Do all atheists deny the same God?
“Atheism” literally means, “without belief in God.” However, it has come to refer to denial of the existence of God to distinguish it from “agnosticism,” which is denial of knowledge of God.
Atheism affirms that God does not exist; atheists claim to know that or at least strongly believe that.
Agnosticism affirms that either the agnostic does not know whether God exists (soft agnosticism) or that knowledge that God exists is impossible (hard agnosticism).
The difference between atheism and agnosticism lies in what is being denied.
All atheists I know (have read, have talked to) believe in nature, the cosmos ruled by natural laws in principle discoverable and understood by science.
The “in principle” is important; many atheists would not claim that science has understood or ever will completely understand the cosmos exhaustively.
In other words, there is no “secret,” nothing ultimately mysterious, esoteric or ineffable that requires special revelation to be known or understood.
Many atheists, however, especially those who ascribe to secular humanism, argue that the human person is one exception to this rule.
Somehow, in a way we do not yet fully understand and may never fully understand, freedom for self-transcendence has arisen within the cosmos.
Humans are products of nature, but they represent a “leap,” as it were, upward and forward into self-consciousness, ability to reason and freedom to discover and create.
Thus, they are responsible in a way non-human animals (to say nothing of minerals and plants) are not.
Atheists and theists alike seem to assume that atheists deny any and every god.
However, I have found uniformly that the God atheists deny has a certain nature and character – the transcendent, even supernatural, all-determining Supreme Being of the “Abrahamic traditions” as defined or described by their traditional orthodoxies.
The problem is that this is only one concept of God. For religion scholars, including many philosophers of religion, including many non-Christians, “God” is not a simple idea.
So, when an atheist says that he (or she) believes no God (or gods) exists, I ask, “Which God or gods are you denying?”
The usual answer is “any and all.”
But then I ask, “Have you considered all concepts of God so that you know you are really denying ‘any and all’?”
Remember, an atheist is not merely an agnostic. An agnostic would say, “Well, I don’t think it’s possible for humans to know.” An atheist dogmatically asserts that nothing worthy of the label “God” exists.
So an informed atheist might say, “Whatever someone calls ‘God’ does not exist.”
But what if someone calls nature itself “God” but, unlike the atheist, believes nature has a spiritual depth dimension to it that reason itself can discover?
Or what about nontheistic or neo-theistic concepts of God that require no special revelation to know and understand and do not in any way conflict with modern science?
So, in my humble opinion, most atheists have not even considered all concepts of God and are exercising hubris in adamantly denying all – if that’s even what they are doing.
It seems that most atheists in Europe and America are reacting to a certain idea of God, which they associate with all ideas of God even though, insofar as they are educated, they should know that is not the only idea of God.
I find this especially the case among the so-called “New Atheists” whose books are so highly touted in recent decades.
They are reacting against an idea of God as the transcendent, supernatural, personal, all-determining reality who exercises omnicausality. Even many devout Christians do not believe in such a God.
Also, many contemporary Western atheists believe in a mysterious reality called “free will” and they mean it in the libertarian sense of “power of contrary choice.” They realize that it is necessary for self-transcendence and responsibility.
And yet, there is something supernatural about every act of libertarian free will. By definition, it cannot be simply the product of chemical interactions in the brain.
If it were, humans would not be special – “above” animals (unless there were a God to say so).
Could scientific observation and examination alone ever exhaustively explain why all people do what they do without appealing to something beyond science’s own ken? I don’t think so.
Belief in libertarian free will, power of contrary choice, and especially in self-transcendence, imply something supernatural – whether someone is willing to call it that or not.
Then, of course, there is the point made by Martin Luther and repeated (in his own way) by Paul Tillich – that everyone has a god insofar as he or she has something that concerns him or her ultimately. And everyone does have an ultimate concern in or about something.
In this way of looking at things, someone who believes nature is all there is invests in nature (or in himself or herself) ultimate concern and, therefore, god status.
More likely, however, in the case of the sensitive, caring, thinking self-proclaimed atheist, humanity is endowed with godlike status as the well-being of humanity becomes his or her ultimate concern.
But why not live for self-interest alone if there is nothing eternal, transcendent, above and beyond nature who cares and to whom you are accountable?
The only answer an atheist can give is, “Because your well-being is ultimately tied to the well-being of humanity.”
But suppose the hedonist, locked into radical eudemonism – an ethical system based on the pursuit of pleasure – says, “I don’t believe that.” Many people seem to live quite happy and seemingly fulfilled lives on the basis of individual hedonism.
The true hedonist’s god is his or her own fulfillment – however that may be defined. And that’s difficult to refute – as ethically wrong – if nature is truly all there is.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.