It is my observation that many people are practical atheists. I know this sounds pretty extreme, but from dealing with hundreds of people over the years, I maintain that it is true.
The popular image of atheists is that they are extreme or even belligerent people. Perhaps the image that comes to mind is of a person devoted to a purely secular way of life who gets upset when religion is mentioned. Or maybe you think of an outspoken crank crusading against the public acknowledgment of God.
But atheism has more than one face. Militant atheists –the kind who believe in no deity– are fairly rare. Most people profess some form of theistic belief. A good many actually have a fairly standard concept of God and Jesus as they are taught in the Bible. For practical purposes, however, some of these folks function as atheists simply because they live as though faith in God had little or no connection to daily life.
So, I repeat my assertion that many people who profess belief in God are actually atheists from a practical point of view. God doesn’t really count for anything substantial with them. He gets nothing from them in terms of what they truly value: time, money, devotion. If they throw him a few bucks now and then or give up a couple of hours on a Sunday once in awhile, they feel God should be satisfied.
Practical atheists feel that their lives are their own business and that, unless they specifically call on him, God should respect that privacy. Only when a crisis comes is there some focused thinking about God and some kind of attempt to contact him.
The Bible tells us, however, that we actually owe God our very beings. If not for him, we would have no existence. It tells us that the reason we are estranged from him is because of our own choices and attitudes. It also gives us the incredible news that Jesus came to offer us forgiveness and re-connection with God. It promises us that, far from being indifferent to our need of him, God is eager to give us restored relationship and eternal life.
Another irony I have observed is that some of these practical atheists even attend church. I can only conclude that they have fallen into a confused logic, believing in God theoretically while living as though he were irrelevant. Either the God of the Bible exists or he does not. If he does not exist then, “..eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” If he does exist as the Bible describes him, then life has no real meaning without him and every aspect of our lives must be lived in light of who he is.
Over time, certain tried and true arguments have been used to “prove” the existence of God. These can be seen primarily as arguments for monotheism, but they can be adapted somewhat to certain other theistic views as well.
The Ontological Argument. Credit: Anselm of Canterbury, circa 1033-1109 CE. “The fool hath said in his heart there is no God.” (Psalm 14:1). To even deny God’s existence, a person must grasp the concept of a supreme deity. A supreme deity is the greatest possible being; nothing greater can be conceived. Logical points:
Premise 1: God is the greatest possible being.
Premise 2: At the very least, God exists in the minds of people.
Premise 3: A being who exists only in the mind is not as great as one who exists both in the mind and in reality.
Premise 4: If God exists only in the mind, he is not the greatest possible being.
Initial Conclusion: Therefore, since he can be conceived in the mind, God must exist in both the mind and in reality.
Possible Refutation: To conceive of God only tells us what he would be like if he existed, not whether he exists.
Overall Conclusion: Though not a completely convincing proof, the Ontological Argument may show that belief in God is at least reasonable.
The Cosmological Argument infers the existence of God from the existence of the Cosmos (either as a whole or from specific objects). It has also been called the First Cause Argument. Credit: Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle; In the medieval era Thomas Aquinas 1225-74 CE used this argument in his Summa Theologica. In brief, the Cosmological Argument argues that the Cosmos appears to be contingent. That is, it exists, but could have just as easily not existed. Since it requires something outside itself to bring it into existence, it appears to have been caused by something that is self-existent.
Premise 1: Certain contingent beings and objects exist (the Cosmos).
Premise 2: If any contingent things exist, then a self-existent thing (First Cause) must exist.
Initial Conclusion: Therefore a self-existent thing (or Being) must exist. (If we call this thing “God”, then the argument is successful.)
Possible Refutation 1: Perhaps the Cosmos itself is eternal. Reply: If that is true, it is still contingent and would require a First Cause.
Possible Refutation 2: Perhaps the Cosmos is not contingent. The French existentialist author Albert Camus believed the Cosmos to be absurd. That is, it exists as a necessary cause but with no apparent explanation as to how or why. Reply: If this is true, then, by definition, the Cosmos is itself the First Cause, which does not appear to fit the discoveries of science.
