Frank Schaeffer: The God-Believing Atheist

One phrase comes to mind, time and again, when I think of Frank Schaeffer: “THINK AGAIN.” Any time I think I have a handle on things theological, he seems to find the thread, hanging from the edges, and gives it a good, solid yank.

Such is the case once again with his newest book, “Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace.” Just when it seems the delineations between theism and atheism, between believers and nonbelievers, is sufficiently clear, Schaeffer blurs even those lines, leaving us to wonder what it is any of us actually believes and why.

Frank Schaeffer is not one to deconstruct theology (or even the lack thereof) with some kind of sadistic joy however, leaving us to sort through the pieces.  Rather he explores what I might call trans-theism, offering us practices, a vocabulary and a worldview that take us far beyond belief toward a deeply human – and yet inexplicably transcendent – experience.

I asked Frank several questions about his new project; here is what he had to say.

The title of your new book is obviously controversial. Why did you choose it?

I’d like to change the debate on religion, actually I’d like to finish off BOTH the New Atheist movement and the religious fundamentalists! I think by introducing a note of paradox both sets of absolutists can be vanquished. After all this is supposed to be the post-modern age. Certainty is so has been!

Who is the audience for this book? Christians? Atheists?

All of the above, especially people burnt out on both religion and the hubris of some atheists.

What do you see as the primary take-away from this book?

I do not always believe let alone know if God exists. I do not always know he, she or it does not exist either, though there are long patches in my life when it seems God never did exist. What I know is that I see the Creator in Jesus or nowhere. What I know is that I see Jesus in my children and grandchildren’s love. What I know is that I rediscover hope again and again through my wife Genie’s love. What I know is that Mother Maria loved unto death. What I know is that sometimes something too good to be true, is true.

You talk about grief in this book. Do you find that difficult moments, or even suffering, help you feel more in tune with the spiritual, or less?

Christ’s love unto death and resurrection—however we interpret those words—is a means of freeing us from the anguish of mortality. Our desire for some sort of guarantee of eternal life and all fundamentalist attempts to describe it are self-defeating. Trying to nail down theological certainties is putting faith in our imagination rather than in God’s.

The “God” you refer to in your book is found in both creative and natural beauty? Is this different than pantheism?

Yes. Maybe we need a new category other than theism, atheism or agnosticism that takes paradox and unknowing into account. I believe that life evolved by natural selection. I believe that evolutionary psychology explains away altruism and debunks love and that brain chemistry undermines my illusion of free will and personhood. I also believe that the spiritual reality hovering over, in and through me calls me to love, trust and hear the voice of my Creator. It seems to me that there is an off-stage and an on-stage quality to my existence. I live on-stage, but I sense another crew working off stage. Sometimes I hear their voices singing in a way that’s as eerily beautiful as the off-stage chorus in an opera.

Do you find the same “God” in ugly places? Like where?

There would be no Holocaust museums chronicling horror unless there was a sense that horror is abnormal and, therefore, preventable. Yet, if we insist on a material-universe-only view of ourselves, we have to admit that the story of evolution proves that suffering, death and extinction are inevitable. Yet, we impose a human ethical standard on the material world. This imposition is not fact-based if we insist on understanding that facts relate only to the material universe.

Most people don’t really want to live only according to narrowly defined material facts. Most of us try to direct our human primate evolutionary process along ethical non-material lines. We impose standards that do not come from nature. Nature is cruel yet we try not to be. We prosecute people for war crimes that are no more destructive than what happens every day in the churning cauldron of life where everything is eaten and where death is the only incubator of life. We call murder wrong although it’s the most natural thing on earth.

We’ve decided to let an imagined utopian ideal, a future Eden if you will, rule our present despite this being a spiritual non-material-universe-based choice that flies in the face of natural selection. We impose ethics that exist only in our heads upon the material universe. We are part of nature yet we have decided to be nicer than nature. There would be no war crimes trials unless our ethically evolved selves questioned the method of evolution itself.

Do you hope for believers and nonbelievers to engage in more constructive dialogue, and if so, what might that look like?

We need to accept the fact our brains did not evolve to do theology or philosophy! We evolved to find patterns in reality to survive. This isn’t truth. Les certainty more humility. A spiritual non-material-based way of life turns out to be the actual way we live no matter what we say we believe. We live by ethics not found in nature and we enrich our lives with art. That says something to me. Maybe a purely material view of the universe and of ourselves is not in fact a fact.

You’re a painter; do you see your artwork as the byproduct of a spiritual practice?

