June 10th, 2014
02:40 PM ET
Meet the atheist ... who believes in God
Opinion by Frank Schaeffer, special to CNN
(CNN) - All the public debates between celebrity atheists and evangelical pastors are as meaningless as literary awards and Oscar night.
They are meaningless because participants lack the objectivity to admit that our beliefs have less to do with facts than with our personal needs and cultural backgrounds.
The words we use to label ourselves are just as empty.
What exactly is a “believer?” And for that matter what is an “atheist?” Who is the objective observer to define these terms?
Maybe we need a new category other than theism, atheism or agnosticism that takes paradox and unknowing into account.
Take me, I am an atheist who believes in God.
Let me explain.
I believe that life evolved by natural selection. I believe that evolutionary psychology explains away altruism and debunks love, and that brain chemistry undermines the illusion of free will and personhood.
I also believe that a spiritual reality hovering over, in and through me calls me to love, trust and hear the voice of my creator.
It seems to me that there is an offstage and an onstage quality to my existence. I live onstage, but I sense another crew working offstage. Sometimes I hear their voices “singing” in a way that’s as eerily beautiful as the offstage chorus in an opera.
My youngest grandchildren Lucy (5) and Jack (3) are still comfortable with this paradoxical way of seeing reality.
Most grownups don’t have the transparent humility to deal with the fact that unknowing is OK. But Lucy and Jack seem to accept that something may never have happened but can still be true.
For instance they take Bible stories we read at face value, and yet I see a flicker in their eyes that tells me that they already know the stories are not true in the same way boiling water is true and can be tested—it’s hot!
It's like that mind-bending discovery from quantum mechanics that tiny objects like electrons can actually be in two places at once and act simultaneously like a particle and a wave.
Maybe my grandchildren will embrace quantum theory, and won't look for ways to make the irrational rational by hiding behind words like “mystery” in order to sustain their faith in science or God.
Or maybe they'll embrace apophatic theology, the theology of not knowing.
Atheists in the Bible Belt: A survival guide
But it's not the easiest thing to do.
Our brains are not highly evolved enough to reconcile our hunger for both absolute certainty and transcendent, inexplicable experiences.
Nor can I reconcile these ideas: “I know that the only thing that exists is this material universe,” and “I know that my redeemer liveth.”
Depending on the day you ask me, both statements seem true. And I don't think I'm alone in that.
Behold, the six types of atheists
We’re all in the closet, so to speak. We barely come out to ourselves and never completely to others. I have met people who claim a label - evangelical or atheist - until you really get to know them.
Then, things get more complicated.
Many of us, even the devout, have many more questions than answers about God and religion.
In other words, people just like me: atheists who pray and eloquent preachers who secretly harbor doubts.
I believe that we’re all of at least two minds. We play a role and define that role as “me” because labels and membership in a tribe make the world feel a little safer.
When I was raising my children, I pretended to be grownup daddy. But alone with my thoughts, I was still just me. I’m older now, and some younger people may think I know something.
I do: I know how much I can never know.
Many Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians inherited their faith because of where they were born. If you are an atheist, you hold those beliefs because of a book or two you read, or who your parents were and the century in which you were born.
Don’t delude yourself: There are no ultimate reasons for anything, just circumstances.
If you want to be sure you have "the truth" about yourself and our universe, then prepare to go mad. Or prepare to turn off your brain and cling to some form or other of fundamentalism, whether religious or secular.
You will always be more than one person. You will always embody contradiction.
You—like some sort of quantum mechanicals physics experiment—will always be in two places at once.
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book is "Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace." The views expressed in this column belong to Schaeffer.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.
Fascinating article. What Schaffer is saying is that he believes in a "force" rather than a single, all-knowing deity. He doesn't define that source as natural or supernatural, just that it is working "off stage". So, in a way, he is an atheist. Theism is a belief in one God who is creator and ruler of the Universe. Clearly, Schaffer isn't in that mode.
I don't think he's saying anything about a "force". Look at the words he chooses: "I also believe that a spiritual reality hovering over, in and through me calls me to love, trust and hear the voice of what I’ll call “my creator.”"
