What is the atheist's idea of God?

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Pierre Wroblewski's picture
What is the atheist's idea of God?

What is the atheist's idea of God?

This is a fair question, I think. The decision to reject God is evidently informed by some idea of God. So how do atheists imagine him? What are their sources? And does this add up to a sufficient argument for atheism, or something else?

Scripture would seem to be the atheists' greatest authority on God. They are very fond of citing it. Yet at the same time, they point out that the God of scripture comes from superstitious Bronze Age goat herders, who had no evidence of God, no scientific understanding, and the worst analytical skills. So isn't it paradoxical that their understanding of God remains authoritative, while they themselves have been denied authority on the subject!

In that case, what can attacks on the God of scripture prove? Cheap shots at Deuteronomy, Noah's ark, or Adam's rib, notwithstanding the amusement they bring to our lives, are but veiled personal attacks on the people who believe in such things. They are aimed at the wrong objective. Any moderately clever believer will soon (in the course of centuries) sort out the acts of men erroneously attributed to his deity, amend his theology with new interpretative texts, shift his focus from myths to values, appeal to faith when all else fails, and we will find his God still standing. More or less.

The most we can hope for, is to prove that a certain kind of God-concept is incorrect. This is the road I try to take here. God is not, logically, any of these 10 things below. But that is all I will be able to show, and no more. Unless we are inflexible about traditional definitions of God, this is not actually an atheist position. That leap remains a personal choice.

(1) Concept: God is a creator and the first cause.
Source: Dictionary.
Critique: Evidently this can't be true, since absolutes can only generate more absolutes, yet nothing in our experience or science is like that. We live in a finite universe, and finite effects cannot prove infinite causes. All phenomena are transient, and cannot be traced to unchanging realities. All knowledge is experiential, not a priori (save maybe for a few categories identified by Kant, but even these may have biological underpinnings). Time and space are relative, subatomic particles play dice, human values are constructed, even mathematical axioms are not independent of our definitions, and there are emergent causes at every level of reality differentiation.

(2) Concept: God is knowable through revelation, whether that happens to be an act of creation, an intervention in history, or a personal communication.
Source: This is a characteristic of theism in general.
Critique: The word of God is every bit as absolute as God, so the critique from point (1) applies here too. God must be a silent deity. Anything else we might be tempted to consider a revelation would be contingent on its historical context, on human culture and language, on the choice of prophet, on personal interpretation, etc. So it can't ever be objective knowledge of God.

(3) Concept: God has a grand design for the universe, and a plan for us.
Source: “I have planned it, surely I will do it.” (Isaiah 46:11)
Critique: This belief is grounded in points (1) and (2), and doesn't stand alone. If there is a design in creation, it didn’t come from God. And since he is a silent deity, how can there be a plan to follow?

(4) Concept: God wants something from us. Like obedience, or worship, or a covenant. Maybe a sacrificial lamb. Above all, it seems, he wants us to "be good", and takes a keen interest in our morality.
Sources: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly [...]” (Micah 6:8).
Critique: We’ve seen in point (2) that God doesn’t impose his direct revelation on us. So in what sense could he possibly need, want, or ask anything? As for his supposed meddling in our morality, I will refer you to any number of devastating posts on Atheist Republic. You already know this to be absurd, and I want to spend more time on things you haven't heard a hundred times before.

(5) Concept: God gives us religion.
Source: Your pastor.
Critique: That can't be true either. Such a religion would be a form of revelation (see point 2). Besides, the source of religious tradition is scripture, and we already agreed that this is a human invention.

(6) Concept: God gave us free will.
Source: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden [...]” (Genesis 2:16)
Critique: "In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps" (Proverbs 16:9). So why give us free will at all? What's the point?

Free will is extremely difficult to reconcile with the God-with-a-plan from point (3). Any worldview that tries to accommodate them both must include other ad hoc beliefs and propositions. This problem has plagued the philosophy of religion since Late Antiquity.

Rather, the true basis of our freedom is God's silence and inaction, the very opposite of a divine decree.

