This is the second article in a two-part series considering the rise of atheism in Africa. The first article looked at the history of atheism, tracing it to the Western Enlightenment. Thinkers such as Freud, Nietzsche and Feuerbach championed the place of human reason above revealed truth. The article also considered the recent rise of the new atheists, and their influence in catalysing African atheism. The major challenges of science as well as subjective morality were considered. This article will unpack the atheistic worldview concluding with four practical tools for engaging with those who identify as atheists.
A Clash of Worldviews
The verb “identify” in the previous sentence is helpful. For the biblical view is that God’s existence is clear to all of humanity (Psalm 19; Romans 1:20). Thus the issue is not so much the existence of God but whether or not we acknowledge it.
According to Scripture, atheism is not the absence of God but the rejection of God (Romans 1:18, 21-23). Throughout the Bible, there are only two responses to God: acknowledgement or rejection. The problem is that sin, as a distortion of what is good and true, including coming to the reasonable conclusion of God’s presence, casts its net far into the recesses of the heart. Atheism, as a rejection of God, is not so much a lack of evidence but the suppression of it.
The issue is not so much the existence of God but whether or not we acknowledge it
This is evident in a person’s lifestyle (Romans 1:18). The New Testament usually draws a parallel between thinking and living. In the case of those who acknowledge the reality of God through the person of Jesus Christ, their minds are renewed and they live uprightly (Romans 12:1-2; Colossians 3:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-3). In the case of those who deny God’s existence, their understanding is darkened and their living rebels against God’s wise rule (Ephesians 4:17-18; 1 Peter 4:1-3). Therefore atheism is not an intellectual problem but a spiritual problem. This spiritual problem affects one’s view of the world, and how we ought to live in it. But what is the atheistic worldview?
The Atheistic Worldview
Scientific naturalism is the worldview underlying atheism. In this view, science is the only way to understand reality. Morality is subjective and destiny is nihilistic. Ravi Zacharias, the late and prominent Christian apologist, critiqued the atheistic worldview extensively after his conversion from atheism. In his book the End of Reason (2008), a response to Sam Harris’ the End of Faith (2004) he observes:
“Eventually, belief in a world birthed by accident, a life that has no purpose, morality without a point of reference except for those absolutes that have been smuggled in – well hidden behind the mask of relativism – and death that ends in oblivion made me prefer the possibility of this oblivion to the sheer weight of the emptiness of a God-less world. Contrary to what atheists imply, the dead weight of their beliefs leads to a heartless, pointless, and hollow existence” (p26).
Atheism does not provide a coherent worldview when it comes to our beginnings, purpose, meaning or end
Ravi references the emptiness of the atheistic worldview by quoting the atheist philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. He described life as “straying through an infinite nothing”. The point to be made is that atheism does not provide a coherent worldview when it comes to our beginnings, purpose, meaning or end.
3 Tests of a Worldview
Ravi has helped countless Christians to be able to test the validity of a worldview. His three tests are: (1) origin; (2) existence (meaning and morality); and (3) destiny. These are reflected in the three points below. Ravi argues that a valid worldview must be “coherent.” For this to be the case, these three parts must agree and be sensible. Furthermore, a valid worldview must be “corresponding”, offering a true picture of reality.
Points of Departure between the Atheistic and Biblical Worldview
- Atheism claims that science, especially the ‘big bang,’ accounts for the origin of the universe. The biblical worldview assumes God as the source of the universe; creating from nothing or ex nihilo. This understanding is received by faith (Genesis 1:1, John 1:1; Hebrews 11:3). Christians have taken different perspectives regarding how to square this understanding of creation with the scientific proposals. But in all these views, the understanding of God as Creator is central.
- The atheistic worldview sees no inherent purpose behind existence. Therefore meaning is elusive, while it also lacks an objective standard for morality. The common view among atheists is that morality is conditioned by society. However, when push comes to shove, few of us readily accept responsibility for wrong actions. For while we easily identify the evil in the holocaust or genocides, individually our consciences are ignored or downplayed.
A biblical worldview assumes the fallenness of creation. But there is redemption of creation through Jesus Christ. The character of God is the norm of morality and he provides meaning in life (Exodus 20:1-17; Proverbs 3:5-6; Titus 2:11-14; 1 Peter 1:16).
- The atheistic worldview rejects the idea of eternity, while a biblical worldview views eternity as real and spent either in eternal fellowship with God or without God in eternal damnation. (John 3:16; Hebrews 9:27-28; Revelation 22:12-15). Although atheists view the progression of the world in evolutionary terms of chance, Christians acknowledge the sovereignty and providential nature of God moving the entire creation towards his distinct purposes.
Practical Advice for Engaging Atheists
African Christians should be concerned with engaging the major issues of the prosperity gospel, issues arising from traditional religious worldviews and also postmodernism. For we see these challenges presently and anticipate them for the next generation. But Africans must also be ready to give an answer when engaging atheists.
When I look at the responses by Christians on the Atheists in Kenya (AIK) Facebook page I put my face into my palms. For I notice that Christians often respond emotively, even in an ungodly way. Their responses lacked righteous reason. Last week, during an online webinar on morality hosted by AIK, the hosts gave the following condition to responders: “please do not preach”. But how do we preach without preaching?
In answer to that question I will conclude this article with four ways to engage atheists:
1. Learning the Art of Answering Questions
Rather than being exclusively emotional, add logic to your interactions. Michael Ramsden, the current RZIM director, offers a basic introduction to logic and fallacies. A simpler way to engage the atheistic worldview is to ask “why” questions. These are often helpful to unmask the foundations of their questions and to reveal their heart.
2. Loving the Person Behind the Question
At the end of the day, atheists are human beings created in the image of God. Yet many atheists are informed by negative personal experiences of both life and the church. Because they have souls that will either live with God forever – or without him – we must graciously love them. So, as we engage with atheists let us do so with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15-16). Some have even called love ‘the greatest apologetic.’
3. Considering the Heart Behind the Person
It has been said many times in pulpits that ‘the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart.’ For rejecting God is never merely an intellectual choice. It is spiritual. Therefore we need to humbly depend on God in any and every engagement with unbelievers of all stripes. There is a need to rely on the Holy Spirit to engage the heart issue behind every question.
4. Convincing the Person Using God’s Gospel
However, the truth is that some atheists will completely reject God. The task of preaching the gospel, in love and truth, is to witness to Christ. The changing of the heart is God’s prerogative. The pattern for God’s people has been to proclaim the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ to all nations. After all, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). Thus, we must remember, it is only the Spirit of God working through the Word of God that can birth a child of God.
We need to humbly depend on God in any and every engagement with unbelievers of all stripes
I pray that this call will be one that teaches us to seek to understand others, even as we engage them with the Word in the power of the Spirit. As we consider the Scriptures, it is clear that the biblical worldview is at odds with atheism, and its underlying worldview of naturalism. On questions of the beginning, existence and end times, the biblical worldview offers a more coherent position. So let us “make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).