Although it isn’t an organized religion like Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, atheism is a religious worldview. With assurance rooted in faith (rather than in proven fact), the theist says “I believe in god(s)/God,” while the atheist with equal confidence says “I don’t believe in god(s)/God.”
Atheism is a religious worldview because it claims to know something fundamental about reality that hasn’t been—or can’t be—proven. Like theists, atheists operate out of a foundational faith or belief that shapes their perceiving, thinking, and living in the world.
But it’s not as if theism and atheism are forms of “blind faith.” Each has gathered from human experience evidence that supports their worldview. For example, neither theists nor atheists have proven whether life has meaning. Theists believe life has meaning because of their primary belief in a good Creator God who guarantees life’s intrinsic meaning. Atheists’ primary belief that there is no god(s)/God means the universe has emerged accidently and without inherent meaning and that humans must be the ones to give life its meaning.
Here’s where the New Atheists (including Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) are so puzzling. These brilliant minds invite us to think that because we can’t observe god(s)/God through a microscope or telescope, faith is silly at best and dangerous at worst. They do not take into account that the scientific method (which works wonderfully across a large part of human life) simply isn’t geared to make definitive metaphysical pronouncements. In their attempt to reach the truth, they have swapped their own version of scientific dogma for religious dogma.
Our culture today has largely exchanged older, pre-modern theistic assumptions about the world for modern atheistic assumptions. Because of the industrial, scientific, and technological revolutions of the past 300 years, life in the Western world today leaves little room for questions of god(s)/God. Christian writer C. S. Lewis said the world today says to us, “‘You may be religious when you are alone,’ but adds under its breath, ‘and I will see to it that you never are alone.’”
This has resulted in a generally atheistic culture and worldview rather than the theistic culture and worldview of Christendom. Many people have migrated from religious faith and church life to agnosticism, atheism, and secularism. They are the religious “nones” on surveys, or those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Young people today live in a world where it is hard to believe in God. Their grandparents lived in a world where it was hard not to believe in God. And Western secular governments tend to default to the atheistic worldview in an effort to be inclusive.
Both theism and atheism, therefore, operate out of a primary and foundational belief or faith that results in a particular worldview. Both attempt to offer a comprehensive account of reality. If the goal is, as someone said, “living with the grain of the universe,” then you’ll live according to how you discern the grain from either your theistic or atheistic starting point.
Did you know that the earliest Christians were derided as atheists? It was because Christians didn’t worship the Greek and Roman gods or the Roman emperor as divine, refusing to give their allegiance to anyone or anything other than Jesus Christ and refusing to conform their lives to the pattern of their idolatrous and pagan neighbors.
Christians today would benefit from exploring afresh how the Lord over all calls us not to be conformed to the religious patterns of this atheistic world. What, like atheists, do Christians not believe?
About the Author
Michael Wagenman is the Christian Reformed campus minister at Western University in London, Ont., where he invites undergraduate students to put their faith into loving service and mentors graduate students. His most recent book is The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper (Wipf &Stock, 2020).