Possible Refutation 3: Perhaps the Cosmos is infinitely contingent. Reply: An infinite series of contingent things is an incomplete series.
Overall Conclusion: This argument seems compelling to many. It does not necessarily require a Monotheistic God as First Cause, but could also allow for Deism and even Pantheism.
The Teleological Argument. This point of view is related to the Cosmological Argument, but focuses on the Cosmos as an orderly system. It is also called the Argument from Design. Credit: Various Greek philosophers; Aquinas.
Premise 1: The Cosmos contains many instances of design. For example, the order of heavenly bodies, chemistry, physics and the biological world.
Premise 2: Evidence of design implies a Designer.
Initial Conclusion: The Cosmos is the result of a Designer.
Possible Refutation: Order and progress may happen by pure chance. This is essentially the reasoning behind the theory of Materialistic Evolution (given the existence of raw matter, huge lengths of time and random chance, order and benefit can be produced). Reply: Even Evolution requires some sort of constructive force driving the process.
Overall Conclusion: The Teleological and Cosmological arguments are probably are complementary. Their defects are each cancelled out by the other. The Cosmological Argument argues for a First Cause, the Teleological for that cause being personal, intelligent and beneficial.
The Moral Argument has also been called the Argument from Conscience. Credit: Plato talked about “the form of the good”. Immanuel Kant said that the idea of moral order makes the postulation of God necessary. C.S. Lewis discusses the Moral Argument at length in his book, Mere Christianity. This argument is not popular among most contemporary philosophers, but is often used by average people.
Premise 1: Basic concepts such as love and justice are universally understood in world cultures. In other words, the concept of a set of universally binding moral values seems to exist and be accepted in every culture.
Premise 2: Without a God, there cannot be absolute (universally binding) moral values. Teodor Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamozov, “..if there is no God, then everything is permitted..”
Premise 3: Since Absolute Values can only come from a source outside the human race, there mkust be a source for these things either hard-wired into the Cosmos or outside it altogether.
Initial Conclusion: Therefore, as the source of a universal morality, God exists.
Possible Refutation 1: Could not universal morality originate from some cause besides God? Perhaps moral obligations are grounded in self interest or natural instinct. Reply: People seem to conceive of moral absolutes even when they do not appear to involve self-interest or natural instinct. For instance, the case of a soldier falling on a hand grenade to save his comrades.
Possible Refutation 2: Right and wrong are not universally binding, but are products of human culture. Reply: The variance in human morality is exaggerated. There seems to be a basic trans-cultural understanding of morality with only the details and circumstances in question. Also, just because cultural variance in morality exists, it does not logically follow that no absolute morality exists. It is entirely possible that some cultures may be mistaken in their understanding of moral details. For example, Adolph Hitler’s extermination of the Jews was largely condemned by the world and the Nazis held responsible for atrocities regardless of their own logic supporting their actions.
Overall Conclusion: The existence of concept of universal moral obligations makes more sense in a Cosmos designed by a moral being than it does in a Cosmos where moral beings are a product of impersonal and amoral forces. Together with the Cosmological and Teleological Arguments, the Moral Argument adds the dimension of holiness to a personal Creator.
Summary: These arguments depend on the individual accepting or rejecting each of the premises as true. All of the premises seem to be true to some, but not absolutely proven to everyone. The best that can be said is that, taken together, these avenues of logic make a very plausible case for the existence of God to many rational people. M. Bogart
Theism simply signifies a belief in a deity. It is usually used in a very non-specific manner, for instance as opposed to atheism (God does not exist) or agnosticism (the truth about the existence of God cannot be known). However, theism can be broken down into several distinct types as follows:
Deism believes there is one God or source of reality, but this deity is detached and only semi-personal. He is not intimately involved in the affairs of his creation.
Monotheism teaches that there is only one true God, who is personal and intimately involved in his creation.
Polytheism practices belief in and worship of a plurality of personal deities. Many pagan and tribal religions (both ancient and modern) practice this type of theism.
Henotheism is also a belief in multiple deities, but practices supreme allegiance to only one.
Pantheism is a belief in a non-personal source of reality, which is in some sense identified with the entire Cosmos. Therefore Nature is God.
