The Heresy of Atheism

And He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief. ∼ Matthew 13:58

 Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” ∼ Mark 6:6

On November 16, 2006, I was invited to engage in a public debate at The Ohio State University in my home city of Columbus, Ohio against one of the political action leaders of American atheism, Daniel Barker. Mr. Barker had been brought up as a child by his parents to be an evangelist, and began preaching publicly as a young boy; but as he approached adulthood he lost his Christian faith and came to embrace the faith of atheism.

I began the debate by speaking of Plato’s notion of Beauty as The One source of all things, then I added ideas from St. Anselm and how the great Notre Dame University philosopher Alvin Plantinga has shown how Anselm’s Ontological Argument for the existence of God has never been disproved. When the time came for Mr. Barker to give his opening remark, he wanted to know why the Catholic Church was anti-homosexual and why it had never formally excommunicated the Catholic members of the Nazi Party in Germany. Needless to say, we never quite got on the same track and after the debate he told me his debates were never quite so intellectual and quiet, he was accustomed to shouting matches he told me, over questions like why babies sometimes suffer and die.

However, what convinced me that atheism is a religion, and in my opinion a heretical religion was what happened in the question and answer period for the audience. An Ohio State University student got up and asked Mr. Barker, “if I drew a circle or pie shape that represented all the possible knowledge that exists, how much could you fill in with your human reason?” Mr. Barker was silent because he knew he was caught, that atheism is not some sort of champion of secularized human reason. The young man went on; “you can’t answer Mr. Barker, because you or no one else has in their minds the knowledge of all reality, therefore your atheism is a belief, not a fact, a belief just like belief in God, its just that given what you do know you choose not to believe in God, while others with just as much knowledge as you or more, choose to believe in God.”

Atheism is at its core a religious heresy, a rational heresy, and an ethical heresy.

The Roots of Modern Atheism
Atheism is for the most part a modern phenomenon; in the ancient world the idea of denying transcendent reality, denying the existence of God or gods and a spiritual realm was almost unthinkable. Even Greek philosophers like Parmenides who did not believe in a personal God, posited that all things were actually one Entity as he put it and therefore divine. Aristotle said that it was logical after studying biology, physics, metaphysics and ethics, that one had to come to the conclusion that there was only one God, which he called the Unmoved Mover.

Atheism as we know it was given life among the British empiricists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the figures of Thomas Hobbes and David Hume. Hobbes felt that human beings were “savage machines” that could only function under the strong arm of government, and David Hume was the complete skeptic who felt that certain knowledge of anything was impossible, therefore even knowledge of God. This way of thinking was carried into the ethical realm even further in the nineteenth century by the ethical utilitarian movement of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who taught that ethics should be based on the amounts of pleasure or pain any given act produces.

These philosophers in many ways laid the foundations of the modern secular world, where divine revelation is doubted, human reason is fallible yet at the same time ethics is a matter of judging consequences relative to each individual ethical dilemma.

The New Testament and Unbelief
While the world of the New Testament and the early Church was not a world of “modern atheism,” it was a world hostile a times to the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. This hostility is explained by two words in the New Testament: (Apeitheia) usually translated from the Greek as “disobedience,” and (Apistia) meaning “unbelief.”

Apeithia can be found six times in the New Testament (Rom. 11:30, 11:32, Eph. 2:2, 5:6, and Heb. 4:6, 4:11). It describes the human characteristic of disobedience, for example in Hebrews 4:11 it states, “Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.” Also, in Ephesians 5:6, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these thing the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” Atheism is not just disbelief, it is disobedience, a rejection of human nature which is made in the image and likeness of its Creator. It is disobedience to divine revelation, an active disobedience in much the same manner that Christians experience in parts of the Middle East and Asia where their religious symbols are torn down and disrespected because of their faith. In the western world of Europe and North America we see Christian symbols stripped from public places, and Christian holidays secularized in symbol and in speech. While atheists want their movement to be seen as some type of rationally common sense idea, it carries with it its own doctrines of secularism, ethical relativism, and anti-theism, and is armed with lobbyists and political activists in Washington, D.C., and throughout the nation.

Apistia, meaning unbelief can be found eleven times in the New Testament (Matt. 13:58; Mark 6:6, 9:24, 16:24; Rom. 3:3, 4:20, 11:20, 11:23; 1 Tim. 1:13; Heb. 3:12, 3:19). The Gospel of Matthew records how when Jesus came to his hometown of Nazareth he was amazed at their unbelief:

He came to his native place and taught the people in their synagogue. They were astonished and said, “Where did this man get such wisdom and mighty deeds? Is he not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother named Mary and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Are not his sisters all with us? Where did this man get all this?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and in his own house.” And he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith. (Matthew 13:54-58)

Their lack of faith stifled the good works, the gifts of grace that the Lord wished to bestow upon them. In this passage we see that unbelief is an active not a passive denial of the Lord’s presence and message. They see and marvel at his wisdom and yet they choose to not believe in him. In the Letter to the Hebrews we are reminded to guard our faith; “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, that falls away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12).

Conclusion
The atheist movement is possibly the most politically active “belief system” in America. While various Christian churches, and non-Christian religions in America seek to find common ground, common concern, and peaceful dialogue; atheism seeks to confront, belittle, legally eviscerate, and marginalize religions in the public square, and in the judicial and political arena. It has aligned itself with the most radical movements of secular relativism that seeks to totally discard the traditional Christian values upon which America was founded. If the word religion coming from the Latin religio be translated in its original sense, as “people gathered together for a purpose,” then atheism is truly a religion, a religion of anti-theism.

Fr. David Andrew Fisher

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Fr. David Andrew Fisher is priest in residence at St. Cyprian Catholic Church in Philadelphia and is an adjunct faculty member at Rosemont College. He earned his S.T.L and Ph.D. in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

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