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. pandeist

    If you are seeking a theological model which fully accounts for all of Earth's man-made religions and myths, and yet contradicts no scientific knowledge, which sees evolution by natural selection, interstellar dynamics, and cosmic expansion, as notes in a grand symphony of existence set forth purposefully, then I would suggest looking into Pandeism, the logic-based reconciliation of corresponding elements of Pantheism and Deism which thusly completes the circuit of both. Blessings!!

    June 10, 2014 at 10:35 pm |
  2. jrvinnh

    I am an atheist but I go to church on Sunday to socialize with my many friends there who are believers. They accept me and it's actually a lot of fun to discuss the twin issues of does God exist and the question of is there an afterlife. I just keep hitting them with scientific facts and I try to reason with them. They seem to want to learn the science behind life and creation, but they just can't let go of the God and heaven thing. I think they are just stuck with the old ideas and can't face mortality and non-existence. Otherwise they are very friendly and they haven't as yet tried to burn me at the stake.

    June 10, 2014 at 10:12 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      you're not alone. a fair number of atheists go to church for the social aspect it provides. it's one of the positive parts of religion. often people sing, dance and touch (show affection) at church but never outside it.

      June 10, 2014 at 10:18 pm |
      • jrvinnh

        Very true. It is hard though to sit there during the sermon and listen to it all while remaining silent. I usually pass the time by thinking about something scientific, such as how a jet engine or rocket engine works or how transistors function.

        June 10, 2014 at 10:30 pm |
        • Bootyfunk

          i got enough of church as a child. it's that experience that helping 'convert' me to atheism. i couldn't possibly sit through it at this point, but i know a couple atheists that do.

          June 10, 2014 at 10:40 pm |
      • nojinx

        "often people sing, dance and touch (show affection) at church but never outside it."

        Sorrowful. I hope that is not common.

        June 10, 2014 at 10:35 pm |
        • Bootyfunk

          sadly, it's very common in this country. want to see people that have no idea how to give affection? hang out with a mormon or jehovah's witness. hug them and watch how uncomfortable they get.

          June 10, 2014 at 10:42 pm |
      • realbuckyball

        I used to go to a Presbyterian church once in a while as the pastor was a literary genius. His sermons were works of art. I would sit and think about his construction. Plus he was very liberal. He was known as one of the best speakers in the country.

        June 10, 2014 at 11:42 pm |
    • .TheDogintheKitchen

      Surprise!!!! The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” Rev. 11:15.

      June 10, 2014 at 10:49 pm |
  3. samu1220

    It's a known fact that Jesus walked this earth. The Muslims recognize him in the Koran, Scholars wrote about him even some Pharoah's in Egypt. Many stories in the bible have been find throughout history to be true through many known artifacts, books even descriptions on how some of the Miracle's took place. No other religion has any evidence like this. It is a fact that Jesus walk the earth and the Bible is real. And God is no longer trying to get everyone to Heaven because he knows the Devil already has a stronghold on their souls. He is continuing to reach out to those who have a little bit of hope for him. We also believe in UFO's and the mystery of iniquity. It's proven in the bible strange things will be taken place but not completely revealed until the Church leaves. As of now Churches are dwindling at an alarming rate which was predicted in the bible. Then those who didn't believe, didn't repent and did not accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, well..........But I pray that we all be ready on his return because all these movies that we see about monsters, space invaders and etc...will come to past but the believers will not be here to witness that. As for me and my house we will serve the Lord. Amen!!!!

    June 10, 2014 at 10:04 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      "It's a known fact that Jesus walked this earth."
      +++ actually, there are whole books debating the subject. we know much of the jesus myth was borrowed from other religions/mythologies.

      "Many stories in the bible have been find throughout history to be true through many known artifacts, books even descriptions on how some of the Miracle's took place. No other religion has any evidence like this."
      +++ wrong. the bible, like most other religious texts, mixes the truth with fiction. no other religion has evidence like the bible? exactly the opposite. most religions provide the same amount of 'evidence' as the bible - not much. there is absolutely zero evidence that god existed. jesus? maybe. maybe not. if he did exist, he was just a man, not a demi-god as he ran around telling everyone. did he know he was lying? or did he believe it? jesus - liar or lunatic?

      you don't need god or jesus to be a good person. fairy tales are fun, but reality is much more interesting.

      June 10, 2014 at 10:23 pm |
    • nojinx

      The majority of modern historical scholarship does not conclude Jesus of the bible was real, but it is argued.

