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Atheists who yearn for god

There seems to be a whole class of people who like to call themselves atheists but seem to go out of their way to praise the virtues of belief. Francis Schaeffer rose to prominence as one of the creators of the Christian right as a powerful political fore. His son Frank Schaeffer was once a vigorous member of that movement but then became disillusioned and moved away from evangelical Christianity to join the Orthodox church.

From there he went on to become that strange hybrid, the atheist who yearns to believe in god. In fact, the title of his new book is Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God. He even prays every day and goes to church every week. In other words he practices more religion than most people who are avowedly religious.

Schaeffer seems to revel in absurdities and contradictions.

“I do not always believe let alone know if God exists,” Schaeffer writes in the book. “I do not always know he, she or it does not exist either, though there are long patches in my life when it seems God never did exist. What I know is that I see the Creator in Jesus or nowhere. What I know is that I see Jesus in my children and grandchildren’s love. What I know is that I rediscover hope again and again through (his wife) Genie’s love. … What I know is that sometimes something too good to be true, is true.”

What on earth does all that mean?

I get it that for people who once believed, realizing that there is no god can be unsettling. But why it sometimes turns people’s brains to mush is quite puzzling.

Comments

  1. Nick Gotts says

    I don’t think Schaeffer’s an atheist at all – in fact I think his claim that he is is plain dishonest. The article you link to quotes him thus:

    I also believe that the spiritual reality hovering over, in and through me calls me to love, trust and hear the voice of my Creator

    He’s an atheist in much the same sense as Tony Blair is a socialist.

  2. astrosmash says

    I’ll probably be accused of making the ‘no true Scotsman’ argument, but I don’t buy his self-definition as an atheist for a moment.
    -
    Another way to look at it is to have 2 definitions of atheist… There is the default atheist, the kind that never really gives a second thought to religion one way or the other (which I used to be, by default, duh). And then there is atheist by conclusion…One can’t honestly backpedal from the position by conclusion. I have reasons, hundreds of reasons (as do most of your gentle readers) as to why I am an atheist. It would be impossible for me to become a religious person without rejecting hundreds of peices of evidence and red flags, many of which are interrelated and consistent with each other. I think folks like this guy are really believers at heart and see themselves as ‘taking one for the gipper’, the gipper in this case being Jesus. What does it even MEAN to ‘miss’ something that you don’e believe in…Do you ‘miss’ Santa or unicorns? How would that even work?

  3. astrosmash says

    Plus it is a WAY common feature for Fundy Christians to completely misunderstand and misrepresent atheism in the first place. Also cowardice. Maybe they actually do recognise how stupid their belief is and how stupid it makes them look but they don’t have the strength of conviction to stand by it. This praying regular church-goer gets the best of both worlds (or so he thinks) He gets to hobnob w/the Xtians while ‘appearing’ intellectually courageous enough to reject the notion of God while boo-hooing about how he misses it also too…

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    I’d add my own facile diagnosis, but I’m too busy working on my own internal contradictions, apparent or otherwise. Also (including?) – World Cup!

  5. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Presumably his prayer is the traditional: “Oh god, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.”

    What does it even MEAN to ‘miss’ something that you don’e believe in…Do you ‘miss’ Santa or unicorns? How would that even work?

    An alcoholic can recognise the harm it would do them to drink whisky and still miss it, Astrosmash…

  6. jonP says

    He sounds more like a theist who doesn’t believe in god, than an atheist who does believe. I would like to know why he is wearing dirty, ripped clothes, and is barefoot in the photo on the cover of his book.

  7. Kevin Kehres says

    He’s a theist with occasional doubts. That’s not an atheist.

    On the Dawkin’s scale, he’d be a 2. 1 being a firm believer in god.

