Living a Lie

NickOfTimeAtheist blogger Hemant Mehta rose to some level of national prominence with the publication of his book I Sold My Soul on eBay. His blog, Friendly Atheist, is among the various mills of unbelief I read to stay current on popular atheism. In a recent post, Mehta upbraided New York Times editorialist Nicholas Kristof for “not getting” atheists. Kristof had commended a few skeptics whose books highlight religion’s power “as an ethical and cohesive force,” so that religious belief aids the building of societies. In this line of thought, even granting an evolutionary perspective, religion has been a profoundly helpful adaptation, despite the fact that ritual and ceremony have no obvious immediate survival benefits.

Mehta counters, indirectly:

No one ever argued religion wasn’t powerful…. But the “New Atheists” are right that religion is harmful and irrational. More importantly, religious beliefs are untrue. There’s no credible evidence Jesus rose from the dead, people go to heaven and hell, that your prayers get answered, or that God talks to you.

Religion may give you hope, but that hope rests on you accepting a lie. I, and many other atheists, don’t want to live that way.

Mehta’s argument is straightforward: even if a religious belief increases personal peace and goodwill within a community, we ought not believe it if we know is that it is false. The side benefits of a belief are never enough to justify holding false belief. His point is fair enough, as far as it goes, but Mehta’s problem is that he doesn’t go quite far enough.

Here I offer a general debating tip for all aspiring apologists (that is to say, all Christians [1 Pet 3:15]): take the unbeliever’s argument and apply it to his own position. Very, very often, his objection to Christianity is at least as devastating to his own position as he believes it to be to Christianity; the current case is no exception.

There was a time, as the atheists tell it, when nothing was thinking or valuing; there will be a time, at the end of all things, when again nothing will be thinking or valuing. Their universe is a place in which matter is both prelude and postlude to mind­—which is the brief interlude. Our existence, with all its pretentions of significance, is an aberration, an anomalous blip in billions of years of blah. As some of their own poets have said,

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

Bertrand Russell was a far better spokesman for atheism than anybody whose life has overlapped mine. But give special attention to the way in which he seeks to retain man’s dignity: in order to endure his miserable and brutish years, he must “worship at the shrine his own hands have built.” That is to say, in order to find value in this life, our only option is to believe the lies we tell ourselves.

And so the rich irony of Mehta’s position is that, to whatever degree he’s consistent with his own beliefs, he must insist that life has no meaning other than that which we create for it. There is no meaning in the universe. Therefore, for the atheist, all the hope and meaning that anyone has in this life “rests on accepting a lie.” Mehta cannot exempt himself from the criticism he lobs at religion, and so his critique evaporates; from his perspective, he has chosen his happy delusion and I mine. The lack of self-awareness exhibited by the village atheists could almost be endearing if it weren’t so pernicious.

To be fair to Mehta, the inconsistency he evidences is not unique among the unbelievers. Sam Harris, whose Letters to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith have made him among the chief spokesmen of the new atheism, has recently written a short book asserting that modern science makes free will impossible. Doug Wilson (whose words mumbled in his sleep have more punch and polish than my third draft) appropriately eviscerates Harris’s entire project:

If he really wanted to write a book consistent with what he is saying the cosmos is like, he should have written the way Jackson Pollock painted, or John Cage composed. He should have had some friends strap him in a chair, with his fingertips superglued to the keyboard, and then had some other friends taser him periodically. That would be a book worthy of the cosmos he thinks we are in!

Why do Mehta and Harris continue to churn out blog posts and books advancing unbelief? Clearly, they seem to think that people ought to believe certain things, that we have some obligation to embrace only true beliefs. But that kind of obligation only exists in the Christian theistic universe. In the atheist’s best case, the values he advocates are nothing but palatable lies (Mehta); in Harris’s case, there simply are no beliefs, but mere brain spasms.

Now, it is hardly the case that what I’ve offered here is a case for believing Christianity; it is not that. I am not saying that, since we find the need for meaning unavoidable, we are therefore justified in declaring that Christianity is true. My ambitions are much more modest: to deflate the overblown claims of the self-appointed high priests of reason. They refused to play by their own rules. No, it’s worse: they can’t play by their own rules, because by their own rules, there is no playing.

Nihilism, if true, cannot be believed. Nihilism, if believed, cannot be true.

Jesus, Lord of Life and Glory
James John Cummins (1795-1867)

Jesus, Lord of life and glory,
Bend from heav’n thy gracious ear;
While our waiting souls adore thee,
Friend of helpless sinners, hear:
By thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

From the depth of nature’s blindness,
From the hard’ning pow’r of sin,
From all malice and unkindness,
From the pride that lurks within,
By thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

When temptation sorely presses,
In the day of Satan’s pow’r,
In our times of deep distresses,
In each dark and trying hour,
By thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

When the world around is smiling,
In the time of wealth and ease,
Earthly joys our hearts beguiling,
In the day of health and peace,
By thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

In our weary hours of sickness,
In our times of grief and pain,
When we feel our mortal weakness,
When the creature’s help is vain,
By thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

In the solemn hour of dying,
In the awful judgment day,
May our souls, on thee relying,
Find thee still our Rock and Stay:
By thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

[node:bio/michael-riley body]

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There are 3 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


Nihilism boiled down ends up essentially this: "This statement is false."

I enjoyed the post, Mike. The way some describe their "presuppositional apologetics," I wonder why they employ reasoning at all. But clearly there's place for it in yours. (I'm assuming you're presuppositional)

drwayman's picture

Mike - Thanks for posting this. I am fan of Mehta, I enjoy reading him even though I disagree with atheism. Ultimately, atheism, when turned back on itself doesn't make sense. Just as you point out Smile

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