Atheists and Agnostics Have a Faith Too (And It’s an Interesting One That Might Well Be True)

Question: If you are a Baptist, how do you ensure God’s election of you into his eternal love and heaven?

Answer: Baptists tend to think that you have to say a sincere, and I would say magical, prayer with the right beliefs in it. This prayer is in response to the Holy Spirit’s inner working, and is evidence of God grace. And if you do it right, it guarantees God’s love, and removes his judgment: “Once saved, always saved.”

Thus a moment of decision in the right frame of mind is important to Baptists.

But I don’t think it is.

If God exists, God is going to do with us whatever (s)he is going to do. No amount of magical posturing is going to change that. The right belief, right prayer, right living memes that have a hold of so many religious imaginations are just ways for reducing anxiety. They don’t really change what God will do with you. They offer the illusion of control.

At least that is my belief. I’m an agnostic. And I think that the all-powerful God (if God exists) is love.

Why I believe such a thing about God is no more grounded in evidence than a Baptist’s belief about God (or any other religionist with a formula for salvation). So we’re kind of stuck: do you believe that the all-powerful God is ultimately loving or ultimately judgmental? To which kind of God, in other words, do you direct your final act of faith?

And so people who are atheist or agnostic (like me) have a faith insurance policy as well: deep down inside of us we tend to think that if we’ve been wrong to treat religious claims skeptically, and God in fact exists, that God still loves us, and loves you too: “Never really lost, always saved.”  This may be foolish, but it is a faith exactly like the religionist’s own—one on which evidence is lacking but that confidence intuitively adheres. And maybe atheists and agnostics, by clinging to this confidence, are actually in touch with what is, in fact, the true inner voice of God in the human soul.

Or maybe not.

But wouldn’t it be ironic if the least religious among us were more in touch with the heart of God than those professing religion? Perhaps it is the atheist and agnostic who, deep down, trust God the most.

The first shall be last?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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16 Responses to Atheists and Agnostics Have a Faith Too (And It’s an Interesting One That Might Well Be True)

  1. Joshwa 58589 says:

    maybe I should learn more to you

  2. An interesting take on this. Your “god will do with us whatever she wants” is actually rather similar to the Calvinist section of christianity, where predestination is a big thing.

    As an educated “ex” christian, I’m impressed with your knowledge of christianity, Santi. Did you have a christian background?

    Jonathan

    • santitafarella says:

      Jonathan,

      My bleak “god will do with us whatever she wants” comes from my reading of ancient Greek tragedy, not Calvin. But I think that all religious systems ultimately discover this—from the Buddha to the Bhagavad Gita to the Quran. God (or the Wizard of Oz) is great and opaque and we are “Dorothy the small and weak.” And so everything is, ultimately, (sp?) “Enshallah” (God’s will).

      Nobody gets out alive.

      As for Christianity, my dad was Catholic, my mom Protestant. When she died of leukemia (I was five years old) my dad started taking me to Catholic Church. At the age of 15 I converted to Protestant fundamentalism, attending a charismatic church. I read the King James Bible like a fiend for about a year, absorbing the glorious language, but also having serious doubts. I remember making my pastor crazy with hard questions about the authorship of the Book of Job. Invariably, I was simply reading too closely and skeptically. I became obsessed with trying to get sensible answers to my doubts, and when they weren’t forthcoming, I was pretty upset: my inner religious conversion was wonderful, but the devil was in the details.

      I remember vividly a time when a youth group leader sassed me for expressing curiosity about Buddhism and saying that I found Budhhism actually pretty interesing. She said impatiently, “Well, if you want to leave Jesus behind and follow Buddha, go ahead.” And another youth group person really rattled me by saying, after hearing some of my doubts, “Well, I guess you’re going to hell then.” He said it as matter of factly as commenting on a house plant that hadn’t been watered.

      So I was like the boy walking around saying, “Hey, something isn’t quite right here. The emperor is naked!”

      I was especially troubled by Jesus’s healing of a blind man at Jericho. Was he entering Jericho or leaving Jericho when the healing occurred? Were there two blind men, or just one? The gospel texts are hopelessly conflicted about these details.

      I suppose I was impossible to talk to at the time. I’d show other Christian friends contradictions in the Bible and it would screw them up too. People don’t want to look or think about these things too closely, or they want to just get an easy answer (or an appeal to authority).

      “Just trust God” was something I was told to do. I think this is the best answer any person committed to religion can really give. You can’t base what you’re doing on appearances or it will goof you up. Just drink the kool-aid and hope for the best.

      So I left within a few years. But what an education! An education by fire! And the Bible is wonderful literature, and functioned as a stepping stone to my general love of literature. I got an enormous amount out of my teen experience of fundamentalist religion—experiencing it from the inside.

      When I was about 20 I was reading Will Durant’s history volumes—which I have always loved—and it occurred to me that my entire life had played out in a small version the whole history of Western civilization: moving from primitive beliefs in Babylonian astrology—which I liked at the age of ten—to Christianity, to Enlightenment skepticism, to postmodern mushiness. A whole cosmos in my little nut of a nutshell.

