A note: This article has been described by someone on a blog reference site as a description of why atheists don’t believe in God. Apparently they haven’t read the article. Throughout I use the pronoun “we” because I am not talking about non-believers, per se, but about both believers and unbelievers. I have not spared myself in the use of “we.” I think all of us have common issues. If you think otherwise, fine. But do not report me as having said what I have not said. Happy reading. – Fatherstephen
I offer this strange title as something of third in my series on belief in God. I do not mean here to offer reasons non-Christians may offer as their own reasons for non-belief in God. Frankly, I think most people don’t know why they don’t believe in God, and as an Orthodox Christian, I would assume that all discussions with those who do not believe in God, and a majority of discussions with those who claim to believe in God, would be be discussions that are rife with delusion, at least at some level. Thus my first reason why we cannot believe in God.
1. We do not believe in God because we are under delusion. We do not see the world as it truly is. We do not see ourselves as we truly are. Most importantly we do not see God as He truly is.
The Scriptures tell us: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). For this reason Orthodox Christians turn to the writings of the Fathers and the living treasures of the Tradition of the Church – the living legacy of those who have seen God. Our hardness of heart makes our own knowledge poor and frequently deluded. We need to hear and learn from the knowledge of others.
2. We do not believe in God because we have substituted false definitions for the true revelation of God.
Thus many Christians who speak about God, are speaking of the God of syllogisms, a God of rational construction, not the true and living God. This is an easy option that does not require the ascesis and struggle of those who know God in purity of heart.
3. We do not believe in God because we hate our enemies and are consumed with anger about the world.
My understanding of 1 John 4:7-8 would make it clear that we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. Admittedly, this sets the bar very high for knowledge of God. But anything less is deluded on some level. This point also carries with it the assumption that knowing God involves certain activities on our part. I cannot (apart from some marvelous divine intervention) come to know God as I sit on my sofa, channel surfing, and emitting various opinions about the state of the world.
4. We do not believe in God because such belief would cost too much.
I never know how to judge this in the life of another. I can only speak from personal experience. In this case there are points and times in my life that I find it more convenient not to know God but to talk about God, to discuss religious questions. This is my refusal to move beyond the armchair and to enter into the sufferings of Christ, particularly as they are made known in the least of His brethren. Love is very expensive. If we cannot know God without love, we frequently choose not to afford it.
5. We do not believe in God because of pain and misconception.
I mean to state this in the most merciful manner possible. There are many who do not know God because their lives have been so emerged in pain and delusion (not self chosen) that the very mention of God is painful. These are fequently the victims of those who falsely claim to know God. By the same token, in God’s mercy, their very rejection of the false God that has been offered to them, is an act of grace, enabled by the true God. Such persons are far closer to the Kingdom of God than those who have inflicted their false religious views on them.
It is doubtless possible for me to expand this posting. Perhaps I will at a later date. For the present, it is all that I have within me.
This world has departed from the sacred,,,our ancestors indeed will be surprised the way we do things though they will be amazed at the technology at same time.
Belief has become personal though religous outlook are pervasive once in public sphere. The world we’re living in are in serious crisis, the spirit of men
are going downwards
I believe in God and have my whole life. Unfortunately I go through so many moments of confusion and even unbelief. I am not sure which one of the 5 you mentioned I would be under. Maybe the last or maybe the first. I am a perfectionist and find myself easily tripped up.
I grew up Catholic and God has always been presented to me in a very harsh manner. I mean no disrespect to your Catholic readers. My experience with the Catholic Church has been one of fear and never feelilng loved by God. At the age of 19 I attended the church of Christ, here I found a connection with Jesus through the scriptures and now at the age of 35 this is where I still am. Unfortunately, the education of scriptures have only lead me so far. I again feel an ache of not connecting with God. I feel like my emotions have turned off. I am not sure if you are familar with the church of Christ so maybe this does not make sense.
Now my husband and I are seriously considering the Orthodox Church. Because of my Catholic background I am a little afraid of the whole thing. Also, we lost our 10 year old son to cancer a few years ago and I am absolutely terrified that the Orthodox Church will tell me he is not in heaven. Through the church of Christ we believe in a believers baptism and so we did not have him baptized. We believe that children are recieved into heaven with God’s grace and if we did mess up and should have had him baptized that God will be merciful and gracious and allow our son to be with Him.
Thank You for your blog my husband and I have found it to be very inspiring.
Your bullet points for this post are really quite thought-provoking. Not just because they offer a serious refutation of atheism, but how those bullet points are so applicable to me as a believing Christian. To some degree in all of those points I fail in my relationship to the God I say I believe in, and in those failings my mind gets darkened to some degree and I experience a degree of separation from Him.
You’re telling the atheist they are in pain, anger, and misconceptions. If that is the case, then the atheist and the theist have many of the same problems, and differ only by degree. It is an astounding thing to ponder that the atheist’s total rejection of God, and the believer’s failing to embrace ascesis, have more in common than either would like to admit.
A helpful book elucidating point # 5 is Faith of the Fatherless: a Psychology of Atheism by Paul C. Vitz. Dr. Vitz shows in the lives of the classical atheists a correspondence between unbelief (or hostility towards God) and an absent or distorted relationship with their fathers. I have often found this correlation in my counseling experience, and indeed much pain – usually expressed in hostility – by such persons. Certain responses to your fine blog, Father, seem to demonstrate this, and sadden the heart. May they come to God’s healing!
It is readily apparent to me that atheists don’t believe in God because God is not rational to them, meaning they cannot perceive him with their senses. They have never seen God, they have never heard God, they have never touched God, nor have they ever caught the scent of God. Their demand on us is a resounding: “show me and I will believe you”.
In this we fail. We as Christians cannot reveal God to an atheist, that province lies with God alone. We can point our the effects God has and his energies. We can be apologists and do our best to argue theology, philosophy, and science to lead a non-believer towards a path of righteousness, but in the end, God is the only entity that can turn a soul from a wayward path.