Yes. I sell my work as a vocation. We need art. We need beauty. I need to paint. I want to share that, sort of like saying “I’ll pray for you.” I say, “I’ll paint for you.” It’s all about the soul. The humanities are about one thing: the soul. Declare the soul dead or mere brain chemistry and the humanities die. Declare culture nothing but a co

ntest between men and women or all about politics or elites and you suck the life out of human aspiration.
“Art, like religion, is harder to kill off than the religiously dedicated secularists of the twentieth century imagined.” And yet, perhaps, rather than seeking God principally in our sanctuaries and holy books, Schaeffer suggests we should be haunting galleries and museums seeking to rebuild our art literacy amid the ashes of detached artistic irony.So what are we left with? “It all comes back to stories,” says Schaeffer. “We are living a story.

“Camille Paglia,” who Schaeffer notes is a self-identified atheist, “writes that ‘a culture can only be dismantled once. Then something must be built or art falls silent.’ Irony about irony is a dead-end she says. Parody has led to (in Paglia’s words) ‘a narcissistic art form that could be mistaken for a prank.’ I’m trying to do my bit of rebuilding.”

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  • Fallulah

    The entire definition of Atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God. So this title and “movement” is non-sensical from the get-go.

    • Agni Ashwin

      An unsatisfactory definition, to say the least.

      • Fallulah

        It’s actually pretty all encompassing but sorry it’s not good enough for you! 😛

      • Psycho Gecko

        If you want to get technical about it, it’s anyone who lacks belief in any god claims. It’s actually a pretty simple question.

        “Do you believe in at least one god?” If yes, you’re a theist, if no, you’re an atheist. It’s pretty darn simple, especially because it’s not mutually exclusive with the question of gnosticism or agnosticism, which is more like the question “Do you claim that you can know your position is true?” where a yes equals gnosticism and a no equals agnosticism.

        In other words, most atheists would be considered agnostic atheists, whereas those who assert absolutely that no gods exist would be gnostic atheists.

        The distinction isn’t very well known in popular culture, with most people not knowing what atheism actually is.

  • Psycho Gecko

    Yeah, this guy’s basically just a theist. If you believe in at least one deity, you’re a theist. Doesn’t matter if you’re a deist, pantheist, or monotheist. Still, at least he picked a book name guaranteed to convince people to buy it to either go “See! Atheists can convert!” or for family members to try and give to atheists. Reminds me of how Matt Dillahunty said that if he was dishonest, he could pretend to have converted, write a book, and go on speaking tours where they’d pay him to talk about how he went from one of the better atheists to a Christian.

    • Steve Willy

      So, if you are so confident in your neck bearded presuppositions, why are you even bothering to comment at all? No atheistic position can be taken seriously until two threshold questions can coherently be answered. 1. Why is the atheist even engaging in the debate. On atheism, there is no objective basis for even ascertaining truth; there is no immaterial aspect to consciousness and all mental states are material. Therefore, everyone who ever lived and ever will live could be wrong about a thing. By what standard would that ever be ascertained on atheism? Also if atheism is true, there is no objective meaning to existence and no objective standard by which the ‘rational’ world view of atheism is more desirable, morally or otherwise, to the ‘irrational’ beliefs of religion. Ridding the world of the scourge of religion, so that humanity can ‘progress’ or outgrow it, is not a legitimate response to this because on atheism, there is no reason to expect humanity to progress or grow. We are a historical accident that should fully expect to be destroyed by the next asteriod, pandemic, or fascist atheist with a nuke. In short, if atheism is correct, there is no benefit, either on an individual or societal level, to knowing this or to spreading such ‘knowledge.’ 2. Related to this, why is the atheist debater even alive to participate. If there is no heaven, no hell, no afterlife at all, only an incredibly window of blind pitiless indifference, then the agony of struggling to exist, seeing loved ones die, and then dying yourself can never be outweighed by any benefit to existing. As rude as it way sound (and I AM NOT advocating suicide) the atheist should have a coherent explanation for why they chose to continue existing. Failure to adequately address these threshold questions should result in summary rejection of the neckbeard’s position.

      • James

        That was a cute word salad – I’m not even going to try unpacking all the fallacies in that incoherent mess

        It’s really very simple: what is you evidence that any given exists? Don’t have any? Yeah, that’s why people are atheists

