Why I’m Not…an Atheist

Following up on yesterday’s post, I’m starting an occasional series called “Why I’m Not…” Here’s the first installment.

I have a lot of doubts about God, even about the existence of God. I am blessed, and cursed, with a highly rationalistic faith. I’ve written here before about my doubts, and I even expressed them in a sideways manner at Fuller Seminary this winter, in a way that got me in some hot water.

This week, I’ve read a thoughtful post at The Dish about epistemic humility, of which I have long been a proponent.

And the USA Today ran a profile on physicist/theologian/priest John Polkinghorne:

Polkinghorne doesn’t know for sure that there is a God. And yet, when he was at the top of his game in physics at Cambridge in 1979, he left the laboratory studying one unseen reality for the seminary to study another unseen reality. He became a priest in the Anglican Church. In addition to believing that quarks exist, he believes in a God who is driven by love to continuously create a world that is beautiful. For him, the theories that have God in them work. But he doesn’t really know for sure. And he’s OK with that.

Dean Nelson concludes the piece on Polkinghorne with this:

As for belief in God, “It’s a reasonable position, but not a knock-down argument,” he said. “It’s strong enough to bet my life on it. Just as Polanyi bet his life on his belief, knowing that it might not be true, I give my life to it, but I’m not certain. Sometimes I’m wrong.”

That’s about where I land. It seems to me quite reasonable, if not an iron-clad certainty, to believe in God.

In the end, Pascal’s Wager is very compelling to me. When faced with evidence both for and against the existence of God, I choose to believe in God. Too many good, noble, and brilliant people have believed for me to ignore their witness to God’s existence.

Why do you believe — or not believe — in God?

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  • bob c

    what a simple, but powerful post Tony

  • Jim Armstrong

    Such candor with respect to a cornerstone question is refreshing, and resonates strongly for me. It is a long and continuing wrestling process, this sorting sorting out and becoming more comfortable with the uncertainties of a more or less rationalized personal faith (starting from a conservative evangelical inherited faith). This is made more fun yet by an analytic personality and a technical career path. I can understand the path taken by Polkinghorn and others. The inner workings of Creation are truly awe-inspiring in their simultaneous simplicity and complexity, and progressive discoverability, …and how much we must take on faith, even in those disciplines. But the bottom line for me seems to have become the matter of first cause, and that is simply a choice, I think. I was comforted in this regard back when the Big Bang theory and its supporting evidence everged. [I’ve never understood why fundamentalists don’t like this, other than the trivial(?) age issue that accompanies them.] In any case, God as suggested by first cause of everything we know is a working understanding for me, … that there is a God of Creation, and that we are privileged to live in the providence of that life-giving and remarkably discoverable Creation. Much mystery remains for me as to how to expect any two-way interaction might proceed with such an Other. But I think we are at least given the opportunity to, and perhaps expectation to, do our best with current understanding and opportunity within that Creation. My axiom in this regard is that there is a God of Creation. – Thanks for this post. JimA

  • I have seen too much good and decency in what can often be a cruel and sick world to not believe in something inspiring that. Again, can’t prove it or even define it particularly well, but the belief in a higher power is my quantification of love as a force I’ve experienced firsthand. I see God in my young nieces and nephews, the selfless creation of enlightening art, and the sacrifices that people make for each other (often to protect them from other people).

    I try to live my life by John 4:8 as a guiding principle, and my life–and, I’d hope, the lives of those connected to me–has increased exponentially since attempting to do so.

    Thanks for this post, Tony.

    • JPL

      John 4:8: (His disciples had gone into town to buy food.)

      Well, it’s not the most inspiring life verse, but I guess keeping everyone fed is important too. 🙂

      • Bruce Williams

        I would bet his reference is to The First Letter of John, Chapter 4 verse 8, where it is said: “He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.”

  • Tony,
    Thanks for this. I really appreciate your transparency here. I could answer the question “why I believe” with all the typical Christian platitudes, and they would still be true. But, when it comes down to it…. I don’t know why I believe, or at least I can’t explain it in a way that begins to describe the real… WHY… other that the “I” in tulip. It has to be (maybe) God who allows me see him because I don’t think I could on my own? Or, at least, that’s how I explain it to myself? I could be very wrong here, but that’s how I see it. Thanks for what you do!

  • Peter A

    I just can’t abide by this god of the new and old testament. It’s like holding two simultaneously conflicting ideas in my mind and then be expected to not go crazy.

