David Hart’s recent essay on the New Atheists has been receiving a great deal of attention—and criticism. At the risk of piling on, I have to add a complaint of my own. There is one part of his essay where he stretches a congenial concession into a dangerously misleading claim:
Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets—a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties.
Even as a fervent believer I can acknowledge that skepticism and atheism can be inspired by the reasons Hart lists. But I fail to understand how that makes them noble, precious, or necessary traditions. Indeed, I wish Christians would recognize just the opposite: We have to abandon the politically correct notion that atheism is intellectually respectable.
Historically speaking, this concession to the greatest lie in the universe is a rather recent development. While there have always been people who deny the existence of a deity, it has not been a prominent view among intellectuals, much less a serious alternative to Christian theism. What previous cultures instinctively understood, and that we in turn have forgotten, is that atheism is a form of (self-imposed) intellectual dysfunction, a lack of epistemic virtue, or—to borrow a term from my Catholic friends—a case of vincible ignorance.
Vincible ignorance is lacking knowledge that is within the individual’s control and for which he is responsible before God. In Romans, St. Paul is clear that atheism is a case of vincible ignorance: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Acknowledging the existence of God is just the beginning—we must also recognize several of his divine attributes. Atheists that deny this reality are, as St. Paul said, without excuse. They are vincibly ignorant.
Some people—even some believers—will be scandalized by this claim. Such is the state of our culture that even Christians are offended by the truths expressed in Scripture. We have so thoroughly bought into the notion that atheism is an intellectually respectable position that when we point out the truth (that atheism is a form of intellectual handicap) we are viewed as intolerant. But we Christians do atheists no favor by treating them as if they were simply “differently abled.” By ignoring their epistemic and metaphysical brokenness, we are shirking our Christian duty to truly show love for our neighbor.
Equally shameful is that we share a fair amount of the blame for creating the stumbling block of “new atheism.” We have no qualms about pointing out moral and political failings. Yet when it comes to matters of epistemic and metaphysical truth, we refuse to take a firm, Biblically justified stance. Why is that? Why do we feel we must treat atheism as if it were any more respectable than, say, a belief in the healing power of crystals? Have we completely abandoned the concept of intellectual virtue?
Claiming that everyone is without excuse for refusing to acknowledge the existence of a God isn’t intolerant or an attempt to impose our beliefs on others; it’s a simple statement of fact—and one that we should have the courage to express freely.
(Note: Just so there is not confusion, being vincibly ignorant about God does not mean that atheists are less intelligent—or, for that matter, less moral—than theists. Everyone exhibits vincible ignorance about something. Atheists just do it about the most important things.)
See Also: Vincible Ignorance Revisited