Is atheism dead?
It is easy to observe in secularized societies that atheism — “no-Godism” is the practical presumption (the underlying, working worldview), opening big doors to “yes-godisms” — the innovative idol-making-machines of millions of human hearts in search of meaning. If you don’t devise your own gods, then the obvious meaninglessness of existence settles in to destroy you – nihilism. What’s the point of living?
In 2021 Eric Metaxas published a book of 403 pages by this title, Is Atheism Dead? I included it in my list of books to review this year in my Roaming Reader series.
I’m sorry to take so long to get to this book! In the meantime, Eric has come out with another book, a mere 139 pages, entitled Letter to the American Church. Pastor Erwin W. Lutzer writes that Metaxas’ new book “is like a bucket of cold water thrown into the face of a sleeping church.”
I ordered it and added it to our small stack of Eric’s work. Metaxas is a prolific writer as well as a radio host, international speaker, host of “Socrates in the City”, and cultural-political commentator. He has written three, significant, biographical tomes, one on Martin Luther, another on William Wilberforce, and a volume on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He’s written humor (which flavors most of his writing and speaking), children’s books, scripts for Veggie Tales, and articles appearing in many magazines.*1
His December 25, 2014 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God,” became the most popular article in the history of WSJ. *2 You will find two links to this article below. (If you can’t read the book, at least read this article. I suspect that you will appreciate it and will be encouraged.) The huge response to the article spurred him to invest much time and work to write Is Atheism Dead?.
The WSJ article begins:
“In 1966 Time magazine ran a cover story asking: “Is God Dead?” Many have accepted the cultural narrative that he’s obsolete– that as science, progresses, there is less need for a “God” to explain the universe. Yet it turns out that the rumors of God’s death were premature. More amazing is that the relatively recent case for his existence comes from a surprising place —science itself.”
“As science progresses, there is less need for a “God” to explain the universe”? This sets up his 2021 book, Is Atheism Dead?.
Metaxas lists five challenges to the “secular consensus” of God’s death, which have become clearer and louder over the years since 1966 — most of which many publishers and pundits prefer to overlook and avoid (a kind of censoring?). Metaxas speaks out. Here are the five challenges his text develops.
- The Big Bang, as it is popularly called. Metaxas tells the story of how scientists discovered, quite shockingly and undesirably, that the universe has not always existed but had a beginning; it is expanding; matter is not eternal. This is “paradigm-smashing,” with many corollaries, some of which Metaxas explores.
- The evidence of “fine tuning” in the universe, examples of which keep mounting up. Eric obviously enjoys describing such evidence. Where does this lead us?
- Changing views of “Abiogenesis,” that life came from non-life. “The more closely we can examine cells, for example, the more we can see how stupefyingly complex they are.” And molecules… “…So the idea of life emerging from non-life — which once seemed at least theoretically possible — has with the progress of science seemed less and less so….” “If the facts on this have not led most scientists in the field all the way to God, they have certainly led many to awe and wonder.”
- Archaeological discoveries that “add to the jigsaw picture of the Bible as an historically accurate guidebook to the past.” Obtaining reliable history from Scriptures was a view jettisoned by many one and two centuries ago. But what? Again, Metaxas delights in telling archaeological true-tales of discovery. It’s hard to put the book down.
- Our changing understanding of what atheism really is — theoretically and practically. This is a fascinating section, as is each chapter. *3
So, maybe you are sighing. You’d like to read this book, but you just don’t have time or the mental focus in light of all the other concerns of life. You believe in God. You trust Christ. Why invest in reading this book? Yes, you must carefully choose what you read.
Knowing how to preview a book helps you to make such decisions. In the process of previewing, you can gain an adequate overview of a book as well as some insight, even if you decide not to read it. But if you decide you want to read the book, based upon someone’s recommendation or whatever, you still should preview it. I try to preview every book I read, especially non-fiction books.
(Sigh. I just cut out four paragraphs to use in another post about how to preview a book, so that this post could stay focused on the book at hand.)
Metaxas’s literary finesse, his turn of phrases, his sense of irony and humor, his smooth story-telling ability work together to make great reading experiences. To hear his chapters read aloud would be pleasing and satisfying.
The final chapter is entitled “Conclusions: The Meaning of Meaning.” In these fourteen pages Metaxas begins by telling the story of his Alma Mater’s cathedral-styled library, built between 1924-1931 — a testament to man’s forlorn worship of himself. Yale University was founded in 1701 by clergy initially to educate clergy. Its library collections and academic programs expanded and expanded as its original purposes receded.
Following changing emphases, the school chose to employ funds designated for the building of a “spectacular new chapel” and instead built a library mimicking a European-styled cathedral — to glorify the knowledge and learning of humanity: Sterling Memorial Library. But the darkness of a secular-material worldview could not be hidden, even in this edifice. He tells the story and shows this one picture of one of four bas relief sculptures in the library that summarizes it all:
“U. R. A. Joke.” Really? This was the conclusion of architects and university leaders back in 1931? To see oneself, and so everyone, as a joke belies the underlying longing — a longing for meaning and purpose and relationship dwelling deeply within the soul of every person. How did this spiritual longing get there? No Designer? No One who cares? No sacred? No value? A joke. You sense the pain and cynicism.
