Want to know the real difference between atheists and theists? It all comes down to uncertainty. Atheists can handle it. Theists detest it. In fact, they’re “certain” uncertainty doesn’t exist. Or it can’t – or shouldn’t. Because, in their world, all questions are answered. By a deity. Mysteries remain of course, but they’re all part of God’s mysterious ways – that catch-all for “I dunno”. While I can’t speak for any other atheist – that’s how atheism rolls – I suspect I’m not alone among atheists in my thinking. Do I know how the universe works – or even why it exists? No. Do I want to know how the universe works and why? Hell, yes! But, at present, theories aside, I don’t know. So, either I live with not knowing or I surrender to fear. Certainty v uncertainty.
The God of the Gaps
Consider: what if the men who wrote the Pentateuch – the Old Testament – had had access to the internet? What if, before sitting down with quill and parchment, they’d looked into their microscope or telescope? Or what if they’d had a huge library of books to use as sources for their thinking? Would they have written their texts the same way if they’d seen earth from space as we have? Of course not!
The Judeo-Christian god started out a god of the gaps. The character always stood for what we don’t know and shouldn’t know. Wasn’t that the whole thrust of the Garden of Eden story? And, if the author of Genesis had know that humans evolved from earlier humanoid species, would he have written “In the beginning…” with such certainty?
I completely understand why someone would choose a simple story with rules and a full explanation for everything over, well, not being sure of anything. Being a theist gives one purpose: to serve whatever the alpha dog – God – wants. Being an atheist, I have to find my own purpose. I am my own alpha dog and omega dog, too.
People who believe in God need to know that there’s more to Life than life. They can’t create a higher purpose – they’re unqualified – but they can follow the higher purpose “course of miracles” that God is selling them. I believe the Apostle Paul is the most under-appreciated genius in all of history. He invented Christianity, not Jesus. Jesus had zero idea any such thing existed – or ever would.
This atheist can accept that someone like Jesus lived. My proof: Paul. While Jesus didn’t write anything down, Paul did. The problem with Paul is he never met Jesus. Never heard Jesus preach or teach. The only Jesus Paul knew was the one in his own head – who appeared to Saul of Tarsus on the Road to Damascus. When Paul went to Jerusalem, he was pitching the Jesus in his imagination whereas everyone in Jerusalem had actually heard Jesus teach or actually knew him. They all rejected Paul’s version of Jesus which is why he took it to the Gentiles.
Gods v God
The Greek world was polytheistic. Their gods didn’t exist to serve people. They had limited dealings with people. The Jewish god – Yahweh (that’s his actual name; “god” is his job description) was different. He cared so much about Abraham that he convinced him to move from what is now Iran to what is now Israel and to seize land that belonged to other people (the Canaanites). Incidentally – Yahweh ended up borrowing heavily from the Canaanite god El. That country we’re talking about? It’s called “Isra-EL”.
Not only did this monotheistic god do things for people, he offered something no human could do by themselves: defeat death. The offshoot religion Paul began crafting focused not on what Jesus said so much as it focused on the fact that Jesus died – and (where’s the body?) rose from the dead. His pitch to the Gentiles evolved into a simple deal: believe in Jesus the exact way Paul prescribed and they, too, could live forever in a magical afterworld called “heaven” with all their loved ones (provided they believed in Jesus the same way too).
That was a powerful message in a demon-haunted world.
We still want to beat death one way or another. Death is pure uncertainty. Atheists can’t say what happens when we die. We can speculate (and we do). But we can’t ever say we “know”. But we accept that uncertainty. We learn to live with it.
Or, at least, make peace with it.