Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

17 Jul 2013

Why Atheists Need to Feel Like the Smartest People in the Room

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If you interact with those among the New Atheism crowd, whether personally or through writing, it won’t take you long to pick up on their intellectual arrogance.  Phrases like “I like to use my mind” or “I don’t need the crutch of belief in God” and words like “moron” or “coward” pop up regularly. These atheists don’t allow the possibility that you might be an intelligent person who has thought through the issues and still disagree with them. You must be a fool if you believe in God.

Why this snobbery? Part of the explanation is that many atheists are following the modus operandi of their heroes. This elitism pours out from the leading voices of the New Atheism, so many atheists are simply doing what they have been taught to do: When opposed, ridicule. Of course, this tactic is employed outside of the New Atheism crowd as well. For years, many in society have tried to marginalize belief in God, not by reasoned discussion but by arrogant dismissal. If enough people dismiss an idea as barbaric and backward, many will assume it to be true and act accordingly. When you combine the fact that “faith” is continually being pitted against “reason” in our day, it is not surprising that many atheists feel like the smartest person in the room. They have been led to believe that they are.

But I think there is something deeper at work as well. If you simply assume those who disagree with you are idiots, when you encounter someone who isn’t, you might theoretically respond by adjusting your attitude or at least wondering if you’ve been wrong. That does not often happen with the New Atheist crowd.  They simply ramp up their intellectual disdain. Why?

We are all worshippers by nature. We were made to worship God, but our sin causes us to replace God with other, lesser things. Some make gods of their family, others of their careers, others of pleasure, etc. Whatever we view as god is what matters most to us, and when we feel that our god is threatened we move to demonize those who threaten it.

When a New Atheist is faced with an intelligent opposition to his belief, his god is being threatened. For some, their god is a particular leader of the New Atheist movement. If that leader is wrong, their god is insufficient. Thus, when someone disagrees with that leader, the atheist will move to defend his god by attacking his opponent in a way that is consistent with his god. If he can convince himself that his opponent is a buffoon, then his god is still safe. For others, their god is their own mind. Thus, for them to be wrong means their god is insufficient. So anyone who disagrees with them must be a moron. They respond with their intellectual disdain because there is more at stake than an intellectual argument. Their god—and their self-worth—is under direct attack.

Are Christians different? Won’t they respond by attacking their opponents as well when their God is challenged? Unfortunately, many do. But when they do so, they dishonor the very God they are claiming to defend. The Christian God is a God who loves His enemies. He died for them! He is kind and merciful to both the good and the evil. With this God, there is no need to demonize your opponents. Rather, you can respond in the same self-sacrificial love He demonstrated.

3 Responses

  1. Michael

    Hi Ben,

    I’m an atheist and found this article very kind and thoughtful. It would be a fine world if we could all live with each other with such candor and respect. Thank You. 🙂

  2. Joseph Miller

    Nice article, Mr. Edwards. I have only recently come to appreciate the atheist’s contribution to our faith. It would seem that since God is sovereign the strength and popularity of the atheist’s position is by His deliberate and particular design. I suppose that it would be safe to assume that in as much as we maintain that Satan is a personal being, he would make a terribly lousy atheist. I suspect that this angry being could not be convinced by the best human argument that God does not exist.
    So I am left with the idea that God has raised up the atheist and that that is for Good. But that reasoning seems so illogical, so counterproductive. It must surely seem that these dear people are simply undermining, weakening and destroying the faith of many.
    But if we consider for a moment that the faith that operates and supports the believer, the authentic pistos, is actually kept by the power, the enabling ability of none less than the omnipotence of God Himself and so the concern for a collapsing faith is moot.
    Still the question remains. Why would God be responsible for allowing and even encouraging the world view of the atheist? Here is my proposal. He made the atheist for you, Ben Edwards and for me. He brought out these folk, often highly moral, kind, generous and image bearing people to deliberately upset our theological apple cart. Their job, as it were, is to ask the hard and difficult questions concerning the God we (perhaps) too often claim to know so much about. The atheist has done his/her job when you and I get stumped. Somebody is not telling the Truth. Either they are correct and we are wrong or it is the other way around. Truth hangs in the balance. Somebody has built a world view on a house of cards and is in huge trouble. Our atheist citizens fall back on a defense of human wit. But I know you well enough to know what you fall back on (better said to Whom you fall back on).
    Okay, I know that I am out on the limb here but do you suppose that God is to be and desires to be the ceaseless, most hotly contended, insistently clamoured for object of our every pleasure and admiration. Could it ever be said that He has given us permission to relax and settle back in our pursuit of the experience and understanding of the magnificent personage of Him? And when our atheistic neighbor locks up our heels and we run to Him who is the Wisdom of the ages for answers, comfort and Truth does He not just loom even larger, ever greater and more glorious?
    Is not your faith even stronger? Hasn’t that breast plate become more bulletproof?
    Thank God for your atheist. He is the agent for change, for bount and not for loss.
    Seriously, we should consider a new kind of bumper sticker “Christian, have you hugged your atheist today?” Can you imagine the very outrage of such a sticker?

    Atheists are good for the believer but they are hell for the ungifted.

  3. Barbara Craker

    Wowza. I was born an atheist, just like all people are…and by the time I was 5, I’d been told I was going to go to hell a whole bunch of times when I questioned my friends trying to preach at me…I was told this by children and by adults over and over again for years…Talk about Arrogance…………………And when I know more about the Bible than most “Christians” …it makes me realize that most people are just making up their own “feel good” religion anyway…But I have never been rude to anyone about their beliefs, and most of the atheists I personally know are the best, most moral people I’ve ever met…So I really wish, you people who are knocking those of us who don’t believe the same story that you claim, would just stop…STOP saying things about us that are not even true. We do not believe that there is no possibility of God usually, it’s just that we are not convinced…it really does seem like Santa Claus for grown-ups…that voice in your head is not God, ya know…