Alister McGrath on Atheism: An Opiate For the Masses?

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“The atheist’s argument goes like this: you want there to be a God.  So you invent him.  Your religious views are invented to correspond to what you want.  But this line of argument works just as well against atheism.  Imagine an extermination camp commandant during the Second World War.  Would there not be excellent reasons for supposing that he might hope that God does not exist, given what might await him on the day of judgment?  And might not his atheism itself be a wish-fulfillment? This is a devastating point.  As cultural historians have pointed out for many years…people often reject the idea of God because they long for autonomy – the right to do what they please, without any interference from God.  They don’t need to worry about divine judgment; they reject belief in God because it suits them.  That’s what they want, but that doesn’t mean that this is the way things really are.”

“This point was made superbly by the Polish philosopher and writer Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980.  Parodying the old Marxist idea that religion was the ‘opium of the people,’ he remarks in “The Discreet Charm of Nihilism” that a new opium has taken its place: rejection of belief in God on account of its implications for our ultimate accountability.  ‘A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death – the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, [and] murders we are not going to be judged.”

“Atheism thus depends on a core belief that it cannot verify [namely, that there is no God].  Do you see the importance of this point?  Atheists live out their lives on the basis of the belief that there is no God, believing that this is right but not being able to prove it conclusively.”

– Alister McGrath, Doubting: Growing Through the Uncertainties of Faith, p. 37-38

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