If the state is to be neutral toward all religious groups, it must not require religious faith of the atheist. A government pledged to religious freedom must therefore protect the atheist’s personal right to disbelieve and preserve his place as an individual in the community.

The nation expects atheist and theist alike to pay taxes and to perform military service; if the atheist insists on postponing his religious experience until he goes bankrupt, or occupies a foxhole—or even until the future judgment—that is his decision.

But does the right to disbelieve qualify an unbelieving minority to have equal influence with the majority in determining community standards and the cultural setting? Must those who put faith in God yield to every plea of the atheist for an “open society”? Must they yield to atheistic determination to remake social institutions in keeping with atheistic prejudices? Has the atheist a right to veto the majority’s right to engage in cultic acts if the majority wishes such acts? Does the atheist’s right to freedom of belief imply also his absolute freedom of action? Are there forms of unbelief (as well as of belief) that endanger public safety and morality? If so, what is to be the state’s attitude?

It is true that government tends to allow religious commitment to command more freedom of action than other levels of commitment (as seen in its approval of conscientious objection for religious reasons). Yet in view of conflicting religious beliefs the state cannot grant absolute religious freedom (as in respect to Mormon polygamy). The community must feel that the commitment to religious liberty in no way compromises its objection to positions that are for the public woe or its support for those that work for the common good.

Surely as long as he does not incite violence the atheist must be permitted to present his point of view and fully express disagreement from the majority. But if he organizes a militant minority whose effective use of pressure blocks results in the enactment of positions that really run counter to majority convictions, he is “inviting civil war,” as somebody has put it.

In his valuable work on Church and State in the United States (1888), the Presbyterian church historian Philip Schaff emphasized that religious freedom hardly implies the special protection of atheists to destroy the religious preferences of others; freedom is granted to infidels, as to all men, within specific limits. Today, when Christian forces should be stressing that separation of church and state as it exists in America does not necessarily imply separation of the nation from Christianity, it is well to read Schaff’s incisive words:

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The infidel theory was tried and failed in the first Revolution of France. It began with toleration, and ended with the abolition of Christianity, and with the reign of terror, which in turn prepared the way for military despotism as the only means of saving society from anarchy and ruin. Our infidels and anarchists would re-enact this tragedy if they should ever get the power. They openly profess their hatred and contempt of our Sunday-laws, our Sabbaths, our churches, and all our religious institutions and societies. Let us beware of them! The American system grants freedom also to irreligion and infidelity, but only within the limits of the order and safety of society. The destruction of religion would be the destruction of morality and the ruin of the state. Civil liberty requires for its support religious liberty, and cannot prosper without it. Religious liberty is not an empty sound, but an orderly exercise of religious duties and enjoyment of all its privileges. It is freedom in religion, not freedom from religion; as true civil liberty is freedom in law, and not freedom from law (pp. 15 f.).

The problem comes into sharp focus by two competing notions of democracy in our time. Although a product of what may broadly be called Christian thought, the American republic is undergoing revisions within which Christian citizens find it increasingly difficult at times to feel at home. Supreme Court Justice Douglas, for example, indicates that the American concept of democracy presupposes belief in a Supreme Being. Humanists such as Professor Sidney Hook, on the other hand, argue that the validity of democracy as a political system and as a way of life depends upon no metaphysical presuppositions whatever. In the latter setting religious matters are demoted to something of wholly private concern, as soon as transcendental beliefs are involved. Every effort is made to find the essence of democracy merely in a consensus of “common values”; the supernatural source and sanction of human rights, as well as the emphasis on religion and morality as necessary supports of a republic—on which the founding fathers insisted—is viewed as dispensable. The colossus of democracy now emerging increasingly restricts Christian emphases. The less vocal Christian citizens become, the more aggressive beome the proponents of the non-religious notion of democracy.

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On the Christian view, the atheist must not be tolerated as a second-class citizen but must be protected as an actual member of the community. But it need not on that account be concealed that his disbelief in the supernatural nevertheless shakes the foundations of social order. While the atheist is to be treated as an equal in the sight of the law, he is not to be given a free hand to demolish the objective character of justice or the transcendent nature of law. In other words, the Christian citizen must not only emphasize the will of the majority alongside the will of the minority, but he must also declare the will of God over and above every majority and minority. He must learn to apply God’s will, even where to do so means supporting the minority against the majority, or means repudiating both, as some of the greatest of the prophets were called to do. The Christian movement, it is sobering to recall, has existed historically as a minority force.

There are probably two extreme views of the atheist, both of which have their dangers. One view is that the atheist is religiously sterile and impotent, hence the dynamic Christian has nothing to fear from him. But in our generation we have seen atheistic materialism romp the globe and Mr. Khrushchev become its symbol. If atheism is allowed to reshape our public institutions unchallenged, Christians will eke out a miserable survival in the slave camps simply because totalitarianism brooks no competitive absolute. The other extreme view says that the atheist is, after all, a spiritual man of sorts, and therefore should be welcomed—if not for his strange religion, then for his moral idealism. It is true, of course, that one man’s atheism sometimes turns out to be another man’s theism (in this era of John Dewey and Henry Nelson Wieman). Dilution and perversion of Christianity by those who professed to be its friends may indirectly have encouraged atheism as a by-product (Marx studied under that liberal Protestant philosopher of religion Hegel). The atheist carries his own bible of secret absolutes and espouses social objectives that are fully as deliberate and dogmatic as those of the theist. The atheist’s pleas for an open society always point toward a social order he would like to hedge in, in his own way.

Certainly rights should be preserved—free speech, the right to propagandize, and so on. But an atheistic minority is certainly not entitled to equal time on the mass media, where it hopes to indoctrinate a semicaptive public as a “public service.” Virile democracy “owes” no one the “right” to remake public institutions serviceable to minority preferences and prejudices.

