I don’t believe in God.
Nothing sends off fireworks in the brain for religious people quite like an admission of atheism. It’s scary, in my beloved religious community, to admit that I don’t believe in God. I’ve had some unexpectedly unpleasant conversations with friends — conversations that suddenly dipped into ferocious defensiveness, in which they assumed a lot about what I believe and don’t believe.
So, allow me to explain what I mean when I say I don’t believe in God.
What do I mean by God?
First, let’s establish some definitions.
When I say I disbelieve in God, I mean that I disbelieve in a supernatural God that has will, consciousness, and an ability to act on the material world. I disbelieve in a God that can raise the dead, come to earth through Christ as fully God and fully man, born of a virgin, and capable of miracles. I disbelieve, also, in the attendant masses that accompany such a God – legions of angels, demons, and spiritual realms.
What I don’t mean are the pantheist, Einsteinian, and Tillichian views of God: God as being, God as the foundations of the cosmos, God as ultimate reality. Obnoxiously obscurantist as these understandings of God often are, I don’t really have a problem with them. I use the term “God” all the time to describe ultimate reality or the ground of being, and I still consider myself a mystic who has encounters with the “divine” (understanding that the divine is, at the very least, a construct of my mind.) To borrow one of Science Mike’s incredibly helpful Axioms of Faith:
“God is AT LEAST the natural forces that created and sustain the Universe as experienced via a psychosocial model in human brains that naturally emerges from innate biases. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition for God, the pursuit of this personal, subjective experience can provide meaning, peace, and empathy for others.”
I take for myself this “at least” definition of God. But anything more than that — anything that ascribes will, supernatural power, consciousness, or existence beyond the material realm to God — I can’t believe.
It’s painfully simple: I find the evidence for a supernatural God lacking, and why should I believe in something for which there is not sufficient evidence? Once we step out of the “at least” view of God and into a God that can exert any sort of will on the material world, as the most central creeds of Christianity claim he does, we have stepped into the material world and the wheelhouse of science.
Let’s consider two of the most central features of Christian belief, as stated in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creed: the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ. These are claims about the material world. No matter how much proponents of religion may try to state that science and religious are “non-overlapping magisteria,” or that science gives us the how and religion gives us the why, the creeds themselves betray that notion. Religion does sometimes impose itself into the magisterium of science by making claims about the physical world.
We come to understand the world around us by testing it, observing it, and making testable hypotheses. If we are unable to exert the scientific method on some part of the material world, it is best to withhold judgement and belief about it until we are able to test it.
How do we even begin to test whether Christ was born of a virgin or was raised from the dead? We can’t. The veil of distant history makes such claims impossible to falsify. And, since there is not a single verified case of virgin birth or resurrection from the dead in all the annals of science, the claim would need some extraordinary evidence. In light of this I think the most sound, honest, and humble approach is to say I don’t know if these things happened until they are proven to be true, which is just another way of saying I don’t believe they happened (more on that later.)
But let’s say a resurrection or virgin birth did occur. Let’s go even further and say that they even happen in the modern world, in such a way that can be verified. Would this mean that a supernatural God exists? I don’t think so.
I think that a virgin birth or resurrection would present us, not with undeniable proof of God’s existence, but with a mystery. A mystery does not equal God. In fact, inserting God into the mystery can block us from understanding what is actually going on. Could it be God? Sure. But it could be a million other things as well, which means we must withhold judgement before evidence is given.
The universe is full of mysteries: consciousness, dark matter, the big bang, dreaming. Mysteries are wonderful, and the most honest way to approach them is one of humility. What is consciousness? I don’t know. Will science ever unravel the mysteries of consciousness? I don’t know, but I hope so. If science doesn’t, does that therefore mean God? No.
What I’m applying to the virgin birth and resurrection also apply to claims about God and the paranormal as a whole. Either these phenomena (ghosts, poltergeists, resurrections, miracles, etc.) happen or they don’t happen. If we claim they happen, that is a claim about the material world and therefore subject to the processes of science. I have yet to see any verified account of miracles that stands up to scientific muster, and even when they do happen we are presented, not with proof of another realm or God’s presence, but with a mystery that warrants humility and further investigation.
Disbelief is not Belief
So does this mean that I believe no gods, angels, demons, or supernatural realms exist? No.
This is a tired old trope: that disbelief is in itself a form of belief; that if I don’t believe in God, that must mean I believe there are no gods. This a hard chestnut to crack, and I only recently got my head around it.
When I say I don’t believe in God, I mean that I find the evidence for God lacking. That’s it. That’s all. Could there be a God? Sure. Is there a God? I don’t know. But I have no reason to believe in one until there is proof of his existence.
This is a hard one, so let me try to reiterate it again. Like I said, I only just recently figured this one out:
Disbelieving in god is not the same thing as saying I believe no gods exist. Are there gods? I don’t know. But I am not given evidence of a god, so I don’t believe in god. I am also, likewise, not given evidence that no gods exist. Therefore, for me, not believing in god is connected to agnosticism — not knowing.
To help clarify this, there are two ways to frame this concept which at first glance seem contradictory, but to me are two ways of saying the exact same thing.
There is a negative way to frame this: by saying I don’t believe in God. This tends to shut people down, make people feel threatened, angry, confused, and generally makes life miserable for everybody. No matter how much I may clarify my position, theists seem to have a hard time understanding that I don’t see them as idiots, or that I’m open to mystery rather than closed to it. Ironically, saying “I don’t believe in God” is seen as close-minded arrogance, when for me it is in fact an appeal to evidence, which could lead to any conclusion imaginable or unimaginable.
But there is another way to say the exact same thing: while I have not yet been given evidence of God and the supernatural, and therefore have no reason to believe, I am open to their existence. I would need proof of God to believe in God. But am I open to such proof? Absolutely.
I would go even further: I want the supernatural to be real. I want to believe in gods, ghosts, demons, and the supernatural as a whole. I yearn for eternal conscious life and a loving God.
The negative and positive framings are saying the exact same thing about where I am. Saying I don’t believe in God because I don’t see sufficient evidence is the same thing as saying I am open to the existence of God as long as there is adequate evidence for his existence.
In the meantime, I still consider myself a deeply religious person. I find religion a helpful inner guiding myth that contextualizes my life and relates me to my ultimate goals and values. I also embrace the “at least” definition of God put forth by Science Mike, and I still experience the presence of God in prayer and ritual, even while I disbelieve in his existence.
Hopefully this addresses some of the confusion over what I believe. Where are you? Do you believe or disbelieve in God? Do you think I’m wrong somewhere in my thinking? If so, I’d love to hear from you.