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. 

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Culture & Science • Faith • God • Nones • Opinion

soundoff (2,372 Responses)
  1. drivenb4u

    Wow, now I've seen some rubbish on this blog but this takes the take. This kind of pandering drek only serves to muddy the waters on this discussion. We get it dude, you're spiritual but not religious. That term is already out there for it and it's all you had to say.

    June 10, 2014 at 4:36 pm |
  2. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    "Maybe we need a new category other than theism, atheism or agnosticism that takes paradox and unknowing into account."
    We do have a category that includes unknowing. It's called 'agnostic'.

    According to the OED:

    agnostic, n. and adj.

    1. A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of immaterial things, especially of the existence or nature of God. Distinguished from atheist n.

    This confused man needs a dictionary before attempting spiritual clarity.

    June 10, 2014 at 4:31 pm |
  3. HeavenSent

    The atheists on these articles pretend to have read the Bible, but they are liars. If you have read the Bible you would be saved. I keep the flea and tick shampoo next to the pooper scooper in the shower. Discover the Word and be blessed.


    June 10, 2014 at 4:30 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      "Properly read, the bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived."
      – Isaac Asimov

      June 10, 2014 at 4:45 pm |
    • Alias

      I was raised christian. I have read your bible. That is how I know it is a work of fiction.

      June 10, 2014 at 4:50 pm |
  4. Bryan Beus

    I really enjoyed this article and there is a lot of truth in it.

    As a Christian I feel similar to your beliefs in many ways. The concept of being in two places at once is something that, once I found, has always made sense to me in an inexplicable way.

    It's the same as how I believe in God and Creationism while still believing Evolution and the idea that science on its own can explain *how* the universe exists (though it doesn't concern itself with "why," which is the area of philosophy, including the philosophy found in religions).

    The concept of "Unknowing" is something I find more important each day. This certain stripping away of all labels that we apply to ourselves—even stripping away the label of being stripped away of labels—seems difficult, though I also realize that actually it is easy and it is only I who makes it hard.

    Coming from a religious background (LDS Christian) and having a testimony of the truthfulness of it, I have no desire to leave the church and all my heart wants to go into it. And, paradoxically, I find myself at this crossroads where one must abandon one's own self-label as a Christian in order to come to know the Truth that Christianity embraces.

    It would seem that holding two contradicting ideas as truthful would seem the only way to move forward. Different than I would have expected years ago. Tally-ho.

    June 10, 2014 at 4:27 pm |
    • orilliaatheist

      "Coming from a religious background (LDS Christian) and having a testimony of the truthfulness of it"

      Testimony of the truthfulness of it???? What the hell does that mean? That someone said it was true?

      June 10, 2014 at 4:39 pm |
    • johnbiggscr

      'Coming from a religious background (LDS Christian) and having a testimony of the truthfulness of it, '

      You mean the modern religion created by Mr Smith? come on now, you lot dont seriously believe that nonsense? the mind boggles.

      June 10, 2014 at 4:44 pm |
    • TruthPrevails1

      "Truth that Christianity embraces"

      And exactly what truth would that be? Your entire belief system is centered off of one book that has been shown to be wrong time and time again. You make the claim of the importance of not knowing but yet believing in this god shows us that having the answers is important to you, otherwise you'd take a step back, look outside your belief system and explore what else is out there.
      LDS are particularly humorous considering your entire system is based off of the ramblings of a convicted felon...a pedophile who used his delusions to create a religion. Being LDS is not something you should be proud of, you follow a pedophile and that's not cool.

      June 10, 2014 at 4:48 pm |
    • igaftr

      just because you want something to be true, does not make it true, Since you do not know if it actaully true, claiming it is is dishonest. I hear clergy say the very same lie every week.

      June 10, 2014 at 4:54 pm |
    • aldewacs2014

      @Bryan: |"It would seem that holding two contradicting ideas as truthful would seem the only way to move forward. Different than I would have expected years ago."
      – – –
      To me, it would rather seem that, if you have to resort to holding two contradictory ideas, that you really know – but are not quite ready to cut the cord – that the religious hokus pokus is no longer credible to your critical thought process.
      There's hope for you yet.

      June 10, 2014 at 9:37 pm |
  5. salmen76

    I'm American to the bone! I served my country in the Air Force for 20 years. There is NOTHING American about God. Christianity was invented by the ancestors of the idiots that stole our airplanes on Sep 11 2001 and flew them into the Towers and the Pentagon. Facts are facts. I believe in freedom, family and the pursuit of happiness!

    June 10, 2014 at 4:27 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      well said!!!

      June 10, 2014 at 4:46 pm |
  6. donna0072

    Why is it that such a simply defined word as "atheist" can be so problematic for people to understand? It has a crystal clear, precise definition: not believing in a deity. PERIOD. That's it. It's got nothing to do with spirituality, ghosts, creation, evolution, reincarnation, prayer, or anything else.

