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How Atheists Lie About History

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In 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt the author makes the following claim:

For anyone scanning the past and surveying the current world scene, it is nearly impossible to find any outstanding person—except for popes, archbishops, kings, and other rulers—who says the purpose of life is to be saved by an invisible Jesus and to enter an invisible heaven. But it is easy to find many among the great who doubt this basic dogma. [1]

When I first read this, I thought it was a joke. Is this man ignorant, deceptive, or just plain stupid? Jesus is no more invisible than anyone else who has lived. The historical record is clear on this (Luke 1:1–4). Mr. Haught has trouble believing in reason and logic, and they’re invisible. He writes off anyone who professes to be a Christian. But the logic cuts both ways. From the Christian perspective, most doubters Haught extols were skunks, scoundrels, and scum, not because they didn’t believe in Jesus but because of what they did believe in. Karl Marx, an outstanding person? And when he comes across one of the worst bottom dwellers of history, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), Haught goes out of his way to make Promethean excuses for him.

Apparently, during a rare visit to a brothel, Nietzsche contracted syphilis, which caused him to go insane at the end of his life. After his death, his genius finally was recognized. However, the Nazi claim that his Übermensch [Superman] meant the “master race” of Aryans was another societal fraud which Nietzsche would have renounced. He despised anti-Semitism, militarism, and nationalism, the pillars upon which Nazism stood. [2]

Nietzsche might have despised anti-Semitism, militarism, and nationalism, the pillars upon which Nazism stood, but his operating assumptions were powerless to argue against them.

Hitler commandeered Nietzsche’s philosophy even though Nietzsche might have despised how it was being used.

Nietzsche “believed that truth is merely a cultural necessity,” that “there is no moral truth.” And since there is no moral truth “there can be no absolute notions of good and evil.” [3] Nietzsche believed that “greatness and excellence—rather than good and evil—should be used to measure value.” [4] Can anyone say Adolf Hitler?

In addition to the title of Haught’s book, the first paragraph of the introduction caught my attention:

Intelligent, educated people tend to doubt the supernatural. So it is hardly surprising to find a high ratio of religious skeptics among major thinkers, scientists, writers, reformers, scholars, champions of democracy, and other world changers—people usually called great. [5]

Of course, much depends on how “supernatural” is defined. I’m a doubter because I dismiss most of what is touted as “supernatural” today. Harry Houdini (the son of a Rabbi), André Kole and and Dan Korem are the models for healthy “supernatural” skepticism. Kole and Korem are Christians that use their magical knowledge to debunk frauds and hoaxes.

To be skeptical of supernatural claims does not make someone either an atheist or an agnostic. Not all supernatural claims are valid, as Egyptian magicians, Nebuchadnezzar’s so-called wise men, or those who practiced the magical arts in the early church era (Acts 19:19) demonstrate. This is one of the major flaws in Haught’s book.

The Return of the Village Atheist

Many Christians have replied to philosophically sophisticated forms of atheism (Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Michael Martin, Kai Nielsen, et al), but today there is also a growing literature of atheism geared to the popular level, the realm of the so-called village atheist.

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The author quotes numerous theists—those who believe in the supernatural—who object to the way the church and its leaders have conducted themselves. If this is the definition of a doubter, then Jesus Himself fits the category. He saved His greatest verbal assaults for the religious leaders of His day (e.g., Matt. 23; Mark 7:1–7).

The author dismisses the greatest of the greats as if they never existed. There is no reference in Haught’s book to Bible-believing scientists and Christians like Isaac Newton, Lord Kelvin, and Louis Pasteur, artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse whose first words over the telegraph were “What hast God wrought?,” inventors Wilbur and Orville Wright; Supreme Court Justice David Brewer who declared that America, based on the historical record, should be defined as a “Christian nation,” scholar, Christian apologist, social commentator, and fiction writer C. S. Lewis, and social reformer William Wilberforce.

The list could go on, but let’s take a look at natural philosopher, chemist, physicist, and inventor Robert Boyle (1627–1691) who spent a portion of his fortune “to have the Bible translated into various languages” and worked with the created order for the good of humankind.

In his will and testament, Boyle “addressed his fellow members of the Royal Society of London, wishing them all success in ‘their laudable attempts, to discover the true Nature of the Works of God’ and ‘praying that they and all other Searchers into Physical Truths’ may thereby add ‘to the glory of the Great Author of Nature, and to the Comforter of mankind.’” [6]

The title of one of Boyle’s many books was The Christian Virtuoso, that is, “The Christian Scientist.” Boyle was not a single Christian voice crying in the wilderness of secular science. The membership of the Royal Society was made up of many Christians who shared Boyle’s view that “the world was God’s handiwork” and “it was their duty to study and understand this handiwork as a means of glorifying God.” [7]

On the archway above the wooden door of the Cavendish Laboratory, at Cambridge University, there is a Latin inscription that reads, Magna opera Domini. Exquista in omnes voluntates ejus.

The inscription had been placed there at the insistence of the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, the first Cavendish professor in 1871. The inscription quotes a biblical Psalm that reads, “Great are the works of the Lord, sought out by all who take pleasure therein” (Ps. 111:2).

The inscription summarized Maxwell’s inspiration for scientific study: the thought that works of nature reflect the work of a designing mind. In this belief he had been joined by many of the leading scientists of Western civilization for over four hundred years — Copernicus, Kepler, Ray, Linnaeus, Curvier, Aggassiz, Boyle, Newton, Kelvin, Farady, Rutherford — on and on the list could go.” [8]

What would happen if we followed Haught’s starting point? Let’s suppose that everyone believed the following:

The universe is a vast, amazing, seething dynamo which has no discernible purpose except to keep on churning…. But it seems utterly indifferent to any moral laws. It destroys as blindly as it nurtures. [9]

If there are no moral laws, then whatever exists, is right. No, it’s worse than that. There is no such thing as “right.” Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists, has declared that evolution is “morally neutral.” In fact, since there are no moral laws, right and wrong are simply categories to distinguish the varied responses of pain receptors in the body. But a short bout of pain might be a good thing if long-term issues are at stake. Beating your two children with a hammer so they won’t experience a life of disappointment could be the noble thing to do. Who can say otherwise?

  1. James A. Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996), 14.[]
  2. Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief, 178.[]
  3. Martyn Oliver, History of Philosophy: Great Thinkers from 600 B.C. to the Present Day (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1998), 124–125.[]
  4. Oliver, History of Philosophy, 125.[]
  5. Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief, 11.[]
  6. Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the end of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 158.[]
  7. Stark, For the Glory of God, 158.[]
  8. Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York Harper/Collins, 2009), 145.[]
  9. Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief, 324.[]
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