  8. jamie robinson says

    Some speculate we are evolutionarily predisposed for belief in a god. Maybe that is so, maybe he just wants to sell books. I’ve hears lucid, serious scientists describe in great detail the Big Bang and in the same breath question the motive for the same. That tiny point did not ignite itself, maybe. There is a first cause for our universe, and/or other universes that may or may not be created every other minute. I think an atheist KNOWS there is not a god. I think that’s a bold statement. That’s why I am agnostic. My two cents for what it is worth.

  9. says

    There seems to be a whole class of people who like to call themselves atheists but seem to go out of their way to praise the virtues of belief.

    Prior to the eruption of anti-anti-harassment policy rhetoric and general sexist idiocy in the atheistosphere, this was a frequent topic of discussion. From faitheists and other apologists to fake atheists, and people who have very weird definitions of and beliefs about atheists, it was one weird run.

  10. doublereed says

    Seems like a simple trick. It’s easy for people to relate to a person with religious doubts because religion is so obviously fanciful so most people have religious doubts.

    In many ways, he’s simply being a lot more open about the absurdities that religious people face. It’s kind of like a midway point between believer and agnostic. If that makes any sense. Which it doesn’t. But that’s kind of why it’s fun.

  11. lorn says

    I suspect he mixes the two because his logical mind and emotional mind don’t align. I think astrosmash @5 has it right. He hopes to enjoy the intellectual freedom and autonomy of the atheists and the emotional comfort and Pascal’s parachute if it turns out that he might need it.

    Unfortunately the most likely outcome is that he ends up failing to benefit from either. It is like trying to catch two rabbits at eh same time, you miss out on both.

  12. smrnda says

    What I see in these atheists who yearn for god is that they seem to have a very hard time using language in a way that actually conveys clear meaning – it’s a fuzzy word salad of platitudes and meaningless woo. I’d imagine the thought processes going on aren’t that much better.

  13. Nick Gotts says

    I think an atheist KNOWS there is not a god. – jamie robinson

    You’re wrong.

  14. filethirteen says

    I think an atheist KNOWS there is not a god. – jamie robinson

    You’re wrong. – Nick Gotts

    I think it depends on what you mean by “a god”. I call myself an atheist and I know there isn’t a Christian, Islamic or Jewish god in the same way I know there isn’t a Roman, Greek, Babylonian, Lovecraftian or any of the other old or mythological gods. But I don’t know there isn’t or wasn’t some sort of creator.

    It might also believe on what you mean by “knows”. There seems to be a school of thought that belief about religion, whether for or against, needs to be held to a higher standard than regular belief; “knows” in an abstract or mathematical sense, eg. knowing one plus one equals two. But I don’t agree with that. Do you “know” the world goes on outside the room you’re currently in? Anyway, I had no problem with Jamie using “knows” in the context he gave it.

  15. John Morales says

    filethirteen @17:

    But I don’t know there isn’t or wasn’t some sort of creator.

    That would be the uncreated creator, right?

    (That isn’t a more parsimonious concept than that there is no creator Creator)

    It might also believe on what you mean by “knows”.

    When one needs to appeal to epistemic uncertainty to sustain disbelief, one is scraping the bottom of the barrel.

    (Sure, you might be a brain in a vat or even a Boltzmann brain… :) )

  16. lpetrich says

    In the 19th cy. was something even weirder. Philosopher Auguste Comte created a “Religion of Humanity” that copied Roman Catholic practice so much that one critic called it “Catholicism minus Christianity”.

  17. filethirteen says

    John Morales @18:

    That would be the uncreated creator, right?

    idk, my epistemic uncertainty about the creation of the universe doesn’t extend to meta-creation ;)

    When one needs to appeal to epistemic uncertainty to sustain disbelief, one is scraping the bottom of the barrel.

    Quite. Whether to sustain disbelief or to sustain belief.

  18. John Morales says

    filethirteen @20, since you don’t even know whether the putative creator (of the universe) of whose existence you are uncertain could itself be a creation, you clearly must imagine that it’s logically possible for a created entity to be the creator of the universe; accordingly, you must consider that the term ‘universe’ does not refer to all that exists (the totality of space-time and everything within it), though that is specifically what theists consider the Creator to have created — more to the point, this entails that there must exists a Creator of the Creator.

