Hearing outspoken unbelievers proclaim that meaning and morality aren’t accidents is about as jarring as hearing David Attenborough proclaim that the world’s most amazing creatures are accidents. There is an inability of atheists to let go of the transcendent.
In his book, “Miracles,” C.S. Lewis wrote about the passionate moral activism of a famous atheist of his day, H.G. Wells. Moments after men like Wells admit that good and evil are illusions, Lewis said, “you will find them exhorting us to work for posterity, to educate, to revolutionise, liquidate, live and die for the good of the human race.”
But how do unbelievers, “naturalists” as Lewis calls them, account for such ideas? Certainly, nature is no help. If thoughts of meaning and morality find their origin in arrangements of atoms in our brains, then they can no more be called “true,” Lewis observed, than can “a vomit or a yawn.”
Lewis concludes that when Wells and other unbelievers say we “ought to make a better world,” they have simply forgotten about their atheism. “That is their glory,” he concludes. “Holding a philosophy which excludes humanity, they yet remain human. At the sight of injustice, they throw all their Naturalism to the winds and speak like men and like men of genius. They know far better than they think they know.”
I’d love to ask the people behind masterpieces like “Planet Earth,” or the unbelievers profiled in The Guardian, about this contradiction. Years ago, I had a similar conversation with a woman I was seated beside on an airplane. She had very strong moral opinions about all kinds of things, but scoffed at me, “How can you believe in God!” I gently asked her why she believed in right and wrong. It was a fun conversation, and it made me realize that it is possible to affirm the human gut-level intuition about beauty and wonder and morality, while questioning where all of those things come from.
And if you haven’t read Lewis’ masterful book “Miracles,” add it to the list. If it’s been a while, it’s worth revisiting. Fair warning: unbelievers should beware. As Lewis himself said, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”