Lecturer Dr Joel Hodge, on why a dialogue should be maintained between atheists and theists.
Despite the way in which they are often portrayed, religion and atheism are not enemies. In fact, they have much in common. There are many points on which, for example, Christians and atheists can agree. Modern atheists, for example, seek respect for science and reason, as do most Christians.
In Catholic understanding, faith and science do not fundamentally conflict, just as philosophy and science do not.
They do, however, address different questions. Science addresses ‘how’ questions, about how the world operates, and religious faith addresses ‘why’ questions, such as why do we exist and why should we live. Like atheists, Christians affirm that faith should be reasonable and accessible to reason, while also highlighting that reason rests on faith.
To affirm goodness is also to affirm purpose or telos. Humans, and living things, naturally have purpose. For example, humans naturally seek their happiness, rather than their misery.
In our daily activities, we always seek some end that is good or beneficial to us, rather than hurtful. Denying purpose or truth is problematic. One ends up making contradictory statements like, the truth is that there is no truth or the purpose of life is that there is no purpose. Each makes a claim about truth and purpose, though in a negative way. To deny purpose is to deny the very nature of our actions and our living – because we naturally seek the good that contributes to our fulfillment.
Atheists and theists are often at loggerheads over the existence of God and the seemingly irrational beliefs of some people or religions. Yet, Christians and atheists both have a tradition of rejecting irrational superstition and false gods. Christianity has always regarded itself as a reasonable religion, which is why it engaged with and kept alive the philosophical tradition.
Furthermore, Judaism, Islam and Christianity all have a tradition of opposing idolatry, that is, of rejecting false notions, images or worship of gods. In this, modern atheism can agree with these religious traditions. In fact, the early Christians were called atheists because they did not accept the superstitious world and the many gods of the dominant Romans and other polytheists.
Christians and atheists also seek to eradicate violence from religion and understandings of God. For example, both Christians and atheists misunderstand Jesus’ death if they see it as a violent sacrifice demanded by God for sin. Christians have traditionally held that violence was not desired by God against Jesus, but that rejection and death were accepted by
Jesus to seek the conversion of a world torn by evil and the inability to love properly.
Similar to some atheist efforts, Christians have a tradition of negative theology that treats the subject of God, and logically rules out what God is not. ‘God’ in Christianity is not regarded as a man in the sky or a higher being existing inside the universe.
Atheists are right to reject these images of God. For Christians, as well as Greek philosophers, Jews and Muslims, God is outside of space and time, making all things in time and space possible.
‘God’ answers a basic question – one that has haunted all human cultures: why do we exist? In other words, why is there anything that exists even now, rather than nothing at all?
One of the most well-known atheist philosophers of the 20th century, Antony Flew, eventually changed his mind about atheism because of the question, “did something come from nothing?” Flew acknowledged that the cause of the universe is too big for science to explain.
However, strict atheists do not see a place for God, even with the above questions and definitions. This atheist position requires rational explanation. Nevertheless, while some atheists may not accept God, it is incumbent on atheists and theists that we at least understand what each other means and believes.
It is important for the pursuit of truth, harmony and peace that a dialogue be maintained across the different areas of human activity, especially between theology, philosophy and science.
Any human can legitimately question and wonder at the consistency and beauty of the universe, to reflect on its purpose, and even be open to a relationship with its Creator.
If we accept it, atheists and theists have the chance for dialogue to deepen the contemplation of our existence and live more meaningfully together.