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Atheists can't let go of the transcendent

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Nature documentaries like the BBC’s “Planet Earth,” “Blue Planet,” and most recently, “A Perfect Planet,” are amazing masterpieces of modern videography, displaying creation in detail and majesty. Every creature soaring through the sky, or streaking through the deep, or thundering over the savannah exhibits power, beauty, and unmistakable purpose. David Attenborough’s grandfatherly narration and Hans Zimmer’s moving musical scores only add to the childlike awe these films induce. 

All of which makes it even more odd when Attenborough declares that all of this glory lacks purpose, or that it arose by chance and natural selection, and that none of it bears witness to any meaning or Mind beyond itself. 

A recent article on atheism, also from across the pond, reminded me of this contradiction. In The GuardianHarriet Sherwood described a new project from the University of Kent that seeks to discover whether disbelieving in God makes people less spiritual overall. According to the project’s authors, atheism “doesn’t necessarily entail unbelief in other supernatural phenomena.” Nor do unbelievers lack for a sense of purpose, despite “lacking anything to ascribe ultimate meaning to [in] the universe.” 

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In the article, Sherwood profiled several unbelievers, from an agnostic to a “free thinker” to Positivist pastor and Satanic priest (who makes it clear he doesn’t believe in a literal Satan). All of them insist that life can be deeply meaningful and even moral without God. 

“We can determine for ourselves what is meaningful,” said one. “The meaning of life,” suggested one woman, “is to make it the best experience you can, to spread love to those around you.” “Beauty and tradition are at the core of my philosophy,” said another. One self-identified atheistic Jew explained, “Being part of a religious community offers music, spirituality and relationships…it reminds me I’m on a journey to understand myself better and motivates me to help others.”

Hearing outspoken unbelievers proclaim that meaning and morality aren’t accidents is about as jarring as hearing David Attenborough proclaim that the world’s most amazing creatures are accidentsThere is an inability of atheists to let go of the transcendent. 

In his book, “Miracles,” C.S. Lewis wrote about the passionate moral activism of a famous atheist of his day, H.G. Wells. Moments after men like Wells admit that good and evil are illusions, Lewis said, “you will find them exhorting us to work for posterity, to educate, to revolutionise, liquidate, live and die for the good of the human race.”

But how do unbelievers, “naturalists” as Lewis calls them, account for such ideas? Certainly, nature is no help. If thoughts of meaning and morality find their origin in arrangements of atoms in our brains, then they can no more be called “true,” Lewis observed, than can “a vomit or a yawn.” 

Lewis concludes that when Wells and other unbelievers say we “ought to make a better world,” they have simply forgotten about their atheism. “That is their glory,” he concludes. “Holding a philosophy which excludes humanity, they yet remain human. At the sight of injustice, they throw all their Naturalism to the winds and speak like men and like men of genius. They know far better than they think they know.”

I’d love to ask the people behind masterpieces like “Planet Earth,” or the unbelievers profiled in The Guardian, about this contradiction. Years ago, I had a similar conversation with a woman I was seated beside on an airplane. She had very strong moral opinions about all kinds of things, but scoffed at me, “How can you believe in God!” I gently asked her why she believed in right and wrong. It was a fun conversation, and it made me realize that it is possible to affirm the human gut-level intuition about beauty and wonder and morality, while questioning where all of those things come from. 

And if you haven’t read Lewis’ masterful book “Miracles,” add it to the list. If it’s been a while, it’s worth revisiting. Fair warning: unbelievers should beware. As Lewis himself said, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” 

Originally posted at

From BreakPoint. Reprinted with the permission of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. "BreakPoint®" and "The Colson Center for Christian Worldview®" are registered trademarks of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

John Stonestreet is the President of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and co-host with Eric Metaxas of Breakpoint, the Christian worldview radio program founded by the late Chuck Colson. He is co-author of A Practical Guide to Culture, A Student's Guide to Culture and Restoring All Things.

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