Believe or Be-live?

Skepticism is part of belief and belief is part of skepticism, so says Daniel Taylor in his The Skeptical Believer. But what then is faith? He says it is to “assent to a claim” or “acceptance of a claim.” But belief entails more than acceptance or assent. Taylor’s point is well worth pondering.  Faith is a “life-shaping acceptance of a claim.” That is, “Our creeds calls us to be-live something, not simply to believe something” (15).

The turn of phrase and subtle dropping of a single ‘e’ tells a truth about faith and belief that drive us to the center of our faith. Creedal affirmation is transcended, or deepened if you prefer, by “be-live.”

What advantages do you see in “be-live” vs. “believe”? How do you deal with your “inner atheist”?

This subtle and helpful clarification though does not chase away the problem Taylor faces squarely in this book: the reality of doubt on the part of the believer and be-liver. So examines two kinds of atheists:

The External Atheist and the Internal Atheist. He focuses in this book on the latter, but he offers shrewd comments about the former.

External atheists “are  a dime a dozen.” More: “These people claim not to believe in God, but in truth they are obsessed with God… Strangely, they organize their lives around something they don’t believe exists. It’s like spending your life guarding the world against a Martian invasion and believing you are being successful. If there’s no God, then relax, folks, and find something to make yourself useful” (20).

The big problem is the External atheist is redundant. We don’t need them, Taylor says, because we have an Internal atheist at work in our heads all the time. “This Inner Atheist knows me well because he is me” (20).

Taylor has come to terms with his past as a “proof monger” and come to accept the subjectivity of all explanations. There are facts and there is an objective world, but our explanations partake to some degree in our subjectivity.  Not “just” or “merely” subjective but nonetheless subjective. So he confesses “I made peace with subjectivity” (22). My own work with historiography led me to the same conclusion: history isn’t description of what really happened but a narrative of what happened and the narrative cuts a line into reality but only a line.

He’s made peace with his Inner Atheist by not feeding him so much. He hears him out; he listens; this deflates him.

“I’ve also noticed that he gets quiet during stories” (22).

“I let my Inner Atheist have his say…. Then I go on believing. I go on trying to live my part in the story” (23).

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  • Joshua

    “These people claim not to believe in God, but in truth they are obsessed with God… Strangely, they organize their lives around something they don’t believe exists. It’s like spending your life guarding the world against a Martian invasion and believing you are being successful. If there’s no God, then relax, folks, and find something to make yourself useful.”


    Atheists are in kind of a lose-lose situation with this one. When we give up on religion entirely and aren’t interested in discussing it, we’re shallow and apathetic, unwilling to give serious thought to what may be life’s ultimate question (possibly out of a desire to live a sin-filled, hedonistic life, or because we’re stiff-necked and don’t what to believe in something greater than ourselves, right? *eyeroll*). If we do ponder religion and discuss it, we’re strangely “organizing our lives” around it, or “obsessed with God.”
    Tell me, what is the “proper” attitude for “External Atheists” like me to take?

    And then there’s this: “The big problem is the External atheist is redundant. We don’t need them, Taylor says.”
    Really? That’s my big problem, that you don’t need me? Well, I certainly am sorry that I’m not being more help to you, love.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    The issue of “be-living” extends far beyond atheism or doubt. I lead a Bible study with neighbors here in Grand Rapids, and they recently chose to study 1st John. Doing so became a kind of revelation to all of us. 1st John is crystal clear that being a Christian, a Christ-follower, consists in loving our brothers and sisters, recognizing that we sin and believing that when we do sin, Christ intervenes for us with the Father, if we let him do so. Those who do not demonstrate love to their brothers and sisters, claim that they do not sin, or deny that Jesus Christ is in a position to mediate for us are not Christ-followers. In fact, John accurately labels them as “Anti-Christs.”

    The clarity of this epistle helped many of my neighbors let go a lot of stress over their questions of “am I a Christian if I ever commit a sin?” and the issue that Scot focuses on challenging “Who is in and who is out?” I actually warned the group as we started reading the letter that the main challenge of 1st John is not to over-theologize our reading.


  • LarryRR

    I freely admit, I am obsessed with God. For personal reasons (as an External Agnostic) and because most of the rest of the world is obsessed with some form of God as well. And that God-obsession spills over into everyday life in the forms of charity, bias, bigotry, legislation, etc. This obsession is impossible to ignore for either skeptics or believers (as our ever more polarized country makes so clear). As Belief’s influence wanes, so too will that obsession.

