published over 10 SF novels, including one nominated for a Nebula award, and was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “this fledgling century’s most important new SF talent.” He currently lives in fairytale-like happiness with his wife, the authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter, and their four children.
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