A FEW weeks ago, I mentioned Frank Schaeffer’s book, “Why I Am An Atheist Who Believes In God,” and quite a few people wondered how he could hold such contradictory notions in his head, or how I, who claim to be a lover of logic and reason, support such a statement.
I will not speak for Schaeffer though. If you want to know his ideas, I suggest you read his book yourself. This article will explore how and why I think it is possible for an atheist to believe in God.
It’s not easy being an atheist these days, just as it is not easy being a Christian. Two thousand years ago, one would just say “I’m a Christian” and that’s that. Although I suspect that there were already arguments back then whether you were a Christian in the tradition of Peter or Paul or Apollos (which Paul wrote strongly against in 1 Corinthians).
These days, being a Christian is even more confusing as various sects and denominations lay their own claims to the name. Some are inclusivist (accept other sects as Christian) while others are exclusivist (only they have the right to the name and only theirs is the true way).
You have Roman Catholicism, Catholic Universalism, Greek Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Seventh Day Adventists, Latter Day Saints, and even homegrown groups such as the Aglipayan Church, El Shaddai, Iglesia ni Cristo and the Kingdom of Jesus Christ the Name Above Every Name, and many more.
In a similar fashion, many atheists find themselves trying to explain their atheism in one way or another. Richard Dawkins, in his book, “The God Delusion”, identifies seven stages in the spectrum of belief. Three stages pertain to theism (stages 1, 2, 3), one pertains to strict neutrality (stage 4), and the other three pertain to degrees of atheism (stages 5, 6, 7).
There is the weak atheist (stage 5) who “leans towards atheism.” This type of person says “I do not know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be skeptical. I am more likely to doubt than to believe.” (Incidentally, the word “weak” should not be taken as a criticism of character but only a descriptor of the degree of unbelief. The same goes for the word “strong” below.)
There is the de facto atheist (stage 6). This type of person thinks there is a very low probability that God exists although he cannot say for sure. But he lives his life on a very naturalistic level. This person says, “I cannot be certain whether or not God exists but it seems very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that there is none.”
Then there is the strong atheist (stage 7) who says, “I KNOW for sure (100 percent) that there is no God and I reject any notions of god or gods.”
He further goes on to mention in recorded interviews that most atheists would only go as far as identifying themselves in stage 6 as there is no way they can really know for sure of any god’s non-existence, although as far as degrees go, he puts himself at 6.9 or very close to 7.
But Dawkins is not the only one who makes these distinctions. Christopher Silver and Thomas Coleman from the University of Tennessee conducted 59 in-depth interviews and derived 6 types of unbelievers: Intellectual; Activist; Seeker; Anti-Theist; Non-Theist; and the Ritual Atheist.
Luke Muehlhauser, who runs the website Common Sense Atheism, goes several steps further by defining 17 types of Atheism, with each type not necessarily exclusive to another. So one can fit into types 1, 5, 10 and 13, for example, which can result in thousands of combinations depending on what suits you.
So when one claims to be an “atheist,” what is he really saying? Even the simplest definition of the word is the subject of debate. Some would say that the prefix “a” simply means “a lack of” and since “theism” pertains to a belief in god or gods, then atheism would mean a lack of belief in a god or gods. This would then mean that babies and little children and even dogs and cats are, by default, atheists.
Others however, take the word in a more active sense as the “rejection of belief in god or gods” or as the secondary definition of Merriam Webster puts it, “the doctrine that there is no god.”
This lays the groundwork of part 2, which I will discuss next week.
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