The New Old Atheism

Watching the news reports of relief efforts in Haiti, I couldn’t help noticing the prevalence of Christian ministries. They’re everywhere. And they didn’t just arrive, they were assisting Haitians before the earthquake.

But strangely missing from the news reports is any mention of atheist relief efforts. Assuredly (and thankfully), atheists have been contributing, but were they helping the people in Haiti before the earthquake?

Contrary to recent surveys that indicate the percentage of atheists have remained the same (at 4%), atheism is in vogue. But you may be surprised to discover that atheism isn’t a new idea. It’s been around for centuries.

In our reading this morning, we’ll look at what Scripture says about the new old atheism.

Sorry for the delay in posting today’s installment—WordPress gave me problems putting my post online.

TODAY’S READING

Genesis 32:13-34:31
Matthew 11:7-30
Psalm 14:1-7
Proverbs 3:19-20

INSIGHTS AND EXPLANATIONS

Genesis 32:13-21. The Bible Background Commentary adds some interesting observations regarding Jacob’s preparation: “Jacob’s gifts to Esau demonstrate that he is as shrewd as ever. Besides being an attempt to gain Esau’s favor through generosity, the continuous arrival of the herds of animals will wear out any schemes for ambush and deflate any degree of military readiness that Esau might be planning in his encounter with Jacob. Additionally, traveling with the animals will slow Esau down and make his company much noisier. Finally, the plan adds Jacob’s servants to Esau’s retinue—a decided advantage if there is to be fighting.”

Genesis 32:22-32. E.M. Bounds, who wrote some very inspiring books on prayer, once wrote about this passage: “Prayer in its highest form and grandest success assumes the attitude of a wrestler with God. It is the contest, trial, and victory of faith; a victory not secured from an enemy, but from him who tries our faith that he may enlarge it; that tests our strength to make us stronger.”

Genesis 32:29. Notice that the person with whom Jacob is fighting doesn’t answer Jacob’s question about his name. In the Old Testament, God’s name is never spoken—partly because in that culture, knowing a person’s name gave a sense of mastery over the person.

Genesis 33:2. Notice that Jacob places Leah (his unloved wife) ahead of Rachel and him. If the family was attacked, Leah would have suffered first.

Genesis 33:4. Put your self in Jacob’s shoes (sandals?). You bow down to honor the brother you deceived (and fear), and he starts running toward you. What would be running through your head? I’d be terrified.

Genesis 33:10. I love this line. The night before, Jacob wrestles with God and names the place Peniel, which means “face of God.” Then he looks at his brother Easu and says, “For to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”

Genesis 34:9. Remember, Abraham was adamant that their clan avoid marrying Canaanites. By intermarrying with the locals, their clan would be absorbed into the surrounding culture and the blessing would be lost.

Matthew 11:28-30. I love what the New Bible Commentary says about this passage: “A yoke was intended to ease the discomfort in carrying a heavy load. But it also symbolized obedience and the acceptance of responsibility. The rabbis often spoke of taking on ‘the yoke of the Law’, and under their direction that burden could become heavy. Jesus’ yoke, by contrast, is easy, not because his call to discipleship is less demanding…but because it makes us pupils of one who is gentle and humble in heart.”

THE WORD MADE FRESH

The beginning of Psalm 14 is pretty direct:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.

Reading this Scripture today, I realized that atheism isn’t new. It dates back thousands of years.

But the deeper realization that occurred to me was the outcome of atheism: “They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.”

Obviously, the vast, vast majority of atheists aren’t criminal reprobates. In fact, atheists can do very good things.

But I’ve always wondered: who or what serves as their reference of authority?

As a follower of Jesus, I seek to live in a way that reflects the way he lived. Unfortunately, other followers of Jesus have committed some pretty atrocious acts that don’t reflect Jesus. They can also treat atheists in ways that embarrass me.

And, I continue to fall short in my attitudes, thoughts, and behavior. Nevertheless,  Scripture—with the conviction of the Holy Spirit—acts as a restraint on evil and corruption.

But what acts as a restraint on atheists? If every person is “the measure of all things,” then everyone is free to live as they please. What do you call a group of people who do whatever they want without regard to a higher authority? Chaos.

