The Challenge of Atheism


I will quickly confess that I am not a philosopher. I am not trained in the subject and always struggled in the few doctoral classes that were in the area of “Philosophical Theology.” Thus, this will not be a philosophical response that settles matters for believers viz. atheism, or settles matters viz. Orthodox Christianity for atheists. It is just some observations.

That the world would be better off if everyone were an atheist is to me, a silly thought. We have too much evidence to the contrary. Atheist states have been the most efficient killing machines in all of history. Dostoevsky is quoted as saying, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” It is questionable that he ever wrote it in that succinct fashion, but it certainly reflects a number of statements that occur in his writings. And it is true.

Though there are some very strange things happening in our culture as the result of religion, they hardly hold a candle to the strange things taking place among those who are committed to hedonism and other forms of modern atheism.

The greatest challenge from Atheism is what Orthodoxy would term the “problem of the human heart.” Orthodoxy (and many other Christians) understand very clearly that human beings have a “dark” side and that religious “delusion” is a constant issue for believers. Properly taught and nurtured, Orthodox Christians should be more sensitive to questions of religious delusion than non-believers.

The problem of the human heart (this deep, spiritual center of man) is that it very easily becomes hard. And that in its hardness it is capable of almost anything. The amount of atrocities carried out by professed believers is ample testimony to the dangers of the heart, even for Christians.

What would an atheist propose for the treatment of the heart? It cannot be that less religion means a healthier human heart. Indeed, the modern nation state is what threatens to take the place of religion. And the modern nation state has not shown itself to be a repository of kindness, gentleness and altruism with regard to its clients.

If anything, the spiritual teaching of the Orthodox Church is particularly directed towards our distortions of reality and our denial of the True God in an acceptance of a false god. The proper practice of Orthodoxy is ruthlessly self-honest and self-critical and believes that true belief in God can only be measured by the love we have for our enemy. Anything less than this is not the fullness of the Orthodox faith.

Our conversation with Atheism is not about the stars and the planets, or about how our planet came to be and how long ago. Our conversation with Atheism is not about the literal character of stories in the Old Testament. Christians who focus on such things in their discussions with Atheism are largely agreeing that these are the essential questions for humanity – and they are not.

The central question for humanity is the God revealed to us in and through Jesus Christ. If that God is the true God, then our religion can only be measured by the love we have for our enemy.

By the same token, we can ask of anyone, Atheist included, “Do you love your enemies?” If they do not, then we can say with confidence, “Your heart is in trouble.” And if anyone’s heart is in trouble (most are) then the world is indeed a very dangerous place (it is).

We believe that the world is so dangerous that even God Himself is not safe within it (cf. crucifixion). We also believe that our mission as Christians is to follow the example of the God/man Jesus Christ and yield ourselves up for crucifixion on behalf of our enemies. Anything less than that is not Orthodox Christianity in its fullness.

St. Paul noted: “One will hardly die for a righteous man — though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). While this is undeniably true for Christ – it is also meant to become true for all who follow Him. Anything less is not the fullness of the Orthodox faith.

The challenge of Atheism is the challenge of despair. For Atheism cannot claim that human beings are improving. If anything, technology only makes us capable of far worse than the past. The marvels of this internet now mean that evil men have easy access to vulnerable children and are manifesting that evil in epic proportions. The Atheist can only (if he is honest) look at history and despair. We are heading towards a certain destruction on our present trajectory. If there is no one who can intervene and heal the human heart then our fate is indeed a sad one.

Orthodox Christianity does not believe that all religion is good. Indeed, we might very well argue that most religion is not good because it embraces the delusion that clouds the human heart. Most religion does not measure itself by its love of its enemies. In that sense, much of religion among men is just a peculiar manifestation of politics and nothing more.

But I believe that Christ is truly God in the flesh and that God so loves us that He emptied Himself and endured death on the cross in order to rescue us even from the relative non-existence we had brought on ourselves (in Hades). I believe that we can judge ourselves only by the standard of the love of God on the Cross. Either we are denying ourselves and extending our hearts towards others, especially our enemies, or we are not following Christ. Anything less than that is not the fullness of the Orthodox faith.

There is a path to salvation but it only goes through the cross (not just the Cross of Christ but through the cross He has set before each of us). It is the only means of curing the sickness of our heart. Such religion endangers no one. Such religion would see the Atheist not as our largest problem, but simply one of many examples of the heart of man in need of healing. Indeed, many Atheists may be closer to that healing than many deluded Christians. We can and must pray for all mankind and for the triumph of the Cross in their heart. The sooner the better. And let it begin with me.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





42 responses to “The Challenge of Atheism”

  1. handmaidleah Avatar

    Alexander Kalomiros writes, “I have the suspicion that men today believe in God more than at any other time in human history. Men know the gospel, the teaching of the Church, and God’s creation better than at any other time. They have a profound consciousness of His existence. Their atheism is not a real disbelief. It is rather an aversion toward somebody we know very well but whom we hate with all our heart, exactly as the demons do.
    We hate God, that is why we ignore Him, overlooking Him as if we did not see Him, and pretending to be atheists. In reality we consider Him our enemy par excellence. Our negation is our vengeance, our atheism is our revenge.”
    As you so rightly point out Fr. Stephen, as Orthodox Christians it is up to us to love everyone, because everyone is our neighbor and that is Christ command.
    We don’t however give up the right to speak the truth we just must remember that we are accountable for every word.
    Christ is in our midst!
    the handmaid,

  2. Steve Avatar

    Wow, that’s quite good, Mary-Leah.

    “It is rather an aversion toward somebody we know very well but whom we hate with all our heart, exactly as the demons do.”

    I might add that for me, it has taken me a long time to get to the point where I really believed that God loved me. It is no wonder I act like a crazy man if God is there and I doubt His love. Yet who am I to say that God doesn’t love me? He is trustworthy, I am not.

