In his recent book Atheist Overreach, Dr. Christian Smith argues that public atheist spokespersons often overreach their position regarding what atheism can actually explain about morality and science. Sean and Scott ask him probing questions about the nature of the secular-religious dialogue and why he thinks atheists sometimes overreach their position. As one of the leading Christian sociologists today, Dr. Smith's insights are both helpful and timely.

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More About Our Guest

Portrait of Christian Smith

Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame. He worked at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill from 1994-2006 where he served as Associate Chair of the Department of Sociology from 2000 to 2005. He is the author of many books including Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Emerging Adults, and Atheist Overreach.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. 

Scott Rae: And I'm your cohost, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. 

Sean McDowell: Today, we're here with a guest, and I am thrilled is joining us. I've been following his writings on a range of issues for a number of years. Dr. Christian Smith has written in just a range of different issues, from social theory, culture, capitalism. One of my favorite books he wrote on the intersection of kind of youth, younger, millennials, known as Soul Searching

But today, we're going to talk about a very interesting book that he recently wrote with Oxford University Press called Atheist Overreach. Now, before we jump into the particulars of this, thank you for coming on the show, Dr. Smith. 

Christian Smith: Yeah, thank you for having me on. 

Sean McDowell: I'm really curious, what motivated you as a sociologist to write a book addressing the nature of the dialogue between secularism and religion in America today?

Christian Smith: Yeah, good question. I mean, I am a sociologist, first and foremost, but I'm also very interested in philosophical questions, and I've done a lot of theological thinking, and I read in history and political science so I'm pretty interdisciplinary. And in sociology, I primarily study religion. I'm a sociologist of religion, and there's been obviously the new atheist movement has been a huge, a force in the world. In the United States, we sociologists have noted that there's a significant growth of non-religious Americans, Americans who say they're of no religion. 

So, I have just been interested in thinking about, okay, if the United States, if the whole world became more and more secular, what would be the cultural consequences in a lot of fields, but especially in morality I'm interested in, sociology of morality a lot? What would be the consequences over a generation, or two generations or further of religion becoming smaller and smaller in its influence? So, I've just started reading a lot of atheist's books about morality, and I came away from many of them — not all of them — feeling like they had sort of played their hand of cards too aggressively and really couldn't defend some of the claims that they were making. 

Sean McDowell: So, is that essentially what you mean by atheist overreach, which is the title of the book?

Christian Smith: Yeah, the idea of overreach is — at least the authors I engage, I'm not saying every last atheist, I'm not saying every writer, every scientist, I'm very clear that this is about some atheists, and I specify the ones I'm talking about. But yeah, that the ones I'm talking about, they claim too much, in my opinion. They overreach in their claim. They try to argue that they're able to deliver more than I think they can. The title of the book is What Atheism Can't Deliver. 

So, I'm not saying atheism, atheists can't be moral at all, or that they, atheism and science aren't compatible. I'm just saying hey, on a bunch of key points — morality, science, human nature — some significant atheists are just claiming too much, that they really can't rationally defend, in my view. 

Scott Rae: So, Dr. Smith, let's be a little more specific on that. When it comes to the claims that atheism is making about morality, give us a couple of examples of this atheist overreach that you're describing, particularly when it comes to the area of universal human rights, moral goodness. What is atheism claiming, and what do you think that they can end up responsibly claiming?

Christian Smith: Right. So, I have two chapters in the book on morality. A number of atheists today are not just saying hey, there's no God. They're saying hey, we can have an amazing world without God. We can be good without God, and not just sort of decent individuals but we should all be responsible for a universalistic ethic of benevolence to all human beings, and respecting the right of all human beings, assuming that we have rights, so that we should, without any reference to God, just us on this little planet, we should be able to construct out of our own minds a moral system where we care about everybody on the planet — strangers, even enemies on the other side of the planet, people who are victims of disasters in the other side of the world, and even people who are difficult, who are unproductive, who are drains on society. We should be able to redistribute resources in order to make sure everybody is well taken care of, and every individual should have a moral obligation to care for the welfare of all other human beings in the human race, in every country. 