Again, God exists at a level of reality that is existential, unchanging, absolute, and infinite. Whereas our reality is experiential, evolutionary, and contingent. By whatever technique or trade-off (action through finite intermediaries, retreat in interpersonal/subjective reality, or whatever), God must break the symmetry between his level of reality and ours. Our universe is not the result of his direct will, but of his retreat before creation.

(7) Concept: God is a controller of the universe, and our destinies.
Source: “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings [...]”(Daniel 2:21)
Critique: See points (1) and (6). If God erased himself from the universe to make space for randomness, evolution, free agents, and emerging causes, then how is he a controller?

Is he holding back proton decay, or is that the strong nuclear force? Did he protect Europe from the Turks, or was that Jan Sobieski? Is he arranging your next job interview, or is that you?

(8) Concept: God did evil things like flood the Earth, or told people to do evil things, and it's all part of his plan. He arbitrarily elected some, angrily damned others, and capriciously changed his mind about a few, who were successful in their pleas and bargaining with him.
Source: Scripture.
Critique: See source.

(9) Concept: God is still unleashing evil things today like mosquitoes, Katrina, cancer, and all those terrible things visited on children.
Source: CNN Live.
Critique: But if God is not a creator (see point 1), and not interventionist (see point 2), then how is he doing this?

(10) Concept: God is an SOB for allowing these evil things. He should reveal himself, intervene, and fix our problems for us!
Source: Atheist Republic commentators. And sometimes theists too.
Critique: This is a deeply flawed, not to mention terrifying, line of argumentation.

If I were God’s advocate, I would ask: What is evil made up of? Statistically speaking, isn't death by hurricane trivial compared to death at the hands of other human beings? Is Nature evil? Is death evil? How much post-disaster suffering was made far worse by our own actions or inactions? For that matter, how much natural disaster and disease today is our own fault! Did God force anyone to dump mercury in the ocean, or dig that oil well, or dose children’s cereal with sugar? Is human slavery or environmental collapse a result of God's monetary greed, overconsumption, and institutional failure, our ours? Is being born with Down's syndrome, or blind, or the wrong sex, a terrible thing in and of itself, or made far worse by prejudice? And if we put as much resources into prevention, cure, and the preservation of Earth, as we did in maintaining trillion dollar standing armies...

What obligation does God have to fix our messes? What value or lesson is there in that? And where does that stop? While theists beg for God's help, and atheists accuse him of indifference, I would suggest that they both be very, VERY careful what they wish for!

God revealing himself would be a cataclysm of cosmic proportions. For a moment of temporal relief, we would condemn ourselves, and every other intelligence we might be sharing the universe with, to an absolute dictatorship for all times. With monolithic moral law handed down from God, there would be no need to develop our own ethical thinking. Our superficial compliance would not produce intrinsically moral individuals. Our development would be capped at the childish conformist stage. With Superman swooping in to fix our problems, there would be no reason to take responsibility and grow up. Under absolute rule, free will would actually be pointless. Sadistic even. The same could be said for life, love, even consciousness... Our affairs would be under total micromanagement and surveillance. Our minds wouldn't be our own. Better to be a mindless automaton. We'd be shallow people, with shallow relationships, in social arrangements dictated from above. There would be no mutually constructed social reality. Creation would be non-participatory. We would be in a cosmos closed to the potential realities that once resided in Infinity. God would have made himself tiny, trapped in the state in which we captured him. All ends would be fixed, all aspects of reality determined. We would have perfect certainty. All our innovations and pursuits would terminate. All our efforts would become meaningless. Art would be the mere act of copying. Knowledge would be finite. Verdicts would be final. There would actually be divine reward and punishment. God would actually become the SOB from the scriptures!

This is inevitable, because all things willed by God must return to unity with him. It is hopelessly circular. Theism carried out to its furthermost logical conclusion leads to a dead-end cosmology.