    Hell, any ancient book that proclaims to be the word of a being that we as humans can not touch, see or experience similarly is not worth a moment of my life.

    Pascal’s Wager can be rationally nullified like so: If god is truly a forgiving god (especially for those who lead good lives), why believe at all?

    • Peter, one of the keys to Pascal’s Wager, IMHO, is that God is ultimately inscrutable. Therefore, if-then questions don’t quite work when attempting to determine if God exists.

      • Peter A

        I had to look ‘inscrutable’ up, thanks. 🙂

        If god is impossible to understand or a complete mystery, why do people think it needs to be or wants to be worshiped? This is an interesting concept that I don’t think most religious people grasp fully, if true.

        There is no coin, sorry Pascal.

    • Jim W

      One slight quibble, Peter; where do you get the idea that God forgives those who live good lives? The Bible specifically explains that nothing we can do is good enough to warrant God’s mercy. We can’t possibly do anything that’s good enough to be forgiven.
      We believe because we understand (at least some do) that we are failed sinners in need of God’s grace which He provided in the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. Because we grasp this, we throw ourselves on God’s mercy and ask for His forgiveness. If we don’t humble ourselves and seek this free gift, we lose it all. That’s a good reason to believe. Otherwise, why not be a Buddhist, or whatever religion (or none) you want? No reason not to, except as explained above.

      • Peter A

        Jim-What exactly do you think you’ll lose?

        • Jim W

          Eternal life, the experience of being in the presence of the most incredible being in the universe who was willing to give up His Son to save me. The alternative, eternal separation from said being, resulting in eternal torment. Torment resulting from realizing my own incredible stupidity in not taking advantage of the love of God for me when it was available.

  • Larry Barber

    If god is truly a forgiving god (especially for those who lead good lives), why believe at all?

    Because there is much to gain in living a Christian life in this life. I’ve always disliked those approaches to evangelism that seem to say that you have to sacrifice joy and happiness in this life in order to have it, or at least to avoid hell, in the next. Following Christ is not a sacrifice, even with the “take up your cross” aspects of it.

  • Karla Seyb-Stockton

    I believe because I cannot not believe. I have tried, but the more I learn about genetics leads me to God. The more I see how creation fits together leads me to God. The more I see people rise up to serve, reach outside of themselves, be moved to make a difference leads me to God. The more I see people face down evil with good/faith/hope leads me to God. I have seen people crumble in the face of evil as well, and the compassion shown by people around them leads me to God. Curiously, seeing the evil has not led me away from God. Probably because the good/faith/hope/compassion overcomes it (even though it sometimes takes a very long time and sometimes I don’t get to see it first hand. I have seen it enough to choose to trust that it happens, just outside of my purview.)

    Like Jim, first cause fits me. Something I choose to call God was the beginning of the beginning. I also have chosen long ago to not question the “why” or the “how” of faith. It is OK that it is beyond my understanding. I recognize there is a difference between knowledge and faith. I do not have to know everything, and even if I did, it still wouldn’t have much to do with faith. Faith is a different substance AND process than knowledge. So why do I believe? Because I cannot not believe.

    And finally, for Peter A.: Why, when you ask “If god is truly a forgiving god, why believe at all?” do you qualify it with (especially for those who lead good lives)? I would have expected you to qualify it with (especially for those who cannot or will not lead good lives). My answer would be the same regardless of how you or anyone qualifies the question… I use the Spartan proverb quoted by Erasmus and re-quoted by Carl Jung: Bidden or not bidden, God is present. I believe because I believe. I just do. It isn’t about getting something (i.e. forgiveness) as you imply, or abundance as some evangelicals would imply, or salvation or anything. It is about being in relationship and acknowledging that. I believe because I cannot not believe.

    • Peter A

      Karla-Can we agree that christian doctrine requires you to repent or you will suffer? I.E. Look at what Jim W wrote.

  • Julia

    You say, “I am blessed, and cursed, with a highly rationalistic faith. I’ve written here before about my doubts…It seems to me quite reasonable, if not an iron-clad certainty, to believe in God.”

    But you don’t say what your highly rationalistic reasons are for faith, though you are able to clearly communicate your doubts. I am very interested to hear how someone as reasonable as you rationalizes theism.

  • Thanks for posting this, Tony. It’s a candid and thoughtful reflection.

