I find the flack that Oprah has taken recently over her ideas of what atheism is to be interesting. Yes, she got it wrong, although she also seemed wrong about theism. But how many people do know what atheism is? The term means different things to different people, similar to the word Christian. Even atheists will disagree about what the word means. I know that the chances of defining this in a way that everyone will agree with are minute, but I will share my take on it anyway.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
There Is No God
For most of my life, this is the definition that I would have given, and the one that I have generally heard: “Belief that there is no god(s).” And in debate with many atheists over the years, it appears like that is the position that many, if not all of them, actually hold to, even if not outwardly.
The problem with this position, and why many atheists will no longer admit to it, is that it is a positive statement about belief. And as such, the theist has as much right to ask for their proof as they do to ask us for proof about God’s existence. The reality is that there is no proof for either claim. And so, to avoid having to admit to a lack of proof while still asking the theist for proof, they have generally adopted a different definition.
Without Belief in God
“Not having a belief in God” sounds very much like “believing there is no God,” at least to the theist. But there is a difference. Take Greek yogurt as an example. Some people like it. Some don’t like it. I have no opinion since I have never experienced it. Atheism, with this definition, says that the atheist lacks any belief concerning any god(s). They neither believe that there is a god nor that there is no god. They take no position on the issue.
This is probably a good definition for a 6-month-old; they genuinely have no beliefs concerning a deity. And it could be a good definition for someone who has not been exposed to people talking about some god(s). But it is hard to imagine that atheists who are involved in the debate concerning the existence of God have no belief one way or another.
They will say that I lack belief in Santa Claus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the Norse gods. But that is not true. I believe that none of them exist. Can I prove it? No. But that does not stop me from disbelieving in them.
This definition, in my opinion, is nothing more than a dodge. It would be more intellectually honest for the atheist to admit to a disbelief in the existence of deities and then either provide proof for their disbelief or admit that they have none.
Awe & Wonder
Is an atheist capable of experiencing awe and wonder at the universe? That seems to have been at the heart of the Oprah controversy. Diana Nyad claimed to be an atheist and also able to experience awe and wonder of the universe as much as the most devout Christian. Oprah seemed to struggle with that, equating awe and wonder with God.
So who was right? I would have to side with Diana on this. I see no reason why an atheist could not experience awe and wonder over the grandeur of the universe, the majesty of Mt Rainier, or the beauty of a rose. After all, those things are pretty impressive, and awe and wonder seem to be an innate part of who we are.
There is a difference, though, in the awe and wonder that Diana Nyad might feel about the universe and what I feel. She is really in awe of the end result of what she sees as a series of accidents, or fortuitous happenings. I am in awe of a creator who produced these beautiful things.
Consequences of No God
As a Christian, I believe that God created the universe and all that is in it, including myself, for a purpose. That tells me that I have a purpose, gives me hope for my future, and assures me that I have value as a person. But what purpose, hope, and value can one have if the universe and all it contains are nothing but a cosmic accident.
Sure, I can assign my own purpose to my life, and many people do that, even Christians. And it may provide some self-satisfaction. But is it really purpose? Purpose is defined as “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.” But if I exist only because of a series of unplanned, unintended, and accidental happenings, then what reason could there be for my existence. If there is no creator, then life has no purpose.
I might hope the weather clears for the weekend. I might hope that the world becomes a better place for my kids to raise their own families. And I might hope that the few years I have on this earth is not all that I have. The first two hopes apply to everyone, although they are hope with no assurance. The third is limited to those who believe in a God who created us for a purpose. And it is, quite honestly, a hope that I have confidence in (2 Timothy 1:12).
For the atheist, what value can there be in human life? What is it that makes us so much more special than a cow, a germ, a weed, or a rock? As individuals, or a society, we might choose to value human life, but nothing explicitly demands that. We have no inherent value just because we are human. What is to say that valuing the life of all humans is preferable to only placing value on your own clan? In contrast, if I was created, I have value to the one who made me. And I recognize the inherent value that all other people have as well. It is not up to me to decide if they have value.
Some people have a pretty bleak opinion of atheist morality. But in my experience, that is a mistake. You might occasionally encounter an atheist with no regard for others. But, much more often, you will find them to be the moral equivalent, and sometimes superior, to those who believe in some god(s). While there may be some innate morality that we all have, atheist or theist, most of our morality is socially learned. And the atheist learns the morality of their society just as much as the Christian. Just because the atheist believes there is no creator, and no hope for existence after this life, does not mean that they have cast off all restraint here and now.
An atheist is one who, for one reason or another, believes that there is nothing beyond the natural world that we can experience with our senses or ultimately reason out with our minds. There is no creator, God, gods, or supernatural. While they may have no explanation for the origin of the universe and life within it, they are unwilling to attribute it to the purposeful act of a deity. The only time that atheists have is the present, and they refuse to look to a future beyond this life. And so the atheist lives without any inherent purpose and without a future hope. Unfortunately, not unlike many who do confess belief in a creator.