Another more venal reason un-believers do not believe in God is because an acceptance of God confines and restricts their human behavior. In the absence of a divine power it seems logical and rational that each individual should do according to their own best interest, fulfill their desires, and live their passions. Likewise, they should not be judged for the choices that they make regardless of the destruction they bring upon themselves (e.g. homosexuality, addiction, greed, sloth, etc.).
If an atheist believes there is no God, and a life on average is 80 some years, why shouldn’t the person living that short 80 years optimize that life by creating the best life they are able? Herein is the problem with atheism! Man left to his own devises in the absence of God cannot be anything less than self serving. Self serving human behavior invariably leads to destruction of the soul, the mind, and usually the body because the absence of God is hell.
I would say that the atheist that want to engage you on this post are self serving because they need to believe they are right. They know they are not going to convert you or anyone else on this blog to atheism rather, they want to argue with you to prove they are correct in their belief and hope that when they die there is no consequence to the path they have chosen. What could be more self confirming for an atheist than to successfully challenge a priest on the issue of God’s existence? For them only time will tell. To them I would say; even if they are correct in there belief, I would not switch my life for theirs. Rather than constantly seeking to quell the depressing thought of their ultimate demise by being their own master, I would choose a life of service, community and worship. They choose to rationalize my Orthodox faith as delusion and denial of my inevitable demise and fail to see my life and the lives of my Orthodox brethren are fulfilled beyond anything their secular lives have to offer.
Finally, I would say to my atheists comrades that they, more than anyone, should be glad for Christians in their world. We provide a stable environment for them to live in and our philosophy of kindness provides charity to the less fortunate of all persuasions. True atheists accept this. On the other hand doubting ones need to prove they are right to quell the nagging doubts they have about eternity.
In humble prayer, I pray to the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, to have mercy on me a sinner and ask forgiveness from my brothers and sisters for my sins.
Oh come come. Don Bradley calls these points a “serious refutation of atheism”. On what level? The first point refers back to what scriptures say. But it is the very reliability of holy scripture that is called into question by atheists.
The second point merely moves to place God outside of analysis – a very handy tactic for theists unable to provide good arguments for belief. Rational arguement can be seen by all and sundry, and if its reasons are not good enough, it is criticised. If it offers good reasons, then that is admitted. But to move God beyond that kind of discussion is to say that the theist is not interested in demonstrating God’s veracity, other than to assert the universality of subjective experience as an indicator. That’s just vapid. And in the case of moral law, outrightly dangerous. It is by this mechanism that such things as Sharia law in Islam is instituted.
The third point about loving our enemies is an odd one. Certainly atheists can love their enemies. Unnecessarily the theist might be tempted to see this as the work of God, even in the unbeliever. Though if one knows God through loving enemies, why is God such a hypocrite? Behold his actions in the Old Testament: pitching nation against nation, destroying the blasphemer, heretic or dissident, handing over Job to Satan’s custody? – and the New Testament? The apocalyptic Revelations? These are literal truth are they? They point to God’s benificence, do they? “It says so in the scriptures” is no basis for anything. Use your reason, not the supposed authority of inconsistent archaic texts.
The fourth point means to imply, it would seem, that talking about God is not as good as actually carrying out his will. But it is exactly the point in dispute: let us discuss God to see if any of this even makes sense. It’s like saying “rather than trying to figure out whether the gearbox needs fixing on the car, get up and fix it!”. Except it might not be the gearbox that’s the issue. This point is essentially anti-intellectual; “stop discussing things!”
The fifth and final point makes a good observation: that people can get hurt by following false prophets or false interpretations of God. That’s true. But they are all false. Society on all levels is repleat with would-be interpreters of God’s will, the scripture, what Jesus meant to say, and so on. There’s very little to separate these out. Some will claim the truth of their tradition is manifest in its acts of kindness towards others, enemies included. But there is nothing religious or supernatural about the source of this. Altruism is a natural feature of mankind’s make-up (not on all levels, but it is).
Certainly referring to scripture is no refutation of atheism.
But of course this doesn’t purport to be a refutation of atheism. It is a discussion of why some people disbelieve mixed in with some comments about why Father Stephen does believe. I disagree with it, and have given what I think are adequate reasons. Although I think there are some good observations here – certainly some people disbelieve for the reasons Father Stephen gives, I am not one of them (that is to say these reasons are not the reasons I don’t believe) and I don’t believe in God. That does not make me a bad person, and just because I’m not a bad person doesn’t mean anything about God’s action through me, in me or about me either.
Your stereotypes are strange yet interesting to me. So if I don’t believe in God, I must be suffering from one or some of the following conditions: delusional, angry, hard of heart (whatever that means), weak and/or poor, and finally in pain or misguided.
I beg your pardon, but I simply don’t understand your point of view. I don’t hate Christians, so I’m baffled why so many of them feel a need to beat up on those of us who don’t share the same point of view.
If there is a God, I would guess He(She?) would want us all to live and let live. Even if that is not part of God’s plan for us, it’s a maxim I adopted for myself a long time ago.
So you may continue your cerebral dissection of the atheist mind, but I would suggest you should actually speak with some non-Christians. You may be surprised to discover we’re not the demons you imagine us to be.
I like this. The 2nd post and its somewhat rancorous aftermath warrants a follow-up of clarity and peace. Echoes what I recall from Peter Kreeft’s lecture on re-orienting the Culture Wars: “Belief in Christ… costing nothing less than everything. Everything you are, everything you have, everything you want… including your own chosen path of salvation.”
I wonder to what extent belief in God… and in the way He is communicated in the Orthodox Church.. is not supported and rounded out through the very open discussion of tears of repentance for our unbelief, for our resistance, and our fear and unwilling submission. Thus it seems to me a coming to belief or a fuller sense of belief not through argument, intellectual discernment or desire to be under authority – though these may be (and are) certainly involved… but it is out of love: to love and let oneself be loved, and step beyond ourselves.
