Why I am Not an Atheist
by Michael J. Penfold
Atheism is flourishing in the country of my birth. Though 100 years ago most people in the UK attended church, the current figure sits at around 6%. Compare that with the 14% who identify as “convinced atheists”. The ‘atheist percentage’ is considerably higher among the young, which indicates that within a generation the country whose national anthem begins “God save our gracious Queen” will, for the most part, no longer believe God exists.
The roots of this malaise go back a long way. The groundwork for our atheistic culture was put in during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, periods in which human reason triumphed over divine revelation (the Bible) and man became the measure of all things. While these movements severely weakened the foundations of British Christianity and turned many theists into deists, it was not until a specific 4-month period at the end of the 19th century that the final hammer blows were struck – through the publication of two books: On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (Nov 1859) and Essays & Reviews by 6 liberal Anglican theologians and one layman (Mar 1860). These two books changed everything.
Darwin’s Origin proposed that all of life’s plant and animal species originated over millions of years by a process of ‘natural selection’, not divine creation. This grand ‘theory of evolution’ had the effect of overturning the Genesis account in the minds of millions around the world. Indeed, it caused a tsunami-like intellectual, moral and cultural revolution. In one stroke Darwin’s book did away with the need for God. It severed man’s link with God and set him adrift in a cosmos without objective meaning or purpose.
Atheists know they owe everything to Darwin. Richard Dawkins states that “Darwin’s book made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”. What did he mean by that? Well, imagine you’re alive in 1526 during the reign of Henry VIII. You announce, to your wife, that you are an atheist. How do you respond to her question, “So, where did all the plants and animals come from then?” Mmm. Difficult. Fast forward to 1859. Enter Darwin’s theory of evolution. For the first time in history there’s now a credible alternative to the creation account. Hey presto – “It all evolved”! Incidentally, Dawkins goes so far as to suggest that “evolution by natural selection” is perhaps the greatest thought ever to occur to a human mind. That’s how much they think of Darwin. Not to be outdone, atheist James Watson (co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA) claims that “Charles Darwin will eventually be seen as a far more influential figure in the history of human thought than either Jesus Christ or Mohammed”.
Four months after the publication of Darwin’s Origin, Essays and Reviews came out. Very few people have ever heard of it, but it sold more copies in 2 years than Darwin’s Origin sold in 20. What did its Anglican authors have to say? Did they oppose Darwin and try to rebuild the foundations of Christianity? Quite the reverse. If Darwin took a ‘scientific’ sledgehammer to Christianity’s foundations, Essays and Reviews took a theological one to it. Its 7 authors were fifth columnists: Darwinists inside the church. In chapter after chapter they questioned and denied Biblical truth (even though 6 of them were ordained clergymen). The Bible is not the inerrant, infallible, inspired word of God: it should be studied just like any other book. The Old Testament never predicts the future. Miracles are impossible. Eternal damnation is a questionable doctrine. Moses did not author the Pentateuch (Essays and Reviews promoted the erroneous Documentary Hypothesis). It was all a deliberate attempt to undermine the foundational historical beliefs of ‘the church’.
Of course, since 1859-60 much has transpired to makes things worse. Two world wars, urbanisation, technological advances and many other factors have all played their part. But there is no doubt that 1859-60 marked a watershed: four tragic months in which Biblical authority crumbled and the naturalistic and inherently atheistic theory of evolution took hold, and nothing has ever been the same since.
The crumbling of the West’s Christian foundation did not immediately lead to the moral collapse of society. In fact, it looked for long time as if society could be perfectly respectable without God. But 100 years later, in the 1960’s, when a concerted effort was made to push against all the old moral walls and see if they could be toppled, the speedy success of the progressive project made it abundantly clear that the foundation had well and truly gone.
The sex, drugs and rock and roll hippie generation questioned everything, especially moral norms:
- What’s wrong with divorce?
- What’s wrong with homosexuality?
- What’s wrong with abortion?
- What’s wrong with pornography?