This closed cosmological model, by the way, was patented by Plato, whose world of perfect shapes and ideas was precisely that kind of limited aspiration. Once upon a time, in the golden age of Atlantis, we lived in harmony with this perfection. But we lost our way and forgot about it. In this present age, the world is but an imperfect copy of the Platonic one, a degenerate shadow. Therefore we need a philosopher to interpret the "real" world for us again, and to lead us out of the cave back into the light we came from. St Augustine merely replaced this Platonic otherworld with the Kingdom of God, Atlantis with the Garden of Eden, and the Philosopher King with a priesthood. Then came Descartes who replaced Heaven with mathematical realism, and paved the way for scientists to replace priests. And today scientists have come up with new stories about our circular beginnings and ends. Thus closed cosmology survives in completely non-religious form in Big Bang theory! But Plato, St Augustine, and Descartes were all in the same business, because they all assumed a knowable, finite, and deterministic universe.

There is an evolutionary pressure to construct reliable mental maps of our world, and it seems we can't shake the need to make other worlds predictable too... Therein lies the entire appeal of closed cosmology. It provides us with a sense of control. All we have to do is transact with the deity, or solve for x (and under certain conditions, the universe will even obey). It is a thing initially driven by our fear of uncertainty, a psychological discomfort that is particularly felt in the early stages of personality development.

However we are now in the age of quantum physics, which teaches us that the universe, at its most fundamental level, is not completely knowable, or deterministic, or even rational. There is actually a role for consciousness and human agency. Therefore, we should not have a problem with free will. Especially if we are atheist, and on board with the Existentialist defence of freedom and personal responsibility...

So now, what is this God that atheists don’t believe in?

Well that would seem to depend on how well they’ve assimilate quantum theory and Existentialist logic. If they slept through those lessons, then they continue the see the world through 18th century lenses, as a sort of giant clock, with bottom up causality flowing from billiard ball-like atoms. I call them "classical atheists". They are trapped in a materialistic reincarnation of Deist cosmology. As a result, the creator/designer God from points (1) and (3) will seem very believable and threatening, and they will go on a mission to scrub Big Bang clean of God. Or they will target point (6), the God that magically gives free will, which they consider an illusion, by hunting down free will in the brain. They will fight absolutes with absolutes, because that’s the kind of universe they believe we're in. Finite. Meaning, there must be a definitive answer somewhere. But of course God is not in the sky, and free will is not in our neurones...

Theists have no choice to accept the 10 God-concepts as absolute because they believe in the authorities; in their attempt to build a coherent worldview out if this ideological mess full of philosophical pitfalls, they struggle to avoid the worst consequences of closed cosmology, and pray that the divine tyranny will be benign to them. Classical atheists don't believe in these authorities, but believe in a secular version of the same cosmology, so they are no better at avoiding the catastrophe of absolutes! The only difference is that, for some reason, they would feel more comfortable without God in the equation. It seems they prefer to think of themselves as robots governed by physical laws, rather than puppets directed by deities. I say, what’s the difference? Theists and atheists are fighting over details. In truth, they have the same end game. They both want to be interprets of reality because that position will give them power!

On the other hand, people who are aware of what happened to scientific epistemology in the last 100 years see a radically different kind of universe. They watch classical atheists and theists debate first causes the way we once watched Catholics and Protestants argue over transubstantiation. It is a surreal and somewhat frustrating spectacle. What we have here is a false problem, resting on a misunderstanding over the nature of reality.

The universe is not one thing. It is many things at once. At times it is highly unified, at times highly differentiated. It appears to us in a variety of mutually exclusive but complementary aspects. Waves, or particles. Mass, or energy. Mind, or body. Life, or chemistry. Etc. A choice is made to observe it that way or another, and that choice determines how reality appears to us, and how it behaves. Furthermore, that isolated slice of reality can be studied independently, because it has its own causal logic, which needs no input from other slices of reality. For example, doctors don’t need help from economists to do their work. Economists don’t need physicists to model market behaviour. Physicists don’t need ecologists to calculate the flight of a rocket. Ecologists don’t need psychologists to study rain forests. And so on. Between these different aspects of reality, the classical chain of causality is broken.

Similarity, the other two scientific paradigms of locality and realism are violated in the phenomenon of entanglement, and the uncertainty principle. Thus, it is impossible to entirely remove the observer from the experiment, or all subjectivity from knowledge. At its core, the universe remains somewhat unknowable, or inaccessible to rational inquiry. Scientific methodology has its limits.