Thus I would wonder that we should pray for those who still suffer from unbelief that they not be troubled, or find themselves alone, or unloved, but if in the course of time they should come to suffer these troubles, that they may find a way to choose another course. I think it is so much harder in the modern world to choose to change than we who have changed may be attuned to acknowledge or remember.
You very much misunderstand me if you think I am writing only about atheists. I am writing about modern man, oftentimes including Christians. But Christianity sees that lack of belief or knowledge of God as a part of the human disease that prevents us from being what God created us to be. Worse yet are Christians who labor under one or more delusions, such that they think they worship God and yet do not.
I have not invaded anybody’s world, or somebody else’s website to write about these things. If you are reading them, then you came here.
There is a live and let live, but I would not say to a man who was suffering form mental illness (just to use an example) and who refused treatment, “live and let live.” Neither do I say to the world that does not know Christ, “live and let live.” Of course, you may live your life however you please and be happy as you please, but I will still be a voice that says there is Someone more and that none of us is fully what we are created to be apart from Christ.
I certainly do not imagine Atheists to be demons. Many Christians are far worse off than many atheists. I do not dissect the atheist mind (didn’t mention atheists in this post in this post at all. Many Christians would find this speaking to their situation (I certainly wrote out of my own situation). Oddly enough, I wasn’t talking about you, but unbelief which is also a Christian problem. Unbelief in the True God is not like just plain unbelief in a God concept. He’s not a concept.
By the same token, belief in the True and Living God is different than you’ll have met in many Christians. God’s not your enemy, nor am I.
Is my comment still waiting for approval? New ones seem to have appeared since I posted mine. Thanks.
I am an atheist, and I find some of the remarks here very inaccurate about atheism. Firstly the idea (posted by Don Bradley above) that Father Stephen’s remarks are a refutation of atheism are hardly convincing. Let’s look at the arguments:
1. This point essentially refers to scripture for support. But the veracity of scripture is something atheists dispute. They ceratainly dispute its divine origins. So this can hardly be used to refute atheism. “The bible says so” is no answer to anything.
2. It is a mistake to say that rational discussion is the same as discussion of rational constructions. A rational debate about constructions made irrationally is perfectly possible, and actually applies in this case. The “true and living” God is what is under consideration in the context of a rational discussion. So Father Stephen has turned things upside down as far as what atheists are doing is concerned.
3. There is no reason why people who are atheists cannot forgive their enemies and many do. Even love them. It does not follow that an atheist hates his enemies, or that a person who hates his enemies is necessarily an atheist. So what is refuted here?
4. Talking about God and “moving into Christ’s suffering” are not mutually exlusive. Father Stephen here seems to be belittling discussion of the divine. Which is highly convenient when faced with rational atheist arguments for which theism struggles to find answers. Moreover, it is important to leap before you look; it is far better to ask questions about what you believe rather than blindly leaping into it (least of all because some revered text tells you – see point 1). “Don’t ask questions” is a long-standing cry of the pious, and ought to ring alarm bells.
5. The last point is actually a good one: many people get hurt by having fallen for the con trick of believing in quack prophets or preachers. This may put them off from believing in any other concept of God.
However, all religious clamour to establish themselves as the true interpreters of scripture, laughably claiming to know just what Jesus MEANT when he said this or that. Preachers and interpreters of scripture are ten-a-penny. Sadly for the world, so are the credulous and the duped.
I would also like, if I may, post some brief responses to the other remarks made above.
“Man left to his own devises in the absence of God cannot be anything less than self serving.”
I presume you meant anything “else” than self-serving. In any case, that’s just not true. There are innumerable non-religious charities, human rights organizations, campaign groups and people very much concerned with the welfare of others. Bertrand Russell, for example, lost his job at Cambridge University and went to prison for his opposition to the First World War and spent much of his effort in later life opposing nuclear arms.
You then write:
“I would say that the atheist that want to engage you on this post are self serving because they need to believe they are right. They know they are not going to convert you or anyone else on this blog to atheism rather, they want to argue with you to prove they are correct in their belief and hope that when they die there is no consequence to the path they have chosen. What could be more self confirming for an atheist than to successfully challenge a priest on the issue of God’s existence?”
This just anti-intellectualism. It constitues the attempt to close down reasonable questioning of religious doctrine by calling the people doing it “self-serving”. (These are people who may not have even posted here yet!) There are plenty of very good reasons to engage in debate. If challenged to existing thinking were never brought, the world would still look flat to us, we’d think we were created in 7 days, and modern medicine would not exist. It is challenging what others tell you, that tests the strength of ideas and beliefs and allows for better understanding. Pre-emptively calling people names dose nothing to affirm that what you believe is reasonable. Please judge the validity of people’s arguments, not pre-suppose flaws in their character.
I’m very sorry to hear about your child’s death. It is a very sad thing to learn. However, I would ask you to consider this. You expressed some trepidation about entering the Orthodox tradition on account of the fact that you might be told you son is not in heaven. But how would they know if he’s in heaven or not?
The very fact that religious scripture is ambiguous gives the opportunity for innumerable people to try to interpret it for you. If God intented his message to be unambiguous so that all might believe in Him, why did he permit this to happen?
If preacher A told you your boy’s in heaven and preacher B said he wasn’t, what would that mean? Nothing at all. They don’t know any such things.
These all are reasons why we don’t believe in God and I would add this reason: fear. We fear His mercy and love which are a consuming fire.
Paul Vitz is a conservative religious man who infuses religious defences into his analysis of the psyche. He is not an objective scholar. The charge that difficulty with father figures is an overly-simplistic and convenient hypothesis, which is easily testable over a large atheist demographic. Very many, in fact the majority of atheists I can think of that I know seem to relate to their fathers very well. Of course, we can’t presume to know the details of everyone’s life intricately, but I see no correlation at all from my perspective.