What could the 1960’s establishment say? “Well, God says…” God!? Darwin killed God 100 years ago. What about, “Well, the Bible says…”? The Bible!? We all know the Bible’s not true! Even the church says as much. And so, down the walls came. But the moral collapse was not confined to the 1960’s. It continues apace, the latest tipping point being 2013, when the transgender confusion overwhelmed the boundaries of reality itself. With no ultimate objective standard for either morality or reality, one can now identify as any gender or none. Soon one may be able to self identify as any colour or age.
In the first two decades of the 21st century the ‘celebrity atheists’ – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Larry Krauss and others – came out with a flood of atheistic books, articles, debates and youtube videos. Atheism became cool and trendy. The declaration “I am an atheist”, is no longer the ultimate self-empowering rebellious act of a teenager: it is simply now the default position among British youth, and the ruling paradigm in the UK’s media, Universities and Museums.
So why I am not an atheist?
My Christian upbringing perhaps? Hardly. Others brought up like me have become atheists, and some with an atheistic upbringing are now Christians.
My education? Yes, I sat through School assemblies and RE classes as a child, but education didn’t save many of my classmates from atheism.
Clever arguments perhaps? Well, that raises an interesting point. Certainly there are some very interesting and impressive arguments for the existence of God. The cosmological argument: a universe that began to exist demands a beginner, hence ‘God’. The teleological argument: a universe that exhibits design demands a designer. The moral argument: an objective moral law demands a law giver. In addition to these standard arguments there is the ontological argument, the transcendent argument, the argument from beauty, the argument from irreducible complexity, and the argument from the fine tuning of the universe. On and on it goes.
But here’s the problem. Clever atheists know all of these arguments too. I once met a 30 year old atheist who claimed he had converted to Christianity at the age of 18 and had at one point studied to become a minister. He claimed to have read the Bible right through 17 times. Based on his knowledge I don’t doubt he was telling the truth. But he had become a convinced atheist. He knew all of the arguments for the existence of God and more besides. So, clearly there’s more to this than clever arguments.
So why am I not an atheist?
In a sentence: because of the grace of God.
I could have become an atheist. I could have been one of the world’s billions of unbelievers. For one thing, my family was directly impacted by the 1859-60 watershed. Going back to the 19th century, all my forebears were Anglican (Church of England). My grandfather on my mother’s side, Arthur Henry Wood, was a devout Anglican and the organist at St Mary the Virgin Church of England in Great Milton, Oxon. He wrote a book about the Bible The Epic of the Old Testament (Oxford University Press, 1930). Having fallen for the JEPD Documentary Hypothesis he expressed his agreement with it in The Epic. Acknowledging its “revolutionary” view of the Old Testament, he rubber stamped it by saying that the Bible was put together by failing “human compilers” who made errors. To quote him exactly, “The main point is that many of the books of the Old Testament, as we now have them, especially the historical books from Genesis to Nehemiah, were not written as complete contemporary documents but are the work of later composers working upon several different sources.” Arthur Henry Wood moved from the Biblical foundation, his children moved further, and the rest is history. Most of his progeny are evolutionists.
But not me.
Why? Because of the grace of God. In the late 1800’s the Biblical gospel of justification by grace through faith in Christ impacted my Anglican forebears on my father’s side. My great grandfather became born again. His family left the “C of E” and met independently with other Christians of like mind. His grandson, my father, was born again in the 1930’s. During WW2 he met the daughter of Arthur Henry Wood. He shared the gospel message with her and she was born again in 1947. Shortly thereafter they married. They became my parents.
And so, by the grace of God, despite Darwin’s Origin, despite Essays and Reviews, despite The Epic of the Old Testament, from a child “I knew the holy Scriptures that were able to make me wise unto salvation”. But it is not enough just to be brought up in a Christian family. It is not enough just to learn verses and go to church meetings. Until you are genuinely born again, regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are vulnerable: atheism is always a possibility.
All around me in the 1960’s were the fruits of the collapse of Christianity’s foundation. I was the only boy in my class at School with short hair. Those were the days of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Make no mistake. The long hair, the drugs, the rock and roll and the sexual experimentation didn’t come from nowhere, nor were they just a little bit of innocent fun. They were the predictable fruits of the disappearance of Christianity’s foundation. But now that the Biblical foundation has crumbled, now that God is dead, now that we know there is no absolute truth and no absolute moral law, how shall we live? What shall be our guide?
