Can a Person Be an Atheist and Still Believe In God?

Theism, or supernatural theism (for the most part, they bear the same meaning) is a monotheistic conception of God that has been with us since the idea of monotheism first began to emerge in our Judeo-Christian story–after the Exodus (1,200 Before the Common Era), down through the time of the Babylonian Exile (587-538 BCE).
The God of theism is thought to be an actual being (supreme being), independent of the universe and external to life here on planet earth.  It is believed this God in the sky orchestrates events here on earth and intervenes in times of God’s own choosing.  In antiquity, when the idea of this God was conceived, it was thought we lived in a three-tiered universe, with heaven up above, hell down below, and the earth in between.
This theistic God, as inadequate as it may be, continues to be the God of traditional Christianity.  Generally, this is the God people think of in American culture when they talk about God or say they believe in God.  Moreover, this theistic God in the sky is also the God people think of when they address God in prayer.  They assume God hears their prayers and simply hope God chooses to intervene on their behalf with health concerns and other concerns of well being.
Given the advances in modern science, particularly since Darwin and the birth of evolution theory, it is amazing how people have continued to believe in the God of theism all these years.  I can readily see how people would continue to believe in God.  I believe in God, but not the God of supernatural theism.
Why Have People Continued To Believe In a Theistic God?
For me, this is a probing question.  Our response to this question should give us useful insight into the status and substance of contemporary Christianity in American culture. To being with, I think most people (like me) like the idea of God and want to believe.  If believing in God and being a person of faith is something they grew up with, it is understandable they would want to sustain the belief of their childhood years.
It should be noted that, within conservative-evangelical Christianity and beyond, there are no doubt large numbers of people who find it reassuring to believe in the God of theism.  They like the security system belief in this God offers.  They like the comfort of feeling God is in control of events in the world.  All of this serves to assuage their fears and reduce their anxieties about life’s challenges and the meaning of life.
However, for countless others outside conservative-evangelical circles who are more likely to have questions about their faith, what are they to do?  They have never been presented with conceptions of God alternative to the God of supernatural theism.  What people have done is–rather than reject God, declare themselves to be an atheist, and abandon their faith–they do the best they can to accept the theistic God of traditional Christianity and to simply not think about it as they move on with their lives.

Atheism and Believing in God
In recent years, it seems like claims of atheism have become more common in American culture.  While I do not think this is surprising, I do think there is confusion in our wider culture about what atheism means in relation to believing in God.
Marcus Borg, who taught religion classes at Oregon State University, remembers how, at the start of the term, some of his students would approach him after class and say something like, “this is all very interesting, but I just want to tell you that you lose me every time you use the term God because, you see, I really don’t believe in God.”  Every time, Borg adds, his response was the same: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”  Invariably, they were referring to the God of supernatural theism.  He would then tell them he didn’t believe in that God either.  This admission usually surprised the students because they knew he believed in God.  They simply hadn’t realized there were other options to belief in the God of supernatural theism.
Generally, people think atheism means not believing in God.  In fact, atheism means not believing in theism, which is different from not believing in God.  To reiterate, an enduring problem with western Christianity is that people think there is only one conception of God and that conception is the God of supernatural theism.  In reality, a person can be an atheist (a person who does not believe in theism) and still believe in God (the God of panentheism, for example).
Another part of this discussion is that the term atheism is often a red flag term.  While this may be somewhat generational (I’m an older baby boomer), for many in our culture, there is an ingrained negative reaction to the word atheist.  When people hear the word, their immediate thought is not that it is a denial of theism (which is what atheism means), but that it is a denial of belief in God, which often times makes them uneasy.  In this sense, the term can be confusing.
For example, because I do not believe in the God of theism, technically, I am an atheist.  However, I am a fervent believer in God.  Therefore, because it could be misleading, I do not refer to myself as an atheist.  If the opportunity presents itself, I will say I believe in the God of panentheism, a God who is immanent in the world (and more) and transcendent of the world (and more) at the same time (more on this in another article).  I will say I think of God mostly as Spirit, as infinite love and energy, as abiding presence, and as endless mystery.  I will also note how God is the great more of the universe–more than anything we can say, think, conceptualize, or conceive about God.
The critical matter here is to affirm that a person can reject the God of theism (atheism) and still believe in God.  In this regard, as progressive Christians, we are constantly being invited to open ourselves to new conceptions of God that are more adequate to our modern experience.
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired church pastor who began his ministry in the Baptist tradition before becoming a minister in the United Church of Christ. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Pacific School of Religion. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In.

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