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Evangelizing “Lapsed Atheists”

August 23, 2023

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“Lapsed atheist”—that’s how Russian-British satirist and social commentator Konstantin Kisin describes himself in a recent article entitled “The Atheism Delusion.” It’s a clever and humorous twist on the “lapsed Catholic” or “lapsed Christian” phrase, but it’s also more than that. Kisin’s reflections on his transition from atheism to “lapsed atheism” (actually, Kisin now tells people he’s an agnostic when asked his views on religion, but he claims that “lapsed atheist” is a more accurate term) can provide us with some important topics to raise when discussing the Catholic faith with other nonbelievers. 

In his article, Kisin describes some of the reasons why he initially found himself in agreement with the so-called “new atheists” (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens), but he then goes on to say that he “began to lose [his] faith in atheism” when the new atheists started to claim in earnest, not only that religion is “untrue,” but also that religion is inherently bad. Kisin found that he couldn’t agree with this assessment, because over time he gradually had come to see religion as both “useful” and “inevitable.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of religion, obviously, but Kisin is opening the door to religion at least a crack.

In his discussion of religion’s “usefulness,” Kisin mainly focuses on the fact that religion can provide the moral foundation and framework that is so essential to the establishment and maintenance of a civilized society. In his opinion, “The central positive feature of the religious worldview is to ensure that human beings do not see themselves as the sole arbiters of truth and justice, that having torn God down from his pedestal we do not put ourselves in his place.” He repeats the observation that had been made previously by thinkers like Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: if there is no God, then “we get to make up whatever rules we want.” Kisin points to Stalin and Hitler as cautionary tales of what can happen to societies that abandon any semblance of a moral framework. In fact, thinkers since at least the time of the French Revolution have striven mightily to devise a moral foundation for culture that is not rooted in religion, but without any real success. Nietzsche was largely correct when he claimed that, if there is no God, then society, and human existence itself, tend to devolve into amoral struggles for power.

What will fill that void? Religious people have their answer. Do the rest of us?

Western culture has been running on the fumes of the few surviving remnants of the Judeo-Christian ethic for quite some time now, and those fumes are becoming mighty thin indeed (“Just be kind!”), as the moral chaos that passes for contemporary Western culture amply, and tragically, demonstrates. Ireland, a country that has, in recent years, largely jettisoned its Catholic heritage and the moral code that goes along with it, is a case in point.

Jesus said that “no city or house divided against itself will stand” (Matt. 12:25), and Abraham Lincoln repeated that truth in a speech he gave less than three years before the outbreak of the American Civil War. A culture that loses its moral consensus is a culture that tends to become divided against itself, as we see in the United States currently. As Lincoln noted in his speech, such a “house” tends either to fall or else to cease being divided by becoming “all one thing” or “all the other.” It remains to be seen what the United States is going to become, but sooner or later we’re going to need to cease to be so divided if our country is to survive. And one of the best ways to cease to be divided, and indeed not only to survive but also to thrive, is to regain the moral consensus, the Judeo-Christian ethic, that once guided the government of our country and the behavior of its citizens. Our current cultural moment provides us with a crucial opportunity to enter in to a discussion of the cultural importance of religion with not only “lapsed atheists” but anyone else who might be open to considering the cultural significance, even necessity, of the moral framework that religion can provide. Such openness can be a significant step toward being open to religious faith itself.

When discussing the “usefulness” of religion, Kisin notes that Western culture’s concept of “human rights” also had its origin in religion—specifically, again, within the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Jewish Scriptures tell us that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26); Christianity agrees, and adds the claim that God invites all human beings to become his children via adoption into the Body of Christ (see, for example, Gal. 4:4-7 and 1 John 3:1-2). As such, all human beings have an inherent value and dignity and, as Jefferson so eloquently expressed it, possess “unalienable rights.” Kisin claims that the atrocities of the first half of the twentieth century necessitated the “reinvention” of human rights by the United Nations, because the decline of religious belief had caused many people, and even entire societies, to lose sight of those rights.

The concept of human rights gets much used (and abused) these days (e.g., claims that abortion is a “human right”), but without a religion that asserts that human rights are divinely given, the concept of “human rights” once again degenerates into issues of power: whoever has political power can choose to limit, trample upon, or even outright abolish such rights, just as whoever has power can set whatever “rules” they want in the absence of God. In our efforts at evangelization in the current political climate, it might behoove us to raise the religious origins of human rights with people who seem open to being persuaded by such discussions.

Kisin also came, over time, to see religion as “inevitable.” By this he means that if we take away what he calls “old religion” from society, a vacuum inevitably is created, and some “new religion” rushes in to fill that vacuum. Here, Kisin gives the example of trans ideology. A vacuum is created when we strive to eliminate religion from our societies and from our individual lives, because we human beings are homo religiosus: religious man. We all need to worship something. In fact, we seem to be wired to worship something. And we are—we’re all wired to worship God. But when we choose to worship something other than God (whether that be wealth, or pleasure, or power, or status, or fame, or some other God-substitute), our lives, and our societies, tend to go off track. Kisin, although not yet a religious believer, sees that when a society attempts to purge traditional religion from its midst, some new “religion” that might be just as “bad” as, and maybe “even worse” than, traditional religion tends to take its place.

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Something else that we can glean from Kisin’s take on traditional religion is that he, like many other nonbelievers, seems to subscribe to a very narrow definition of “truth.” Kisin appears to limit “truth” to scientific truth, facts that can be demonstrated empirically using the scientific method. Conceiving truth in this severely limited way is known as scientism. Scientism is self-contradictory, because the foundational claim upon which scientism is based—namely, that the only truths are those truths which can be empirically verified—cannot itself be empirically verified.

At one point, Kisin says, “Irrespective of how scientifically true [italics added] religion may or not be, it is nonetheless both useful and inevitable.” But, of course, religion cannot be proven either “true” or “untrue” using the scientific method (and actually, neither can atheism!). Religion deals with issues that are not subject to empirical scrutiny in the way that physical phenomena are. Religion deals with metaphysical truths, truths about ultimate and final causes, truths about transcendence and the nature of being itself. “Scientific truth” is one type of truth, but it is not the only type of truth. Truth is much broader and deeper than scientific truth alone—another worthy topic of discussion in our evangelization efforts.

Kisin was likely engaging in humor, at least in part, when he chose the expression that he had “lost his faith” in atheism, but his manner of phrasing this is exactly on target. Atheism is just as much a “leap of faith” as is religious faith. Actually, atheism is an easier leap of faith in some senses, because it does not impose the moral demands on the atheist that religion imposes on the religious believer.

But one of the best opportunities for evangelizing “lapsed atheists” (and other nonbelievers) comes in the last few sentences with which Kisin closes his article:

The reason new atheism has lost its mojo is that it has no answers to the lack of meaning and purpose that our post-Christian societies are suffering from. What will fill that void? Religious people have their answer. Do the rest of us?

Of the various reasons that Kisin gives for his transition from atheist to “lapsed atheist,” this issue of meaning and purpose is likely to be the least abstract and the most personally relevant issue for anyone with whom we might be discussing the Catholic faith. We human beings are future-oriented creatures who need a destination to aim toward and a purpose for which to live. Sadly, there are a lot of people out there these days who suffer from a lack of purpose in their lives and who have no clear sense of any sort of meaningful destination toward which they are headed. Christianity offers us both. There is no deeper sense of meaning and purpose to be had in this life than by fulfilling one’s God-given mission of love, and there is no greater destination toward which to aim than that of sharing forever in the divine life of God.