      June 10, 2014 at 10:25 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      It's not "a known fact" in fact there are all kinds of reasons to doubt that. Dr. Richard Carrier has some excellent videos and books on the subject. You, on the other hand made a false assertion, and backed it with nothing.

      You are dismissed.

      June 10, 2014 at 10:32 pm |
  4. rconatser1

    You can't have it both ways. I believe there MAY be a God, and I pray to him in really tough times in case he is....I just abhor religion. If you believe absolutely there is no God – then you're an atheist. I don't think there is any ambiguity here.

    June 10, 2014 at 9:52 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      Wrong. Athesist don't believe anything. They LACK something.
      a-symptomatic – lacking symmetry
      a-symmetrical – lacking symmetry
      a – theist – lack of belief in deities

      The absence of belief is not belief in absence.

      June 10, 2014 at 9:58 pm |
      • theemptyone1

        You rather define yourself here.

        June 10, 2014 at 10:43 pm |
        • theemptyone1

          a – symptomatic – no symptoms (it's a common medical note)

          June 10, 2014 at 10:45 pm |
  5. edmundburkeson

    Frank Schaeffer's father I believe would say the universe is knowable otherwise it would make no sense at all to pursue science including quantum physics. I don't know how, based on that desire to know, one could conclude that the only thing that exists is the material universe when quantum physics points us in the direction of other realities that are unseen but are necessary for light waves to travel. The desire to know the universe is what drives us to know the personal behind the material. there is no need to deny the essential oneness of our person because we are temporarily confounded by the lack thereof in the material. We want to and will know more because we are driven by the personal and the material is not alien to the personal.

    June 10, 2014 at 9:47 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      Thanks for the best string of non-sequiturs I've ever seen.

      "when quantum physics points us in the direction of other realities that are unseen but are necessary for light waves to travel"
      - which you conveniently forgot to explain. Reference ONE physicist that posits this in a peer-reviewed paper.
      The only that that drives you to discover the "personal behind the material", is your presuppositional anthropomorphism, and you fake wordy way of trying to make "faith" look all scientific and rational. It's not. It's the abandonment of reason. Matter and energy are interchangeable. Nothing in QM "points" to anything. If something is "unknown", it's simply unknown. I realize science has pushed the gods more and more out of the picture, but your feeble attempt to make them still look reasonable is a big fat fail.

      June 10, 2014 at 9:55 pm |
  6. jackjamesla

    You arent an Atheist...Maybe an Agnostic and maybe a humanist but NOT an Atheist.

    June 10, 2014 at 9:35 pm |
  7. Stephen Bedard

    Reblogged this on Hope's Reason and commented:
    An interesting post by Francis Schaeffer's son Frank Schaeffer.

    June 10, 2014 at 9:35 pm |
  8. jackjamesla

    If you are going to write an article about religion you should do a little research. You are not "an atheis who believes in God" You are an agnostic!

    June 10, 2014 at 9:34 pm |
  9. zhilla1980wasp

    well it's been fun, 4am wake up for work. night all.

    June 10, 2014 at 9:28 pm |
  10. noahsdadtopher

    Mr. Schaeffer

    It's clear from your statements you believe in god — which is of course what the Scriptures say of all of us. Please keep searching. God promises that He will reveal Himself to you if you do this.

    As I'm sure you know, we're all guilty of committing a sin. How many times in your life do you think you've told a lie? Have you ever stolen anything — regardless of its value? Have you ever used God's name in place of a word to express disgust? How about looking at someone with lust? If you've done any of these things you'll have broken His laws (these are only 4 of the 10 Commandments) and will deserve to be punished for them.

    But the good news is that God loves you anyway and came to earth to take the punishment you deserve by voluntarily going to the cross. It's a legal transaction. You are guilty and stand before a holy and just judge. And Christ has paid your fine. How amazing is that?! To receive this gift, all that is required of you is repent (not just say you are sorry for your sins, but also turn away from them) and put your trust in Jesus Christ to do what He claimed He would.

    If you do that, God will give you a new heart with new desires (called being "born again") and you'll seek out the things of God even more. PLEASE give this some thought. Don't let your head hit your pillow tonight without considering this. There's nothing more important than where you'll spend eternity.

    Thanks for your time.

    June 10, 2014 at 9:24 pm |
    • hotairace

      Too bad Topher has nothing more than words, not a single bit of actual evidence, to support his god delusion.

