Not an Atheist 2016


Bill Anderson PhD
Professor of Religious Studies, Concordia University of Edmonton
Winter 2016

I always wanted to be an atheist. I didn’t grow up in a Christian home. I grew up in a working class Scottish home with lots of love, many benefits and much happiness! No philosophy was more drilled into me than this: Be your own man. Stand on your own two feet. Do your own thinking. And don’t let anyone influence you—no matter who they are. Being an atheist is the ultimate Scottish working class philosophy.

When I got to my mid-teens, I started to philosophize about many things more seriously. I especially tried to figure out how I could reject any concept of God. But I got stuck. My limited knowledge of the universe led me to one firm conclusion: The universe is extremely complex and delicately balanced—and could not have just “happened” by itself through numerous coincidences. This was an irrational idea that I could not intellectually accept.

Of course, at the time, I didn’t know that its technical reference was the “Teleological Argument from Design”. The Teleological Argument from Design is, in my view, the most powerful argument for the existence of God.

Another argument that forced me to reject atheism was the Cosmological Argument. While I’m an “arts” person, I do know that for every effect there is a cause. This means that the universe must have had a First Cause, i.e., a Creator. I know that both of these arguments have been sorely tested in recent decades.

By the way, I don’t pretend that my arguments are as sophisticated as say, Professor Richard Swinburne of Oxford University, who will be our keynote speaker at our 2016 conference on “Atheism and the Christian Faith” here at Concordia University of Edmonton on May 6th and 7th. But they are so substantial and forceful that I cannot reject them on rational grounds.

However, these arguments were not enough for me to become a Christian: You can’t argue a person into Heaven. The question then became: Ok, now what? There must be a god, a creator, but he cannot be “personal”. I based this on the problems of evil and suffering, as well as unanswered prayers in my own life. Therefore a person cannot have a “personal relationship” with God. It took a literal, miraculous “Damascus Road” conversion experience on a construction site before I “saw the light”. Or as Jesus puts it in John 3: A person must be “born from above”, i.e., by the agency of God’s Holy Spirit.

Nevertheless, that’s not the end of the story. My faith has been tested many times over the past 36 years that I’ve been a Christian. As a pastor, I’ve never really fit in the church, seminaries or denominational offices. Moreover, I did my PhD under the atheist biblical scholar Robert Carroll at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. I learned a great deal from him and I am eternally grateful to God for him (though he wouldn’t view it that way).

As a professor, a recurring question that I ask my students is: “When the atheist reads the Bible, they are objective—true or false?” My response is that its “so false I can’t even begin to tell you”! Atheists, being human like myself, have baggage and are often prisoners of their emotions with political agendas too—and these will skew our interpretations of texts and lead to Confirmation Bias.

Confirmation Bias says that we will find what we are looking for regardless of the evidence or we will interpret the evidence in the light of our own biases and without full context or openness to alternative positions eg atheism. Psychologically and emotionally, atheism suits me: I just can’t make a rational case for it. That is the necessity of keeping our emotions out of it and employing objective protocols when doing academics—especially in biblical studies. Because if Christianity isn’t objectively true, then I want out: It’s not worth the hassle and humiliation in today’s society.

Of course the title of my editorial is a pun on Bertrand Russell’s classic treatise on atheism entitled “Why I am Not a Christian”. But I think Andy Partridge says it more concisely and powerfully in the XTC song/video “Dear God”. In both works the “usual suspects” are rounded up as insurmountable problems to theism and the Christian Faith: Problem of Evil, Innocent Suffering and Theodicy (Justice of God or life isn’t fair). Russell also attacks the Cosmological and Teleological Arguments in his treatise; where he ironically falls acutely into his own criticism of reductionism and lack of imagination.

These problems can be summed up in Epicurus’ syllogism “Inconsistent Triad” which is picked up by the Scottish philosopher David Hume in DialoguesConcerning Natural Religion. There are many variations of this syllogism but it basically goes like this:

1)           God is all-loving but not all-powerful; or

2)           God is all-powerful but not all-loving.

3)           Because evil exists, there cannot be a perfectly good, all-loving and all-powerful God.

I am totally empathetic to these works and the problems they raise. However, existence, reality and theology are far more complex than this simplistic and reductionistic syllogism. But, as a PhD in Old Testament Theology, I know that there is no biblical answer to these genuine problems.

As a pastor, however, I practice “Lived Theodicy”. I agree with the atheist’s legitimate complaints and simply come along side suffering people and empathize with them. I also know from the Book of Job and the example of Jesus that our sufferings are meaningful and purposeful. Indeed, all my sufferings in life have given me the experience and empathy to minister to people deeply.

Having said all that, my faith is not based on what I do not know. I don’t believe in blind faith. I know that I don’t know much as a human being vis-à-vis an all-knowledgeably wise God. So my reasonable faith puts these problematics into suspension until I am received into the Absolute.

My Christian Faith is based on what I do know about God. I know that there is a Creator and the evidence of the universe supports the Three Os of Theology Proper: God is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. The Three Os are also reasonable grounds for the belief in miracles. I know that God is LOVE from the Bible (1 John 4.8), the example of Jesus and by living life in this beautiful creation (with all its downsides as well). I know from theology that God is holy (perfectly moral) and therefore cannot be unjust or unfair. I know that the Gospels are eyewitness historical documents as verified by archaeology (contrary to the very trendy and naughty documentaries to the opposite that are often based on conspiracy theories). I know that God became human in the form of Jesus and that the Gospels documented his good person, life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension. This eyewitness testimony is a substantial basis for Christian Faith. That is why I am not an atheist and why I am a Christian.