Irrational Atheism: A Bold Confession

Sometimes an article catches you completely off guard. That was the case in the piece “Irrational Atheism” published at The Atlantic by Crispin Sartwell. And it was not because I disagreed. I found myself saying “Amen!” to this piece written by an atheistic philosopher. I’m hoping that’s not sacrilegious.

That’s because Sartwell offers an honest description of his atheism: it’s a matter of faith. In fact, he calls it a “bold intellectual commitment” and a “leap of atheist faith.” And he calls other skeptics to follow him with similar honesty in order to display “epistemological courage.”

But why does Sartwell’s atheistic confession sound so novel? Because, as he describes, popular atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, have built their book empires on a false contrast. The notion that atheists have founded their view upon reason and argumentation versus believers, who rely on arbitrary emotions, is, Sartwell says, simply false:

“It [atheism] pictures the universe as a natural system, a system not guided by intelligent design and not traversed by spirits; a universe that can be explained by science because it consists of material objects operation according to physical laws . . . Ironically, thi is similar to the totalizing worldview of religion – neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith, stances taken up by tiny creatures in an infinitely rich environment.”

In a day when mainstream media tends to play to the same inaccurate juxtaposition offered by the likes of Dawkins and Harris, the notion that atheists build on scientific fact while believers construct their perspectives merely on the shifting sands of personal opinion and emotion, Crispin Sartwell’s honesty is refreshing. In the end, however, I think he takes his faith too far.

Christianity does not merely rise and fall on an assumption regarding the nature of the universe. While this is where it begins, it is certainly not where it ends. The Christian faith stands or falls on a single historical event: the resurrection. And it is in the empty tomb of Easter where the nature of the universe was on full display. In this way, the believer’s metaphysical assumption is validated in time and space.

That is why I think Christian faith is best described, in the words of R.C. Sproul, as “well-reasoned trust.” We have good reason to place our trust in a  Sovereign God who has conquered sin, death, and the grave. And while it is a matter of faith, it is far from a jump into the abyss of the unknown and unknowable. Indeed, it is an assertion open to historical analysis. Yet that is why Sartwell’s naturalistic commitment is accurately described as a leap of atheist faith. It is an assumption about the universe that will never be validated.