Atheism and Freedom


Bill Muehlenberg’s commentary on issues of the day…

John-Paul Sartre the famous French atheist and novelist wrote a lot about freedom. As an existentialist philosopher, he celebrated raw atheismfreedom, and the ability to choose, regardless of what is chosen. Indeed, he once wrote that we are “condemned to be free”.

My intention is not to write about Sartre here, but about a 21-year-old girl. And even with her, she simply serves as a foil to my larger concerns about the issue of atheism and freedom. And the only reason this young woman is being highlighted here is because another person asked me for my thoughts on her.

I will not spend much time on the gal – I know nothing about her except for her confessional piece about her rejection of her Christian upbringing and her embrace of atheism. The article makes it all rather sensational: “The Atheist Daughter of a Notable Christian Apologist Shares Her Story”.

Well, to be honest, I am not sure if I ever heard of this noted apologist. And her story is not particularly notable either. My first response was: “So what?” Kids rejecting the faith of their fathers is nothing new. And just as many kids could likely be found rejecting their parent’s atheism and embracing Christianity. Happens all the time.

So let me briefly speak to Rachel Slick and her story, and then move on to the bigger picture. She grew up in a strong Christian family, but eventually turned on that upbringing. She rounds off her story with these words of defiance:

“Eventually I worked up the courage to announce my choice on Facebook — which generated its own share of controversy. I’m fairly certain I broke my mother’s heart. Many people accused me of simply going through a rebellious stage and that I would come around soon. Countless people prayed for me. I don’t know how my dad reacted to my deconversion; I haven’t spoken to him since I left home.

“There was no miracle to cure me of the fear and pain, no God to turn to for comfort. But it did heal. Eventually. I only barely fear Hell now, and my instinct to pray only turns up on rare occasions. For a while now, I’ve been educating myself in science, a world far more uncertain than the one I left, but also far more honest.

“Someone once asked me if I would trade in my childhood for another, if I had the chance, and my answer was no, not for anything. My reason is that, without that childhood, I wouldn’t understand what freedom truly is — freedom from a life centered around obedience and submission, freedom to think anything, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from the perpetual heavy obligation to keep every thought pure. Nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life has been so breathtakingly beautiful. Freedom is my God now, and I love this one a thousand times more than I ever loved the last one.”

Hey, she is 21. She may think she has fully figured out life, the universe, God and all the rest, but she actually has a bit of a way to go to comprehend everything, and be in a position to rule out with certainty the existence of God. But I would agree with one thing here – there is no question she is primarily acting in rebellion.

She is rebelling against her Christian upbringing. Again, I know nothing about her family, and we only have her account to go on here. But it seems clear from what she has written that she is now rebelling against her upbringing. And that means she must also rebel against God as well.

She is young, and hopefully if she is genuinely seeking, she may learn more about life, reality and truth. If she is indeed on a search she may one day return to a God she now too cavalierly and without proper warrant rejects.

And notice what she especially relishes, what her new god is: freedom. As she says, “freedom from a life centered around obedience and submission, freedom to think anything, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from the perpetual heavy obligation to keep every thought pure.”

In other words, she is relishing the fact that she has cast off all restraints, rejected all boundaries, spat upon all restrictions, and embraced radical freedom. The sad truth is however, she is living a life of illusion. There is no such thing as perfect freedom.

Indeed, to seek to cast of all yokes and contemptuously reject all limitations simply puts one in new and even far worse bondage. We in fact live in a moral universe which has built-in limitations. Seeking to pretend those boundaries do not exist does not mean they are not there.

And a life full of such rejection of absolutes (for that is what she is in fact rejecting here) means she will not be able to proper enjoy life at all. No one can enjoy a game of chess in a rule-free world. It is exactly because there are rules, boundaries, and restrictions that a game like chess is so enjoyable.

Cast off the boundaries and you no longer have chess. That is true for all of life. We are designed to live in a world full of boundaries and restrictions, and our real freedom comes in acknowledging and fitting in with those restrictions. Rejecting them does not mean freedom – it means greater bondage.

Biblically speaking there was only one person who thought he was completely free: the prodigal son. Yet all his freedom in the end meant was that he had the whole pigsty to himself. You are welcome to it bud – that does not sound like real life to me.

God has designed us to flourish, to be truly free, and to be fully alive, when we are in relationship with him. To reject our creatureliness means we are rejecting everything that is for our own good. We are rejecting our king, and thus relegating ourselves to a life of poverty, distress and despair.

Indeed, life becomes nothing more than gross absurdity – the very thing the atheist existentialists kept speaking about and writing about. Life becomes a mega-prison, an horrific bondage. No wonder Sartre entitled another one of his novels, No Exit.

C. S. Lewis was one long-time atheist who slowly but finally woke up to these realities. As he put it in put it Mere Christianity, “What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’—could set up on their own as if they had created themselves…invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

The desire to be happy and to be free apart from God is simply a pipedream. It is an illusion and a fantasy. It simply cannot happen that way. Lewis again: “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing”

The freedom of atheism is nothing but the prison of a man who thinks he is somehow the centre of the universe. But he can never be, so his longings and movements to this end must forever be frustrated. It is the story of Sisyphus all over again.

No wonder fellow atheist and existentialist Albert Camus could pen a novel with the title, The Myth of Sisyphus. Seeking real freedom, purpose and joy apart from God means to try to push the boulder up the mountain over and over and over again.

This is simply man in rebellion against God. Instead of finding a way out of the dilemma of human existence, the atheist simply digs himself ever further into the pit. The futility of Sisyphus is the futility of the atheist. Lewis again nails it: “A creature revolting against a creator is revolting against the source of his own powers–including even his power to revolt…It is like the scent of a flower trying to destroy the flower.”

We are all rebels in revolt against God. Some are more blatant in their admission of this than others. Whether the elderly Sartre shaking his fist at God, or the young 21-year-old relishing her new-found but illusory freedom, every one of us must come back down to earth – or up to heaven really – and face our maker.

Fallen and rebellious mankind does not need mere reformation. He does not need self-improvement. As Lewis says, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” Our choice is to submit to God, and find real freedom, or seek to be free to God, and find real bondage.

There are no other options available to us. God will still be God, regardless of our choices. And he will still be glorified, despite our rebellion. Says Lewis: “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”

So we can pray for young Rachael. She thinks she is so free now. She is instead living in utter darkness and utter bondage. But when you are blind, you often do not know you are blind. When you are in bondage, you often do not know you are in bondage.

Pray that the scales from her eyes will fall away, and that she will see the truth that right now all she has is the entire pigsty all to herself.

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