Editor’s note: ENV is pleased to share this excerpt from Nancy Pearcey’s new book, Finding Truth: Five Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. A Fellow of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, Pearcey is a professor and scholar-in-residence at Houston Baptist University and editor-at-large of The Pearcey Report. She is author of the 2005 ECPA Gold Medallion Award winner Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity and other books.
Westerners pride themselves on holding noble ideals such as equality and universal human rights. Yet the dominant worldview of our day — evolutionary materialism — denies the reality of human freedom and gives no basis for moral ideals such as human rights.
So where did the idea of equal rights come from?
The 19th-century political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville said it came from Christianity. “The most profound geniuses of Rome and Greece” never came up with the idea of equal rights, he wrote. “Jesus Christ had to come to earth to make it understood that all members of the human species are naturally alike and equal.”
The 19th-century atheist Friedrich Nietzsche agreed: “Another Christian concept … has passed even more deeply into the tissue of modernity: the concept of the ‘equality of souls before God.’ This concept furnishes the prototype of all theories of equal rights.”
Contemporary atheist Luc Ferry says the same thing. We tend to take the concept of equality for granted; yet it was Christianity that overthrew ancient social hierarchies between rich and poor, masters and slaves. “According to Christianity, we were all ‘brothers,’ on the same level as creatures of God,” Ferry writes. “Christianity is the first universalist ethos.”
The Confession of Richard Rorty
A few intrepid atheists admit outright that they have to borrow the ideal of human rights from Christianity. Philosopher Richard Rorty was a committed Darwinist, and in the Darwinian struggle for existence, the strong prevail while the weak are left behind. So evolution cannot be the source of universal human rights. Instead, Rorty says, the concept came from “religious claims that human beings are made in the image of God.” He cheerfully admits that he reaches over and borrows the concept of universal rights from Christianity. He even called himself a “freeloading” atheist: “This Jewish and Christian element in our tradition is gratefully invoked by freeloading atheists like myself.”
At the birth of our nation, the American founders deemed it self-evident that human rights must be grounded in God. The Declaration of Independence leads off with those bright, blazing words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident — that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
In the summer of 2013, a beer company sparked controversy when it released an advertisement for Independence Day that deleted the crucial words “by their Creator.” The ad said, “They are endowed with certain unalienable rights.” (Endowed by whom?) The advertisement is emblematic of what many secularists do: They borrow ideals like equality and rights from a biblical worldview but cut them off from their source in the Creator. They are freeloaders. Christians and Jews should reclaim those noble ideals, making the case that they are logically supported only by a biblical worldview.
Atheists often denounce the Bible as harsh and negative. But in reality it offers a much more positive view of the human person than any competing religion or worldview. It is so appealing that adherents of other worldviews keep freeloading the parts they like best.
An Atheist Decries Humanism
To track down additional cases of freeloading, we can eavesdrop on atheists’ in-house debates. For example, John Gray regularly castigates his fellow atheists and materialists for their habit of freeloading. Logically, he points out, materialism leads to reductionism — the conclusion that humans are nothing but animals. But most materialists do not want to accept that bleak conclusion. They want to grant humanity a higher status and dignity; they want to believe that humans have “consciousness, selfhood, and free will,” Gray writes. That high view of humanity he labels humanism — and he denounces it as a prime example of freeloading.
“Humanists never tire of preaching” the gospel of human freedom, Gray complains. But “Darwin has shown us that we are animals,” and therefore “the idea of free will does not come from science.” Instead “its origins are in religion — not just any religion, but the Christian faith against which humanists rail so obsessively.” Thus humanism “is only a secular version” of Christian principles.
We could say that humanists do not want to live within the confines of their own materialist box. So they smuggle in ladders from a biblical worldview to climb out of the box.
Gimme That Old-Time Philosophy
Perhaps the most egregious example of freeloading is a movement to hijack the explicitly religious dimensions of Christianity. For example, there’s a new field that uses philosophy to treat psychological problems. Labeled Philosophical Counseling, it is touted as an alternative to the care provided by therapists, priests, and pastors.
These are atheists who want the psychological comfort of Christianity, while rejecting its content.
A book on the subject titled Plato, Not Prozac! became an international hit. You can even get certified to be a philosophical counselor. A Washington Post article says the counselors are “like intellectual life coaches. Very intellectual. They have in-depth knowledge of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist theories on the nature of life and can recite passages from Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological explorations of the question of being. And they use them to help clients overcome their mother issues.”
