Billy Graham on Atheism

Atheism is often misunderstood by the religious—which is not surprising given how foreign disbelief is to the theistic outlook. A recent but typical example comes from longtime evangelist (and “spiritual advisor” to several U. S. Presidents) Billy Graham, Jr.

Many atheists, I find, reject God for one reason: They want to run their own lives.

It’s an interesting perspective. Graham seems to think Christians (some percentage, at least) yearn to run their own lives, and that this desire to be free can lead them to embrace atheism. Perhaps Graham experiences a bit of this himself. Perhaps wistfully, on occasion, he has wished he wasn’t bound by the dictates of his religion. Perhaps he’s had the sudden thought, if I was an atheist I could do anything I wanted.

Running your own life, making choices, it certainly is appealing. Maybe Graham’s right that Christians sometimes peevishly desire to chuck God for the freedom of atheism. But, for the vast majority of us who are atheists, he’s got it all wrong. We reject God because—surprise!—we do not believe God exists. It’s as simple as that.

Atheism is a conclusion about God’s existence.

If you desire to “run your own life,” you don’t need anything as drastic as atheism. Rejecting God is like traveling a thousand miles further than necessary. There are plenty of religious, God-believing alternatives that can get you out from under the thumb of the know-it-all churches whose leaders like to dictate how their followers should live. If what you want is freedom from the pretenders who claim to speak for God, you’ve got a smorgasbord of options. There’s Unitarianism, Paganism, Wicca, and New Age religions galore. You can stay away from organized religion altogether and become a Deist. Or just stop going to church. Atheism is not required.

Of course, atheists do notice the propensity of religious leaders to constantly claim they speak for God. We notice, and we criticize. We’re pretty sure God doesn’t exist, so we don’t have a high opinion of the God-know-it-alls. Nevertheless, it does not require atheism to see their vanity. Easy enough to break free without ditching God.

If Graham and other religious leaders hope to stem the tide of modern atheism, their best bet is to figure out why there are so many atheists today. Here’s a hint: the real reason has something to do with becoming unconvinced that God exists. Atheists are people who have looked at the world around us, and discovered that it makes more sense if there isn’t a God than if there is.

Unfortunately for theism, it doesn’t help that Graham and myriads of other religious leaders keep throwing dirt on God by insisting that the Bible, or Koran, or Torah, or Book of Mormon is His handiwork. Seriously flawed holy writ doesn’t fit with a perfect Creator, which is why quite a few religious enthusiasts have suddenly discovered, half-way through Seminary, that their religion just isn’t adding up.

Still, you don’t have to chuck out God when you chuck out your religion of birth. There are plenty of alternatives far less drastic than atheism. So why the ongoing exodus to godlessness? The answer, I say, is that a lot of us have noticed that a natural, scientific worldview can be a consistent, intellectually satisfying alternative to supernaturalism. It just works, without all the drama, perplexity, and contradiction that comes with believing in God.

The Basic Questions of Life

Billy Graham has other misconceptions about atheism, it would seem. In the same piece, he writes,

For one thing, atheism has no satisfying answer to the basic questions of life — questions like “Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? How do I know what’s right and wrong? What happens when I die?” Atheism says we are here by chance, and life has no meaning or destiny. Taken to its conclusion, atheism ends in despair.

To those of us who are atheists, this sounds very familiar—religious people like to make such pronouncements. Meaningless life? Despair? Why would anyone ever want to adopt an outlook that can only lead to despair? Graham hopes, of course, that once the atheist comes face-to-face with the cliffs of despair, she’ll come running back to God pronto.

And I’m sure this has happened—for someone somewhere. But the atheists I’ve met don’t seem to know where these cliffs of despair can be found. When they hear or read pronouncements like Graham’s, they usually react in one of two ways. Either they get upset at what feels like slander or misrepresentation—or they laugh.

Laughter is the better reaction, I’d say. Religious leaders like Graham don’t intend to slander—it’s just that they honestly don’t understand atheism.

Maybe I can clarify things for their benefit. It’s pretty simple. Religions and worldviews do (or at least ought to) address the who, how, what, why questions Graham presents. But that is outside the purview of atheism proper.

Atheism, as stated previously, is a conclusion about God’s existence. It’s not a religion or a worldview. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m a firm believer that everyone ought to have a well-thought out worldview, if not a well-thought out religion, and this holds for atheists as well. Most atheists, I believe, do have a worldview—though not necessarily the same one.