A lot of atheists, or some of the atheists that I'm talking about, hey, we should be able to believe this morally. And I just do not see the basis for those kind of strong, moral claims. I do believe that atheists have rational reason to be committed to what I call a more modest morality, a more careful or moderate morality, in which everybody takes care of themself. Everybody cares for the people around them that they love, and everybody, in a purely godless universe, would be very careful to be honest, to be kind, to be good to all the people around them who might affect their life. 

But there's a huge gap between that kind of modest morality and a universalistic commitment to human benevolence and human rights for all humans on the planet. And not just in theory but proactively seeking the good of other people. Sending resources to help them, etc., etc.

Scott Rae: You often hear the reference made to Dostoevsky made by religious people that if there is no God, all is permitted when it comes to morality. You wouldn't say that's necessarily true, it sounds like?

Christian Smith: Yeah, for a long time, I entertained the possibility that that was correct, and that Friedrich Nietzsche is correct, that if there's no God, then it's all wide open, anything is possible. But I think I'm not persuaded by that in the end. I think it's possible that atheists can make a coherent argument for the kind of modest morality I just elaborated. 

Now, if an individual atheist wanted to throw morality out the window, I think they could actually make the coherent argument for that. But I think the majority of people would say, no, we're not going to go there. That we can't have a good society where that's going to infringe upon the happiness in my life. 

But no, the difference is, that wouldn't be God is going to judge that person, or karma is going to catch up to that person and give them their just deserts. It's that society will rein those people in, sanction them, punish them, and so on. Society, in an atheist's universe, God is replaced by society. Society becomes the lawgiver, the watcher-over and the punisher. 

Scott Rae: It sounds a bit to me like the modest morality that you think atheism could plausibly argue for is essentially, what I would call, a glorified ethical egoism. 

Christian Smith: Yeah, the way I would put it in a little bit more nicer language is it's enlightened self-interest. It's egoism. It's ultimately, it's driven by egoism but it's not a harsh, selfish, short-sighted egoism. It's an enlightened egoism that says, "Look, if I want to live in a certain kind of world, if I want people to treat me in a certain way, then we should all be committed to a certain way of behavior." 

But in the end, it's in order for my good and my family's good and my tribe's good. Not because there's a principle, universal, natural law, or command from God. 

Scott Rae: So, it would be any essentially moral demand that would relate to others, would have instrumental value as a means to an end, to my own self-interest. But not intrinsic value in and of itself. 

Christian Smith: Yeah. It's essentially consequentialism. And a number of these atheists will say, "We can learn from science what the consequences will be if we behave in a, b or c way." And, then, we learn from science, and we apply that in our rational sort of deliberations and figure out the kind of moral system we want to promote, it's our invention that is based on the consequences. 

Sean McDowell: One of the issues that you raise for the atheist moralism, at least of those atheists that you interact with, is a question of why someone should be good when it is in their self-interest not to; when a violation has a nice payoff and there's little chance of being caught. So, in other words, why care about the collective good when it conflicts with individual interest? Why is this such a problem, you think, for atheistic morality, and why do you spend time on this in the book?

Christian Smith: Yeah, this is a long-term philosophical problem. It goes all the way back to Socrates. David Hume engaged the question, and in my view, didn't give much of an answer to it. But I think this is one of the weaknesses of a universalistic atheist ethic, which is I can see no reason why, in an atheist universe, even an enlightened self-interest person, who is shrewd ... what I call it, the shrewd opportunist. David Hume called this person the sensible knave. But I see no reason why such a person shouldn't basically take this position.

Well, I want everyone else to act morally. I would almost always act morally, but when situations come along where it benefits me to violate the moral standard, and I'm quite confident or sure I can get away with it, I will because what's the cost? Why not? It makes sense to do that. 

Those people who will be psychologically disturbed, they'll be upset by it. It may not be worth it for them to do it — but if people realize there's no God, I'm not going to get caught, this is not going to have any bad consequences for me — they shouldn't be psychologically disturbed; they should be happy that they've gotten in a situation that will benefit them. 

So, then the question is, if you get a society full of really shrewd people, or thoughtful, intelligent people, that put all the pieces together, if everybody starts acting that way, then you have a society where everybody is cutting corners and taking advantage and only acting based on their reputation, not on an actual moral character. They can act differently when they can get away with it. 

