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A Reasoned Argument For Faith
Answering the six deadly arguments of atheism

In Look Homeward Angel, Thomas Wolfe depicts one of his characters reaching out to God in prayer. Upon learning of his brother's sudden death, the man falls to his knees and cries out, "God, whoever you are, wherever you are, if you are, take care of my brother tonight." The man wants to believe, but even in his prayer, he echoes the doubt and skepticism of our age.

Though overwhelming majorities of the American people affirm faith in God, there is little consensus about who or what God is. This is exacerbated by the fact that belief is often defended, not by reasoned argument, but by appeal to blind emotion, to prejudice or superstition. Faith is often offered as a method of achieving instant wealth, happiness or personal success. As a consequence, when one faces some crisis in one's personal life, faith often seems to fail. And when the person who sincerely wants to believe, faces an assertive atheist or agnostic, skilled at debate, the person of faith feels caught up short.

I am convinced one can and should put forward a reasonable argument for the Christian faith. Further, I believe that the obvious way to begin is by refuting the arguments that are put forward against our faith, answering them directly. I would suggest there are six leading arguments that are most often advanced in criticism of Christianity. I call them the six deadly arguments of atheism. Let's take them one by one.

The first and perhaps the most powerful argument against Christianity arises from the evil we see in the world all around us.

If God is both all loving and all powerful, then how come there's so much senseless suffering? If God really cares about poverty or suffering or disease, why doesn't God do something about it?

In reply to that question I would suggest that our awareness of evil is itself a sign of God's presence. Without some knowledge that there is a better way for the world it would be easier to rationalize and accept evil without question. One could adopt a kind of fatalism. Look at all the tragedy and conclude that's the way it was meant to be. Whatever will be will be. But we are not content and we are not satisfied with the status quo. We are driven by a conviction that things can be better. And that sense that there is a better way for the world is one of the first clues we have of a just and loving God.

Although we are not always aware of it, God is that unseen force that draws us toward the light. Our human restlessness with evil is itself the first sign of God's goodness and power.

And that leads us to the second deadly argument of atheism. The charge popularized by Sigmund Freud. Freud said that belief is simply a matter of wishful thinking.

Somehow, he said, something happens during the earliest years of infancy to create a deep psychological need for an all-powerful father. Later, when we feel we're out of control, we want someone to take charge, like daddy used to do. So we simply imagine "our Father in heaven." If we didn't have the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, then we'd have to invent one, which is precisely what we've done, according to Freud. We have manufactured a god in our own image.

But one can turn Freud's argument around 180 degrees. The very fact that faith fills such a basic need is all the more reason to take it seriously. The very fact that so many millions of people from so many different cultures resonate to faith makes it all the more likely we're on to something real. God is no mere invention of the human mind; the mind is created in the image of God and the signature of the Creator is found even upon the tissues of the human brain itself.

The third and fourth deadly arguments of atheism should be considered as a pair if only because they tend to cancel each other out. Actually these arguments are aimed at the church, rather than directly at God. They are aimed at believers personally, rather than at the substance of our faith.

One of the most common reasons people give for not taking religion seriously is that the church is filled with hypocrites. How often one hears the claim: "I don't go to church because there are so many hypocrites in church."

Well, that charge should be set alongside the fourth argument of atheism. It is likewise often said that the churches are filled with people so firmly set in their beliefs and opinions that this institution is a reactionary and repressive force. But when you consider them together, these arguments tend to cancel each other out. For if we are so firmly set in our ways, then there must be something more genuine here than vacuous hypocrisy. On the other hand if we are so all fired hypocritical, then we certainly won't stand in the way of change, for we'll be easily swayed by the slightest wind of adversity or change. In either case, true faith is not defeated because you can identify the foibles of a few believers; one need not measure God by the abuses practiced by some believers.

In truth, most people in our churches are pretty much like people everywhere: we are human beings in search of a better life; we are looking for a faith that will help us explain the bewildering facts of life. And we happen to believe that the Christian faith does offer some sense of clarity amid the confusion of this world.

The fifth argument of atheism is the one popularized by Karl Marx who taught that organized religion is the opiate of the people.

Marx said that instead of directing people's attention toward the real problems of the world, belief in a just and loving God tends to obscure the true causes of those problems, and prevents people from taking action to remedy actual injustice. Instead of addressing the real problems of this world, Christians always seem to be preaching about rewards in a life hereafter; it's pie in the sky bye and bye.

The sixth argument of atheism is a mirror image of the fifth.

There are those who are equally convinced Christianity is too much a religion of the world. We are all too much involved in social and political issues and our very involvement in the affairs of the world must indicate we don't really trust in God.

Now the irony is that when you set these arguments side by side you see precisely the strength and power of the Christian faith, for it is the genius of the gospel to connect belief in an infinite God with concern for a finite world. A genuine faith neglects neither the infinite Creator nor this finite creation. We do not glorify God at the expense of the world, nor do we focus upon worldly problems while ignoring things eternal. Rather we are called to be servants of the world in deep awareness of God's love for the world. It is a distorted and impoverished faith which emphasizes one to the exclusion of the other.

The amazing thing is, as you look carefully at these arguments of atheism, you see all the more clearly the genius of our faith. So let us not surrender either to fanaticism or to skepticism, even though the fanatics and the skeptics seem to be enjoying much success of late. Instead let us use the reason, the common sense and the imagination God has given us in our life of faith. And we shall have a faith that is stronger, deeper, clearer than before.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.
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