Social critic and author G.K. Chesterton famously said, “It there were not God, there would be no atheists.” The quote observes the great irony that what most marks atheist thought is a strenuous objection to God, and that there would be nothing to distinguish them if there was nothing to oppose. Yet a recent article I read suggests that in fact atheist claims not to believe in God are mostly a pretense. Deep down, everyone believes in God.

In 2011, Oxford University completed a three-year international study that incorporated 40 different studies by 57 researchers across 20 countries with wide-ranging belief systems, including Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, and atheist. It found a universal predisposition to believe in God, in divine purpose for life, and in an afterlife, even among atheists. This was revealed by the fact that most atheists have prayed at least once when faced with death or illness, and many believe in some kind of continued existence of the mind after death even while denying the existence of God or the soul. For example, Mark Twain, who was openly skeptical about faith and Christianity in particular, once admitted that he had prayed when a loved one was ill: “I prayed like a coward; I prayed like a dog.” Sigmund Freud argued that religion is a coping mechanism we create as a response to the harsh realities of life, but the study suggests that if most people already believe in something, these harsh realities reveal rather than cause belief. If there exists an overwhelming urge to believe in a higher power or plane of living, the study concludes, suppression of the religious instinct is futile and will always be short-lived.

This tendency to believe in something outside ourselves is nothing new. It is well known and documented in ancient literature and philosophy. It’s what Jean Calvin called the sensus divinitatis or sense of the divine. Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, and Pythagoras all taught a belief in God, but for different reasons, whether the need for a perfect being, a cause for all motion, the source of reason, or mathematical certainty. The Apostle Paul wrote, “the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” In other words, everyone has a sense of the divine simply by observing the universe, which not only inspires awe and wonder but also implies a plan or purpose. This is the thesis of Perry Marshall’s Evolution 2.0, which argues for intelligent design based on the complexity of genetic coding. It is impossible that the instructions in our DNA could have evolved any more than a computer with its thousands of components and millions of lines of code could have appeared by chance. Everyone senses that the complexity of life makes the existence of a Creator even more likely.

Why, then, do so many atheists deny the existence of God if it is self-evident? With the vast majority of atheists I have known, it was the result of a great trauma that made them doubt the goodness of God or a purpose for the universe. For example, they lost loved ones in a tragic and seemingly random accident. They prayed for a sick relative not to die, and they believed their prayers were not answered. They were mistreated, raped, or racially persecuted and afterwards associated belief in God with their oppressors. It was then they fell prey to other atheists, who evangelize as heartily as any Bible-thumper their belief in scientism and a random and hostile nature. Others are taught by their relatives not to believe – there is atheist indoctrination just as there is Christian. In any case, very few atheists start off as skeptics. They have to convince themselves not to believe in God against their better judgment.

The study concluded that the sense of the divine does not prove the existence of God. Or, as pastor Tim Keller argued, “That involuntary reflex is not evidence for skeptics of the existence of God. It’s actually evidence from God against the existence of skeptics.” Yet the existence of a drive within all of us to turn to God is exactly what we would expect from a God who is constantly calling us to a deeper relationship. If we are honest, we will recognize this call within ourselves. It is why so many turn to religion when things are going badly, no matter what they happen to believe. This does not resolve all of the theological issues that atheists often raise, such as when prayers are not answered, when bad things happen to good people, or when faith and science seem in conflict. Even believers struggle with these issues, but that does not keep them from returning to belief. The call within us to believe remains strong.

One of my favorite sayings is that an atheist is just a proud agnostic. In other words, there are no atheists in the end. People claim not to believe in God when really they only doubt His existence, which they cannot prove one way or the other. All of us have doubts, but that doesn’t keep us from believing in God at some level. It’s why we turn to God when there is no other hope, whatever we may claim to believe. Sensing this call is the first step in recognizing that maybe there is a God, and that deep down this is something we all want to believe.

© 2023 J.D. Manders


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