  • Danielle P

    It is serendipitous for me to stumble upon this, as I have often wished I could find the time to sit down with you or with Doug and ask – as an athiest – “why AREN’T you an athiest?”

    And yet, not surprisingly, the answer is pretty much, well, “just because.” Theology and rationality and intellect are only part of why people settle into any sort of faith. And for me, the answer to why I don’t believe in God is exactly the same: I just don’t. It was a realization and not a choice, and I wonder if people are just hardwired for one or the other.

    Thank you for this, Tony.

  • Good stuff, Tony. I choose to believe also, even though often times “it’s harder to believe than not to” (Flannery O’Connor, via Steve Taylor: http://youtu.be/vUxwE0_uc6E).

  • I’ve always been intrigued by Pascal’s wager. In short the Wiki article says this about it… “that even if the existence of God could not be determined through reason, a rational person should wager as though God exists, because living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.”

    The key phrase to me is “wager as though God exists”. First off, this invites one to “fake” belief in God… or pretend for the sake of pretending. I, for one, cannot fake belief that doesn’t exist nor would I think God would want me to do so.

    Secondly, which God should I place this wager on? There are many varieties and flavors from which to choose. This leads to terrible uncertainty and, for me, a constant yearning to not “wager” but “know”… which we already have ascertained that we cannot. Belief is not certainty.

    Finally, the wager seems focused on happiness in the afterlife (“everything to gain”) versus no afterlife as the gamble. Since there is no way of knowing for certain whether or not God exists, nor knowing which God or “heaven” to base my wager on, then it seems that the surest bet is to live like this is the only life there is. The certainty of living this way leads me to suck as much joy and happiness as possible out of life in the here and now, share it with those I love and others around me and live like there’s no tomorrow.

    I sleep better at night knowing there is only this life to live and that I should choose to live it well.

    • With regard to points one and three, no, that’s simply not correct. Read up on Pascal and what he meant, and more importantly, how he lived.

      He would literally place bets with people. He would challenge them to live the life of a devout Christian for periods of time. Why? Because he was so convinced that living the devout life of faith was the absolute best to way to live in the here and now that any skeptic or unbeliever would come to faith simply by living that life.

      You can’t get the full power of the wager from a wiki article. You’ve got to study the man who actually made the wager to fully understand it.

      • I didn’t create my reply simply on the wiki article. I referenced Tony’s link to the wiki article.

        At any rate, the “devout life of faith” (whatever that means) that I lived for over 30 years led me to a life of complete unbelief… for whatever that’s worth.

        You can’t get the full power of someone, or their life or knowledge of a subject, from a single comment. You’ve got to study the man who actually wrote it to fully understand it.

  • Mark

    Thanks! I needed this!

  • Bill coburn

    Belief in God hasn’t ever made much sense to me. I’ve never found the apologetics entirely useful to a rational belief in God. I can’t believe in something that I can’t intellectually grasp. Thus I confess that I irrationally chose to assume God without expecting to understand God. I, like everyone else, have created my own God. I love ‘my’ God. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t love anyone else’s God. Yet, even though I’ve created a God I love, I don’t understand what I have created. On the other hand, I love my wife too, whom I haven’t created, and I don’t understand her either.

  • The Misfit Toy

    I hate Pascal’s wager. It is just the selfish “get everything you can out of life” manifesto, married to the platonic-influenced viewpoint that the things in the other realm are so much more important than the things here. If you glue two bad things together that does not make a good thing.

    I am not an atheist. There is no rational proof that I can point to, instead I am simply captivated by the idea of God.

    I think it would be more interesting to speak of a Christian faith which is irrational at the heart, and gains a legitimate seat at the table of human activity by the witness of the loving acts of its practitioners.

    • yup. the Penses are a fantastic read, but not because of being able to infuse logic into the pursuit of God.

  • The deeper science goes the more mind blowing complex things are. Atheism is a suppression of rationality.

  • toddh

    I struggle with similar stuff and came up with my own similarly titled list. Definitely not any kind of “proof,” just my personal reasons:
    1. You have to believe that something came from nothing, or that something was just always there.
    2. Reasoning from my personhood to God’s personhood.
    3. The moral order of things
    4. The irrationality of people and life (atheists place a high value on reason/rational thinking)
    5. The idea that intelligent, moral, sophisticated life came about purely by chance and without purpose.
    6. Atheism provides no satisfactory answers to life’s most vexing questions: pain/suffering, meaning and existence, etc.
    7. Atheism says little intrinsically about what it takes to lead a worthwhile life: i.e. grace, forgiveness, love, hope, etc.