Pan-entheism is similar to pantheism, except that God is in some sense bigger than just the Cosmos, while including it within himself.
Absolute Monism is similar to pantheism, except that the cosmos is illusory. In this type of theirm, God is the Great Unity which manifests itself in the less-than-real world.
Dualism teaches that there are two opposite and equal deities in perpetual conflict. The clash of good versus evil deities drives the Cosmos forward.
From time to time, various magazines and television channels tackle the perennial question, “Who is God?”. Much space is devoted to personal views of a cross-section of people concerning who, or what, God might be. Well-known personalities are interviewed as well as other lesser-known people from around the world, including professed Christians of different varieties, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, agnostics and free thinkers.
As a student of world religion and Christian leader I find such inquiries to be intensely fascinating because they give us the pulse of what people are thinking in our wider world. For example, a Hindu beggar from Benares, India, reverences a variety of deities and wonders why he has been stricken with leprosy. He suggests that it may be because he is being punished by Brahma for bad karma in previous lives.
A California woman was raised in an Orthodox synagogue but says she can’t connect with God or with being Jewish anymore. The idea of God as she has understood it simply doesn’t connect in her life experience. A British biologist views God as the “ultimate reality” and believes that the destiny of individuals is to be absorbed into this supreme truth.
A Columbian hit man describes life as a dark experience in which God makes each person pay for the evil they commit. Yet he goes on to say , “God pardons everyone who seeks him, so pretty much you can do what you want.”
A Presbyterian minister defends his gay lifestyle by saying, “God loves you just the way you are”. He blames strong feelings against homosexuals on traditional religion.
A Palestinian sheikh views Allah as a vengeful God, and boasts of his willingness to die in holy war.
These views of God are indeed fascinating. Yet even so, they ought to prod our thinking a bit. Given the fact that people have an almost endless variety of opinions about what God is, it certainly does not follow that every opinion is equally valid. We Americans cherish our religious freedom. However, simply because people are free under the law to practice religion as conscience may dictate, this does not mean that all religions are equally true, or even equally beneficial.
This brings up the question, “How can we sort through the menu of religious ideas and recognize the truth when we stumble across it?” The Bible’s answer to this is simply that the whole question of religious opinion is irrelevant. It is not what we think about God that really matters, but what God has revealed about Himself to us that counts.
To this many people say, “Wait!” Who says the Bible’s portrayal of God is any better than the views of an Indian peasant or a Hollywood producer?” This is an excellent question. If what the Bible says about God is simply just another human opinion, then Christianity (and the ancient religion of Israel for that matter) crumbles like a house with no foundation.
So let’s narrow the field a bit. The Bible does not belong alongside the religious opinions of ordinary people simply because the Bible claims to be divinely inspired. It claims to be God’s word as revealed through the prophets and apostles. There is a quantum difference between what your neighbor thinks about God, and an ancient and widely revered document that claims divine inspiration.
What about the other books which share this claim? Many Christians answer this by pointing to the need to simply have faith in the Bible. While it is true that faith is necessary, it would be wrong to assume that there is no evidence for the Bible’s final authority. Consider these bits of evidence for the Bible’s unique inspiration: the amazing unity of its message, though written over a span of roughly 1500 years through more than 40 human authors; its triumph time and again over those who actively sought its destruction; the dozens of literally fulfilled prophecies; the impact it has had on millions of lives.
Also consider the historical fact of the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. I understand that many people consider this to be a matter for faith as well. This is true, but not without some evidence. A major piece of this evidence is the ease with which those who wished to stop the rumor could have disproved it by opening the grave and displaying the body. They didn’t. Why would hundreds die willingly, knowing that the resurrection which they claimed to witness was a lie? Indeed, the Resurrection is the foundational fact on which the Christian gospel was and still is based.
So there is compelling evidence for the authority of the Bible in what it says about God. It proclaims Him to be the Eternal One: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It shows Him to be holy, yet also merciful in sending His Son Jesus to die for our sins. It invites us to know Him through Christ and become His children. This, and much more God has revealed. Why settle for mere opinions?