Respecting Atheism While Believing in Jesus

I’ve been reading Frederick Beuchner’s Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. It’s a short book that details Buechner’s transition from college to teaching to Union seminary to chaplaincy and then to full time writing. As someone who shares Beuchner’s faith and who also lives on a boarding school campus and who is also trying to figure out what it means to have a vocation as a writer and, perhaps, with students and faculty on this campus, this book has spoken to me in countless ways. But the passages that encouraged me the most had to do with being an evangelist, an unapologetic apologist for the tenants of Christianity, and yet giving other perspectives the credence and respect they are due. I will quote him at length:

the war I fought was to convince as many as I could that religious faith, even if they chose to have none of it, was not as bankrupt and banal and easily disposable as most of them believed.

He later goes on:

Atheists were what most of them thought of themselves as being, but their seventeen-, eighteen-, nineteen-year-old atheism was apt to be as superficial and threadbare as the form of Christianity that they had abandoned in its favor. Their atheism was less a denial of God, it seemed to me, than of people telling them what to do and what to think and who to be…SO I had them read from the great existentialist atheists too, some of whom were their heroes already, and who, unlike themselves, did no dance on the grave of God, but whose voices, even at their most strident, were often full of mourning. “The existentialist,” says Jean-Paul Sartre in one of the essays I assigned, “finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. . . . Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. . . . We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. . . .

What I tried to do was let these writers speak for themselves out of their own extraordinary courage, concern, and honesty, and, for all my deck-stacking, to leave open to my students–as, if we are honest, it must always remain open to us as well–the possibility that just maybe Camus and Sartre were right.

 

About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).

Comments

  1. Buechner’s point about what those young atheists are really rejecting is something that I’ve thought about a bit recently too. People attribute things to God and then say they could never believe in that version of God. I tend to agree with them; I’d never believe in that version of God either. Believing in the one true God is quite another thing entirely.

    • Sporkfighter says:

      OK, I’ll bite. Explain your “One True God.” What can He do? What has He done? What can’t He do? Exactly how does He differ from the God who allowed hundreds of thousands to die in a tsunami that you don’t believe in?Most important of all, how do you know your One True God exists outside your belief?I believe propositions are true only if there is evidence supporting them. I expect many other atheists feel the same. You can’t dismiss us so easily. If you have knowledge to convey, we’re ready to listen.

      • Sporkfighter (and I have to admit that I LOVE that screen name!), I’m not sure what type of evidentiary proof you are calling for. Scientific? Historical? Matters of faith are not subject to either. No one demands that science be proven by historical methods, nor history by scientific ones, after all. In any case, the manner of proof is not important.

        Either God exists or he doesn’t, and your and my belief or lack of belief won’t change that fact one way or the other. Frankly, you can’t even prove your own existence to me in a way that would convince me beyond all doubt. That doesn’t mean you don’t exist, though, and I’d still bet money that you do.

        Blessings,
        Tim

        • Sporkfighter says:

          Scientific? Yeah, that would do. Historical? If it’s strong enough, I suppose. I’d need a clear definition of what it is you are arguing for before I could say, and I’ve never heard or read a clear definition of what God is.If matters of faith are not subject to evidence, how does faith differ from wishful thinking? How does it differ from mental illness? I worry about people who hear God telling them to do things – don’t you? If faith is not subject to evidence, then nothing could cause you to change your belief? That’s just not rational.

          • I don’t think is like any of those things, Sporkfighter. As for rational thought, If you have a rational basis for existence without God, go ahead and lay it on me. I bet it’s just as unproveable, though.

            Cheers,
            Tim

          • Sporkfighter says:

            I am not the one positing the existence of a supernatural being, so there is nothing for me to demonstrate. I don’t even know what you mean by the expression “God exists” until you define what you mean by “God.” As you know, there have been hundreds of thousands of deities posited by the human race, and thousands currently worshipped.If you tell me what you mean, perhaps I’d dismiss your god as internally inconsistent. Perhaps I’d dismiss your god as unsupported by any evidence. It’s even possible you’d convince me. In any case, it’s not my idea, not my god, not my theory, so it’s not my logical responsibility to argue against it.

          • No, you’re the one positing the non-existence. It’s still a posit.

            Blessings,
            Tim

          • Sporkfighter says:

            Are you positing the non-existence or Thor?When you understand why you don’t believe in all the countless other gods, you’ll understand why I don’t believe in yours.

          • I’m pretty sure even then we’d not quite agree, Sporkfighter. But it’s been a pleasure chatting with you here.

            Blessings,
            Tim

        • Science is simply the establishing of facts. Your faith in a god is a matter of faith which you have every right to hold without restriction. However, the existence or non-existence of a god is a matter of science. Either a powerful, eternal, omniscient and omnipotent being exists or it does not. This is quite important as Christians do not only claim themselves to have an immortal soul and to have been made by a god who judges them and sends them to an eternal heaven or hell. They claim it to be true for everyone. This is literally a matter of life and death. Just as I would not be satisfied with a spiritual interpretation of whether or not I have a brain tumour, I also require some scientific evidence of the existence of gods, souls and afterlives.

          I am not sure what you mean by historical evidence? History is a narration of events which happened in the past. The evidence for these events are documents, art, sculptures, laws and much more. This proving of things having happened is science. If someone claims historical events have taken place but cannot prove this, the narrative is then known as myth.

          You are claiming non-overlapping magisteria – that religion should not step on the toes of science and science should not step on the toes of religion. This is fine and your right to your belief and your faith without challenge is one which I respect and would defend. However, when you claim that beings exist and impact the lives of all of, you are stepping on the toes of science and must expect to be be asked for evidence of this claim.

