02/28/2014 05:14 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2014

A God for Atheists

Sometimes students -- usually young men -- tell me they are atheists. They typically announce the news in one of my world religions courses.

Marcus Borg tells of similar confessions at Oregon State, a public university like mine where he taught courses on religion for many years. He had a novel way of dealing with such confessions: "Tell me about the God you don't believe in," he would say. The student would usually describe the God of Christian fundamentalism. Borg would then tell him he didn't believe in that God either.

My long experience with many student atheists -- faculty atheists too -- has taught me that the roots of atheism are often found in primitive, narrow views of the Divine picked up in preteen years. Waking up to the absurdity of God condemning non-Christians to hell is enough to blow into smithereens the childhood faith of many a thoughtful adolescent. A God who created the universe a few thousand years ago by merely wishing it into existence out of nothing is almost as fatal. For others -- and this goes for older people too -- it's the belief that God will bless us with what we pray for if we pray hard enough, or that everything that happens to us is supposed to happen. Or that God inspired everything found in the Bible, or the Qur'an, or the Vedas, or the Book of Mormon. To believe in such a God is to fly in the face of reason and evidence. It's almost asking for trouble, for such theologies don't square with the human experience. It's daring the universe to throw you a curveball designed to wake you up.

Too often all that's left is atheism.

But there are a number of alternatives. The best is a God whose nature doesn't contradict reality as we know it -- a God that doesn't trip up when placed alongside the physics of the universe, or the suffering of little children, or the scoffing of brilliant minds in high places.

What does such a God look like? First -- and this will surprise many -- God would be personal -- not an "It." But not personal in the fallible, limited way we are; not categorizable by a Myers-Briggs personality test or how S/He would treat a waitress, but having a unique intellectual and emotional structure infinitely beyond ours. Not an impersonal mystical power like the "force" served by Jedi warriors, but a matchless Being who knows us, values us, even loves us -- loves us because we are that Being's creations. More than that, because this Being ensouls us. We are not related to the Divine as pottery to the potter, but as child to parent. We are made of the very stuff of the Divine. Therefore it's natural for the Divine to watch us, follow us, expect great things of us, forgive us when we fall short, preserve us beyond death, keep the soul-making adventure going. Why? Because the Divine's love for us is as infinite as the Divine Him/Herself.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if there really was such a Being? But doesn't the evidence point in another direction?

Surprisingly, on balance it doesn't. True, it doesn't point with compelling force to the conclusion we might hope for. But the door is open.

First, the nature and laws of the physical universe are no barrier. A universe that has been gradually evolving since the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago is just as consistent with a Supermind guiding the evolution as with an absence of divine guidance. When atheists scoff at the guidance hypothesis, they are simply exposing their bias. Did the universe evolve on its own like a giant tree in a forest, or was it "planted," like a seedling in an orchard? There is no way to know. There is no way even to set the odds.

Second, the suffering of little children and all the other horrors that unfold around us, while deeply troubling, are no final barrier. The best God that we can imagine would be no impersonal force, as we saw above, but neither would He be a rich uncle dishing out the goodies whenever we asked for them. Earth, and presumably many other similar planets spread out in space, exist with all their hardships, up to and including every conceivable human tragedy, to bring forth greatness in the human soul. Imagine living on a planet where everything came easily; we would all end up like spoiled children; we would never cultivate virtues like compassion, generosity, prudence, courage and resolve. The philosopher John Hick concluded that for these to develop, the world "must present real dangers, difficulties, problems, obstacles and possibilities of pain, failure, sorrow, frustration and defeat." There is no other way. Would we want any less for our children? Then why should God?

Third, the scoffing of brilliant minds, very much a part of our world, is no final barrier either. Why should we look to prominent scientists whose domain is the physical universe for clues about immaterial reality? Too many of them assume that what their instruments can't measure doesn't exist. Do we turn to saints, mystics, theologians and philosophers to gain information about the nature of matter? When a celebrated materialist like Richard Dawkins draws conclusions about God, soul, spirituality or afterlife, he has left his domain. We should not be cowed.

The experts we should be listening to range across the religious map. They are as varied as Thomas Keating, the Catholic monk who founded the Centering Prayer movement; Diana Eck, the professor of comparative religion who directed the Pluralism Project at Harvard; and Huston Smith, the Berkeley sage in his nineties who believes that good science and enlightened religion should be partnered.

In my mid-twenties I lost my faith. I was miserable at the prospect of a world without meaning followed by a death I'd never wake up from. "A flash of light between two eternities of darkness," as the philosopher Unamuno put it -- that's all we amounted to. I had escaped the cramping theology I grew up with, but what I stepped into was even worse. After much study and soul-searching I found something far superior to both: a joyous, compassionate, loving, powerful, boundless, light-filled reality at the hub of the universe with an outreach that extended to the epicenter of my soul, a Being that would resonate with a Buddhist as well as a Christian. A God roomy enough even for an atheist.