“If there were no God, there would be no atheists,” said G. K. Chesterton. My own period of doubt came not because the idea of God or miracles seemed wrong, but because God himself wronged me. That’s how I saw it, at least. Though atheists may argue that the existence of a supreme being is impossible, their arguments often reveal a belief that God just doesn’t behave as they think he should. In a debate, Christopher Hitchens complained about war and killing in the Old Testament. He said he wrote his book God Is Not Great in response to the murders in Muslim countries that followed the publishing of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. None of these are arguments against God’s existence, but rather arguments against how God and especially his followers act.
Timothy Larsen, professor of history at Wheaton College and author of “Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in the Nineteenth-Century England”, says he has come to see doubt as a way in which we take our faith seriously: “If you haven’t doubted, you haven’t re-owned your faith.” Many Victorian atheists, Larsen discovered, converted back to Christianity. “Some actually are really trying to answer questions. That’s why they sound so angry,” he says. “They’re in a struggle for their own soul.”
The world, as Camus found it, is absurd. Humans yearn for meaning, yet life offers none. God is absent. But Camus argued against the nihilism of his fellow Europeans who found life meaningless and therefore flocked to totalitarian, fascist, or communist philosophies. “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it,”
Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, his argument against suicide. “But I know that I do not know that meaning.” Rather than take a leap of faith, Camus sought to “know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone.”
He illustrated his philosophy of creating meaning in the face of meaninglessness in the novel The Plague. When the city of Oran is struck by disease, officials quarantine the city. The main character, the physician Rieux, chooses to stay, throwing himself into caring for the sick. This is how one creates meaning amid the meaninglessness of the sudden outbreak of plague. And life is no different, Camus believed. We are to work against wrongs and injustice, with humility, trying to aid others in small ways.
It is no lofty idealism. Rieux describes how he first came to his philosophy in his campaign against the death penalty. In order to outlaw capital punishment, he realized, his party was on occasion forced to murder. Shocked by an execution, Rieux rejects his activism. He realized that “I, anyhow, had had plague through all those long years in which, paradoxically enough, I’d believed… I was fighting it.” Not only that: “I have realized that we all have plague.”
It was this scene that struck me most forcefully. Camus was right, I knew, and I, too, had plague. I was sick and in need of a Physician. Camus’ willingness to accept the truth that human beings are fallen allowed me to do the same. Camus held a mirror to my face —in a way that no pastor, preacher, or professor had—and I knew I needed salvation.
Atheists may have an arsenal of arguments against God or religion. But at heart, rejection of God seems not to be a purely logical choice against the possibility or desirability of God. Rather, it is often a rejection of God’s people.