While this may sound like a step backwards to a classical atheist, this degree of freedom at the heart of the universe is precisely why it won’t close in on us. As much as it wants to coalesce into one thing or another, the universe is constantly bouncing back from its centre into other aspects of itself. This indetermination is the engine of endless possibility and perpetual creation. It is the condition of free will we were looking for. And it gives consciousness an important role in the universe.

But there is of course a trade-off. In an uncertain universe, there is no way to take God head on. We can say that a certain kind of God is wrong. But we cannot discount the possibility that, from a certain observer standpoint, reality may appear personal.

Perhaps it will satisfy atheists that knocking down the 10 God-concepts above brings us to a position virtually indistinguishable from their own. It is past time to put theism and deism to rest. Humanity is outgrowing such childish ideas. But I'm not so sure we’re outgrowing God, as long as there is still mystery in the universe, an agitation at the back of our minds, and Infinity to deal with.

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Sheldon's picture
Atgeism is the lack or

Atheism is the lack or absence of belief in a deity. So why on earth would we form a notion of something we don't believe exists? It's a very silly question.

Also and for the umpteenth time atheists don't and can't "reject god" anymore than you reject unicorns. We simply don't believe deities are real.

Lastly atheism is the rejection of a claim or belief, and any arguments offerred in support of that belief. It does not therefore require an argument to justify it, anymore than you form separate arguments to justify your lack of belief in all the things you don't accept are real.

So just stop this nonsense and cut to the chase by demonstrating your best piece of objective evidence that a deity is real.

If you can't demonstrate any then Hitchens's razor applies, as anything that can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

I look forward to the usual reticence and evasion.

Mutorc S'yriah's picture
Absolutely Sheldon. It is not

Absolutely Sheldon. It is not for the atheist to disprove "God", it is for theists to prove "God" - if they can. Otherwise I remain a non-believer.

The OP gives a list of things he attributes to "God". So what ? We can attribute lists of things to Superman, but I don't believe in Superman as a real thing, and don't have to prove that there is no Superman, in order to say that I'm not going to believe that there is a real superman.

So, Peter Who, the things I can say about Superman are :-

1. Wears a neat suit with a cape.

2. Pretends to be a mild mannered reporter.

3. Leaps tall buildings in a single bound.

4. Stops steam trains by hand.

5. Hurt by kryptonite.

Yahoo ! So what ?

jonthecatholic's picture
I think the OP was getting at

I think the OP was getting at, for you to reject something, you’d have to know how it’s defined.

For example, if I told you flooplepods exist, your first reaction would be to ask what that is. It wouldn’t be to reject the idea completely. If I told you a flooplepod was some sort of genie, there’s something you can reasonably reject. But if I told you a flooplepod was some subatomic particle, you’d probably look into it more.

Sapporo's picture

False. The OP starts off from the assumption that god exists, then defines what god might be.

Sheldon's picture
"I think the OP was getting

"I think the OP was getting at, for you to reject something, you’d have to know how it’s defined."

No you don't, the person calming something is real defines it, if they can't do that, and offer sufficient evidence for the claim then we're done, Hitchens's razor - slash. Now, could you accurately define the invisible being I have in my garage please? Sadly i have no physical evidence, but I know it's real........off you go....don;t forget to offer proof it doesn't exist, and outline what evidence you'd need to believe it was real, also explain why when i prayed to it to make my headache go away it ceased almost immediately, how do you explain that without a miracle?

Dave Matson's picture


I wish you would spell out Hitchen's razor each time you use it. It would be a bit of a pain, but it is also so beautiful to look at!

Sheldon's picture
I will try it, but I was

I will try it, but I was looking for brevity, and trying to use the dismissive tone the razor states is justified for things preseneted as bare claims without evidence.

Here's some background anyway.

The concept is named, echoing Occam's razor, for the journalist and writer Christopher Hitchens, who in a 2003 Slate article formulated it thus: "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence".The dictum also appears in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, a book by Hitchens published in 2007.

