Who Forgives An Atheist?

How does an atheist respond when they know that they have done something morally wrong? Ian McEwan, the author of many well known (and in my opinion very good) books, was confronted with that question during a recent interview in the New York Times. Here is a short excerpt…

Q: Your novel “Atonement” — the story of Briony Tallis, a novelist who tells a lie in her girlhood and hurts her older sister in a way for which she can never atone — has been made into a film…It seems to me that the impulse to atone is a religious one, and yet you are a self-declared atheist.

A: Yes, I am an atheist, and probably Briony is, too. Atheists have as much conscience, possibly more, than people with deep religious conviction, and they still have the same problem of how they reconcile themselves to a bad deed in the past. It’s a little easier if you’ve got a god to forgive you. (complete interview)

Atheists have a very difficult time consistently living out their own beliefs. All of this is made very clear by McEwan’s answer to the question. A few observations along that line…

1. How does an atheist like McEwan explain “conscience”? Although there are many varieties of atheists, most are materialists meaning that they believe that physical matter is the only reality. If that’s true, then how does one account for a guilty conscience? If conscience is nothing more than chemicals and other physical processes, then it can be safely ignored. But that’s exactly the problem. McEwan and his character can’t ignore their own guilt.

2. How does an atheist come to the conclusion that anything is morally wrong in the first place? There is no need to rehearse the moral argument for the existence of God since it is so widespread. (If you are unfamiliar with it and are interested in doing some reading, there is no better place to look than Lewis’ Mere Christianity.) And yet regardless of how well known the moral argument is, I find it surprising to see how many atheists seem unable to avoid running afoul of it. The only conclusion that I can draw is that the atheist cannot live consistently with their own world view that necessarily teaches that there are no moral absolutes.

3. When the atheist knows they have violated their own moral conscience, what do they do with that? How do they reconcile with a God they deny exists? How do they reconcile with themselves when they deny that they are spiritual beings?

Of course all of this is very sad when you think about it. Biblical Christianity offers an explanation to what every atheist (and every person) experiences in their life. Made in the image of God, human beings are both physical and spiritual beings. Sin is breaking God’s eternal law and necessarily brings guilt. And God stands ready to forgive sinners, cleanse their conscience, and reconcile them to himself.

Let’s don’t look down smugly on atheists. After all if God hadn’t opened our eyes, we would be blind to spiritual truth as well. Instead, let’s pray that God would intervene in the life of McEwan (and others like him) and bring him to faith in Jesus.

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