That's personification. It's much closer to a deity than a "force".
Believing in spirituality has nothing to do with atheism. There are atheists who believe in spirits, energies, reincarnation, magic, all kinds of things. The only thing that atheism refers to is a belief about a deity.
The word atheist has a definition. It isn't a philosophical concept, it's a freaking specific and defined word. Give me a break.
"I believe that life evolved by natural selection. I believe that evolutionary psychology explains away altruism and debunks love, and that brain chemistry undermines the illusion of free will and personhood."
Actually, if you believed that and believed in god there is already a term for you. Modern Catholic.
There's another term: half-right.
And yet another term: Christian scholar. (I would have included "apologist" but only a handful of apologists actually rely on scholarship. Far too many use scholarship where it suits their purpose, and fill the rest of their pages with too much philosophy)
The sad reality is just that atheists are the most vocal, and so our society is coming to believe they're the smartest...but Christian scholars I've read can put them to shame just by using a bit of science – applied to Christianity.
I'll bite – what have you got?
Isn't a Christian scholar similar to a Tolkien scholar? Sure – they have read the source material, and formed opinions and arguments about that material. But that doesn't make that source material correct, or true, or worthy of belief.
100% not an atheist.
Meet an atheist and you are meeting someone who will spend eternity in hell. Keep worshipping your father, satan, and see where you end up. My camel-toe is excited for beach season (behind the trailer). It is time for you to start your walk with Jesus.
People like you have a very narrow and simplistic idea of God that is based upon fairytales.
Carnal atheist throwing sand in the wind, hoping a few grains will land on atheist rocks. Dream on non-believer. The toilet broke but I just bought a big box of trash bags so no problem. The Bible is 100% accurate. Read it.
"Meet an atheist and you are meeting someone who will spend eternity in hell. Keep worshipping your father, satan, and see where you end up." Do you, like Frank, not know the definition of the word Atheist? Atheists don't even BELIEVE in Satan, much less worship him. You're either a fool or a troll.
Is that supposed to upset an atheist? Do you worry about what Allah or Shiva or Thor think of your life choices and beliefs? Of course you don't. Atheists are exactly the same way with God. It's like saying the boogie man is going to get you.
Ahhh, CRAP! Not the Boogieman!!!!!!!!!!
You carnal atheists sling mud from the train you ride on to hell. I hope you like the heat because you will roast for eternity. My 12-year-old daughter smokes in the trailer but she won't let her kids. Keep standing on the wrong side of the tracks and see what car you end up in...
Oh that's what the world needs – to be preached to by trailer folk.
With apologies to sensible mobile home dwellers.
What's the point of your hateful insults? First, Atheists clearly believe that Hell is complete make-believe, just like heaven. When you die, guess what.... you're dead. So you simply mock yourself by saying GO TO HELL ATHEIST!
What's your obsession with "carnal atheists?" Do you think catholic priests as well as everyone else not possess carnal needs? If carnal needs were not met, we wouldn't survive as a species.
Bible 100% accurate? ??? Are you f'in serious? Yea, I've read it a few times, and it's about 1% accurate to real events. It's all just new fables given to astrology that's been around for "ages."
Even though trailer trash such as yourself couldn't possibly possess the ability to comprehend the realities and science that exists to explain this world, it doesn't mean you have to resort to the city on stilts of the holy high ground. Still believe in Santa Claus? Easter bunny?
And "HeavenScent" strikes again. When will people learn to read?
Yet another 'Creator at the Edge' take on life. Quantum mechanics will be understood by the researchers as soon as they get the tools...better tech. Why is it so hard for people to grasp that we are the only ones in control of our lives? There is no otherworldly presence dispensing love or wrath, picking sides, or giving subtle hints on how He,She, or It intends life to be lived and our history bears this out in a sometimes painful fashion.
And how do you know that?
Because there is absolutely no evidence of any kind to the contrary. We can take flights of fantasy as much as we like- as long as we like and when we are done reality will alway be right here waiting for us.
