Why I Do Not Call Myself an Atheist



“I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination—what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not.”

John Keats



Let me make a few things clear: I am not a Christian and I am not religious, nor do I align myself with the Intelligent Design crowd. I am a firm believer in evolution, as the evidence for it is overwhelming, and I thoroughly enjoy the writings of noted atheists Richard Dawkins and Philip Pullman. In other words, I am a big a fan of logical thinking. But the same feelings of uncertainty I once had for my Christian faith, I also have for atheism. Like Socrates, who argued that the path to wisdom is to admit ignorance, I am skeptical when anyone tries to argue abstract concepts with certainty. Any certainty we have about existence is arrogant, and atheists’ certainty about the non-existence of God feels equally arrogant. But atheists insist that any non-certainty about God automatically makes me an atheist. They even discredit agnosticism, saying that it is a weak position, a transitional phase for people coming out of the oppression of religion and ultimately synonymous with atheism. Since they account for less than 10% of Americans, it would seem they are trying to bolster their ranks via definition. You don’t have to not believe in God, you simply have to have uncertainty. Considering the Greek root of the word a-theos means no-God, this definition seems disingenuous. I could call many atheists textiles, based on the fact that they are not nudists, but non-nudists will never go around calling themselves or identifying with that term, since that is a judgmental definition based on my own world view. I also reject the false choice I am presented with, the either-or supposition of atheism. Penn Jillette, magician, comedian, and now outspoken proponent of atheism, has made the case that it is impossible to sit on the fence when it comes to belief in God. When you wake up in the morning, you either expect your living room to be there or you don’t. Again, this is a weak argument and a narrow analogy. Naturally, I believe in my living room more than in God, but belief is a matter of percentages. When we watch something on TV that is happening halfway around the world, we only partly believe it is real. Our lack of sensory perception accounts for this. The tsunami that hit Japan was a terrible tragedy, but how much more emotional, how much more real would it be, if we lived in Japan to experience it first hand? Or if we knew people who suffered radiation poisoning? Or if we ourselves were the sufferers of radiation poisoning? If you were to ask me whether I believe in aliens, I could honestly say I don’t know. There could be a group of alien believers and non-believers, arguing passionately for either position, and again I’d have to stand in the middle. The same case may be made for God. I may not know whether God exists, but that does not mean for certain that he does not.

