Christopher Hitchens is dying of cancer. You know Hitchens, of course, as one of our era’s most infamous atheists. He is the author of God Is Not Great and makes frequent appearances in the pages of Vanity Fair and Atlantic Monthly. Hitchens was recently interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper about his battle with cancer. He told Cooper that despite facing death, he still doesn’t pray and he will not pray. So, he said, we shouldn’t believe any reports about a deathbed conversion; he is secure in his nonbelief. When asked about the reports of groups of Christians who are praying for his health, Hitchens expressed gratitude for their kind thoughts but said that they shouldn’t waste their breath praying to a God who does not exist.
Hitchens, a former socialist turned conservative commentator, has spent the better part of the last ten years as an advocate for what has become known as the “New Atheism.” The so-called “New Atheists” are not just blandly agnostic or politely atheistic. They are militantly atheistic, relentlessly in-your-face with their rejection not just of Christianity but any form of theism. They present a special challenge to American Christians who have long enjoyed a place of privilege: even where Christianity was rejected, it has been given a place of honor among competing religious philosophies. It has had a sort of first among equals approach that has lifted Christianity above the fray and removed it from the kind of criticism that it must now bear.
With the rise of the New Atheism and the willingness of writers like Christopher Hitchens to actively and relentlessly criticize Christianity, we have entered into a new era. I, for one, welcome it: not least because the New Atheists have done us all a significant favor by deconstructing the myth of neutrality. By the myth of neutrality I mean that belief that asserts religion is a personal matter, that it doesn’t matter if you are religious or not, and that being religious or nonreligious makes no real difference in one’s life. The New Atheists have not been satisfied with saying that religion is banal or meaningless. They believe that religion is a menace. Because of this belief, it is not enough for them to not be religious themselves. They work hard to convince others not just of the foolishness of religion but also of its danger.
Unfortunately as our interview with Kenda Creasy Dean revealed, the church is facing an epidemic of unbelief and apostasy among its teens and young adults. As a pastor, I see evidence of this trend first hand: teens flirting with unbelief, thinking about rejecting Christianity because they wonder if it really matters what they believe. When I ask, “why are you considering walking away from what you once professed?”, the response is usually an apathetic shrug. “It just doesn’t matter,” people say. “It doesn’t matter if Christianity is true. I just want to live my life my way without reference to God.”
And this is why we must be forever grateful to the New Atheists. They say, it does matter: it’s a matter of life and death. According to writers like Christopher Hitchens, religion (Christianity, even) is hateful, violent, and dangerous. It is not enough in their view to be apathetic toward it, you must actively resist and reject it; you cannot be neutral.
This is what the Bible says, too. There is no neutrality when it comes to God.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23)
According to the Bible everyone, everywhere has an innate knowledge of God. Everyone knows something about God (specifically, his eternal power and divine nature). That knowledge, however, is suppressed. Humankind attempts to bury that knowledge beneath a sea of false worship. This means that apathetic agnostics and atheists old and new are not merely ignorant of God, they are actively resisting and defying what they know to be true.
I’ve been thinking about this as I work through the Book of Exodus with my congregation. Specifically, I think that this truth gives us insight to how Pharaoh answers Moses in Exodus 5:2. In Exodus 5, Moses and Aaron are making their first appearance before Pharaoh, requesting time for Israel to travel into the wilderness to worship the Lord. In response, Pharaoh asks, “Who is the Lord?” What sort of question is this? Is it a reflection of Pharaoh’s ignorance of his Hebrew slaves’ religion? No, this isn’t ignorance. Pharaoh is defiantly rejecting God. He not only claims to not know the Lord, he refuses to obey his voice and asserts his own authority in response to the prophet’s message from God. Although the original Hebrew lacks emoticons, it’s not too difficult for us to hear Pharaoh sneer as he asks, “Who is the Lord?”
Pharaoh is a clear example for us of those who not only refuse to acknowledge God but actively resist him. Pharaoh’s unbelief is an expression of rebellion against the God that he innately knows. But Pharaoh doesn’t just reject the natural revelation that he can observe in the creation and that is written on his conscience. Pharaoh is also rejecting special revelation from Moses and Aaron. The prophet of God has spoken, giving Pharaoh a direct and personal message. But Pharaoh compounds his guilt by rejecting not just the shadow of knowledge he has of God, but even the clear knowledge.
This defiance of God leads to the brutal oppression that Pharaoh unleashes against Israel. It isn’t enough for Pharaoh to dismiss two crazed prophets of a deity he doesn’t know. He must also persecute and torment the people who did profess to know this God. In so doing, Pharaoh shows us how the “myth of neutrality” gives way to the tragic trajectory of unbelief: Unbelief cannot stop at a mere intellectual rejection of God. Since such intellectual rejection isn’t neutral, you must fill in the vacuum with something to worship. In Pharaoh’s case, he had plenty of idols to worship, but more than anything was his own enthronement of self-determination: rejecting God’s voice and directive he asserts his own authority, and he unleashes his power in defiance of God. That final act of aggression is the end result of intellectual rejection.
If you are toying with belief in God, thinking about rejecting him in order to determine your own life, know that in the end you will not be mildly opposed to Christianity or even apathetic toward it. The path of rejection leads to oppression and persecution. Unable to quiet the persistent testimony of nature and conscience, those who reject God must unleash their rage against God and his people. This is why Christians are persecuted around the world. This is why you are mocked and made fun of by your nonChristian friends. Those who lash out against God and his people are demonstrating how Exodus 5 is still relevant to us today: there is no neutrality with God.