A few times friends have asked me, “So, you’re an atheist, now?” I responded with what is becoming my standard answer of relative atheism, which I will define for you shortly. First I have to explain what it is about that question that bothered me.
I don’t mind people asking me about my beliefs. If you know me, you know I’m not shy about sharing my opinions, I am enthusiastic about trading ideas in the search for truth. What bothered me was the use of the word “now,” because it implies that atheism is my latest fad, that it is another one of my many fleeting interests as I struggle for understanding, with nothing on which to ground my belief system. I understand why my friends and family would think that way, but allow me to explain why it is not accurate.
When I first became a born again Christian in 1985, my inclination was to be quite conservative, as was the congregation I joined at that time, but even then there were standard doctrines I questioned. For instance, the more I studied and pondered the doctrine of eternal torment in hell, the less sense it made to me. As time passed, I encountered many more conflicts between Christian doctrine and tradition on one hand, and common sense and evidence on the other. So, although my new belief system enabled me to get through a tremendously difficult period in my life, I was never what you would call a true believer. That is, I could not accept everything I was supposed to without question, I never checked my brain at the door. To be fair, my mentors in the church didn’t expect me to. I believe they thought that, if I earnestly sought the truth and studied the Bible, I would grow stronger in Christian faith.
One of the things that finally led me to give up on that system was that its god didn’t answer prayer as I was taught he did. I prayed for years, as did many other devout believers, that my family members would be healed of their cerebral palsy. They were not, of course. In fact, a healing of severe cerebral palsy has never been documented. I was told that God must have a purpose in leaving them with their disability, but I wondered what the purpose could be that covered everyone with that condition, not to mention other conditions that are never healed, such as amputations.
In 2002, my wife died, after suffering severe pain for nearly a year. Although cancer is one of the things that God is said to heal, our prayers for her also went unanswered. It would not be correct to say that her death drove me away from God. Her death was another indication that the god I had been led to believe in does not exist. At that point, after I began to recover from my grief, I made a bargain with God: I would ask him what I should do, and if I did not receive an answer, I would do what I thought was right. I invited him to intervene at any time to tell me to change what I was doing, to point me in a better direction. As it turns out, that prayer was never answered, either, but it leaves me free to do what I know is right, without waiting for an answer that will likely never come.
By 2012, I had left behind the remnants of my pretense of any kind of faith in this god who made no effort to intervene in human affairs. At the same time I realized that it was my unthinking acceptance of a dualistic worldview that was leading me into unproductive thought patterns. I had simply assumed that God operated from another reality, one that we have no way of knowing anything about, other than through divine revelation. In other words, we know God is there because he says he is. That no longer works for me.
I am a naturalist—I do not believe in a supernatural reality. It appears to me that the universe operates without intervention from any force that is not capable of being described in scientific terms. If there is something beyond what we know of as the universe, I assume whatever that is would be describable in those terms also, if we could observe it. It might have different natural laws than what we observe here, but we could presumably determine, by logical, empirical investigation, the way things work there. Perhaps there is a “supernatural” realm. As far as I know, there has never been evidence of such a thing, or any indication, outside of mythology, what its characteristics would be. As far as I know, miracles don’t happen, genies don’t grant wishes, and witch doctors’ evil spells don’t work. If someone can prove to me that they do, that something supernatural exists, that’s fine. Then we can talk about all that would entail.
So, to return to the question, “You’re an atheist, now?” The answer is not a simple yes or no, it’s relative. I always respond that I need to know the questioner’s definition of “god” before I can reply intelligently. From my naturalistic point of view, if your god is supernatural, I have no reason to have faith in it. That isn’t to say it doesn’t exist, just that I have no evidence of it, and it is unlikely you will be able to provide me any reason to put my trust in something so tenuous. This no doubt makes me an atheist, from your point of view.
There are other ways of looking at the universe. Perhaps it is neither dualistic nor purely physical, but can be represented in a “third way,” as proposed by John Haught. If your god fits this kind of thinking, I might be undecided on its reality. You may consider me an agnostic, at least until I can understand exactly what you are proposing. On the other hand, if your god is a natural part of the world, we can probably establish a common vocabulary to discuss it, although we may still have different ideas of god’s nature.
What it comes down to is that, if I don’t have faith in the god that you think exists, I am an atheist in your eyes. Conversely, if you don’t have faith in the god of the natural cosmos that I trust in, you are the atheist, just as the Muslim and the Christian each think the other is an infidel. Rather than use the label “atheist,” I would prefer to have a discussion on the nature of reality, and how we see things. Rather than assigning labels to each other, why don’t we talk about important matters, and see if we can make this world a little better place?