Everyone, Atheists Included, Is Religious

Everyone, Atheists Included, Is Religious

(A Study for: The reason for God, Introduction)

Contents

NOTE: Throughout the text you will bracketed green text insertions that begin with the word “Discussion”. These are suggested discussion questions for small group leaders, who would like to go through these topics in an interactive group setting.

What is Religion?

Before we can study any sort of claims about religion, we must start with the question: “What is religion?”

[Discussion: How would you define religion?]

The Oxford English Dictionary1 defines religion as follows:

“The service and worship of God or the supernatural”.

However, it is important to note that a religion does not have to necessarily include any belief in superhuman agency or a god or gods. Zen Buddhism doesn’t believe in God at all. Hinduism on the other hand doesn’t believe in a supernatural world beyond the material world. Yet, hardly anyone would attempt to claim that Zen Buddhism or Hinduism aren’t religions. Thus, it can be argued that the following definition from the Merriam-Webster1 is more accurate:

“A cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.”

Historian C. John Sommerville has pointed out that “a religion can be judged only on the basis of another religion.” You can’t evaluate a religion, except on the basis of some ethical criteria that in the end amounts to your own religious stance.”

[Discussion: Do you agree with Sommerville?]

Most of our convictions originate from our internal beliefs, which are almost impossible to prove, or even to justify to those who disagree with them. For example, let’s say there is both a person and a dog drowning, and you can only save one. Which one do you save?

Person A may feel that human lives are more valuable than the lives of dogs. Person B may feel that all life is equally valuable. Person A may object saying that humans have more developed brains, so the drowning human should be saved over the drowning dog. Person B may ask, “What if the person in the water is an adult with an under-developed brain and the dog is smarter?”

As you can see, Person A and Person B have now arrived to a situation wherein there might not be any way to convince the other what is the right thing to do without our referencing of some external standard, which would amount to some kind of religious belief as defined by Wikipedia. Everyone who wants to make any sort of moral reasoning must be religious, whether or not they have taken time to reflect and think about it. Everyone who says, “You should to do this,” or, “You shouldn’t do that,” reasons from their implicit or explicit moral and religious positions.

Tim Keller gives an excellent definition of religion in his book The Reason for God. He says that religion is:

A set of beliefs that explain what life is all about. Who we are, and the most important things human beings should spend their time doing.

For example, some think this material world is all there is, that we are here by accident and when we die we just rot, and the most important thing to do is what makes you happy without letting others impose their beliefs on you. Notice although this is not an explicit “organized” religion, it contains a master narrative, an account about the meaning of life along with a recommendation for how to live based on that account of things. Yet, if you really struggle with the term religion, feel free to replace the word “religion” with the word “worldview” or “narrative identity” as we continue.

What is Faith?

Often the word “faith” is closely associated with religion, but what is faith?

[Discussion: How would you define faith?]

Faith contains two aspects:

  1. Mental assent;
  2. Trust;

Mental assent is believing something to be true. Trust is actually relying on something being true. A parachute can be used to help illustrate this.

Mental assent is recognizing that a parachute is designed to safely land the person who is using it. Trust is using the parachute. That’s what a leap of faith is.

I can’t prove the parachute will land me safely until I use it. However, I’m ready to strap it on and take that leap of faith. The Bible defines faith in a similar manner.

Do Christians Live Based on Faith?

[Discussion: Do you recall how the Bible defines faith?]

The Bible, in Hebrews 1:1, gives this definition: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Simply put, faith is trusting in something you cannot explicitly prove. (More about faith here: https://www.gotquestions.org/definition-of-faith.html). While the Christian way of thinking has many good reasons and evidence to support it, it still requires faith, which, Christians believe, only God can give.

Do Secular People Live Based on Faith?

Secular people may sometimes say they only believe in things that science can prove and they don’t live by faith.

[Discussion: What do you think of this statement?]

If you see yourself as a secular person, who only believes in what science can prove, I would ask you to reconsider if you’re not taking similar leaps of faith as Christians.