Everything in our history is man driven- either at our best or at our worst.
"Because there is absolutely no evidence of any kind to the contrary."
I'd disagree with that. But I guess my question would be, "Could you be wrong?"
"Could you be wrong?"
That is an irrelevant question. There are an infinite number of things we could be wrong about. If we turned the Earth into a giant think tank and generated possible paradigms that would could not prove wrong, we would burn up in the sun before we exhausted all the possibilities, if we even could.
The ability to discern between reasonable evidence and the lack of it is part of our mental faculties. When we abandon it, we are using something other than reasonable evidence to determine truth, and that can be problematic if you interact with others.
I believe they are true, yes.
Please explain how you can say that you disagree with there being no evidence of god? What evidence??? Show me 1 single thing that gives merit to your FAITH? For the record, the bible is NOT evidence by any standard.
You carnal atheists sling mud from the train you ride on to hell. I hope you like the heat because you will roast for eternity. My 12-year-old daughter smokes in the trailer but she won't let her kids. Keep standing on the wrong side of the tracks and see what car you end up in.
this is a bunch of nonsense. you're not an atheist. you're, at best, a new-agey, spiritual clown.
I don't care what he believes. Just don't try to teach that crap to my kids in their public school science class.
I appreciate what the author is trying to say here, but it's mostly nonsense. For one thing, he claims to know that people came to their beliefs through one path or another, when in reality there are many different paths. Most religious people inherit their beliefs from their parents. But there are others who come by their belief after a lifetime of searching for some explanation that makes sense to them.
And yes, most atheists came by their lack of faith after being taught to question religion. However, there are other atheists who's lack of faith came from a world view rooted in science. For them, not believing in "god" is simply a byproduct of understanding science.
And there are many Christians who have solidified their beliefs through a combination of science and scholarship. The whole dichotomy itself is way oversimplified but caters to the simpler parts of our brain that organize around conflict (oh no, i better not start getting too sciency with behavioral biology)
I don't think many atheists were taught to disbelieve – most came to it on their own. Some of us just never believed, despite being raised with church, others believed, but over time just kept hitting things that convinced them they were wrong.
I think that CNN is posting this drivel because they will somehow profit from the sale of his book. There is no other reason to confuse believers even further on the definition of atheist.
I know, he's a Deist. Why can't he just own that?
Don't be stupid. You can't redefine language to suit a paradoxical belief. You can't be a Christian Jew, a white black, a little big, or an atheist God believer.
Jews for Jesus?
It is interesting that you post a list of famous people who are atheists. Are you posting a list of famous people who happen to believe in a Higher Power? Or are you only interested in promoting atheism?
It's an old slide-show they're recycling, but it's a good point none-the-less
They've had similar lists about religious celebrities. I couldn't find a link, but don't start feeling all persecuted, it's been covered. Maybe someone else can help out with a link.
They have a gallery of famous atheists here because this article is about atheism.
Or worse, some of the comments by the later atheists are just awful (and I'm not an atheist). It's clear that lots of celebrities can't even be counted on to make rational decisions about their beliefs anymore than what they ridicule.
"Most grownups don’t have the transparent humility to deal with the fact that unknowing is OK."
There's a word for that. It's called Agnostic. I'm an Agnostic near Atheist secular humanist.... but by that definition I'm not really an Atheist and neither are you.
PS To all the haters... it doesn't make you stupid to be an agnostic... as far as I'm concerned that's actually the most rational philosophy us lowly humans can have. Also... we don't need to demonize all "believers" just the ones that demonize us. People are people... live and let live.
I'm an agnostic atheist.
They are 2 different answers to 2 different questions. Not sure why so many people have trouble understanding that...
No need to redefine atheist – it's one who lacks belief in a god.
An atheist who is positive there is no god, is a gnostic atheist – and few atheists are gnostic – most are agnostic atheists, who use the term atheist because it does accurately represent the majority of our belief – or lack thereof.
