Atheism and Religion: a swinging pendulum?

Atheism has gained increasing and widespread acceptance since the French Revolution a couple of hundred years ago. There are a lot of things right about atheism’s ‘correction.’ Atheism is a reasonable reaction against the excesses of the church.

Interestingly, atheism wasn’t the answer to preventing the needless bloodshed perpetuated by institutionalised religion. In its first few years the French Revolution was just as bloody as the Church to which it was reacting.

Why was atheism not able to provide a completely satisfying answer to the ills of religion?

Reality Simplified in Three Word Slogans

Human nature has a habit of taking an issue and simplifying it down to slogans that address only one end of the tension. Australia’s former PM, Tony Abbott, has a penchant for such “three word slogans” such as:

  • “Stop the boats”
  • “Axe the [carbon] tax”
  • “Islam needs reformation”

There are virtuous principles, good values, and undoubted truth behind elements of each of those slogans. But they clearly ignore a whole different set of principles, values and truths that quickly neutralise any enduring appeal or significance of such three word slogans.

Could it be the same with atheism and religion? Does “There are no gods worth having” eventually ring hollow?

History Repeats in Swings and Roundabouts

Election cycles quickly take care of political over-reach. Political leaders’ own parties can even intervene earlier – just ask Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, and Julia Gillard. Political leadership changes tend to provide correction back and forth from one extreme to the other with only an occasional centrist refreshment.

Could it be that we have done the same in the area of religion and atheism?

Throughout history there have been many pendulum swings, over a variety of issues:

  • Democratically elected governments go between emphasis on a welfare state and free-market economic rationalism.
  • Germany’s territorial expansion associated with both world wars, with a period of overly harsh treaty provisions in between.
  • The Bible documents Israel’s inglorious history, going between abject apostasy and over-zealous Pharisaism.
  • The Christian church, going between syncretistic pluralism and fundamentalist persecution of heresy.
  • The renaissance and scientific advancement, going between belief in a Creator of natural order and the positive atheism of the New Atheists.

The above examples demonstrate that some pendulum swings can be fast; some exceedingly slow. A single pendulum isn’t always going to swing back to the exact same spot it came from last time. The cliché is true: history does tend to repeat itself, but the pattern can be irregular.

Atheism’s Future Correction: Back to Religious Fundamentalism?

What will be the popular opposing pendulum swing to atheism, when patience for its failures eventually runs out? I don’t think it’s likely to be a widespread return to narrow-minded dogmatic expression of religious fundamentalism. There may be the odd recruit to ISIS for whom fundamentalism is an appealing correction. But for society at large, we’ve come from there too recently to want that again.

Something that would both oppose atheism and have popular appeal would be a supernatural experiential phenomenon. An observable manifestation of a spiritual dimension would, by logical necessity, neutralise the appeal of a materialistic atheist worldview. It would also be likely to interest or even satisfy someone searching for more out of the vicissitudes of life regardless of their faith orientation.

In fact, it is prophesied in the Bible (see 2 Thes 2:9). True Christianity will soon be threatened not so much by disbelief in the existence of God, but by faith in manifestations from the spirit world that are fundamentally evil.

The world has lost its spiritual discernment, in part because it has largely chosen an atheistic worldview. Without spiritual discernment, any widespread appearance of spiritual phenomena will, of logical necessity, be embraced as enlightenment compared to atheism.

Another Overdue Correction

Not all pendulum swings are resolved by coming to rest in the middle position.

The one pendulum swing that we need above all others – without a settling into the middle – is a switch from widespread selfishness (Matt 24:12) to pervasive selfless love (Jn 13:35). The selfishness of our society is evident in such catchphrases as “if it feel’s good, do it.” It is a natural and unfortunate outcome of a Darwinian worldview where survival is for the fittest.

The world has seen one great display of self-sacrificing love, when Jesus Christ came to earth (Rom 5:8). That display sparked a revolution that spread internationally through the early Christian church. But institutionalised religion soon obscured any glimpses of God’s true character into one that looked like a coercive tyrant.

I believe we will see a widespread return (Rev 18:1-4) of this selfless Christian revival (2 Cor 5:18-21) in the near future (Matt 24:14).

Two Corrections Coming in Parallel

Thus there will be two pendulum swings away from atheism. One will be true (Rev 14:6-12), the other will be false (Matt 24:24-25).

The false one will swing from atheism to experience-based spiritual phenomena (2 Cor 11:14-15). The true one will swing from selfishness to self-sacrificing love (Jn 13:35).

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