The Devout Atheist

by Eric Rauch

Religion is a way of life for each of us in all hours of the day—in the decisions we make to the food we eat to the way we spend our money and an infinite amount of other behaviors. Even those who claim to be atheists operate in the realm of the spiritual on a daily basis. So much so, in fact, that I would argue that no one is truly an atheist. Agnostic perhaps, but not atheistic.

Richard Dawkins has made the statement famous that, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” One is anxious to know what atheists were before Darwin? Irrational? Illogical? Adherents to a blind faith? We are often told that Christians are the ones who subscribe to an irrational, blind, and silly belief system. But in terms of intellectual consistency, atheism is the “new kid on the block.” Dawkins would have been the fundamentalist if he lived B.D., Before Darwin (pre-1859).

Religion is typically studied at two levels, substantive and functional. The substantive level is the content of the beliefs of the religion. This would be the writings and religious texts that the particular religion bases its authority upon. For Christians it would be the Bible, for atheists, at least according to Dawkins, it would be The Origin of Species. The functional level is what those beliefs look like in everyday life. This would be what Jesus called “judging a tree by its fruit.” Too often modern religious analysis takes place here and never ventures back to the substantive level. A classic example of this appeared in a New York Times editorial a couple of years ago by Slavoj Zizek. I encourage you to read Zizek’s piece in its entirety because it is a great apologetic opportunity for sharpening your mind to think presuppositionally and critically.

Zizek opens by pointing out how the world is overrun with violent, bloodthirsty “fundamentalists” of every religion. His opening paragraph and his ending paragraph leave no doubt that he is going to keep his analysis at the functional level. He concludes this way:

What, however, about submitting Islam — together with all other religions — to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.

This would be a great idea if Zizek had any intention of actually cracking open a Koran and studying Islam on the substantive level, but he doesn’t. He would rather submit Islam (and Christianity for that matter) to the test of his own arbitrary moral absolutes. Since he is an atheist (agnostic) this is the only realm he knows. Atheism, by its very definition, is a denial of a belief, not a positive affirmation of belief. Like liberalism, atheism is an anti-worldview, it is not “for” anything, only “against.” Because of this, Zizek has nothing outside of himself that he can turn to as an absolute. Even if he wanted to, he could never do a substantive analysis of his own religion of atheism because it is completely subjective and unverifiable. Turning Dostoyevsky’s famous quote from The Brothers Karamazov on its head, Zizek claims that with God everything is permissible.

More than a century ago, in “The Brothers Karamazov” and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted… This argument couldn’t have been more wrong: the lesson of today’s terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the “godless” Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.

Did you catch the subtle twist in his logic? Dostoyevsky was arguing on the substantive level, taking the authoritative Word of the Creator to the current situation of modern man. Zizek, on the other hand, would rather argue emotionally by claiming that the actions and behaviors of the professing believer are what prove the religion itself to be right or wrong. Of course, in order to demonize “fundamentalists” of every stripe, Zizek must presuppose the laws of logic, a metaphysical necessity that his atheistic worldview can’t account for. He must also smuggle his morality out of the trunk of the Cadillac of Christianity that’s parked behind his paper palace of materialism (an oceanfront property nestled securely in the sand).

Zizek’s tortured religion of atheism leads him to make an incredible claim:

Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God’s will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God’s favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward. David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God’s existence.

Surely Zizek must see the absurdity of this statement. As a self-professed atheist, he is his own god. When he looks in the mirror he is confronted with his “god.” His own conscience condemns and affirms his actions, yet in his view this is simply an “elementary experience of morality.” But what about the serial murderer, the compulsive rapist, or the child molester, those whose “elementary experiences” don’t match his own? What would Zizek do when confronted with a John Wayne Gacy? Neither one has an authoritative standard, outside of themselves, by which to gauge their behavior. What makes Zizek’s “elementary experience” more authoritative than Gacy’s? One leads him to perform “good deeds” and the other to hack young boys to death and bury them under his house. Without a substantive level to go back to, Zizek is left with no moral ground to condemn anyone. Also, his attributing of David Hume as a “believer” reveals that Zizek is a true fundamentalist, one that isn’t bothered when his points are refuted by facts. “Hume never confronted religious thought head-on, denying the very possibility of a God, providence, or a future state… Hume from his first writings to his last seems to have dropped out of the religious world and religious framework. He sees that the answer can only come from nature and not beyond it.” If Hume is a believer, so is Zizek.

The ridiculous notions of Zizek’s “elementary experiences” are quickly becoming normative in our post-Christian surroundings. Atheists (agnostics) think that they have Christians beat when they can show that they are moral people who do nice things for their fellow man and try to make the world a better place to live. Zizek’s own words make the case here:

During the Seventh Crusade, led by St. Louis, Yves le Breton reported how he once encountered an old woman who wandered down the street with a dish full of fire in her right hand and a bowl full of water in her left hand. Asked why she carried the two bowls, she answered that with the fire she would burn up Paradise until nothing remained of it, and with the water she would put out the fires of Hell until nothing remained of them: “Because I want no one to do good in order to receive the reward of Paradise, or from fear of Hell; but solely out of love for God.” Today, this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism.

Why is this a proper Christian ethic? Because this properly sums up Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. But this can only be determined by actually doing substantive analysis of the Christian religion; something that Zizek is not willing to engage in very often. Just as the “good deeds” of the non-Christian do not make an apologetic case for atheism, Christianity is neither proved nor disproved by the actions or inactions of its adherents. But for committed non-theists like Zizek and his fundamentalist cohorts, simply showing how those who profess to be followers of Christ are fallible, sinful men, imperfectly living out their faith seems to be enough to pass as scholarship. It’s a lesson and a warning to us to live our lives as a consistent testimony to the one who laid down his life for ours. “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).

Quoted in Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 106.

Slavoj Zizek, “Defenders of the Faith,” New York Times, March 12, 2006. Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/12/opinion/12zizek.html

Richard H. Popkin (Editor), “David Hume,” The Columbia History of Western Philosophy (New York: MJF Books, 1999), 454-461

Eric Rauch is the Director of Communications for American Vision.

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