5 Things The Christian Church Gets Wrong About Atheism

5 Things The Christian Church Gets Wrong About Atheism

The Surprising Reality Of Unbelief 

By Professor Michael Ruse (University of Florida)

December 15, 2014        Picture: C.G.P.Grey/Flickr.

First mistake: Atheists don’t do their homework about Christianity.

Perhaps the most common complaint is that atheists simply don’t know what Christians believe and so it is no wonder that they are critical of the religion. To be candid, there is truth in this complaint. You don’t have to get far into Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion to realize he would have trouble getting a passing grade in either Philosophy 100 or Religion 100. His grasp or rather non-grasp of the ontological argument deserves to be extracted and bronzed and put in a museum. Or even better, made the center piece of every textbook on common fallacies or improving your reasoning or informal logic. And that is just a start. My favorite is the argument that since the world is very complex, God must be even more complex and that is impossible. The scorn of one who simply does not understand is reserved for the traditional Christian belief that God is the ultimate simple. One can only ask whether Dawkins has ever heard of Euclidean geometry where one starts with the most simple of claims – a straight line is the quickest way to go from one point to the next – and before long one has theorems of a breathtaking complexity.

This said, from the time of the Greeks, non-believers have studied the claims of believers with great care and found their arguments wanting. David Hume, for instance, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), went incredibly carefully over the claims about miracles and about design. You may disagree with what he said. But don’t pretend that he didn’t know what you are claiming. These are issues in natural religion, arguments based on reason. Non-believers have also taken revealed religion – arguments based on faith and authority – very seriously. The English novelist George Eliot, for example, translated into English the classic debunking book, David Strauss’s Life of Jesus, which gives a naturalistic account of all of the gospel happenings. More recently the famous English philosopher and well know atheist Bertrand Russell was very well informed on the Christian faith, and the same is true of many writers today. Although in later life he swung back to some kind of belief, the philosopher Anthony Flew was long the spokesperson for atheism. His father was a distinguished Methodist academic and consequently Flew knew more about religious claims than most religious people.

Second mistake: Atheists are immoral and even if they aren’t when they become atheists they very soon are.

It is certainly true that most atheists in the Anglophone world believe things that many Christians do not – the legitimacy of gay marriage comes to mind, as does the right of a woman to have an abortion. But whether this makes them immoral is another point. Notoriously, when asked on a visit to Eire about his feelings on priestly sexual abuse, Richard Dawkins replied that he thought it a worse sin to bring a child up Catholic in the first place. This is typical. My experience is that most atheists are obsessed with morality to an almost unhealthy degree. Friedrich Nietzsche is famous for telling us all that God is dead. I am sure he would have been a most uncomfortable roommate with every little peccadillo brought out and discussed at length. Imagine if he caught you pinching someone else’s milk from the fridge! The discovery that you had marked up a library book with a yellow pen would have been reason for a night’s soul searching and examination.

George Eliot spoke for many atheists:

“I remember how, at Cambridge, I walked with her once in the Fellows’ Garden of Trinity, on an evening of rainy May; and she, stirred somewhat beyond her wont, and taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-calls of men—the words God, Immortality, Duty—pronounced, with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third. Never perhaps have sterner accents affirmed the sovereignty of impersonal and unrecompensing Law. I listened, and night fell; her grave, majestic countenance turned toward me like a sibyl’s in the gloom; it was as though she withdrew from my grasp, one by one, the two scrolls of promise, and left me the third scroll only, awful with inevitable fates. And when we stood at length and parted amid that columnar circuit of the forest trees, beneath the last twilight of starless skies, I seemed to be gazing, like Titus at Jerusalem, on vacant seats and empty halls—on a sanctuary with no Presence to hallow it, and heaven left lonely of a God”. (I quote from the 1881 memories of a contemporary, Frederick Myers)

 Many if not most atheists have abandoned religious belief because they found it insufficiently moral. I am bathed in sin because of what someone else did six thousand years ago and I am saved because another person two thousand years ago died in agony on a cross? Ugh!

Third mistake: Atheists are miserable.

 The statistics are a bit mixed on this. There are surveys suggesting that the close-knit nature of some religious communities – churches and the like – do promote a sense of happiness that few others achieve. But the figures are certainly not uniformly one way and one can think of many religious communities where happiness does not seem to be a totally prized commodity. Think of Jonathan Edwards.

