Is it really true that there are no atheists in foxholes? The saying entered American parlance during World War II when war correspondents saw soldiers turn to God after facing enemy fire. On a hot July 4th about sixty years later, a few dozen veterans gathered in rural Alabama to dedicate a monument declaring it wrong. The Monument to Atheists in Foxholes, a stately six-foot granite obelisk overlooking scenic Lake Hypatia near Talladega, was erected in 1999 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to honor those soldiers they believe were unrecognized atheists in foxholes.
Lake Hypatia has become a sort of southern outpost for atheism in America. Here the Alabama Freethought Association, which director Pat Cleveland calls “a kind of big old family,” meets the third Sunday of each month for an 11 a.m. social hour, covered dish lunch at noon, and speaker at 1 p.m. The association also hosts an annual Independence Weekend celebration called the Lake Hypatia Advance (not retreat, Advance) filled with camping and camaraderie with fellow freethinkers. Meet the down-home contingent of nonbelief in America.
Nonbelievers go by a variety of names, such as humanists, skeptics, rationalists, freethinkers, or naturalists. Though distinctions are fuzzy and definitions overlap, their common thread is rejection of faith in God and religion, as if the two were synonymous, in favor of faith in science and reason, as if science and reason preclude belief in God. Regarding personal belief in the existence of God, individuals will fall into one of two categories: agnosticism or atheism. An agnostic says, I don’t know or, it cannot be known if there is a God, the word ‘agnostic’ meaning ‘without knowledge,’ while the atheist’s nonbelief is more resolute. ‘Atheist’ means, ‘without God,’ and the atheist boldly asserts just that: There is no God.
It is noteworthy that the Lake Hypatia freethinkers call their retreat an Advance. While many atheists consider themselves non-missiological, in reality many of them are on a calculated mission to gain converts. On September 9th, 2008, as Americans prepared to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the Freedom From Religion Foundation took out a full-page ad in the New York Times. The headline, printed in large letters above a pre-9/11 New York City skyline, asks us to “Imagine a World Free From Religion,” while the text says the greatest threat to American liberty today is domestic religious fanaticism, warning, “Beware the faith-based initiative.” Alarmed readers are encouraged to join the foundation, subscribe to its newsletter, and make a tax-deductible donation.
Reasoning About Atheism
According to its website, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is the nation’s largest association of atheists and agnostics and has been working since 1978 to promote freethought and keep state and church separate. Statistics indicate they are gaining ground. They still represent a minority, but the growing popularity of this worldview, especially among the younger generation, makes it a formidable social trend.
Advancing atheists present their worldview as more enlightened, open-minded, and progressive. The Alabama Freethought Association, a local chapter of the FFRF and home to the Monument to Atheists in Foxholes, defines a freethinker as “one who forms opinions about religion, independently of tradition, authority or established belief, in favor of rational inquiry.”
But are they as open-minded as they think they are? Can a Christian also be a free thinker? If rational inquiry is defined as ‘a reasoned exploration of ideas,’ then, yes, this is a means of uncovering truth we can wholeheartedly embrace. A dialogue with Ivan demonstrates this.
Like most atheists, Ivan believes science has disproved the existence of God. “I’m definitely an atheist,” he affirmed when I asked him about it. “I am an atheist because I cannot believe in fantasy. There is no God. There is no heaven. There is no hell. That stuff was created by man to help man feel better about himself. When I look at the scientific facts, I cannot believe in that. So yes, I am an atheist. Absolutely.”
“Which scientific facts?” I asked, picking up on his lead.
I expected him to go into evolution, but instead he read me some data on the size of the universe, emphasizing its vastness. “To think that there’s some type of supreme being, call it God or Jesus, that is bigger than that? That is concerned about us on earth? About our welfare? About our future? It’s absolutely preposterous,” he said.
Ivan likened belief in God to belief in Santa Clause, and he strongly resents Christians’ attempts to convert him. Like many atheists, he demands, Who made God? as if the question is a dialectical trump card. “When I say, ‘Who created God?’ they can’t answer,” he said. “They get all flustered, and then try to change the subject.” Ivan also charged Christians with closed-mindedness: “When is the last time any Christian ever read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, for example?”
Deconstructing “Science-Based” Pretensions Through Rational Inquiry
Knowing that real inquiry always illumines truth, I read The God Delusion at Ivan’s prompting. What I found was a lengthy rant that, despite Dr. Dawkins’s respectable credentials as a zoologist, said more about his contempt for God than it did about science. The crux of its thesis, from Chapter 4, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God,” is the PhD’s argument for the non-existence of God, which distills to something like this:
- The universe we observe is highly complex.
- Any creator of this highly complex universe would have to be even more complex than it.
- It is too improbable that such a God exists.
The first two statements qualify as acceptable premises, but the conclusion he reaches simply does not follow from them. Though Dr. Dawkins’s reasoning is more structured, it’s essentially the same as Ivan’s: “There is no God because … that’s preposterous!” Neither Ivan nor Richard Dawkins is engaging in legitimate reasoning. They’re indulging in rationalization – finding some plausible-sounding explanation for arriving at the conclusion they’ve already chosen. Dr. Dawkins and Ivan are certainly free to choose unbelief, but their conclusion was not derived through scientific or rational processes.
I pointed this out to Ivan, whereupon he politely requested that I respect his beliefs and not attempt to convert him. “I believe that at some point, people end up with firm convictions,” he wrote to me in an email. “Once they say they are, their viewpoints should be respected and further attempts to convert them should be avoided because not everybody wants to be converted.” There’s the heart of the matter: “Not everybody wants to be converted.”
The prevailing posture among Atheism on the Advance says the atheistic worldview is more intellectually sound and evolutionarily advanced. That atheism is the belief anyone would come to if he examined the scientific facts, all other belief systems being execrable vestiges of Stone Age superstition, on a par with moon worship and child sacrifice. But Richard Dawkins’s book and Ivan’s words indicate otherwise. It’s a personal, philosophical faith choice to disbelieve.
Engaging for Life
Like Ivan, many nonbelievers resist reconsidering their choice, so why bother engaging them in dialogue? I suggest three reasons. First, when we engage in genuine inquiry, we can dismantle the pretense of science-based atheism. Second, some do reconsider. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project was a contented atheist until a seriously ill patient asked him what he believed. The question moved him to examine the issue with an open mind and ultimately to convert to Christianity.
And third, when God’s Holy Spirit lives within us, He may plead His case even without our words. Dr. Mike Adams, a college professor in North Carolina, was a radical atheist until he encountered a Catholic inmate in an vile Ecuadorian prison, whose name he never thought to ask, but whose spirit of peace and thankfulness prompted a turning point for his errant soul. Four years later, he returned to the church, a committed Christian.
We must engage atheists, Dr. Adams writes. “If a Christian really believes the things he professes to believe, he will go to great lengths to share it with others. He would even crawl on his belly across a desert of broken glass if he thought he could reach an atheist.” Yes we must. We must dismantle the barrier of atheism’s scientific pretensions and offer a chance for God to plead His case through us. When we engage as agents of Jesus Christ, we meet atheism’s bad philosophy with good philosophy, and we confront its unbelief with the certain reality of God’s good existence.