As many as 30,000 attendees are expected at a “celebration of godlessness” in Washington, D.C., this Saturday. The name leaders have given this event, the Reason Rally, is telling. Atheist groups seem to be seeking to make reason the battleground of worldviews. Indeed, you can find the word almost everywhere in their websites, their books, their mottoes and slogans, and in the names of their organizations.
Over the past few months I’ve been helping to lead a Christian response to this through an initiative and an e-book, both called True Reason. We are engaging the atheists at what they seem to consider their point of strength, reason, which we actually find to be a distinct weak point for them. As we show in the e-book, reason is more at home within Christianity than atheism, and Christianity is more at home with reason.
After several months focusing on that field of conflict, I am grateful that’s not all there is to the faith. As I wrote in the first chapter of True Reason,
As Christians we are convinced that reason is from God. I do not mean that we do as the New Atheists seem to do, and raise the flag of Reason over our troops as if it were our one main thing. We see life as more multi-dimensional than that. The greatest commandment, said Jesus Christ (Mk. 12:28-31), is to love the Lord our God with our whole selves: heart, soul, and strength, as well as mind. There is mystery in Christianity. There is worship. There is a lived-out life of action in Christ’s name. We embrace the imagination, the power of narrative, the importance of beauty and the arts, and the value of community.
Atheists and believers alike know of physical strength: the role of the body, of matter and energy, and of nature. Atheists and believers both have access in their worldview to matters of the heart: love and relationships, ethical choices, appreciation of beauty, and other like matters. (I am not trying here to make technical distinctions between heart, soul, mind, and strength.) And atheism, like Christianity, certainly employs and appreciates the mind, the reasoning faculty, even though there are some ways in which it does so less successfully than it could or should (as we seek to show in the book True Reason).
But atheism knows nothing of the soul: the spiritual, non-material side of human life. In its commonest 21st-century form, atheism takes the position that nothing exists but matter and energy, and their interactions by law and by chance. Known more technically as naturalism or materialism, this belief leads directly to the conclusion that we are essentially machines. University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne, for instance, says our minds are functionally equal to our brains, which are equal to “meat computers.”
That illustrates what happens when one removes soul from the human equation: The rest of human life tends to disappear along with it. Daniel Dennett takes it that consciousness is an illusion. Love is strictly a neurochemical thing. Jerry Coyne, again, would say that every behavior, every feeling, is a neurochemical thing. Peter Singer says it is wrong—“speciesist,” he calls it—to regard humans as essentially unique and different from animals. This leads us to an irony equal to that of atheists camping upon “reason.” Many atheistic groups go by the name “humanist,” yet theirs is a doctrine that strips the humanness out of being human.
Now as I say that, I can’t help recalling atheists’ responses when I have said the same kind of thing elsewhere: “What do you mean? There’s nothing de-humanizing about atheism! We have loving relationships, we enjoy beauty, we have morals. . . .” To which I answer, “Of course you do. We’re all genuinely human beings. Still, you subscribe to a belief system that conflicts with your humanness. You live in the reality of being human, with all its unique value, worth, freedom, and dignity, while adhering to beliefs that deny those qualities of humanness.”
Christianity, by contrast, is very human. For all its spiritual orientation and its emphasis on an eternal state that is not yet visible, still Christianity is very rooted in present physical reality. It celebrates God’s good creation. It acknowledges that God became flesh. He was born, lived, and died in a human body. When he was raised from the dead, it was a physical resurrection.
We can drill that down one level deeper yet: The Son of God became human. What could be more affirming of humanity than that? He shared in laughter, music, friendships, learning, prayer, celebration, grief, pain, temptation—virtually everything human, except sin.
Secular humanists tend to make that word sin the sticking point, complaining that the doctrine of original sin degrades humans. Their problem with it is at least partly due to a misunderstanding. Often they present it as if we teach that humans are as bad as anything could possibly be, or that humans are worthless worms. Neither of those is the case. Jesus Christ’s becoming human ought to be sufficient to answer the second of those misconceptions; but to that, we can also add that God considered it worthwhile to sacrifice himself for us.
And Christian theology does not teach that every human is as bad as we could possibly be. That’s a distortion. The Bible agrees with experience: We all have our good sides. We’ve been marred, or polluted, through sin, however, so that we can never become good enough to reach God’s standard of goodness.
Anyway, it would be a mistake to think that questions of humanness are all about theology and philosophy, or disputes over terms and their implications. There’s so much more to it than that! Music, for example. I was a musician before I was a writer, and I am sure my trombone playing proclaimed as much truth as my words ever have. Music is a heart-to-heart form of expression, which shows (among other things) that the heart is for real. We’re more than machines there. I’ve used computers to analyze musical waveforms. These machines can “hear” music, in a manner of speaking, but they certainly don’t get it. Music is not for computers, not even for “meat computers”; it’s for people. And although I have a bias for music over other art forms, the fact is that everything I have said about music applies as well to any other form of beauty.
Christianity is also about life together: handshakes and quiet smiles, small talk and deep discussions, tears and hugs, all of which are at the heart of the Christian life, as they are of all humanity. Unlike secular humanism, Christianity places these things at the core of reality itself. God is a God of relationship, the three Persons of the Trinity loving one another eternally. God made His creation to be a reflection of his reality, so He made humans to relate to Him and to each other. Secular humanism, by contrast, considers the oldest and most fundamental relationships to be those of blind, inflexible, intractable, and unbreakable natural law. Think of the relationship between two magnets. If we want to, we can personify them and use words like “attract” and “repel” that we would also use words for humans—but who thinks magnets actually care about attracting and repelling?
I could go on speaking of other ways Christianity is more humanizing than secular humanism, but instead I want to re-emphasize what I said earlier. (I have been misunderstood on this point too often, so I want to make sure it’s clear.) God made us the way we are. No philosophical system could ever make us anything but that. Secular humanists may not believe they are created in God’s image, but still they are. They carry all the worth and dignity that comes with that, even if they deny it.
I’m not saying Christians are more human than humanists, but that Christianity is more real, more genuine, more true to what we know about the reality of what and who we are. Christianity is more humanizing than humanism.
Tom Gilson is a Campus Crusade for Christ/Cru writer and strategist currently on assignment to BreakPoint. He blogs at ThinkingChristian.net. His new e-book, True Reason, is available here.
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.