I mean, in some ways, I think that's actually the kind of society we have. But let's set that point aside. My philosophical point here, or the basic reasoned point is, there's nothing in atheism that I can see that would prevent that from happening. And if that happens, the more people do that, the more the whole system breaks down. And the other perverse thing about that is, what atheism has is, even though atheism generally takes the position of we are the most honest, we are the most rational, we're the most straightforward. We just live up to the facts kind of people. 

In that kind of a system, you're actually better for society's functioning to not let people know there is no God. They're actually better to let the masses think there is a God or there is karma, or there is evil spirits, or whatever the system would be that would keep them from acting like the shrewd opportunist. 

So, then atheism is in a position where it's better to not really tell the truth, even though its posture in general is it wants to tell the whole world that no God exists. 

Sean McDowell: That is a really interesting observation because we're often told, at least I often hear when I hear some atheists expound on this, is that they are being more moral because they're not acting how a God will judge them, but just doing good within itself. But you're saying, wait a minute, if we want to actually have a system that works, we actually in some ways have to mislead the public to get people to act morally. Is that right?

Christian Smith: That's the logic of my argument. And the kind of person you recommended, I would push very hard on what the heck do they mean by good in itself? Where does good come from? How do they know that that's good? In my book, I talk about the reasonable skeptic. Not a crazy person, but somebody who says, "Well, why is that good? Why should I be committed to that?"

So, I think a lot of people have a cultural inheritance from millennia of moral teachings, all the way back from Greek philosophers and Roman philosophers, and Judaism and Christianity that has told us, as a civilization, what is good. And they just accept that. Then, they think they can drop the metaphysical commitments behind it and still keep the moral values. I just don't think they're thinking very hard. 

Scott Rae: Yeah, I think we would suggest that culture has been living on borrowed capital like that for some time. 

Christian Smith: Yeah. Spending now the moral bank account, so to speak. 

Scott Rae: You wonder when the loan officer is going to call the loan on that. 

Christian Smith: Integral to my argument in the book is the idea that it's possible to sustain a decent society, a decent civilization based on historical inheritance for some time. But eventually, children or grandchildren or some movement is going to say, "Why do we do this? This is crazy. What's the basis for these commitments?" Especially when morality is costly. It requires people to sacrifice, and especially when things get tough in a society — if you have an economic, a serious economic downturn, or a serious political or military conflict. People can afford to be pretty nice when the economy is going great and politics are stable and they can go shopping and all their needs are met. 

Human beings can turn very nasty when things get bad. So, I think I might use different metaphors but there definitely, there is a sort of living on a past inheritance that I don't count will be infinitely sustainable. 

Scott Rae: Now, you make ... you just referred to it a minute ago, and you make the point in the book that secularists are often pretty scornful of the idea of a watchful, a punishing God, that enforces moral order from a transcendent perspective. But, we also point out that secularists substitute their own version of either the state or society, or some collective that's necessary to secure a sense of moral order in the culture at large. What exactly do you mean by these substitutes, and why is this so important?

Christian Smith: Yeah. It's interesting culturally because I think a lot of people who may have been raised religious and then, if they decide they're not religious or that they don't believe in God, they feel a sense of liberation. Like, there's nothing hanging over my head anymore. I mean, the God they were raised to believe in probably isn't a true God to begin with, but set that aside; there's a sense of like, I'm free now! I'm free. 

Well the fact of the matter is, and even all of these atheists I talk about recognize this: nobody is free. I mean, human beings are not the kind of creatures that are just going to do exactly what they ought to do without any constraints, without any formation, without any consequences. 

So, all of the atheists that I talk about are very clear, well of course society will have to monitor people. Of course society will have to have laws. Of course society will have to punish those who break the moral order. So, all the functions that God used to serve, so to speak, are taken over by "society," except probably you don't have the love that traditionally Christian or Jewish, or Muslim God would have also had for humanity. 

So, it's the overseeing lawgiver, punisher, minus the love is what you end up with. 

Sean McDowell: That's a really interesting and helpful way to put it. Very, very helpful –

Christian Smith: Minus the grace. 