Do you expect Christians to qualify themselves as agnostic Christians to avoid being called out for being overly sure? Agnostic atheist is really the norm. I do know those who are offensive to agnostics – most who use this label are agnostic and neither fully theist nor atheist – but that's not the mainstream, that's the classic extremist making a bunch of noise and fuss, same as the extremist evangelical who gives more normal moderate Christians a bad name.
Well said Susan.
My favorite category is the gnostic agnostic – otherwise known as the extreme agnostic – "I don't know – and neither do you!"
Agnostic refers to your belief about whether we can prove or know for certain about the existence or non existence of a deity. It doesn't refer to your belief about the existence of a deity. I am an agnostic atheist, as are most atheists I know.
Sounds like the religious equivalent of a political "independent".
Thinks they know more about both sides than everybody else, therefore they can self-righteously criticize and even mock both sides as though they themselves were above the philosophical disagreements.
Great that you claim to "not know". But, like the political independent wrongly believing that both sides are equally at fault for our problems as a country, there is no equivalency between creating a mythos around your own personal beliefs and ideology, and the hard evidence of real-world truths.
In this author's confusion, he attempts to obfuscate a simple fact – if you believe in a higher being you are not an atheist. It's that simple. To portray the human experience as complicated does not change this. This article reminds me of the term "non-practicing Catholic", a term I've heard and used before. The difference between a "non-practicing Catholic" and a sometimes-believing atheist is simple – with the latter there is no guilt.
I want to thank you for bringing about some unity on this board – the first time I've witnessed such.
I pray you're dead-to-self and thus the opinion and approval of others matters not to you; for "those who crave the voice of flattery do not have the ears to hear the tender voice of the Spirit."
the author isnt an atheist. he is one of the faithful that is somewhat less brainwashed than the other faithful, trying to rectify what he sees in front of his own two eyes as reality with religious mumbojumbo.
He's basically trying to use his current vocabulary to define something in another language that he doesn't understand. Kind of like puberty.
Typical CNN version of a "Belief" blog, with yet another spin on their atheistic views that are just promoting more of a godless society in which we have so much daily evil and millenials are growing up with none of the faith or values of even their own parents!
I know you liberal minded don't believe anything, or that anything in the liberal media can ever contribute negatively to society, but it's this "progressive" agenda that is trying to get away from everything traditional, every value that parents dare to want to instill in their children despite the liberalized society and government school system thwarting them at every turn!
CNN is one of those progressive propagandists that is undermining every vestige of wholesomeness that American society once strived for, for a "whatever" and a denial of any foundational value set than it their own minds, nothing transcending the liberal agenda!
What does your "wholesome" America look like?
Can you define the "liberal agenda" in any specific way or are you just certain that the great, faceless, pinko, commie, atheist, liberal "They" are on a quest to destroy all that you hold dear?
That's interesting. See my view is like this – if milleniels tried to imitate the values of their parents (who are currently running the country), then they would be starting wars, borrowing money they can't pay back, running up the cost of living (real estate, colleges), and again sticking the bill to their children.
I suggest you evaluate whether the generation that spawned millenials is really worth imitating.
You are quite free to post elsewhere, maybe you should see if foxnews.com has a religious blog. But I'm sure CNN appreciates your continued patronage increasing thier internet hit numbers.
Oddly the "fair and balanced" network doesn't have a comments section... hmmmmm....
Haha, funny thing, Fox used to have comments on their religious section, but within an hour it would be in the 10's of thousands of comments and regularly crashed pages.
Right on, Kenman! I wanted to install my traditional biblical beliefs in my children that g-ays were freaks and should be ridiculed, ostracized, and beat up. That blacks were inferior and lazy. I wanted my daughters to grow up knowing in their hearts that their role in life is to crank out kids, tend the house, and be subservient to the husband.
What ever happened to tradition???????
Thanks kenman14 for posting a load of tripe whilst claiming to be a good little christian whilst doing it. Pathetic.