  3. handmaidleah Avatar

    All credit goes to Alexander Kalomiros. It is really difficult to remember that God in Trinity is complete Love and we are the rebellious ones. I have been reading River of Fire and Peter Chopelas’ Heaven & Hell According to the Bible lately. They tend to do wonders for my outlook.
    Christ is in our midst!
    the handmaid,

  4. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I really like that little work. Some I know tend to disparage it, though I don’t know why. I find it very helpful and an excellent piece – especially its footnotes.

  5. Christopher Avatar

    I have found those that disparage “The River of Fire” do so for being either too ‘mean’, too ‘triumphalist’, from an Old Calendarist and therefore wrong, or as being at best a caricature of Western theologies.

  6. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m aware of its shortcomings, but it does some things well that no one else had bothered to do. For that I’m grateful.

  7. Amanda Beattie Avatar

    I just wanted to say how refreshing it is to find this article, and to see how straightforwardly and unapologetically you confess Jesus as God and as the only Way. I found this whole post to be extremely thought-provoking. Thank you, and may God grant you grace upon grace to continue to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ. 🙂

  8. Roland Avatar

    “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”

    Is this something Dostoevsky himself believed, or is it an opinion expressed by one of his fictional characters? It seems to anticipate Nietzsche. I disagree with Nietzsche on this point, and if Dostoevsky shared this view then I guess I have to disagree with him too. If human nature is real, then it implies a real morality – even if that nature came from a source other than God.

    But man has gotten into the habit of violating his own nature and the law implicit in that nature. If there were no God, this cycle of sin would continue without end – there would be no way out. An atheist society offers its people no hope, resulting in unmitigated cynicism. Nearly any normal religion can offer more hope than atheism. Orthodox Christianity offers not only hope, but the real opportunity of salvation.

  9. Ben Donald Avatar

    Saint Tikhon of Moscow, pray for us.

  10. Jason357 Avatar

    I think the problems got worse in the US when people started believing that witnessing the Word was more important than living it. I know I’ll get disagreement on that, but it’s very hard to find a church that doesn’t have the primary concern of building brick and mortar monuments to itself. Hypocrisy is the greatest enemy of a Christian, yet I never hear sermons in which that church explores it’s own hypocrisy. They seem amazing immune to what plagues everyone else.

    I won’t get into the hot issue too much, but look at “Christian” support for possible torture, aggression, and violence under the US flag in Iraq. That’s not what Christ taught or encouraged. It’s not even what some of history’s greatest military commanders suggest. Sun Tzu’s Art of War specifically warns against many of the actions taking place in Iraq.

  11. handmaidleah Avatar

    The last comment made me think of the nationalism amongst evangelicals. I heard Ted Haggard, when he was the President of the National Association of Evangelication, say on television that evangelicals are first and foremost nationalist and I suppose he meant very patriotic people, giving eerybody the benefit of the doubt. Given that he was speaking for a very large Christian body of people that got me to thinking…
    In the balance, for me as an Orthodox Christian, what I hear from the pulpit is “be in the world but not of the world”, on a regular basis. My life as a Christian is to put our Lord first and the rest will fall into place, it always seems to anyway. This situation, with war, politicians run amok and society off the deep end as far as moral values… let’s just say it has not been all that hard to follow my priest’s advice (living fifty miles from nowhere helps) 🙂
    But I know that unless a person is a monastic they cannot withdraw completely, nor should they so when the jihadis come to the door, or the rioters hit the streets or the revolution comes, will I have my martyr on? I just don’t know…
    Christ is in our midst!
    the handmaid,

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’ve not preached nor heard political sermons as an Orthodox Christian. I’m sure there are some, but I am too busy preaching the gospel to worry with it. I cannot fix the world. That’s God’s job. I was called to be a priest of the Most High God, and that’s my job, 24-7.

    But the Church should be careful not to be coopted by the powers of this world. Not if we are to be the Church. Besides, the State usually wants us to hate our enemies and I’m trying real hard not to. Mostly asking for grace to forgive, and to ask forgiveness.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar


    Dostevsky is credited with it – meaning by it that if there is no God, all hell will break loose. Not otherwise. His book, The Possessed (or The Devils) is the best illustration he makes of this observation. He’s quite Orthodox in his observations.

  14. Matthew N. Petersen Avatar

    And I believe Ivan Karamazov says it, but Father Zosima agrees with him.

  15. handmaidleah Avatar

    Amen. Fr. Stephen and that is what I love about Othodoxy, nothing political, just the Gospel and love thy neighbor and be in the world but not of the world, Fr. Anthony probably has some others but, these are the ones that stick with me the most. I think these are the main messages that I have been hearing anyway. 🙂 He does teach on the Gospel message, but sometimes I just miss the good stuff.
    I can’t ever remember hearing “Repent for the end is near!” LOL! Just Repent because it is good for your soul.
    Such joy and a happy Feast day to you!
    the handmaid,

  16. Don Bradley Avatar
    Don Bradley

    “I won’t get into the hot issue too much, but look at “Christian” support for possible torture, aggression, and violence under the US flag in Iraq. That’s not what Christ taught or encouraged. It’s not even what some of history’s greatest military commanders suggest. Sun Tzu’s Art of War specifically warns against many of the actions taking place in Iraq.”

    Your comments simply display your own domestic political agenda under the guise of piety, which is why you only mentioned Iraq and not other war zones. The nut of what you’re saying impeaches the religiousity of those serving in Iraq; an unfair charge on those we honor and pray for.

  17. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Everyone, please remember the rules of the blog.

  18. reid Avatar

    “Indeed, the modern nation state is what threatens to take the place of religion. And the modern nation state has not shown itself to be a repository of kindness, gentleness and altruism with regard to its clients.”

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for putting your thoughts down for us. And I think this quote is very insightful, but maybe doesn’t go far enough. It seems that the modern nation state seeks to not only take religion’s place but also take the place of God himself instead of governing from the place of submission to God and His authority. I believe the welfare state created by our government is one example of this reality.

    As a follower of Christ, I understand my baptism to be very political in that I am a subject of His Kingdom who happens to live in the US. My allegiance is to Him, not the US.