          • Helen, your definition of science is far too narrow! The science you’re describing is material/physical science. As such, it is limited to the workings of the material world (and is very important!).

            The existence of God is a metaphysical and/or philosophical question and therefore, by the nature of the case, God is not directly detectable via the material sciences. In fact, science itself is not scientifically verifiable! That’s why detecting a material brain tumor is not comparable to the detection of something immaterial and transcendent.

            However, the Philosophy of Science examines the ramifications and inferences of scientific discovery. Example, physical observations of how persons behave morally does not tell us how persons ought to behave morally. Similarly, if the time/space/material universe had an absolute beginning, and therefore a cause, the nature of the cause must be evaluated philosophically, i.e. it is impervious to direct empirical verification. Via a conceptual analysis: since it caused matter, it must itself be immaterial (there is no matter before matter!). It must be spaceless because it caused space, it must be timeless because it caused time (and is therefore eternal).

            We are now in a position to examine the nature of the cause. The inferences from scientific discovery helped get us here, but material science has taken us as far as it can at this point.

            Hopefully, you can also see that one can have reasonable faith rather than blind faith. The New Testament view of faith is informed faith. Faith is the trust or assent that a given proposition is true (and is warranted even if 100% certainty is not attained).

          • But gods are said to do lots of material things. Many people think one of them made the world! They believe it answers prayers, talks to them, performs miracles, walked on water, burnt bushes, parted seas. If you have a god which does not impact the world in any way I agree that science cannot detect it but I am then unsure why it is considered a god? IIf it impacts the world we can measure its effects by miracles, answered prayers, near death experiences etc – they would point to one of them being the real one but in fact we find that people with different gods claim the same amount of each of these and miracle cures and answered prayers do not have more beneficial effects than chance.

            I am not sure what you mean about the nature of the cause needing to be evaluated philosophically? How would that help anything? Lots of people will philosophise lots of different causes according to their own wishes and culture and education – that may be fun but truth is what we should aim at. Until we know, lets just say we don’t know.

            We decide how people should behave morally – our culture, our society and this currently comes from our empathy and compassion. Yes, we used to have a biblical concept of morality but we no longer think that that sort of thing is acceptable – in fact we are inclined to view slavery and mass murder and selling your daughters as sex slaves as rather immoral. Jesus is said to have said some lovely humanist things which up until then had not been heard among the Jews – among the Hindus, yes but not the Jews.

            No, I cannot agree that faith is reasonable. Faith and reason are opposites. This used to be stated clearly before we valued reason so highly – Martin Luther preached against reason saying it was the enemy of faith and the bible tells us not to rely on our own understanding. Now reason is widely accepted as a positive thing and Christians claim their faith is reasonable but it is not. You get to faith by faith, not by reason or you would not need faith.

          • Let’s start with faith. Aside from Luther, the New Testament tells the follower of Christ to “test all things”, “hold fast to that which is true”, “always be prepared to give…the reason…for the hope you have (in Christ)”, etc. Paul “reasoned in the synagogue and in the marketplace” and he “reasoned” with the philosophers in the very cradle of philosophy in Athens (Acts 17). Jesus used reason constantly! The Gr. word “pistis” can denote informed faith.

            What you are critiquing is a common form of “faith” called fideism and I agree with you. It amounts to saying “here are my reasons for why I don’t need reasons for anything”, which is self-refuting and unnecessary.

            My reference to morality was just to show it is not determined by the scientific method you are describing. However, we can can talk about a Moral Argument for God if you wish.

            And you are spot on about God being said to affect the material world. But the point I’m making is that God’s nature is immaterial, etc. and therefore not detectable via the material sciences. Scientific discoveries can serve as pointers to something transcendent being the cause, interacting, and being ontologically ultimate.

          • Jesus also said we have to become like children to get into heaven. As usual the bible is open to all sorts of interpretations. We simply don’t know if God’s nature is immaterial. If he exists I am sure he could choose to be either material or immaterial. If he does not exist, his followers will need to believe him to be immaterial.

            Religion does tend to make claims which come into the realm of science but then insist that they are outside of science’s jurisdiction. For example, I am very interested in what people who believe in a soul think it does. It clearly contains the self as people say ‘I’ or ‘she’ etc is in heaven but I cannot establish what it actually is. We know what the brain does and how that constructs the self and when the brain is damaged that self is damaged or even destroyed.

            I wondered what people thought about someone who had a severe brain injury or the very final stages of dementia when they no longer react at all – just become a shell. I asked if anyone had ever had any thoughts on what the soul is doing at this point? Is it still in the person and is it still the person’s essence? Can the person therefore still hear and comprehend because the soul is said to experience bliss or torment after death? I get the impression Christians don’t think so because when they come to visit completely demented people at the nursing homes I have worked at they are just as likely to speak as if their parent cannot hear them and talk of them being ‘gone.’ We know at this stage that the brain is no longer processing thought but is the soul not intact and in the body? Is it conscious?

            I understand brains and because I know how they construct the person I have trouble understanding exactly what a soul is and yet Christians claim that I have one and so it is quite important that I understand what it is in case they are right. How will I know if they are right if I don’t know what they are? Whenever anyone tells me, it seems they are talking about the frontal lobe – our values and empathy and compassion and sense of right and wrong are produced there and if a good Christian was to have a tumour there and it needed to be removed, they would live but their conscience, empathy, love and compassion would be gone. They would not know right from wrong but this would be a brain injury. Surely the soul would not be affected? But if the soul is intact and is the essence of that good Christian person, why can it not supply the conscience etc. There is a very good documentary which looks at a Christian dentist who was a very good man but his brain tumour in the frontal lobe was discovered after he attacked a child – he’d already been uncharacteristically horrible to his wife for several weeks. What was his soul doing? How is it separate from brain?

