There are myriad reasons one might jettison theism. Conflicting views on science and the Bible, issues of suffering, and no need for a “god of the gaps” are a few I’ve recently run into. But there is one reason I find perplexing: denying God because of an emotional response to theists.
I felt this reasoning strongly when I was in graduate school the first time. I’d gone from a sheltered Christian college as an undergrad to a secular graduate school. I was also attending a small church not too far away.
My faith was called into question on every level. Intellectually, people like Lacan and Derrida were all the rage, and they read better without faith than with. My morals were challenged and was approached by a friend who offered to have sex with me so she could show me just how not a big deal it was, so not necessary to save for marriage.
I was challenged emotionally as well. The small church I attended was actually a great place. The people were nice and a blessing to me; I’m truly grateful for having been a part of that community.
But the atheists were lots more fun.
The grad students would go to a bar and talk all night about stuff that was irrelevant and exciting and cool. At church we heard sermons and made chit chat. Even the deeper relationships I formed with Christians my age seemed different. Always a bit stilted.
I could say anything to my atheist friends, but felt I had to watch my words with the Christians.
This was a challenge to me. I wanted the total freedom to say and be whatever I wanted to be. And the atheist crowd gave me that space. The church crowd expected more from me. My desire to hang out with the atheists fueled my doubt in God.
I truly wrestled with my faith in this way: what community do I want to be a part of.
But this is the lamest argument for becoming an atheist. And to be honest, it’s also a bad reason to be a theist.
If the Christians had been cooler, would I have had a stronger faith? If the atheists had turned out to be axe murderers, would I have embraced theism more fully?
The reality is this: there are horrible people out there—hypocrites, evil doers, and jerks. Some believe in god, some do not. Some believe in the Bible or other sacred book, others do not. They’re still terrible people.
And there are great people out there: loving people who believe in god and loving people who do not. Good Samaritans of faith, faiths, and no faith.
I simply don’t think we can decide on theism or atheism because of our affinity for the people around us.
I want to be part of an open, loving community. Don’t most people? But this is not the same as accepting or rejecting a faith system.
Yes, our lives and communities are a witness to what we believe to be ultimately true. But my decision about what is ultimately true is my decision—regardless of how cool the people are who happen to agree with me.
Organic chemistry class in college helped me change my major to English. I totally loved my science classes. Organic chemistry was amazing as I watched the class study more an more complicated compounds that ended just short of living organisms. The next semester was biochemistry, but I had sold my soul to Shakespeare by then and didn’t need biochemistry ruining my GPA more than Organic had already done.
So I’ve always been surprised by the animosity that some project between theism and science. Or, stated better: even though there are notable exceptions, why do some atheists and theists feel science and faith are incompatible?
I’m a believer who loves science stuff. So the tension between the camps baffles me. Here’s how I think they coexist.
Science and Theism
(As I wrote in this earlier post, I differentiate between theism and religion. One can believe in a transcendent being and still reject religious and spiritual expressions of that transcendent being. Separating theism from religion and spirituality is the key. What’s I’m discussing here is theism, not the Bible, Christianity, or any other expression of theism.)
Science observes and measures. It then postulates logical conclusions from what is observed and measured, but subjects those postulations to more observation and measurement.
By definition, science studies only that which is material, only that which can be observed and measured.
On the other hand, theism asserts that there is something more to existence than that which is material. Theism affirms the transcendent, that which is beyond the physical world. So I can believe science’s investigation of the physical world and still believe in a transcendent being that is different from the stuff science studies.
In my understanding God cannot be observed or measured, so is separate from that which science can study.
So as I sat in Organic learning about the complexity of molecules, I sat amazed. This was wonderful and amazing stuff. And God is beyond this. It never struck me that understanding benzene rings would show God doesn’t exist.
Science’s Gifts of Freedom
Science has removed the need for humans to understand the working of the universe from a theistic standpoint. It might sound strange for a Christian to phrase it like this, but it’s true. Here are three ways science has blessed theism:
First, in a pre-scientific mindset, I could have believed that thunder was the gods fighting and that my crops failed because I didn’t give the rain god enough attention.
Science has freed us from this. We can understand weather patterns and know that thunder and lightning are discharges of electricity. No angry gods wrestling and (frighteningly) threatening to damage our world. We don’t have to sacrifice children to the rain god so our crops succeed. These understandings are a blessing to theist and atheist alike.
Second, science has also given us another option in our theism: non-theism. A mechanical (or quantum) universe that is nothing more than the stuff of the physical world makes my pre-scientific mindset unnecessary, or even absurd. In a scientific world, we are free to not believe in the divine and still have a functional life.
Science gives us the atheistic option, but it is just an option. Just as science freed us from being afraid of gods, so it has empowered us to legitimately reject theism. How is this a blessing to theism? I believe rejecting theism can now be an informed choice, not a culturally imposed belief. Because I am free to reject the divine, I own my belief in the divine. We are free to make an informed choice.
