New Atheism and the Experience of the Divine

Much has been made regarding the controversies surrounding New Atheism. One can learn regarding this trend from Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. On the opposing side there are books like Francis Collins’ The Language of God and Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion? and The Twilight of Atheism.

The arguments of the New Atheism should not be disturbing to the faith of the believer, for they are not new arguments. They are the same arguments with the same presuppositions as have been produced since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Religion is seen as a “mind virus,” infecting and plaguing humanity, and the idea is that if religion could be removed, humanity would be better off. McGrath helps to put New Atheism in perspective: it’s really an attempt to resuscitate Enlightenment triumphalist rationalism and modernism, ideologies that were necessarily put to bed with the unrestrained horrors of the twentieth century. The Stalinist regime in the former Soviet Union puts to lie any belief that atheism, by necessity, must be kinder to humanity than religion.

In fact, the suppositions of atheism, once more uncritically accepted, are now subjected to much greater scrutiny, and they are lacking. Granted, it cannot be proven that there is a God; nevertheless, God cannot be disproved, either. One must have trust, or faith, in a given set of propositions (or assumptions) to believe that God exists or does not exist. The piece of evidence paraded out by New Atheism, Darwinianism in its various permutations, does not inherently suggest what they suggest. In fact, questions of origin, the anthropic principle, and an utter failure to cogently explain the persistence of a consistent moral standard and belief in the divine do well to indicate the failures and limitations of purely Darwinian ideology. Even in the post-Enlightenment twenty-first century there are good reasons to believe that there is a God.

Yet, unfortunately, the New Atheists have many points worthy of consideration. It is not from their understanding of theology (which is woefully deficient by any metric) but from their perception of what religion has done to the world and to society. The believer, when considering their vitriol, is surely disturbed, but if he or she is honest, it must be admitted that much of what is said is just. In terms of Christianity, while Jesus promotes a belief system that involves love, compassion, humility, and service, there are too many people who use the Christian moniker to justify or promote their particular economic, social, or political ideology, and in the end, Christianity as practiced is made to look completely different than Christianity as its Founder intended.

There will always be some atheists who will always find some reason or another to critique Christianity and the practice thereof, but it behooves the believer to consider the charges, their validity, and to do better in reflecting the true virtues and values of Christ (Romans 8:29).

I found much value in Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism, not just for its presentation of the history of atheism over the past two hundred and fifty years or so but also the social/cultural/religious context that led to its popularity.

For instance, the oft-quoted remark of Friedrich Nietzsche about God being dead. It is fascinating to me to learn that Nietzsche was not attempting to be prescriptive, but instead descriptive. The idea of “God being dead” is that, for all intents and purposes, “He was killed,” especially in late nineteenth century Germany (and, perhaps to a lesser degree, in Britain). At that particular moment in time, the prevailing social and cultural norms had no real need for God. Whether this was a good thing or not was what Nietzsche wanted to discuss; he was sadly too prescient about what would happen in a society that cast off belief in a higher power.

It was not a matter of evidences. It is not as if society just cast off belief in God because they no longer felt that the evidence held up. It was that the perspective of God and religion being offered to them did not in any way satisfy their needs or wants. McGrath goes so far as to suggest that part of the problem was the attempt to “prove” the existence of God and the truth of Christianity: whereas people were content to believe before such examinations, when the arguments were put forth and found to be rather on the weak side, it led to questioning where beforehand there was none.

But how was it that the groundwork could even be laid for a society and culture that had been so strongly Christian for so long to no longer have a need for God? McGrath presents a most compelling thesis, not original with him, about how Protestantism paved the way for the rise of atheism.

On the surface, such a statement seems odd, and perhaps counter-intuitive. Yet it is most probably true, and it has everything to do with the experience of the Divine.

