The Public Atheists Refute an Imaginary God

[January 27, 2014]

Oliver Burkeman, a blogger for The Guardian, says that proponents of the atheist side of the God debate (where, he says, his sympathies lie) are being intellectually lazy. They attack a concept of God which imagines him as a sort of superhero, rather than grappling with the classic monotheistic view of God as the source and ground of reality. This is like anti-evolutionists refuting a distorted and absurd concept of evolution. Burkeman recommends David Bentley Hart’s “The Experience of God” so that they might grasp and then grapple with a more theologically-accurate concept of God. 

I had two thoughts. One is that Burkeman says “prominent atheists display an almost aggressive lack of curiosity when it comes to the facts about belief,” apparently assuming that atheists would be ashamed to be so close-minded. But I expect they voluntarily hold to this close-mindedness.  On the public stage it’s essential to make points swiftly and memorably, and ridiculing a distorted version of your opponents’ argument yields immediate advantage. I would hope some in academia would heed Burkeman’s call, but it is not likely to be so among the “prominent atheists” who work in prominent view.

(I got to recognize this pattern during the abortion debate. Opponents would ignore my presentation of the pro-life position, and attack a parody position that better served their purpose. This parody was maintained in a united front, and wholly replaced what pro-lifers actually believe. I was once told that I not only believed in the oppression of women, but I was even worse than usual pro-lifers because I lied about it and pretended I cared. Just yesterday someone asked me why pro-lifers don’t stop talking about fetuses and instead try to help pregnant women—this, 49 years after the founding of Birthright.) 

But the second thought is that, though careful theology regards God as “the unconditioned cause of reality” (that’s why it says “o wn,” the being-one, the one having existence, “I am,” on Christ’s halo in icons), we should treat tenderly the more super-hero-like ideas of God held by those who don’t read academic theology. Christianity has a longstanding tradition of calling people to enter faith “like a child” (Mk 10:15). It seems God is pleased to meet people there, in simplicity. 

Those who have gone deep into theology may gain deeper understanding, and it is right for atheists to engage with those beliefs (whether they’ll do so is doubtful; it’s entirely to their disadvantage). But that kind of intellectual knowledge is not *necessary.* You can be saved without it. The kontakion for St Sophia and her daughters says that they “by grace have shown to all that Greek wisdom is foolishness.”

On the other hand, contempt for “the least of these” is not only contrary to Christ’s command, but dangerous. 

[1 Corinthians 1:18-25]

18 For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.”

20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

(Later, in a reply to a Facebook, comment I said:

I don’t think any Christian would disagree with the “ultimate reality” definition, once they grasped it, but its not something the average person would come up with automatically. Because we experience God as a Person, other definitions beyond our point of view can seem irrelevant. Sometimes I think the whole world of philosophy and theology is an intellectual bout of World of Warcraft.)

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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