Of course, as a counsellor you’ll appreciate that people coming to you will be in some kind of distress, and doubtlessly many of these will be having problems with their parents.
And to say that someone is an atheist because they have problems with their father or father-figure goes no way to addressing any of the actual arguments atheist pose: questionable authority of scripture, questionable behaviour of institutionalised religious practice, no basis for metaphysics, the ubiquitous nature of themes like resurrections and virgin births throughout mythology… and so on.
Vitz is a conservative religious man who defends religion in his analyses of the psyche. There is no causal correlation between relationship to father or father figures and atheism. Of course, the people who visit you will likely be in distress already, seeing as you are a counsellor, and many personal problems will be likely to revolve around parents.
What is more, saying that there is a causal relationship between how we relate to our fathers and what we believe does nothing to tackle the arguments atheists actually do put forward in their case against the existence of God.
If I may be forgiven, I think Bluerat has a point and yet perhaps misses the point at the same time. This is only natural. While we may not be returning intellectual arguments that convince the critter, I think they do abound. Yet the predisposition to hear them involves something within that is not merely intellectual – as it involves the will – while at the same time intellectual assent is required – i.e. it must at least pass the smell test.
And forgive me for not articulating it more clearly, but it is a difficult matter and I am after all, Thickheaded. But in a way, it is the same problem that holds with people’s understanding of medicine and the financial markets – where folks treat the human organism whether singularly or collectively as a machine and expect it to act rationally according to where a specific cause results in a specific observable effect similar to Newtonian physics. But this seldom occurs – or at least does not reliably repeat itself, or put it this way… it is like GK Chesterton wrote where “…it’s wildness lies in wait”. And we recognize this in part by declaring the unique singularity of each and every individual human person. But that’s another matter.
Leave it simply that things just don’t work that way. It may be effective to certain understandings to model them as mechanical for limited purposes, but extrapolating the results more generally is a dangerous notion. The fact is that human enterprises work more like the tides of the Nile as explained in Fractal Theory. These explain that people process arguments similar to the tides. The Nile has high and low tides throughout like any other body… but unlike others, also has 14 year cycles. In these cycles, each high tide is succeeded by a higher high and higher low tide until the full course has run and peaked. Then it reverses, and runs for another 14 years until it reaches the lowest low. Similarly, people tend to ignore all facts and arguments that do not agree with their position until a catalizing event occurs – at which time they quickly realize the entirely “obvious” data they had earlier ignored supporting an opposite conclusion, and then begin proceed down this different course – equally assured that there is no separate option here either. Even as people learn these cycles, cycles in human behavior never repeat the same way.
So I would suggest both atheists and Orthodox believers have to concede that it is difficult to reach each other for reasons that may be similar to these. I would defer to folks more experienced than I in this “evangelistic” outreach, but it seems worthwhile to question whether it is fruitful… to continue a discussion given these circumstances. What I do know is the Fr. John Romanides called Orthodoxy akin to a science where the heart is the equivalent of the scientist’s microscope…. it is the tool through which we measure our relationships. And if Atheism has little to say about relationships, then perhaps it either has a limited contribution by constrast to Orthodoxy which extends to so many dimensions of life, or Atheism is simply a ship passing in the night in a different direction. Maybe both.
But what I also do not understand is what sort of tool Atheism represents – especially to the Atheist. I think Fr. John’s analogy makes something of the purpose and “benefits” of faith – of Orthodox faith – rather starkly clear. I am not sure whether the same were made clear for Atheism that I would find it of more than a curiousity. And if in all fairness a certain critter finds the arguments for God’s existence only a curiousity as well, then cohabitation (by which I mean real communication) may risk an outcome similar to the story of the Scorpion and the Frog crossing the river… and prove about as fruitful.
Hope this helps.
I think concision is frequently opposed to good discussion, though I can appreciate moderating long comments is taxing. Although, Father Stephen, your piece isn’t aimed at atheists specifically, presumably they are invited via the public forum to join in, no? As an atheist who joins in, I’d just like to remind everyone that atheism is not an ideology. James the Thickheaded seems to mistake it an one point for materialism, for example. But not all atheists are reductionist materialists. I am not. For this reason I agree with Father Stephen, which might come as a shock to him, that there is more to reality than rational argument. I completely agree.
But if you’re discussing something with another person, are you going to do it rationally or not? I am not disputing that aspects of reality aren’t rational. I merely meant to show that some of the points argued against atheism weren’t very good in the context of a discussion.
Since a discussion tries to be ration (otherwise it would get nowhere), it would help to have rational points made, whether the subject about which the discussion revolves is a rational phenomenon or not.
All the best.
sorry, i should have posted that last one as BlueRat. I didn’t realise I was logged in under RaA, my mistake. Apologies.
I’ve edited a few comments out, and perhaps too early at that. Moderating is not a perfect science and is subject to my own frailties. I apologize for any offense I may have caused and welcome your participation.
I don’t mean to be disrespectful but I am sure this may come across as harsh. The death of my son is something extremely painful and difficult for me and I am not about to debate these issues with an athiest. You are treading on ground that you have absolutely no concept of. You may have your opinions about wether God exists or does not, but your comments must stop when it comes to something as delicate and difficult and painful as a mother who lost their child to cancer and is in need of spiritual guidance and assurance.
Your point is well made. I winced when he brought the subject up, though I’m sure he meant well. If you haven’t lost someone it’s easy to tread on painful territory without knowing. I hold you in my prayers. We lost a child as well and am acquainted both with the grief and the spiritual pain involved. May God keep you. May your child’s memory be eternal. It is abasolutely the case that your child is with God in heaven. He is a good God and loves mankind. My child died unbaptized, I include him in prayers always and know that my sins are far greater – indeed, he is without sin apart from that which brings death to us all. But Christ has promised to destroy that enemy.