For better or worse, for thousands of years, humans have believed that their world is suffused with the supernatural. Sadly, most of this belief has gone toward the worse: making gods out of natural forces, dabbling in the black arts, or an overtly strong emphasis on ritual (cf. Romans 1:18-32). And yet the Bible testifies to the fact that the One True God is present and in evidence in the creation, and that we exist in Him:

“The God that made the world and all things therein, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is he served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and he made of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us: for,
‘in him we live, and move, and have our being’;
as certain even of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring'” (Acts 17:24-28).

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hinder the truth in unrighteousness; because that which is known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse (Romans 1:18-20).

There is an expectation, therefore, that humans seek after the Divine. And people have, in various ways, for millennia. In the medieval world, this was popularly expressed through the belief in all kinds of supernatural entities that held sway on the earth along with the opportunity, it was said, to experience association with the Divine through the Mass, and especially the Eucharist, of the Roman Catholic church.

A major thrust of the Reformation was to remove all “superstition” from the religious organizations of the day, and we can certainly sympathize with that effort. Yet the forceful, almost unique emphasis on the proclamation of the Word in preaching and teaching led to matters of faith being a matter of the mind in the Protestant organizations. There was not given much room for experience of the Divine in many Protestant churches.

This excess was perceived and in some ways mollified in the Pietist and Wesleyan movements, but they continued to remain in Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican churches. The emphasis was firmly placed on understanding the faith with the mind which was then assumed to lead to right belief and right action. It would all be objective, systematized, and processed. One could go through all of the training and be extremely active in such a religion and never have any form of experience of the Divine. They could live their lives according to these rigorous standards as if there was no God.

As McGrath indicates, it’s not that far of a journey from living as if there was no God to believing that there is no God. The climate was ready for atheism because the experience of the Divine was all but removed from the faith.

And herein we have the challenge. The groups that are most successful today are those that stress (and with most, probably too much) some kind of experience of the Divine: from Pentecostalism to megachurch Evangelicalism. Yet, from experience with churches of Christ, there is at best discomfort and at worst strong suspicion of any attempt to incorporate the experience of the Divine in faith.

It is easy to see why. The church grew strong in the immediate aftereffects of the Enlightenment and the emphasis on reason and the rational. When confronted with Evangelicalism and especially Pentecostalism, there was a strong reaction, to the point where many to this day deny that God works miracles today (or, for that matter, that the demonic has any power at all). Anything that was experienced-based, regardless of its relationship to the revealed standard, was just too subjective and too questionable.

None of this is to say that all the various experiences that people claim to have with the Divine or supernatural forces are acceptable. We are strongly warned to avoid the black arts (Galatians 5:19-21). Everything must be tested by the standard of the truth as it has been revealed through the New Testament (Galatians 1:6-9, 1 John 4:1, Jude 1:3). Most of what has been promoted as the experience of the Divine has not been according to that standard, either because it was idolatrous (cf. Romans 1:18-32), or because it purported to be something that has been fulfilled (1 Corinthians 13:8-10).

Yet there is nothing in Scripture that teaches us that we should not expect to experience the Divine in any meaningful way. In fact, there is much in Scripture that teaches us that we should experience the Divine! We have seen in Acts 17:24-28 that we should “seek after God,” and that “in Him we live and move and have our being.” Our lives, therefore, should be saturated with the Divine in whom we exist and subsist.

The Lord’s Supper has been one of the most controversial elements of the faith throughout time. It is lamentable that the feast was taken so literally to the point of being considered cannibalism. Yet there is still force in what is written. Yes, the bread remains bread, and the fruit of the vine remains the fruit of the vine. Nevertheless, to partake of them represents a joint participation in the body and blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). We are called to experience the Divine in the Lord’s Supper!

Prayer is another significant aspect of the experience of the Divine. Something is seriously wrong if we are praying and all but believe that we are just having a monologue with ourselves. When we are praying it is as if we are before the very throne of G0d (Hebrews 4:16, 10:22). We are making our petitions before the most awesome and holy God: that em>should be an experience with the Divine if there ever was one!