Moral Secularists

The vast majority of secular people are moral secularists. Let me ask you question: Do you believe in human rights? Do you believe that it’s wrong to torture babies just for the fun of it? If so, you are a moral secularist living by faith. I will explain why.

To quote the philosopher Charles Taylor:

To be a secular person—to believe, for example, that there is no God and yet there are nonetheless human rights—is to base one’s view of the world on a combination of reason and faith, just like religious people do.2

Why is that? Because it is impossible to prove that human rights should exist, other than by faith. For example, you might say you don’t believe in a god—at least not in the Christian God—because you don’t believe someone has the right to tell others how to live their lives. You may believe everyone should be able to decide for themselves how they live, providing they don’t hurt others, but where do your beliefs come from—that nobody has the right to tell people how to live, and that people shouldn’t hurt others? Can these beliefs be proven to someone who disagrees with you?

[Discussion: How could you prove to someone this is how the universe actually works—that nobody has the right to tell others how to live their lives, or that people shouldn’t hurt others?]

As nice as your beliefs sound, you can’t prove them nor can you prove that’s how the universe works or should work. Your position is a leap of faith, a deep belief this is how the universe should operate, but there’s no proof for it. You have faith you are right without having any proof. You would be hard pressed to prove your position to a nihilist philosopher, which brings us to our next group of people.

Earlier on, I asked you if you believed in human rights and if you believed it’s wrong to torture babies just for the fun of it. Most likely, you answered yes to both questions. However, there is a small group, usually nihilists, who would have said there is no right nor wrong, including torture of babies. Does this mean nihilists do not have faith?

Nihilists

According to the Oxford English Dictionary,3 nihilism is the rejection of all religious and moral principles, the belief that life is meaningless. Many notable philosophers, such as Nietzsche,4 Bertrand Russel,5 and Richard Dawkins, appear to be nihilists, at least in part. In his book, River out of Eden, Dawkins writes:6

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference…. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is.

It says something when the atheists, who spend the most amount of time thinking deeply about their atheistic worldview, end up with a nihilistic worldview.7

[Discussion: Who lives his life more consistently in alignment with their worldview: the moral secularist or the nihilist? Why?]

One could argue that, among the people groups who do not believe in God, nihilists perhaps have the most logical and consistent worldview. If there is no proof of the innate special value of human beings—that instead we are here via evolution, survival of the fittest—why not help nature advance by getting rid of some burdensome weaklings who, from an evolutionary point of view, are a relative burden to society and “contaminating” the gene pool? Can the secular moralist prove to nihilists this killing of the weak would be wrong? With a major premise of evolution being “survival of the fittest”, you could argue it would be more logically consistent for a believer in evolution to argue against human rights than for them.

If we are just stardust or groups of atoms and this life is all there is, why not do what makes you happy, regardless of any rules about right or wrong? Who cares! You have one life to live, then you cease to exist.

If there is no God, there’s no afterlife, and this life is all, then why not live it to your full enjoyment? What does it matter if you abuse other people, because, in the end, rocks, trees, birds, sticks, and people are just a bunch of atoms grouped differently. A nihilist might ask why killing a person should be treated differently than cutting down a tree. Since nothing matters, maximize your own joy as much as you can, cut down trees for your warmth, eat animals, and take advantage of humans.

Even nihilists can’t escape that they are religious and live by faith. Nihilism, like all other worldviews, falls under the first part of the characterization of religion, which we read earlier: “Religion may be defined as a cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, world views, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics…”

Nihilism relates to behavior and ethics, since nihilists claim behavior and ethics don’t matter. Thus, like all other skeptics, nihilists live by faith and must deal with doubts. Like the moral secularist, a nihilist has no proof that ethics don’t matter.

Nihilists, like the moral secularists, are betting their lives and existence on an unprovable belief that there is no god who would hold them accountable for their beliefs and behavior. This may or may not be true, but, again, it’s quite a leap of faith. The difference between the atheist who is a moral secularist and the atheist who is a nihilist, is the nihilist lives more consistently with his worldview. The nihilist lives, at least in theory, like there were no ultimate truth nor moral law.