  19. An Atheist Avatar

    Father Stephen, I really appreciate your honesty and attitude toward religion. If all religious people were of your persuation I would never have any reason to be irritated with them.

    However, a large, if not the largest percentage of Christianity in America is of the fundamentalist, literal bible brand whose members carry as badges of pride their willful insularity toward science, reason, and knowledge in general. I have personal experience with someone who disparages reading and education because of 2 Timothy 3:7. It is this segment of religous people who provoke my ire, certainly not people like yourself.

    That being said, I think that you are missing the point that atheists like myself hold dear: either something is true or it is not! The argument from consequence is irrelevant because it is fallacious. No doubt many people like yourself get happiness and purpose from religion and I am happy for you, but that doesn’t make something true in the least.

    You wrote that “The challenge of Atheism is the challenge of despair.”

    That is a fair challenge, but I think it is an illusory one that is only endemic to people who live in a culture where they think the only anti-despair and positive morality can come from religion. In fact, in countries such as Japan and Sweden where the rate of atheism is well over the 50% mark, they have some of the lowest crime rates and highest standards of living.

    Myself, the Swedes, and the Japanese prove that while indeed some segment of human beings will probably always only be able to find their life’s meaning in religion, it is by no means an obligatory aspect of the human condition or for society in general.

  20. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Dear Atheist,

    I try to treat Atheists with respect because, on the one hand, those whom I admire the most within Orthodoxy have always done so. And, because I’d rather converse with an honest atheist than a dishonest religious person of any sort.

    When I say that the challenge of Atheism is despair, I would readily admit that not all Atheists despair. But the cultures of say, Western Europe, where non-believers now seriously outnumber believers (I’m not counting the Muslims at the moment, that’s another subject), but much of these cultures show signs of what I would call a cultural despair. The rate of childbirth has dropped so low that they are now cultures in decline. I do not believe this decline is because they care so much for the environment, populations growth, etc., but because they have no reason to have children – there is a cultural despair.

    I’m not saying anything about Atheism that Sartre did not say or Camus. Both thinking Atheists.

    I am deeply saddened that Fundamentalist Christianity seems to have been your largest encounter with Christians.

    Orthodoxy is, I believe, fiercely committed to the truth and to honesty – I became Orthodox at something of a price personally, because I thought this the only place where I could stand in the truth as a Christian.

    I would be interested in what more you have to say or think. You’re certainly welcome to comment on this site – and I would encourage other readers to treat you with seriousness and respect.

    By the way – what are the suicide rates in Japan and Sweden? Just curious. I cannot point to a Christian society for comparisons, since there are no such societies as a whole today.

    But human beings have a hunger for transcendence and when it is not something religious, then it is often filled by something quasi-religious – such as Carl Sagan’s fascination with Extraterrestrials in his last days. Sort of a substitute for a God. Not a good one or a rigorously honest one, but a substitute, nevertheless.

  21. handmaidleah Avatar

    Yes, welcome to the crew dear Atheist, it is good to have another voice and persepctive,
    Christ is in our midst!
    the handmaid,

  22. An Atheist Avatar

    Father Stephen, you gain my admiration more and more as I hear your words. You are right in that my personal experience with Christianity has been 99% fundamentalist. I was a sincere member myself of this group of people from my early to late teens. I became an atheist when I began my own rigorous investigation of my religion and found it thoroughly lacking. I have thought to myself for quite some time now that if I had been raised Unitarian for instance (or maybe your own school of Christian thought) that I might still have some belief left. However, I am fairly confident that in the end that would have merely postponed my apostasy – for reasons I outline next.

    I think that the root of difference that arises between our worldviews is that of pragmatism and truth and which of these we hold dearest. (I know I am trying to play pseudo-psycho-analyst here but bear with me.) I completely respect and believe what you say about your choice to become Orthodox in that you felt it was the most “fiercely committed to the truth and to honesty.” Judging from your writing here, I would say it is the most honest branch of religion that I have had experience with.

    However, I personally find the “accident of birth” argument an impenetrable roadblock to both believing in a single religion and in a god that endorses or identifies with a single religion. I do not see an honest way to refute this argument without invoking some type of deterministic Calvinism. I cannot see that a god who operates primarily on birthplace and birth environment to decide religion is a god worthy of respect or belief. If this god did choose to operate using this vector as primary means for enlightening his children to truth then this god would merely be the god of sociology.

    I realize that at this point in my argument a large gap is obvious, since it seems that you at some point were able to rise above your accident of birth since you wrote “I became Orthodox at something of a price personally.” And then there is obviously me. But the meat of my argument still sticks. Unless people are intellectually inclined, they are most likely to hold to their religious tradition blindly without question with nary a hope of objective truth able to sneak through layers of indoctrination.

    Well, enough steps down that philosophical road. I’d like to address some other things you brought up. You asked: “what are the suicide rates in Japan and Sweden?” That is a very poignant question to ask after my previous comment. I do not know about Japan, but I do know that the post-religious countries like Switzerland and Sweden do have some of the highest rates of suicide globally. Is this related to their lack of belief? – almost certainly. But again this only attests to the pragmatic value of religion and says nothing of its truth. If then we were to assess truth on grounds of pragmatism, we would have to bring in the examples of violence that religion has fueled which I will not mention. At best, I would conject that there is a balance between the positive pragmatic effects of religion and the negatives, both historically and contemporarily.

    Last thing and I will shut up lol. You mentioned humans’ “hunger for transcendence” that the vast majority of individuals fill with religion. I have this need as much as the next man. I fill it in my life by devouring stimulating books, taking in the beauty of nature, and savoring the presence of the ones I love. The fact that religion enjoys its near monopoly in this market is mainly due to its anthropomorphic form. (Whether this aspect of it was designed by God or by man is something else to ponder.)

    As a final note, I share your concern for the well-being of people. I don’t want those suicides to be taking the lives of people. I don’t want any nation’s people to fall into cultural despair. And as a matter of fact, I would not want a nearly homologous atheistic culture anywhere. But I do think that truth should be humanity’s highest ideal and that for the most part (yourself and your viewpoint excluded,) religion stifles the rigorous and honest search for truth in far too many people.