What law did the Beatles follow? Like most of the rockers of their generation they followed Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) whose reputation as the wickedest man in England was well earned. Yes, the Beatles took up with Hinduism for a while, but the real basis of their worldview was undoubtedly Crowley’s adage; “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. Led Zeppelin inscribed “Do What Thou Wilt” on the Led Zep III album (1970) and the Beatles put Crowley’s face on cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Whatever Crowley actually meant by the expression, it has come down to us in the 21st century to mean, “As long as you don’t harm anyone, what consenting adults do in private is their business and nobody else’s”. That is the mantra of Britain today; it could have been my mantra.
The reasons people become atheists are many and varied. Hypocrites in the church. Contradictions in the Bible. Family tragedies. But ask an atheist why he does not believe in God and more than likely he will simply say, “There’s no proof. If only God would show Himself, I would believe”. That is what the 20th century’s most famous atheistic philosopher, the notoriously and heartlessly immoral Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) said when asked what he would reply on judgment day if God asked him, “Why didn’t you believe in Me?” – “Not enough evidence”.
Bertie was bluffing on two counts. Firstly, every atheist knows there is a God. Human beings are born with an innate knowledge of God. This sensus divintatis (sense of the divine) stems from the fact that we are “made in the image of God” (Gen 1:27). We resemble God mentally, rationally, morally, socially and volitionally. So if God is a moral God, are we surprised that God’s moral law is written on everyone’s heart (Rom 2:15)? No! We are hardwired with a natural innate knowledge of God’s law and of the God behind that law. This is the explanation for the universal facts of the human conscience on the one hand, and of the instinct for worship seen throughout history on the other. But secondly, God has given overwhelming evidence of Himself in His creation. God has shown Himself to man in His universe (Rom 1:19). By looking at creation mankind can perceive both the power and nature of the God who made it. And this revelation is neither obscure nor opaque. It can be “clearly seen” by all (Rom 1:20).
So, God is obvious. He is unmistakable. His order, power, glory and excellence are seen in the beauty of a rainbow, the symmetry of DNA, the complexity of the human body, and the magnificence of the starry heavens. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky declares His handiwork” (Psa 19:1). Astronomers estimate that there are 2 trillion galaxies each containing up to 400 billion stars, each one trillions of miles from the next. That is no doubt a wild underestimate, but the power quotient of such a universe is still staggering. As for order, consider that you are right now sitting on a planet that revolves on its axis once every 23 hours, 56 mins and 4 seconds; around which a moon orbits once every 27 days, 7 hours, 43 minutes and 11.6 seconds; both of which orbit the sun every 365.25636 days. Were we 5% nearer the sun, the oceans would boil; were we 5% further away they would freeze. And as for excellence, just take a look at yourself. You started as two separate cells from two separate parents, 1.5 billion letters of DNA per cell. They combined to form a new 3 billion-letter blueprint. It divided and developed into over 50 trillion cells, 200 types of tissue, hundreds of bodily organs and miles and miles and miles of nerves and blood vessels, all of which worked together towards that final moment, 6,480 hours later, when a perfect newborn baby entered the world and took its first breath.
But why go on? That should be enough. When Robert L. Taylor, the Governor of Tennessee (1887-1891), came home one evening after listening to the ‘infidel’ Robert Ingersol waxing eloquent about atheism and evolution, he took up his pen and wrote:
“What intelligence less than God could fashion the human body? What power is it, if it is not God, that drives that throbbing engine, the human heart, with ceaseless, tireless stroke, sending the crimson streams of life bounding and circling through every vein and artery? Whence, and what, if not of God, is this mystery we call the mind? God is everywhere, and [evidence for Him is] in everything. His mystery is in every bud, and blossom, and leaf, and tree; in every rock, and hill, and vale, and mountain; in every spring, and rivulet, and river. The universe of solar systems whose wheeling orbs course the crystal paths of space proclaim through the dread halls of eternity, the glory, and power, and dominion, of the all-wise, omnipotent, and eternal God.”
