Atheists Must Deal With the ‘Problem of Good’

Russell Minick Leave a Comment

by N. T. Wright
Reading the comments on this website, it’s clear there are some atheists out there who have even more of a mission to unconvert believers than most believers have to convert them!
I have often noticed – this isn’t an argument, merely an observation – that the people who are most vehemently angry against belief (whether Christian or otherwise) are people who are really anxious, sometimes even frightened, about the possibility that there might be a God, that Christianity might be true, or whatever.
Sometimes this is because they have been badly hurt in their upbringing by foolish or wicked people using religion as a mask for their own manipulative or abusive behaviour. Sometimes it’s because they moved from their traditional Catholic or Protestant (or Jewish, or whatever) home base at the same time as they discovered ‘the wider world’ (which usually means drink, sex and so forth), and are anxious that if they ‘admitted it was all true after all’ they’d have to go back to the beginning, admit that Mum and Dad were right after all, and become, in effect, a good little Sunday School child once more – a prospect too frightful to contemplate for any self-respecting adult. . .
Of course there are many, perhaps millions, of people who have simply drifted into unbelief, articulate or otherwise, without any such background. But mostly they don’t make a fuss about it, certainly not in my country.
Richard Dawkins’ shrill denunciation of religion in his new book tends to provoke sardonic smiles, rather than people saying ‘Oh, phew, that’s all right then, I was wondering whether I could go on being an atheist with intellectual credibility.’
Of course, in the USA (but hardly at all in the UK), fervent Christian belief has often been associated in recent years with a particular kind of politics, and atheism has looked increasingly an attractive option if belief looks as if it’s driving you towards neo-conservative political beliefs. This is a gross oversimplification, of course – there are Christians in all shades of politics, and Jim Wallis’ contributions great and small show that you can be a robust and intelligent Christian and reject the neo-con agenda root and branch. B ut I suspect there have been quite a few who have been only too happy to make the equation between belief and neo-conservatism and to be happy about rejecting both, and at the same time.
In fact, atheism has been the default mode for most Westerners for over a century now. When A. N. Wilson wrote a book called ‘God’s Funeral,’ he was describing the nineteenth century, not the twentieth. Not everyone has noticed, of course.
Productive conversation? Yes indeed, and I hope this website will be part of that – though not if people simply rant and shout. We might start with the age-old question: The Christian has to deal with ‘the problem of evil,’ but the atheist has to deal with ‘the problem of good’ – that is, if the world is completely random, a chance collocation of accidental atoms, why is there such a thing as beauty, as value? (A hint: Dawkins’ valiant attempt to say it’s all about selfish genes and memes and things really doesn’t answer the question.)
And the atheist needs to be invited to contemplate the negative results, as well as the apparently positive ones, of the great push towards atheism in the last two centuries: the French Revolution, as soon as it got rid of God, did quite a lot of killing, including of its own people – a funny thing, that, considering the Enlightenment was supposed to be a way of getting rid of religion and so getting rid of violence. See too, the massive negative results of the greatest experiments in atheism the world has ever seen – the USSR with its Gulag, and Mao’s China . . .
In addition, the atheist can be invited to join the debate about the nature of religious experience. The evidence assembled by Sir Alister Hardy (see is truly remarkable, and can’t easily be wished away by the rhetoric of Dawkins and others. It is never ‘enough’, in rationalist terms, to ‘prove’ that there is a God – but then few Christians would want to say that it is.
In fact, the dialogue between believers and atheists (and please note that the nature of ‘belief’ itself changes according to which God it is you believe in – this is very important) needs to be as courteous, listening and careful as all other dialogues. I look forward to it and hope that this website will be a step on the way!

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