      June 10, 2014 at 9:30 pm |
      • awanderingscot

        and Pharaoh said, "Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go." – Exodus 5:2, NKJV
        – here was the Pharaoh's response to the overtures of God's grace. this is basically the same reply made by unbelievers today who refuse to repent. they become more and more impenitent, more defiant, more lawless. God is now dealing in grace and long-sufferance, sending forth His servants far and wide, bidding men to flee from the wrath to come. but this day of salvation is rapidly drawing to a close, once the Lord rises from his place at God's right hand, the door of mercy will be shut, and the storm of God's righteous anger will burst.

        June 10, 2014 at 9:55 pm |
        • realbuckyball

          Who cares ? Archaeology has proven there was no Exodus and it was all made up.
          There were already Hebrews settled in Canaan. It's all mythology.

          June 10, 2014 at 10:01 pm |
        • realbuckyball

          "god's righteous anger"
          Interesting. So there must be, independent of your god, a way to measure, external to him/it/her, what is or is not "righteous". THAT measure of Reality had to ALWAYS exist as long as your deity existed. Oops. Thanks for agreeing your deity is not the creator of Reality, but MUST participate in it, by definition. (That ain't no real deity if it MUST do anything).

          June 10, 2014 at 10:05 pm |
        • realbuckyball

          BTW, if you deity "gets angry", it's not "eternal". If it *changes*, it requites time.

          June 10, 2014 at 10:34 pm |
        • hotairace

          Allegedly. You lie every time you neglect to indicate none of your crap is supported by actual evidence, that your beliefs are nothing more than delusions. Why do you lie?

          June 11, 2014 at 2:05 am |
    • kudlak

      The Scriptures can say it, but that doesn't make it true.

      June 10, 2014 at 9:35 pm |
    • Madtown

      which is of course what the Scriptures say of all of us.
      Define "all of us". As you frequently forget, many of your human brothers/sisters have no clue what biblical scripture says. It's irrelevant to them.

      June 10, 2014 at 9:38 pm |
    • doobzz

      "As I'm sure you know, we're all guilty of committing a sin."

      That's your opinion. It's not a fact.

      June 10, 2014 at 10:01 pm |
      • theemptyone1


        The notion of "sin" and "satan" had to be invented to give a reason for humankind to need a god to save them. Other religions of the world often lack a universal evil doer out to compete with "GOD." They just see their deities and themselves choosing between bad and good as beings capable of making choices and taking responsibility for those choices. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we see a tyrant god ordering people about and making demands for the sake of his ego with the on again off again swing between love and hate, compassion and vengeance that by definition describes a completely psychotic bi-polar disorder.

        My little joke, explanation is since "God" created man in his image, "God" must be pretty se x ually frustrated up there with no girl god to talk to.

        June 10, 2014 at 11:05 pm |
    • theemptyone1

      Yes, if you read those words over and over, exclude everything else, you will eventually begin to hear voices.

      noahsdadtopher proves that all religion relies on cult initiation. That is one reason why they work so hard to shut out any other
      thought but those that are deemed "holy." (or acceptable)

      And this author somehow got hired at CNN without knowing what an agnostic is compared to an atheist. I think agnostics like him are the height of spiritual cowardice and intellectual dishonesty. They want to cover their A's by working it all in together against all rational logic and evidence.

      June 10, 2014 at 10:57 pm |
      • otoh2

        Technically, this author was not "hired" by CNN. He's just promoting his new book (at CNN's invitation, I presume - I don't know, though, maybe he paid them for the promo space!).

        June 10, 2014 at 11:13 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      Now all you have to do is demonstrate that "scripture" says anything of value. Timothy said BEFORE there even was a canon "all scripture is god breathed", thus he meant ALL "religios writing". Not just your Babble. You point is utterly circular. You cannout tell us to believe something because YOU believe something, (that the Bible is authoritative). You have not demonstrated that. There is no reason to assume that.

      June 10, 2014 at 11:09 pm |
  11. jazzadellic

    Theist = A belief in a god, Atheist = Lack of belief in a god. You can't be both. Please write a book and article on how you are both gay and straight, black & white, dead & alive, at the same time. Thanks.

    June 10, 2014 at 9:16 pm |
  12. mimicoral

    You cannot be an atheist if you believe in god. Stupid article is stupid.

    June 10, 2014 at 9:15 pm |
  13. ddeevviinn

    " Regardless of a man's system, he has to live in God's world."