Atheists do not need more evidence. They already have overwhelming evidence. Which is why the Bible does not apologise for its opening sentence. No explanation. No philosophical reasoning. Just one bold, thunderous self authenticating presuppositional statement: “In the beginning God created” (Gen 1:1). And that is why, twice over, the Bible gives short shrift to the heart-cry of atheists everywhere: “Fools say to themselves, there is no god” (Psa 14:1, 53:1).
But, you say, hold on, if anyone can be certain there is a God by mere observation of the natural world, and if everyone intuitively knows there is a God, how come not everyone believes in God? Good question. The answer is, “because of the fall”. When our first parents sinned in Eden’s garden, “sin entered” this world. That marred the image of God in man because the ‘principle of sin’ in our nature negatively affects every part of our being. It affects us physically. We get ill. We die and corrupt. But it also affects us mentally, that is, in our minds. By ‘mind’ I mean will, emotion, intellect and intuition. All of this has been negatively affected – damaged – by sin. This is what theologians call the “noetic effects of sin”. Yes, we can still think and reason, but make no mistake, we are greatly inferior to Adam. Adam had no memory problems. No attention deficit disorder. His reasoning was consistent, unbiased, clear and correct. Sin changed all that. Now our thinking is inconsistent, biased, warped, and often selfish and proud. The fall has clouded our vision, warped our reasoning, and biased our judgment.
As young children, though still fallen, we tend to be sheltered and preserved. But as the teenage and adult years roll on, our fallen nature finds more and more opportunities to express itself. We experiment with sin. We develop the ability to lie without blinking. We become experts at refusing to listen to our conscience. Over time, the noetic effects of the fall become more pronounced and have a greater more powerful effect. It has been said that blindness of the mind is the firstborn daughter of lust. Which is to say, your mind gets darker and darker the more you sin. Former atheist J Budziszewski perceptively remarked, “Not many people disbelieve in God and then begin to sin. Most atheists adopt some favourite sin and then find reasons to disbelieve in God.” It may be sexual sin, the sin of intellectual pride, rebellion against parents or anger against God, but the atheism it births is just a convenient layer of camouflage to cover it up.
This is all explained in Romans 1:21. Paul argues that although everyone knows God, sinners tend to suppress that knowledge. That in turn leads to intellectual darkness and blindness. “Their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom 1:21). And the longer you live the worse it gets. Sinners eventually become “darkened in their understanding, being alienated from the life of God, due to their ignorance and hardness of heart” (Eph 4:18). Then as the atheist grows older, and his catalogue of sins grows ever longer, he develops ever greater reasons to try to prove God’s non-existence, aka Bertie Russell. After all, if God exists, the atheist is in deep trouble. The effects of the fall are complete when the atheist so thoroughly believes his own rhetoric that he finally closes his eyes peacefully in death fully expecting to cease to exist. Truly, to refuse the true God is to “exchange the truth for a lie” (Rom 1:25).
But, surely, aren’t some of these people geniuses? Doesn’t Richard Dawkins prove in one of his books that the better educated a country is, the more atheistic it is likely to be? Yes, but that matches the Bible’s prediction. “Professing themselves to be wise they became fools” (Rom 1:22). Who but a fool could convince himself that the universe created itself from nothing by accident, or that life came from non-life by accident, or that matter woke up one day and said “Here I am”?
And how can someone live with the contradictions thrown up by atheism?
- The reason an atheist writes a book against Christianity is to prove there is no reason for anything.
- It’s not objectively wrong to torture a baby even though “I would not like to do it myself”.
- An atheist’s husband’s love for his wife is nothing but chemistry (it’s not real ‘love’).
- Nothing an atheist has ever said, or thought or done has transcendent significance.
What on earth would make intelligent men and women accept this counterintuitive package of meaninglessness and pointlessness? For some, atheism is a convenient cover note for staying popular with their chosen peer group. Keeping one’s pride in tact is a driver for many others. But the ultimate driver is undoubtedly the green light atheism gives to a life of sin, self and independence from the Creator’s ‘rules and regulations’. Many effectively pretend to be atheists so they can live their life the way they want to, without accountability to their Creator. In other words, atheists don’t want to find God for the same reason a thief doesn’t want to find Policeman. Do I feel sorry for them? On one level, yes, for I could have been one of them. But on another level, no. Atheists are “without excuse” for their arrogant ignorance (Rom 1:20). They are rejecting an “internal knowing” as well as “external evidence”, not to mention the Word of God and the Son of God as well.