    (Endless recursion FTW!)

    As for ‘knows’, the generally accepted definition is ‘justified true belief’, and since you have already claimed that you know “there isn’t a Christian, Islamic or Jewish god in the same way I know there isn’t a Roman, Greek, Babylonian, Lovecraftian or any of the other old or mythological gods”, it must be the case that you consider that at least some non-analytical truths are knowable to the degree that a knowledge-claim is not just possible, but merited.

    This invites the question: What do you consider the salient difference to be between putative knowledge of the permanence of external perceived reality (such as the world continuing to exist outside the room in which you’re currently situated) and the purported knowledge that none of the mythological gods do not exist, such that the former is problematic but the latter is not?

  19. John Morales says

    [erratum]

    “the purported knowledge that none of the mythological gods do not exist”

    “the purported knowledge that none of the mythological gods exist”

    (Hasty editing mishap)

  20. filethirteen says

    @John Morales:

    Is there still more to discuss? I thought we we agreed already. Oh well, I’ll answer…

    My own definitions:

    Universe: Our universe, nothing “outside” it (ie. not other universes, creators of our universe, the multiverse)

    Creator: something intelligent that created the universe. IMO much too alien a concept to understand, the only difference between it and a natural phenomenon is the “intelligence” bit, whatever that may be. That’s because if you asked me what a “natural phenomenon” was I’d have to define it as being something unintelligent as opposed to intelligent, so I’m not really defining anything at all. Given the universe exists, I’m of the opinion that some set of circumstances created it. If that was an “intelligent” set of circumstances I would call it a creator, if it wasn’t I would call it a “natural phenomenon”. Note that this definition is only to explain where I stand, I’m not suggesting this might at all be a helpful definition. :)

    Meta-creation, Meta-creator: Irrelevant. That’s because uncertainty and meta-uncertainty are the same thing, IMO. If I say I’m uncertain about whether a creator exists, it means I’m also uncertain of the creator of the creator and so forth ad infinitum and I don’t need to specify my meta-uncertainty, and that the same problem might exist about a creator of a creator doesn’t prove or disprove anything IMO.

    Knows: Your definition is fine, justifiedly believes as true. I know that the sun will rise tomorrow. Ok, you say that the sun is not actually moving. Sure, but you’re just taking issue with my language, we both know what I mean when we say that. You say we might not. I say IMO we do know that. You say there’s a not infinitesimally small chance the sun won’t rise. IMO we’re talking such a tiny chance that it might as well be zero. I KNOW it’s going to happen, ok? Geez, let’s not be obtuse about this! ;)

    Might we be on the same page yet? I’m not saying that when I know anything I know it beyond any theoretical possibility of changing my mind, but I say if I’m going to use the word “know” in any context I’m not going to suddenly hold it to a nonsensically high standard just because we’re arguing for or against religion.

    I know there are no goblins living in my garden.
    I know my father is not an alien in disguise (hmm, well, probably).
    I know there are no Lovecraftian Elder Gods.
    I know there is no Christian God. That others disagree doesn’t change that for me one whit.

    The only way I could disavow any of those statements is to throw out any useful definition I have of “know”. And to paraphrase you, when one needs to appeal to epistemic uncertainty to sustain belief, one is scraping the bottom of the barrel.

    I’m not prepared to say that I know there was no creator. I may believe there is or isn’t but it doesn’t matter because I don’t believe I have sufficient supporting evidence to form an opinion one way or the other.

    Now I would think you could infer an answer to your last question from all that, but I’ll answer it anyway just to be sure:

    This invites the question: What do you consider the salient difference to be between putative knowledge of the permanence of external perceived reality (such as the world continuing to exist outside the room in which you’re currently situated) and the purported knowledge that none of the mythological gods exist, such that the former is problematic but the latter is not?