    Sorry for being so long winded!
    Best wishes

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    Dear An Atheist,

    In good Christian language I would say that you’re not nearly as far from the Kingdom of God as you might think. 🙂

    Orthodox Christianity does not hold to an idea that only those fortunate enough to be born in a Christian context will be saved, etc. The early Fathers of the Church were far wiser and more sane than modern fundamentalists. Indeed we would say that God does not will that any of us perish, and that those who do not hate the good, and the light will not find Him to be their enemy. We do not as a Church pronounce on who will or will not be saved finally. That is known only to God. What we do know is what has been made known to us and for that we are grateful and seek to live in accordance with the teachings of Christ as the Church has received them.

    I have no doubt that there are some who called themselves Christians in their lifetimes who will hate God when they see Him and want nothing to do with Him (that is hell – which is not a place where God sends us but a state of being we create for ourselves by refusing to be in fellowship with Love itself. Neither do I doubt that some who never heard anything about Christianity (and many in between) will find in God everything they ever hoped for and more and will enjoy Him forever. But these things are known to God alone.

    So the sociology stuff is not our argument. God is bigger than all that and not nearly as petty as is painted in fundamentalism.

    Orthodox Christianity has a fundamental commitment to Truth, believing that delusion is perhaps the greatest theological danger – and that religion itself can be a “disease”.

    Orthodox Christianity, which is Christianity in its original form, is probably as different from your experience earlier in life in a fundamentalist context, than you now feel in your atheist context. Indeed, I would suspect that you have more in common with Christian fundamentalists than with Orthodox Christians – but I don’t mean that as a put down. Only, that it has formed a horizon for you and that I would say that it is a lousy horizon – distorting Christianity in profound ways.

    Thanks for the note.

  24. An Atheist Avatar
    An Atheist

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I will be honest here, your short post here has touched me more than 90 minute sermons I have heard shouted and spitted by fundamentalist evangelists.

    Your intelligence is something that attracts me. It is a quality that I find totally lacking in southern WV churches. Not an ounce of thinking goes on in this environment – it is a place where the “bible-thumper” stereotype was easily been born.

    You are right to say that I “have more in common with Christian fundamentalists than with Orthodox Christians” – great intuition by the way.

    I do not know Christian Orthodoxy theology and so I will not try to present it as “one in the know,” but as far as I can tell (and I may be wrong, forgive my ignorance) it views the Bible in light of Jesus’ teachings – metaphorical Genesis, don’t pay attention to the barbarism in the OT, etc.

    As an atheist who loves diversity, I have no problem whatsoever with this type of religion. I applaud sophisticated religion. I encourage it actually – as opposed to fundamentalism.

    But I cannot bring myself to honestly believe that if what the Bible says about creation is literally wrong (and it is) then what it says about heaven is. What use is a golden street to a risen immortal? Or a mansion?

    I find neuroscience to be the death of the soul. And not depressing, just truth that needs psychological adaptation.

    Perhaps I am wrong. Like I said, I am not close minded. But I need rational reasons to believe, not emotional hooks.

    Thank you for your responses, it gives my mind much to chew on and for a person like me, that is where decisions and (de)conversions are made.

    Adam Lewis

  25. Tod Winston Avatar
    Tod Winston

    This is a very interesting dialogue. I actually found this page while searching for the phrase, “love your enemies,” because I am struck more and more by the importance of this idea, and of the related “golden rule,” in today’s world. I am equally struck, as has been discussed above, by how little this idea is respected by many who call themselves Christians — most strikingly in the context of responses to terrorism and the Iraq war. (I was happy to find a reference to the Brothers Karamazov above, because I read it last fall and was particularly moved by the book’s depictions of simple Christian love and peacefulness in the face of violence. Those taking that position in the book were described as being mocked by society… and I felt like Dostoevsky could have been writing about the present day! When does any U.S. public figure today dare to speak of pacifism or non-violence?)

    I personally am atheist, though I was raised Quaker. Adam has already voiced much of what occurred to me to post as I read down through the conversation (and I am surprised that he considers his worldview more similar to fundamentalism, as it sounds to me like anything BUT fundamentalism! It sounds flexible and open, and not dogmatic. But obviously I cannot speak for him.) I am distressed by the characterization I see of atheism so often, as one only leading to despair and emptiness, because for me, and for many atheists or secular people I know, it represents nothing of the sort. It is always somewhat astonishing to be confronted with viewpoints so different from one’s own. Where Father Stephen sees decline and despair in secular Western Europe, I see nations that have matured into peaceful, tolerant societies, respectful of diversity and human rights, societies with very high rates of personal satisfaction and happiness and that are models for the rest of the violent world to follow. Where the quote above equates atheists with “demons” hating God, I know myself as a person horrified by the acceptance of violence and abuse of all kinds in the world today, a person who has very strong ethical beliefs in line with the concept of the golden rule — a concept present in some form in most of the world’s religions.

    I believe all people have a naturally evolved capacity to love and feel empathy for their fellow human beings, and that this natural well-spring of good is what is overlooked by those who dismiss atheism as leading to despair (and by some despairing atheist philosophers themselves!). I love my fellow man, feel pain when he feels pain, and feel outrage when he is treated unjustly, because these natural feelings have not been smothered in me, but rather fostered. THAT to me must be the aim of a moral society, whether inspired by a belief in God or by a science-based secular understanding of the world. It is a shame that our difference in religious belief is such an obstacle, because I think that many peaceful, non-dogmatic Christians and secular people really have quite a bit in common, and could together help to spread a much needed message of love and tolerance in this world.

  26. Fatherstephen Avatar


    The weak link in your chain, to use a phrase, is that the notion of evolved empathy and the like could just as easily be turned to evolved brutality,etc., since our modern world has given us brutality on a massive scale. I do not see any evidence of a moral evolution.

    The emptiness that I described in Europe would first be evidenced in a birth rate that is far below the simple rate of replacement, as well as suicides and euthanasia. Europe is compassionate in a governmental, socialist sense – but no more compassionate on a personal level than Americans.

