Roger Olson on atheism: begging to differ

I like the work of Roger Olson, a brave evangelical theologian standing up for classical Arminianism against the tide of Calvinism. Yet my experience of atheists is very different to his:

I have certainly not met every atheist, so I can’t universalize or absolutize the following opinion. However, my experience of atheists is that, those I have met and talked to, do not really deny the existence of God (or any god or gods) due to lack of evidence. Underlying and causing their atheism is (I detect) a resistance to moral accountability. They do not want to believe that they are or will be judged because they want to live as they want to live without judgment other than their own.

The atheists I know well do not seem to be resisting moral accountability at all. Instead, it is far more to do with lack of evidence and being very unconvinced by what they see of Christians and the church. I know some people who dearly want to believe in God, but their experience of the world is that God is absent. They say with Julian Barnes, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” I think of a couple of the atheists I know who were brought up evangelical, and live lives in accord with much of the ethical framework of their evangelical upbringing (sex, drugs, forgiveness, love), and strive to be just, generous people.

Olson’s account of atheists is what I was brought up with. My church taught that those who were not believers actually knew the truth of Christianity but didn’t want to turn from sin. I don’t dismiss the idea that sin can blind people to God’s presence and God’s truth. That does follow quite logically from the Christian story. But it’s another thing again to claim that atheism is a willfully chosen rejection of a God who is actually apparent to the atheist. (To put this another way: I think almost anyone who was truly convinced of the extraordinary claims of Christianity, including eternal life, would choose to turn to God.)

Some possible factors leading to the difference between Olson’s and my experience of atheists. First, the strength of Olson’s Arminianism, with its emphasis on free will, could be part of it – to fully embrace Arminianism is probably to look for equality of opportunity for salvation and insist on the universality of God’s offer of grace. I suppose at this point I have some sympathy with a more Calvinist outlook (on this point only) which would place more weight of the hardness of the human heart, even the impossibility or difficulty of recognising God. (Really, I mean that my experience lines up better with the Calvinist account on this point – but also with the atheist claim that for many of them, they are completely unconvinced by theistic claims because of God’s absence.) Second, the Australian context is surely different to the US one. Belief in God is in the air in the US, it’s an assumption. Things are just as likely to be the other way round here in Australia. Maybe atheists really are different over there, or at least there’s less of the ones I meet for Olson to meet.

What do you think? Do atheists usually know God is there but choose to live in rebellion? Or are many of them genuinely unconvinced? Or something else different again?


8 thoughts on “Roger Olson on atheism: begging to differ

  1. I’ve never come across atheists like those that Roger Olson describes and I’ve often wondered if such descriptions were simply an apologetic fabrication. However, I changed my mind after having read Thomas Nagel’s The Last Word where he says:

    In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

    Still, amongst my friends who are atheists, I find that they are deeply engaged people, profoundly ethical and are such largely in part because they simply do not see that there is good evidence for the gods. It does not help either that they see such glaring contradictions between the ethical claims of believers and the lives led.

    1. “I want atheism to be true.” This was similar to C S Lewis’s position until he found himself being intellectually forced into theism – “probably the most reluctant convert in all England” as he put it. (However, at that stage he only became a theist; he was not a Christian until a couple of years later.)
      To give you two examples of the opposite view to Thomas Nagel, the late, great Jimmy Reid (Scottish trade unionist) while he was still a Communist, chose the “sheep and the goats” passage from Matthew’s Gospel as one of his favourite pieces of literature and said “if there is a God, I hope that’s what he’s like.” And the British comedian Marcus Brigstocke says in his book “The God Collar” (which I am part-way through reading): “Do you agree with this statement: ‘There’s probably no God’? Yes, I do. That’s what I think. … But the truth is – I wish there was.”

  2. Atheists are atheists because they are unconvinced. Saying otherwise seems to me to be nothing more than a way to demean and dismiss atheists. I don’t think atheists in the US are different than atheists in Austrailia, but the two contries do tend to view religion differently. I think it’s how the two societies view and express religion that causes the difference, rather than the atheists themselves.

  3. Thank you for your perspectives hessianwithteeth and Danny. In agreement with what your Nagel comment shows Danny, I should have added that I’m only talking about some atheists I’ve encountered. I could add another variety: those who don’t want God to exist because they despise the fundamentalism and/or sexism they were brought up with in the church.

  4. Nathan
    I looked up Roger Olson’s post and overall I must admit I didn’t find it very convincing. However I think he is on to the true meaning of the much-abused Psalm 14:1 (“The fool says in his heart there is no God”). The psalm of course was written in a culture which was much more strongly founded on God – chosen people, promised land, etc – than nominally secular America or theocratic medieval Europe or any other I can think of. And the surrounding nations has their gods too. So in that culture to suggest that someone is in effect saying “there is no God” is a shocking expose of the nature of their psyche – the belief, as the psalm goes on to show, that they can do whatever they like and get off with it. And it is revealing the state of such people’s hearts, not their intellect.
    The psalm of course does not say “The person who says there is no God is a fool.” Like you, most atheists I know have arrived at that belief either through being unconvinced by the evidence or appalled at wrongs carried out by (some part of) the church. It is morality, not immorality, that leads to their unbelief, whether that is intellectual honesty or objection to evil. “Fools” in the sense of Psalm 14, usually can’t be bothered to decide if they are theists or atheists, or may plump for a position without giving it any serious thought at all.
    I have heard some Christians talk about non-believers as though they had seen one once in a zoo. I believe that engaging with atheists, particularly the thoughtful type you describe, may or may not lead to a change of their belief but should at least help to promote understanding and undermine hostility.

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