With losing a child, the pain never goes away. It is a club I wish not to be a part of, but unfortunately I was left without a choice in the matter. It’s been 12 years, but it weighs on my soul like it was yesturday. Our loss was sudden, Nancy’s was protracted, which makes it more difficult. I never had him baptized (my biggest regret in this life), but ultimately God is not bound by such things.
Orthodox theology has no condemnation of an unbaptized child, as it is incompatible with how we see original sin or salvation. I pray for my deceased son, as I am sure he prays for us. Mr. BlueRat stretched to make a point to win an argument, but I doubt he was attempting to inflict pain. It was heat of battle stuff, and he should be forgiven.
St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote the following:
He centers on the unrealized potential of that young life lost, and the mercy of God in possibly sparing that youth from a life of pain. Due to the prominence of the Saint in Orthodox history, and the eloquence and pastoral compassion he exhibits. his words carry more weight than mine and should be of some comfort. Fr. Stephen should be of unique comfort and counsel in this area, being that he can empathize with your situation, is a convert, and a priest. God be with you.
I’m sorry if I offended you. I didn’t think I said anything nasty and I did try to be sensitive. And you did raise the issue yourself in a public space. I just wanted to say something about questioning what anyone can know about heaven at all, which is nothing. But please, don’t presume what I’m qualified to talk about either. Suffering is no monopoly. In any case, my point was about knowledge of who’s in heaven, not anything about else. I still think my original point was a good one.
All the best.
Thanks again – the five reasons you gave for not entering are profound and obviously stimulating. When some intimation of the gift of the anointing (1 John) or of the treasure in earthen vessels (1 Peter) or of the earnest of our inheritance (Paul somewhere) or of the wholeness noted in the gospel stories (Luke, Mark, Matthew – just to name that there were many writers, not one) or of the covenant loving kindness captured in the Hebrew word, chesed, especially in the Psalms – when there is some intimation of this, a dialogue begins, and has already begun (though we kick against the pricks) that transcends time and also finds itself absolutely temporal. This is a true consolation. We do not know who is in or out – perhaps then this is the wrong way to put it. Better we should know the consolation – a true advocacy in our situation, a true building up of the individual lot. It may be that this is knowledge of heaven. Taste and see.
Pardon me, you did not specifically mention atheists. You are correct, you did imply that everyone else is clueless, not just atheists. Point taken.
I certainly don’t consider you, or ‘God’, my enemy, and I did not say that.
Perhaps I mistook your point of view to be something akin to what Kelly Phelps posted, which was hateful and misguided. I assumed you were alluding to those sort of sentiments, so if I was incorrect, I apologize.
However, I do enjoy these types of discussions (and certainly not because I’m foolish enough to try to convince anyone else I’m ‘right’–least of which a Priest!!), because I am a critical thinker. The purpose of our existence is a question that has vexed the human mind for eons, and will continue to do so as long as the human creature is self-aware. If I must be labeled a ‘rationalist’ because I view religion as a mechanism to meet this need, so be it.
Further, I do take issue with K. Phelps un-substantiated, categorical assumptions, and will direct my comments to some of those points.
Each person is self-serving in some way. Granted, some much more than others, but I whole-heartedly disagree that atheists are any more self-serving than any one else. As a matter of fact, I’m wearing a uniform in defense of my country right this very moment. I was a reservist service member, yet now I’ve been deployed and will spend more than a year away from my family, friends and co-workers. I challenge anyone to explain how this is self-serving. I’ve taken a pay cut, have given up personal freedoms and will be separated from everything I love and hold dear. And I do this willingly for the greater good.
In fact, how ironic that K. Phelps would both insinuate communism (‘comrades’), and take credit for making the world a stable place. Any objective review of history–and present day–will find numerous wars and conflicts started and propagated by Christians. I thank no Christian for a stable world; instead, I took a solemn oath to defend my country against all enemies, both foreign and domestic. It is the men and women in uniform who defend our country that provide stability.
I absolutely find it laughable to assume that atheist=immoral. My value system is very personal to me, but that’s exactly because I’ve had to define it for myself–I didn’t have anyone spoon-feed it to me. But rest assured, atheists are just as likely to have values and morals as Christians are. That is a human trait, not a Christian trait.
Finally, I only join this discussion because it is in a public forum, and Fr Stephen did invite participation. If my comments are unwelcome, I’ll take my opinions elsewhere, but I do think there is value in seeking a better understanding of perspectives different from my own.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my opinion.
It is obvious that atheists, like Christians, are all over the map on morals and ethics. At least two of the most ethical people I’ve ever known professed no belief in God. And it is obvious in your own case that you are more than willing to make sacrifice for what you believe. God protect you (if you don’t mind).
I think there are plenty of conversations worth having with those who do not believe in Christ, and as an Orthodox Christian, many opportunities to have with those who believe in Christ but do not embrace the Orthodox faith. But in no case do I think anyone should engage in argument (because arguments just don’t really go to the heart of things) and it is the heart of things that really matter – for us all.
Thank you Fr Stephen. That was a kind and gracious statement.
Thankyou Fr Stephen and Don for your comforting words. Sometimes a person needs assurance and reminding. Most days I am confident that my son is in heaven with our Father and my husband is always confident, but everyonce in awhile I loose footing and get shaken up. So thank you again for the comforting words.
Bluerat of course I forgive you and accept your aplogy and I understand you did not mean anything offensive. When Christ has forgiven the world who am I to hold something against another person.
As far as your question, I did not want to debate with you because I felt your question was a matter of scripture interpretation, I was afraid of wher the conversation may lead and at the time my heart was very troubled with grief. I believe the scriptures are the Holy Word of God, I believe that Christians should not doubt their salvation. All of these promises and assurances are found within the scripture. You were witnessing me at a very weak moment and now you are witnessing the love of God through Fr Stephen and Don giving me comfort and assurance.