    None whatsoever, and I don’t understand why you’re asking. My assertion was the opposite, that the two types of knowing are equal. If you think it valid to say that you know the world continues to exist outside the room you’re in then you are can just as validly say you know that none of the mythological gods exist. Conversely, if you’re not willing to say you know the world outside your room exists and that the mythological gods don’t exist then I say your word “know” is too constrained to be useful except in a rigorous mathematical setting. Lastly if you state you know one, and don’t know the other, then my claim is that you’re changing the definition of know between one statement and the other, with all the logical consequences that entails.

  21. John Morales says

    filethirteen 23, you’ve written:

    Universe: Our universe, nothing “outside” it (ie. not other universes, creators of our universe, the multiverse)

    and

    I’m not prepared to say that I know there was no creator. I may believe there is or isn’t but it doesn’t matter because I don’t believe I have sufficient supporting evidence to form an opinion one way or the other.

    Perforce, your possible creator must be transcendent.

    Sure, but you’re just taking issue with my language, we both know what I mean when we say that.

    Actually, I’m taking issue with your selective application of epistemic uncertainty, wherein you apply it in regards to non-Christian transcendent creator(s) of spacetime, in comparison to your application of it when it comes to Christian ones.

    (But yes, the feeble justification you offer for it—limiting the referent of ‘universe’—is notable)

  22. filethirteen says

    Actually, I’m taking issue with your selective application of epistemic uncertainty, wherein you apply it in regards to non-Christian transcendent creator(s) of spacetime, in comparison to your application of it when it comes to Christian ones.

    Really? I hope you defend the possible existence of Nephthys with such rigour.

  23. John Morales says

    filethirteen @25, how you come to imagine I’m defending the possible existence of Nephthys—rigorously or otherwise—is opaque to me.

    I here rephrase what I find problematic about your stance: you claim that you can’t reject the possibility of the existence of a transcendent Creator whilst simultaneously rejecting the possibility of the existence of the particular transcendent Creator claimed by extant and past mythos, and I think you do this by applying a double standard when determining what is justifiably knowable about these propositions.

    (Personally, I think the basis for disbelief applicable to the one type applies to the other as well)

  24. filethirteen says

    @John Morales:

    I just chose Nephthys randomly from other myths. Are you saying you reject the possibility of her existence? I assume not, or you would be in severe danger of having to accuse yourself of applying a double-standard.

    Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Pastafarians, however, will all be delighted that you admit they could be right.

  25. John Morales says

    filethirteen @27,

    I just chose Nephthys randomly from other myths. Are you saying you reject the possibility of her existence? I assume not, or you would be in severe danger of having to accuse yourself of applying a double-standard.

    I haven’t said, but sure: to me, Nephthys is more credible than your putative transcendent creator of the universe, because though duality is presumed, she is immanent.

    (To believe in her possible existence I’d have to suspend even more disbelief!)

    I find it notable that you began by referring to your agnosticism towards the existence of a Creator as a response to Nick Gotts noting that at least some atheists (I am one) acknowledge epistemic doubt regarding their disbelief about gods yet somehow manage to take a belief-stance.

    In your case, you’ve made it clear that theism is right out, unlike deism, towards which you are agnostic on the basis that the universe may not be all there is.

  26. filethirteen says

    @John Morales

    To assert I ruled out theism and ruled in deism is farcical, if not deliberately deceiving. From wikipedia:

    Theism: the belief that at least one deity exists
    Deism: the belief that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a Creator

    Just as farcical or deceiving as when you label me agnostic. Perhaps we better leave it at that before you invent more words to put in my mouth.

  27. John Morales says

    filethirteen @29, it is not I who is farcical (or deceiving) by noting that you are agnostic towards deism by claiming both that “I don’t know there isn’t or wasn’t some sort of creator” and that “Deism: [is the] the belief that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a Creator.”

    But sure, let’s leave it at that.

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