      My guess is your experience was similar.

      —Santi

      • Thanks for taking the time to tell a bit of your story, Santi. It makes a few things clearer, and certainly the love of language that you get from the King James is understandable, ‘tho I always hated it. (The Bible’s influence on literature and culture would indeed set you up well for an academic career.)

        I came to faith through asking questions too. And perhaps left if for the same reason, though I hover around the “it might be true?” end of agnostic.

        It really pisses me off hearing the kinds of experiences you had, intellectual dullness and pat answers annoy me. I generally managed to find answers to what I was asking, because I hunted for them – there ARE good, scholarly christian books out there, (whether or not one agrees with their ultimate conclusions). Sadly, most lay christians (or preachers, sadly) aren’t aware of them, as they don’t have the interest in deep thinking. This is not a particular indictment against christians, it’s true of the general population.

        On another note, early on in Hawking and Mlodinow’s “The Grand Design” they espouse a belief in “scientific determinism”, ie there is no true free will, physics determines everything, down to our thoughts. This is similar to Calvinism, and your suggestion above. I’m just tying the dots together, is all 🙂

        I find it interesting that they ask us to believe their theories when, if determinism is true, there is no reason to. They could not have “thought” otherwise, and their thoughts aren’t “true”, they’re merely what the atoms in their brain caused them to write. Just one of MANY philosophical problems in the book. I’ll be reviewing the book again on my blog at some point.

        Jonathan from Spritzophrenia 🙂

      • santitafarella says:

        Chesterton said that modern science is “Calvinism without God.”

        —Santi

    • Mike says:

      Jonathan,

      If you don’t mind me asking, what questions lead you away from faith? It sounds like you spent some time digging deeper, but still did not find what you were looking for.

      In my own studies, I have found that if I could only have one resource at my side, I would choose the NIV Study Bible. If I really need to tear into something, then I use the free “e-Sword” Bible software from http://www.e-sword.net. It has more translations, commentaries, dictionaries, and maps than I could ever need.

      Mike

  3. trishothinks says:

    Santi,

    I thought Baptists also had to be “baptized” to ensure their salvation? You know, a “rebirth” as a child of God and a Christian.

    Just “believing” or having “faith” alone won’t fulfill the process, as I understand it.

    What about Jesus? You don’t mention him, as he is the way to true Salvation, as he died for all of our “sins”, so that we may enter the Kingdom of God.

    Are you saying that just “believing” and having “faith” alone is sufficient for salvation?

    I do have issues with God in general. I have read in the Bible that God is a jealous God, and that he/she expects to be worshiped unending. I have to wonder about the ego of a God that must be worshiped and revered forever. The attitude that “you must love me because I created you”. Doesn’t every mother or father expect that from their child? Yet, so many end up NOT loving their mothers or fathers.

    Is God a Narcissist? Yes, it is blasphemy that I state or even suggest such. But, it kind of irks me that a God would expect such adulation from me and everyone else.

    Wasn’t that is why Lucifer was cast out of Heaven? He used to be the highest of highest of Angels in Heaven…..then began to question God’s power.

    oh, what a can of worms I have opened!

    Trisho

    • Trisho, although Baptists suggest people should be baptized, no thinking Baptist that I’m aware of would claim that you MUST be baptized to ensure salvation, in my understanding.

      That “is god a narcissist” thing is interestign. I have a take on that: Most of us feel filled with awe at the beauty of (say) a night sky, we feel almost “compelled” to react with aesthetic appreciation. Let’s say God is the most beautiful thing in the universe – it would be the “natural” reaction to feel an amazing sense of awe in the presence of this. So on this take, God is not being vain, but simply describing things as they are. We “can’t help” but be awed by the most beautiful thing in the universe.

      FWIW, I’m agnostic by the way.

      Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

    • Mike says:

      Trisho,

      You would really like John Piper’s book, “Desiring God”. John struggled with this same seemingly narcissistic tendency of God. I don’t have the book anymore, but I seem to recall that finds his answer in some of C.S. Lewis’s writings. He notes that we praise those things that are good and beautiful and that we ascribe worth to. There aren’t many things in our lives that we would we describe as “awesome” that we are not anxious to tell others about. Why must be expect to be silent about an awesome God? If God is the perfect embodiment of all that is good, right, true, and beautiful in life, wouldn’t you expect an eternity of praise?

      God doesn’t take the attitude that we must love Him. In fact, He allows us not to. But the perfect picture of God is the father to the prodigal son. He waits at home for his son to return home, always looking to the horizon for the day when his son will return. And the day his son did return, he gathers his robes and runs to greet him and forgives all.

      If you know God as the perfect Father, it should not irk you to love Him, adore Him, and worship Him, because He is worthy of all our praise. If you don’t know Him that well, get to know Him more and you may change your mind.

      Mike

  4. JCR says:

    An interesting take, although I disagree with it. As an atheist, I do not give much thought to any god – other that as a debate topic of what is wrong with religion. You regularly give primacy to the Abrahamic god, such as in this post and your last post on the confidences. I give no more thought to the Abrahamic god than the Hindu gods or anything else. Honestly, the concept of a “god” is less possible to me than the tooth fairy. This is also true for the handful of other atheists I know.