            I am going on and on now but it is this sort of claim about souls which impinge on science and science should be able to detect them if they really are a person’s essence and exist independently of brains? No-one can tell me and so I feel a little as though the claim about souls existing should not be made to worry people if no-one can even define them. Or do you know a theologian who has dealt with this (one who knows about frontal lobes)?

          • Excellent thoughts! First, despite various possible interpretations, Jesus is quite clear about what he means by “becoming like children”. He is specifically says he if referring to “humility like a child” (Matt. 18:4). He doesn’t mean ignorant or naive, for he tells us not to be ignorant and naive, and to “love God with all our minds“.

            Secondly, we can know God’s nature is immaterial via a conceptual analysis of what it means to be the cause of matter (thus, bringing matter into existence for the first time). Material beings are contingent, limited, confined to space and time, etc. God would be none of those things but would be the very ground of those things. And, for what it’s worth, the Scriptures also teach that God is indeed immaterial in nature (is “spirit”).

            God can certainly incarnate materially, but his nature is not material. One’s very nature or essence is what one is, not what one chooses to be.

            Thirdly, you have tapped into one of the greatest philosophical and scientific subjects: the existence of the soul (or mind/body dualism). Some great scientists, like Nobel Prize-winning neuro-scientist John Eccles, think that mind and body are not the same thing, that we have a soul, etc.

            It seems you would agree on the basic definition of the soul. The main thing to see is that the only thing science can show is that mind (soul) and body interact within a person. The brain is a like a piano that the pianist plays. If the piano is damaged, or out of tune, etc. the pianist’s playing is affected. But the pianist is not the same thing as the piano and vice versa.

          • ‘Secondly, we can know God’s nature is immaterial via a conceptual analysis of what it means to be the cause
            of matter (thus, bringing matter into existence for the first time).
            Material beings are contingent, limited, confined to space and time,
            etc. God would be none of those things but would be the very ground of
            those things.’

            But I can conceive of many things and this does not make them true. Why this god in particular? Surely the similarities between Jesus’ story and the older ones of Horus, Krishna and Mithra make Jesus one of the most likely to be man made. So many gods before him were born on 25th Dec to a virgin, found by wise men following stars, had 12 disciples, last suppers, being called The Way, The Truth and The Light, dying for our sins, being crucified and rising again. Usually I find that when people believe in one god its the on their parents believed in. Is there anything about this version of god which makes it more likely to be real than any other?

          • Helen, I agree that just conceiving of something does not make it true, But my point is that we can identify the characteristics of something by looking at available data. Example – suppose someone found a picture of a black box on the ground in Antarctica, showed it to you, and asked you what you thought it was. You could say it must be cold because it’s in the snow. It’s not a rock because it’s a square cube with equal measurements. It must have been dropped because there’s an impact pattern in the snow, etc.

            In the same way, if the time/space/material universe had a beginning and therefore a cause, we could deduct that the cause must be immaterial because it caused matter. It must be spaceless because it caused space. it must be timeless because it caused time, etc.

            So far we’ve arrived at a timeless, spaceless, immaterial entity. We could contemplate further that it must be powerful. Look at the size and energy in the universe! If you wish, I can show you why it must be personal rather than impersonal, and how a little further work shows that it is identical to the God of Christian Theism. I think the case unfolds to: cause > personal cause > Deism >Theism, > Christian Theism.

            Secondly, you must, must understand that there are no accurate records of pagan deities born on Dec. 25 with shepherds, 12 disciples, etc. That is false information propagated on hack websites!

            However, some have tried to point out that Christ must have been “borrowed” from pagan myths. Scholars reject this for multiple reasons (Jesus is from a Jewish milieu that rejected pagan myths and seasonal deities so no borrowing would have occurred, the similarities are superficial and don’t prove same source, the records of Jesus are biographical in nature and not mythological, and information we have on Mithras, et.al. come after the Christian era so was often imbued with Christian imagery).

            One more thing to consider is that while it’s true a person usually embraces the view their parents or geographical location taught them, that does not mean the view is true or false (Genetic Fallacy). Any view must be considered on its own merits.

          • But we simply don’t know what the first cause was – why matter expanded rapidly and formed the universe. We don’t don’t know if there was an ‘outside’ or ‘before’ the universe so we do not know if the big bang created time and matter. It probably did but we simply do not know what we do not know about how and why that happened – we can only conceive of things we have detected in our universe or invented in relation things in our universe. The fact that the universe had a beginning does not imply that a sentient being began it and that is a huge jump to suggest it is the inevitable answer when there is absolutely no sign of either a creator or that the universe was created.

            So many cultures have invented gods – thousands of them and they are all related to the culture they emerge in. The God of the bible is the God of the Jews and relates to their culture, leading his nature then to need changing when Jesus came along and made a new covenant. God himself has morphed with time. He was a harsh dictator throughout the medieval period and became a cuddly father type after the Puritans in the Victorian period just as fathers were becoming less authoritarian figures in society. It seems so evident that gods were made in man’s image.

            Jesus and Mithra were in the same geographical part of the Mediterranean and Mithra continued to be worshipped for centuries after Christianity began. We actually have more documentation on him than we do on Jesus. It was a much bigger movement and temples and artwork and documents survive. Krishna is central to Hinduism and they will assure you he did not have any traits of Jesus applied to him. The Hindu scriptures predate Christianity.

