I don’t believe in atheists.
I know that will upset a lot of people, but it is true. I do not believe that atheists exist. Now, I believe that there are people in existence who call themselves atheists. I believe that there are people who do not believe in God, the way God is popularly portrayed. I believe that there are people who do not accept or believe in the existence of the God of the Bible, or any other god or goddess. But I do not believe that they have no God, and I do not believe that they have no religion or practice of worship.
Paul Tillich famously (for those of us in the pray trade) defined “God” as the matter of “Ultimate Concern.” It is precisely because of this definition of God that I cannot accept the existence of atheists. It is also because of this definition that I can see that many who profess belief in God do not really believe in God.
Let me explain very simply. EVERYBODY — that is EVERYBODY — has some principle or thing around which their lives are organized. Whatever that thing or principle is that we place in the center of our lives — that our whole lives continually orbit — is that “Ultimate Concern” and is by definition God. It can be money. It can be a career. It can be sex, or drugs, or rock n roll. It can be family, people, relationships, lovers, or a person. It can be power. It can be politics. It can be a political party. It can be education. It can be science. It can be philosophy in general or a philosophy in particular. It can be Capitalism, Socialism, Anarchism, or any other ism. It can be fear, or worry. It can be a combination of things. But EVERYONE places something in the center and their whole lives, whether they know it or not, is about that thing. Their beliefs are about that thing. All their actions and motivations are defined by that thing. EVERYONE has a God that they worship and revere, that guides their thoughts and actions, and a system of behaviors designed to bring that person closer to their God — by giving them more access to their Ultimate Concern.
So, I do not believe in atheist. I just believe that there are people who just do not call their God, “God.” Just as I can clearly see that those of us on the Theist side do not always have God for our God even though we profess God. There are many Theist who still place money, or power, or politics, or careers, or education, or Capitalism, or sex, or whatever at the center of their lives. They talk about faith in God, but God is not the center because something else is at the center. Frankly, a lot of us religious types just give God lip-service as we rush off to serve our ourselves, and our Ultimate Concern that has displaced God as the center of our lives.
These people give me nothing but lip-service!
Their hearts are far away from me!
They are just going through the motions when they worship me!
They teach their own commandments and ignore the ones I gave them!
(Matthew 15:8-9 quoting Isaiah 29:13).
These are probably the people to whom Jesus is referring when he says:
“Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do what my Father in heaven wants them to do. There will be a lot of people who’ll say to me on Judgment Day, ‘Lord, didn’t we preach in your name? Wasn’t it your name we invoked when we performed exorcisms? Didn’t we put on public spectacles in your honor?’
“And I’ll say to those people, ‘To be honest, I’m drawing a blank. I’ve absolutely no idea who any of you are. Leave me alone! It sounds to me like all of you just like to make a commotion!’”(Matthew 7:21-23)
These may be the people who are surprised at the Judgment to find they are cast into hell:
“Then he’ll turn to those on his left and say, ‘Get away from me you who are cursed! Your place is the everlasting fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels because I was hungry and none of you ever gave me anything to eat; I was thirsty and none of you ever gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and none of you ever welcomed me. I was naked and none of you ever gave me anything to wear. I was sick and in jail and none of you ever bothered to visit me.
“Then they will answer him just as the first group did, and say, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in jail. And when did we ever refuse to serve you?’
“Then he will answer them saying, ‘Amen! I’m telling all of you that whenever you refrained from doing these things for someone, regardless of how unimportant they were, you were also refraining from doing it for me!’ (Matthew 25:41-45)
If Jesus was their Ultimate Concern, then they would have learned to see Jesus in faces and in the needs and in the concerns of others. But they miss seeing Jesus because they are focused on other things — they have an Ultimate Concern, but it is not Jesus Christ, neither is it His Father in heaven.
So, I believe that everyone is inherently “religious” — I just do not believe that everyone’s religion is religion. Just as I believe that everyone has a God or even Gods, but not everyone calls their Gods “God.” And I believe that not everyone who claims to believe in and worship God actually believes in or worships God, but have displaced God for some other matter of Ultimate Concern.
Now, I believe that when we get past the veneer, the pretenses, the appearances of life, that everything I have said reveals itself to be true. That means in the abstract, I believe what I have said to be truth. Yet, in practice — in a world that is mostly show and little substance — this truth is easy to disguise, or difficult to see and accept.
And the point of me saying all of this is not to expose others and to judge them in any way. In my ministry, I have to address people where they are, not where I would like them to be. I have learned to be comfortable with all types of people with all types of beliefs. I have learned to let people be who they are. So I am not judging atheists. I am not saying that they are wrong in their atheism, as well as in their understanding of their own lack of belief in God. I am also not judging those religious who have displaced God with some other thing or principle that is their true Ultimate Concern.
I say this not to judge others, but to remind myself. I say this so I can remember to stop and evaluate my own faith, making sure that I have not substituted some other Ultimate Concern in place of God. I mention this so that I (and anyone who may be so inspired by these words) may solemnly and sincerely ask myself:
Do I really believe in the God I say I do, or do I really believe in something else while giving God lip-service?
Am I just saying “Lord, Lord,” or am I actually doing the will of God the Father in heaven?
What evidence do I have to support the claim that God and His Son are my Ultimate Concern?
Do I confuse talking about God with believing in God?
Where am I lacking, and what can I do to displace those things that have displaced God and His Christ as my real God?
The point is: If I feel the need to judge, then the only one I am allowed to judge is me. I have to make certain that I remove that large plank from my own eye before I tell others that their vision is corrupted by a speck in their eyes. I have to be a physician who first heals himself before I tell others how to be well. When I do, I often find that that speck I see in their eye is merely the reflection of the plank in mine. I discover that the illness I diagnose in others is merely the illness I ignore in myself and project onto them.
John Lennon once said that he and the Beatles had not intended to re-invent rock music or to create something new. They just wrote music for themselves that they liked. The fact that other people liked it was a bonus. I remind you that I am not writing anything on this page as a doctrine or as an ultimate truth or even as something others need to know and to hear. I am just writing what I feel at a given moment, or what I feel inspired to write. If others like it, find it useful, or find it inspirational or informative, then that is a bonus.
I, as usual, had not intended to write all of this. I just had a simple sentence and this grew out of it.