Third, science has freed theology to relate to a larger universe. As a theist who basically trusts science, I’m pumped about the possibility of human knowledge and exploration. I don’t live in fear that I will offend a god by sending probes to Mars. And if life is found on anther planet, my understanding of life will change, but my theism does not have to. Every biological discovery and mathematical theorem shows how expansive God is. As humans are freed to explore ourselves and our environs, I am freed to discover just how expansive a god is who transcends even that.
I accept that science can accurately describe the universe that it studies, and I believe that there is something transcending science.
Science tells me about my world. Theism is my trust that more exists than just my world.
For me, science only expands my awe of the One who I believe created all that is.
I’m a minister, and I have friends who don’t believe in God. By “friend” I don’t mean “people I’m trying to convert.” I mean real people whom I value and whom I respect.
As I was reading the book of Ecclesiastes this morning, I realized how similar the issues raised by the author (called Qoheleth) are to some of the issues that concern my atheist friends. Here’s an informal compilation of some points of similarity:
The meaning of life
- Atheists assert that the world has no overarching story, purpose, force, or being acting upon it. “The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.” D.P. Barash
- Ecclesiastes opens with what looks like a similar claim about the amorality of human existence: “Meaningless!” (1:1) This word is the mantra of the book and the more Qoheleth looked for meaning in his life, the less he found. The Hebrew word is hevel, and it can can mean “empty,” “vanity,” or suggest a fading vapor.
Ways toward fulfillment
- If there is no creator, no moral code built into the fabric of the world, then humans shape meaning, getting fulfillment from loved ones, art, work, etc.
- Qoheleth also knows that people strive for meanings that don’t exist, meanings that must be found in the immediate context: “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil.” (3:12-13).
The need for community
- Atheists understand the world in the collective. The goal of evolution (to use an anthropomorphism) is survival of the species, that is, the entire group. Evolutionarily speaking, no one is ever alone.
- Qoheleth also notes the need for community survival: “Twho are better than one . . . if one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the one who falls and has no one to help him up” (4:9-10).
Desire for justice
- Despite the wording that the natural order is “amoral,” I don’t know any atheists lacking a sense of morality or justice. Atheist and theist alike can point to injustices, and often these injustices are connected to religion. (I heard the story of a noted atheist traveling in Northern Ireland when the IRA was active. He was stopped by armed men without insignia. A man pointed a gun at him and asked if he was Catholic or Protestant. He had never been happier to have no faith at all and gladly exclaimed, “I’m an atheist!” The gunman paused and then asked, “Are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant one?”) Atheists may well be the first to see injustice when it is done in the guise of faith.
- Qoheleth also knows about injustice: “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness” (7:15). Qoheleth knows that life is unfair and does not turn a blind eye to injustice.
These similarities are not to say that Qoheleth was an atheist. On the contrary, Qoheleth writes Ecclesiastes to wrestle with the realities of life within a framework of faith.
And I don’t mean by these similarities that atheists are somehow closet theists. I hope I have characterized the thinking of my atheist friends well enough for a blog post; I’ve no intention of being patronizing.
Yet I do find in Ecclesiastes points of contact between my faith and my atheist friends. The book confronts the difficulties of life without saccharine platitudes. The book asks the tough questions—even questions that seem to question his faith—and yet still finds God.
However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember the days of darkness, for there will be many. Everything to come is meaningless. Ecclesiastes 11:8
In the end, Qoheleth remains a theist, calling us to “respect God.” It is in his relationship with the creator that Qoheleth seeks answers to life’s futility.
Perhaps Qoheleth gives us tools for meaningful, respectful conversations about our faith and our lack thereof.
There is a point at which sin so entangles us that we cannot even pray for forgiveness. The wrong feels so good; and the good feels so distant. We know God is there, but we have no clue how he can be. Or how he can be there for us.
I’ve been there. You’ve likely been there. The Psalmist was there with us.
It’s at this dead end point—embraced by death and terror—that the psalmist looks back in Psalm 116. Nothing but sorrow. Nothing but trouble.
He cannot even confess. He cannot give voice to the need of his heart. He simply feels dead, trapped, helpless. So his cry to God is simple: “Please, Lord, save me!”
It’s is good that we confess our sins, that we totally come clean to God and appropriate others. But we can’t always do that. We’re too far gone to name our sin, to utter a confession.
All we can say is: Please help me.
God hears. And he saves. “He hears my voice. He bends down to listen.”
When I cannot stand up in the mire of my own bad choices, God bends down to hear me. When I cannot express what I think and feel, God hears anyways.
“I was facing death and he saved me.” All because of one whispered sentence.
“Please help me!”
God does save even those who don’t know how they can be saved. Those at the end of their ropes. Those so deep it seems hopeless. To those so hardened that they crave the very things that ensnare them. One prayer opens us to God’s salvation.
“Please help . . . ”
No matter where you are, no matter how dark it seems, not matter how confused you may be, no matter how tired you feel. You are not beyond God hearing the smallest prayer.
“Please . . . ”
Someday—I hope very soon—you and I can join the psalmist in declaring: “I will . . . praise the Lord’s name for saving me.”