The real reason atheists are so irritating

Atheist evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins.Reuters

The 18th-century Scottish equivalent to Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, was the philosopher David Hume. He was probably not an out-and-out atheist, but he was a trenchant critic of religion and asked very uncomfortable questions about miracles, among other things.

Hume can be set against Samuel Johnson, one of the great literary figures of his age and a devout Christian. He told his biographer Boswell: "Hume and other sceptical innovators are vain men, and will gratify themselves at any expense... Truth, Sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull."

There are dozens of authors today who are busily trying to milk the bull. It's not fair to say, as Johnson did, that they are all just self-promoters who have hopped on to the atheist bandwagon (though some have), but it's hard to read their productions without thinking that they're equally fruitless.

I have a few of them on my bookshelf at home; Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Michael Onfray, Steve Jones. I've heard them on the radio and read their newspaper articles. Since religion is an easy target for comedians, I've endured that too. Many of them are clever people who, when they get off their pet subject, have interesting things to say. I've enjoyed Dawkins' popular science.

But whenever I read another attack on religion, it's with a sense of resigned irritation rather than with outrage or fear. The reason is that there is absolutely nothing in anything any of them write that's news to me.

And in that I'm in good company: Johnson also said to Boswell, "Every thing which Hume has advanced against Christianity had passed through my mind long before he wrote."

Perhaps I should say – though without much expectation of being believed – that I have absolutely nothing against atheists. Some of them are my friends. I believe, they don't; so what? Atheism in essence isn't a movement, or a party; it's just an absence of belief.

But my sense of weary frustration arises when people try to convince me that they've discovered things that make atheism right – as though these things have never occurred to people of faith before. To me, it's like climate change deniers eagerly telling scientists, "But the climate has always changed."

We know.

Now, I'll admit it: my case is complicated by Christians who try to defend the indefensible, like six-day Creation. But overall, take a reasonably thoughtful, reasonably well-informed Christian and drop your latest bombshell on them and you'll just get a blank look back. Because we know.

Let's take four common arguments for atheism.

1. Evil and suffering

There's a lot of it about. Some people point to the Nazi Holocaust, some people point to illness and disease. Stephen Fry famously caused a furore when he said he couldn't believe in a God who would create a worm that burrowed into people's eyes. Philosophically, the conundrum goes: "God is omnipotent, God is wholly good, yet evil exists. So either God cannot stop suffering, in which case he is not all-powerful, or he will not, in which case he is not all-good."

The weakness of this as an argument for atheism is that Christianity has always lived with this. We follow, after all, a Messiah who was crucified. Many of our saints were martyrs – some of them dying for their faith, in hope and trust, in the same concentration camps used as an argument against God's existence. Yes, some people are turned away from faith by pain; others are turned towards it. We have our own ways of explaining and enduring suffering. You might not be convinced by them, but please don't think you're telling us anything new.

2. Cultural history

This is a catch-all term for explanations of religion based on where it came from. In the modern era it started with Frazer's The Golden Bough in 1890; his agnostic study of comparative religion looked at all sorts of faiths and mythologies through the centuries and included Christianity among them. The implication was that religion should be studied like any other human production.

To which we respond, of course it should. No one thinks Christianity appeared out of nowhere. You can tell us about the history and prehistory of our faith, its psychology and sociology, its links to other religions and echoes of Greek and Babylonian mythologies, and we're happy that you've explained it. Where we differ is that we don't think you've explained it away. CS Lewis put it like this: "Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history."

3. The bad stuff

We don't need telling about the bad things the Church has done, and that Christians have done in the name of God. "Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded/ That all the Apostles would have done as they did," wrote Byron. It's true, and it's shameful. We don't, if we have any sense, want to minimise the harm that religion has sometimes done.

But neither are we going to deny the facts of history. Yes, religion has been involved in some pretty horrible business. It is (see 2, above) a human enterprise and as such it can be corrupted and abused like any other. But it has done more good than harm. Christianity has restrained evil more than it's promoted it. Yes, sometimes it has intensified violence, but more often it's controlled it. Our response to examples of where the Church has gone wrong isn't to say, "The world would be better off without religion" – particularly as irreligious people have been even better at killing people than Christians – but, "How can we learn from this so it never happens again?"

4. 'Science has disproved religion'

No, it hasn't, and no, it can't. It has disproved assertions about the natural world made by religious people on the basis of their religious beliefs rather than on the basis of science. The Galileo case is the one usually cited, and certainly religion was an element in that, though his critics also questioned him on scientific grounds – and though we know now he was right, his case looked a bit weaker then. And some Christians do the cause no good when they insist the world is only a few thousand years old and was created in only six days.

We know it's possible to account for the existence of the universe and the emergence of life without reference to God. We're quite comfortable with that. In fact the idea that you could somehow prove God's existence scientifically is just a bit odd; that's not how it works. We believe that God has been involved in creation from the beginning. That's not the same as insisting you can't be a good physicist unless you're a believer. Science and religion are, in the words of Stephen Jay Gould, non-overlapping magisteria. Everything's fine as long as people don't encroach on each other's territory.


I'll happily engage with atheists who are genuinely interested in what Christians think. If you aren't, we'll talk about football or politics instead. But I have no more sympathy for angry, self-righteous atheists than I have for angry, self-righteous Christians. In each case, listening to them critiquing the other side is like listening to a tone-deaf person critiquing a concert, or a description of a ballet by someone who's left their glasses at home.

If I have one plea, it's for some mutual understanding and respect. Atheists who assume we just haven't thought things through are lacking in that, just as Christians who assume some sort of moral or intellectual failing in atheists are lacking as well.

In the meantime, Dennett, Onfray and the rest go back to my bookshelves. Everything they advanced against Christianity had passed through my mind long before they wrote.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods