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.
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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.
Frank Schaeffer takes too many liberties with definitions, which I find insulting and bothersome. I don't mind someone who calls himself/herself an atheist and believes in a supernatural being. There are several kinds of atheists out there, not just six or any number that Mr. Schaeffer or others might want to impose as conclusive.
Further, Mr. Schaeffer's promiscuous use of the verb “to believe” is confusing for the reader. We atheists do not need to believe the earth is round or that the atomic structure is such and such. Facts are facts and do not require us to believe in them.
I wish CNN got a hold of more intelligent and better informed contributors.
The fact is that there is one kind of atheist: someone who lacks a belief in a deity. Among atheists there are people with all kinds of beliefs outside of the issue of a deity, but that doesn't mean they are different types of atheists, it just means that atheist refers to one thing, and one thing only.
That's correct. I'm an atheist: I have no belief in any kind of deity of any type. Plus, I hold no beliefs in anything supernatural.
I was actually disagreeing with your initial claim that there were multiple types of atheists.
I prefer not to be too dogmatic about who is an atheist and who isn't. I've met some who call themselves atheists and hold supernatural views or conspiracy theories bordering on the supernatural, like ancient aliens civilized our planet.
Sure. There are atheists who like tuna fish sandwiches and some who have dogs. That does not make them different on their identification as atheist.
If one believes on psychic powers, that makes one non skeptical on the matter of psychic powers, but the atheism is unchanged.
Humans like labels.
Yes, the only thing that defines an atheist is disbelief.
Having said that, there are specific archetypes that are relevant. There are anti-theists (who are usually atheists). There are those who categorically believe in the non-existence of God. As much as I don't like the pigeon-hole label approach these distinctions are sometimes necessary.
For example: All atheists should not be conflated with the "gnostic atheists" – those who categorically believe in the non-existence of God.
Sadly, your logic or reason will make no impression on a theist of any stripe.
If we must put specific labels on widely-ranging 'beliefs', I'd say that this author is more of an SNR (Spiritual but Not Religious).
It's probably ok, though; it's at least getting the subject discussed.
Someone buy Frank a dictionary.
"All the public debates between celebrity atheists and evangelical pastors are as meaningless..."
I think this is probably what bothers me the most about this article.
I can be a rational enough person to believe in the principle of allowing all people to believe as they wish on a personal, individual basis.
But I cannot agree that the debate is meaningless in the face of those beliefs being used to discriminate against, dehumanize and demonize others.
Without the open, public debate about these fundamental disagreements, what you get is precisely what we have somewhat successfully gotten away from in the past – a theocracy.
Schaeffer is not an atheist. It's that simple.
I agree that at least one of the personalities that he cycles through is not an Atheist. For example he wrote: "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."
Sounds closer to a Deist than an atheist.
But actually, not in the sense of a classical Deist because for Frank, there still seems to be this personal aspect for this "creator".
He appears to be an agnostic, but wants to claim the spirituality of a believer and the empiricism of atheism.
This article is a 'mixed grill' of isms – it is neither fish nor fowl and attempts to be all at once.
I know and my cat hates that mixed grill stuff. who knows what they put in there (already besides animal by-products).
This article seems ridiculous on the face of it.
1 science is not atheism, nor vica versa.
2 someone who is called to hear the voice of his creator can hardly be called an atheist.
Yeah – I'm now more in agreement with not(GOPer) below – just agnostic (and not agnostic atheist either).
I think Frank Schaeffer is confused. By definition there are Theists and Atheists. One cannot be both at the same time. However, if he has multiple personalities, then each personality could hold different supernatural beliefs or non-beliefs. It seems that Mr. Schaeffer is writing that he cycles from one belief system (personality) to another and back. That could be a sign of mental instability.
People do have an amazing ability to suspend reality in order to enjoy a fictional book, story, or movie. However, confusing what is logically true with what is definitely not true is insanity. I do agree with him in that the human mind is not fully evolved. I would go further in my belief that many people don't really do much functional logical thinking at all. If they did, their belief in their god(s) would go away like that of flying reindeer.
