“An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not.” –Bertrand Russell
I really do love atheists, you know. Atheism, next to paganism, has to be my favorite non-Christian belief system.
Because at the heart of it, atheists care.
They think that it matters whether there is or isn’t a God. They think that this question is important. And while they and I come to two very different answers to that question, we are kin in that we come to answers. In a world that tells us “all religions and belief systems are equally valid” or “it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re true to it,” both atheists and theists scream “It matters!”
A prime illustration is G.K. Chesterton’s little parable The Ball and the Cross, which I highly recommend. It tells the story of Turnbull, publisher and editor of an atheistic newspaper who tries to fight against the dominant “Christian” elements of Victorian England, and yet cannot get a rise out of the general public because no-one cares enough.
“It was in vain that he cried with an accusing energy that the Bishop of London was paid £12,000 a year for pretending to believe that the whale swallowed Jonah. It was in vain that he hung in conspicuous places the most thrilling scientific calculations about the width of the throat of a whale. Was it nothing to them all they that passed by? …He had said the worst thing that could be said; and it seemed accepted and ignored like the ordinary second best of the politicians. Every day his blasphemies looked more glaring, and every day the dust lay thicker upon them.”
After years of being so ignored, the first person who treats Turnbull’s atheism with a “real respect and seriousness”–the first person to even read Turnbull’s articles all the way through–is MacIan, a fiercely devout Catholic from the backwoods of Scotland, new to London and not yet jaded in matters of religious belief. (“What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over?” he asks.) MacIan is so incensed by what he reads on the newsprint in Turnbull’s window that he smashes the window, kicks his way into the office of The Atheist and challenges Turnbull to a duel, to which Turnbull enthusiastically agrees (thrilled at last to have someone who actually listens, someone who is actually angry with his ideas).
The two men are hampered in their efforts to fight their duel, however–firstly because duels are illegal, but also because every person they encounter tries to talk them out of it. “Religion is–a–too personal a matter… The most religious people are not those who talk about it,” says one. “…You ought to be more broadminded,” says another. And (while I won’t spoil the ending for you), as the two men flee from place to place throughout England searching for a quiet place to have their duel, they find that they are quite coming to like each other.
It is that which I love about atheists. They think that these questions of reality or existence are worth fighting for, worth arguing over. They think that it matters whether God is or is not.
Those who tell me that every religion/belief system is the same, or that every religion/belief system is just as good as the others, are making a value claim. Because if it is true that all religions and belief systems are equally valid, it would only be true if they were equally worthless, equally meaningless. When one belief claims that the Good is found by detaching oneself from the needs and desires of the body, and another belief claims that the Good is found by plunging in and changing the world for the better, and another belief claims that the Good is found by isolating oneself from other people, how can they all be true? When one claims that God is pleased if we behave and follow his laws, and another claims that God is pleased if we admit that we haven’t behaved and throw ourselves on his mercy, and another claims that God doesn’t really care what we do, and another claims that God doesn’t exist and we shouldn’t be fixated on pleasing a nonexistent figment at the expense of humanity–how can these all be true? If all belief systems are equally valid, equally true, then “true” means little more than “what makes me happy.” (And that in and of itself is a truth-claim.) If each religion and belief system is only as good as all the others, then they are meaningless, and the question of whether there is or is not such a thing as a god (and what God/gods are like if there is) simply isn’t important enough to bother over.
But Atheism says, “God/gods/deity do not exist.” It makes a clear statement regarding the validity of other belief structures; it uncategorically states that belief structures which contradict its own are wrong, because the universe cannot be contradictory (God cannot exist and not-exist at the same time). And by making such a claim, it places importance on the issue: the question of whether there is such a thing as a deity not only can be answered, but should.
So while I disagree with their answer, I love atheists for answering. I respect and admire their stance. Because, in answering, they acknowledge the importance of the question–which is far more than most people do.