We draw our answers to Graham’s questions not from our atheism, but from our worldview. Why? Because it requires a worldview in order to have the kind of framework necessary. As I stated earlier, I think most new atheists today adopt atheism because they have discovered that a natural, scientific worldview simply works. It makes better sense of the world than does supernaturalism, and satisfies emotionally as well as intellectually. Science, it turns out, provides an engrossing, wonderful front-seat view of life.

When I answer Graham’s questions…

Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? How do I know what’s right and wrong? What happens when I die?

I get my answers from my natural worldview, based on my understanding of current scientific knowledge. Who am I? A biological being, an individual organism who experiences wonderful sensations created by my very physical body as I move within the physical world. Where did I come from? Other species of organisms who have evolved over billions of years within Earth’s biosphere. How do I know what’s right and wrong? I know, because as my species evolved it acquired a suitable, self-beneficial moral nature. What happens when I die? I will cease to exist as an individual organism (although my body will persist until folded back into the biosphere by the activity of microorganisms).

Billy Graham may not like my answers. But they are honest and, for that reason, satisfying. When I became an atheist, I acquiesced to the reality that I am a biological being who will someday die, and that every aspect of my consciousness will cease to exist. Graham, who characterizes atheists as wanting things their way, seems to be the one who is incapable of acquiescing to the powers that be. Those powers are biological and physical, and they dictate that life is fragile, vulnerable, temporary, and that we die forever.

Graham, and the millions who follow him, can’t accept that. They demand eternity. They invent God, and they fantasize that God will provide a heaven to their liking. Thanks to their supreme selfishness, they are willing to sell out life on Earth. They’ll even sell out the biosphere, so long as they smell the sweet promise of eternal life.

Not me.

I prefer reality to fantasy. And so, I gather, do most atheists. It’s not selfishness which animates us, but honest acquiescence to the reality of being.

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13 Responses to Billy Graham on Atheism

  1. Redheaded Heretic says:

    Dwight, this is lovely. The funny thing is, a few years ago, if someone had accused me of “wanting to run my own life,” I would have vehemently denied it. I wanted God to run my life! After all, I knew where my own sinful nature would lead me: straight to Hell! Even stranger, perhaps, is that even after I realized that belief in God made no logical sense and abandoned the belief, I was still had no desire to run my own life! I wanted to do what was “right” and I had no idea how to figure that out. Far from rebelling against God in favor of self-determination, I found self-determination to be an uncomfortable consequence of determining that the world made more sense without God than with God.

    I’m sure Graham would have an embolism (Medicine Forbid!) if he were forced to consider that atheists can’t rebel against God any more than we can rebel against the Tooth Fairy.

  2. John Bates says:

    Good post. Still, it seems to me that Graham is something of a staw man. Atheists (I’m agnostic) are extremely fond of butting heads with authoritarian fundamentalists and bible thumpers. All the atheist “spokespeople” do this – Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc. Yes, fundies are everywhere but the Jerry Falwells and Billy Grahams of the world are just a little too dim-witted, too easy a target. They couldn’t make an appealing argument for God if their life depended on it – the reason being their “arguments” always redound to some form of authoritarian nonsense. Just because the Xian God (and religion generally) is a fake doesn’t prove in the slightest that the MEANING behind the word God doesn’t have some validity. First we have to dispense with the anthropomorphic idea of “God” (the “target” of nearly all atheists). Easy enough but we still have profound mystery that in olden times people referred to by the term “God”.

    Science now tells us — whoops — you thought you knew about the material world but actually 95% is completely invisible and unmeasurable (dark matter and energy). Quantum physics tells us “matter” is complete illusion, there is nothing solid there, merely spread out probabilities. It tells us there is a strange relationship between the observer and the observed. It tells us there are (many?) other dimensions and maybe other worlds. And time itself is a giant mystery: can it flow backwards, is it subjective? What about the deep interdependence of all life?

    If these things don’t undermine hard materialism and naturalism then what does? And death in an interconnected world? Do materialists understand it? I really, really doubt it. The “certainty” atheists claim to have about these things is completely unfounded — de-throning Jehovah or Pat Robertson does not mean these mysteries are resolved in the slightest.