Sean McDowell: Minus the grace, that's right. That's exactly what's lacking. I want to read a question that you ... I want to read a question from the book, a specific way you phrase it, and see if you comment on this. You wrote, if in fact we live in the naturalistic cosmos, that atheists and much of science tells us we occupy, do we have good reason for believing in universal benevolence and human rights as moral facts and imperatives? Why is that question so important, and why is that problematic for an atheistic version of morality?

Christian Smith: Well, I mean in the modern world we live in, for whatever reasons, and I think they could be spelled out, but we have institutional commitments to universal human rights, to the idea of protecting the weak and to being benevolent to strangers. If there's a tsunami in Indonesia, in the United States, lots of people respond by wanting to send help. It may be ineffective, but at least there's a sense of responsibility for people who are suffering elsewhere. 

The United Nations has a universal declaration of human rights. We have the idea that if everyone in the society thinks that you're guilty of something, you're still innocent until you're proven guilty. We still have this idea that if you're disabled, society should spend extra resources to make you have access to things, to public spaces. 

So, all of these commitments to taking care of the vulnerable, the weak, the less, the disabled, the suffering, etc., if you start to look at society sociologically through that lens you see we have these commitments. They're not just in people's brains. They're an institution. How long are they going to last? And do we want to live in a kind of world where those things are done away with? 

Where the idea of human rights, that developed over a very long period of time, disappears. The idea that taking care of the suffering, institutionally ... again, I think there will always be people who feel for other people's pain. The question is, do we have a cultural institutional infrastructure that says yeah, this is what we're committed to, this is what we're going to do. 

I think, in the long run, is very likely, we end up with a world and a society that is different than the one atheists think they're bringing into being. So, I'm simply saying in the book, "Hey, you guys, and women, I don't see this. I don't get this. If you could explain it, I would love to … " I actually would love for them to be right. It would make me feel more relaxed living in the world if they could explain how we could have that kind of society. But I'm not seeing it. I'm not reading it. I read a lot of wishful thinking. A lot of good intentions, but not a lot of self-criticism, not a lot of really hard pushing their own arguments to their conclusions. 

Sean McDowell: From a religious standpoint, it makes sense that people would try to make the case for objective moral values and duties because we believe God exists, made us in his image, and humans have value. Why do you think there's so much effort on the side of the secularist to say, "Hey, we can be good. We can have moral values. We can have a society that's morally good without God"?

Christian Smith: Well, that's a great question. And I think there are different kind of answers. But, I mean, obviously atheism is a movement. It's not just a hypothetical position somebody might take. It's people who are activists, they don't ... they want to promote what they have to say. That means you have to have an appeal to your audience, and I just don't think there's much appeal if the atheist's message is, "Hey, no God exists, everybody. And it doesn't mean the world is going to totally go to hell. But you definitely need to lower your expectations. This idea of human rights, probably we can't defend it. This idea of universal benevolence, like all this nice stuff in society, we can't deliver that."

That's not a very appealing sell. It's much better if you can say, "We can deliver for you all the good that you've inherited from the Western civilization, and you can delete the God part and still have everything else." That's a much more appealing message to sell. So, I'm not saying that's the only part of this. And I'm not saying atheists are cynical about it. I'm not saying, "Hey, we need to lie to people to get them on board." I mean, the ones that I'm reading, they really believe this stuff. 

My point is not that they're cynical. My point is that I don't think their arguments — some of their arguments — hold water. 

Scott Rae: To move beyond some of the considerations about morality, you also address in the book how atheist overreach on the question of human beings being naturally religious. How specifically do they overreach in your view? And, as a sociologist, what does the data show that would speak to the question of human beings being naturally religious?

Christian Smith: Right, so there's a strong theme in a number of religions, including Christianity, that Augustine would have said, "Everybody is searching for God. Some people do it in the right way. And some people do it in totally misdirected way." But even, a lot of sin, is searching for God the wrong way. 

These days people use phrases like, "A God-say poll, and whatever." But the point is, a lot of religious people think humans are inescapably religious. That's how God created them. Atheists would like to say ... the general attitude about atheism is no, human beings are naturally not religious; human beings are naturally, by default, secular, and religion is kind of an alien imposition upon human beings, has kind of been foisted on people through ignorance and superstition, and interested people like priests and such. 

