An Atheist Who Believes In God (Part 1)

Photo Credit: Wouter de Bruijn via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Wouter de Bruijn via Compfight cc

A few weeks ago I mentioned Frank Schaeffer’s book,Why I Am An Atheist Who Believes In God, and quite a few people wondered how he could hold such contradictory notions in his head, or how I, who claim to be a lover of logic and reason, support such a statement.

I will not speak for Schaeffer though. If you want to know his ideas, I suggest you read his book yourself. This article will explore how and why I think it is possible for an atheist to believe in God.

It’s not easy being an atheist these days, just as it is not easy being a Christian. Two thousand years ago, one would just say “I’m a Christian” and that’s that. Although I suspect that there were already arguments back then whether you were a Christian in the tradition of Peter or Paul or Apollos (which Paul wrote strongly against in 1 Corinthians). These days, being a Christian is even more confusing as various sects and denominations lay their own claims to the name. Some are inclusivist (accept other sects as Christian) while others are exclusivist (only they have the right to the name and only theirs is the true way).

You have Roman Catholicism, Catholic Universalism, Greek Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Seventh Day Adventists, Latter Day Saints, and even homegrown groups such as the Aglipayan Church, El Shaddai, Iglesia ni Cristo and the Kingdom of Jesus Christ the Name Above Every Name, and many more.

In a similar fashion, many atheists find themselves trying to explain their atheism in one way or another. Richard Dawkins, in his book, The God Delusion, identifies seven stages in the spectrum of belief. Three stages pertain to theism (stages 1, 2, 3), one pertains to strict neutrality (stage 4), and the other three pertain to degrees of atheism (stages 5, 6, 7).

There is the weak atheist (stage 5) who “leans towards atheism.” This type of person says “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical. I am more likely to doubt than to believe.” (Incidentally, the word “weak” should not be taken as a criticism of character but only a descriptor of the degree of unbelief. The same goes for the word “strong” below.)

There is the de facto atheist (stage 6). This type of person thinks there is a very low probability that God exists although he cannot say for sure. But he lives his life on a very naturalistic level. This person says, “I cannot be certain whether or not God exists but it seems very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that there is none.”

Then there is the strong atheist (stage 7) who says, “I KNOW for sure (100%) that there is no God and I reject any notions of god or gods.”

He further goes on to mention in recorded interviews that most atheists would only go as far as identifying themselves in stage 6 as there is no way they can really know for sure of any god’s non-existence, although as far as degrees go, he puts himself at 6.9 or very close to 7.

But Dawkins is not the only one who makes these distinctions. Christopher Silver and Thomas Coleman from the University of Tennessee conducted 59 in-depth interviews and derived 6 types of unbelievers: Intellectual; Activist; Seeker; Anti-Theist; Non-Theist; and the Ritual Atheist.

Luke Muehlhauser, who runs the website Common Sense Atheism, goes several steps further by defining 17 types of Atheism, with each type not necessarily exclusive to another. So one can fit into types 1, 5, 10 and 13, for example, which can result in thousands of combinations depending on what suits you.

So when one claims to be an “atheist,” what is he really saying? Even the simplest definition of the word is the subject of debate. Some would say that the prefix “a” simply means “a lack of” and since “theism” pertains to a belief in god or gods, then a-theism would mean a lack of belief in a god or gods. This would then mean that babies and little children and even dogs and cats are, by default, atheists.

Others however, take the word in a more active sense as the “rejection of belief in god or gods” or as the secondary definition of Merriam Webster puts it, “the doctrine that there is no god.”

This lays the groundwork of part 2, which I will discuss next week.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

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5 thoughts on “An Atheist Who Believes In God (Part 1)”

  1. “Two thousand years ago, one would just say “I’m a Christian” and that’s that.” Ummm… How many members of the early Christian Church were tortured, killed, robbed of community status? Your point of athiests and Christians not having it easy is a valid point, by how many Christians were martyred for just being a Christian? Even in the early church, the man (who you will probably claim was not the man) who wrote the most of the New Testament admitted to such. Early Christians were not safe from their own families, the Jews, or the Romans.