There are also warnings in the scriptures about false teachers and false gospels and so we have to weed through alot of what other people say. To an athiest Christians may look really divided but we are united in our belief that Jesus is the Son of God and He came to earth to die for our sins to give us eternal life with God in heaven. Amongst us have been and always will be people who want to put further burdens or requirements on the good news of the gospel. The scriptures also warns about this. We are not perfect but God is and this is where our faith comes in.
I am sure this answer is not sufficient for you and it will probably raise more questions but this is where I will end.
In our small mission in Georgia, three of us who are now Orthodox came from the Church of Christ/Campbell-Stone Restoration Movement. I believe I can speak for all of us when I say that our movement into Orthodoxy was almost a natural progession from the c of Christ. Perhaps Campbell, Stone, et al., had they known Orthodoxy, eventually found their way to the Orthodox Church.
God bless you and your family on your journey.
Thank you Joseph, that is very inspiring. Sometimes I get caught up in thinking that maybe I have kept making mistakes and turning to the wrong places in my faith. But now after what you have said makes me think this is all just a journey and if my husband and I do decide to become Orthodox than it doesn’t mean the church of Christ was a mistake but just a part of our journey.
Thank you for understanding and accepting my apology for any offence.
I know that you’re committed to Christianity, and that for the moment this may be working for you. That’s fine.
Over the course of the discussion above, and others elsewhere, I’ve tried to question religous language and propositions, as well as positions of faith in the way that I think everybody should. I think this because I think all ideas should be questioned so that we can come to understand them better and have confidence in the good ones.
I respectfully disagree with you about scripture, its source and faith in that source. And just so that the atheist position is clear: please don’t be threatened by us. Frequently I think we must seem aggressive for challenging people’s beliefs. But it is the ideas we are challenging, not the people. All this is (at least by good people) done with good intentions at heart. We might be mistaken, but of course that’s what part of the debate is about.
I hear people who believe in God frequently mention the consolation this belief affords them. I don’t see that as a good enough reason to believe at all. But I would also like to mention one thing about how atheists see things: just because we don’t have a God we pray to, or who we believe intervenes in our lives, does not mean there is no consolation for us. We have a very rich and lively tradition of thought, of literature, of philosophy, of poetry, of song and of art. In fact, atheism needn’t be a theme in these, so much as they are a theme through atheism. Even an atheist can draw on religious teachings for wisdom (few atheists are willing to admit this in public), it’s just that they’re likely to see the context of these teachings differently because they don’t consider the teachings to be above all others (just like with scriptures).
Either way, atheism is not a cold, heartless and cruel conviction. I would like everyone to know this. Atheism is just a reaction to the idea that God does exist. It is not even opposition to spirituality. Certainly, very many atheists affirm that human beings have an inherent need to pursue spiritual matters to fulfilment. For this we draw on a rich and diverse tradition, and good atheists will try to use the goodness in their heart to help acheieve this for themselves and enable others to do so too. Certainly there are many things we draw on for comfort and soothing and reassurance (being humans we need these things too).
Please don’t dismiss us; many of us recognise the vitality of existence, are thankful for it and share many of the goals Christians hold dear. Our approach may be different, though. But that is often an intellectual matter.
All the best to you all.
Sorry. I’ve gone and done it again. I’ve submitted as RaA rather than BlueRat. The perils of keeping two blogs. Apologies.
The things (ideas) you suggest should be examined (subjected to rational discourse), however, are frequently things that do not admit of a classical rational discourse, particularly if they have been well taught. Not anti-rational, but rooted in something quite different. But I think we agree that some things cannot be examined in such a manner. Even how a text works for a properly trained Orthodox believer is quite different than most imagine. Pure historical examination is of no use since it is not a pure historical work. Besides, every historical document that is purely historical is only obscured by history. It does not reveal what it intends to reveal. Scripture, on the other hand, reveals what it intends to reveal, when one is taught properly how to read it (but this is by no means common – modern fundamentalists and historical critics only make a mess of things).
I am not surprised that atheists have a “spiritual life” or whatever term may be given it by an individual. It would be an empty existence to have none. Indeed, such a life might indicate the existence of God, though not God as He is classically discussed. I should add that the “God of the Philosophers” has almost nothing to do with the God taught in Orthodox Christianity. You might be surprised.
I just want to take the opportunity to clarify that “belief” in God is not an absolute requirement for salvation. It is my experience that rationalists tend to define “belief” as unthinking acceptance of certain precepts of faith. Jesus Christ never taught that, neither does the Orthodox Church. What is essential is the ability to recognize Jesus Christ for who He is when you meet Him, repent of your sins and accept His love. Whenever that comes for you. As Hamlet said, If it be now, it is not to come, if it be to come, it will not be now, if it be not now, yet it will come, the readiness is all”. There is no reason to be in the Church if you have not, in a sense, met Jesus Christ. Until you have, no amount of intellectual argument can convince, after you have, no amout of intellectual argument is necessary, only a deepening of the union.
Jesus is a bit like a college professor of mine who at the beginning of the year always told his classes that if we could pass his tests without showing up for class, we didn’t have to show up. We’ll it was obvious to me at the time that I needed to attend classes to be able to pass the tests. So now I attend Church, read and pray and hope Jesus grades on the deep curve He promises.
Living a life of mercy and sacrifice is, whether you realize it or not, also attending the same class and preparing your heart to recognize Him when you do meet. Not only that, you may well have picked up a few people here who are rooting for you and will include you in their prayers.
Because you say atheism is a reaction to the belief that God exists means that you can never know if the goodness and art, poetry, wisdom from scritpture teachings and all the various things that enrich your life would exist in world that did not believe in God. You may say that all of this would and does exist without a God, but you will never know because wether in belief or unbelief God is still a factor.
