“A man or woman rejects God neither because of intellectual demands nor because of the paucity of evidence. One rejects God because of a moral resistance that refuses to admit one’s need for God.”
—Ravi Zacharias, The Real Face of Atheism, page 155
I see three fundamental problems with this argument. The first is the use of generalized language. When Christians make this argument, I almost never hear them saying, “some atheists just reject God because they want an excuse to sin.” If they did say that, I don’t think I would have any major problem with this. After all, every position or stance has its share of people who believe in it for irrational reasons. I’m not familiar with any atheists who only reject God because they want to avoid moral accountability, but I don’t doubt that there are a few out there. So if the claim was just that “some atheists” do this, I wouldn’t be able to disagree.
But that’s not the claim. The accusation is universally applied, without any exceptions being offered. The way I parse the wording in that Ravi Zacharias quote, the tacit implication is that every single atheist in the entire history of the world only rejected God out of moral resistance. Rationally speaking, that’s a fairly untenable position to hold, because it would only take a single example to prove that proposition false. Personally, I know myself to be just such an example.
Not only do I know that I didn’t reject God out of moral resistance, but I also am quite grimly aware of just how little I would have to gain by doing so. In my life, I am severely limited by genetics and the circumstances of my upbringing. I don’t get to just go out and do whatever I want, whether I’ve cast off the moral accountability of belief in God or not (and if I ever do get into a life situation where I can do whatever I want, that still won’t have been the reason that I became an atheist in the first place).
Knowing myself and my life experiences, the idea that I would trade away the hope of heaven in exchange for maybe sixty years or so of not actually being able to fulfill most of the hedonistic desires I may have seems like a tremendously ludicrous claim. For myself, heaven still sounds like the best deal for me to actually experience real joy and pleasure.
If I believed, even slightly, that there was any sound evidence that it was actually real, I would be more than happy to abandon my pathetic attempts at “sinful” behavior, in exchange for an eternity of true happiness. That deal’s a no-brainer in my book, but the deal’s no good if heaven doesn’t actually exist. I honestly wish it did, but I just don’t see any evidence-based reasons to think it does.
That’s the second reason I find this argument to be completely unfounded; the third is that it relies on a double standard. When Christians sin, they just take that as an indication that they’re fallible sinners in need of a savior; but when atheists sin, those same Christians take that as an indication that the atheists are denying God out of moral resistance. All the way down the list, Christians commit all the same sins that atheists do, so if those Christians don’t need to deny God to avoid moral accountability, then why would it make any sense at all that atheists do?
There are even some cases where it seems like a person professing belief in God makes it easier for them to avoid moral accountability (I’ve included specific examples of public figures in the extended version of this post). Certainly, the doctrine of repentance and forgiveness gives believers an easy out to escape the guilt they might have over their sinful actions. What a relief it must be to believe that your sins are completely washed away, just by asking God for forgiveness.
Atheists don’t have that little perk. If we do something that we believe is wrong (generally because it actually hurt someone, and not because an old book says so), we have to live with the guilt. There’s no mechanism in atheism to just say, “perform this ritual or spiritual discipline, and then you will no longer be guilty of what you did.” That’s a means of avoiding moral accountability that Christians have and atheists don’t, so why would we want to become atheists if our true reason was avoiding moral accountability?
In summary, the argument made by Ravi Zacharias (and many other Christian apologists) has three fatal flaws. First, it makes a blanket accusation of all non-believers as if they all have completely homogeneous motivations. Second, it ignores what a sorry trade a few decades of hedonism would be, if the person really did believe that heaven was real. Third, it further ignores the fact that many professed believers seem to be doing just fine avoiding moral accountability, without pretending to not believe in God. For those three reasons, I find the accusation that people are atheists just because they don’t want to obey God to be utterly baseless.
For an extended version of this post, click here.
Photo via Unsplash.