            Does Christianity even make sense? A god created the universe, waited 14.5 billion years and then decided to tell some desert people how to behave? He sent down his son to pay for the original sin of Adam whom educated Christians now recognise did not actually exist. Somehow, sending down his son to be brutally murdered was the only way God could forgive humanity for committing sins even tho he is omnipotent and even tho he knew they’d commit those sins because he is omniscient. Surely this is ludicrous?

  2. Matt Thornton says:

    “Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in
    consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either
    within or outside himself”

    The statement above is certainly problematic if you focus on the word ‘everything’, and compare it to the subset of things ‘permitted’ in a given tradition. Perhaps one can approach this idea differently by asking what we mean by ‘permitted’ instead.

    To focus on the question of God/not-God from the perspective of its impact on the possibility of a morality, one enters into a zero-sum game (if no God, no morality). This sells both people, and God I think, very short.

    First, God is reduced into the role of a cop enforcing laws. This doesn’t square with the relational interaction and growth that I see in so many people as they develop spiritually. Sure, behavior often improves, but this is almost a happy by-product. In the people I know, it’s far less about whether a thing is permitted, but rather what’s right. From there, the only really interesting question is how to apply that sense of what’s right to the next decision, and the next. These deeply faithful people of good will that I’m thinking about would very much view themselves as the authors of their behavior, but God as the creator of the language in which the story of their lives is written.

    For people, if we convince ourselves that, absent some external force, we would be ‘free’, or more importantly ‘freed’ to do anything, I think we’ve assumed away a huge amount of the agency, empathy and good judgement that so many people have. It’s like saying that because no one is watching, I’m going to go ahead and [insert a terrible thing here]. I’ve met very few people who would think that way.

    As so many have observed, morality is what you do when you don’t think anyone is watching. If you frame God as a watcher, you set up a spiritual police state. If you abdicate your responsibility to be your own watcher, you’ve given over much of your free will.

    I’m a lifelong atheist and don’t view myself as having license to do whatever I can get away with. I’ve also been happily married to, and raised two fine daughters with, a pastor who is deeply committed to her faith. We don’t notice a ‘morality gap’ in our household, but we sure come at the world from different perspectives!

  3. “Their atheism was less a denial of God”

    If atheists are rejecting a particular version of God, I would add that many theists expect a rare version of atheism. Most atheists, such as myself, simply don’t think any kind of gods exists, the ‘one true’ or otherwise. We don’t ‘deny’ God any more than one ‘denies’ anything else one simply does to think exists. It’s passive, not active.

    Granted, many atheists are very active in our rejection of the idea that someone else’s belief in God should affect what we can or cannot do. But that’s different. We reject you using God as an argument (such as who we can or cannot marry). It’s in the arena of human politics, not theology.

  4. What has God NOT permitted?

    Rape, Genocide, Murder, Incest, child abuse, slavery, subjugation of women, human and animal sacrifice?

    The Christian God is no source of morality.

    • Just because God allows certain things to happen, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good outcome. It doesn’t mean that he is the one that’s performing it, either. it’s mankind that’s doing this, not God. Whether you had a bad past with christians is an entirely different story, but please don’t let people’s behaviors change your way of thinking. Also the church’s history is also factor that contributes to anti-christian bigotry.

      • Sporkfighter says:

        “Just because God allows certain things to happen, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good outcome. “If I knowingly let a child suffer abuse, I lose my teaching credential, my job, and I risk a jail term. I can’t claim some mystical, unprovable, unknowable “greater good” as a defense. Surely you expect your God to be as moral as you expect me, a fallible man to be.When you excuse your God from blame when evil happens with the old “God knows . . . best outcome in the end . . . we can’t know . . . ” you make a mockery of your claim that your God is good by refuting our ability to know good from bad.I simply deny any possibility that a God matching your description could exist because it’s self-contradictory and it contradicts the observed state of the universe.

  5. This post made me think of the book Life of Pi. If you’ve read the book you know that young Pi is a passionate seeker after God and tries to find God in Hinduism, Christianity, Islam — anywhere he can, in spite of the discomfort of his own parents & of the leaders of those various religious groups. When he muses about his faith journey, Pi says,

    “…atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them — and then they leap.
    I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is
    akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

  6. I wonder if it’s easier for young people to be atheists today. When are they still, contemplative, and alone? Tech distractions are overwhelming and intense. The cure for angst is instantaneous connection, gaming, music, or cute-cat videos.

    The Angst hit me one morning when I was 17. My favorite 8-Track was stuck under the seat so I was stuck with the Angst!

    Sartre and Camus bravely looked into the chasm. I’m convinced that’s getting harder to do. “Be still, and know that I am God!”

  7. What claptrap is this? Anyone can make their own meaning. The god complex is as unnecessary as The Cat in the Hat to meaning. Billions of people have meaning and joy in their lives with out any of the thousands of gods.

    Go to an atheist meeting sometime to see people laughing out loud, talking about their kids, their jobs, their hobbies. Go to any number of countries to see people never mentioning god because the idea has been dropped. They live their lives happily and are prosperous.

    • Happy atheists don’t disprove God. On God’s existence, it’s quite possible to benefit from God’s goodness. That’s why atheists like Sartre and Camus saw atheism as “unlivable” – meaning it cannot be lived out consistently. One lives with the intuition that even one’s own personal (temporary) meaning is somehow only supported by ultimate meaning, but then denies it!

      You live in a death chamber awaiting execution. The death chamber is beautiful, spacious, and filled with others. You can decorate the death chamber with distractions, philosophy, and personal meaning. But it is still a death chamber.