    Orthodox Christianity (Dostoevsky was Russian Orthodox and it permeates his writing) does not see an inherent value in religion. In fact it sees most religion as a disease. Rather it sees understands that union with God can change us and transform us into what we could never be alone.

    But the natural feelings argument, it seems to me, falls apart in the face of reality. Feelings of rage, murder and anger, incest, etc., can be argued as being just as natural – though as a Christian I could argue that they are not “natural” i.e. rooted in human nature. But as an Atheist you cannot really even refer to human nature. Human nature is a religious construct, not a secular one, except where the secularist is still using religious vocabulary.

    Dostoevsky also said, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” This is the growing movement in secularized societies. Everything becomes permitted.

    I do not cite America as a Christian or religious society – we’re mostly a commerical society – but we’re different in significant ways from Europe – ways that are not at all necessarily better.

  27. Tod Winston Avatar
    Tod Winston

    Good morning.

    I appreciate your thoughtful answer. I would agree that many emotions and impulses are a natural part of human interaction — from the most gentle and loving to the most brutal and horrific. Certainly however you would not deny that human societies, and on the small scale, human parents, have the ability to foster some natural impulses and discourage others, or in other words, foster the good in “human nature”? (I would most definitely say that such a nature exists, though to me it is combination of traits and tendencies evolved through natural selection, and is not in any way religious in origin.) The hope for humanity to me lies in our ability to choose, to choose as an educated people to foster a culture that supports a loving, gentle society.

    Is this much different from a religious person’s idea of free will, of the ability to choose to follow God’s plan or not? Certainly many Christians throughout history have chosen to follow the darker aspects of Judeo-Christian thought and human nature, just as some atheists have. I don’t see that your argument applies any less to a Christian than it does to an atheist. We all have the ability to choose either the good or the bad. In your case the good is one laid down by God, while in mine it is a basic impulse of love in human nature that we as a society may come to recognize as our salvation (if you don’t mind my use of a religious term).

    Re Europe, I again see GREAT progress where you seem not to. Europe two thousand years ago was a land peopled by violent, marauding clans, ruled mostly by violence and force. Where there were pockets of what we usually consider civilized societies, such as Greece or Rome, they were certainly not societies that treated all their members with equal respect or justice. Just 600 years ago, Europe was at least forming structured societies, but people were dying in droves from the plague, killing each other over petty differences in religion, most not having the most basic understanding of science or how the world works. Most having the most primitive, racist ideas of their fellow men. How can one look at Europe today and not see incredible progress? Of course no society is perfect, and Europe continues to have some ethnic strife, etc. (though much is brought upon it by fundamentalist (might I say medieval?) religious belief imported from the middle east, it seems to me). But on the whole, these societies are MUCH less violent, intolerant, and humane than they were just half a century ago, even.

    I also think you misread the issue of birth rate entirely. Birth rates in undeveloped countries are high due to desperation, poverty, and lack of education. Here are the six countries with the highest birth rates in the world, in order: Niger, Uganda, Mali, Afghanistan, Chad, Somalia (!). Would you hold these desperately poor, war-torn nations up as examples to us? The people of these nations have so many children because half die before they reach adulthood, because many of their women are illiterate and not educated about birth control. Birth rate slows as a population becomes educated, as quality of living rises, all over the world — and is higher in the U.S., as you state, mostly because we are also one of the developed nations with one of the greatest gaps between rich and poor, and highest influx of poor immigrants! Your argument about low birth rate and despair is somewhat romantically appealing, but does not square with reality. Birth rate is low for the opposite reasons that you state, and is positively related to quality of life. If there are higher rates of suicide or what have you in more secular societies (though as I have stated, I know many of these nations have polled very high rates of happiness and well-being), that is a problem that these societies must solve; it is no argument against atheism.

    Sorry to go on so long. These topics get one all worked up.

  28. Fatherstephen Avatar

    European barbarism was civilized by Christianity. I am not a fan of Roman Catholicism, I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, so I have my criticisms of many of the medieval developments in Western Europe myself.

    But the most educated, most enlightened nation in Europe, at the time, gave us Hitler. They did not evolve away from Hitler. We bombed them away from Hitler. I do not think they have evolved in any particular direction since then. Most civilized societies are only a hair’s breadth removed from Barbarism.

    But as an atheist you cannot explain why love is better than hate, nor give me a definition of the good. It has no basis without reference to God. This is simply secularized Christianity or Theism that you espouse.

    And it may work for a generation or two, but does not have the depth to resist the barbarism when it begins to arise.

    I am no friend of fundamentalism – I think it is largely a modern phenomenon and a result of the breakdown of traditional Christianity in the West. It is not Christianity, per se, but a somewhat diseased form of religion. I don’t defend it.

    Oddly, without the work of Christian monks, all knowledge of ancient civilization would have been lost. We not only civilized Europe, we even preserved the memory of civilized pagan Europe. This is not a book burning fundamentalism, but a healthy Christianity that formed the basis of culture, and among whose ruins, modern man lives out what remains of his civilization.

  29. Tod Winston Avatar
    Tod Winston

    I would say that the most “civilized” aspects of European culture have their roots firmly planted in ancient Greece, pre-Christianity. Hence the renaissance and enlightenment, when the importance of Classical teachings was rediscovered and these philosophies were developed further– teachings that were preserved both by Christian monks and equally importantly by Islamic scholars, reintroduced to Europe through Spain as the Church’s ability to stifle scientific discourse weakened. Improvement in society has come each step of the way through greater separation of the church from secular government — government based on classical, PRE-Christian principles, or principles formulated by relatively secular thinkers of the enlightenment. (The fact that some of these thinkers were Christians does not in any way imply that Christianity was the source of their intellectual development. If anything, it was a hindrance.)