    “Some are inclusivist (accept other sects as Christian) while others are exclusivist (only they have the right to the name and only theirs is the true way).” Like many things, it can become easy to divide over words, but it is the thought behind those words that really do make a difference. Many people point to the different sects, and try to turn it into a negative. You were closer to fair than most, though. You seemed to try to convey that it is similar to athiest. To me, it is apples and oranges. While I believe that a Christian is a person who believes, accepts, and follows Jesus the Christ, others will try to define it other ways. I can point to teachings of various sects and point out what I agree with and what I do not, but, to me, the larger issue is if we are talking about primary or secondary issues. Some people claim to be Christian without even being able to describe what it means. Many people in my life claim to be Christian, mostly because they were brought up that way, but strongly disagree with many of His teachings. Mainstream (and again, to me, correct) Christianity agrees onto the primary points, but not always the secondary ones. So, they are inclusive of other denominations that agree on the primary points. Since the Jesus of Latter Day Saints and many other sects (or cults) have a completely different person that they also name as Jesus, it can make it extra confusing for outsiders.

    Although I am sure, for some, the viewpoints of the people you referenced was enlightening, it does not seem to further your point. (“This article will explore how and why I think it is possible for an atheist to believe in God.”) My summation of that portion is that athiests actively believe that there is no God (or God, or gods). It just points out that people have different strength if conviction, reasons that they believe it, and how they portray it in their lives.

    “This would then mean that babies and little children and even dogs and cats are, by default, atheists.” I find it ironic that when we have had discussions on several points, you talk about how it mandates the presupposition in God, the God of the Bible (I know, I know- which Bible?), but this point requires an unbelief to start with. If God is true, than your statement here would be completely false., depending on certain factors like who God is, the nature of the relationship between both He and His creations.

    When I checked many dictionaries and googled many different thoughts, I was not surprised at the general consensus seems to be that atheism is an active choice. But, you were right that there are some who try to make it less. Where the ancient Greek word started and the more modern self-proclaimed fall is on the side of active, so, I believe I will retain my original belief of the definition of atheism.

  2. LOST IN DEFINITIONS!

    A Response to “An Atheist Who Believes In God (Part 1)”

    Hi Andy, it’s been a while. Read your article. Just could not resist offering my thoughts.

    “I mentioned Frank Schaeffer’s book, Why I Am An Atheist Who Believes In God, and quite a few people wondered how… I, who claim to be a lover of logic and reason, support such a statement.”

    Count me with those who “wondered.” There is substantial and serious basis for such a concern.

    “This article will explore how and why I think it is possible for an atheist to believe in God.”

    Your statement that “it is possible for an atheist to believe in God” is, to me, conceptually just flat out incoherent. But I’ll try to follow your thoughts.

    I find your brief survey on the “varieties” under Christianity interesting but not that helpful. You should know that historically there is an orthodox core of Judeo-Christianity, simply but plainly stated by Paul in 1Cor15. This is consistent in the entire New Testament corpus. This is lost in your presentation. I think a fair presentation of Christianity should include this, and not leave the impression of a smorgasbord “Christianities.”

    I also find your survey of the “varieties” of atheism not very helpful. Richard Dawkins’ 5, 6, 7 stages of atheism is best understood as really just varieties of atheistic skepticism towards the notion of God’s existence. When it comes to belief in God, however you cut it, they’re all atheistic.

    How about good old Richard himself? You stated, “as far as degrees go, he puts himself at 6.9 or very close to 7.” O c’mon Richard. Do you think you can actually scale your atheist-antitheist mindset to a .9?!

