Modern atheism is not a thing

Published 9:19 pm Friday, April 28, 2017

By Rev. Dr. Chris Surber

G.K. Chesterton once said, “If there were no God, there would be no atheists.”

Historically atheism has simply been what is stated in the word: a denial of theism, that is, any religious system that asserts the existence of a personal or specific deity.

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This seems to have been the atheism of the 18th-century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. He was a skeptic of religion in general and of dogmatic Christian truth claims in particular.

His was a reasoned atheism. In fact, it is unclear if Hume ever even really considered himself what we would call an atheist today.

Hume’s primary argument against truth claims of Christianity is a reasoned one based on his ardent skepticism of miraculous claims. He stated that a miracle in the classic sense has two necessary components. He said a miracle is both a denial of the basic laws of nature and sourced in the direct volition or will of a divine agent acting directly or through some secondary means, such a person.

I and other Christian scholars would agree with that definition.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Hume’s arguments lead to the conclusion that we never have reason to believe miracle reports as passed on to us.”

But as a Christian theist, I happen to strongly disagree with that conclusion. I’m convinced that the eyewitness accounts, the change in disposition and courage of the disciples, the rise of the church under persecution and the thousands of pieces of manuscript evidence regarding the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, are strong reason to believe the miracles that have been passed down to us through the testimony of the Christian church.

Hume’s atheism was skepticism rooted in logic. He said, “I don’t think I can believe that.”

But today’s atheism is something else altogether. It is above all else an active belief in the non-existence of God. It has passed from passive skepticism to active non-belief. It has become a belief itself. It is the belief that there is no God.

The trouble is that speaking logically and coherently, that’s not a thing.

Active statements of non-belief are incoherent. Atheism, by definition, is a negation of theism. It is not an active belief. It is simply a lack of belief in theism.

Hume’s atheism was neutrality with regard to active deistic belief. That makes logical sense, at least. “I can’t accept your theism.” OK.

But today’s atheism is really just a dislike, disapproval and denunciation of religious belief. It’s not atheism. It’s anti-theism, and that is a whole other thing.

It is the insistence of knowledge of things that cannot be known. It is the claim to know universally what does not and even what cannot exist. That, in itself, is incoherent and impossible.

It is dishonest for today’s atheists to call themselves atheists. Chesterton speaks wisely when ads, “Atheism is indeed the most daring of all dogmas … for it is the assertion of a universal negative.”

Rev. Dr. Chris Surber is the pastor at Liberty Spring Christian Church. Email him at chris@chrissurber.com.