    – Francis Schaeffer ( the elder)

    June 10, 2014 at 9:14 pm |
    • hotairace

      Given that the existence of any god has never been proven, the existence of a god's world is highly doubtful so your quote can reasonably be declared bullsh!t.

      June 10, 2014 at 9:17 pm |
      • ddeevviinn

        And still you must.

        June 10, 2014 at 9:54 pm |
        • nojinx

          Why must he?

          June 10, 2014 at 9:59 pm |
        • ddeevviinn

          Because of the truthfulness of the quote.

          June 10, 2014 at 10:02 pm |
        • nojinx

          But your quote had no truth. You are contradicting yourself.

          June 10, 2014 at 10:37 pm |
    • kudlak

      Well, we all have to live in the world that less than half of humanity believes is God's, you mean?

      June 10, 2014 at 9:18 pm |
      • ddeevviinn

        Unless you are an alien living in another "world", your statement is ficti tious.

        June 10, 2014 at 9:56 pm |
        • nojinx

          If he means the Abrahamic god, then more than half the world believes – close to 65% actually. If he means just the God of Jesus, then it is less than half (about 33%).

          Not that popularity is important. It's not like Osiris was more likely to exist because he was worshiped by the most for so many centuries. That is a logical fallacy.

          June 10, 2014 at 10:02 pm |
        • ddeevviinn

          " less than half of humanity believes in God's"

          Factually just not true. His words, not mine.

          June 10, 2014 at 10:05 pm |
    • Akira

      "If we wait for correct ideas to save us—theological or otherwise—we’ll never be saved, even from ourselves."

      Frank "This essay isn't about my Father" Schaeffer

      June 10, 2014 at 10:07 pm |
    • tallulah131

      So which god, Dev? Zeus? Osiris? Odin? Krishna? There is exactly the same amount of evidence that it is their world as it is your god's world. Personal belief has never equaled fact.

      I live on Earth, a planet that formed about 4.6 billion years ago along with the rest of this solar system. The world I live on was here long, long before humanity, and here even longer before human invented gods like your own.

      June 10, 2014 at 10:35 pm |
      • nojinx

        ...or the clever sayings that help you reinforce what you want to be true.

        June 10, 2014 at 10:40 pm |
    • theemptyone1

      Says the man who invented "God."

      June 10, 2014 at 11:07 pm |
  14. seedenbetter

    "Take me, I am an atheist who believes in God. ... Let me explain."

    That's like saying "I'm not a stamp collector who collects stamps". The double speak of Christians always puzzles me.

    June 10, 2014 at 9:14 pm |
  15. kudlak

    The only way to be a "Bad" atheist is to believe in a god(s).

    This guy is a bad atheist.

    June 10, 2014 at 9:11 pm |
  16. jcs6

    The author of this...is just nuts.

    June 10, 2014 at 9:00 pm |
  17. wwdd00

    An atheist by definition does not believe in God. Was this written to get page hits?

    June 10, 2014 at 8:59 pm |
  18. tavuka2

    I am an Atheist because I do not believe in the existence of the supernatural.
    Everyone is an atheist to all other religions. If you can reject the thousands of other gods and their dogma.
    it is pretty simple to reject the one you have been programed to.
    Visit the Caesar's Messiah Web site to learn who invented the christian myth and why

    Humanity has suffered way to long in the Age of Supernatural Stupidity..

    Life is not an eternity test... as the myth masters want you to believe.

    June 10, 2014 at 8:56 pm |
    • kudlak

      Actually, you only have to not believe in any gods to qualify as an atheist. You can still believe in ghosts, vampires, reincarnation, Harry Potter, or anything else supernatural and still be an atheist. Not a very critically-minded atheist IMHO, but still an atheist.

      June 10, 2014 at 9:15 pm |
  19. tbreeden


    June 10, 2014 at 8:36 pm |
  20. realbuckyball

    "Also believe that a spiritual reality hovering over, in and through me calls me to love, trust and hear the voice of my creator."
    - You're not special. You need no new words to describe that. You are a believer. You believe in the incoherent concept of a "creator". You're a run of the mill, (perhaps liberal) believer.


    June 10, 2014 at 8:33 pm |
    • dale3242

      In addition he cycles between Theism and Atheism depending on the day. ("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.") To me the decision as to whether or not there is a supernatural all-powerful all-knowing GOD is a pretty important decision. One that should not be taken lightly. Sorry, Frank doesn't sound too stable.

      June 10, 2014 at 8:59 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14
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.