Under this photo in his text Metaxas responds that this “bleak” sculpture is a “distillation of a secularist worldview.” Every worldview points to something. How should you respond to a worldview that tries to point to nothing?
Metaxas juxtaposes the Yale library story with a story his father told him from his youth during WWII. Let’s let Eric tell it:
“In the summer of 1943, Cephalonia — the Greek island where my family has lived since the fifteenth century — was occupied by German and Italian troops. My father was sixteen. When the war began, he left the island’s capital, Argostoli, for the safety of our family village Mavrata sixteen miles east, but now and again he would return. That summer he found himself in Argostoli for a few days, and each evening would go with his friends to the main square to eat and drink and socialize. One of those nights, after midnight, they suddenly heard the music of a trumpet from a distant rooftop. They sat, transfixed, and listened as its sonorous melody swam sinuously through the black night above their heads, until every soul there who heard it was stunned into silence and pierced by its beauty.
They later learned that the trumpet player was a German soldier, standing on a roof overlooking the square. The song he played that evening was Enrico Toselli’s “Mourning Serenade,” and its haunting beauty struck everyone so powerfully amidst the atmosphere of occupation and war that my father has never forgotten it, always saying that it was the single most beautiful thing he ever experienced. But what could it be about those notes embroidering the air that somehow wordlessly spoke to everyone about the meaninglessness and pain of war, and that pointed everyone who heard them beyond the ramparts of their present difficulties toward something so beautiful and glorious and true that many of them wept as they sat and listened? How could mere sounds do that? What was it exactly that had the ability to point everyone listening toward something ineffable and overwhelming and heartbreaking?” (398-399).
Pause here. Selah.
Metaxas describes this scene under a chapter subheading entitled “The Witness of Beauty.” And so it is. In his previous nearly 400 pages, the author has explained and described the witness of science and the witness of archaeology and the witness of atheism.
Eric explores the witness of science on many fronts, showing that each scientific revelation points “so vigorously and overwhelmingly to God that to look away from this evidence would be not merely tragic but a kind of betrayal” (397-398).
Claims Metaxas, “And the archaeological record, too, is nothing less that extraordinary. No one a hundred years ago dreamt that we would have continued to discover things that supported the historicity of the Bible, but we have” (398).
And atheism? By following its logic and history, by comparison and contrast, we see that it points to nihilism — nothingism, to meaninglessness. So, is atheism dead? Many atheists exist and some offer loud voices, but Eric shows that the underlying worldview is less and less tenable. Atheism becomes more and more implausible to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see what the scientific evidence increasingly reports and where the trajectory of that evidence points.
Plenty of dots are necessarily left out in these 403 pages. The body of dots provided, such as a universe with a beginning, the ubiquitous complexity of a fine tuned universe, the increasingly unlikelihood of life coming from non-life, and the archaeological discoveries increasingly corroborating the historicity of ancient, biblical texts — yet these do not prove the God of the Bible, the deity of Jesus Christ, and salvation by grace through faith in Him. In this book, Metaxas does not make such claims.
However, what the evidence does offer us is just what we would expect to discover if the God of the Bible is real.
As Metaxas closes, he encourages us that in God’s economy “everything is connected.” “The good and beauty and truth in each thing points to him, reflects off him and points back to every other good and beautiful and true thing that exists.”
Like the Big Bang, the fine-tuned universe, and the archaeological evidence, our lives too should point to God. We are not jokes. The universe is not silent and cold (Psalm 19). Our deep longing for meaning is evidence of God’s image deeply nestled in our souls, bequeathing us our very identity. We embrace meaning when we welcome our Creator to whom everything points. He is here.
*1 Bio: https://ericmetaxas.com/about/
*2 Eric Metaxas. Is Atheism Dead? (Washington D.C.: Salem Books, 2021). Metaxas’ WSJ article appears in the book’s appendix (pages 405-407) and can also be found online: Here: https://www.wsj.com/articles/eric-metaxas-science-increasingly-makes-the-case-for-god-1419544568 . Or here: https://ericmetaxas.com/media/articles/science-increasingly-makes-case-god/
*3 You can find videos of Metaxas discussing many of his books on his website, on YouTube, and other media sites. This is a good way to get to know him and his thinking. It would be helpful to be prepared for his dry and ironic sense of humor typically displayed in his speaking, especially in the beginning of his speeches, which can “put you off” if you are not prepared for it. Keep listening and you’ll get your Metaxas sea legs.
*** Check out this interview of Metaxas regarding his new book, Letter to the American Church: https://rumble.com/v1kyi1v-eric-metaxas-letter-to-the-american-church.html. You can also find other videos online of Eric speaking on the topic of his new book as well as his many other books.