Columnists > Voices

Practical atheism

Denials of God can be so quiet that they are easy to miss

Issue: "Our pork," Dec. 8, 2007

No one would be surprised later this month, I suppose, if the editors of Time magazine were to announce they were putting Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris on their year-end cover as co-winners of the annual Person-of-the-Year award. Nobody, the editors would explain, had done more than these three pioneers during the year 2007 to encourage humankind to rethink its superstitious bondage to theism. Nobody had made it more legitimate to leave God out of the day-to-day discussion. Their widely published books, lectures, and debates-for better or for worse-were pacesetting and world changing.

But if the editors of Time did such an unsurprising thing, they would be dead wrong. They should instead have nominated themselves.

For the truest and most effective proponents of godlessness are almost never those who are most blatant about their mission. They are instead those who purport to pick up any topic at all for further discussion-and then leave God out of that conversation. Do that with a dozen such discussions, or maybe 20 or 100, and you don't have to do much more. You've implicitly made your case. God doesn't exist-or if He does, He doesn't matter.

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No example could be more telling than Time's Dec. 3 issue, whose cover brashly announces the main article: "What Makes Us Good/Evil."

It isn't just that the article is terribly trivial and wrong-headed-like when the author says flat out that "gorillas and chimps [have] mastered sign language" or when he goes on to suggest that using "tools" (as in throwing a rock) is at all the same as conceiving and making tools. But the author, you see, needs to elevate other species, even if he does so clumsily, in order to bring humans down to a level where moral judgment is nothing more than anatomy and chemistry. But that, I say, is not what makes a venerable magazine like Time look worst.

The possibility that a meaningful God-or even a meaningless god, for that matter-is part of such a discussion gets not a single mention. In more than 3,000 words, the broad topic of "religion" is never suggested. There's not a hint that anybody has ever talked about something called the "Fall." It's breathtaking, in fact, that Time could take on a cover story like "What Makes Us Good/Evil?" and leave out so much that seems so basic.

Except, of course, that such is the essence of practical atheism-which is so dangerously more lethal than anything ever concocted by formal atheists like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris. With an in-your-face atheist, you at least have time to get your senses in gear and your defenses set. With Time, the atheism is so quiet that many will miss it altogether.

It's a way of thinking that has been picking up speed for a long time in our culture. Our society, for the most part, decided long ago that it's embarrassing and intrusive to try to drag God into a conversation about education or politics or entertainment or family or economics or art. So it may have been noteworthy-but not especially startling-to see in our local Sunday newspaper a feature titled "Merry Music -Add these 12 Christmas CDs to your holiday collection," and to note that not a single one of the 12 was devoted to the historic "religious" aspects of Christmas. Christmas now instead means Clay Aiken and the Smithereens.

OK. So the spirit of secularism has the wind at its back. Time says that the ability to empathize is a big part of the ability to understand the difference between right and wrong. And the magazine's editors headline their optimism that "science is now learning what makes us both noble and terrible-and perhaps what can make us better."

But even allowing for all that, isn't it still pretty arrogant and uppity to leave out of the whole treatment of "What Makes Us Moral?" all reference to everything that has historically been central to the discussion?

Or should we just concede that not just secularism, but practical atheism, is now the religion of our culture-and encourage the editors of Time to put a portrait of themselves on their year-end cover, symbolizing that tragic and terrifying fact?

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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