      • Sporkfighter says:

        Exactly who are you speaking for? Sounds like word-salad to me.

        • Do you mean I don’t speak for you concerning the “death chamber”?

          • Sporkfighter says:

            No. The universe is what it is. Life is what it is. I’m here now, making choices and taking actions that I believe will make the lives of my friends, family and hopefully, many other people happier. Sure, everyone dies – what of that? But everyone eats, and the world isn’t just a big restaurant . . . everyone poops and the world isn’t just a big toilet.

          • Sure! You just framed your philosophy about this topic. Upon which wall of the death chamber are you going to hang it?

          • Sporkfighter says:

            Hang it on your own. That’s not where I live.

          • So denying reality is going to prevent your death sentence, and eliminate the planet that serves as your holding cell until that day?

          • Sporkfighter says:

            Never denied a thing. I just don’t make it an organizing principle. You’re going to eat tomorrow. Is that the central organizing point around which your life revolves? Of course not.Sure, death happens. But my kid’s got a soccer game in a couple of hours, and I have snacks to prepare, happiness to spread.

          • The topic of this thread was noted atheist philosophers like Sartre and Camus and what they thought. I’ve tried to sum up their thoughts on ultimate meaning. If you don’t like what they say, fine. And for heaven’s sake don’t look our fast-approaching demise square in the eye like they did!

          • Sporkfighter says:

            No, the topic of the post was “. . . being an evangelist, an unapologetic apologist for the tenants of Christianity, and yet giving other perspectives the credence and respect they are due.” A Christian evangelist cherry-picking a couple of dour atheists from the past and presenting them as a representation of atheists and atheism as a whole is dishonest.

          • I need to clarifiy then. The OP was a broader topic. This thread, I thought I was discussing what noted atheist thinkers have thought about the ramifications of a universe without God.

            I think, as many have developed, an argument for God is found in our universal, historical, anthropological intuition of ultimate meaning. That intuition may play out daily in personal meaning, activities, priorities, and passions, but that is merely the application of this sense of ultimate meaning.

      • Nobody is trying to disprove God. Or gods. That’s one of the common myths about atheists- they we are all gnostic atheists, certain that no god can exist. In fact the vast majority, including all the famous ‘new’ ones, are agnostic atheists.

        However, wanting something to be some way also doesn’t make it so. Either there is or there is not an after life. Wanting there to be an afterlife doesn’t mean there is one. No matter how we decorate it, we all live in the same chamber. I would say the ones expecting something else are the ones merely waiting. But the reality is that our view of an afterlife has little effect on our daily lives. Unless of course we’re expecting 72 virgins or something.

        • I’m puzzled at the attempt to retain the term “atheist” at all costs! If one is an agnostic then just say it! Besides, agnosticism is a more tenable position than atheism. I guess “atheist” is “sexier”!

          I never said wanting something makes it true. In fact, that’s what Camus and Sartre said about any attempt to sweeten up that we are all dead ducks!

          • ‘Atheist’ is a term that has varied uses. I’ll grant that most dictionaries still define it as a ‘denial of the existence of any god’ or something like that. An emerging (and now quite common in ‘the community’) use is a lot more functional.

            Atheist and agnostic are not mutually exclusive, and describe different aspects. Theist/atheist describes whether you have a belief in any gods. Gostic/agnostic describes whether you think your position can be proved.

            Gnostic atheists are certain no gods exist, and think they can prove it.
            Agnostic atheists don’t believe in any gods, but don’t think the absence can be proved.
            Gnostic theists are sure God (or gods) exist, and that they can prove it.
            Agnostic theists believe in God (or gods) but don’t think they can prove it.

            Keep in mind that the Greek prefix ‘a’ means ‘without’, not ‘against’.

            Another way to look at it is Richard Dawkins’s “7 point scale” from 0 = Sure God exists to 7 = Sure God doesn’t exist. Richard says he’s a 6.9. He also points out that he’s also a-fairyiest and a-Santa Clausist.

            I use ‘atheist’ because I think it better describes my position to most people than ‘agnostic’. I’m not holding my breath, but I know ‘anything is possible’. I usually only elaborate when someone takes my ‘atheist’ to mean I think I can disprove God.

          • Teasing out nuances is good, but I suggest that the “functional” definition is a result of atheists tired of being asked to disprove God. But the classical definition is more than sufficient, since 100% certainty is not necessary for a view to be warranted.

            There are only two types of atheism: strong and weak. I wouldn’t want to be known as a “weak atheist” but that is what your position seems to be. That’s why I see the non-theist community engaging rhetoric and trying to avoid the burden of proof with all these new definitions!

            Dawkins’ scale can only work within one of the categories. Every strong or weak atheist would differ on the scale. But, as you say, this comes out when you are asked for elaboration.

          • Sporkfighter says:

            I let the Pope define what’s Catholic. Let the atheists define atheism.A theists agrees with the statement “A god or gods exist.” An atheists does not. Neither requires the certainty of a gnostic position. Neither requires the agnostic belief that knowledge of a god or gods existence is unknowable.

          • Then pick up a dictionary. Atheism and Agnosticism do not answer the same questions. One addresses belief, the other knowledge.

          • Atheism: the view or belief that God does not exist.
            Hard Agnosticism: One cannot know whether God exists.
            Soft Agnosticism: One does not know personally whether God exists (but is open to evidence).

            What do you think of these definitions?

  8. Sporkfighter says:

    Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. . . .

    How presumptuous to choose one or a few atheists, trot out one or a few essays of your choosing and present them as representative of atheists or atheism in general.