The way I see it, is the current generation looks at the leaders of this country and through the increased communication and internet for research have been able to uncover the rampant BS of previous generations. We're in a bit of a hole though because the people of that generation that can vote, can't be elected yet or change the system. Republicans are maintainers of tradition, with all the negatives associated with it.
-Although the literal definition of “atheist” is “a person who believes that God does not exist,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, 14% of those who call themselves atheists also say they believe in God or a universal spirit. That includes 5% who say they are “absolutely certain” about the existence of God or a universal spirit. Alternatively, there are many people who fit the dictionary definition of “atheist” but do not call themselves atheists. More Americans say they do not believe in God or a universal spirit (7%) than say they are atheists (2.4%).-
Seems to me that about 19% of the participants didn't know what the defintion of those terms actually were.
Doesn't sound much like atheists, depending on what the 'universal spirit' concept is.
I'm not sure. I guess there are different types of atheists. Not really different denominations, but differing belief systems – or disbelief systems. I think it kind of depends on where you were born and what you were raised to believe. Kind of like religion.
"Although the literal definition of “atheist” is “a person who believes that God does not exist,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary
The OED, I think, has a better definition:
atheist, n. and adj.
1. One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.
Most of us do not accept the 'positive belief in non-existence' aspect of your definition above.
That was from Pew Research.
This man is not an atheist. Google his name and you'll see his works as an author, etc. You could say he's confused about some things. Perhaps learning about the tooth fairy left a psychological scar.
"Not all atheists see a contradiction between atheism and spirituality. A quarter (26%) say they think of themselves as spiritual people, and 3% consider themselves religious people. Four-in-ten atheists (41%) say they often think about the meaning and purpose of life."
whats your point? people are confused as to what the word means if they think that way.
Just stating some statistical information. You can be an atheist and belong to a religion.
no, you really cant.
Yes, you can. You can be a Secular Humanist, or even a Buddhist, and belong to a religion and be the walking definition of an atheist. Maybe they are not a "real atheist" by some atheist standards, sure.
I'm an atheist agnostic Buddhist.
Is that an issue? None of the beliefs are contradictory, so I don't see the problem.
There's nothing about being an atheist that says you don't believe in a spiritual side to life. Just that there is no deity out there. And I do know some atheists who attend services for the sense of community – and while it's not for me, if they choose to participate and enjoy the social aspects of some religions, there's really no downside.
Right. I know atheists that attend services. I've been with them.
"Four-in-ten atheists (41%) say they often think about the meaning and purpose of life."
If people didn't naturally wonder about the meaning and purpose of life, religion would never have been invented.
That is strange that so many say they don't think about the meaning and purpose of life.
How is thinking about the meaning of life something that is limited to the religious? And spiritual is a term that many use without implying a god.
I don't know. It just said only 40% of those who identify as atheist thinking about the meaning or purpose of life. I think most atheists do, so I'm surprised by that claim.
♰♰♰ Jesus Christ Is Lord ♰♰♰
We are all coins with two sides, according to this view.
Very interesting article. Will follow up later.
Jesus Christ is your lord. To me he is a fictional representation of a dark age myth.
If god existed we would have to hang him for crimes against humanity.
Only Jesus predates any supposed "Dark Age" that you believe may have happened (which is not an accurate term used by field historians). And I think you might confuse crimes against humanity from followers of religion, and crimes against humanity committed by God (none; hint – he's not all as involved in our lives as people think, if we could bring deism back to the religious discussions perhaps atheist wouldn't be so popular since it's theism that is really their biggest enemy)
' and crimes against humanity committed by God (none; hint – he's not all as involved in our lives as people think, if we could bring deism back to the religious discussions perhaps atheist wouldn't be so popular since it's theism that is really their biggest enemy)'
oh I dont know, there was that whole flood thing, killing all the first born of egypt. god is a bit of a psycho in the bible.
"I also believe that a spiritual reality hovering over, in and through me calls me to love, trust and hear the voice of what I’ll call “my creator.” "
Ummm – he sure doesn't sound like any atheist I know. He's not even saying that he doesn't know; he says he believes.
Well, if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, (and it does) I'd say he's a believer.