In recent days much attention has been given to a new group of worshippers called the "nones." The "nones" refer to the growing number of people who, when they respond to any kind of census request or personal epistemological question, mark "none" in reference to their religious affiliation. While "nones" represent a wide variety of belief and practice, most generally affirm either an overt atheistic or agnostic posture when it comes to the question of God.
"Nones" are now worshipping together. These new "worship gathering" are not new. Atheists and/or agnostics have been around since the beginning of time. Gathering atheists are common as gathering storm clouds. "Nones" refuse to accept any kind of rational, spiritual, or biblical argument for the existence of God. Minimally speaking, some would say that I cannot know whether or not there is a God – the agnostic. The more assured disbeliever would affirm there is no God – the atheist.
I would suggest that there are some basic questions every belief system must ask and answer if that belief system is to be considered legitimate or sufficient. I would also argue that the answers a person of faith offers to these questions, in particular, the Christian worldview, answers these questions sufficiently and consistently.
Question One: Is there a God? This is the spiritual or eternal question. Put another way, why won't the God question go away? (As Alister McGrath has argued in a book by the same title) Is God the whimsical creation of a weak-minded people? Or, is the affirmation of God's existence simply the implicit recognition of what is? If there is a God, what is God like? What is God's nature? Is God the God of the deists, detached and aloof? Is God the God of the atheists, unreal and created? Or, is God personal and near, made known to us through the person of Jesus Christ and the sacred texts? If there is no God, then what is my explanation for ultimate reality? How did the world come to exist?
Science affirms that something cannot come from nothing. They are left with the unscientific response – "origins are a mystery." Origins are a mystery unless, of course, there is a God who is able to create ex nihilo. Further, where does meaning come from? Where does my sense of right and wrong come from? How do I define justice, love, and mercy without slipping in a theistic argument for a non-theistic position?
Question Two: Who am I? This is the question of self-identity. Where did I come from? Am I an accident? An incident? Or, do I have purpose, consciousness, and a sense of a moral order? Where does self-awareness come from? Why do I feel an urge to create, to pursue, to excel, to achieve? And why do I hold in my head and heart, as C.S. Lewis would say, a yearning for something beyond myself, something eternal? Where does moral order come from?
The Christian would argue that mankind is made in the image of God and, though marred by sin, has incredible capacities for creativity, mercy, love, justice, and relationship; further, that God has set eternity in our hearts, a sort of eternal GPS system. The atheist must argue that mankind is an evolutionary by-product of a blind, cold universe controlled by chance and probabilities, but no certainties. This means there is no eternal meaning to life; we are totally this-worldly.
Question Three: Who are you to me? This is the question of relationship. This question is important. Christians do not argue that atheists do not love or care for friends or family members. They do so in great degree. The question is why do they love, care, have a sense of justice, feel moral outrage at wrongs committed, and have a sense of right and wrong? Christians would argue that the relationships we have with others reflect the relational character of God uniquely placed in the heart of humanity. Atheists love and feel moral outrage, but to affirm this outrage they must smuggle in an eternal meaning that they are unwilling to openly acknowledge. Surely love is more than a set of chemical reactions set within a biological explanation for all things?
If we are nothing more than a higher order animal, as atheistic Darwinian materialists argue, why are we surprised when we act like animals? Why do we sense or feel meaning in relationships? The moral argument for God's existence is not in and of itself sufficient for belief.
Question Five: What happens when a person dies? This is the question of eternity. The atheist must answer: 1) they do not know, 2) it doesn't matter, 3) or there's nothing after death and this life is all there is. Yet, questions remain. Why do we keep asking questions like: Is there a heaven? Is there a hell? Is there some kind of judgment on committed wrongs? Why do I have a yearning for the necessity of eternal justice? Where are my loved ones who have died? Why do I grieve when someone dies? And why do I personally and individually continue to ask, either privately or publicly, the questions of eternity, life after death, judgment, and justice?
Death is the sinister backdrop against which all of life is lived. We do not like to think about death. Death is the irrefutable fact of life and what a person thinks about death reveals much about how they view life. Death is the great equalizer of life because young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated all die. What matters is how you die and what happens to you after you die. I have in my office a quote by the Greek philosopher Virgil that reminds me of my human sinfulness and fragility: "Death plucks my ear and whispers, 'Live for I am coming.'" Next to that quote I have this quote by Jesus (Jn. 11:25), "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live."
These questions are but five of a whole host of questions any belief system must ask and answer. The concerning thing about modern-day atheism is not its existence, but its shallowness. Again, atheism is not new. But one gets the sense that the atheism of the current day is not dealing with the great questions of life and death honestly and forthrightly; rather the new atheism seems to be the yearning for humanity to be totally free from any temporal, external, objective, or eternal explanations, restraints or accountability. Let me paraphrase who I consider to be maybe the most honest atheist who ever lived, Friedrich Nietzsche. He realized what was at stake if we turned our back on Ultimate Reality. Paraphrasing Nietzsche he noted that if we have killed God, what are we to do? Despair.