The difference God makes
This showed up in my Facebook feed the other day. It’s a sentiment I’ve seen atheists express many times before. And I’ve always had a problem with it.
In one, very specific and very limited way, the sentiment is true. On the surface, an atheist not believing in any God is very much like a theist believing only in one particular God and, therefore, disbelieving or lacking belief in any other God. As a Christian and not, say, a Hindu, I don’t go around actively disbelieving in Krishna or any of the other Gods of Hinduism. Krishna and friends simply play no role in my life at all. I could spend the rest of my life never even thinking about them and I would be fine and nothing about my life would change in any way. Similarly, the argument goes, an atheist is someone for whom that’s the case in relation to all Gods. The atheist’s relationship to Yahweh is the same as the Christian’s to Krishna.
Krishna isn’t important to you, the atheist asks? That’s how I feel about all Gods.
Yes, I guess I do. But let’s go deeper than the surface for a minute. Once there, we’ll see that the easy comparison between my Christian lack of belief in Krishna and your atheist lack of belief in any deity of any kind is fundamentally mistaken and misleading.
Now, I’ve never been a Hindu nor do I plan to become one any time soon, but ignoring some rather significant differences between the two religions, those who believe in God(s), whether Christian or Hindu, occupy one kind of universe. Those who do not believe in God(s) occupy a completely different one.
There’s a fundamental difference between a universe that owes it origin, continued existence and ultimate destiny to God, and one that is godless. Whether one believes in this God or that (or believes in this God and lacks belief in that), the godly universe is qualitatively different to the godless one.
Philosopher and pastor Jeff Cook says it much more eloquently than me in his new and utterly excellent Everything New. Describing his own loss of belief in God and subsequent retrieval of that belief, he says:
[W]hen I surrendered God-belief, a new thing happened.
I quickly found that saying “I don’t believe in God” was not like saying “I don’t believe in unicorns or pixie dust.” I discovered that when I said, “There is no God,” I was making a claim about everything else.
When I believed in God, the world around me had purpose. It had been carefully orchestrated and it moved forward toward a goal. Stepping away from God meant an end to all that. In leaving God aside, a new vision of the world emerged. Everything, both around and within me, became mechanical, unthinking, and often chaotic. (Kindle location 185)
He goes on to describe a kind of atheist dark night of the soul, as he gradually realises the utter bleakness of the new godless universe in which he resides. Vividly describing just how the “universal acid” of atheism strips away everything meaningful and valuable about life, he says:
As I read it, this was the story the physical sciences told us, and it seemed clear to me that nothing I did would produce for me either a life of freedom or lasting significance. On the face of it, everything I cared about eventually reduced to chaos.
My journey back to belief in God began here. (297)
The pastor in him comes out here as he holds a kind of cosmic altar call.
I consistently hit this spot where I had to recognize that the only hope for myself, my wife, my sons, my friends, or my culture to escape the ramifications of death and bondage to the chemicals within us was help – help from something immaterial, help from something separate from the blind, degenerating natural order. After the sciences have had their say and painted clearly our origin and our bio-chemical makeup, the overwhelming conclusion I hit over and again was that I required rescue. What other option is there? Yet the only thing that can rescue me is a supernatural being with both the ability to rescue me, and the desire.
And that sounded like a God to me. (297-311)
In a sense, yes, I am an atheist in relation to all other Gods except the triune one. I don’t believe in them. I lack belief in them. But though the step from believing in one God to believing in none may seem small to those mathematically inclined, perhaps, the distance crossed couldn’t be vaster.