Which leads me to another aspect this article overlooks...the author is claiming a multiplicity in the human psyche, which I think can be substantiated, but does not explain this. This itself is rather radical, but I believe supportable. Daniel Dennett makes this case for how consciousness arises from a multiplicity of lesser agents than a unified and all-knowing ego.
I tend to agree that the human mind is a conglomeration of semi-independent computational units. This can result in a conflicted, illogical and fragmented patterns of thinking. It is more apparent in some people than others. In the most extreme cases it is a sign of mental illness; in lesser cases it can result in great creativity.
Agreed, with effort great creativity....
Since evolution has totally bitten the dust (including Darwinism, the Copernican myth, exposure of NASA, etc., etc.), then I suppose the next 'belief' that will bite the dust is the non-biblical idea of an "afterlife". Hence, this only leaves the truth of the coming physical resurrection(s) of the dead by Christ. So in essence, the atheists are right in believing only in the reality of the physical because as the Scriptures plainly say, God alone is Creator and the dead are currently "sleeping in the dust".
Yeah, this sort of stuff has only 'bitten the dust' inside your mind, but out in the real world....not so much.
I feel the presence of a Master Troll.
I will leave this offering atop your bridge, but not cross it.
Evolution has been going on, is going on, and will continue to keep going on. Why do you say it "bit the dust"?
To begin with, the exposure of NASA et. al as being rogue agencies fulfills the "Fall of Babylon" as prophesized. They have been "searching for our interstellar origins" and promoting the 'Big Bang', astro-evolution etc etc. The reality is that no one can 'fly' into space and safely return at hypersonic w/o vaporizing. So once the empirical and physical evidence is revealed, then these jokers are done along with earth and planetary 'science'. In essence, mankind is and always will be "earth bound".
The second exposure will reveal the reality of the Great Flood when earth literally ruptured volcanically, which is why we have fossils strewn everywhere. This "overturning" of the crust is exactly what the Scriptures proclaim, and is exactly what is observed.
The bottom line is that during the 'latter days', false teachings whether they be 'science' or 'religion' will be fully exposed. The mankind will be faced with the truth of the resurrection (of which there will be 2), the physical dissolving of earth (and the heavens), and the fact of the coming New Earth (i.e. New Creation by Christ) as the Scriptures plainly teach.
Peopel are going to feel they must reply to THAT!
well played indeed!
Did you comprehend that? I mean outside of the obvious ignorance of evolution.
You've been watching too many of that Fred Durst look alike's videos.
Evolution is a proven fact. The evolution of all the species on earth from a common ancestor is a well established theory. This distinction is lost on creationists, but is important to the discussion. The "Scriptures" were written by people. The internal inconstancies in the Bible are readily apparent to anyone who actually reads it. The fact is that most people who claim to follow the scriptures actually ignore them. The Bible in more than one place states that life begins at the first breath and in Exodus 21:22-24 clearly (as clearly as anything is in the bible) states that a fetus is not a person. And yet there are all kinds of so called religious objections to birth control and abortion.
Dale perhaps you should check your 'silver bullet' reference in Exodus 21:22 and actually read verse 23. That baby in the womb is as much life and human as you or me.
So using the bible to defend the bible (or at least the stories about the stories within it)...seems rather circular-don't you think??
Evolution is a theory, not a fact. In addition, the claims of evolution are actually fraudulent, which will be exposed prior to the "great tribulation".
There are no inconsistencies in Scripture as it always reinforces itself. They were written by the Holy Ghost (yes, by man as they were moved by Him), and if you read it carefully, you will note that they point to a New Creation where Christ will rule from "jewel" of a city, i.e. New Jerusalem (He clearly does not return to old Jerusalem, so ignore any pastor or theologian who says otherwise).
As far as abortion goes, I won't go there, but Adam did not come to life until God gave him the 'breath of life' (we do not have a separate 'soul' that 'pops out' when we die)... My 'beef' is exposing evolution as fraudulent while claiming the truth of the Coming Kingdom of God.
Evolution is the change in gene frequencies in a population- is directly observable and thus a proven fact.