Philosophical Counseling may be a new field, but the concept itself is not novel. Philosophies have never been merely academic enterprises. They begin with a God replacement and develop an entire worldview, exhorting people how to make sense of life and to prepare for death. The difference is that today some atheists actively seek to “hijack the religious spirit,” as Terry Eagleton puts it. They claim that secularism can nurture spirituality.
In A Brief History of Thought, Luc Ferry diagnoses several “substitute religions.” Many atheist ideologies offer spirituality for secular people, he says: “If religions can be defined as ‘doctrines of salvation’, the great philosophies can also be defined as doctrines of salvation (but without the help of God).”
An example is Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life.” Hadot says accepting a philosophy is like a religious conversion: It involves “a total transformation of one’s vision, life-style, and behavior.” It “turns our entire life upside down.” You literally stake your life — and your eternity — on a set of ideas being true.
In the ancient world, when philosophy was still young, its life-transforming power was widely recognized. The philosopher was not regarded as an expert in an academic field but revered as a “spiritual guide,” Hadot says. “He exhorted his charges to conversion, and then directed his new converts … to the paths of wisdom.” Hadot seeks to recover that spiritual role for secular philosophy.
So does philosopher Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists. Botton is founder of a school in London where students study philosophy not to earn an academic degree but to ponder “the most serious questions of the soul.” One class, titled “Filling the God-Shaped Hole,” helps people fill the vacuum in their lives when they abandon traditional religions.
The common thread running through these examples is that they are all attempts to fill the God-shaped hole with something other than God. One book makes the claim frankly in its title: The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Atheists are even founding their own churches. Britain now has its first atheist church. According to news reports, “Dozens of gatherings dubbed ‘atheist megachurches’… are springing up around the U.S.”
Atheists are freeloading the ceremonies of religious worship. They want to co-opt the rituals of Christianity, while rejecting its reality.
A Mass for Charles Darwin
Even the theory of evolution, often cited as support for atheism, can function as a substitute religion. In the 1965 introduction to Darwin’s Origin of Species, W.R. Thompson observed that, for many biologists, the concept of organic evolution is “an object of genuinely religious devotion, because they regard it as a supreme integrative principle.”
More recently, Michael Ruse shocked his fellow atheists by pointing out that evolution often functions as a religion: “Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion — a full-fledged alternative to Christianity, with meaning and morality.”
And with worship, we might add. A few years ago, a Mass was composed titled “Missa Charles Darwin” (Missa means Mass). The piece is based on the five-movement structure of the traditional Mass. It sounds very much like Renaissance church music, but the texts from Scripture have been replaced by excerpts from Darwin’s writings, including On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man:
Darwinism is not the only version of evolution on the market. Yet most alternative theories are even more overtly religious. Biologist Stuart Kauffman is well known for his theory of self-organization. But he does not regard it as merely another scientific theory: It is “a new world view” with “a new view of God, not as transcendent, not as an agent, but as the very creativity of the universe itself.” In other words, Kauffman treats God as a word for the ceaseless flux of the universe. That, he says, is “God enough for me.”
Why retain the word God at all, which connotes a transcendent, caring, intelligent Person, when your theory really involves an immanent, non-caring, non-intelligent process? Precisely to smuggle in the emotional power connected to the term. Kauffman is open about his intentions: “What do we gain by using the God word? I suspect a great deal, for the word carries with it awe and reverence. If we can transfer that awe and reverence, not to the transcendental Abrahamic God of my Israelite tribe long ago, but to the stunning reality that confronts us, we will grant permission for a renewed spirituality, and awe, reverence, and responsibility for all that lives, for the planet.”
In short, Kauffman hopes to inspire people to respond emotionally to a purely materialist universe as if it were the personal God of the Bible. He is another freeloader.
Recognizing the religious nature of secular worldviews creates a level playing field. It undermines the pretensions of secularists to religious neutrality, which they use to claim superiority over religion. That is, they claim to be objective and fact-based, while discrediting religions as biased and “faith-based.” Yet no worldview is neutral — not even atheism or secularism.
In relation to the biblical God, secular people may claim to be skeptics. But in relation to their own god substitutes, they are true believers. To adapt an observation from C.S. Lewis, their skepticism is only on the surface. It is for use on other people’s beliefs. “They are not nearly skeptical enough” about their own beliefs.
What drives religious variants of evolution is a sense that there must be more to reality than the flat, one-dimensional vision offered by materialism. Evolutionists reach out for higher dimensions to answer the human longing for greater meaning to life. Those longings are one more expression of general revelation. They are signposts to the biblical God.
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� 2015 Nancy Pearcey. Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism Secularism, and Other God Substitutes published by David C Cook. All rights reserved.