The moral secularist denies God, yet lives like there were some ultimate truth and/or moral law. Thus, the moral secularist’s life is not consistent with his worldview. Now, the moral secularist may object by saying they have a different source of ultimate truth and moral law other than God.

Regardless of the source, that source is the god of the moral secularists. It may not be the God of the Bible, but it is a god of their own creation. Furthermore, they are living by faith that they are right, and that the nihilist and believer in the God of the Bible are wrong. In the end, the Christian, moral secularist, and nihilist all live by faith.

If we all live by faith, how does doubt fit into this?

What about Doubt?

Doubt is the opposite of faith. Regardless of what religion or worldview one holds, everyone’s faith is mixed with a certain amount of doubt as well. Dealing with our doubts is quite important—perhaps equally important as dealing with our faith.

[Discussion: What could happen to those holding a certain worldview—be it Christian, Muslim, Hindu, moral secularist or nihilist—who go through life too busy or indifferent to ask difficult questions about why they believe what they do?]

Doubts are really just a set of alternate beliefs. It’s impossible to doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B. For example, if I doubt someone is telling the truth, it means I have faith that this someone is lying, and this is how it is with all beliefs and doubts. One can only doubt Belief A from a position of faith in Belief B. Thus, even self-proclaimed skeptics must realize there is faith hidden in their doubts.

A faith without any doubts is like your body lacking an immune system. If you never analyze your worldview, you will find yourself defenseless in difficult life situations or in the face of challenging questions from someone who doesn’t hold your beliefs. A person’s faith can evaporate very quickly if she hasn’t worked through her doubts, and only via such introspection will she be able to provide a logical and reasonable self-defense regarding her faith. Additionally, going through the process of investigating and considering your doubts, will give you increased respect, understanding, and sympathy towards those who doubt your worldview.

Summary

Everyone who thinks there is right and wrong, who wants to do moral reasoning, must be religious. Everyone who says, “You should to do this,” or “You shouldn’t do that,” reasons from their implicit or explicit moral and religious positions. Even the nihilists, who say there is no right and wrong, are religious, because they have faith in their unprovable position that ethics and morality do not matter.

All people live by faith. Regardless of what our religious beliefs are, they require faith.

  • Christians have faith that the God of the Bible exists;
  • Secularists have faith that the God of the Bible doesn’t exist, or, even if he does, he wouldn’t hold them accountable for their behavior;

Neither position can be proven with 100% certainty, which is why it’s important to analyze our doubts and not run away from this mental exercise, like many people do. They don’t want to think about difficult things, so they make assumptions about the nature of things, the universe, God, and never research it longer than 15 minutes. Then, they cross their fingers and hope for the best. Is this a wise manner to treat potentially the most important decision of your life? Take the challenge and develop an honest understanding of your faith and doubts.

Sources:

I made this document as a study guide for my small group as we read through and discussed Tim Keller’s book Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, which is highly recommended for deeper study:https://www.amazon.com/Reason-God-Belief-Age-Skepticism-ebook/dp/B000XPNUZE/ref=sr_1_1_twi_kin_3

Most of the content in this document were derived from the introduction of the book.

Feel free to use this document in your own group studies, but kindly provide a link back to this page.


[1] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/religion; https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/religion

[2] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 22; Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (p. xvi & location 144/4761 Kindle Edition).

[3] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/nihilism

[4] Nietzsche: “My demand upon the philosopher is known, that he take his stand beyond good and evil and leave the illusion of moral judgment beneath himself. This demand follows from an insight which I was the first to formulate: that there are altogether no moral facts…. Morality is merely an interpretation of certain phenomena—more precisely, a misinterpretation…. Moral judgments are … never to be taken literally: so understood, they always contain mere absurdity.” https://genius.com/Friedrich-nietzsche-twilight-of-the-idols-chap-6-annotated

[5] Russell: “That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes, and fears, his loves and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve the individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system…. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/654503-that-man-is-the-product-of-causes-which-had-no

[6] Dawkins: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/22201-the-total-amount-of-suffering-per-year-in-the-natural

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_nihilism;https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nihilism

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