Mind you, they are not all successful at keeping the show on the road! Many downgrade their atheism to agnosticism. Many abandon it all together. Many are converted to Christ. Even those who stick with it often have to work hard at suppressing the obvious evidence for God. Sir Francis Crick (1916-2004), an atheistic scientist and co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, gave the game away when he wrote that biologists “must remind themselves daily that what they study was not designed, but rather evolved”.1 I wonder why he said that? Then there’s Elizabeth King, writing in The Washington Post (Feb 4, 2016) and saying, “I’m an atheist. So why can’t I shake God?…Turns out it’s pretty hard to believe in nothing when your psyche is wired for faith…God has found a way to stick around in my mind….If I could…banish this figure from my psyche, I would…I have no choice but to accept that I’m an atheist with a sense for God.”
Bottom line? Atheism is deliberate. An atheist isn’t someone who doesn’t know God, but ought to. An atheist is someone who does know God, but is pretending He doesn’t. Atheism is a person trying not to know what he really does. It is self deception, aided and abetted by a mind the Bible describes as “deceitful above all things” (Jer 17:9). Asked by Guardian columnist Owen Jones why his atheistic brother Christopher was so wildly popular in the US and around the world, his theistic brother Peter Hitchens answered, “The college generation in the US, brought up in religious homes under the influence of pastors, going to church, then going to college wanting to live a life of sex and drugs and rock and roll [were really] delighted to find an articulate, educated voice [Christopher’s] saying to them ‘That’s OK, all your pastors are stupid, all the religious ideas you’ve been fed are bunkum, and what your parents have told you doesn’t count for anything’. That’s what did it.” Peter Hitchens is correct. An atheist may say the reason for his unbelief is intellectual, but it’s really moral. It’s not a head issue, it’s a heart issue.
That’s why it’s hard to argue with atheists. They are not being honest. Beware of demands for more evidence! In the summer of 2018 I spoke to two tall strapping young Americans on the streets of Oxford. They were on holiday and clearly having a great time. They objected to the public preaching of the gospel, and loudly proclaimed their atheism. I rounded on the louder of the two and said, “You know there’s a God. Your atheism is just a smokescreen. You’re just conveniently pretending there’s no God so you can get drunk and sleep around.” His comrade immediately broke ranks. Pointing at his friend and laughing, he said “The preacher is right. He’s got your number”.
Here’s what makes me shudder. I could have been one of those young men. I could have been an atheist, but for the grace of God. How I thank God that shortly before I left School and went out to work God brought me to repentance and faith through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I thank God that I never fell under spell of a clever University philosophy teacher with his seductive package of atheistic poison. I thank God that He saved me before I got involved in drink, drugs and partying. Before my heart was hardened. Oh how I thank God that He opened the eyes of my understanding, before I brought the shutters down on my soul through sin and unbelief. I thank God for saving me from the intellectual pride of rationalism, empiricism and atheistic ‘science’. I thank God I learned that I was a sinner. I heard about “Christ crucified”: to religious folk a scandal, and to atheists total foolishness, but to me, the power of God and wisdom of God. The sublimest thing I know, and the greatest thought that ever went through my mind is simply this: “I was a guilty sinner but Jesus died for me”.
Peter Atkins is one of Oxford’s leading atheists. As of 2018 he is 78 years old. He’s a Fellow of Lincoln College Oxford, a prolific writer of chemistry textbooks, the first Senior Member of the Oxford University Secular Society and an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society. He has debated numerous Christians including William Lane Craig. He is considered more hard line than even Richard Dawkins. He thinks Christians are fools and Christianity is a “fantasy”. Preaching the gospel in Bonn Square, Oxford, in 2018 I met Professor Atkins and we shook hands. I told him why I was in the city that day. “We are Christians and we are here preaching the gospel”. He replied, unsurprisingly, “I’m happy to have a conversation, but I am not willing to be converted.” As he walked away a verse of Scripture came to mind: “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise…that no flesh should glory in his presence….He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:25-31).
There, but for the grace of God, go I.
1. F Crick, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery, New York, Basic Books, 1989, p. 138.