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But the Christian would neglect his own heritage were he to trust simply in earthly weapons. For this world, as the Scriptures teach, lies in the lap of practical atheism. The atheist is often more “religious” than he would admit, for false religion and false gods run rampant. Christians who think that propagating religion through national preference and public institutions is the way to social well-being need to learn from European nations much older than the United States. It is the power of voluntary religion that holds a nation together. The presence of an atheistic power bloc is always a call to prayer, a call to piety and religious education in the home, a call to evangelism, a call to send dedicated believers into all the arenas of public service. It is no call, however, to allow the infidels to conform public institutions to an atheistic blueprint.


Problems Of The Jew And The Atheist; Christian Apostasy? Jewish Unbelief?

The Jewish community appears to be awkwardly and vulnerably situated in respect to American religious traditions. The protest against Christmas observances or religious influences in the public schools is often spearheaded by representatives of Jewish alongside atheistic elements in the community. Jewish spokesmen say this simultaneous action reflects neither special hostility to Christianity nor special affection for the atheist. Rather, it emphasizes the Jewish belief that religious concerns should be voluntary, and reflects the keen Jewish sensitivity to minority rights. Himself having so long existed as a member of an embattled or persecuted minority, the Jew assertedly sees his own image in the atheist’s plea. Hence protection of the atheist becomes a Jewish objective not for the sake of atheism, nor of anti-Christianity, but for the sake of religious freedom and voluntarism.

In the state of Israel, the modern Jew gives the world a window on how he understands the rights of the minority. Nowhere in the world has a modern nation had so full and reflective an opportunity to define minority rights. Yet in Israel both Arabs and Christians seem to miss that Jewish concern for them as minorities which the Jew in America professes to exhibit toward the atheist. In fact, the Israeli High Court had made plain that although Jewish agnostics and atheists are entitled to citizenship under the 1950 Law of Return, Christian Jews are to be rejected as apostates. By a curious turn of events the Israeli government therefore welcomes the Jewish atheist as an equal while treating the Christian Jew under the Law of Return not even as a second-class citizen but as an alien. It is no surprise, therefore, that constant reference to Christian Hebrews as “apostates,” alongside a regard for agnostic and atheistic Jews as true sons of Abraham, breeds an anti-Christian spirit at grass roots.

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Some Jewish intellectuals have emphasized the need for the great theistic religions to confront the naturalistic offensive, particularly in its Communist form. Despite this fact, some Israelis seem increasingly prone to display the same antagonism toward Christian Hebrews that government spokesmen display toward Christian missionaries. In both cases Orthodox Jewry is notably the aggressive force through its pressures upon the Israeli government and people. This is especially regrettable from the standpoint of the Christian community because Christian Jews feel they share the Old Testament heritage much more with many Orthodox Jews than with Jews identified with the revisionist religious traditions, whether liberal or conservative. Periodically Christian missions in Israel are attacked. In Jerusalem recently two missions were invaded by teen-age students of the Yeshiva (orthodox Talmudic academy). Israeli spokesmen depict such acts as the work of “religious zealots” or of the “ultra-orthodox.” Whatever the excuse, anti-Christian demonstrations are fully as deplorable as anti-Semitic outbursts. Why should religious tolerance require a moderation of either true orthodoxy or religious zeal?

There is nonetheless a remarkable insight in the decision of the Israeli High Court denying citizenship to Father Daniel, a Roman Catholic monk born of Jewish parents. The court in effect voiced a New Testament judgment—that eligibility for the privileges of the Jew is not a matter of mere physical descent. God can raise up “sons of Abraham” from the stones of the field if he wishes. True sonship is spiritual sonship. From the New Testament point of view, only he is Abraham’s son upon whom falls the mantle of Abraham’s spiritual and moral character, and particularly, therefore, he who welcomes the promised Messiah and rejoices in salvation by faith. The remarkable insight of the Israeli High Court that true sonship is not simply physical but spiritual, however, becomes at the same time an occasion to deliberately reject the New Testament. In this rejection Christian students of biblical prophecy find confirmation of the verdict that the return of the Jew to the land of promise is at the same time a return in unbelief.

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Jewish identification with the atheist more than with the Christian is also quite understandable from the Christian point of view. One who worships Christ as Saviour and Lord need not insist that atheists and other non-worshipers of the Redeemer are existentially related to Christ in wholly different ways. The Jew may be closer by historic tradition, may be formally closer in terms of philosophical or theological presuppositions, but he is not on that account viewed as any less under God’s judgment than the atheist. In fact, it was a Jew—a Pharisee of the Pharisees—who recognized that without the promised Messiah he had to count all the glories of his religious heritage as nothing. While his fellow Jews had greater privileges (Rom. 9:4, 5), as Paul knew, they frustrated the promises through their unbelief (Rom. 10).

Paul did not, however, go about erasing the difference between Jew and Gentile into a common gray of atheism. Because the Jew had greater privileges and greater opportunities, he also had greater responsibilities. It may be true that today’s situation is somewhat reversed: centuries of Christian witness over the world have stripped away Gentile excuses for rejecting Christ. Yet the Jew retains the Old Testament (“the oracles of God,” said Paul); he has also the record of the coining of Jesus Christ (“that it might be fulfilled,” as the Gospels reiterate), and alongside the ancient biblical prophecies can personally observe the remarkable restoration of the scattered Jews to Palestine. Even on this account the Christian community has no license to abandon the Jew to his “unbelief” (a term that doubtless seems as harsh to the Jews as “apostate” seems to the Christian). In this difficult dialogue within the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is the Jewish Christian who must lead the way. In the Apostle Paul he has an example of solicitude and a precedent to follow: “I say the truth in Christ.… I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:1–3).


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