    It also has NOTHING to do with the belief about whether that existence can be proven, which is what agnostic refers to.

    June 10, 2014 at 4:26 pm |
  7. Doc Vestibule

    "You—like some sort of quantum mechanicals physics experiment—will always be in two places at once."

    This dude's grasp of quantum physics seems about on par with his theology.
    Perhaps he is a Chopraist.

    Through the quantum fluctuations of chronometric tachyon fields, one can surmise that at its core, the Universe is composed of Heinsenberg pulse waves interacting on the quantum level.
    Of course, these gravimetric oscillations can only be observed indirectly, but by noting their influence on the sub-atomic quantum flanging, the ferfanational matrices of gestalt knoncleotides proves, beyond a doubt, that the entire fabric of reality as we perceive it is nothing more than the passing whimsy of quantum midichlorians.
    Quantum quantum quantum.
    Buy my new book.

    – Deepak Chopra

    June 10, 2014 at 4:22 pm |
    • orilliaatheist

      Wow! I just got a brain woodie reading that comment.

      June 10, 2014 at 4:31 pm |
  8. jonathanlk

    Well if you believe in one of the deities, such as the creator, you may also believe in the destroyer of the Hindu religion. But whatever. Once you surrender to believing in a deity you can't call yourself an Atheist. Atheist means that your philosophy whatever it is, precludes the existence of any kind of deity. Personally I think it is humorous. When I delved into the history of religion, I found it amusing that the main focus of the Council of Nicaea of 325 where Constantine tried to unify the religions of his Empire, he tabled 53 gods, and after 1 1/2 years they couldn't agree on which one was the one. Constantine picked Hesus (from Britannia) and Krishna (from India) the Latin name for whom was Christos, gods from two extreme ends of his empire, and combined them into one, 'Hesus Christos' (sound familiar?), and charged Eusibius, his chief scribe, with compiling the 'New Testimonies' (sound familiar?) from all the known books and scriptures. I never knew there were so many gods. Constantine was baptized a Mithran which is why the story of Hesus Christos parallels so closely that of Mithra (google mithra). Personally, as a Atheist, I find I am so less confused than when I was a deist where you have to get used to outright contradictory logic, and knowing what you don't, and having faith when facts undermine everything you are supposed to believe. Peace! Good luck with that I'm a believing non-believer stuff. It sounds boringly interesting, sort of true falseness.

    June 10, 2014 at 4:20 pm |
  9. danielatlanta

    Keep searching, Frank. If you are diligently seeking, God will reward you with knowledge of himself as he has promised to do, and he always keeps his promises.–Dan Bruce http://www.prophecysociety.org

    June 10, 2014 at 4:20 pm |
    • orilliaatheist

      God always keeps his promises? What a truly odd thing to say.

      June 10, 2014 at 4:40 pm |
  10. lunchbreaker

    Still the norm that most people are focusing on and arguing about the label. He described "what" he believes, yet no one is debating his beliefs, but what he calls himself.

    Which one is more important?

    June 10, 2014 at 4:16 pm |
    • zhilla1980wasp

      I would say this shows we can accept his beliefs, seeing he isn't attacking anyone; it's the fact that he is misusing a term that we know to mean one thing.

      to me it would be like a Christian saying i'm a polytheistic monotheist.
      it truly makes no sense.

      June 10, 2014 at 4:20 pm |
      • Bryan Beus

        He's saying that he both doesn't believe in God and he believes in God at the same time. He's holding two contradicting beliefs in his mind simultaneously.

        Some people learn to do this, for others it's never a necessity.

        The article made sense to me, though perhaps his language could have been more clear.

        But, it's never easy explaining something to someone who feels and believes that things should be done a different way. Who's right and who's wrong? Probably both—each in their own way.

        June 10, 2014 at 4:33 pm |
        • zhilla1980wasp

          he doesn't and does believe in god at the same time?

          sounds like multiple personality disorder.............or just trying to cover his bases just incase there is one.

          June 10, 2014 at 4:40 pm |
        • In Santa We Trust

          Is that like being a fiscal conservative and a fiscal liberal?

          June 10, 2014 at 5:00 pm |
        • Bryan Beus

          "He doesn't and does believe in god at the same time?"

          Some people experience this, others don't.

          If I understand him correctly, he's doing something that some people experience, and others don't: removing the labels that we apply to our self in order to maintain a sense of security in a constantly changing world.

          For some people this is an important part of life. The ancient yogis, mystics, and monks who achieved a level of understanding that still amazes everyone to this day (even many scientists!) contemplated the same principle as above for years on end.

          (And, so that you know this is balanced, many of the yogis etc. of today, such as the Dalai Lama, are equally positively astounded by the discoveries of science.)

