It’s been reportedthat the Student Union of South Bank University has banned a poster put up by the South Bank Atheist Society, for being ‘religiously offensive’. The poster reproduced the ‘Creation of Adam’ from the Sistine Chapel, but with Michelangelo’s grey-bearded God replaced with a ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’. The aim, presumably, was to imply that the Christian God is as invented and ridiculous as the Flying Spaghetti Monster; the reason for it being banned was, presumably, to avoid causing offence to Christians.
The poster sums up pretty well, I think, the basic argument of New Atheism. God is a human invention: so to worship God is as ridiculous as worshipping the flying spaghetti monster, who is a human invention too. Therefore, let’s abandon religion for the mumbo-jumbo it is and be sensible atheists instead.
Should Christians be bothered by this poster? Should Christians be threatened by this argument? No, and no. Here’s why.
1. The conviction that atheists have that they have landed a punch when they say that religion is worshipping a man-made God is laughable to anyone who is at all familiar with the Bible. It’s laughable because they think that this is a new thing to say. But they did not come up with this insight; it is one which the Bible itself constantly uses, indeed it is the Bible’s central diagnosis, of the basic human condition. It is called idolatry. That is what Isaiah means by his withering satire of Isaiah 44:9-20. A man takes a log, burns half of it on the fire, then carves the other half into a statue and falls down before it and worships it. That is what Paul means by his speech to the Greek philosophers in Acts 17:22-31: you are worshipping Gods whom you made to live in temples you designed for them, when in fact the real God made you to live in places he designed for you. So the Atheist accusation would be just as well put as ‘People worship idols! How ridiculous!’ Forgive us, but we knew that. Christians, and Israel before them, have been saying that for pushing 4000 years. From the first man and woman onwards human beings have hated the idea of worshipping the God who really made them; how much better (we think) to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. But since right and wrong (by definition) must be more than just personal opinion, the only way to do that is to invent a God who fits my preferred version of morality, and worship that. So much more convenient. So much less threatening to my personal independence. But so incredibly stupid.
2. The central Christian claim, as Paul and Isaiah argued, is that the God who made us and our world has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ and calls us to stop worshipping our man-made Gods and worship him instead. This absolute contrast between the absurdity of man-made gods and the infinite majesty of the true God runs right through the Bible. It’s easy to tell the difference: from what these gods are like and how we found that out. Gods we have made are always less than us; the God who made us is infinitely greater. Idols originated with human invention; but no-one would or could have invented the Holy Trinity. We worship the Father, Son and Holy Spirit because God has taken the initiative to make himself known to us in his Son. Christians know that religion is a human invention, flying spaghetti monsters and all; that’s why we abandoned such things wholesale when we heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. It won’t do to lump the Holy Trinity alongside Allah, Krishna and the Flying Spaghetti Monster as similarly ridiculous inventions, unless you engage with the specific Christian claim that there is an absolute contrast between them. We made the latter three; the first made us. Treating them as instances of the same thing us just begging the question.
3. That is the reason behind the second of the ten commandments: ‘You shall not make for yourselves a carved image… you shall not bow down and worship them’. Notice, this is not simply a ban on worshipping gods other than the one true God. It is also a ban on attempting to make an image of that one true God. And that is for a very important reason: an image is man-made and simply cannot capture the unimaginable infinity and glory of the God who made us and everything else. An image, no matter how beautiful, reduces God to less than us; and so an image actually means we’re no longer dealing with the real God at all. To try to draw God is to abandon him and replace him with an idol again. This is why we shouldn’t be offended about this picture; or at least not as offended as we should be at the original. The flying spaghetti monster poster may be rather less artistically accomplished than Michelangelo’s God, but it is not an attempt to depict the one who infinitely outweighs the ability of the human mind to fathom. I’m happy to post the South Bank university’s version here; I would not post the original.
4. But here is the extraordinary thing. This poster is a spectacular own goal for New Atheism.
You see, the Bible is perfectly familiar with atheism as an aspiration. But it never shows us a successful atheist. Atheists always become idolaters. If you want to decide for yourself what’s good and evil, you will have to invent a god to hang your ideas of good and evil on. And because you’re not God yourself, you can’t help worshipping something, so you will end up worshipping that god even though you know perfectly well you invented it.
Which is exactly what the New Atheism does. How ridiculous to believe in invented gods like flying spaghetti monsters! Instead we should grow up and work this out for ourselves! Decide for ourselves what is right and wrong! But you have to have a god to hang right and wrong on, if they’re not just to be personal opinions. So humanism has invented gods too. they are usually called Freedom, Equality and Human Rights. They are not ‘real’ things. They are pure invention, based upon nothing other than our decision to believe in them (of course all three have historical origins in Christianity – something atheists try to ignore – but I’m talking about the way these things function in the New Atheism). Despite the atheist insistence that we only believe things on evidence, they believe in these three things with no evidence whatsoever. What kind of evidence could there be for the proposition that we must be free to behave however we like, provided we do not hurt anybody in the immediate vicinity? Or that humans have ‘rights’ which no-one may deny? Or that we must all be treated equally and have equal functions in society? They are the merest invention; indeed, it is central to the atheist position that they are. We work out for ourselves what is right and wrong! But having invented these things, they then constantly assume, and genuinely believe, that they have an absolute authority over human beings to which every human being in the world must submit. To fail to do so is morally wrong, you see. Well, if that is not the definition of a deity, then I don’t know what is.
The Flying Spaghetti Monster is therefore a spectacular own goal for the atheists. Yes, it is absolutely absurd to invent a god, and then believe it to be a god, and worship it. And yes, it is morally outrageous to insist that others who do not believe in your invented god should submit to the moral rules you have decided that your god will lay down. Both of which show why New Atheism, with its invented deities of Freedom, Equality and Human Rights is both absolutely absurd and morally outrageous. Replace the Flying Spaghetti Monster with those deities and you have a pretty good picture of what New Atheism ask – no, demands – that we all believe.
There is only one alternative to worshipping invented gods; and that is to worship the true one. The God who made us, who is eternal and infinite in his majesty, glory, goodness and power, utterly beyond us to conceive, yet has made himself known to us in his Son.