Hitchens's razor is actually an English translation of the Latin proverb "Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur" ("What is freely asserted is freely dismissed"), which was commonly used in the 19th century. It takes a stronger stance than the Sagan standard ("Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"), instead applying to even non-extraordinary claims.

The razor states that: "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence".

Sapporo's picture
It is clear from the OP's

It is clear from the OP's extensive post that they have no evidence for god. It is not clear what need they have of god however.

mykcob4's picture

I read the first part of your post and ignored the rest. The reason is it is too long and from what I read was illogical and pure nonsense. Atheists don't have a concept of any god. You clearly don't know anything about atheism or atheists.
It's clear that you are indulging in the christian practice of redefining so that the definition will fit your narrative. It is presumptuous and arrogant for you to speak for atheists, especially since you don't know what you are talking about.
I have no idea why you even came to this site. Your OP is worthless inane and childish. It smacks of a condescending little child.

Jared Alesi's picture
Rejection of the existence of

Rejection of the existence of a god does not stem from any idea about said god, but rather from a lack of compelling evidence for his existence. I am not an atheist because God is cruel or vain or inept, or because he is anything; I am an atheist because I am simply not convinced he exists at all. Let me put it to you this way:

I dislike the principles taught by white supremacists. I find that they are inhumane, cruel, and far too conceited and ethnocentric to coexist with civilized society. However, I don't doubt their existence. I know they exist, because I see them everyday in the news and in my school and home town. It works the same way with a god; their views and principles do not determine their existence, the evidence for their existence does. And gods have no evidence so far, so I'm not holding my breath.

zoolady's picture
I don't ''believe'' in Santa,

I don't ''believe'' in Santa, the boogeyman, the tooth fairy or the big sky buddy. That's about it.

mickron88's picture
"You clearly don't know

"You clearly don't know anything about atheism or atheists."

myk looks like somebody didn't do his homework before going to war-zone..

or he's one of what we call "the pass-byrs"???

mykcob4's picture

Yep Quasi I was just about to say that.

Sapporo's picture
Something does not become

Something does not become true or profound by making it mysterious, vague, obscure, or generally undefined. Claiming that god is the mystery in the universe is just pure bullshit.

David Killens's picture
I did not reject god, I did

I did not reject god, I did not find enough evidence to support any belief.

@PeterWho nice attempt at painting your definition of an atheist into a corner. But since your knowledge of atheism is so lacking and incorrect, your statement is pure hog droppings.

There is no requirement for any god for this universe to exist and function.

Tin-Man's picture
Well, Pete, I'm afraid you

Well, Pete, I'm afraid you need to be more specific. Could you please specify which particular god? Because some gods are WAAAAAAY cooler than others. And there are a few who are just total dicks. For example, Odin is pretty cool. With that eye patch and his two pet crows and his "burly" attitude, he strikes me as a very interesting dude. If he were real, I may even respect him to some degree. (Never worship, though.) The Morrigan is a real bad-ass, and she would definitely be worthy of respect if she were real. Oh, and let's not forget about Loki. Yeah, he may be mischievous and chaotic, but those are actually traits I admire sometimes. Nothing wrong with having a little fun now and then, right? Sure, they may have their flaws, but they are aware of their own limitations, and they at least treat everybody equally. So, while I would not worship any of them, they would at least earn some of my respect.

On the less-than-honorable side of the coin, however, even IF the god depicted in the bible were somehow proven to be real, it is an entity I could never respect, much less worship. You see, I have a real problem with insecure, egotistical, narcissistic, chauvinistic, racist bullies. Never liked them. Same goes for the Allah and his trusty sidekick Mohammed. Too narrow-minded and - in some cases - just bat-shit crazy.

So, hope that helps you a little. However, as I said, there are many thousands of different gods from which to choose. Therefore, you might want to narrow down the choices for the sake of a more productive discussion. May the Force be with you..... always.

arakish's picture
"Because some gods are

"Because some gods are WAAAAAAY cooler than others."

You got that right. You should hear what my god has to say what we should do with the theists...


