Do Atheists Reject Without Understanding?

May I offer a friendly suggestion, simply as a possibility to be explored? It may be that the ideas of God presented by atheists are so incredible that their own reputation for good sense is discounted. Whatever the reason, atheists — even when they are given control of all levels of education and free rein for proselytizing — have been unsuccessful in persuading others of their view of life. Could it be that atheists’ ideas of God are so far off that they injure the credibility of their testimony?

Consider five common but misleading ways of speaking about God.

[1] God as an object of scientific discovery. He is something like a new planet, or a previously unrecognized form of energy. Just another object to be examined.

[2] God is a gap-filler in scientific theories and philosophies of science. A little like a utility infielder, God is played in whatever position He is needed, wherever the existing explanations do not suffice. Evolving explanations make God less and less necessary.

[3] God as an end to infinitely-regressing explanations. He is the answer to the question, “Where did the world come from?” An Indian sage once whimsically replaced God in this role with a giant turtle that holds the world up, lest the world plunge endlessly down into nothingness. Thus, some think of God as the plug preventing infinite regress. For others, the sage’s point is more subtle: to suppose that there is one more turtle to hold up the turtle that holds up the world, ad infinitum all the way down, is ridiculous. The bottom turtle stands on nothing at all. Absurd!

[4] God as super-man. He knows and can do more than any ordinary human being. Yet He is to be judged by the same standards as men are judged. If He is a “father,” then He should be held to the same standards as other fathers. If He is a “creator,” then we should note the things we think He has botched up, and review His work critically, as we would review the work of any other artist.

[5] God is the object of a personal ecstatic experience, which gives its subject evidence that can scarcely be transmitted convincingly to others, if at all. You have known it or you haven’t. It’s beyond rational communication. Mute.

All these conceptions of God skip over the term “existence,” and fail to consider its nature and power. Instead, they supply concepts aimed at capturing the essence of God. A misleading concept is guaranteed to frustrate any questions concerning God’s existence. A false concept would send seekers down fruitless paths, and make failure inevitable. Further, there is a vast yawning distance between essence and existence, between the concept of a thing (its essence) and that thing’s actually springing into being, a substantive reality (existence) out of nothingness. This difference is beyond the methods of science, but is as important as the difference between a “what-is-it?” question, and a question that asks: “Is that so?” The first question forms an accurate hypothesis. The second is an act of judgment: Yes, it exists; or No, that concept has been falsified.

The problem in thinking about God is twofold: First, how should we conceive of Him, that is, which hypothesis are we testing? Second: What is the method of verification—how do we judge God’s reality?

Both questions are operative in the scientific method as well as in common sense. They operate in sequence: we need to be clear about what we are looking for and where we might find it, before searching for evidence about whether the being actually exists.

Human history has particularly cherished the definition of God laid out in the Torah: “I am Who am.” That is, God is purely and completely existence. His “nature” is not that of created things. God is, always is. Whereas for fragile, fleeting creatures such as ourselves, existence is derivative, borrowed, given us from elsewhere.

For the ancients, from God’s abundance flows all other existing things, borrowing from Him their existence, as many candles may borrow from a single candle to turn a darkened room into one of soft, splendid light. Perhaps better: all briefly flickering flames depend on oxygen. Should the oxygen be withdrawn, darkness. Were God’s active existing withdrawn, all creaturely existence would end.

This discussion probably makes those trained exclusively in the scientific method uncomfortable. Still, the general form of its movement – from experience through understanding to judgment – actually follows a paradigm not unlike that of science. It moves from observable experience, to a hypothesis that captures the essential features of that experience, to a judgment that the hypothesis fits the facts. From experience and reflection we come to an understanding of how to think about God. Then we judge whether that understanding meets the facts. We may form an idea about God, a hypothesis. But does God, under that hypothetical understanding, exist? Put more exactly, can we with validity and force climb out from the realm of essences and hypotheses when we speak of God, up into the realm of existents?

Adapted from Michael Novak’s latest book No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.

Michael Novak (1933-2017) was George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy from the American Enterprise Institute, is an author, philosopher, and theologian. He was also a trustee and a visiting professor at Ave Maria University.