    On atheist distinctions by Christopher Silver and Thomas Coleman. Again, not that helpful. I see all this as simply how an atheist expresses his unbelief:

    >(Intellectual) “I’m a reasonably intelligent person; I can’t countenance theism, it’s for the crazies.”
    >(Activist) “I’m pragmatic and practical. I want to change the world, so I go for what works. This God stuff is mumbo jumbo nonsense.”
    >(Anti-theist) “Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!” (Richard Dawkins, Reason Rally 2012)
    >(Non-theist) “I’m a spiritual person, but I’m not religious. That personal God thing is not for me.”
    >(Ritual Atheist) I have no freakin idea!

    And Luke Muehlhauser’s “17 types of atheism”? Talk about LOST IN DEFINITIONS!

    You stated, “So when one claims to be an “atheist,” what is he really saying? Even the simplest definition of the word is the subject of debate.”

    Well, for those who let themselves get lost in definitions, yes. But that is really quite unnecessary.

    “Some would say that the prefix “a” simply means “a lack of”… then a-theism would mean a lack of belief in a god or gods.”

    I find this problematic 1) etymologically, or in the proper parsing of the word ‘atheism,’ 2) semantically, and 3) conceptually.

    “This would then mean that babies and little children and even dogs and cats are, by default, atheists.”

    This conclusion logically follows from the above (highly problematic) premise. However, the utter absurdity of labeling a T.rex, a tick or a tree as “atheist” is eloquent refutation enough to abandon this approach for what it is; nonsense. This is a useless definition; it’s just too big that it’ll even sink the Titanic!

    “Others however, take the word in a more active sense as the “rejection of belief in god or gods” or as the secondary definition of Merriam Webster puts it, “the doctrine that there is no god.”

    Now you’re talking! Let’s look at the word in a more straightforward way.

    Atheist, from the Greek compound atheos —

    > A (alpha) – prefix, no or without
    and
    > Theos – God

    Monotheism is the belief in one God. So a monotheist is one who believes in one God. Polytheism is the belief in many gods. So a polytheist is one who believes in many gods. Pantheism is the belief that all/everything is God. So a pantheist is one who believes that all of the cosmos is divine/God. Panentheism is the belief that God is in everything. So a panentheist is one who believes that God is in everything (in the trees, in animals etc or that the divine principle exists within every aspect of creation).

    What of atheism then? The same semantic follows. Atheism is the belief that there is no God; it is a position that categorically states, ‘God does not exist.’ This is the most straightforward meaning of the term, and in fact is the usual definition given in standard references. Here’s what the on line Britannica says of atheism –

    “Belief that god does not exist… the atheist must offer evidence (such as the problem of evil) that there is no god or propose a strong principle for denying what is not known to be true.”

    (Donn R. Day’s article persuasively argues for this definition as the correct one, see
    http://www.thedivineconspiracy.org/athart3.htm.)

    There is a serious logical problem with the position of atheism; its assertion that God does not exist 1) presupposes infinite knowledge (knowledge of the entire cosmos in its scope and essence) on the one making the denial, and that 2) the denier has strong evidence to deny God’s existence.

    So to avoid that unbearable burden, there are those contemporary atheists who soft-pedal and switch to the less intellectually burdensome position, the agnostic position. (This is the position taken in theinfidels.org http://infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/sn-definitions.html. I find it unpersuasive.)

    Agnostic (Greek)

    > A (alpha) – prefix, no or without
    and
    >Gnosis/Ginosko – knowledge, to know

    Thus, the position that states, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s a God.’ This is quite a popular position these days, viewed as sophisticated. However, in Latin the equivalent is ignoramus (admittedly not very flattering).The problem with this view is that it can be categorized as a “lazy” position, or as an easy way out.

    Atheism is atheism. If you don’t want that, there’s always agnosticism.

    By the way, read your Part II while having lunch today. Hopefully I can also give the time respond to it once you post it here.

    Blessings.

    bogs

  3. Let me correct myself. My statement “This is the position taken in theinfidels.org” does not mean that the article referred to takes the agnostic position (my use of the word “position” is, in context, poor), but rather that the article follows a similar argument, i.e., soft-pedaling on atheism from the more straightforward “There is no God” assertion to, as the article states, “merely the lack of theism.”

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