    What I like about Patheos is that it can challenge my skepticism, but I also want to be able to challenge beliefs and have that dialog. Unlike Taylor, I want and need the External Believer because my Internal Believer is too easily pushed around. I suspect the same might be true for many Internal Atheists.

  • Steven Walker


    That is exactly what I was thinking when I read this. Well said!

    I would add that one of the reasons atheists are so “obsessed” with religion is because they see the immense violence that emerges from the framework of religion, both historically and presently (see the recent Boston bombings). I strongly believe that most atheists I know long for a better world and a more peaceful world and they see religion as getting in the way of that goal. They see it as a psychological and social disorder in need of fixing. And I can definitely relate to them on that. I think it is only natural to passionately speak out against something you feel is wrong. I know plenty of Christians who do it all the time and have no problem with it. It just seems to be a problem when it is against their viewpoints.

    Also, to say that “we don’t need them” is absolutely ridiculous and pompous. There are extremely powerful thinkers both presently and historically that are atheists. Seriously, that line made me laugh out loud. Another great example of how Christianity is killing itself from the inside. What a ludicrous claim.

  • Jeremy

    I may be being over-charitable in my reading of this, but:

    I took “external atheist” to mean more the Dawkins/Meyer type of “New Atheists” that are more akin to religious leaders than lay people.

    I also interpreted “need” as a little more nuanced. I don’t “need” Dawkins as my internal atheist does just fine on his own. He’s obnoxious and extremely unhelpful. It seemed more like telling your spouse “I don’t need you to tell me I’m being irrational right now” than “I don’t need you at all.”

  • Kathy

    Hi Randy @#2. I thought of you before I got to the end of your comment and then saw that it was from you. Community That Works misses you in Ames.

  • Mary

    I happen to think that it is important to listen to the atheists, not so much to change our minds about the existence of God, but to challenge our thinking about who God is and what he represents to us. They often see far more clearly the problems of taking a rigid dogmatic approach to faith then those who are a part of it. In that case they should be thanked, because this unthinking blind-leading-the-blind approach to faith is what often leads to treating others unjustly and in the extreme causes violence and wars.

    Sometimes we need to listen the most to those whom we don’t want to hear from…

  • Steven Walker

    Good stuff, Mary!!!

  • A couple of points from the author Scott is citing here–me.
    1. No need to get anyone’s feelings hurt. When a reviewer cites and summarizes, statements come across as more ‘pointed’ than they actually are in the context in the book. Not the reviewer’s fault, just what happens when condensing things. I’m actually quite a puppy dog when it comes to people who disagree with me, and I definitely want everyone to feel “needed,” so assume I feel that way toward you.
    2. Jeremy’s comment (#5) is accurate. I don’t “need” an external source to raise questions, objections, doubts, rejections, etc. because I have an internal source that does all that just fine. In the same way, an atheist may well he or she doesn’t need me to tell them about religion. They have their own sources–including experience.
    3. My slightly dismissive comments are, as I say in the book, about “professional” atheists–those who make a living off not believing in something. Any number of atheists also complain about the professionals and their tendency to be dogmatic, dismissive, and otherwise obnoxious, making things harder for the more temperate atheists. Parallel to Xians being embarrassed by some xians.
    4. The religion as responsible for mass death argument–boring and shallow. Biggest killers of all time, if you want to trot out this stale argument, are secularists (Stalin, Hitler, Mao). It’s not even close. If you are going to evaluate secularism, you should consider it in its healthiest forms (NOT the trio just mentioned). Same with a religious claim. You can find idiots and evil doers among all world views. I shouldn’t even engage this worn-out argument. It always produces lots of self-righteous heat (including my comments here) and very little light. It’s a red herring.
    5. About the most atheists want peace, etc. Of course they do. They simply don’t have a world view that supports calls for people to be peaceful, good, helpful, self-sacrificing, etc. These are all rooted in moral oughts. You can’t get an “ought” from any purely materialistic view of reality–which the great majority of atheists hold–only ‘is.’ You can argue for the usefulness of certain behaviors, or their evolutionary benefit, but you have no comeback for someone who says “I don’t care” or “That’s only your view.” You can force them to conform (laws, ostracism, etc.) but atheism gives you no logical ground for moral IMPERATIVES. Atheistic morality is parasitic on a religious view of the world. It has tried since the Enlightenment to keep the ethics without the transcendent and it just doesn’t work. But we can fool ourselves for a long time and we still are doing so. Again, this is an argument I should avoid, because it just makes people mad and defensive and it’s not particularly relevant for the point of my book.
    In short, I would be smarter to let all this pass without comment, but I am feeling a bit combative this afternoon.

  • Jacob

    God is existence in its entirety past, present and future. THE GREATEST.