The militant atheism behind this month’s upcoming “Reason Rally” on the Mall in D.C. isn’t the only flavor of skepticism these days. In fact, instead of blaming people of faith for the woes of the world, some atheists now are actually speaking out on behalf of religion. But their reasons for doing so are as different as one could imagine.
Alain de Botton, the famous British atheist who challenged Richard Dawkins’s “destructive” attacks on religion, says society needs faith. Now there’s a “man-bites-dog” story.
De Botton explained in a recent interview: “[M]y argument is that…religion is full of useful, interesting . . . consoling ideas that could…appeal even to someone who has…no interest in being a believer.”
In his book, Religion for Atheists, de Botton insists that churches and other places of worship are just some of the many elements of religion unbelievers must incorporate into their lives if secularism is to survive. And he’s proving how serious he is by sponsoring an atheist “temple” in London, a place he says is designed “for ‘love, friendship, calm and perspective.’”
Now, love, friendship, calm, and perspective are all fine things, but how do you get the fruits of religion without the religion itself?
Coincidentally, de Botton’s views sound like an echo of another voice here in the States — retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, a man whose views place him squarely outside Christian orthodoxy. Spong took to the airwaves last month to promote his new book, in which he argues that Scripture was never meant to be read literally. Letting go of rigid doctrines like the Virgin Birth and Divinity of Christ, he says, are necessary if Christians hope to “stop the exodus of people from religion.”
In fact, he says, fundamentalists who get distracted by debates over abortion, homosexuality, and birth control are missing the point just as badly as atheists who reject faith completely.
Well, as nice as it seems that some atheists are favorably disposed toward religion, they can’t have it both ways. In fact, another atheist, who is a homosexual rights advocate in Britain, thinks de Botton and Spong’s ideas are both ridiculous. And he’s right! In a recent Spectator column, Matthew Parris calls religious believers to wake up and realize that their “faith is being defended by the wrong people, in the wrong way.” He warns us: “Beware…the patronage of unbelievers. They want your religion as a social institution, filleted of true faith.”
“To those who truly believe,” he writes, “the implicit message beneath ‘never mind if it’s true, religion is good for people’ is insulting.”
According to Parris, the only valid reason to believe the religion of Jesus Christ is if it’s true! And if it is true, he says, “it must have the most profound consequences for a man and for mankind.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Nor could I have more accurately summed up the core message of BreakPoint: The Christian worldview claims to explain and embrace all of reality. It makes hard-and-fast truth claims. And — as another one-time atheist, C. S. Lewis, argued — does not leave us the option of reducing Christ or the Bible to being “good moral teachers.”
No, religion is only “useful” or “consoling” insofar as it is true. And Christianity, unlike others, is both because it is.