  9. What pray tell is “the one true god”?
    It seems that everyone has their own version of the “OTG”. Each cult whether it’s judaic, christian, islam or one of the touchy feely new wavy spiritual groups all have their variations on the theme.

    This is why so many atheists find it a ridiculous notion.

    The concept is illogical but that’s also the very draw to believers. It helps those folks make sense of things that they can’t in a nice neat bundle and thusly can put away their worries and not have to question, whether it’s the world around them or existence itself.

    I almost envy the naivete of blind faith. But it also makes them targets of chicanery. History proves it again and again. So when the faith defends itself it’s like a con man saying “would I lie to you?”.

    • Sporkfighter says:

      “I almost envy the naiveté of blind faith.”
      Not me. That’s like envying the diaper-wearing toddler because he doesn’t have to think about personal hygiene.

    • You are assuming all concepts of God are a priori or human inventions. One can arrive at God via a conceptual analysis based on the data of life and the universe (Natural Theology). This can make Special Revelation from God even more
      warranted.

      • Sporkfighter says:

        One can arrive at any concept from false premises as well as true. The key is to prove your premises true first. Are you making the statement that life in the universe requires the existence of a god?

        • I would say that the existence of any life in the universe, especially intelligent life, is more plausibly explained by the existence of God.

          • Sporkfighter says:

            What explains the existence of God?

          • First, read Leibniz on contingent vs. necessary beings. Then take a look at the Kalam Cosmological Argument (www.reasonablefaith.org). We could discuss it then.

          • I doubt if any of us are unfamiliar with Kalam. The premise that anything that comes into existence requires something to bring it into existence (paraphrased) is not only an assumption but shown to be false at the quantum level, where things do indeed pop into existence.

            I think that “existence of intelligent life is more plausibly explained by God” is God of the gaps. There is no evidence for that proposition. You could cite lack of evidence for anything else, but that’s a gap.

            I do think theism requires things to be made up. If a doctor gives me a diagnosis, and I get a second opinion and it’s different, I could read the relevant papers. And even go to med school to learn the background. And set up my own lab and run my own double blind experiments. That’s not nearly practical, but given the resources and time, I wouldn’t have to trust anyone alone the line. The entire chain of evidence leading to the conclusion of my diagnosis is available, and I can choose between the competing statements based on my own understanding of the evidence.

            Even if I assume the divinity of Jesus, if I were to take the same approach with a theological question, at some point I HAVE to rely on faith. Did Jonah live in a giant fish for a week, or is that some kind of allegory? Two theologians can ague their case to me forever, and I can study the ancient Hebrew, and all the various accounts in the 100s of versions of the manuscript, and my decision will still come down to faith. The natural world doesn’t give me anything (other than people today can’t survive in fish for a week) to decide.

            So which theologian is making something up when they decide that Jonah is a literal account or not? I say both. One of them is right, but as long as both of them are open to the possibility of miracles, then they’re both make the decision on faith.

            So yes, my naturalism IS showing. But even if I believed in the supernatural, I have no way of knowing if a particular theologian’s account of it is correct or not.

          • I think you are equivocating on the word “nothing.” Sure, particles can appear in a quantum vacuum, but a quantum vacuum is not nothing. Lawrence Krauss makes the same mistake. Not that science is irrelevant to the Kalam argument (as it does offer some support of the premises), but the argument itself is really a philosophical one.

          • Do you mean the bit about the universe as we know it having a beginning? I wouldn’t call that ‘support’ so much as ‘not disproving on that point’. Kalam depends on the universe having a beginning, but it’s not arguing that the universe has a beginning. It’s assuming it. So that particular assumption (originally made well before we actually knew) turned out to be correct.

            The thing about Kalam is that even if I thought it was valid, it doesn’t move me from where I already am. I currently don’t have any belief of anything causing the universe to be created. But I certainly can’t deny the possibility. But the nature of that creator is still completely unknown. So there’s not much difference between accepting something to exist with zero knowledge of that something, and thinking that such a thing may or may not exist. I lead my life the same either way.

            You might say that Kalam provides a necessary condition for Christianity (and all other religions) but even that condition being met still leaves you really a long way from any particular religion or deity.

          • Also, the problem with any logical argument, especially one that relies upon causality, is that we have no idea whether such concepts as logic and causality exist beyond the bounds of our Universe.

          • There is no Possible World in which the laws of logic, including causality, do not exist. The Law of Contradiction, for example, would exist in any Possible World. One would have to use the law in order to deny it!

          • You cannot know this to be true. Even within our own Universe–on the quantum scale–events occur (like quantum tunneling, the double slit experiment, virtual particles, etc.) that defy logic all the time.

          • In what way do any of those defy logic?

          • Correct. The Kalam only shows the universe had a beginning. It’s not correct that the cause is “completely unknown”. We can uncover various attributes of the cause by the very nature of the case.

          • Rich, nothing in QM shows something coming from nothing uncaused. The principle of causality is a metaphysical principle. Something cannot come from nothing uncaused! By “nothing” I mean “not any thing”, particularly material, spatial, etc. There is not even the potential for something in nothing! If a particle pops into existence spontaneously, one cannot say that ‘nothing” caused it to do that! Nothing can’t do anything! There is nothing to even reify!

            Secondly, the Kalam only shows that the universe had a beginning, and therefore a cause, using both scientific and philosophical support. The nature of the cause can then be examined philosophically as to the best candidate.

            Also, faith can be reasonable faith. We can place our trust or assent in a view because we think it is warranted. And 100% certainty is not a requirement for warrant.