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours”

I cannot honestly think that his parishioners sat down to their Sunday dinners with much zest after that. In fact the statistics also suggest that atheists score more highly on things like inquisitiveness and willingness to take chances. I suspect that most atheists would be happy to keep these and forgo what they feel is a false sense of security brought on by untrue doctrines. In any case, as John Stuart Mill said:

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”

I might add also that, although Christians are more into online pornography, apparently atheists are into more inventive sex. I will leave it to others to explore the ramifications of this.


Fourth mistake: Atheists become atheists because of science

 I don’t think there is any doubt that scientists as a whole tend to be more into non-belief that non-scientists, although when you extract the elite scientists – Fellows of the Royal Society and that sort of thing – the figures are nowhere like as striking. An agricultural geneticist working at a large state university in the American mid-west is more than likely to be in his local church choir and sees no inconsistency in his lifestyle. What does seem clear is that although science may bolster non-belief – all of those stories about the Ark and Jonah and so forth do take their toll – many of the best known non-believing scientists came first to non-belief and then if at all used science to support this position. Although he was no longer a formal Christian, at the time of writing the Origin of Species in 1858, Darwin certainly believed in a god who works through unbroken law, the god of the deist. To his American friend Asa Gray he wrote:

“I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance” (Letter of May 22, 1860)

By the time of writing the Descent in 1871, Darwin had become an agnostic (never an atheist). But it is clear that what drove him to this was theological worry. He could not stand the thought that his father – a physician and a man for whom Darwin had huge love and respect – would be condemned to eternal damnation because he was a non-believer. He would have agreed with John Stuart Mill:

“In everyday life I know what to call right and wrong, because I can plainly see its rightness or wrongness. Now if a good god requires that what I ordinarily call wrong in human behaviour I must call right because he does it; or that what I ordinarily call wrong I must call right because he so calls it, even though I do not see the point of it; and if by refusing to do so, he can sentence me to hell, to hell I will gladly go”.

Of course, science is important for clearing out the undergrowth of superstition and metaphor and all of the rest. But its force as a universal cleansing agent is another matter.


Fifth mistake: there are no atheists in foxholes. It is one thing to be an atheist at twenty. By the time you are seventy, you will be jumping back onside.

To be honest, this was a mistaken belief that I held for many years. I don’t much care for the idea of death – non-being for you is one thing, for me it is quite another. I fully expected that by the time I turned seventy, somewhat sheepishly I would be edging up to the Christian gospel. It happened to Anthony Flew. Why not to me? As it happens, I always thought that Flew was a bit of an exceptional case. I was never sure how deep his atheism went, thinking rather that it was a function of oedipal problems with his famous father. How better to get under the skin of an eminent non-conformist than by becoming an atheist? (I should say I knew Flew quite well and used to joke with him about this – at least, as much as one can joke with anyone about their Oedipus complex. He was an honest man and always admitted that there might be something to it.)

In my own case I can only say that being now in my seventy-fifth year, somewhat to my surprise I feel no big urge to return to faith. I joke – except that these things are not really jokes – that I too have my oedipal problems. Having had one headmaster in this life – a man whom I loathed and detested about as much as he loathed and detested me – I have absolutely no desire to have another headmaster in the next. If eternal salvation means sucking up to an authority figure then I want no part of it.

It is also a question of where you find yourself. My mother was a school teacher and Chinese Tiger Mothers had nothing on her. As they used to say in my early years, childhood is a job – you are there to learn – and I took it very seriously indeed. Then when I was thirteen, my mother died suddenly and very unexpectedly. I have spent my whole life trying to live up to her ideals – or rather my interpretation of her ideals for I once met a woman who had been in one of my mother’s classes and her memory was of a very mild and gentle woman. Now I am half way through my fiftieth year as a college professor and I finally feel that I have done in return for what she and my father gave me, and have a sense of peace that was lacking hitherto.

The point I am making is that I don’t need eternal salvation anymore. I have found what I sought down here on Earth. And with that, I will close by pointing to the Sixth Mistake that Christians make about atheists – that we are cold, calculating people who have no emotions or sense of the more spiritual side to life. In an entirely secular way you could not find a person more spiritual than I. I am glad of this, as I am glad I don’t need a false world picture to make sense of it all.