On YouTube, there is a fascinating series of web documentaries called Why I Am No Longer a Christian by Evid3nc3I highly recommend this video to anyone who has gone through the anguish of “losing God”. But, while I share many of the same feelings and experiences as Evid3nc3, I disagree with him toward the later part of the series. He goes from radical devotion to the Christian God to a radical devotion to evidence. While evidence (and literal truth) is an integral part of the human experience, it is only part of what it means to be human and to be alive. There is also metaphorical truth, which comes from the right brain (he is a computer scientist, I am a writer), which is part of imagination, without which there could be no invention. Human society is often a matter of self-invention. I sometimes believe, as Arthur C. Clarke postulated in 3001, that we may someday be living with dragons and unicorns because we will simply make them. Someday, TRUTH may become a matter of enterprise. With evidence alone, the Wright brothers could never have invented the airplane. Certainly, there was evidence that things can fly, such as birds and bats and insects, but there was also the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that humans have never flown. It took a leap of faith for the Wright brothers to connect the dots of evidence, to believe that the force of “lift” can work for man made wings as it works for birds.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins makes the excellent point that evidence for God is equal to evidence for fairies. He states that anyone believing in fairies is no less justified than a Christian or Jew or Muslim for their faith. But my immediate reaction upon reading this was, so? Why shouldn’t we believe in fairies? While Dawkins makes an excellent case for evolution and for why there is no evidence for God, he fails to make the case, just every other atheist fails to make the case, for why we shouldn’t believe. Atheists are completely confounded by religious people. They don’t seem to understand why people have a need to believe in something beyond everyday experience. They apply the same rigid scientific scrutiny to religious dogma and are frustrated when 90% of Americans don’t come to the same conclusions. Despite his vast scientific knowledge and his steal-trap logic, Dawkins is dumbfounded by the ignorance of religious people. Atheists like him seem to think that it’s only a matter of time before humanity moves away from superstition toward an age of evidence-based enlightenment. But they have been waiting for hundreds of years already, and I do not believe their day will be arriving any time soon. The origins of science and the origins of religion come from the same place. It is a crossroads from when mankind first looked to the heavens and asked the BIG questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? What is my purpose? In order to give answer to these mysteries, some looked outward to the physical world, to evidence; these left-brained individuals would evolve to become the first scientists, and later, the first atheists. The right-brained people, on the other hand, looked inward. Using imagination, they invented stories about gods which gave their lives meaning and purpose. In The History of God, historian Karen Armstrong argues that the authors of religion, the Sumerians, Babylonians, Israelites and Greeks, did not believe or seek out literal truth, as fundamentalists and scientists do today, but metaphorical truth. For the earliest humans, religion did not take the place of science, but was closer to poetry, art and fiction. This theory makes sense when one considers the absurdity of Ancient Greek myth. For instance, did the Ancient Greeks literally believe in the story of Ouranos (the sky) who was so busy fornicating with Gaea (the earth) that her children could not come out of her womb? Not until Kronos (time) dismembered his father, allowing his brothers and sisters to spill forth? To me, the metaphorical aspect of Greek myth has always been apparent, a means for an ancient people to express their feelings for a world in which they had little understanding but that possessed them with awe and wonder. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins states that a garden is wondrous enough without there having to be fairies (or God) in it. But Dawkins has it backward. It is not that nature lacks sufficient wonder to be without fairies, but that nature is so wondrous, human beings cannot help but be inspired by it, be moved to invent a thing like fairies.

Belief serves many purposes. For scientists, evidence-based belief has practical uses. A biologist could not do his job if he were to believe in Creationism, which is why the Intelligent Design movement died so quickly. But for most people who are not scientists, belief, or faith, can be a great comfort. This explains the 90% of Americans who claim to believe in God or in a god. Just as the ancient Sumerians, people today have the same need to put their faith in something transcendent, in something more meaningful than raw, physical data. Why else would so many people in Britain claim to be of the Jedi religion (more than Judaism!) when they know, for a fact, that the Force is merely a fictitious plot device from a movie? My mother is not a religious person and does not go to Church, but she is a firm believer in God. I have always sensed that she has no interest in literal truth. She has no desire to study the Bible, to prove or disprove it either way. For my mother, belief is a personal matter. The belief that someone is watching over her children is a comfort to her, and as she approaches her 80th year, the notion that something awaits beyond death must also serve some comfort. 

I was baptized Greek Orthodox, raised for eight years in a fundamentalist Baptist school, and married into a Muslim household. So, as anyone can see, my religious background is diverse. There was a time when I believed in the literal truth of the Bible, as I was taught at school, but even as a child I had my doubts. I never accepted the morality of the Abraham story, when Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. I never accepted that non-believers, born in countries that did not practice Christianity, would go to Hell. As I entered college, the things I learned in science, religion, and history classes quickly dispelled my indoctrination, which was very distressing for me at the time. Like Jean-Paul Sartre, I felt a God shaped hole in my life, which I tried to fill with philosophy and science, but it has never been satisfactory. As for atheism, I could find no solace in a philosophy that chiefly defines itself with non-belief. At first, I thought it might be fear of declaring myself an atheist, as many of my friends suspect me to be. But years after denying Christianity, the idea of atheism still leaves me feeling empty. There is just something about it that my right-brained brain finds shallow and unfulfilling. To quote Karen Armstrong, “The poets, novelists and philosophers of the Romantic movement pointed out that a thoroughgoing rationalism was reductive, because it left out the imaginative and intuitive activities of the human spirit.” Modern day atheists focus their arguments on easy targets. They attack fundamentalists, in part, because both camps speak the same language of literal truth. Where are the atheist rants discrediting Buddhism or Taoism? After a long time seeking, I came back to examine the Orthodox faith. Even though I do not consider myself Orthodox, I can appreciate the concept of mystery central to the religion. In the Greek Church, the Bible is not the WORD OF GOD, but simply inspired by God, and is prone to being fallible just as the authors of the Bible were fallible. For a Greek Orthodox believer, no one can know the mind of God, it is a mystery. In the monasteries of Sparta, built on mountaintops so remote from the rest of the world that you almost get a sense of Heaven, the monks and the nuns who live there exist in a transcendent state. The peace I have seen in their faces defies definition. How would offering them literal truth improve their lives? How would turning them to atheism make things better?