You are confused. Evolution is a theory in the scientific sense, it's not a hypothesis. A theory is a coherent explanation based on observed and observable facts, which can be independently proven over and over again.
Spiritual or religious phenomena, like speaking in tongues or feeling the Holy Ghost, are realities only in the mind of the believer, and are not observable facts nor can they be independently confirmed. See the difference?
I think that agnostic might be a better definition.
I think that is what makes us human, to wonder. I find myself awake at night thinking about what is at the edge of the universe. How can there be an edge to the universe? I don't know, but there has to be. What was there before the big bang?
Discovery of the unknown is what drives us as humans.
Agnostic isn't an alternative to atheism, it addresses a different issue.
His statements are almost a dictionary definition of agnosticism.
Mr. Schaeffer: "I know how much I can never know."
OED: Agnostic: 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.
They are not mutually exclusive concepts. They refer to different questions. You can hold this belief as either an atheist or a believer: "A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of immaterial things, especially of the existence or nature of God."
They are not mutually exclusive concepts.
Yes, I understand that fully. Were I to label myself I would use the term "agnostic atheist".
This gentleman is clearly not an atheist, nor does he self-identify as a believer. I personally think that there are relatively few people for whom the term agnostic (as a noun) is really suitable since, for most, the question "do you believe in God or a universal spirit" has a binary outcome.
He is one.
not a GOPer
is gravity immaterial?
This seems about as deep as the shallow end of the kiddie pool. Also, your premise is as confused as your argument. Try harder.
Hi, I'm a Jew who believes that Jesus is the son of God and our savior.
I'm sad that Schaeffer is so confused! His book Addicted to Mediocrity was excellent and helped me clarify my faith in Christ with my love for the arts. But, in throwing off the very religious baggage he helped create in the US, he kept throwing until essential Christian theology is also gone!
His life has been wrenched from one extreme to the other in a screaming pendulum! Is he now so shell-shocked that he just embraces it all and calls it "paradox"? I fear it doesn't matter. Like Texas weather, wait five minutes and he'll be writing an eloquent op-ed for another cause.
"His book Addicted to Mediocrity was excellent and helped me clarify my faith in Christ with my love for the arts."
What do you mean by this kevin? Did you think it was a sin to dance before reading his book?
Not at all! The book helped me eliminate false or unnecessary distinctions between sacred and secular. I can glorify God in my creative efforts without dressing it up to fit a religious framework (akin to carving scriptures on trees so they'll be spiritual enough!). And, I can appreciate the work of others, even if I don't agree with all their views, etc. I didn't realize the extent to which I carried this baggage until I read Frank's book and listened to some of his talks. Does this make sense?
So, you're a secular deist? That's a very old idea indeed.
I think what he means to say inside all the rambling is that some days he's a deist and some days he doubts his deism, and some days he switches back and forth moment by moment. Mostly he's just very confused about what he believes, but he definitely isn't an atheist.
You can't be an atheist and believe in God.
let me borrow from Wikipedia to prove my point.
"Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is the absence of belief that any deities exist. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which in its most general form is the belief that at least one deity exists."
I agree. Although I claim to be a believer who likes to keep his "inner atheist happy". I appreciate many of the sentiments in this article but I think it ends up being too simplistic. Perhaps a simpler, less jarring thought: There is no belief without doubt and no doubt without belief. Really this article is speaking of mysticism but without calling itself out as such. I believe there is a value in mysticism but I suspect few may appreciate it here.
Better: No belief without doubt and no doubt without doubts.
I'm often reminded of the O.T. passages which speak to the reality of "kings who did right in the sight of the Lord" in contrast to " their son's who did evil in the sight of the Lord."
Papa must be turning over in his grave.
What evil did this son do?
Sure... I'm a fundamentalist Christian who doesn't believe in Jesus or God but I read the Koran but I don't worship Allah, but I chant Om Mani Padme Hum constantly but I'm not a Buddhist. Atheist means NO belief in god, dieties, etc. Many Buddhists are atheists as they do not believe in a diety. You cannot be an atheist if you believe in any god or dieties. Sorry, but you do not understand the term.
