MINISTERIAL MUSINGS: Is What I Don't Believe A Belief? The Rev. Dr John Tamilio III
I recently received an interesting query from a reader. He asked, “Is atheism considered just another belief system?” He qualified his question: “I’m not talking about the actual beliefs of atheists, or whether or not believing in a deity is the same as believing there’s no deity. I’m talking about, according to the way the socialized human brain and mind works, and in the instance of two or more people defending the same claim, is atheism a belief system the same way Christianity or any number of other philosophies are considered belief systems?”
Good question. I told my reader that I would love to reflect on this question in my next Lakewood Observer article. So, here goes…
Traditionally, people see atheism as the opposite of belief. As I write this, I am reflecting upon the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Easter II): it is the familiar post-resurrection story of Thomas, commonly called “the doubter.” Doubt is not the opposite of faith, although it is often misrepresented as such. T.S. Eliot once observed that “doubt and uncertainty are merely a variety of belief.” I concur.
In the story of Thomas, the critical disciple eventually comes to believe in Jesus and offers once of the most profound faith claims in all of Scripture: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas’ doubt leads him to critical questions, which eventually leads him to a deeper faith. In some respects, that is what the discipline of theology is all about. Saint Thomas Aquinas defined theology as fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding).
Doubters are often associated with agnostics. An agnostic is not sure what he/she believes when it comes to God. Agnostics do not subscribe to any specific belief system nor do they necessarily believe fully in God; they are not sure. Basically, they neither believe nor disbelieve in a deity. The jury is out — and no one knows if they will ever return.
And then there are our friends the atheists. Atheists do not believe in God. They are not doubters, like Thomas. They are not unsure, like the skeptical agnostic. They are sure. There is no God. Period. The end.
I recently watched the controversial yet intriguing BBC series The Atheism Tapes. It is a compilation of interviews conducted by Jonathan Miller in which he probes the multifarious dimensions of atheism with the English philosopher Colin McGinn, the American physicist Steven Weinberg, the late American playwright Arthur Miller, the English biologist Richard Dawkins, the British theologian Denys Turner, and the American philosopher Daniel Dennett.
In one of the interviews, the one with McGinn, the two launch into the question of belief (in terms of what atheists believe, if anything). The argument is proffered that atheists believe in lots of things, such as morality, love, and beauty, to name a few — they just to not ascribe these convictions to a deity that prescribes an ethical code or a supernatural belief system for humanity to follow. McGinn admits, “I believe in various ethical causes, and political ideas, and other aesthetic values and intellectual values,” but he does not believe in any sort of God or higher power.
Most serious atheists base their disbelief in God on philosophical thought processes such as critical reasoning, logical analysis, and objective inquiry. In that sense, atheism is certainly a philosophy. Twentieth century French existentialism — as established in the writings of Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre — was a ground breaking movement that culminated in the Death of God philosophy that was prevalent in the ‘60s. Remember the April 8, 1966 Time magazine cover story? (This piece was also based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s nihilistic thought.)
There are even contemporary Christian theologians who seek to disprove the existence of God, as paradoxical as that sounds. Marc C. Taylor deconstructs traditional Christian doctrine, or what he calls a/theology. He argues that “in the wake of the death of God [movement]” we need to “think ‘beyond’ the end of theology” (1991). In other words, what lies beyond what we have traditionally thought when those thoughts no longer suffice?
Therefore, I would state that atheism is a belief system, as defined by my reader: “two or more people defending the same claim.” There are far more than two thinkers who have constructed atheistic paradigms.
That said, I conclude by quoting my father, about whom I recently wrote. He once said, “If you really want to know if someone is an atheist, dangle him off a cliff and see what he does.” As dramatic and comical as that is, father may know best.
John Tamilio III, Ph.D. is the religion columnist for The Lakewood Observer. A musician and poet, JT3 is the Senior Pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland.
John III Tamilio
John Tamilio III is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, an accomplished guitarist, and a nationally published author. His first book of poetry, Blind Painting, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Letters in 2003. He and his wife, Susan, live in Lakewood, Ohio with their children: Sarah, “Jay” (John IV), and Thomas.