    I suppose I could also come up with my “why I’m a doubter” list, but that’s less fun.

    • Nelson Hernandez

      You are absolutely correct. Atheism has nothing to say on any of these topics. Do you know why? Because atheism is not a belief, ideology, philosophical position, etc. Atheism is exactly what it’s name from ancient Greece states; A lack or non belief in a deity. That’s it. Is is the absence of belief of an unsubstantiated claim. Now Skepticism is something different. I think you need to realize this point before you make unfounded assumptions and base your thinking on that. With such a false premise, your conclusion is bound to be incorrect.

      • Mel

        Often there is a helpful and friendly discussion and then the attack is put out there. I’ve read so many posts that have the aggressive tone of the above one, that sound like a high school debate with an ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ absolute statements such as ‘With such a false premise, your conclusion is bound to be incorrect’. An open discussion can be informative, allow for disagreement and be respectful in tone at the same time. It doesn’t have to be about point scoring and winning or losing. People were just asked their own opinions about why or why not they believe.

        In regards to the article…thank you, it was helpful and I can relate to the faith you describe. Cheers.

  • Tom C

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I agree with others who have posted here that the more we know about science (which also means the more we realize how much we don’t know) the more possible or plausible it becomes that there is some G(g)od behind it all. However, my belief is inspired from another direction. History. The core Christian claim is the Resurrection. If one really understands ancient culture and religious/political thought and expectations, the claim that this crucified guy is the Messiah and Lord makes no sense. There were plenty of other messiah figures who were killed by the authorities and then there movements were deemed a failure and disappeared. Jesus fate should have been the same, unless something happened. Sure there are theories such as Jesus did not really die and was revived or that the disciples made it up or hallucinated it all. But none of these arguments seem as plausible for explaining the rapid development and spread of Christianity. Nor do they explain, without requiring further hypothesis the conversion of Paul. However, if Easter did happen, then the history makes sense. Don’t we look for the most consistent interpretation of the data? I am not saying that one can “prove” the resurrection and thus “prove” the existence of God, just offering another place where there seems to be some interesting evidence to consider.

    • Nelson Hernandez


      Your argument has a major fallacy.
      “But none of these arguments seem as plausible for explaining the rapid development and spread of Christianity”

      I will not even get into providing links dealing with how unreliable witness accounts are. I will not get into the actual numbers of how quickly something untrue can be accepted as true. I have one question for you.

      How many urban legends do you know that are wide spread around the world and people take them as truths?
      1. More heat escapes from your head than anywhere else in your body
      2. Black market kidney sales

      and the list goes on.

  • Mary

    Very honest Tony, thanks
    For me, after a difficult season, I’ve come to the conclusion that just because I don’t understand it doesn’t me IT doesn’t exist. At the end of the day I still pray . When I struggled with issues of existence recently the answer came clearly: “What are you going to do with that?” I had to laugh and that was followed by peace. There is Something I don’t understand but I still recognize It when it passes by. Its new name is Beloved Mystery.

  • Like many other commenters, I’m not an atheist because I’m not wired that way; I have been in my life a sort of conservative Protestant, a pantheist, a deist, a neo-pagan, and of course an Anglican, but never an atheist. That there is a beauty beyond this world which undergirds it, a divinity which is the source and ground of Being itself, is a fact which has always been manifest in my experience.

    In terms of “theism,” however, it was, as an undergraduate philosophy major, seeing the ways in which the great atheistic philosophers of the last 150 years–such heavyweights as Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Jacques Derrida–were unable despite their best efforts to exorcise the transcendent from their philosophical systems the provided philosophical justification for my developing theology for me. In particular, it was reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus which paved the way for me: “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”

  • Beth Walters

    Because there has to be something behind the movement of creation in every instant, behind its interwoven, interlocking infinite complexity, because I realize the ongoing energy of even one of my own body cells is critical to the whole — and there is God, keeping it going, healing it and, then, making its death a part of the whole.

    The only thing that stands between me and my knowing of God is the anthropological, old-white-man-with-a-beard-and-a-scowl/loving visage that the world keeps passing off as God.