          It's not entirely necessary that people take this point of view of "holding two contradictory concepts in mind at once" that this man is taking; for some people it's helpful, for others it isn't.

          Some scholars in universities would make their amazing achievements if they were constantly doubting whether or not the importance of their goals existed. (That might be one reason why we often hear that despite the joy of teaching, academia is often a tiresome profession purely because one is constantly dealing with the politics among professors).

          Others, such as the famous author F. Scott Fitzgerald (author of The Great Gasby) thought the opposite way.
          He's quoted as saying (I'm paraphrasing),

          "The true test of an intelligent mind is in its ability to hold two contradicting principles in mind while maintaining its sanity."

          Does that make sense?

          June 10, 2014 at 5:52 pm |
        • Bryan Beus

          *oops, typo: some scholars in universities "*wouldn't*" make...etc.

          June 10, 2014 at 5:53 pm |
  11. zhilla1980wasp

    ok boring article. a theist that thinks it's an atheist, is this meant to be funny?
    i'm not much of one to speak, i'm an anti-theist. I could careless about a god or not, it hasn't done anything for or against humans so what does it truly matter?
    when any god makes it's self known and I mean physically then I will care until then I only see a human designed system of control making life which is basically simple incredibly complicated for no reason at all.

    June 10, 2014 at 4:13 pm |
    • noahsdadtopher

      Christ already did that. So are you ready to be a Christian now?

      June 10, 2014 at 4:16 pm |
      • zhilla1980wasp

        ok so show me where he did anything?
        mind you using your religious scripture to say what you say is true can easily be debated by using the scripture of far older civilizations.

        now where is your physical proof?

        June 10, 2014 at 4:18 pm |
      • Madtown

        Christ already did that.
        "Not for us, he didn't. How many times to we have to tell you? He must've not been very concerned with us."

        – humans living in North America at the time of Christ

        June 10, 2014 at 4:19 pm |
        • orilliaatheist

          Hey – don't forget us Aboriginals down under in Australia.

          June 10, 2014 at 4:41 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      I wouldn't say there's no reason at all.
      For example, there's no ancient Hebrew word for "trichinosis", but some smart semite figured out that pig meat makes people sick, hence God forbids it.

      Plus, being a shaman has all sort of perks.
      Perhaps Robert Heinlein said it best:
      The profession of shaman has many advantages. It offers high status with a safe livelihood free of work in the dreary, sweaty sense. In most societies it offers legal privileges and immunities not granted to other men. But it is hard to see how a man who has been given a mandate from on High to spread tidings of joy to all mankind can be seriously interested in taking up a collection to pay his salary; it causes one to suspect that the shaman is on the moral level of any other con man. But it is a lovely work if you can stomach it.

      June 10, 2014 at 4:19 pm |
  12. HeavenSent

    We Christians tolerate the atheists on these blogs in order to try to help them find God. You must read the Bible. If you just let the rabbit poop dry you can crush it into the carpet. It has been proven that believers are more intelligent than atheists.


    June 10, 2014 at 4:13 pm |
    • ballsmcghee

      proven how? where?

      June 10, 2014 at 4:20 pm |
      • Alien Orifice

        The Lord told us He would bring unto us teachers, having itchy ears. Some of the kittens are missing but the smell gives me a clue. Keep riding your bike backwards and you will find the fires of hell.


        June 10, 2014 at 4:24 pm |
  13. hoss6556

    Words have meanings.
    You're redefining words.
    Perhaps you should read up on common fallacies.

    June 10, 2014 at 4:12 pm |
  14. spacelasers

    You are not an atheist. Stop calling yourself one.

    June 10, 2014 at 4:10 pm |
  15. auntiekale

    someone please tell this poor chap that he is an agnostic

    June 10, 2014 at 4:09 pm |
    • Dalahäst

      He is not a real atheist. We would let him into my Atheist Church, but he wouldn't be allowed to lead or teach until he changes his beliefs.

      June 10, 2014 at 4:10 pm |
      • lunchbreaker

        I assume you are joking, but just to be sure:

        You have an Atheist church?

        June 10, 2014 at 4:18 pm |
        • ballsmcghee

          he's a troll trying to act like an atheist. he honestly believes atheists have churches, so this is his way of pretending to be a fake athiest to make us look bad. ignore him

          June 10, 2014 at 4:21 pm |
        • Dalahäst

          I am joking. I've never been to an Atheist church. But I've read about them. I imagine they are the types that go to atheist conventions, tell others they aren't real atheists and proselytize scientism on faith and belief blogs.

          June 10, 2014 at 4:21 pm |
        • Dalahäst

          Most atheists do not have churches, nor do the want to go to church.

          But there is an atheism movement underway that includes an atheist church and is open to some of the benefits that a religion provides.

          I was joking, not trolling. I love atheists.