          • I would say making up explanations for things we don’t know is selling ourselves short, and doesn’t really offer much in the way of a tangible explanation. The God that explains life could be the programmer of the computer simulation we exist in. I highly recommend a Neil deGrasse Tyson’s essay/talk on “God of the gaps” called “Perimeter of Ignorance”. Available on a search engine near you.

          • I don’t argue God of the Gaps. Your naturalism is showing! You’re assuming theism is a worldview that just “makes things up”. Funny, I haven’t offered any arguments, I just answered the question I was asked.

      • Kevin, That’s why man made medications.

        • I don’t get it. Can you elaborate?

          • “Special Revelation from God” usually calls for anti-psychotic medications.

          • I’m speaking of the broader sense of Special Revelation. Theologically, God reveals himself via General Revelation (in nature, design, Big Bang, objective moral facts, universal intuition, etc). and Special Revelation (the Scriptures, the life of Christ, etc.).

          • To me “Theologically” equates to “nonsensically”.

          • What’s ironic is that you’re engaging in theology by making your statements! Whether a theological proposition is nonsensical remains to be seen!

          • In as much as it is engaging in astrology to say “astrology is bunk”.

          • Exactly Rich. Throw homeopathy in there too.
            “The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying… it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.” – Carl Sagan

          • Rich and Cow, we are engaged in a theological discussion here on this site and in these threads. Atheism itself is a theological study!

            Theology is a well-establish discipline. The only thing “nonsensical” is comparing it to astrology and homeopathy!

          • and you continure to prove the point. There are those that also believe that astrology and homeopathy are established disciplines when there is no empirical evidence to their credibility. The same for theology. At least in the sense that you use it.

            In poure terms theology is the study of religious faith, experrience and belief. So yes one could say thast I am engaging in theology in anthropological terms. So are you pro-animism? if not why not?

            “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours as well.” Stephen F. Roberts

          • What I’m trying to avoid is anyone saying, “it’s my theology that theology is nonsensical”. What about that bit of theology?

            I think Robert’s statement is pure rhetoric and that’s why it’s so popular. It mis-defines atheism and takes no consideration for why one would hold a worldview as opposed to another.

      • One “can” become a deist through the study of the Universe, I suppose, but even if one accepts the idea of a prime mover behind the Universe, a deity is merely one of a multitude of possibilities as to its identity.

        And even if you decide to identify that prime mover as a deity of some kind, there is still a vast gulf to cross before you get to anything that resembles one of the many Earthbound religions practiced today.

        The only honest answer to the question of life, the Universe, and everything (aside from 42) is “we don’t know”.

        • Mike, I agree one can become a deist through the study of the universe. Much of Natural Theology only gets one that far.

          I also agree that to show my view (Christian Theism), further arguments are required for the cumulative case. In fact, I think they can be added, and also show Christian Theism is the superior view.

          I like your reference, but I think you should revise “we don’t know” to “we don’t know exhaustively”. Obviously there are things we can know about life in the universe and can draw warranted conclusions. You’ve shown that yourself in what you’ve written!

          • “In fact, I think they can be added, and also show Christian Theism is the superior view”


            Well, of course you would think that – just as any Islamic scholar would believe they can show that theirs is the superior view (and likewise scholars of other religions).

          • 1). Kevin claims he can offer reasons that Christian Theism is true.

            2). Islamic scholars claim they can offer reasons Islam is true.

            3). Therefore, Kevin’s claims are false.

            Is that what you’re suggesting?

          • 3) Kevin’s reasons that Christian Theism is true are completely useless to the independent outside observer trying to distinguish between the validity of Christianity, Islam, and Voodoo.

            Regarding your longer reply to Helen on much the same line, it sounds to me like you are arguing in reverse. You have some attributes that distinguish Christianity from other religions, and you then imagine that God must be like those attributes. If you were to find a native in an un-contacted tribe who had never heard of Jesus, I suspect her logical reasoning as to the nature of God would be quite different from yours. The fact that we have so many ‘self evident’ religions in the world is testament to this.

            So, no, you’re not necessarily wrong, but you haven’t offered anything useful to the independent observer. Not that ‘we’ are completely independent since we’ve heard about all these religions.

          • I don’t think a conceptual analysis has to be in reverse. Obviously, something’s attributes can be uncovered by examining the data. If it is identical to what one’s worldview predicts, so be it. BTW, I have not seen my conceptual analysis of what the cause would be like criticized in these posts.

            It seems you agree with my main point: it’s a fallacy to say: “there are many competing views therefore yours is wrong”, or “there are many competing views therefore none of them are right”. That’s what Mike’s comment reduces to.

  10. Quote miserable atheists like Sartre, to the neglect of, say, Bertrand Russell, so your students understand exactly how unpleasant being an atheist really is. Oh teh noes, I am so lonely without my imaginary father-figure looking over my shoulder. How I pine to return to the flock!

    Seriously, Mrs. Becker, you think this is showing “respect” towards atheists? Being deliberately dishonest its representation in an effort to turn what few people you can back to the faith? Do you realize how condescending this is, or are you just dense?

    • Bertrand can’t bail you out! He said we must “build our lives on the unyielding foundation of despair”. And I know the context of the quote. Any meaning we assign to our lives is destined to perish.

      • Sporkfighter says:

        “Dispair” is an emotion, just like fear or happiness. One can experience it or not.

        • True. And Russell said to fail to recognize the firm SOURCE of the despair is to fail to have a firm foundation. What I think you’re recognizing is that there IS objective, ultimate meaning. But that can only be accounted for by God. If you want to go with your intuitions, then throw your atheism out the window quickly! Otherwise, you’ll continue to water down those intuitions of ultimate meaning.