One time my husband was talking to an extreme pacifist about fighting and wars and my husband told him that he had the luxury of being a pacifist because of all the people who made the sacrafice to fight. I guess in some sense I can say something similar to you. You have the freedom to believe there is no God but you may very well be enjoying the life and things He gives.
If atheism is a reaction to a belief in God than you cannot be 100% sure that God does NOT exist.
‘It is my experience that rationalists tend to define “belief” as unthinking acceptance of certain precepts of faith. Jesus Christ never taught that, neither does the Orthodox Church. What is essential is the ability to recognize Jesus Christ for who He is when you meet Him, repent of your sins and accept His love.’
Right, Michael. ‘Belief’ in the Christian sense is trust in a person, not acceptance of a rational argument or proposition. Once one meets a person, one no longer questions his existence!
Of course this doesn’t mean that rationality has no place, only that it is secondary to the personal.
It is unfortunately easy to forget that Christianity is first and foremost about the person of Jesus Christ. Everything else we do is a response to Him, either acceptance of Him or rejection of Him.
It’s hard to know how I should reply because quite a few people have written to my comment about atheism. I’ll limit myself to one point per person.
You wrote that scriptures aren’t a purely historical document. Yet you assert the factual accuracy of select events (for example the literal resurrection of Christ as a historical event). By what criteria do you choose which events are acurately, historically described in scripture, and which are not? Atheists view this with great suspicion, not least since theists frequently make retorts about having been “trained properly” to interpret scripture. Every tradition makes this claim and they all interpret it differently.
Theists are continually presenting others with views of what they are already doing that they are not aware of. This most atheists find patronizing. Nonetheless, if salvation can come about without meeting Christ and joining the Church, all the better. One lesst thing to worry about.
A world in which God had never been invented (that is known as a concept at all), would have still contained all the emotional charge of human life anyway, and this would find itself into literature, art and philosophy.
Your point about not being able to disprove the existence of God is right. You can’t. Indeed, you can’t prove a negative. You, Nancy, also can’t “prove” that aliens didn’t swoop down to earth last monday, put everything on the planet the way it is today and gave us all memories so that we think we’ve been here for years, had childhoods and so on…
Your analogy with pacifism has an inherent weakness: if everyone had perfomed the sacrifice (as indeed it is one) to be a pacifist, everyone would benefit from there not being any war.
Not to mention “love thy enemy” are Christ’s words, and one’s conveniently forgotten every time “Christians” are intent on justifying some conflict or other.
Frequenly here people mention “meeting” Christ as a person. Obviously this is somehow meant less literally than the claim that he rose from the dead. (Which in itself is an interesting cherry-picking amongst what is to be literal and what is not in Christianity.) I understand what you mean about rationality in contradistinction to Christian belief. But from what Christians write I can’t perceive any difference between your “meeting” Jesus and the sense in which a reader “meets” a character in a fiction novel. In that sense, I’ve met Raskolnikov and Yossarian. Though I don’t for a second presume on the basis of any doctrine that they invigilate my behaviour and will come to judge me, nor do I assert the historical factuality of Frodo’s adventures with a ring in Middle Earth. But religion manages this feat. It is interesting to study that question on its own.
Michael Bauman (again),
You wrote: “It is unfortunately easy to forget that Christianity is first and foremost about the person of Jesus Christ. Everything else we do is a response to Him, either acceptance of Him or rejection of Him.”
Surely a Christian who rejects Christ is no longer a Christian. Otherwise we’d all be Christians. I’ve not met Christ and reject him (though no more so than Frodo, Yossarian or Raskolnikov). That means I definitely don’t fit into your group.
One could take your statement to imply that everything is a reaction to Christ, and that the first step of that reaction is acceptance or rejection. But that is meaningless; you could say that about anything. You could say accepting or rejecting unicorns is the foundation of all human activity. But that is equally vacuous.
I don’t react to God or Jesus, I react to the idea of God or Jesus. That is different. The idea is not the real thing. Or as the Buddhists might say, the menu is not the meal.
All the best to all and sundry.
“The idea is not the real thing.”
If you ever do meet the real thing, you won’t need to keep pointing it out. Though I do remember telling my atheist friend, “If Jesus walked into the room and sat down next to you on the couch, I think you’d convince yourself you weren’t seeing him.” But I also know that it’s impossible to do so.
Having met God is not the same as having met a fictional character, and I know this because I am a writer of fictional characters. From my vantage point, God writes our lives the same way that I write theirs, and it’s only the most human and comical hubris that allows THEM to believe they have invented ME rather than vice versa. But I only believe that because it was shown to me in a non-rational way. If God ever reveals himself to you in the same way, you’ll know it. You can’t really miss it.
And if you do meet God, and He gives you the grace not to rationalize Him away, your sharp mind will prove invaluable in His service. Cheers!
Your question to me: You wrote that scriptures aren’t a purely historical document. Yet you assert the factual accuracy of select events (for example the literal resurrection of Christ as a historical event). By what criteria do you choose which events are acurately, historically described in scripture, and which are not? Atheists view this with great suspicion, not least since theists frequently make retorts about having been “trained properly” to interpret scripture. Every tradition makes this claim and they all interpret it differently.
I understand that you’re a chemist and not trained in Scripture – I might add that Protestant tradition (such as it is) is generally useless on reading Scripture. Orthodoxy is a 2000 year old tradition in terms of Scripture reading.
I can give you the short version of the question, but I will say that a very important part of the Orthodox faith is its existence as a hermeneutical community – that is – as a community we exist as the living interpretation of Scripture.
Even older than the New Testament is what St. Irenaeus, 2nd century, referred to as the “Apostolic Hypothesis,” which was essentially a short outline of the faith, including the barebones of its historical (literal) proclamation. An example of this could be found in the Apostles Creed in use in some churches today. There are also numerous places in the New Testament that show the use of this Apostolic hypothesis (by the way this doesn’t mean the same as hypothesis in science). But this bedrock witness is the basic faith upon which the New Testament offers us much insight in a variety of literary forms.
