03/03/2011 03:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Atheist vs. Religion "Debate" Misses the Point

The "debate" about God is hopeless, as unsatisfying as trying to dress a cat. When religious people and/or atheists talk about God and/or pit science against God they are expressing their psychological need for certainty, not indulging in anything that could be described as an intellectual debate.

They aren't talking about God (if any) but rather referring to the "God" of the Bible (or other religious books), as opposed to whatever might really be out there -- or not.

The discussion isn't about God but about what the "Bible says" (or the Koran or whatever else says) about one conception of God. And that may or may not be about God since there is no reason to take anything any religious book "says" seriously, let alone literally -- unless it corresponds to some deeper truth we've experienced ourselves about how to treat others.

I come from an evangelical background. (I describe why I quit that background and the the right wing politics of my youth in my book Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics -- and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway.) So given my background I'll stick to a look at the Christian attitude to the scriptures here.

The Bible "Says..."

Most Christians who say they "believe in God" really mean they believe in the Bible. As I describe in my book Sex, Mom and God that is how it was in my family. Most believers' starting point (say my religious leader father's starting point) is a book and a belief in something called revelation in that book -- in other words in magic -- not a belief in the person or persons or force or forces that we/they mean when they use the word "God."

The so-called New Atheists do the same thing evangelical Christians, like my parents, did. For the New Atheists it's also all about a book and/or dumb people's dumb actions, not God. They say they are debating about God but really are only attacking religion and religious books -- say the Bible or the Koran -- and/or that actions of people taken in the name of those books, and think they have successfully attacked the idea of the existence of God.

Is There An Alternative to the Circular Atheist vs. Religion "Debate"?

Maybe the best thing a believer in God can do is to declare that a lot of the Bible is hate-filled blasphemy -- against any actual God.

Maybe the best thing an atheist can do is admit that the question of God has nothing to do with religion, let alone with the actions of religious people.

This possibility undermines most "arguments" for atheism made by most "professional atheists." It also renders all theology, let alone doctrine, irrelevant.

The books written by New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris attack God by attacking religion. But that's not an argument that even begins to address the question of God or some other outside power's meddling in the formation of the universe, let alone first causes in cosmology pre-Big Bang.

Conversely the "arguments" put forth by evangelicals and others take the Bible as a starting point which makes everything they say as irrelevant as that book is.

The New Atheists' arguments make sense only as attacks on religion while the evangelicals' "defense" of God makes sense only as a defense of the Bible.

When it comes to the atheists' attack on religion, there's plenty to attack. But who says religion as practiced today, let alone as "revealed" in so called holy books, has anything to do with any actual Creator, Force or Final Reality outside of the cosmos?

When it comes to all the little questions like evolution and morals etc -- and I mean "little questions" in the sense that these are fluid details of our existence not THE question of origins and cosmology -- almost everyone is battling over a silly book or silly people's actions, not over God. And/or they are battling over what has been done in the name of religion or the name of secularity, not over any actual God.

Is Stalin an "Argument" Against Atheism?

What the Bible "says" about creation, or the fact that Christians went on crusades or that Stalin was horribly evil etc., means nothing when it comes to the actual existence or non-existence of God. That the Bible is stupid in places proves nothing about belief in God. That Stalin (an avowed atheist) was a monster proves nothing about atheism's truth or non-truth.

All the atheist vs. God charges and counter charges prove is that humans are dumb and evil and follow self-evidently stupid books and leaders. All any of this "discussion" proves is that there has been no moral evolution of humans that we can see. There are no good guys or bad guys, there's just us.

The Only Two God "Issues"

There are only two questions that actually mean anything related to God: the quest for meaning and the quest for love.

It is our human need that points to something "outside" and transcendent, not a book or a theory.

If there is a God then what we believe -- or not -- about Him, Her or It, is neither here nor there. Even less relevant is our sincerity. The same goes for science. All science is, is the naming and describing of what is there. Reality was doing fine before it was named or described.

Faith and/or Atheism is a Psychological Need

For whatever reasons humans seem to have a need that makes us confuse our ability to describe what we see or interpret -- as we believe this or that about what is outside of us -- with the actual reality of what is out there. But whatever reality is is that way without our help.

Non-Rational Is Rational

If there is a God then belief in that God will be non-rational because whatever that God is, is by definition, outside of the cosmos and therefore outside of anything or anyone in the cosmos and their/our ability to describe it.

"Non-rational" isn't the same as irrational. (This point has often been made well by writer Chris Hedges.) The only irrational thing we can say about God is that we can describe Him, Her, or It and/or say that there is no God.

It is irrational because we're making statements about what is outside of the cosmos as if we can or could know anything about that.

In that sense all religion is irrational and so is all atheism. Both begin and end with a false claim of certainty. (This point is well argued in a forthcoming book by Vincent Bugliosi, Divinity of Doubt.)

Can We "Know" God?

If there is a God our best road to that indescribable THING, PERSON or FORCE is through our daily non-rational experience of life, not through our ideas about that life.

The actual experience of love and beauty, longing for meaning and empathy can't be described or pinned down. These are non-rational, but not unreal, feelings.

Brain chemistry can name the chemicals that give us those feelings but that doesn't mean we understand why we have any feelings at all and don't merely exist in ignorant mute contentment and free from memory, greif and poignant nostalgia.


The whole "debate" between faith and reason misses the point because it is really a debate between the track record of what religious believers have done in the name of stupid religions (i.e., slavery) and what science has done in the name of stupid certainties (i.e., eugenics).

This argument is an irrational debate driven by our psychological need for certainties that can't ever be attained. It is a debate about human behavior (and books written by humans), but not about God.

Whatever is outside our cosmos is outside our understanding and doing fine -- or not -- with or without us. On the other hand I love my children and grandchildren beyond description. I am moved by music, art, film and literature. I have empathy for strangers. So do you.

And none of that means any less because these things are experienced more deeply than they can be rationally described. They are non-rational but not stupid.

And that is where -- in my opinion -- religious liturgy has a place: It helps us express the inexpressible. It is not about "correct" belief but about humanizing experience that "teaches" by doing. It also provides community.

As for my specific experience of religious community it happens these days in the liturgical context of the Greek Orthodox church my wife and I attend. To me that is not "the" path but a path where I may encounter both community and a liturgical experience that comforts an unanswerable longing.

As for the place of the person of Jesus in my experiential life some of his words or the words of whomever said them and attributed them to Jesus, reflect what I think is the best articulated truth of what makes sense to live by as a human: blessed are the peacemakers.

Love and meaning are intertwined, and the fact that love and meaning are beyond our descriptions gives me hope that there may actually be a larger reality that, for lack of a better term, we call God.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His new book (in stores May 7) is Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics--and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway.