Mysticism and God-talk, and what do I mean when I say I’m an “atheist”? (Part 2)

In part one of this essay, I gave it the old college try at explaining that I’m an atheist who nevertheless believes powerfully in the personal, social, and transcendent reality that is “God,” which theism tries ineffectively to identify. Got all that, right?

I want to return to the narrower term atheist and why I claim that label for myself.

What is atheism?

Many speak of atheism as a lack of belief in the God of traditional monotheism. The “a” preface typically means “not,” as in the word “asymmetrical.” And so an “atheist” is simply a non-theist of whatever variety. I sympathize with this very literal reading of the term, but it has the seemingly strange consequence that, for example, very young children qualify as atheists.

To me this just doesn’t reflect the actual usage of the term, and also I suspect it’s often motivated by a common confusion. Many theists and non-theists alike take the very odd position that–if atheism implies the active belief that the theistic God does not exist (rather than the passive “lack of belief in God”)–then no one can properly claim to be an atheist. Because “you can’t prove a negative” or some such thing. And so, at most, one might properly claim to be agnostic about the theistic God’s existence.

But that’s simply confused. If by “prove” one means “demonstrate with absolute certainty,” then one can’t prove a positive either. (Can I prove with absolute certainty that there’s a coffee mug on the desk in front of me, rather than that I’m experiencing a hallucination of a coffee mug? No, of course I can’t.) On such a usage of terms, theists should refer to themselves as agnostics as well. We all should remain “agnostic” about (nearly?) everything in this case.

What makes by far the most sense to me is to say that theists are those who believe that the theistic God (very likely) exists, atheists are those who believe that the theistic God (very likely) does not exist, and agnostics are those who are more or less on the probabilistic fence (or who think the question is unanswerable). I believe that the theistic God does not exist, and that’s what I mean when I claim the label “atheist” for myself. And by the way, I can’t see the sense in applying any of these labels to very young children and others with similar cognitive capabilities.

Is theism coherent?

It’s a bit more complicated than that, however, because I can scarcely even begin to conceptualize this theistic God which I believe does not exist. When I was still a committed theist, I scoffed at attempts to give some sort of genuine non-theistic substance to the term “God,” as desperate and disingenuous language games intended to obscure. Such non-theists were wolves trying to hide in sheep’s clothing, subverting the clear God-concept of theism and dissolving it into nothingness, while pretending otherwise.

And indeed, non-theists such as my contemporary self certainly do have a difficult path in front of us if we wish to effectively salvage the term “God.” I’m not really sure it’s worth trying to salvage, as I outlined in part one of this essay. But in any event, theists don’t actually have an easier path here, it seems to me. In fact, the theistic God-concept flirts mighty close to incoherence, if it isn’t simply incoherent altogether. As a former theist I’m used to working with many of the common theistic metaphors, but they all begin to break down rather quickly and dramatically when scrutinized.

The theistic God is often said to be our father, but he (in what sense is “he” male, by the way?) is a very strange father indeed, similar in character to an absentee human father who doesn’t seem to care about a true relationship with his children. Perhaps, at most, offering them vague hints every now and then that he’s out there somewhere.

The theistic God is often said to be love, but it’s a very strange love indeed which would passively allow (or actively decree) hundreds of thousands of people and animals to be incinerated horrifically in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and many more thousands to die even more gruesome deaths in the aftermath.

The theistic God is often said to be perfect, but it’s a very strange perfection indeed which bears no resemblance to any sort of workable human morality. We can’t simply discard human concerns (we are human after all), and whatever God’s moral concerns might be, I can’t see how they overlap recognizably with ours.

The theistic God is often said to be person-like, but it’s a very strange person indeed which is all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere-present, eternal, entirely without any external dependence, and so forth. How could such a “being” experience a flow of consciousness? How could it feel in any way situated, whether spatially or temporally? All possible knowledge, including of the past, present, and future, would be entirely, immediately, and simultaneously available to it in such a way that it could never have thoughts (where thoughts imply a change of attention from subject to subject). And how, in such a case, could it have any true emotional states, whether of hope, anxiety, anticipation, anger, love, etc? And if one is inclined to say that Jesus is both God and human, and therefore obviously God is person-like, then I think that only serves to further cast serious doubt on the coherence of a literal incarnation.

I’m not necessarily claiming that the theistic God-concept is flatly incoherent. I’d have to invest more time on that question before making such a claim, which is often labeled theological non-cognitivism or ignosticism. There are many issues to wade through here, and a wide variety of proposed solutions on offer (for example, open theism is thought by some to help with a number of these issues, but on fairly close inspection I can’t actually see how it does help). But in any event, the theistic God-concept certainly is counter-intuitive, to say the very least. And not merely ethereal, as non-theistic God-concepts might well be, but seemingly nonsensical altogether.

So perhaps it’s a bit strange for me to claim that I’m an atheist, if I can’t even make rudimentary sense of this theistic God-concept which I am therefore denying. And yet, I wouldn’t hesitate to claim that square circles don’t exist, even though I can’t make rudimentary sense of this square-circle-concept which I’m therefore denying, right?


Some non-theists object to any label for their non-theism, whether that’s atheist, agnostic, or whatever else. Most of us who don’t believe in unicorns don’t claim the label a-unicornist, after all. (Mike Doolittle is an exception, hehehe… Do yourself a favor and check out his excellent blog.)

And of course, labels can be divisive and loaded with all sorts of baggage. Understood, absolutely. Atheist in particular seems to conjure images of the worst sort for an awful lot of folks. For a leaked top-secret glimpse into the hidden depths of godless depravity, check out the video to the right, though don’t say I didn’t warn you!

But I’ve actually grown fond of the label atheist, for a few reasons.

Generally, when I’m discussing my religious views (which isn’t actually that often, outside of internet conversations), I’d rather just lay my cards completely on the table, even if the term atheist carries a lot of unhelpful baggage for some of my conversation partners. Let’s have as clear a discussion as possible, and with any luck that will help to start shedding that baggage.

And coming unambiguously out of the closet as an atheist is important for those of us in a position to do so (not all of us are!), if atheism is ever to be widely de-stigmatized. It’s a lot easier to harbor distrust and prejudice against a largely nameless, faceless, distant “other,” than it is to do so against your own friends and loved ones, whom you know personally and witness at a much closer proximity. I do want to put this in some sort of context by noting that at least I don’t have an obvious “atheist” target on my back, and thus I can choose to avoid most of the direct day-to-day discrimination which might otherwise come my way. People with black skin or with Islamic cultural markings don’t have the same ability to easily “blend in” with the majority, and so they face much more direct discrimination than the average atheist, I have no doubt. But I still think it’s important to call attention to this discrimination against atheists, and to do what I can to help counteract it. I’ll leave you with the following video:

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