The 19th century in particular saw Protestants overreacting to some of the claims of modern science giving rise to today’s fundamentalism. But that fundamentalism is outside the Tradition as it has been maintained in the unbroken life of the Orthodox faith. We have no difficulty making our way through Scripture within Orthodoxy. As for the others, I couldn’t begin to speak for them or fix what they have broken. Most of “trained scholars” are simply spokesmen for the academic end of protestantism and don’t know their head from a whole in the ground on much of Scripture, frankly.
Sorry they are so confusing to atheists, but I’m not surprised. They don’t do Christians any good either. 🙂
I’m afraid that everything you said might be reversed round. For instance, you talk about the struggle of the atheist to suppress his rationalist urges and “explain away” God when he reveals himself non-rationally. There are two problems with that at least. Firstly, an atheist could say of believers that they are suppressing their rational side in order to maintain faith in a fictional supernatural being. Secondly, if for God it is so important to have people believe in Him, why doesn’t he provide evidence so that even the rationalists can join in? Giving people the ability to scrutinise evidence, and then failing to provide any for your own existence is hardly convincing. Not least that he could make use of my talents if he showed me he was really there.
That I am a chemist needn’t mean I’m not trained in scripture. I am a little, though my training ended fairly early. I don’t quite see the relevance of Protestantism in your remark; I was born/raised a Roman Catholic.
Your second paragraph about St.l Iranaeus is interesting and I’ll look into it if I have the time.
What you say about other traditions is again repeated by every one of them. Each of the Roman Catholics, Protestants, the Orthodox… right across major traditions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism…) have issues with how the others interpret this or that and claim they can point out the flaws and how their approach is better. Just repeating this for Orthodoxy does nothing for me, I’m afraid. Though I think you and I would be in agreement at least in the observation that academic theology tends to just be about empty guff 90% of the time.
The discussion becomes circular. If everything anyone says can be turned around (which is perhaps the case) then it simply demonstrates that rationality is misapplied in some conversations and that something else might be the case. I would encourage you to have conversation that listens and doesn’t just demonstrate how quickly you can think on your feet and turn something around.
The reason, quite simply, that the Truth of God is not utterly subject to examination by reason, is that it would thus both be too compelling (thus your freedom would be impinged) and that the problem with humanity is not lack of information, but a change of heart. If you had all the right information but the same heart, you’d be no better off.
BR: One thing I learned from years of discussing this with an atheist was “Never argue God with an atheist.” 🙂 It’s the epitome of moot.
But I would like to address this point: “Secondly, if for God it is so important to have people believe in Him, why doesn’t he provide evidence so that even the rationalists can join in?”
The short answer is that I’m not God, so naturally I don’t know. But you can ask Him yourself. 🙂
The longer one is that I don’t know if we can actually surmise that it’s important to God to have people believe in Him. My first thought is that, clearly, WE are the ones with the need. I can’t imagine he’s sitting around wishing we’d notice Him like a forlorn teenager on a Saturday night. What does He need of us? Nothing. By contrast, what need do we have of Him? Well, the most cursory glance says we’re all here discussing Him, which tells us something.
If I thoroughly understood what God wanted, I wouldn’t be here. I’m just an ant at the celestial picnic trying to figure out what all the giants are doing. It’s not possible. For me to understand God is so far beyond my capabilities that I have to be content with serving what I do understand, or believe, and that is that it has something to do with mercy and compassion.
Meanwhile, it helps me to remember this quote by Martin Fischer: “Your mind works very simply: you are either trying to find out what are God’s laws in order to follow them; or you are trying to outsmart Him.” Peace.
To follow up on Fr. Stephen’s comment about a change of heart and rejecting Christ. All sin is a rejection of Him. There is a difference between the rejection of Him as a person, rejection of the faith after accepting it (apostasy), and the little irrational daily rejections of His love and mercy in favor of my own will. Even the greatest of saints all testify to their own sinfulness.
I’ve met Jesus. I’m a Christian because of that meeting. I was not a Christian at the time, yet I knew it was Him. It is only since that meeting that I have become rational. I supress nothing. I seek transformation and deeper union out of love. Love of and union with Christ is supra-rational.
You’re own approach to the matter shows exactly why rationalism prevents joining in: the virtually infinite rationalisation that prevents entering the sacred dimension.
The rational mind is insatiable, devouring all data and asking for more, never satisfied.
The rational mind is insatiable, devouring all data and asking for more, never satisfied.
Rationalists cannot enter because they cannot pray. Rationalists cannot pray because the ultimate source of being is within themselves. Instead of reaching for the I AM, rationalists proclaim their own being with their own thoughts as DeCartes, “I think, therefore I am.”
The Christian formulation of this dictum is because of the I AM, I am therefore I think.
Rationalists cannot enter because they are facing the wrong way and can’t even see the door that allows entry. Repentance (to turn around) is required.
Rationalists cannot enter in because they are constantly bedeviled by dichotomies and dialectic while God is one and tends to reveal Himself in antinomies.
Fr. Stephen rightly identifies the Orthodox Church as an “hermeneutical community – that is – as a community we exist as the living interpretation of Scripture.”
Within the Church that is accomplished sacramentally, not intellectually.
Academic theology is at least 90% guff becuase it is typically thought only not prayed into existence so to speak. Archimandrie Sophrony says of prayer, “Prayer is infinite creation, far superior to any form of art or science.” (On Prayer).
It is prayer that gives rise to the the Tradition of the Church (the prayers which our Lord Himself spoke) and the Tradition of the Church that validates the fruit of subsequent prayer. Holy Scripture, icons, and the Scaraments provide the crucible, the energy, and the catalyst in which, by which, and through which we are able to experience prayer, i.e, communion with the Living God in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ.
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