On the difference between theists and atheists

My friend Albert Loan of Universidad Francisco Marroquín recently quoted from Damon Linker’s review (“Memo to atheists: God’s not dead yet”) of theologian David Bentley Hart’s recent book.

atheism_antitheism_religion_christianity_judaism_islam_agnosticThe quotation: “The deeper reason why theism can’t be rejected, according to Hart, is that every pursuit of truth, every attempt to be good, every longing for beauty presupposes the existence of some idea of truth, goodness, and beauty from which these particular instances are derived. And these transcendental ideas unite in the classical concept of God, who simply is truth, goodness, and beauty. That’s why, although it isn’t necessary to believe in God in some explicit way in order to be good, it certainly is the case (in Hart’s words) ‘that to seek the good is already to believe in God, whether one wishes to do so or not.'”

The second sentence in the above is the key one. It claims that truth, goodness, and beauty are “transcendental ideas,” that is, not natural or based in the physical world. That is, the argument for theism starts with skepticism about the natural world as a source of truth, goodness, or beauty.

This has long seemed to me to be the deepest divide between the thoughtfully religious and the thoughtfully non-religious: the atheist is optimistic about finding value in the natural world, while the theist is pessimistic about that possibility and seeks it outside the natural world.

The difference can be phrased in emotionalist terms: the person who does not become religious feels the natural world to be valuable in itself, while the religious person feels the natural world to be lacking or deficient in a deep way and so seeks value beyond it.


22 thoughts on “On the difference between theists and atheists

  • January 14, 2014 at 1:23 am

    I think it comes down to being opposed to those who treat unproven assertions as knowledge. And historically have been all too willing to commit the most horrendous atrocities against those questioned them.

    If someone wants to speculate on the existence of fairies, let them. But if he points a gun at me and says I have to live as the fairy queen told him I ought to and that criticism of her and her program is punishable by death I’m going to become intensely resentful.

  • January 14, 2014 at 9:37 am

    I think Prof Hicks decided to put a cat among the pigeons with this one. And a bit of mischief too. The tone of his question and example seems weighted in favor of the atheist as a more appreciative sensibility. I would argue (from Scripture) that “His invisible qualities are perceived in His visible works.” I suggest that we appreciate a Rembrandt painting more when we know he done it. “Transcendence” is beside the point. One does not discard the beauty of the stars because they were created, nor is it less when we know the Creator, even by name.

    Atheists have the advantage that they don’t believe in anything above matter, energy and life, but theists may be Jews, Christians, or pagans, even Buddhists, a religion with no god. Atheists regularly ask for a “proof” of God, but this proof, like that of the pudding, is in the eating of it.

    I think Mr. Fox should avoid his rabid atheistic rants, as the issue discussed here is aesthetic, and very subjective. He seems to assume this website is privileged for atheists, and throws in the old “green goblin” argument. He fears the “Fairy Queen” and taunts his adversary. Perhaps, as J.M. Barrie wrote, one must believe in fairies to see them. “When a child says, I don’t believe in fairies, then a fairy dies.” Green goblins may be visible to some, invisible to others. When Mary is told by Gabriel she will bear a son under God’s spirit, the others of her household thought she was hallucinating. The atheist, with a gynecologist by his side, stands ready to condemn the lass. The “theist” defends this unique event as part of God’s provision of a Messiah. The gynecologist points out that parthenogenesis does occur, but the child is always female, there being no male chromosome. And so, the merry-go-round keeps spinning.

    Belief in the Bible “God” requires perception and rational faith to sustain. No one can “believe” or “exercise faith in” [the actual meaning of the Greek] by rational proof. Perhaps atheists believe only through rational proof. But the beauty of stars and flowers and dames can be essayed by any aesthetic person of any religious bent. Faith is not “blind” but an act of confidence based on evidence revealed and its inherent logic. Believers have the hope of life everlasting, but, by their general admission, atheists do not. The new religion is Dawkins’ Darwinian Atheism, of which he is high priest. Yet Dawkins is eager to share his appreciation of worldly beauty. One may see a similar view of this beauty in Gerard Manly Hopkins poems, particularly “Pied Beauty” and “God’s Grandeur.”

    The door on this issue continues to revolve. When it will be shut, who can say?

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