Atheism has been a tempting option to man at many points of his intellectual career. The term “atheist” as employed during much of the past two centuries has covered a mixed bag of thinkers—agnostics, social and political radicals, freethinkers, humanists, and intellectual anarchists. But all shared one feature that tended to distinguish them from our contemporary atheists: they moved against the prevailing intellectual and moral currents of the West.

Until fairly recently, it was commonly held within Western Christendom that reason could bring a fair degree of assurance that the origination of all things rested with an eternal and necessary personal Being. Even when Kant insisted to men of his day that the so-called proofs for God’s existence rested upon personal interpretations of reality and of thought, and upon prior commitments to life that were no longer tenable, thoughtful persons stood with him in awe before “the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”

If under the impact of the Kantian revolution men of the post-Enlightenment period found the speculative road to belief in God blocked, they still found the way of religious experience open and usable. Religious romantics stood in awe before the great psychologically impressive qualities of the universe. This, reinforced by social pressures favorable to the acceptance of religion, sustained theistic belief as a widespread option until well into the 20th century.

By the second quarter of our century, however, most of the supports of traditional theism were under major attack. The stellar world came to involve, seemingly, no necessary view of God. It began to appear rather as a collection of physical data to be reduced to order, and later as a realm for human conquest. The “moral law” came to be understood, not as an eternal something within man, but as a system of convention resting upon human usage.

With the rising influence of scientific discovery upon education, the younger generation assimilated modes of thought that almost imperceptibly veered them away from Christian belief and practice. Among their elders, social pressures favoring the practice of the Christian faith weakened and in some cases disappeared altogether. Thus many of the factors sustaining Christian belief and practice began to disappear, and a vast vacuum was created.

It is not surprising that a new genre of atheism should emerge at our midcentury as a serious competitor for intellectual allegiance. New options have been sought by those who have found many or most of the traditional routes of access to God closed, and who have inherited a weakening of biblical faith from a generation of scholars who came to regard the Christian Scriptures as no longer normative or historically reliable. Atheism has thus assumed a new base and a new rationale.

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Men of our times scan the heavens, and where their ancestors could trace the features of God, they find only gaping holes. The study of comparative and cultural anthropology seems to tell them that no viable sanctions for general human behavior exist. Experiments in human government, good and bad, suggest to modern man that he is entirely on his own and need not appeal to any divine ordination for conduct of his corporate life.

The newer atheism grafts itself to these roots. It finds a climate hospitable to its denial of any transcendental realm or norms. It insists that the only world of which we have any reliable knowledge is that of our everyday existence, so that even if it could be shown that a God exists, such knowledge would be irrelevant.

While the newer atheism is closely tied to scientific and technological development, it has also deep psychological and sociological roots. Forms of empirical research and techniques of systems analysis do, of course, suggest that man is master of his universe rather than the subject of a higher Being. But this is not the sole explanation for the so-called Christian atheism that has made its appearance within the past decade.

Certainly this trend, especially in its more spectacular “God-is-dead” form, is the heir of the modern epistemological revolution (with its rejection of abstract and deductive thinking) and of the contemporary emphasis upon human freedom and human autonomy. Quite evidently it is nourished by theological attitudes toward the Christian revelation that regard the Bible simply as an anthology of man’s best thoughts about God.

But it speaks to us of more than these. It comes as a rebuke to some forms of rigidity and inertia within segments of the Christian community. Parts of the church, say the avant-garde, are so bound to traditional interpretations that many worthy human achievements have been accomplished in spite of the theologians, rather than because of the basic convictions that they held. Again, it is argued that evangelicals have so stylized God’s action that what they have left is “not really a God at all.”

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In any case, the existence of what is called Christian atheism is indicative of broader attitudes present within our society. If the traditional Christian has been naïve in finding God too easily accessible, the secularist feels that all the roads traditionally thought to lead to him are blocked. If the evangelical believes that the ethical demands of the Gospel are easily grasped and applied, the newer atheist and his intellectual relatives will insist that rather than allowing reality to impose rules upon him, man is to make his own rules and if possible to impose his own wishes and desires upon the world.

Certainly the newer atheism finds support in many of the major assumptions of today’s society—perhaps more so than at any time in recent history. Again, the new atheist’s awareness of history gives him some reason to assert that belief in God has at times been used as a weapon for intellectual repression and as a justification for conduct that falsifies Christian love.

How shall the evangelical react to the newer atheism, particularly that which calls itself Christian? Certainly he should recognize theological faddism for what it is. He may even note with interest that the “God-is-dead” theology was almost immediately displaced in the headlines by a “theology of hope.” But he lives in a fool’s paradise if he imagines that we will not have any form of contemporary atheism around much longer.

Could it be that the living God is using even those who deny him, or who imagine that they can accept Christ as the supreme ideal of humanity while rejecting his deity, to challenge believers to a new and vital form of witnessing faith? Perhaps he is calling the Church to a new and radical demonstration of the quality of faith and the radiance of life that belongs to those who are in union with him who was at the same time in the world and not of the world.

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