    Re the basis of the concept of “good,” I am continually puzzled by the idea that there is no basis for choosing whether hate or love is better. We all know that we would rather live happily than be tortured and killed! THAT is sufficient basis. It is a matter of human emotional reality and choice, plain and simple. Do you really need a God to tell you that loving your neighbor is better than killing him? All people and all societies, Christian and not, have a sense of justice and fair treatment. This sense of what is good is as simple as our universal human pleasure in being loved and displeasure in being hated and mistreated. Every human being experiences that. It is in no sense arbitrary. I have stated the evolutionary basis I see to this; you have not commented on it but simply stated categorically that there can be no basis but God. This seems like dogmatic thinking to me.

    To me, those of us in secular western democratic societies live not in ruins of grandeur but rather in the first modern societies inspired by some of the most enlightened principles ever utilized in human government, supporting human rights and dignity — principles developed either before Christianity or during the enlightenment in the face of fierce criticism from Christian leaders. Just a few hundred years ago, scientists and philosophers were executed (executed!) for expressing views contrary to orthodox religious dogma, and today we live in a world with a richer culture and knowledge than any time in Human history. You imply a former, greater Christian culture and civilization, in the ruins of which we now live. When has there been a culture as peaceful and gentle as that of the most secular states of present-day northern Europe? Specifically what Christian societies in what time or place do you feel nostalgia for? I cannot think of any historical society I would prefer over one of today’s secular democracies (even with all their problems).

  30. fatherstephen Avatar


    I certainly read history differently than you. The scientists (few) put to death by Western Christians (as I said I’m Eastern Orthodox where this sort of history did not occur), do not measure up even slightly to the millions of Christians martyred by secular governments (Soviets, et al). Science is not inherently benevolent. Ask the Jews under Hitler’s secular scientific protocols.

    The problem with defining the “good” based on some inherent, universal sense is simply not workable philosophically. Read Alistair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice, Which Rationality.

    In terms of human rights, these are not the gift of secularism. The very concept of “person” is a Christian invention, derivative of the theology of the Trinity. There wasn’t even a word for the concept in classical languages (I majored in Latin and Greek). Read Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard, 1989) for an accurate account of the development of the self and the role of religion.

    Your descriptions or references to Christianity are caricatures, sad moments in the history of the West, but not inherently part of religious belief or of Christianity.

    Strangely, it was not science that argued for the freedom of slaves, but Evangelical Christians (such as William Wilberforce). Christianity has also, despite denying the priesthood to women, been by far the most enlightened with regard to women and authority. Secularism itself is a derivative of Protestant Christianity, a mere subset, not the resurrection of ancient classical thought. Not if you’ve read ancient classical thought.

    American Atheists are mostly Protestant, both in their categories and in their imaginary history. And just as Protestants do not know much about history (it’s inherent to modernism to ignore history) so atheists frequently have a sacred history that is primary polemics and not rooted in fact.

    As for the contribution of Islam, their “enlightenment” was largely the borrowing from the learning of the Byzantine, Christian Empire of the East, where there never was a dark ages, and never was a cessation in the study of Aristotle, Plato, etc. Who do you think the Muslims got all those Greek texts from?

    Indeed, the renaissance occurs in Europe at precisely the time of the fall of the Byzantine Empire when Byzantine Christian scholars were scattered from Constantinople and brought classical learning with them to Italy and elsewhere.

    I could go on…

  31. Tod Winston Avatar
    Tod Winston

    Hello Father Stephen,

    I was away for a bit and was not able to respond to your last post. (I’m afraid maybe you were relieved…(!)… since our discussion quickly heated into an exchange of competing facts… not my initial intention at all. (I’m sure you also have better things to do.) Alas, it is hard not to end in argument on these subjects.)

    It seems to me that we both simplify our versions of history in an attempt to defend our own camps, as it were. I am not a historian, though I do draw my ideas from respected sources… who despite your comments I believe do know their history quite well. I would imagine we could agree that modern secular liberal thought has grown from an amalgam of various traditions. You seem to only give credit to the Christian element of this amalgam, while I focus more on the traditions of rationalism and empiricism that had their roots in pre-Christian Classical philosophy, and found their later development in British philosophers such as Locke, Bentham, etc. — thinkers who gave philosophical foundation to modern secular states that placed a value on human rights and freedom. This tradition has of course also led to the rise of science, and a complete revolution in how humans understand the world. I consider this revolution to be fundamental in the creation (still occurring) of a modern, ethical society, so I suppose I focus more on its antecedents, rather than the important role that Christian morality has played in guiding some empiricists on one ethical path rather than another. (The great role of the church in repressing scientific progress of course does not help me to be even-handed!)

    You make reference to the atrocities committed by secular regimes, specifically the Nazis; but of course you know that the Nazi regime used deep Christianity-based anti-semitism to fuel itself, and as well was inspired by anti-rationalist and anti-scientific thought coming from Nietzsche, Fichte, etc. — as opposed to the scientific British tradition. But all this argument over “who has been worse” is really a bit moot. Atheistic governments have committed terrible atrocities. Religious and secular leaders have likewise committed (and continue to commit) countless atrocities in the name of Christ. These atrocities do not implicate your version of Christianity any more than a particular secular government’s brutality implicates a modern, ethical atheism.

    (And just a note, that in referring to the importance of Islam in preserving classical thought, I was referring to Spanish Islamic civilization and philosophers, rather than Byzantine. It’s my understanding that both played important roles — the former in spurring scholasticism, the latter the renaissance. But this disagreement is likewise a bit moot.)

    I return again to my original point in posting; my admiration for the notions of the golden rule and loving those that persecute you. I agree with you that these concepts are crucial. I think they are necessary if we are to create a more peaceful, loving world: a goal which we both share, I’m sure. We differ though in that I believe these ideas to reflect a built-in human capacity for empathy, one that is expressed in similar versions of the golden rule in many world religions, rather than one of divine origin. You reject my ideas for a scientific foundation for ethics out of hand. But mightn’t I just as easily reject your religious foundation? Who is to determine whose religious belief, or even whose reading of your Bible, is the correct one? I see no basis for deciding who is correct whatsoever, if we discount human emotions and feelings as arbitrary. There is no empirical basis of judgment. If you think that a scientifically based sense of morality is on shaky grounds, one based on each person’s subjective sense of what is most valid in the Bible (or any other religious work) seems incredibly more so. How did you yourself decide to abide by the Bible’s more peaceful teachings rather than it’s more violent, vengeful ones? I would assume that for you it is not a rational but rather a religious experience. Just as it is for millions of others who come to startlingly different, and often violent, conclusions. If the only truth comes from God, who is to say whose God is right?