Consider the emphasis in the New Testament on drawing near to God (cf. Hebrews 4:16, 7:19, 7:2, 10:1, 10:22, James 4:8). While the reference is not intended to be made concrete, it still seems awfully strange to draw near to God in an entirely objective, systematic way. There is an expectation that we experience the Divine in our existence.

Ephesians 3:10-11 declares that God’s manifold wisdom is made known in the church, and this is according to the eternal purpose of God in Christ. If God’s purpose is eternal, it has as many ramifications for our lives today as it did for the people who lived in the first century. Granted, it is not for us to experience God in the flesh as the Apostles did (cf. 1 John 1:1-3), and we do not experience the Divine as directly and in the same revelatory function as did those who came before us in the first century (1 Corinthians 13:8-10), but this by no means negates the need for us to experience the Divine and to have a faith that has subjective as well as objective dimensions.

There is wide appeal today for an experience of the Divine. This is what draws so many to various forms of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, let alone all the recent adherents to various “spiritual” disciplines, as well as the resurgence of interest in Eastern religion. This should not surprise us, for it is exactly what the Bible teaches: we are imbued with a desire to seek after God (Acts 17:27), and that seeking is not just a matter of intellectualism.

The appeal to the brain only will not work for many people. It did not in the first century and it does not now. The strongest appeal these days seems to come from authentic discipleship. If we set ourselves to the task of serving Jesus Christ as His disciples, believing what He taught, promoting it among ourselves and to our fellow man, and serving one another and those without, being open and honest about the challenges of faith, and being willing to consider and even speak of how God works in our lives, then the faith is clearly something worth investigating and even accepting. Saying one thing and doing another? That’s hypocrisy, the world sees through it, and people can find plenty of hypocrites around and get the ability to sleep in on Sunday. Saying and doing “as if there were no God”? Making an appeal based only on rational argument and reasoning, divorced from the Divine? Such is more like a mildly ascetic, slightly more humble atheism at worst. At best, it is a new variant on Deism: as opposed to believing that God created the world and then left it alone, here we have the belief that God created the world, was intimately involved at times with groups of people from the beginning of time until the end of the first century, and then He left it alone.

If we believe that we are God’s people, and that we are serving God, do we provide any evidence to the world that the supernatural does exist and that it is working? Consider these promises, of which we are given no indication from Scripture that they have expired:

“And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).

And we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32).

I understand that we must be humble when it comes to the experience of the Divine. The world has never lacked people who claim that everything that ever happens to them is some kind of an experience of the Divine, and not a few have been carried away in their beliefs about how they have experienced God. We must take the Bible seriously when it says that we must test the spirits, proving all things (1 John 4:1). But we must remain open to experiencing the Divine and being open to see how God works in our lives. If our faith is nothing more than Christian Deism, we should not be surprised when it is unappealing to others, rejected by our descendants, and even unable to support us in times of difficulty. God did not intend for His believers to accept Christian Deism, for as long as the world continues to exist, Jesus is Lord, and God actively works on behalf of those who love Him (Matthew 28:18, Romans 8:28-39, 1 Corinthians 15:23-58). If this is true, and we live out our lives as if there were no God, then we have lived poor lives indeed.

The truth exists and we discover it in the Person of Jesus Christ and the message that He revealed through His servants (John 14:6, 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Truth must never be compromised. Faith in God requires adherence to the truth, but faith is more than just accepting the Bible. Faith requires us to seek after God, serving Him by the standard of what is written, and prostrating ourselves in spirit (cf. John 4:24, Hebrews 11:6). It is within each and every one of us to seek after God, and that search is more than just an intellectual adventure. We do ourselves, our brethren, and our associates in the world a disservice if we have a faith life that would be little different if God really did not exist.

Experiencing the Divine is subjective, fraught with complications, and can be misinterpreted and misconstrued. But if we believe that God exists and that He desires for us to draw near to Him, what else can we do? Let us be willing to experience the Divine, to receive the comfort that comes from the Divine, and be willing to speak of God’s work in our own lives to one another and to our fellow man!

Ethan R. Longhenry

New Atheism and the Experience of the Divine

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