Cognostic's picture
The atheist idea of God is

The atheist idea of God is exactly the same as the Christian idea of God. Do you believe in Zeus, Lord Krishna, Marduk, Osiris, Horus, Baal, Uranus, Aries, Brahman, Quetzalcoatl, Woden, Shiva, Vishnu, Angwusnasomtaka, Jupiter, Odin, Komi, Kumarbi, Cronus, or any of the millions of dead and gone Gods?

That's exactly how Atheists think of your version of God.

LogicFTW's picture
Reminds me of a good quote

Reminds me of a good quote that goes along the lines of:
"Atheist and most theist are almost exactly the same, the only small difference is atheist believe in just one less god then most theist do."

The: "many different religions thing" was actually the first (of many) concepts that made me reject all religions, even as a young kid.

algebe's picture
@Peterwho: What is the

@Peterwho: What is the atheist's idea of God?

To borrow the words of Bokonon, the founder of the imaginary religion invented by Kurt Vonnegut, to see god, "just remove the skin of a toy balloon."

In other words, god is a loud noise from a bag of wind inflated by hot air from the mouths of puffed up blowhards.

Tin-Man's picture
Hey, Algebe, I finally found

Hey, Algebe, I finally found that book and am in the process of reading it now.

chimp3's picture
I don't believe in gods

I don't believe in gods because I don't believe the believers.

ZeffD's picture
Religionists are atheists too

Religionists are atheists too, regarding the god(s) of other religions.
Obviously religionists (not non-believers) must define their own god(s).
Peter's confusion of mind is more eloquent than his words.

arakish's picture
Your Question: What is the

Your Question: What is the atheist's idea of God?

My Answer: What's a god?


Sky Pilot's picture
What's the point of the OP?

What's the point of the OP?

Dave Matson's picture


God sellers are a little like vacuum cleaner salesmen. Years ago vacuum salesmen actually came to your door and were all too happy to demonstrate the value of their goods. The only difference is that God sellers open their box and you don't see anything in it! Nothing in their sales pitch convinces you that there is anything in that box, so you refuse to buy their god product. The housewife, who usually answered the door in those days, is under no obligation to prove that there is nothing in that box! The burden is on the shoulders of the god salesmen to make a convincing sales pitch, and for us atheists that means compelling evidence. No evidence, no sale!

Many atheists also offer positive arguments against god-belief. What is the nature of their target you ask? It is usually the god-description of the believer being addressed. For example, if conservative Christians are being addressed, then it is the god of the literal Bible that is the target. If a more liberal Christian is being addressed, then the target may be little more than the idea of a god having the usual omni-powers, a god who supposedly created the universe and has an interest in Homo sapiens. In this case the atheist has the burden of proof, but he need only show that he has the best argument by a fair margin. That is, he proves his case beyond a reasonable doubt; there is no logical requirement to address every loophole. A rebuttal must do more than cite a loophole; it must show that the loophole is a better argument (at least close) than the one offered by the atheist. Certainty in reasoning applies only to mathematics and other systems of pure logic. In the real world there are always loopholes to the best arguments.

Kataclismic's picture


Scripture would seem to be the atheists' greatest authority on God. They are very fond of citing it.

You can't seriously attack the atheist's use of scripture as an authority on your god without giving some other method of your authority. There are hundreds of different versions of the bible but without at least one of them what would you know about your god? You would know in your heart there is one? I'm sure you would... but why would I believe it existed outside your heart?

Sushisnake's picture
Well, I read the title, I

Well, I read the title, I read the paragraph that had this bit in it; "The decision to reject God..." and I just skimmed the rest. Not because it was too long, but because a quick glance told me it was just the same old same old apologists have served up time and again, literally for millennia, right down to the bible quotes- proselytisation as proof.

@Peter - I didn't reject god. I'd have to believe in god to reject god. Rejection's something I reserve for real beings, like I rejected my biological father for being a dead beat dad and savage wife beater, all those years ago. See how it works? Real bad guy=rejection; not-real bad guy = not-belief. I don't believe in Lex Luther and/or the Joker, either.

It's kind of a shame you chose to start your very long post with the god rejection fallacy. You blew your credibility with me before you got out of the starting gate. Perhaps you'll take my criticism on board and drop the fallacy from your repertoire in future.

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