    For my money, an openness to this great and every increasing mystery we call life means there is far more that I don’t understand about matter, the mind, and the arrow of time than I do understand. Historically, religions gave poetic language to these mysteries via the term “God”. Science has NOT decoded any of these puzzles – it has deepened them and made old-timey notions like “enternity” even more of an enigma.
    For these reasons, and others, atheists are often accusd by believers of having “faith”. If by “faith” one means “claiming more than one can prove” then I think they have a point.

  3. AGRO BUAH says:

    The workmanship is good to be listened to.
    can make at home look at some of your posts
    thank you …

  4. Believing Christian says:

    I haven’t invented God, He revealed Himself to me.
    I am proud to have a supernaturalist worldview which, apart from my Faith, I find more consonant with reason and experience than pure naturalism/materialism.
    The fact is Jesus was truthfully recorded as resurrected. We will be resurrected too. Crying about laws of physics won’t work when our Maker can choose to suspend them at any time. People need to accept Him for who He is- God and man in union- before they do anything else.
    Furthermore, if I ever came to believe that this life was all, I would end it by suicide. There is NO point living a single life as an evolved animal in an indifferent universe that came into being for no reason. If no God and no afterlife, then no meaningfulness, no morality, no truth and no earthly life (for me.)

  5. John Bates says:

    You would commit suicide if there was no God? Well, I would do the same IF (big if) God was the way many evangelicals say he is. If God created hell and Satan and decides to torture billions of people in hell for trillions of years then “God” would be complete and total evil – far worse than Hitler, worse than Pol Pot.
    Yet many worship this (invented) idea of God and say he is “loving”. Wrong! This is not love, this is what it appears to be – it is sheer evil to torture people, period. If “God” makes the rules he is responsible for what happens.
    Thankfully this idea of eternal torture is a lie. People hear religious leaders say this or that or think they read it in the bible and their brain shuts down. Face up to it: a torturing, infinitely vicious God is not worth the dirt on my shoe.
    Some will try to defend their condemnation of others (in complete contradiction of Jesus’ words against pointing at others). But consider: is life worth living if 90% of the people you know are soon to be waterboarded with fire forever? Is this idea of God ethical?
    You read it in the bible? Sorry, you didn’t. You read there was a hell, you read nothing about it lasting forever, nor did you read all non-christians are going there.
    How many verses are there in the bible that say that Christ reconciles “all men” to God? Doesn’t the book say that all who love are “born of God”?

  6. Dwayne says:

    Why do you not believe in God? He is real. What’s the purpose of your life after this then? If it’s true that there will be nothing to expect after death, then why live? What’s the sake of all the hardships of this earth? I believe that there is a God that I will meet in the afterlife. If heaven and hell doesn’t exist then what’s the point of living everyday? I could go do crimes and stuff if there will be no judgement after I die. So reconsider!

  7. Lord Griggs says:

    I ‘v e not seen any mention of his book, but Joseph Barnhardt wrote ” The Billy Graham Religion.”

  8. Dwight says:

    I realize it’s been over a year, but I want to respond to Dwayne’s statement. He wrote, “I believe that there is a God that I will meet in the afterlife. If heaven and hell doesn’t exist then what’s the point of living everyday? I could go do crimes and stuff if there will be no judgement after I die. So reconsider!”

    Dwayne, if ceasing to believe in God would lead you to a life of crime or harming others, then please do not become an atheist. You are not good enough for atheism.

    Atheism is for people who are inherently good, who have a healthy sense of right and wrong and do not need guidance in order to be good. Others should not apply.

  9. fED says:

    Wow! One learns as much from these wonderful and enlightening articles as from the dangerously stupid comments believers leave in them.

    So, according to Dwayne, if there is no after life one could go about committing crimes and “stuff” since there would be no consequence. I see the lessons of Christian morality has done wonders for him.

    Another brilliant mind proposes suicide to the idea of a lack of an afterlife. What a wonderful concept for our existence in this beautiful life. One can just feel the “love”. A love so common in all those wonderful believers waiting anxiously for the rapture where most of all people will be wiped out from existence only for them (the chosen few) to relish with their “just” God.

    It´s at this point that I can´t seem to agree with myself what drives me to atheism : the disbelief in God`s existence or the barbaric ignorance of most fundamentalists.

    Wonderful article Dwight. I find relief knowing there are still many people using their brains for something more than superstitious nonsense and apocalyptic coercion.

    Best wishes from Argentina.

  10. if there is a God! Then i would belive through which i work. if there is no God.there is a way to use God in our time.

  11. Peter says:

    If there were a God, he could not possibly leave so many prayers from little kids unanswered. When I was a child, I prayed and believed. After some time I was told, that only things that are in accordance with God’s will be answered. It seemed, that my prayers were seldom in accordance with God’s will. Nobody never told me, that I should ask from my parents only things that they were willing to provide – I still could tell which requests have a chance to be fulfilled. However, while effect of my requests aimed to my parents was obvious, the effect of my prayers to God was never indicating that there was an entity listening, evaluating and occasionally fulfilling. If it was only faith, that was required, I could move mountains exactly as Jesus had promised. Later I learned, that the things happening in our wold have more obvious reasons, than the God.My faith was over once I decided to read the book from cover to cover. At about the same time I learned about christian literalism. I also learned about creationism, evils of evolution, learned that about 50% of Americans are fundamentalists. I learned that it was actually good for little kids from towns conquered by Jews to be killed, as they went directly to Heaven instead of going later to Hell. … I feel free now as never before. I left God behind and I enjoy and appreciate life. Important part is, that I know, that worlld without Thor, Jahveh, Allah, Perun, Zeus is our world. Even if I liked the idea of whichever God, I prefer the Truth. Actually, if I ended up for eternity in Heaven, I would be missing joy and satisfaction from feats accomplished. I would be missing even occasional headache, a morning smoke, adrenalin from driving, doing sports. Listening to hymns would be for me extremely boring. Thanks for mortality. No to Eternity. I am a very happy atheist :-). Each my day makes me happy, no matter whether it was frustrating or satisfaying. It was MY day, one of perhaps 80*365 that I will ever have.

  12. Smitty0200 says:

    Quite a debate. The most startling are the accusations against God himself, or the notion of this God if he were to exist. We cannot know the unknowable or pretend to know. There is good, there is evil, and there is free will. Because of free will, evil exists. Let us not blame God.

    I would raise questions about science. For example, C.S. Lewis commented, while he was still an atheist: how can higher life forms, especially humans with advanced brains capable of decision, purpose, planning, and moral choices be developed by a mindless, purposeless, chance process called natural selection? It is indeed strange that evolutionists have built evolutionary theory on the homologous structures of different species that may or may not point to a common ancestor. On faith they have rather arbitrarily decided that structure does indeed point to some early ancestor. When questioned by a scientist about their understanding of the mechanism of natural selection on the molecular level that could possibly cause a transference of species, scientists have admitted that they do not understand it, but accept it anyway. This is a circular argument based on their faith in something unknowable.

    On another view of evolution versus the rest of science, the mechanism for natural selection, if it exists, contradicts the second law of thermodynamics, or entropy, which says that without an outside agent (a Sustainer, if you will), everything winds down into disorder. This can hardly be said about the order of higher life forms or even the universe itself. If entropy is true, which it appears to be, how did higher life forms evolve? Restating Lewis’s words, how could this have happened by accident?

    Switching to another idea, the idea that we evolved to make moral decisions: Bertrand Russell, the great intellect and atheist, expressed confusion about what is truly moral, and said that he based morality on feelings, freely admitting his confusion on this issue. I shudder to think about those I love who have committed unreservedly to atheism. It is a commitment with eternal consequences. The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”

  13. Nicholas Fulford says:

    And then there are odd ducks like me – an Agnostic Mystic. What the hell is that I hear some of you thinking? It is someone who knows that they cannot know, but feels a sense of awe and beauty that subjectively borders on ecstasy. I am necessary because I exist, and I am contingent on the entire history of the universe going back to T= 0.

    I love life in all the wondrous forms in which it is expressed. I can wax poetic, dance, and be enthralled by what unfolds, and yet I do not anthropomorphize God. I understand the root of religious belief lies in the states with which I am all to familiar. The thing is, these states do not need to be bound in a theological frame. They can be experienced independently from that frame and experienced in that way there is no reliance on the truth value of mythic beliefs as facts. Being independent of a theological frame I can experience my life without having to shoehorn my life to it, and in that there is freedom.

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