CONVERSATION STARTERS

  1. Have you ever wrestled with God? What was the outcome? Were you changed? Did the wrestling match leave you walking with a limp?
  2. Describe a time when someone showered you with forgiveness like Esau did to Jacob.
  3. Read Matthew 11:12. What does this say about the kingdom of heaven?
  4. What kind of yokes do people take on that don’t come from Jesus?

www.bibleconversation.com

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The New Old Atheism

  1. “But I’ve always wondered: who or what serves as their reference of authority?”

    I can only speak for myself as one, lone atheist, but I consider myself to be highly committed to a moral code of my own, and I believe that this moral code relfects real, true goodness because it is voluntary and not thrust upon me by any “authority” figure. I, essentially, live my life in a fashion which considers the feelings of others and treats them as I would like to be treated in return. I know that these principles are not vastly different than some of those taught in the major religions of the world, but there IS a difference.

    I CHOOSE to live this way with the full knowledge that I could just as easily choose to act differently. Imagine a child sitting on the floor near a cookie jar full of cookies that he knows he is not supposed to eat. One child doesn’t eat the cookies because he knows that his parents have installed a surveillance camera in the room and that if he steals the cookies, he will be discovered and punished. Another child sits near another cookie jar and knows that he absolutely COULD steal those cookies without fear of discovery or reprisals–yet he doesn’t do so because he knows that if he had unguarded cookies sitting out somewhere, he wouldn’t want some other child to steal them. Which child has a more developed sense of morality?

  2. Linda

    I was thinking (and just before I read “John Gault”‘s posting above, that the toughest people in the world to share the Gospel with are people who are genuinely decent individuals. You know: “good people.”

    As believers, all we can do is scatter the seed; the Holy Spirit does the rest.

  3. Mike

    John,

    Any morality that is not internalized is less than mature. Hebrews speaks of the law written on the heart, a fulfillment of OT prophecy where no longer is some external police force (or security camera) necessary to control people but they are directed to the good from within because it is written on the heart. You have suggested that within your heart is the golden rule and no one can fault this moral compass. In fact Jesus said that all the law was based on loving neighbor as self, and loving God with all our heart, mind and strength. The law merely helps identify when we are doing that.
    Isn’t it a fact that all of us choose (the whole point of free will)our moral code? You seem to suggest that the only reason Christians act morally is out of fear or conditioning. Have I understood you correctly?

    • Given what I wrote, you did understand me correctly–but let me expand a little. I absolutely do NOT believe that the only reason Christians act morally is out of fear or conditioning. I believe that most Christians (just like most Atheists, most Muslims, most Jews, etc.) are simply good people who try to live good lives through the exercise of an internal morality derived from a sense of fairness. The “Golden Rule” is simply that–what is fair for you is fair for me. The reason I made the argument about the kids and the cookie jars is that when Christians question the morality of atheism by implying that morality must derive from a moral authority, they are actually shortselling themselves. If that were true, then the analogy of the cookie jars would also be true and the morality derived from God as an authority would be much less meaningful. There needs to be no “higher authority” for morality to exist. It comes from the desire people have to live unmolested by others–and a knowledge that they must live up to that standard in order to fairly expect it from their neighbors.

      • Mike

        Perhaps I am too steeped in Calvinism, or have seen too much misdirected energy invested in self fulfillment, but I believe that mankind is not basically good. You know, that old scripture from Romans that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Paul goes on to say that the wage of that sin is death.
        We do often do good things apart from faith in God, but we also do very wrong things even as believers. I simply don’t observe that mankind, left to its own definitions of morality, actually creates a better, safer, more prosperous and pleasant world.
        The Christian faith has had centuries of influence on western culture and our common law reflects that influence. Have you considered that the reason you have adopted a golden rule approach to your own morality could be the influence of Christian morality that does make sense since it comes from the creator?

  4. But strangely missing from the news reports is any mention of atheist relief efforts. Assuredly (and thankfully), atheists have been contributing, but were they helping the people in Haiti before the earthquake?

    You mean like non-believers who give to or belong to Doctors Without Borders or the International Red Cross? Unlike many Christians, we do not feel the need to toot our horns or give each other a congratulatory slap in the back when we help out.

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