        • Steve Willy

          n my experience the atheistic/agnostic mantra of “there is no evidence” is typically premised upon an arbitrary and subjective definition of evidence. Because evidence is a legal term, and this discipline has written the most about the concept, it would make sense to consider the legal definition of evidence before declaring that there is none.
          “[E]vidence is defined as ‘all the means by which any alleged matter of fact, the truth of which is submitted to investigation, is established or disproved.’” Forshey v. Principi, 284 F.3d 1335, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2002). “[E]vidence includes all the means by which any alleged matter of fact is established or disproved, and is further defined as any species of proof legally presented at trial through the medium of witnesses, records, documents, exhibits, concrete objects, etc., for the purpose of inducing belief in the minds of the court or jury.” People v. Victors, 353 Ill. App. 3d 801, 811-812; 819 N.E.2d 311 (2004).
          Notice the use of the terms “any” and “all” in these definitions. A whole lot of things count as “evidence.” Testimony is included within the definition of evidence, although it is “not synonymous with evidence” because evidence “is a more comprehensive term.” People v. Victors, supra at 811-812. In other words, personal religious experiences, COUNT AS EVIDENCE as that term has been legally defined, something atheists find hard to accept. This also means that the Gospels, for example – as “records, documents” – fall within the definition of “evidence” as well. Atheists and skeptics may say that these are not reliable forms evidence, but to say there is NO evidence is simply false.
          Also, the philosophical evidence for God’s existence (First cause, argument from contingency, argument from reason, moral argument, apparent fine tuning) might not strictly meet the definition of evidence, but the philosophical evidence does – coupled with the existence of the universe and consciousness itself – give rise to a “presumption.” A “presumption” comes about when the “finding of a basic fact gives rise to existence of presumed fact, until [the] presumption is rebutted.” Wilner v. United States, 24 F.3d 1397, 1411 (Fed. Cir. 1994). “Although not evidence, a presumption can be a substitute for evidence if it is not rebutted.” Id. Most atheists will freely admit that they have no evidence disproving God – they usually fall back on the fact that it is not their burden. However, if there is a presumption of God’s existence (and at least 4 1/2 billion people would say there is), then atheists do in fact carry the burden of rebuttal.
          Most atheists/skeptics confuse “evidence” with “conclusive evidence,” sometimes termed “conclusive proof,” which is defined as “evidence so strong as to overbear any other evidence to the contrary.” Black’s Law Dictionary 636 (9th ed. 2009). It is also defined as “[e]vidence that so preponderates as to oblige a fact-finder to come to a certain conclusion.” Id. There may not be, in the atheists/skeptics view, evidence that “obliges” them to accept God’s existence. But this does not mean there is no evidence at all, only that he has not seen what he considers to be “conclusive evidence.” Also, note again the first part of Black’s definition – “evidence so strong as to overbear any other evidence to the contrary.” Atheists admittedly have no “evidence to the contrary,” so ANY EVIDENCE AT ALL(i.e., personal religious experience) becomes “conclusive proof” by courtroom standards.
          So in summary: why do you reject the evidence? Because you consider the idea of God absurd. Why is the idea of God absurd? Because of the lack of evidence. Your entire atheistic world view flows from this circular reasoning, which itself flows from a fundamentally flawed concept of what “evidence” is.

      • Psycho Gecko

        You know, you wrote a lot here to try and bait me, but considering that the answers to literally every single question you raised here are freely available if you search for them on the internet, I don’t see why I have to do all your thinking for you. See, I’m probably not going to convince you of anything because you have made up your mind and are more interested in thinking you can out-question me rather than any genuine search for knowledge, and the ad hominem assertion that I even have a beard backs that up a little.

        If you really want an atheist to take you seriously when you engage with them, start by taking them seriously and doing your homework. Most atheists in the U.S. are former Christians, after all, and we generally score the highest on religious literacy tests. If you want to yell at us, at least have the courtesy to find out if you’re complaining about straw positions.

        And if you aren’t serious about knowing anything, then I suggest heading back to 4chan so you can brag about how ignorant you are.

        • Steve Willy

          Shut your butt you pseudo-intellectual, faux-analytical asshat. Your teeth are showing, you Hitchens-Dawkins parroting basement dweller.

          • Lamont Cranston

            Because of your witness, I have repented of my sins and asked Jesus to be my savior.

      • jennylynn

        You are correct. I never can understand why an atheist tries so hard to prove they are evolved animals or unintelligent slime. It really just makes me wonder why they would even write book, or argue on the internet about being an uncreated, unintelligent being.

    • Christian Piatt

      I think it might be more accurate to identify him as an a/theist, a group that tends to believe in God as something independent of – or transcendent of – the supernatural, anthropomorphic “other” concepts we often have. So, understanding Love or Beauty as God, or the thing within those that compels us to engage such beauty or love, or to create. It’s more of an existential impetus, a longing, more than some sky wizard. I’m not sure if this really qualifies as deist or pantheist, namely because of the absence of any metaphysical properties.

  • jennylynn

    This guy is confused and confusing. Thankfuly God is not a God of confusion, but of absolute truth. He also fails to deal with the sin nature which is expected with atheist. You can’t have evil unless there is a God. God is the moral standard that tells a person murder, stealing, lying etc. is wrong. If there is no God then there is no moral law to tell you there is evil. Like I said, he is confused.

    • Lamont Cranston

      I agree. No god=no evil.