A couple of days ago the Christian News Network published an article on evangelical atheists taking to the streets to convert believers. This seems to be one of many campaigns increasingly being organized by “evangelical” atheists—the most famous perhaps being the bus campaign.
Yet it strikes me as very odd that atheists would do this.
Don’t get me wrong. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes good sense to try to increase the size of your peer group while diminishing the size of opposing groups. That way, when they inevitably try to stab you with pointy sticks or bash you with rocks, you have a better chance of survival, and your genes will continue to be propagated instead of theirs.
So that isn’t what I find odd. What’s odd is that this isn’t what seems to primarily motivate evangelical atheists. Rather than evangelize because they want to make more atheists, they seem to do it because they think believers should stop being wrong.
Now admittedly not all atheists are evangelical. Probably not even most of them. But those who are all seem to have the same fundamental shtick: there is something wrong with religious belief, so we ought not to “do it”. Think of people like Richard Dawkins, who describes belief in God as a delusion, or the ex Christopher Hitchens, who described religion as poisoning everything. They seem to have two related beefs with religious belief—but the second beef is what really motivates them:
- Religious belief is factually wrong
- Religious belief is ethically wrong
Why is religious belief ethically wrong?
From a Christian perspective, I think there is considerable warrant to agree with atheists like Sam Harris when they express outrage at religions like Islam, which really do “poison” everything they touch with violence, misogyny and anti-Semitism. And I can even sympathize with atheists who believe that Christianity promotes injustice with regard to issues like homosexuality (although of course I disagree with them).
But atheists don’t seem concerned merely with stamping out those kinds of religious beliefs. I’m sure they see liberal Christianity, which supports homosexuality and egalitarianism and so on, as more benign than orthodox Christianity. But they definitely don’t see it as entirely benign. They seem to want belief in God itself entirely eliminated.
In my experience, the reason for this is not ultimately because of some effect that belief in God has on society—but simply because belief in God is factually wrong.
In other words, item (2) above actually flows from item (1), something like this:
- All people have a duty to believe what is true, and disbelieve what is false
- Atheism is true and Christianity is false
- Therefore, all people have a duty to believe atheism, and disbelieve Christianity
A Christian like me, of course, agrees with premise (i). I just disagree about (ii), so I come to a different conclusion on (iii). But my agreement with (i) is based on the notion that we are created by a God who is truth, who designed us to know truth, and who obliges us to believe truth.
So what puzzles me is, why would an atheist believe something like (i)? What is the explanation for this truth-believing duty we have? To whom is it directed, on what grounds is it established, and on what authority is it enforced? That’s how duties work: they are owed to persons because of some morally legitimate claim that person has on our actions, with a morally legitimate authority backing up the claim.
Obviously we can’t owe duties to evolution. Even if evolution were “interested” in truth rather than survival (which it is not), it is an amoral and non-personal process.
The only alternative available seems to be that we have a duty to other people to believe what is true (and presumably those people have the same duty to us). But this seems only marginally less absurd than having a duty to evolution. Imagine that I believe gnomes are stealing my socks. It is just bizarre to imagine that I am thereby violating a duty to every single person in the world, or even every single person in my country, or every single person I happen to know.
Moreover, what would ground this duty? Why would we have a duty to other people to believe the truth? Certainly it is not because they say so. Most of them do not say so. If you want to believe in sock gnomes, what difference is it to me? I don’t think even most atheists would care to claim that I am violating a duty to them by believing something false—even if it is as significant a false belief as believing in God.
We can go further. A legitimate duty is one with a moral authority behind it capable of enforcing it. But who, exactly, is going to enforce the duty to believe what is true? Atheists don’t typically engage in citizens’ arrests and march Christians down to the nearest police station, because they realize they’d probably get in trouble. There is no authority under atheism that enforces the duty to believe in truth; but there is the authority to enforce penalties against harassment and wrongful arrest. But if there is no one in our society with the moral authority to enforce the duty to believe the truth, then in what sense is it a duty? Doesn’t it just become something that atheists want us to do?
But why should I care what an atheist wants me to do if there is no moral obligation on me to do it?