So, it matters a lot in thinking about the future and the kind of society we can have, or should expect, if human beings are naturally religious, or if they're naturally not religious. If the atheists are right, then just need to sort of strip away the religious influences, and then people will return to their natural state of being secular. 

What I argue in the book is that if you look at the sociological evidence about the way human beings are now, and have always been as far as we know, humans are not naturally religious in the sense that everybody will be religious. Obviously, that doesn't make any sense. There are plenty of societies that are basically secular, that are not that religious, they're fairly functional. Some of them are very functional if you take Denmark or whatever. 

But what I am arguing is that nowhere in the world or in history do you find a culture or society or civilization that doesn't have religion. There are always people ... religions are always springing up. If old ones die off, there are always new ones springing up. There seems to be something in human nature that has very strong capacities for, and propensities toward, believing in some kind of superhuman power, whether personal or impersonal, to turn to for help, maybe salvation, but maybe just very practical help during life, and even societies that have tried to extinguish that, they've had public policies to extinguish all religions, like Soviet Russia, have failed. 

So, I'm not saying that every person is sort of an anonymous Christian, or just under-the-surface religious. But I am saying there's something very profoundly oriented toward being religious in human nature that's not going to go away that easily. And that that points to the idea that being religious is more baked into human nature than the atheist position, which is humans are naturally secular by default if we would just get rid of the religious shysters that are imposing it on people. Then, people would just revert to secularism naturally.

Sean McDowell: That's a really helpful pushback, and I know you've talked about this secularization thesis in some of your other writings, but that there just seems to be something about human nature that inclines us towards these religious questions. I think that's great. 

Let me ask you a final question to get your thoughts on it. Are you encouraged or discouraged, or some combination of both, about where the secular/religious conversation and debate is headed right now?

Christian Smith: I'm generally discouraged, and it's not just the secularism/religious debate. It's almost all public discourse in the course of the last decades. I think most people see this. In the course of the last decades, sort of, an old-style reasoned debate has kind of gone out the window. And we really just have way too much contentious, bombastic opponents or enemies discrediting ... if you don't like somebody's policies, then you figure out something in their personal life where you can torpedo them. 

I mean, the state of our public discourse in general is in a really ... I think, actually, a dangerous place, and I'm afraid that the religious/secular, you know the religion and science, the religious/secular piece of that reflects that larger attitude. 

When I, as a sociologist, when I read science, for example, if a book comes out on intelligent design — and I'm not an intelligent design advocate or anything like that — but I'm interested in how, sociologically, how arguments like that are received. How heterodox, or unorthodox, specific arguments are received. I just hear from scientists who want to refute it, or rebut it, or reject it. They've already decided it can't be. So then, it's just ... there's not an openness. There's not a real engagement. 

There's a dismissiveness. There's a kind of arrogance, and it runs on very many sides that is troubling to me. I would still love to believe we could live in a world where people can be civil. Where evidence and arguments matter. Where people can be open and possibly change their mind. If we don't, who has the most power to win? And that's a scary world for me. 

Sean McDowell: That is a really helpful analysis of where our culture is at, and it's not just the secular/religious discussion that you're talking about. It's the broader discussion as a whole, and I think you're right. As those in the religious community, and those in the atheist community and beyond, rather than blaming other people, probably need to take a look inside and ask ourselves, are we contributing to kind of the decline of conversation today? Or are we making a difference in our own realm for positive interaction? I think that's a really helpful challenge and way for us to reflect and think about that in our own lives. 

Dr. Christian Smith, it's really been a treat to have you on the show. I want to commend to our listeners really all your writings, but in particular the book we've been talking about today, we really just scratched the surface: Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can't Deliver. 

It's only 130 pages but you pack it full with understandable, but also really interesting questions and content. You have an opinion in here, clearly, but I really appreciate how fairly you tried to look at the issue. So, thanks for all your work, what you're doing at the University of Notre Dame and beyond. And thanks so much for coming on the show. 

Christian Smith: You're very welcome. I've enjoyed our conversation. 

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” To learn more about us, and today's guest, Christian Smith, and to find more episodes, go to That's

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