Thus far I’ve diganosed the objection to atheism as being different than Maitzen supposes. But what about that objection itself? Is it plausible? Let’s take a closer look at Romans 1:18-21 and unpack what it is affirming, at least on the “atheists are rebels” view.
To begin with, in verse 18 Paul is referring to those who demonstrate a “godlessness” (asebeia = lack of reverence) and “wickedness” (adikia = lack of righteousness). As Paul continues he unpacks just what he means by this lack of reverence and righteousness. It includes the following: “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.”
Look at that list! Clearly these are people you do not want for your neighbor. And thus to the extent that a Christian begins with the assumption that the person who does not affirm the proposition “God exists” is “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity … envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice” they will, not surprisingly, place those individuals rather low on the love and trust scale.
Indeed, if we take this list literally then had we the power we ought to remove these individuals from society altogether, for people who really are this corrupt are an imminent threat to the entire social order. They only want to murder, have envy, deceit while they are completely lacking in fidelity, love and mercy. So this is serious business. If we really believe these people are this wicked then we really do need to get them off the streets (perhaps Manhatten in John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” would be a suitable place).
But this is an empirical matter, is it not? I mean, if you believe that a certain class of people is this “godless” and “wicked” then presumably evidence of their godlessness and wickedness will be evident. Everybody in the neighborhood knew Ebenezer Scrooge was, well, a scrooge. When you’re that bad you can’t hide it. And this means that the hypothesis is testable. We can go out and see if in fact this applies to atheists we know. So, does it?
Do atheists lack reverence?
Let’s start here: are the atheists I know “godless” in the sense that they lack reverence for God? This is a tough question, for how can you lack reverence toward a person you don’t believe exists?
Imagine that Bill and Ted unwittingly take a time machine back to 17th century France, a time when the nation was governed by royalty. However, they don’t realize they’ve travelled back in time. They still think it is the year 1990, a time when France had no king. Consequently, when the king’s royal carriage rolls by they don’t bow because they don’t think it really is the king precisely because they believe no king exists. They may be objectively culpable before French law for failing to bow. But in the sense that it really matters — that of moral culpability — it would seem that they haven’t failed to show reverence toward the king since they never believed he existed to begin with.
Could one say that the problem is not simply lack of reverence toward God, but rather lack of reverence toward the idea or concept of God? After all, some atheists certainly do seem to have a deep antipathy toward the concept of God.
There are two problems with this claim as a general characterization of atheists. First, many atheists don’t have that antipathy. They take the idea of God very seriously; they just don’t believe such a being exists. Second, even where that antipathy exists we cannot assume it is an antipathy toward God. Sometimes it may be, but in other cases it may be directed toward Christians and other religiously devout people. And this antipathy could be for a range of reasons. Let’s say, for example, that Alex was raped by a Catholic priest as a young boy. Is it a surprise when he grows up with an enormous amount of hostility toward the Catholic Church and the God it worships? Clearly there is much more at play there than a simple lack of reverence.
Do “atheists” believe God exists?
Remember the image I used last time of the Jesuit looking through Galileo’s telescope and clearly seeing the moons of Jupiter yet refusing to acknowledge what he sees. On this view this describes atheists. They see God’s “invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature” and thus know God exists as surely as the Jesuit can see and know that Jupiter has its own satellites. And yet as surely as the Jesuit, stubborn and wicked as he is, refuses to acknowledge what he sees, so the atheist stubbornly and wickedly refuses to acknowledge what he or she sees.
I know many atheists, some of them quite well. And while I can’t deny that in principle this analysis is possibly true — that is, it is possible that at some level these individuals really do believe and know God exists — it is also an extraordinarily implausible claim. It is about as plausible as suggesting that all the Christians you meet really do believe at some level that Allah is God and Mohammad is his prophet.
Do atheists engage in perverted sexual activity?
Paul describes this group as being given over by God to “sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.” (v. 24) He goes on by saying that both women and men engaged in unnatural relations with those of the same gender (vv. 26-8).
There are two issues here. The first issue is whether what Paul describes is an accurate description of the homosexual person. It is not as obvious as is often supposed since Paul assumes in his description a voluntaristic dimension (i.e. people turn away from their natural orientation toward the opposite gender) which is apparently absent from those who we identify today as homosexual.
Regardless, the bigger picture in Paul’s condemnation is not simply same-gender relations but a casting off of societal restrictions. Think of the debauchery of a suburban swingers’ club. So then the question: are atheists especially debauched? Are they especially likely to engage in homosexual acts or take out memberships in swingers clubs? I trust such questions answer themselves. There is no essential link between illicit sexual behavior and atheism. (If there is I await the provision of some hard sociological statistics.)
While it is popular to think that Paul is targeting atheists in Romans 1, the claim faces enormous difficulties. Not least among them is the fact that what Paul says comes out looking a lot like hate speech.
In February 2009 the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center published a helpful document on “Hate Speech on Commercial Talk Radio.” The study identifies four types of speech which “create a climate of hate and prejudice” including appeal to false facts, flawed argumentation, divisive language and dehumanizing metaphors. While their analysis is far from perfect, it is a good starting point for thinking through how hate speech isolates and targets certain groups for social marginalization … or worse.
Is Paul talking about atheists here? The debate will continue. And is he guilty of hate speech? I’ll let you decide that. But imagine a pastor preaching on a specific group in society, be they feminists, democrats, environmentalists, anarchists, Arabs, or atheists. And imagine he said that that group was “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.” What would you call that?