          June 10, 2014 at 4:25 pm |
        • lunchbreaker

          WHEW! I was about to start believing in Hell, because I was sure it had frozen over.

          June 10, 2014 at 4:26 pm |
        • Dalahäst

          I have been to funerals for my atheist friends – 2 have taken place in Unitarian churches. It was very spiritual. And the leader prayed. But just no mention of God.

          June 10, 2014 at 4:33 pm |
    • G to the T

      He believes in a "higher-power" or "creator" – that isn't agnosticism

      June 10, 2014 at 4:16 pm |
      • Alias

        Then what is it?

        June 10, 2014 at 4:37 pm |
        • orilliaatheist


          June 10, 2014 at 4:42 pm |
        • Alias

          If you don't know what that higher power is, you are probably in the agnostic group.
          Theism suggests you know what god is.

          June 10, 2014 at 4:55 pm |
        • G to the T

          I wouldn't say necessarily. Theism only means you recognize that god(s) exist. I've always felt Deism a better defintion for belief in an inpersonal god (such as he seems to be describing).

          June 11, 2014 at 8:20 am |
        • macauguy

          He is an agnostic theist. He isn't certain there is a god, but believes there is one.

          Whereas I am an agnostic atheist, I don't know for certain of there is a god or not, but I don't believe there are.

          June 12, 2014 at 8:42 am |
  16. susanhelit

    He's simply a deist – or perhaps theist – his choice.

    But the word atheist is a VERY simple one – it means quite literally, lacking a belief in god.

    You can be an atheist and not believe at all in science. You can be an atheist and not buy into evolution. You can be an atheist and believe in ghosts and fairies and reincarnation. You can even be an atheist and be open to a belief in god, if proof ever comes along (as most atheists are).

    The one and only thing "atheist" means, is that you do not have a belief in god. Nice silly headline, but it's just nonsense. Meet a vegetarian who eats meat, meet a bald guy with long hair – fun word games IF you manage to make them make sense, but this one is nothing but a deist who believes in science and that there is a god, and who is mixing up science and atheism.

    June 10, 2014 at 4:09 pm |
    • G to the T

      Again, well said Susan.

      Did you used to be "stohelit"? LIke the Discworld character?

      June 10, 2014 at 4:17 pm |
      • susanhelit

        Yep, forgot a password.

        June 10, 2014 at 4:59 pm |
        • G to the T

          LOL... been there. Well – welcome back 🙂

          June 11, 2014 at 8:21 am |
  17. HeavenSent

    Atheists come on these articles to spew their lies about satan. Keep worshipping your father and you will be in the devil’s kitchen for eternity. The puppy litter has outgrown the oven. Invite Jesus into your heart and live forever.


    June 10, 2014 at 4:07 pm |
    • susanhelit

      Yeah, the usual. Believe in Jesus – or he'll kill you and torture you for eternity.

      I don't follow bullies, I don't cave to threats.

      June 10, 2014 at 4:10 pm |
      • Doc Vestibule

        This HeavenSent is here for comedic relief – note the mid-post non sequiturs.
        The real HeavenSent hasn't shown her grizzled old digital face here for many moons.

        June 10, 2014 at 4:14 pm |
        • zhilla1980wasp

          I agree the real heavensent was far more fun than this shadow of a troll just acting the part.

          June 10, 2014 at 4:23 pm |
      • HeavenSent

        You are a slave to satan. You will have your own worm feeding on your fat drippings for all eternity. I am moving the puppies to the refrigerator so they will have more room to play. It is time for you to start your walk with Jesus, who is God.


        June 10, 2014 at 4:16 pm |
    • ballsmcghee

      Atheist believe in Satan as much as they believe in a God. Not at all.

      June 10, 2014 at 4:22 pm |
  18. Doc Vestibule

    "A" = Lack of
    "Theism" = Belief in gods.
    "A' + "Theism" = lack of belief in gods.

    Saying you're an atheist who believes in god is like saying you're an apolitical republican candidate.

    June 10, 2014 at 4:06 pm |
    • johnbiggscr

      mind you we do get a lot of people on cnn forums spouting hatred of liberals, left this, left the other, that then try to claim they are independent so it wouldnt be the first time the claim was made.

      June 10, 2014 at 4:46 pm |
  19. mheinzem

    Since when did it matter if you believed in evolution? That doesn't make you an atheist at all. Most atheist believe in science as a replacement for mythological religions, but that doesn't make it a part of what atheism is.. Atheism is no belief in a higher power.. Bottom line... No If ands or buts.. You're not an atheist who believes in god, you're quite simply an idiot.

    June 10, 2014 at 4:04 pm |
  20. mheinzem

    This is by far one of the dumbest uneducated story's I've read yet.. Sir you're not a atheist, don't claim to be until you actually read the definition.. Is that so hard?

    June 10, 2014 at 3:58 pm |
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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.