Why I am Not an Atheist
by Bill Anderson
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 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 rationally reject any belief in God. But I got stuck. Even my limited knowledge of the universe led me to a firm conclusion: the universe is extremely complex and delicately balanced. It could not have just “happened” by itself through numerous coincidences. The idea seemed irrational, and I could not accept it intellectually.
Of course, at the time, I didn’t know that this kind of argument is known as the “Teleological Argument from Design.” But all these years later, this argument—that the complexity of the universe demands a Creator—remains, in my view, the most powerful argument for the existence of God.
The “Cosmological Argument” is another idea that forced me to reject atheism. Put simply, this is the idea that for every effect there is a cause. And since the universe exists—an effect—then there must also be a cause—a First Cause, as it were. A Creator.
I know that both of these arguments have been questioned by some in recent decades. And I don’t pretend that my version of these arguments are as sophisticated as say, those of Professor Richard Swinburne of Oxford University, who recently served as keynote speaker at the conference “Atheism and the Christian Faith” at Concordia University of Edmonton (May 6-7, 2016). But they are nevertheless substantial arguments, so forceful that I cannot reject them on rational grounds.
Philosophical arguments were not enough on their own to make me become a Christian, however. You can’t argue a person into Heaven. Once I accepted the existence of some god, the question for me then became: “Okay, now what?” There must be some kind of creator god, I reasoned, but that doesn’t mean he is personally interested in me.
Philosophical arguments were not enough on their own to make me become a Christian. You can’t argue a person into Heaven.
I believed this for a few different reasons: the problems of evil and suffering, for example, (“Why do bad things happen?”), and what I considered unanswered prayers in my own life. It took a “Damascus Road” conversion experience on a construction site before I finally “saw the light.” Jesus explains in John 3 that a person must be ‘born from above’ before they can come to faith—that is to say, faith itself is created by the work of God’s Holy Spirit.
That’s not the end of the story, of course. 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” with 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, of course).
As a professor, a recurring question I ask my students is this: “When the atheist reads the Bible, they are objective—true or false?” My response is that it’s “so false I can’t even begin to tell you”! Atheists—like you, me, and all human beings—have baggage. We are often prisoners of our emotions with political agendas too, and these things can skew our interpretations of texts and lead to Confirmation Bias. That’s why it’s so important to try to keep our emotions out of it and to employ 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.
The title of my article is a pun on Bertrand Russell’s classic treatise on atheism entitled “Why I am Not a Christian.” But I think Andy Partridge makes similar criticisms more concisely and powerfully in the song “Dear God.” In both works the usual suspects are rounded up as insurmountable problems to theism and the Christian faith: namely the problem of evil, of the suffering of innocent people, and questions of theodicy (“Is God fair?”). The concerns of Russell and others can be summed up something like this: 1) God is said to be all-loving; and 2) God is said to be all-powerful. But 3) because evil exists, there cannot be a perfectly good, all-loving and all-powerful God.
I am empathetic to these kinds of questions. But existence, reality, and theology are far more complex than such a simplistic and reductionistic syllogism. Still, as a Ph.D. in Old Testament theology, I know that there aren’t easy answers to these genuine questions. As a pastor, I understand the practice of “Lived Theodicy.” I agree with the atheist’s legitimate complaints—that there is suffering and that it is hard. Rather than rationalizing away people’s pain and suffering, I instead come alongside them 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-knowing, wise God. So it is reasonable to put my questions into suspension until I am received into the presence of the Absolute—the One who knows all answers.
My Christian faith is based on what I do know about God: I know that there is a Creator, and that the evidence of the universe supports the “Three O’s of Theology Proper”—namely, that God is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. The Three O’s are also reasonable grounds for the belief in miracles. 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 certain trendy 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 for a sinful human race. This eyewitness testimony is a substantial basis for Christian faith. And it is why, in the end, I am not an atheist, and why I am a Christian.
Rev. Dr. Bill Anderson is Professor of Religious Studies at Concordia University of Edmonton. He is also the Director of the Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith.