On Why Slate Gets Atheism Wrong

Slate today asks a provocative question — Which is worse for evangelicals like Rick Perry — being an atheist or a Muslim?

Writer Brian Palmer answers “atheism.” And while I agree with his answer, I disagree with his reasoning.

Writes Palmer: “The ancient and medieval Christians wouldn’t have had much to say about pure atheism, which is an 18th-century concept. Their closest analog would have been Epicureanism — the belief that worldly pleasure matters above all. In Christian-themed literature, at least, Epicureans were held in special contempt.”

Even if Palmer is correct, which I doubt as there’s little in common between atheism (a non-belief in deities) and epicureanism (an elevation of human pleasure as the highest moral principle), he misses the bigger picture. There’s a far more basic, a much simpler reason why an evangelical Christian would be more accepting of a Muslim than an atheist.

Atheists, contrary to Palmer, are not hedonists. Nor are atheists nihilists (believers in nothing). Atheists lack a god. That’s it and that’s all.

Muslims worship the same Abrahamic god that Jews and Christians worship.

Atheists think that the Abrahamic god is bunk.

A Muslim is in the same spiritual neighborhood as a Christian. An atheist isn’t even on the same continent.

To a Christian, a Muslim is mistaken in a lot of the theological differences, but at the end of the day they accept the same deity at the center of their spiritual life. An atheist, however, represents a complete and total rejection of that spiritual core. It’s not a mistaken theological difference like a Muslim or, even further out, a Buddhist or Hindu. For an evangelical Christian like Rick Perry, an atheist is something worse — an atheist is an outright denial of something absolutely fundamental to a Christian’s identity. An atheist is simply wrong in ways that godly non-Christians are not.

I agree with Palmer — an evangelical Christian would be more accepting of a Muslim than an atheist. I simply disagree with Palmer’s reasoning; not only does Palmer’s reasoning not make sense (and is beside the point, to boot), but he misses the critical reason why a Christian would be bothered by an atheist.

Of course, now I’m bound to go home and reread Sam Kieth’s Epicurus the Sage. Brilliant, brilliant stuff. :)

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