Imagine you’re at a public gathering of religious believers—say, a pro-life event or something similar. Across the street you spot a group of atheist protesters sarcastically waving a sign that says: “Religion. . . because thinking is hard.”
This has become one of the more popular atheist mantras these days. Apparently, they think it embodies a truth worthy of signs, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other “in your face” paraphernalia.
Also apparently targeting people who need to be told such things, the line “Think for yourself” was used in a major 2009 atheist billboard campaign in the Netherlands, and in a 2014 campaign in Chicago sponsored by the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
Like many atheist slogans, it has persuasive force because it speaks to the experience of a lot of people, especially young adults.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been approached by a parent or grandparent of a millennial after a talk on apologetics, and heard something like “That would have been great for my son or grandson, but I really don’t need that apologetics stuff. I just have faith.” Chances are they’ve probably said the same thing to their son or grandson, no doubt with good intention.
But regardless of their intention, this sort of response validates what the slogan claims: I believe because thinking is hard. And for a young adult who’s trying to be intellectually responsible, his response will simply be, “If that’s what religion is about, I don’t want anything to do with it.” No young adult wants to be a part of an anti-intellectual crowd.
There are many things that we could say in response to slogans that pit faith against rationality. I just want to share two things here.
First, most atheists who chant this mantra need to look in the mirror. Consider that they often define atheism as a lack of belief. For example, the American Atheists website defines atheism as “not an affirmative belief that there is no god” but “a lack of belief in gods.”
With this view, no thinking whatsoever is necessary as to whether we should embrace atheism. As one online apologist puts it, if atheism were merely a lack of belief, then a person with a severe mental handicap or even brain death would qualify as an atheist.
If lack of belief in God is what defines an atheist, then, by golly, one could say the brainless scarecrow from Wizard of Oz was an atheist.
To say that atheism is a lack of belief, which avoids the need to offer proof for their position, seems to be just another way of saying, “I don’t want to think about it.” Perhaps the above young man should change his sign to read, “Atheism . . . because thinking is hard.”
So, young adults beware: you might leave a religious group in favor of atheism only to join a crowd that’s even more anti-intellectual than the one you kissed goodbye.
Here’s a second thought. It seems what’s really going on with this slogan is the idea that belief itself is irrational.
Many atheists aren’t willing to consider claims of revelation because they think belief itself, or faith, which all alleged revelation entails to some degree, is not rational and is something contrary to our dignity as intellectual beings. As popular atheist Richard Dawkins stated in a 2013 Cambridge Union Society debate with Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, religion is “a betrayal of the intellect.”
To have faith is to believe something based either on the testimony of a source you deem credible or based on deductive reasoning that goes beyond available evidence. It is not the same as “knowing” something you have seen directly for yourself. But do atheists who live by this slogan not believe anything based on the testimony of another?
Perhaps they’ve driven over a bridge without verifying for themselves its safety, deducing by its mere presence it is safe. Or perhaps they sought the testimony of the architects and construction workers who designed and built the bridge, getting confirmation that the bridge would support cars driving across it.
They may have even driven across the bridge to the grocery store in order to buy a can of mixed nuts. And I doubt that as they put the can in their basket they stopped and said, “Oh, wait a minute! Can I believe the testimony of the company that put the label on the can? Are these nuts actually mixed? Have I betrayed my intellect?”
Moreover, I’m sure these atheists dig science, and accept much of what science tells us about the world. But I’d be willing to bet they haven’t verified for themselves most of what they accept as scientific truth. Not even scientists can verify every scientific theory, past or present. They would never be able to make any progress if they had to do so.
Belief is not just a part of religion. It belongs to our everyday experience as human beings, providing us grounds to engage in all sorts of human activities.
Belief, or faith, within religions that claim to have special revelation from God is simply a special case of believing. The act of religious belief that accepts something as true is based ultimately on the testimony of the God of revelation and the testimony of the person who conveys that revelation.
Now, it’s true that we need to figure out whether such testimony is credible and worthy of belief. And that’s where the rubber hits the road in our quest to know, love, and serve the infinite God of revelation, whose existence has also been deduced via philosophical reasoning. We have to apply the tools of reason to see if it’s reasonable to believe, for example, Jesus, Muhammad, or Joseph Smith.
If the testimony of an alleged revelation is not credible, then we shouldn’t believe it. But the reason for such a rejection wouldn’t be because belief itself is irrational. It would be because belief in a particular alleged revelation is unwarranted.
I don’t know about you, but such an approach to religion doesn’t seem to me to be a cop out. Careful thinking is required when investigating which is the true religion. And even the beliefs that make up the religion require careful thinking to understand and articulate, at least those of a religion worthy of belief. This is definitely true of Christianity, as the Christian intellectual tradition has shown.
Thinking is hard, yes. But there’s no reason to assume that such a human endeavor can’t lead one to religion, especially the Christian religion.