    I will not get into the details, unless someone is interested, but a long time ago I went through the thought process of what if the god of the bible is real. The bottom line is that if he is real, he is a horrible god. Which, implicitly, means he is no god at all. And even if he is real, I will not barter what I know to be right and moral out of fear of this horrible entity. It is easy to rule out all of the Abrahamic religions for just this reason – the abrahamic god is absurd. Other religions get tougher. Buddhism and Jainism have no self contradictions and condone no immorality as the abrahamic religions do. But those religions are more about personal responsibility and advancement anyhow.

    The interesting scientific theories lately have been around universe formation. This has made me consider the idea of a “creator” more now. Although this creator would not be a god – simply another life form. That is from the universal level. Likewise, we could have a genetic creator that is also just another life form. I give a lot more thought to this than I do about any “god.”

  5. andrewclunn says:

    Ironically, I’m an agnostic, and I believe that if there is a God, then (s)he is an asshole.

  6. Mike says:

    I am not a baptist, but came to faith in an evangelical Christian church. Evangelicals often lean on a “sinner’s prayer” as a method to bring people into a relationship with God. In its simplest format, the sinner’s prayer states the core beliefs of Christianity and salvation: I admit I am a sinner, that my sin separates me from a holy God, that I am powerless to earn God’s favor on my own, but through my faith and acceptance of Jesus’s death on the cross, I can be brought back into fellowship with God. Evangelicals believe that Jesus paid the penalty for all of their sins, and the only requirement to be made right in God’s eyes is to believe in Jesus and to accept Him as our Lord and Savior.

    If you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, the Holy Spirit enters into your life, and begins to change you from the inside out. Most evangelicals believe that once the Holy Spirit enters you, you are a new creation. You are still capable and even prone to sin, but that you are prompted by the Holy Spirit to conform to the likeness of Jesus. That is to say, you still sin, but are ruined as a sinner. You will no longer want to sin. It is not the prayer that is magic. It is the work of the Holy Spirit.

    Unfortunately, many evangelicals assume that once you’ve prayed a prayer, that means you have assigned Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and essentially, your soul is under the care of the Holy Spirit, thus absolving them of any further responsibility. But the Bible calls Christians to understand their faith and to disciple others. The idea that understanding our faith is not necessary is just a shield worn by those who have not stepped up to maturity in their own faith.

    Just because you may know Christians that can’t explain the difficult passages of the Bible doesn’t make it less true. It’s like not believing in Science because the same person cannot explain the theory of relativity. Do you really expect a common lay person to be an expert? Do you expect every pastor to be a Bible scholar? If your search leads you to pursue the depths of scripture, take your questions to someone qualified to answer them! But don’t throw out Science because you went to the wrong school with bad teachers.

    If you read the Bible from end to end, I think you will learn that God is not going to trick you or hold out on you at the last moment. Continually God says how He wants to forgive us, and when we our sins are forgiven, He will remember them no more. As far as the East is from the West… The Christian life isn’t about control over our anxiety. It is about giving up control of our lives, and allowing the Holy Spirit to take control of our lives. He who loses his life will find it.

    I think there is a lot of confusion about God’s love and God’s judgment. People want to say that the Old Testament God was wrathful and poured out judgment, but the New Testament God is loving and forgiving (conveniently ignoring the Book of Revelation, that is…). This is a misunderstanding of the character of God. As a parent, do you understand that to love your child, there are times you must discipline them? That you can love your child, but still hate when they sin? That when your child is in right relationship with you, you forget all about the rotten things they did yesterday, only today matters? I direct my faith to a God who corrects me when I am wrong, who isn’t content to leave me as I am, but wants to shape, mold, and improve me because He loves me.

    As far as insurance policies go, don’t think that such a thing exists in Christianity. Luke 16:19 tells the story of a rich man who ignored God, died, and was taken to a place of torment. There he asks Abraham for mercy. Abraham responds:

    “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”

    There will be a great chasm that cannot be crossed. I believe that each person is given an opportunity in their lifetime to know God. They reach a point of decision where they can choose to believe and follow Him, or they can reject Him. But that final decision is permanent and eternal. I don’t believe there is a second chance after death. God still loves you, and longs for you to enter into a relationship with Him. But He gives you your free will. If you choose not to enter into that relationship, that is how you will spend eternity –apart from Him.

    But that decision to follow Him can be made at any time. The thief on the cross next to Jesus was next to death. He had no time to make up for his crimes or atone for his sins. He just believed in Jesus and made Him his Lord. And Jesus said “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

    Are some agnostics and non-believers closer to the heart of God that those I attend church with? Whole-heartedly I agree. Sitting in church no more makes you a Christian than sitting in a garage makes you a car. A Christian is a Christ-follower, not a person who goes to church. But make no mistake, a day will come where God will separate the true believers and followers from the rest. If you are ready to follow him, read Billy Graham’s “Peace With God”. If you are not ready, keep on searching. Find the answers. Don’t give up. It is too important not to!

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