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Atheism’s second thoughts

Nonbelievers have realized they must reckon with original sin

In a satirical epilogue to The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis imagines his venerable old demon rising to propose a toast after the annual Tempters’ Training College dinner. While commending his hosts, Screwtape can’t refrain from genteel complaints about the disappointing dinner—that is, the poor quality of the sinners it comprised. That Municipal Authority with Graft Sauce was barely palatable, much less the lukewarm Casserole of Adulterers. It wasn’t the fault of the kitchen staff, for it could only do so much with what it had. But goodness me, what’s become of the brazen sinners and brawny atheists of yesteryear?

If Lewis had been around in the first decade of this century, he might have had Screwtape hopefully appraising the “four horsemen” of take-no-prisoners atheism. But where are they now? Christopher Hitchens has passed into eternity, Daniel Dennett into obscurity, Sam Harris is still waiting to see his dream of a rational society emerge, and Richard Dawkins is thinking that dream may be DOA. 

Dawkins has been, in many ways, the scourge of what he understands as traditional Christianity. Only a few years ago he was agreeing with Dennett that it might be wise to separate children from their fundamentalist parents. But lately he seems to be doubting whether the eradication of Christianity would be an unvarnished good. His latest book, Outgrowing God, makes a confession that should be obvious: “Whether irrational or not, it does, unfortunately, seem plausible that, if somebody sincerely believes God is watching his every move, he might be more likely to be good.” 

That is not something Dawkins likes to admit: “I hate that idea. I want to believe that humans are better than that.” But he may be running smack into the notion of original sin, which Chesterton described as the most verifiable fact of human history. Other well-known atheist/agnostics, such as Douglas Murray and Jordan Peterson, are even less sanguine about the basic goodness of humanity. Talk-show host Bill Maher, who thinks Christianity is “ridiculous,” nevertheless believes that it wouldn’t be wise to ditch it right away, as a relatively benign faith might be the best defense against an explicitly violent one, meaning radical Islam.

The British comedy team Mitchell and Webb produced a popular skit featuring two SS officers retreating from Russia during World War II. One of them has just noticed that the most prominent feature of their insignia is a skull. It makes him wonder, “Are we the baddies?” 

Some atheists like to see themselves as heroes in the story of mankind’s relentless march toward freedom in the bright dawn of unbelief. Psychologist Steven Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now, makes that very point. The world is richer, life spans are longer, and wars are shorter because, sometime in the mid-18th century, mankind began building an intellectual framework that excluded God. (The 20th century must have been an unfortunate glitch.) And because humans are fundamentally decent, things can only get better from here. 

Yes, about that, Dawkins and others seem to be wondering: What if we humans are the baddies?

Or, if only a few of us are really bad, how will the rest of us gin up the moral certainty and courage to stop them? Pinker celebrates better quality of life through technology, but in China a totalitarian government has begun to use technology to bring the behavior and thoughts of an entire population under its control. Technological carrots and sticks are cleaner than bloody massacres, and more effective besides—who’s to say that’s wrong?

Screwtape concluded his toast by looking on the bright side: Yes, half-baked sin is barely palatable, but thank Our Father Below, unrepentant sinners abound these days. Their atheism owes nothing to intellectual rigor; it’s more a default setting that removes all barriers. To their credit, serious atheists are beginning to question whether that’s desirable. But they should have questioned earlier.