          • Sporkfighter says:

            Why should I care what Russell said? Why should there be an objective ultimate meaning to life that we all agree on?You are assigning beliefs and motivations to me. You are arrogant and you are simply wrong.

          • It was just a suggestion. And I didn’t say we all had to agree on the ultimate meaning, only that I think we intuit there IS ultimate meaning.

    • The great privilege, and tough duty, of atheists is to decide for themselves what they believe, why, and how they feel about it. I knew this before I was 17 and accepted that I couldn’t expect much help with my duty, certainly not from even the best-intentioned of theists, because they start from a place that isn’t on my map. Russell et all could offer help, but I had still to scrutinise it as closely as any other help that might be offered.

  11. Matthew Prorok says:

    Where I think this view fails is in assuming that modern atheism is like the atheism of Sartre and the other existentialists. Why should we be sad about being atheists? The world is a wonderful, beautiful place, and that doesn’t change when one doesn’t believe in god. Why should we mourn the loss of god? There was in fact nothing to lose. There’s no reason to apologize for being an atheist. We make our own meaning, we fill our lives with the purpose we want them to have. Leave the gloomy maunderings of the past in the past; we’ve got an amazing universe to go discover.

    • Matthew, whistle past the graveyard much? :)

      • Sporkfighter says:

        You’re assuming that you know what atheists feel and think, even thought you’re not an atheist. You bring a theist world view and all your theistic assumptions with you, even thought you think you’re not..You’re wrong. You don’t know what it feels like to be an atheist, to look out at the universe and see it as it appears to be, with no hidden supernatural man behind the curtain.

        • We’re discussing Sartre and Camus, et.al. They knew what it felt like. And they refused to whistle past the graveyard! I suggest you read them first before you disagree with them.

          BTW, what in the wide, wide world do “feelings” have to do with it?

  12. Goodness! This seems very strange to someone who has been raised in a country with few theists by atheist parents. I simply don’t understand what he means about their atheism being superficial and threadbare? How can a disbelief be complex? Surely our complex philosophies and moral values and worldviews come from the things we do believe in and not the things we don’t? Christians will find their belief in one god complex, rich and rewarding whilst their disbelief in all the others simply a negative fact which does not add much to their lives.

    I am also confused by Sartre’s point and I think he must have grown up in a society in which morality was believed to have come from God. I am quite sure he was not suggesting that Christians only refrain from rape, murder and robbery because they believe in a god who does not permit it? Of course, they do not. Like everyone else, they have empathy and compassion for their fellow man and take pleasure in helping others and feel guilt and shame when they hurt others. I was able to take part in a test about psycopathy as part of a control group. When showed neutral pictures with disturbing ones of human suffering mixed in, my frontal lobe fired as I had an emotional reaction to the suffering – that is where my empathy and compassion came from. The psychopaths had no reactions in the frontal lobe at all. Religion made no difference at all to response.

    I have grown up being aware that we humans judge ourselves and set up rules for our society – democracy and law are how we govern ourselves and social services is how we care for our weak and vulnerable. However, I can see how if you’d been raised to believe there was a god watching over you at all times, the thought of there not being one could make you feel very alone. We are alone in the universe though and this is why we need to take care of each other.

    • Helen, what I think Beuchner is trying to say is that these kids were anti-Christians who called themselves atheists. They were thumbing their noses at the Christian god, and in so doing, they made him real. I can see the “despair” readings as a way to tell them not to stay in that position for long, because it is pointlessly uncomfortable: if a god is real to you, it makes little sense to do anything but worship him. If you find it “embarrassing that God does not exist”, then you are not dismissing gods as imaginary; you are turning your back on God, and looking over your shoulder.

      • I see. I think. They were actually believers pretending not to be? How complicated. I have not known of this but of course, this does not mean it cannot happen. As you say – very odd tho actually believing in an all-powerful superbeing who sends people to hell but pretending not to! Almost suicidal.

        • Well, this is mostly guesswork on my part, but perhaps they were trying to say they didn’t want to believe. A teenage mind is a strange place (I used to live in one).

  13. I believe in Jesus too! Well, should I say I think it is very plausible for a guy named Jesus who lived around that time, had a small following and preached some nice stuff…also let me remind you some terrible advice also…they were dime a dozen back then…even nowadays (just look at cults for instances).

    Now if you think he rose from the dead and all the miracles and so on you are entitled too…however rest assured it isn’t plausible…

    This is why you have to respect atheism…it is about believing what is more PLAUSIBLE and not what is convenient in light of evidence surrounding a claim…

    I ask: Is it more plausible to believe a man rose from the dead and performed miracles and was the son of god (or god himself) or that man made up stories, lied, forged and editing a text (which is documented) that was written well after his death. Not to mention miracles were a dime a dozen back then and the folk were highly superstitious, illiterate and uneducated…

    Why do you feel the need to believe the most IMPLAUSIBLE story? That in its self is irrational. Fear? Hope? Indoctrinated?

    A rationalist would believe what is most PLAUSIBLE especially in light of zero evidence supporting a claim.

  14. I’m a recovering christian and non-believer. I think the often heard conclusion that young atheists are only rebelling is wrong – at least it no longer remains the most accurate description. The single biggest reason for decline in religion is the advance of science either in stealing the “magic” or simply contradicting the claims in religious manuscripts. Also, this nonsense that without tribal gods, you can not have a moral population…have a look at Japan or northern Europe. They seem to be fine.


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