In The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, the author describes the strange phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, which he experienced while practicing the Jewish and Christian faith for one year. He describes the sense of peace he found in honoring the Sabbath and the serenity he found in the act of prayer, even though he did not believe any divine being was up there listening. In the same sense, I have tried to find a spiritual dimension in the natural world. Whether my sense of spirituality, or God, is all “in my head” is irrelevant. The love I have for my wife and children is also “all in my head”. I cannot prove or disprove love, and I have no evidence to back it up, but it is the most powerful and important part of my life nonetheless. Other atheists may choose to lump me into their camp based on their own definitions, but that label feels too confining for me. I am someone who believes that metaphorical truth can be just as valuable to a society and to an individual as literal truth, and that to dismiss the myths of our forefathers as nonsense and ignorance would be to do a great disservice to mankind. There is certainly great evil done in the name of religion, but evil is here to stay, whether we choose to call ourselves men of God or men of Reason. Someday in the future, I believe, the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and other such religious texts will sit on the shelf as great literature from antiquity. We will no longer regard these works as literal truths, but will value them no less. We will find in their archaic stories meanings to help us understand our own time. We will read the Bible and be aghast by the amorality of the Abrahamic story, or the tolerance for slavery, or the Mosaic Law which advocates the killing of homosexuals. But we will also be enlightened by that perspective, in seeing how far we’ve come in our society and, perhaps, how far we may still need to go in a future present with ethical challenges yet undreamed of (alien prejudice, maybe?). We will marvel at the poetry of Psalms and the teachings of love professed by Jesus Christ and Buddha. This will become what religion will mean in the future, and whatever new definitions exist for people of that era, I will count myself among them. 

4 thoughts on “Why I Do Not Call Myself an Atheist

  1. Nick, I would say you are an agnostic like myself. In my opinion this is another overuse of Aristotelian logic. Just because you don't believe in a god does not mean that you think that there is no god.

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  2. Not quite sure what you are referring to here. I do not really state my belief and or disbelief for God particularly in this article. While I hate to even attempt to condense the many points brought up here (and really you should just read it) if I had to choose a main focal point, it would be that I do not feel comfortable with the label “atheist” as currently defined by the more popular proponents of the movement today. I also discuss agnosticism here, which you likely skipped past, specifically with regards to the fact that most atheists consider it a weak position and even a proto-atheist position. If you want to know my real feelings on the matter, consider reading my other piece, “Who is God.” I am, in fact, NOT an agnostic because I do not doubt there is a benevolent being watching over us, I am most certainly in the camp that there is NO such being, and while there may be a possibility for some conception of Supreme Being existing, there is equal possibility for any sort of fantasy to be true, like unicorns and dragons. Unlike atheists, however, I take a pragmatic approach to religion, a popular position these days with books like Life of Pi. Religion and belief possess intrinsic value, as Karen Armstrong pointed out in “History of God.” I, of course, welcome intelligent discourse and comments, but in the future, please try to be on topic and stick to the source (the article on question) before posting. Thanks!

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