According to political scientist Ryan Burge, the group of people in American society most likely to be highly engaged in political action are not evangelicals, as we’ve been led to believe. They are in fact atheists. “Let me put it plainly,” Burge wrote, “atheists are the most politically active group in American politics today, and the Democrats (and some Republicans) ignore them at their own peril.”
In a slew of indicators—from actions as simple as putting up a yard sign, to the more proactive of attending a protest march—atheists not only outdid their evangelical neighbors but, in most cases, were the most likely group to put money and time toward partisan activities.
Given the common perception that the religiously minded are most prone to political action, we’d be justified to ask just how this false narrative came to be taken for granted. However, an even more interesting question is why so many atheists live ultra concerned about truth and justice in political matters, given that their worldview commits them to a world without ultimate grounding for either? If the world is nothing more than ever-shifting arrangements of atoms, quarks, and leptons, why would we direct any passion toward the political realm?
At least part of the answer is what might be called “the Ricky Gervais solution.” Gervais is the acerbic British comedian known for both skewering Hollywood elites and insisting on atheism in film, television, and real life. In a scene from one of his shows, his character is accosted by a stereotypically dim-witted believer who cannot fathom that someone would not believe in an afterlife. Why even bother to care about things, she asks, if this life is all there is? Gervais retorts that it’s precisely because this life is all we have that we should live what little we get to the fullest.
Historian Tom Holland argues that this is how modern atheism preaches a version of the “good news” about overthrowing idols and leading others to a better life. In this sense, Holland writes, “Atheism in the contemporary West is less a repudiation of Christianity than a logical endpoint of one of its key trends.”
The great passion of modern atheists to make things right in the world comes not so much from rejection of God’s existence but from an anger against Him for the way He made it. The French philosopher Albert Camus argued that the atheist, as a metaphysical rebel,
defies more than he denies. Originally, at least, he does not suppress God; he merely talks to Him as an equal. But it is not a polite dialogue. It is a polemic animated by the desire to conquer. The slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown.
Or, as C.S. Lewis put it when describing his atheist days,
I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.
This era of atheist activism presents Christians with a unique opportunity. (Two, in fact.) First, there is opportunity for co-belligerency. Even if ultimately unwarranted, by expressing a great passion for justice and truth in our world, atheists often reach a point of common ground with Christians, namely the rising power and intolerance of “wokeism” and our culture’s critical theory mood.
According to Evan Griggs, an agnostic writing in The European Conservative,
Those of us committed to fighting back against the “woke” must come to terms with the fact that only Christianity is potent enough to defeat the cult of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Non-believers need not convert, but it is time for us to get out of the way.
The other opportunity is the ever-present potential for loving our unbelieving neighbors. Whenever an atheist expresses a passion for justice, they are making a tacit admission that there must be more to life than what their worldview allows. We can remind them that the human dignity upon which they insist is rooted in Christian convictions about the imago Dei. We can offer an explanation for the presence of evil in the world, not as an illusion or fabrication or mere inconvenience, but as a real aspect of life after the fall.
We as Christians also have reason for hope that goes beyond mere wishful thinking for circumstances to change and for good to triumph over evil. We look for the restoration of all good things by the work of Jesus Christ, according to the will of the loving God Who created atheists, yet Whom they deny.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Dr. Timothy D. Padgett. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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