In the first post I discussed one reason why people suppress a belief in God, namely the desire to be free from moral accountability and standards. Many atheists have rejected God because he stands behind a system of moral norms that they viewed as oppressive. Few are as forthright as Aldous Huxely who admits, “For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaningless was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotical revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever.” (cited in Ravi Zacharias’ Can Man Live Without God, pg. 30).
This quote is a great bridge to the second reason people reject the idea of God.
2. Many have rejected the idea of God because religion has been used as a tool to oppress. So, in Huxley’s words, atheism strikes a deathblow to meaning and the systems of morality and political/economic oppression fall also. To be honest, this critique is not far off the mark, though it does seem to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If one looks at the changing national attitude towards religion in France immediately prior too and during the French Revolution, it’s not hard to see why popular sentiment turned against the church and then, ultimately, against God. For decades the church had offered its support to a monarchy that was cruel, corrupt and out of touch with the needs of its people. Voltaire, a harsh critique of the church was right when he argued that if you eliminated the immorality, power and corruption of the church you will have eliminated the main reason for people to turn to atheism (McGrath, pg. 27). Others were not as modest in their ambitions and took aim not only at the church but at it’s most fundamental belief – a belief in the existence of God. McGrath writes, “A genuine revolution would therefor necessitate overthrowing this fundamental belief altogether, rather than attempting to reform it. Atheism was the Promethean liberator, which alone could guarantee the initial success and subsequent triumph of the Revolution” (pg. 38).
Fast-forward fifty or so years and hop on a train to Germany and you’ll see many of the same thoughts/feelings emerging from two German scholars/atheists, Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx. The Lutheran church enjoyed a privileged status in German society and had a vested interest in maintaining the social status quo even though it had led to “utter poverty and misery” for huge numbers of people. McGrath agrees that “there is no doubt that the church of this period was too much a prisoner of existing social structure, and that it often colluded with the belief that these structure were definitively grounded in Christian dogmas” (pg. 55). Feuerbach concluded that the idea of God was a human invention intended to help humanity to deal with the misery of life. Marx describes religion and a belief in God in similar ways. Religion is embraced as a way to deal with the sorrows and injustices in life – “yet these themselves arise through the social situation of the individual” (McGrath, pg. 63). Marx argued that religion and a belief in God numb people to their pain, and has been used throughout history to add a sense of divine legitimation to the status quo – a legitimation that was beyond being challenged. Thus “the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness” (cited, McGrath, pg. 66).
Interestingly, McGrath argues that neither atheism nor communism were able to gain a strong foothold in the US because the situation was very different. Whereas in Europe the state church has become an “integral part of the establishment”, an establishment that had become oppressive, in the US, this wasn’t the case. The Constitutional safeguards against the wedding of church and state may have saved America from the same fate as Europe.
I’ll save most of my prescriptive comments for a later post, but I think a short preview is in order. We must constantly be vigilant against going to bed with the power brokers in society – whether political, economic or otherwise. McGrath urges, “One of the most obvious lessons of history is that atheism thrives when the church is seen to be privileged, out of touch with the people, and powerful…” (pg. 55).