Can you believe in a higher power and still be an atheist?

Can you believe in a “higher power” and still be an atheist? Does a “higher power” automatically refer to a god?

My husband is not an atheist. He doesn’t consider himself a part of any group or religion, but he does believe that there’s an energy that connects all living things. That’s about it. He doesn’t get very specific about it.

What’s funny is that I recently met someone with the exact same belief. She didn’t want to be considered a part of any group or religion either.

So my question is: can you believe in a higher power and not a god? Does that still make you an atheist?

Back to work, back to life! Upcoming speaking engagement…

I will be speaking to the Humanist Community of Silicon Valley on March 27th at 11am pacific. It feels good to be getting back on track after two months in treatment!

I am back to a somewhat normal routine and will be starting at my part-time job again on Monday. I have a meal plan I am following as well as an outpatient treatment team to meet with. My hunger signals are starting to come back which is a good sign. I missed my family so much while I was in treatment and I’m so happy to be home!


  1. moarscienceplz says

    Technically, a theist is a person who believes in a specific type of god: a god who actively intervenes in the affairs of the universe, at least occasionally. So people who pray that their cancer will go into remission, or that the approaching tornado will skip their house (and probably destroy their neignbor’s house instead), or that their favorite sports team will defeat the evil, no good, rival team, are theists. If you don’t accept that prayer can do these kinds of things, you are a dictionary atheist.
    Thomas Jefferson, apparently, was a deist. He believed that god created the universe and set it in motion, but then just sat back to watch the show without any further meddling, sorta like a fancy trick billiard shot. If that is truly what he believed, then he too would be a dictionary atheist.
    I, personally feel that an atheist is someone who rejects supernatural explanations for how the universe works. Of course, even the word “supernatural” can be problematic. Until we figured out that nuclear fusion existed, science could not reconcile how the Sun, which apparently could only have been radiating its heat and light for a few million years, could have powered our Earth, which appeared to be billions of years old, from many pieces of evidence. Either nearly all of science was drastically wrong, or god somehow supernaturally refueled the Sun from time to time. Now, we know that neither case was correct, we simply needed to learn a bit more science. However, keep in mind that the state of physics in the 21st century is pretty well figured out, at least as far as things that can affect us humans, and hoping that another new type of energy still out there undiscovered could rescue a wild idea, is pretty much grasping at straws.
    Your husband’s ‘life energy’ hypothesis could be either supernatural, or could somehow fit within the universe that our science has defined pretty well, depending on how he chooses to describe it. If he insists on defining it in a way that is incompatible with current science, then I would label him as slighly irrational and not 100% an atheist, but hey, we all are slightly irrational about some things, and none of us is utterly pure in our philosophies.

    • John Morales says

      Good summary.

      ‘higher power’ is quite a vague term, and though all god-constructs have that attribute, not all higher powers are gods. Cf. the concept of karma.

      Me, I can’t but help associate that term with Alcoholics Anonymous.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    I believe in a higher power. A being whose capacity for love is incomprehensible, and whom I love in my own inadequate way in return. Who forgives my lapses. Who is my strength when I’m weak.

    Blimey I’m glad I married her.

  3. says

    What do you mean, “higher power”? That term is sufficiently ill-defined that it covers no-shit deities and a remarkably wide range of other, non-deity, thingamabobs.

  4. says

    “So my question is: can you believe in a higher power and not a god? Does that still make you an atheist?” Good question. And moarscienceplz makes some good points.

    Are not all such questions burdened by the inherent difficulty of defining a word in terms of a negative? Presumably, a “strict materialist” would be describable with satisfactory accuracy (leaving aside for the moment the question of a person being total or consistent in outlook.) A “theist” would be describable to a similar degree—or at least to the uncontested satisfaction of his or her definition. But “atheist”? Is not a self-identification as “atheist” contingent upon the prevailing concept of “god” (or at least that which prevails in the milieu in which a person says, “atheist”?)

    I believe in God. I believe that entails a continual duty to challenge every human understanding of God. I see no functional difference between that outlook and one that conceptualizes the divine as a more and more stringently refined notion of a “higher power”. I see no functional difference between those two outlooks and a strict materialist determination to pursue selfless virtue as a default implication of the connectedness of sentient beings. All of the above approaches are provisional and faltering in practice—but that doesn’t stop us from deciding communally to argue about worldviews as if they could ever be pristine or held continually.

    The religion-versus-atheism controversy is a social construct—nothing more.

  5. Holms says

    If a person believes in a higher power, many will tell you that it is perfectly acceptable to call that person an atheist, as atheism taken strictly means no belief in god/s, and an unspecified higher power is not necessarily a god. However I think this definition is overly narrow, and turns on choice of wording: why are some metaphysical beings called gods or deities, and others not, despite sharing many properties?

    There are many traditions of belief, which may or may not be considered a religion*, that have metaphysical beings with powers of various sorts over physical reality. The narrow definition of atheist has it that a person can be considered an atheist even if that person believes such beings, so long as they are not termed gods or deities by that tradition of belief; but if those figures are considered gods, the person is no longer an atheist. I think this approach leads to incoherence.

    My interpretation therefore is that atheism is incompatible with spirit belief entirely, no matter what the belief tradition terms those beings. If they are metaphysical and have powers over nature, they are alike to gods in all important elements, differing only in the terminology used in that belief tradition. A local hill spirit in the Tengri belief system for example is alike to beings that are called gods in other systems, differing perhaps in scope, but not in the more important elements. And so belief in it is essentially the same as belief in some other being that is considered a god, despite the lack of being called a god.

    *Whether a belief system is called a religion or not is another can of worms…

  6. abb3w says

    Someone who believes in technologically advanced extraterrestrials might be argued as believing in at least one “higher power” but yet not believe in any “gods”. Certain engineers might be even more literally minded, and point to hundred kilowatt overhead electrical utility lines.

    Whether or not the husband is an “atheist” would seem to depend on whether the conjectured “energy that connects all living things” meets the criteria that Humpty Dumpty is using to demarcate the semantic category of “gods”; it could go one way, it could go another. It may also be that despite semantic accuracy he does not self-identify in the empirical category of atheist, due to rejections of associated concepts of atheist as role.

    Philosophically, rejection of the “supernatural” and atheism seem answers to subtly different questions.

  7. blf says

    Terry Prachett, Hogfather, Death speaking, “Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy […] And yet you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, as if there is some…some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.”

  8. flexilis says

    We are all connected with everything in the universe. Is that a higher power? We borrow our atoms for awhile and return them to become part of other beings, eventually even other planets maybe or interstellar dust. No deities necessary. It is what we do here and now that counts. Yes, I think one can believe in that kind of a higher power and be an atheist.

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