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The Perks of Being an Atheist in College

The Perks of Being an Atheist in College

I loved my college years. Looking back, I can see how formative these years were for me intellectually. The liberal arts education I received helped me to take the particulars of various disciplines and unify them into a comprehensive view of reality. As a Christian, I began to see with delight how theology, science, literature, art, philosophy, and history all work together in an enthralling, God-centered worldview.

Given that many universities are either openly or functionally hostile to Christian habits of heart and mind, college is often a time of testing for young people. Some young people grow stronger in their understanding and commitment to the Christian faith during these years. Some grow complacent and lukewarm. Others go on to fully embrace ideologies and lifestyles irreconcilable with Christ and his church. Most extreme of these ideologies is atheism - the belief there is no God. Atheists often abound on college campuses. In fact, I would not be surprised if books like God is Not Great, The God Delusion, Faith Vs. Fact, etc., etc., etc., have their highest following among college students. 

Honestly, as a pastor, I'd rather dialogue with an outspoken college atheist than a nominal, lukewarm Christian. You can reason with a firm belief (or in this case, lack of belief). But you can't reason with complacency. If atheism is a barking bulldog, lukewarm Christianity is like a napping Shih Tzu. However, I often wonder what really lies behind confident college atheism?

Atheism: A Head or Heart Matter?

Part of it may be the tendency toward extremes at this age - encountering new ideas in your early twenties can be intoxicating. Yet, very often I see atheism masked behind intellectual ideas. In other words, a college freshman reads Nietzsche in her intro to philosophy class, or Sartre in a literature class, or maybe even has a biology professor who pontificates about atheism during lectures (which means he's teaching philosophy instead of biology). Furthermore, those who claim atheism may assert that they're looking at the world objectively - scientifically - and in the absence of clear evidence they have abandoned all faith. But is it really that simple? Are reason and empirical evidence the only factor informing the decision?

The so called "new atheists" (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and others) that are so popular on college campuses often come off as confident in their presentation of atheism. They argue their case as if atheism is obvious, factual, and centered in reality. I appreciate the more humble, honest atheism of people like professor Thomas Nagel of New York University. In a revealing quote from his book The Last Word he writes:

I want atheism to be true... It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God: I don't want the universe to be like that... Pg. 130.

Nagel cuts through the cool confidence of many popular atheists and frankly admits that much more is at stake when it comes to belief or unbelief. No one approaches the question of God from simply an intellectual perspective. Why? Because the reality of God reverberates with deep implications about who we are, why we're here, and where we're going. If God exists, that means that he has a claim upon my entire existence. As St. Paul writes, "In him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28 - probably quoting Epimenides of Crete) and "from him and through him and to him are all things" (Rom. 11:35). The reality of Jesus Christ has either the smell of death or the smell of life (2 Cor. 2:15).

Embracing atheism in college may have intellectual roots (as does Christianity). But very often so much more is at stake (as with Christianity). If I can rid myself of all moral obligations and spiritual duties, I am free to reinvent myself according to my own preferences. College is often defined by the tumult of self-definition and redefinition. If my discovery of self leads me into paths deemed as dead-ends and treason by the Divine, then what better way to follow those paths unhindered than by abandoning belief altogether? In short, it may be that college atheism has more to do with the heart and its affections rather than the mind and its intellectual hang ups.

A Matter of Intelligence?

Nagel expands on this idea. Within the same paragraph he admits:

"I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers."

Once again, Nagel observes with clarity that one's commitment to either atheism or some form of theism is more a heart matter than a head matter. It's not as if atheists simply abandoned belief on the basis of information inaccessible or ignored by believers. Quite the contrary. In fact, he notes that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people he knows are religious believers.

The late Stephen Jay Gould echoes the same thoughts with reference to science. Gould, like Nagel, was an atheist. However, recognizing that many scientists are believers he admitted:

Either half of my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs - and equally compatible with atheism - pg. 94.

Like Nagel, Gould recognized that although many of his colleagues had access to the same information, they came to far different conclusions about what lies behind that information.

Consider, for example, two successful and distinguished scientists: The renowned biologist Richard Dawkins, and the director of the National Institutes of Health and former head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins. Dawkins is an avowed and outspoken atheist. Collins is a committed Christian. Both have written books defending their belief or lack of belief on the basis of science. I think we can admit that neither of these men are intellectually sluggish, or that either are missing some key piece of empirical evidence that would sway them either way. Rather, both Dawkins and Collins have access to the same information, have comparably successful careers, and yet they come to radically different conclusions on the question of God. Why is this? Once again, I would argue that their responses reflect attitudes of the heart rather than the mind.

Some atheists may be quick to quip that Collins is holding on to some hope of transcendent meaning in the universe, morality, human dignity, etc. Like a child who refuses to let go of the tattered remains of a childhood blanket, perhaps Collins, scientific as he is, remains fixed on the security provided by God. Perhaps. The atheist Jean Paul Sartre once admitted that "atheism is a long, hard, cruel business." There are great comforts given by belief in God. But the logic cuts both ways. For some, there's temporary benefit in embracing atheism, and much to give up if God is an unavoidable reality. It may be that Dawkins is not as objective about the matter as he would have us believe.

Conceptual Frameworks

Everyone approaches the raw material of scientific data, life experience, and even religious belief or unbelief with a certain set of questions and assumptions that will shape its interpretation. Theologian Robert Kolb explains:

We think within a conceptual framework. This conceptual framework or set of presuppositions guides the way in which we understand and apply specific topics... It shapes the way we establish what questions about life are important, what answers about reality we need to have - pg. 15.

In other words, the way we respond to science (or any other body of knowledge) reveals more about our allegiances than about reality. If one is pursuing God, chances are he or she will navigate the college years unscathed by secularism, understanding all true and helpful human knowledge as gifts from God. However, if one is pursuing freedom from God, everything from Darwin to Dawkins will provide a convenient exit.

 If you've come under the sway of atheism during your college years, or perhaps feel tempted towards "coming out" as secular, I'd encourage you to ask yourself some critical questions - questions you owe yourself as a thinking person:

  • Does atheism work? In other words, does it make sense of my deepest longings and desires? Does it account for my sense of morality and human dignity? Do I find myself holding to values and morals that have no basis in a meaningless universe?
  • Why am I outraged by injustice and human suffering? Is there a reason I'm offended by these things? Should I expect to be outraged at what nature apparently deemed normal - namely, the red tooth and claw of existence?
  • Have I thoroughly examined the other side, or just in passing? In other words, when I reject Christianity, am I just rejecting what may be a shallow caricature of it rather than the real thing? Have I carefully read the New Testament Gospels, so that I am well-informed in my rejection of Christ? Have I read books that are critical of atheism, such as Mere Christianity, Orthodoxy, The Reason for God, or Can Man Live Without God? (to cite a few). Or is my rejection of God based on a biased syllabus' reading list, or rooted in memes and slogans from the internet?
  • And more to the point, what vested interest do I have in atheism? Does belief in nothing allow me to do anything? Are there certain choices I'm making right now that make belief in God inconvenient, perhaps even threatening?

Atheism, properly understood, certainly is a "long, hard, cruel business" for those who would pursue it beyond graduation. What worked in the safety of a college campus may not work well in the daily pressures and pleasures of life. But very often our supposed exit from God leads us not away from him, but to him. Like the prodigal son in the parable, God remains ready and willing to take us back after we've spent our best years denying his existence. Even when we loudly protest against his existence, he has, at great cost to himself, insisted on valuing our existence. Your existence.

Rev. John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church

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