Michael Ruse
Michael Ruse
Dr. Michael Ruse is Lucycle T. Werkmeister Professor and Director of The History and Philosophy and Science Program at The University of Florida. Dr.Ruse specializes in the philosophy of biology but also has a keen interest in the philosophy of religion. He is the author of many books, including Darwinian Evolution: Science Read in Tooth and Claw (University of Chicago Press, 1979), Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy (Blackwell, 1986), The Darwinian Paradigm (Routledge, 1989), Evolutionary Naturalism (Routledge, 1994), Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship Between Science and Religion (Cambridge University Press, 2001), Debating Design: Darwin to DNA (Cambridge University Press, 2004 edited with William Dembski), Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? (Cambridge University Press, 2003), Darwinian Heresies (Cambridge University Press, 2004 edited with Abigail Lustig and Robert J.Richards), Darwinism and its Discontents (Cambridge University Press, 2006), Charles Darwin (Blackwell, 2007), Cambridge Companion to the Origins of Species (Cambridge University Press, 2008 edited by Robert. J. Richards). His latest books on the philosophy of religion are The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2014 edited with Stephen Bullivant) and Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2015).
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  • George Kovacs

    my grasp of basic philosophical arguments may be superficial, I can’t accept what this author wrote about the beliefs of atheists and christians, I believe he makes false comparisons between the two and appears clownish in his humor regarding atheists.

  • Elora

    The whole “Atheists don’t do their homework about Christianity” is complete crap. An awful lot of atheists were once believers, And the ones that feel strongly about how awful religion is read into it even more! I was the only atheist in my Religious Education class (catholic school) and I achieved an A grade in my R.E GCSE. I often find believers turned atheists are the people that know more about the Bible than many believers. Reading the Bible and studying it, is ironically one of the leading causes of atheism.

    • Joel

      I agree wholeheartedly. Most Atheist I am familiar with know quite a lot about the Bible. In fact I read and studied it more myself after becoming a non-believer. I would actually say, that at the very least in the US, Atheist know more about Christianity and other religions than Christians do.

  • Joel

    Is it me or does the author of this article have a chip on his shoulder for Professor Dawkins? A whole paragraph lampooning him and another jab later on, totally unnecessary. Jealousy maybe? While I can agree that Dawkins can be quite black or white in regards to certain aspects of Religion, being a nonbeliever early in life and living a life with science will sometimes make it harder to see it from a ‘Christians point-of-view’, but I would hardly be so quick to dismiss the work and passion of Professor Dawkins.

  • Dick and Ellie Springer

    An unimpressive article. The idea that Richard Dawkins would fail Philosophy 101 because he doesn’t understand the ontological argument, which is a word game that says nothing about reality, has no relevance to anything in the world outside of strings of symbols on a piece of paper.
    Just now ·

    • Ciaranm

      That Euclidean geometry argument was ridiculous. As far as I can see, in his analogy the straight line would be god, whereas in Dawkins’ book, god would be the person drawing the line. It reads like a deliberate misunderstanding.

  • Duncan Northrop

    As yet another once believer turned atheist ( though agnostic might be a more accurate label ) I read the bible many times over and became disillusioned by the very fact that so many “believers” fail so miserably in living up to even the simplest tenets of love thy neighbor, do unto others, and care for the less fortunate. What finally drove me away from the church and God, however, was a simple analysis of the job performance of all these so called deitys. While millions of people every day pray to simply go to bed without the gnawing monster of starvation in their stomachs, the most evil of men and women are allowed to indulge their every earthly desire AND amass sickeningly vile empires of wealth from which they exact even more evils on their fellow man. The pablum about mansions in the afterlife strike me too much as being inserted into the bible by those who would desire a sheep like community content to endure any atrocity based on this celestial promise of rewards to come. If there is a God ruling over our planet then we all have the misfortune of being the subjects of a deity so lazy that we would fire his ass if we had the choice and ability to do so. How does a God remain worthy of worship when the vast enormous majority of his followers are allowed to languish and suffer while the vilest sit at the lap of luxury? The only way I found to reconcile these questions ( thus the agnostic label mentioned at the beginning of my comment ) is that perhaps once created, our God is unable to alter his creation without destroying it, but this brings n=me back around to the amateurish nature of creation and the creator and only serves to reinforce my feelings that even if a creator exists, the last thing they deserve is our reverence or worship.

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