Facing the Atheism All Around Us

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I do not think of myself as a visionary or a prophet. Indeed, I am dubious of such phenomena. I’d prefer to call my experience a “mental image” or a “dream image.”

It came to me in that in-between state when I was not sure if I was praying or dozing. But it really doesn’t matter. What matters is the content and context of the vision.

It took place in November 1989, when the world was excited about the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Across Europe, communism was crumbling. My dream vision was this: I saw a gigantic brown bear lumbering along at great speed. It was terrifyingwith red eyes and an open, slavering mouth with sharp teeth and blood dripping from its muzzle. It came to a crumbling wall and clambered over it. And I understood that the bearthe Beast from the Eastwas the spirit of atheism. As communism crumbled, this beast was moving into new territoryfrom the East to the West.

I have thought much about that dream vision over the last twenty-five or so years, and it seems to me that my vision was indeed prophetic.

In these twenty-five years in the West, we have seen what can only be described as our own form of violent, virulent atheism. Not only have the “New Atheists” come about during those twenty-five years, but many more implicit forms of atheism have grown amongst us like a noxious cancer. 

These are the sixteen “isms” I have outlined in the first half of my new book, Beheading Hydra. Each one of the “isms” is a manifestation of atheism. Our materialistic atheism is not enforced with secret police, confiscation of Church property, imprisonment, and torture. Instead, it pervades every aspect of our culture.

There is an old saying, “The last thing the fish sees is the water.” We are the fish. The sixteen atheistic “isms” are the water—water that is murky and saturated with sewage and mud. 

These false, interlocking ideologies have not just influenced our culture. They are our culture. Because they are so foundational, we are unaware of them and underestimate their influence. Because we underestimate them, we have no real idea how to combat them.

Why is this? Because atheistic relativism has eaten away the ability to have any kind of real discussion at all. If there is no such thing as truth, the argument simply slips and slides away. As I’ve often said, “Arguing with a relativist is like wrestling with an octopus in oil in the dark.”

Because of relativism, the discussion will ultimately be driven by the other “isms”: sentimentalism, utilitarianism, pragmatism, and individualism. Any attempt to assess the truth or state a truth which is binding will simply be shrugged off with, “You have your truth and I have mine.”

In his important book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman points out that not only is debate difficult, it is impossible. Two people who both agree that there is an ultimate foundation for truth that is beyond their own experience have a basis for discussion. However, if one side believes in a greater source for truth and the other not only denies but also doesn’t even have a concept of a transcendent source for truth, debate is dead. There is no connection. They are playing tennis on adjacent courts.

This is the situation we are now in as Christian believers in twenty-first-century Western society. We believe in a transcendent foundation for truth. The majority of Americans either deny the existence of this greater authority or are ignorant of it altogether. Many of those who call themselves Christians—even our Christian leaders—deny this greater authority or at least deny its relevance to everyday matters. This is why so many of the arguments in the culture wars are as pointless and ridiculous as a terrier growling, chewing, and shaking a slipper. 

What can be done? How can a battle even commence?

It is worth pausing to consider how our ancestors did battle because, just as the enemy is subtle, the weapons for battle are not what you would think. In Rethinking the Enlightenment, Joseph T. Stuart discusses how Christians engaged the anti-Christian philosophies in the eighteenth century. They went to war in three ways: Conflict, Engagement, and Retreat.

The first (conflict), is a full one-on-one, head-to-head battle. Down through history this sometimes meant not only an intellectual and political power struggle but actual warfare, persecution, and bloodshed. This was a failure. It was counterproductive and only made the enemies of the truth resentful and more determined to fight back even harder next time.

The second method was engagement, or more accurately, accommodation. In every age, what seems to be a “good Christian” approach to Satan’s lies is to find what seems good within the opposing side’s position. It seems like the most reasonable way forward is to dialogueto reason with the opposition and, through negotiation and listening, find shared values and a middle ground of tolerance and cooperation. 

While this sounds good, inevitably it too fails because the faith is weakened. Resolve disintegrates and the enemies of truth gain ground. It also fails because, as I have pointed out above, we are in a new situation. The “isms” have prevailed to such an extent that there is no shared foundation and therefore no realistic basis for dialogue.

Furthermore, atheistic relativists regard those with a transcendent world view as dangerous bullies who want to impose their faith and its pointless restrictions on everyone. Dialogue? The enemies of the faith are not interested in dialogue, and they are certainly not interested in compromise. If you give an inch, they will take ten miles, and Catholics who believe otherwise are naive. Christians who seek to accommodate the ways of the world end up adopting the ways of the world, and inevitably the faith is watered down, the Church is weakened, and the light of Christ grows dim.

Conflict or accommodation have been the Catholic Church’s experience throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Popes Pius IX and X fought hard to suppress liberalism and modernism. They entered the conflict. Through their encyclicals, the oath against modernism, the index of forbidden books, and a determined enforcement of rules and regulations, they tried to defeat the lies; but the heads of Hydra would not be defeated. The serpents of modernism simply slithered away and hid.

The Second Vatican Council can be understood as an attempt at engagement. The fathers of the Church tried a different tactic. They would study carefully and select what they thought was good from the modern world and adapt those ideas to Church teaching. 

The Second Vatican Council was a great experiment in engagement, ecumenism, and encouragement; but as we have all experienced, the faith was weakened. The enemies of the Church were given an inch and they used “the spirit of Vatican II” to take ten thousand miles. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life plummeted, attendance at Mass nosedived, and thousands of Catholics left the Church for Protestant churches, other religions, or nothing at all.

Stuart calls the third method of dealing with the lies of the enlightenment period “retreat.” I prefer the term “creative subversion.” He uses the example from the eighteenth century of the Great Awakening and the Methodist revival. Charles and John Wesley were Oxford educated. They were well aware of the anti-Christian intellectual trends of the eighteenth century. The Wesley brothers just went around them.

They did not engage in open conflict, neither did they accommodate the faith and compromise. Instead, they simply got on with the task of living radical, dynamic, obedient, Spirit-filled lives.

They evangelized the working classes. They wrote books and hymns. They traveled tirelessly preaching the Gospel. They started churches, ran Bible studies, advised the poor, organized charities to battle against poverty and alcoholism, started schools, campaigned against social injustice, and raised money for all the good work they were doing.

They may not have been Catholics, but they were Christian heroes. And they, and the Catholics who have done the same down the ages—whether they were the apostles and early believers, the Benedictine monks, the Jesuit missionary martyrs, or countless othersrealized that the best strategy was to simply sidestep the subtle lies, pray for guidance, energy, and insight, roll up their sleeves, and do what they could with what they had where they were.

[Photo: “Reason Rally” (Kordite/Flickr)]

By

Father Dwight Longenecker is the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His upcoming book, Beheading Hydra: A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age, will be published by Sophia Institute Press in the Spring. Read more at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

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