Stop it with the logical nonsense.
Just beacuse it seems complicated to Frank, that doesn't mean it is insightful to the rest of us.
Some of your are making ad hominem attacks and inappropriate comments about Frank Schaeffer. These will be erased and, if you continue, you will be barred from commenting on this blog.
You can disagree with this article without castigating the writer.
The author made the comments about himself in the article, he is of course going to be the focus of responses.
Maybe you need to define 'inappropriate comments'
Here are CNN's terms of service, which include a guide to our comment policy and what we consider to be inappropriate.
I completely agree, John.
criticize the comments, not the commentor.
the ideas may be idiotic, but the poster may not be a total idiot.
Totally agree with your observation. It's sad that "adults" need to be reminded to behave like adults.
Agreed. But the ad hominems should ALWAYS get deleted.
ad hominems should ALWAYS get deleted
Agreed. Presuming it is the person being attacked – not his/her comments.
Yes. Leave the name-calling to children.
He writes an article and submits it to CNN. CNN chooses to publish it. CNN chooses to publish it on the Belief Blog, obviously very well known for very, very vigorous public commentary. Is it an ad hominem attack to post the opinion that anyone who publicly states "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." is an idiot? No!
Do you, CNN Editor, know what an ad hominem attack is? It's attacking the person, their character, etc, in order to undermine their opinion. It is not an ad hominem attack to to attack the person BECAUSE of the substance of their opinion. We're not saying the author is an idiot and therefore his opinion is crap; we're saying his opinion is crap, and therefore, we conclude that, BECAUSE of that stated opinion, he is an idiot.
You can disagree with someone's opinions without calling him an idiot. And I'm going to insist on that.
I completely agree with deleting hate speech or inappropriately foul language, but when the article is personal in nature, how is commenting on the author out of bounds? More over, he is misusing many English words that have very clear definitions, and even dragging these "celebrities" names through the mud just by associating them with this article. How can your network hope to have a good reputation if you guys are publishing things like this?
Let me emphasize that I am NOT complaining about his opinions here – I'm complaining about facts. The definitions of words.
I do believe that your policy does allow me to inquire what inspired you to post this 'article'.
The hell is this???
And what if i hold the honestly developed opinion that anyone who holds a brief in a "creator" who "speak thru them" etc. suffers from such mental deficiency that they must fit within that classification of persons known as "idiots".
If not idiot, then what term may I use? Mentally deficient? Intellectually deficient? Retarded? Nuts?
Help me out here. Not all people are created (ha, ha!) equal. Some people are demonstrably dumber than others. What nomenclature is allowed? And who decides? Remember 1984 – those who control language control thought. I think what you're (meaning CNN) is trying to do is doubleplusungood.
Dang, orilliaatheist, you try hard to rationalize your intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from you.
Words matter. In written communications, words matter more than anywhere else.
There is a lot of scorn being heaped here on Mr. Schaeffer's unilateral redefinition of words that people use as a label to define belief or disbelief.
I'm not sure I would categorize that scorn as an ad hominem attack, but perhaps I am missing something?
Daniel, I had to think about whether my response to Frank would just be ad hom. And, it is. But his life has been so characterized by extremes that any commentary on his current view seems useless (and far less interesting than merely pointing out his latest extreme).
It is not really possible to consider the views of an extremist without being biased by the source.
What? This article is stupid.Bt definition it is not possible to be an athiest and believe in a god, gods, or any other type of deity
don't blame Frank Schaeffer for writing a book of nonsense and hoping it'll be a success.
the writers of the bible wrote a book of nonsense and look how successful that has been!
Funny how the Bible makes the most sense out life, but you call it nonsense. Obviously you have never read it or had a need in your life so great that you had to rely on someone else to help you.
How familiar are you with the other major religions?
You must be or a comment like "makes the most sense out life" would be ignorant.
Even at 6, when they asked my parents not to bring me to sunday school because they couldn't answer my questions, I knew the bible was false. It is obvious that it is just plain wrong.I have read it a few times since then, and it makes less and less sense the more education I have.