The God Shaped Vacuum
They met on Sunday morning. The theme was “wonder.” They bowed their heads for two minutes, contemplating the “miracle of life.” The speaker related his spiritual journey that started with his mother’s death.
An ordinary Church service? Perhaps a shallow one. However, this describes an atheist congregation in North London. So writes Brian Wheeler in a February 4th BBC News Magazine article entitled What Happens at an Atheist Church?
This seems unlikely. After all former atheist Christopher Hitchens (I say former atheist because since his death he’s radically revised his theological opinions) wrote a book entitled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Well apparently, this North London group has drunk the hemlock. Sure, they deny they are a church. No argument here. The word “church” comes from the Greek word kuriake meaning “belonging to the Lord,” so clearly they are not a church. And yes, the article states they replaced hymns on the given Sunday with songs by Stevie Wonder and Queen, and Bible readings with readings from Alice in Wonderland. However, church or not, the religious dimension of the assembly is unmistakable. What else could be such a meeting but religious expression? Gathering on Sunday morning in a de-consecrated church, where prayer, hymn singing, and sermons are replaced by secular counterparts: only the most credulous or stubborn would refuse to acknowledge the parallels between it and the Christianity atheism rejects.
One attendee denied a “religious aspect” to the gathering, saying it was a “congregation of unreligious people.” Another was closer to the truth: “It will become an organised (sic) religion. It’s inevitable. A belief system will set in.”
But atheism all ready has a belief system, including naturalism (miracles are impossible), and materialism (non-material things like God, angels, souls or spirits do not exist). How then can atheists have “spiritual journeys” when there is no spirit capable of journeying? If one is merely a product of a materialistic universe, from whence arise abstract (i.e. non-material) things like wonder? Furthermore, if miracles can’t happen, why use religious terms like the “miracle” of life?
In Acts 17:22, the Apostle Paul observed that the Athenians were “very religious.” Blaise Pascal said in every man there is a God shaped vacuum only He could fill. The atheist assembly validates these observations. Clearly they’re looking for transcendence, purpose and meaning. Perhaps these atheists need to consider: when one thirsts for something his worldview denies, it’s time to question the worldview.
As Christian author Nancy Pearcey suggests in her book Saving Leonardo (following in the train of her mentor Francis Schaeffer), we must “live in the real world.” If we embrace a naturalistic materialistic atheism that scoffs at the existence of God, we turn men into machines in a vast impersonal universe, deny human freedom, undercut purpose and meaning, and make objective morality impossible. In short we devalue man by reducing him to nothing but a piece of thinking meat until he returns to the oblivion from which he came.
However, the human spirit denies all this. In the real world, we demand significance, purpose, truth, morals and human dignity, and operate as though these things are true. We can’t help but think this way, because we are made in God’s image and by nature think as He does, though in a finite capacity. Not even the most committed atheist will take his materialistic worldview to its logical conclusion on a consistent basis. If he did so life would be unlivable. Even if he does see others as expendable, he will see his own life worth living, or in some way live in a manner inconsistent with his atheistic assumptions.
This is the reason Christianity is so satisfying. It corresponds to the real world, meeting the existential needs of real people. Unlike the bankrupt materialism of the atheistic worldview, Jesus Christ gives purpose and meaning. Through His death and resurrection, He offers forgiveness, abundant life, community and restoration to a lost and fractured world. He is the well from which true meaning and purpose is drawn. It is here the atheist finds – as all men will if they drink – life, peace and joy. As William Cowper wrote: I thirst, but not as once I did, The vain delights of earth to share; Thy wounds, Emmanuel, all forbid that I should seek my pleasures there….Dear fountain of delight unknown! No longer sink below the brim; but overflow, and pour me down a living and life-giving stream!