    I would say of course that you are led in your interpretation by your in-born, evolved human capacity for love and empathy — a capacity that must be fostered to its limit in all of us if we are ever to rise above the horror of today’s world. From God or from our genes, I think we can agree on that.

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Atheists look at religion as they look at all other things as a creation of the mind of man. In many cases, they are unfortunately correct. That sort of religion is the disease of which Fr. Stephen speaks. However, at the same time they, for no reason other than ignorance and prejuice, a priori exclude even the possibility of a creative divine being who loves His creation so much that He penetrates it to restore and heal it. Without rational reasons, the atheist rejects the possibility of a direct, real and meaningful experience of a loving creator simply because the atheists imagination is so truncated by arbitrary and untested limits. Atheism is devolved product of the neo-Platonic Scholasticism of western Christianity, not as they hold, the evolved consciousness of rational man. It is actually a logical outcome of Scholastic Christian theology that effectively denied the Incarnation.

  33. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I would say that one thing you lack, as do most in the West, is any knowledge of Eastern Orthodox Christianity or the cultures in which it grew and flourished. It has a decidedly diffeent history from the West – from Roman Catholicism and the Inquisition to Protestantism and its improper use of Scripture.

    We understand God differently, to one degree or another. I believe in Christ as the definitive revelation of God and accept the Orthodox Church as that Church which Christ founded and am obedient to its teachings and the Living Tradition that continues within it. So compassion and the decision to love my enemy, though I certainly have free will in these matters, is also encumbent upon me because they are in fact the teaching of the Church in obedience to the teachings of Christ. I’m not in a situation in which I have an opinion on what Christ taught and what is important. As an Orthodox Christian that is a settled matter. What remains is for that to become a living reality in my life (which is continuing, life-long struggle.

    Modern Atheism, Philosophy and Science are a creation of the secularized Protestant world to a large extent. Many of their assumptions are, in fact, the same as those of secular protestantism. Some of that is because we simply grew up in that tradition.

    Have British philosophers been beneficial to the world around them – probably to a degree, but mostly because they existed in a society that had made much earlier decisions that created the matrix in which they did their thought. I’ve often said that if you were to be colonized by someone, the Brits are the guys you want to colonize you. I’d take them over the Germans any day.

    But again, I think this has to do with certain cultural decisions that long predated modern philosophy.

    I live in what is probably the most science oriented city in America, with the possible exception of Los Alamos (I live in Oak Ridge, TN). Science is not an abstract here, but our livelihood. We have plenty of scientists who are believers. Some who are not – though I suspect the believers outnumber the others. Science is not the realm of atheism it’s the realm of science.

    Religion is not science’s enemies, and did not find itself opposed by the Orthodox Church. Again, we’re not Rome or the Protestants. Very different tradition.

    On the other hand, if you or I are genetically predisposed to belief in God, it would seem rather strange for us to be so predisposed and there not be a God. I can think of almost nothing else for which are predisposed that does not exist.

    Nonetheless that is not where my faith lies, but rather in the living participation I have in the life of God through Christ. What can I say? I know Him and He knows me. He calls me to be His own and I have said yes. He is my life.

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Atheists look at religion as they look at all other artificial things–a creation of the mind of man. In many cases, they are unfortunately correct. That sort of religion is the disease of which Fr. Stephen speaks. However, at the same time they, for no reason other than ignorance and prejudice, a priori exclude even the possibility of a creative divine being who loves His creation so much that He penetrates it to restore and heal it and raise it up from glory to glory. Without rational reasons, the atheist rejects the possibility of a direct, real and meaningful experience of a loving creator simply because the atheist’s imagination is so truncated by arbitrary and untested limits. Atheism is the devolved product of the neo-Platonic Scholasticism of western Christianity, not as they hold, the evolved consciousness of rational man. They are fundamentaly dogmatic in their refusal to even consider and test the claims of traditional Christianity. It is actually a logical outcome of the Scholastic Christian theology that effectively denied the Incarnation and therefore all power to save.

    That being said, I find the atheism expressed on the posts here to be far more attractive than any form of western Christianity. Fr. Stehpen is correct though when he says that many atheists are not rejecting God, but the false God with which they have been presented. Unfortunately, they fall into the dicotomous trap of neo-Platonic dualism by assuming that it is either that false God or no God. They rightly reject one falsity only to replace it with another which ironically gives more meaning to the falsehood they reject than the one they embrace.

    They refuse to consider for a moment that there might be a real God somewhere, like at the heart of their own being, calling to them to open their hearts and let Him in. They do not undertake the third metamorphsis of the spirit commanded by Zarathustra as Nietzche had him speak: to become as a little child and utter the scared yes of creation. The very same words that the Holy Theotokos spoke when she said in utter humility: “Let it be done unto me according to your word.”

  35. fatherstephen Avatar


    I’m having trouble getting my notes to post tonight. I’ll put something up tomorrow. In a nutshell – good to hear from you again. We are working out of very different understandings – my account of history includes the Eastern Church which is a completely different experience than you have known or mention when you speak of Christianity’s treatment of science, etc. That’s like blaming England for something done in Thailand. It’s beside the point.

    But I believe what I beleive, not because I read the Bible and thought this was the best approach (non violent, etc.) but because as an Orthodox Christian I have received the teaching of Christ which has continued in our midst since the beginning. I don’t think it – it is my life.

    So there are some apples and oranges in our conversation. But all the more reason to converse.