  • duane shank

    Your concluding sentence “Too many good, noble, and brilliant people have believed for me to ignore their witness to God’s existence,” reminds me of my favorite answer as to why I believe in God. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “There are no proofs for the existence of the God of Abraham. There are only witnesses.” I have known too many of those witnesses.

  • while i have struggled quite a lot in my faith i have also realized i could never doubt God’s existence. i became a follower of jesus because of a spiritual experience and have had others since then. i may not always like God (and i know my view is pretty warped at times) but i could never deny those experiences of Him nor could i fake them.

  • For reasons I get into a bit here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2009/01/11/pascals-wager-meets-the-toxin-puzzle-i-kinda-believe-help-my-kinda-unbelief-keith/ , I often suspect that Pascalian procedures may be more effective at producing pseudo-beliefs than at inducing real ones.

  • Pascal’s Wager FTW!

    Although, my ethics and philosophy professor at the prestigious Texas Tech University said that the problem with P’s W was that it did not say which god was god.

    I was disappointed to hear this.

  • Dear Tony,

    I’m a big fan of your blog. This post was very interesting to me since I have many conversations with my Atheist brothers and sisters about the same thing: why am I a Christian?

    Thank you for sharing and I look forward to more of your articles.

    P.S. I also liked the postings on Moltmann. I am trying to read more of him (along with Tillich, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Rahner, Kung, Boff, NT Wright and others) to add to my theological education.

  • Pingback: Why I’m Not…an Atheist | YouthWorkerCircuit | Scoop.it()

  • My faith is not based on eternal life, the Bible, or anything rational. There is no syllogism which defines my faith. There is no syllogism which defines why I am married to my wife either. My faith is based on a very real relationship with a loving triune God. I could not be an atheist any more than St. Teresa of Avila could have been. He created me with the full intent of moving in. In the interest of keeping this post short, click on my name for more.

  • Sorry. Above link is broken. Fixed here.

  • Manuel Berrios

    What a cool conversation. To be in, or not to be in? To believe in, or not to believe in? To fear it, or not to fear it? No dilution, authentic and wholesome. To quote another and the experiences they have lived is like talking about food one has never eaten. Dance, run, feel and express the highest potential within… Then you die and let me know. I am the verb. I am aware. Pragmatically speaking God is useful, but so is love.

  • Nelson Hernandez

    Very interesting. Hopefully you have done more research on Pascals Wager. Let’s look at it like this. Let’s say you agree with Pascal. The question then begs, which God do you believe in? What happens if when you die, Zeus is there before you and is like, “what’s up with all this Yahweh crap?” Or perhaps it’s Shiva or Horus or a plethora of other possible Gods. See how the wager does not work? The fact that you have doubt is a reasonable thing. It sounds like your belief is based more on a fear of “what if”. If this is the case, then in the end wouldn’t you still be found wanting? Isn’t it better to look at why your really doubt and why you really believe? As far as the initial creator concept. Here is a a great example.

    If you ask a child how a rocket gets to the moon on a technical level. They cannot answer you. They just know that it does. Mankind is still in it’s infancy (relatively speaking). We just lack the knowledge. What is wrong with simply saying, “I do not know.”

  • Mel

    I am not an atheist because having being raised and having exposure to various positions (Christianity, Hinduism and atheism) I made a choice based on what I knew given the available knowledge and experiences. My extended and immediate family are majority atheist and the few that are / were Christian had an impact on me just through how they lived their faith in their lives. What they taught me, they lived. They had a peace and truly loved others in a way that was different than I had seen anywhere else. When I came to faith I was questioned by my atheist relatives and had no idea how to explain it clearly so I read a lot on both sides. Sometimes it led me to doubt but then I would find myself with supportive information for faith. I think my critical thinking and research skills developed in social sciences helped me greatly. They helped me research for myself the claims made by prominent atheists that sounded rock solid, to find that they were at times shaky and based on opinion (when traced back to the original sources) than hard facts even though the way the arguments are presented sound convincing. Basically, when I threw everything together I came out a believer. It makes some family uncomfortable because they call it ‘blind faith’ because they do not believe it. They don’t have to and I don’t push anything onto them. I have also had very clear answers to specific prayer which nothing can explain away. So the faith described in the article above is one I relate to. For me, it doesn’t have to be black and white, meaning I don’t have to understand everything or be an atheist. Atheism has not convinced me however I respect people for whom it has.