  36. Coroebus Avatar

    An aside inspired by this posted by Father Stephen above:

    “I believe in Christ as the definitive revelation of God and accept the Orthodox Church as that Church which Christ founded and am obedient to its teachings and the Living Tradition that continues within it. So compassion and the decision to love my enemy, though I certainly have free will in these matters, is also incumbent upon me because they are in fact the teaching of the Church in obedience to the teachings of Christ. I’m not in a situation in which I have an opinion on what Christ taught and what is important. As an Orthodox Christian that is a settled matter. What remains is for that to become a living reality in my life…”

    Is it the paradox of the cross, or is what the atheist, together unfortunately with very many Christians, experiences as a crushing constriction of mind and spirit, we Orthodox feel to be profoundly liberating? Again,

    ‘I…am obedient to the teachings of Christ.’

    ‘I’m not in a situation in which I have an opinion….” and,

    “that is a settled matter….”

    If only those of you outside the Church could know the grace that comes from the stance that issues from these strange-sounding forbearances.

  37. Jonas Avatar

    As a Swede stumbling across this website, I just felt obligated to point out one fact concerning the suicide rate in Sweden. Studies show that the high Swedish suicide rates are actually a myth, and compared to other European countries Sweden rank at about 15th place. The source of the myth is apparently a speech given by US president Dwight D Eisenhower who was criticizing the Swedish welfare state.

  38. Elijah Benjamin Avatar

    On the Dostoevsky comment:
    It occurred to me that St. Paul took a popular ethical statement of his time, “Everything is permissible,” and rather than denying it, added its necessary conclusion, “but not everything is beneficial.” To me, this passage epitomizes the ethics of the New Testament. Jesus spent the greater part of his ministry criticizing the strictness of the Pharisees, demonstrating how the most divine life is lived in love for all, without discrimination. Father Stephen has pointed this out in a profound manner and I am challenged by the idea that “true belief in God can only be measured by the love we have for our enemy.” Just as this Christian belief in God is not an intellectual exercise, but a dynamic devotion to love and compassion, so is Christian law not a system of rules to be followed for fear of condemnation, but a set of guidelines to spur us on toward love and good works, holding those in the Church responsible for our collective struggle toward salvation.

    Please correct me if I am mistaken here, but it seems that Christ and the Apostle Paul would be in agreement with many atheists in saying that morality is a human creation. “Everything is permissible,” in the sense that, even as beings with the power of choice, you and I cannot do anything to alter the work of God, or the laws of nature. I think the statement also implies something about a metaphysical idea of “right and wrong” – but I won’t get into that. “But not everything is beneficial,” and we experience the truth of this statement whenever we grieve over injustice, or feel a strong sense of remorse for hurting someone, or regret being irresponsible. I know several atheists and agnostics who do not rely on any knowledge of God to perceive this reality.

    What atheism lacks, however, is an ultimate motivation for adhering to morality. The “common good” is the usual reason; humankind has created ethical systems to preserve the species in peace and order, so we follow these rules because we feel the responsibility to our fellow man. Or maybe we live a moral life because we know that, while it is challenging, it is ultimately fulfilling. In this case, “Do unto others as you would have them do,” is a universal rule, not particular to any worldview. Still, none of these motivations for morality nullify the fact that we are beings of choice. I personally find that the most wonderful thing about being human is that, while I know right from wrong, while I understand the value of being peaceful and practical and responsible and loving, I still have the power to go against my convictions. I can do what is wrong and pleasurable; I can do what is difficult but noble; I can do whatever I choose to do out of spite or disregard for the law, and it will not change the fact that I am going to die, that the planet will eventually spin out of control and be incinerated by Sol.

    Belief in an afterlife does provide the motivation for good behavior; however, as someone pointed out already, the practical value of a belief does not make it true. I wholly agree with this statement, although I would add that the fruits of a life well lived can be compelling evidence of the precepts by which that life is lived. I came across a great quote by St. Ignatius of Antioch last night: “Whenever Christianity is hated by the world, what counts is not power of persuasion, but greatness.” It may be an exercise in futility to argue for the existence of God in rational terms. One thing I learned as a philosophy major is that reason can make two sides of an argument equally persuasive. I even learned how to prove with symbolic logic that “A is not A.” But I know what I have been shown through mystical experience, through meditation and quieting of the mind; and these are things that are most difficult to express in words. So, instead of attempting to persuade people based on my experience, my focus as a Christian is to live that life of “greatness,” which consists of loving my enemies, praying for those who persecute me, laying down my life for my friends (and enemies), helping the poor, visiting the sick… and yes, even occasionally speaking up when I think that someone’s version of morality, be it atheist or religious, is having a negative effect on those around him.

  39. James Green Avatar

    I would be interested in the Orthodox Christianity feedback in regards to this article:

  40. fatherstephen Avatar


    I looked it over and it seemed very fair and balanced (to coin a phrase). The largest missing element, for me as an Orthodox priest, is that most of the Christian arguments are from a Protestant, and Enlightenment position, rather than from the much older thought of Eastern Christianity, particularly in the sense that it sees God in a way the Eastern Church would probably not be entirely comfortable with. But that becomes a lengthy subject in itself.

  41. James Green Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I wrote about 95% of the above cited atheism article. As you can tell I am a Protestant. I am starting a campaign among Protestant Christians to stepup up the public refutation of atheism. My atheism article cited above is ranked #7 by Google and it likely will rise higher. the article is part of the campaign I am starting.

    Since Orthodox Christianity suffered greatly under atheistic communism, I would like to have the Orthodox Community be a part of the anti-atheism campaign. Also, there are many Orthodox Christians. Perhaps you could provide me useful feedback in relation to the above article. Also, perhaps you could help me gain the contributions of Orthodox Christians to the anti-atheism campaign.

    I decided to start this campaign partly due to the the New Atheism that has reared its head as of late.

    Please let me know if you are interested in any of the above. You can contact me at email hidden; JavaScript is required

  42. James Green Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I will also add that I believe I will gain access to venues where you will likely be heard by many people should you wish to become involved. I can discuss the details with you privately. There are some notable Christian ministries which have expressed interest in this campaign I am starting.

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