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04 August 2016

Nontheism: When pagans don’t believe in God.

Most people believe in God. Now let’s discuss the tiny minority who don’t.

Nontheist /'nɑn.θi.ɪst/ adj., n. Believes no such thing as God, gods, a universal spirit, a universal intelligence, nor a supernatural higher power, exists. (A catchall term for atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and others who are skeptical of God and religion.)
[Nontheism /'nɑn.θi.ɪz.əm/ n.]

Y’know, for the first couple centuries of Christianity, we Christians were called atheist.

See, the Greco-Roman pagans believed in gods. Lots of gods. Not just the all the gods, titans, demigods, and demons in the Greco-Roman pantheon: They accepted the gods of other pantheons too. They didn’t presume they knew them all, so whenever they encountered an unfamiliar god, they’d accept it. Sometimes they added it to their pantheon, as we can tell by the fact they had multiple gods of war (Ares, Athena, Enyo, Polemos), the sun (Apollo, Helios, Hyperion), and the moon (Achelois, Artemis, Selene, Phoebe). Other times they figured it was one of their existing gods under a local name, like how Latin-speakers referred to Zeus as Deo Pater/“Father God” (which of course got contracted to Jupiter). When the Greeks first encountered the Egyptian god Amun-Ra, they figured he was just the local version of Helios. They also tried to pull the same stunt with our LORD, and claim he’s the Jewish version of Zeus, but the Maccabees objected rather vigorously to that idea.

Anywho, the Greco-Romans believed there were gods everywhere—whereas Christians and Jews only have the One. Those other beings the pagans considered “gods” weren’t gods at all: They were made-up deities, perpetuated by scam-artist priests with the help of devils. You know, like atheists nowadays claim about our God (but without devils in the explanation; the part about devils. To the pagans, it’s like we didn’t believe in any god—’cause we sure wouldn’t accept any of their gods.

So if you imagine Christians and nontheists are opposites: Not really. When it comes to other gods, like Zeus and Odin and Amun-Ra, we don’t believe in them either. We think it’s just as silly or wrong, unhealthy or dangerous, to follow and worship such beings, as nontheists. In that, we’re on the same side.

But obviously we really disagree about YHWH/“Jehovah”/“the LORD,” the one true God and father of Christ Jesus.

Not a lot of them.

In a 2014 survey, 7.1 percent of the United States’ population specifically identifies as nontheist: 3.1 percent call themselves atheist (are firm there’s no God), and 4 percent call themselves agnostic (doubt there’s any God).

I know: Talk to any Christian apologist, and most of their time and study is spent preparing to debate atheists. Even though one out of every five non-Christians they meet is pagan, who don’t bother to affiliate with any religion. Apologists worry the unaffiliated are nontheist, but bear in mind these folks refused that label. They do believe in God or gods; just not as Christians do. They don’t have to be convinced of God’s existence; only that Jesus is the way. But apologists wastefully aim the bulk of their time, study, and resources at nontheists. (It’s another of the reasons apologists suck at evangelism.)

Don’t get me wrong: Nontheism’s a problem. Christian apologists will insist it’s a growing one, because there are a growing number of nontheist apologists in the mass media. Most people falsely assume if people are speaking about it more often, and more zealously, there must therefore be more. But in the United States, nontheism’s actually a shrinking problem. Previous surveys found 9 percent of Americans considered themselves nontheist. True, the population’s greater, so the number of nontheists in total is greater. True, there’s a definite increase in unaffiliated pagans. But the percentage of nontheists is trending downward. Outspokenness isn’t winning ’em converts. (Just the opposite: Most of the outspoken ones are real jerks. Who’d wanna join that team?)

Outside North America, nontheism is more widespread. Fr’instance France: A whopping 47 percent of their population considers itself atheist or agnostic. But Europe’s growing Muslim population is whittling away at that: Nontheism is also on the decline in that subcontinent.

That’s why nontheist apologists are getting loud: They’re seeing their numbers shrink, and are shrieking in alarm. The reality is way more humans have God-experiences than not, and the rest of us find his existence more plausible than not.

If this is the case, why are there still nontheists?

Don’t believe in that god.

Why are nontheists so sure God’s not there?

If you’re dealing with an intellectually honest atheist—and yes, there are many—they admit they don’t entirely know there’s no God. ’Cause logically, we can’t declare “There’s no such thing as [unlikely item or being] in the universe.” It’s a big universe! No finite being can have comprehensive knowledge of everything and everyone in it. We can’t know an item doesn’t exist, in some strange form, on some unknown world. Nontheists are simply betting there’s no God. To them, it seems a safe and reasonable bet.

Why? Well, to your average nontheist (and your average pagan and Christian, for that matter), their idea of God is the pop-culture image: An old bearded guy who lives in the sky, looks down on humanity, and doles out blessings or punishments in an arbitrary way. It’s not actually based on the LORD. For the most part it’s derived from Odin or Zeus. Nontheists look at the way popular culture describes God, and reasonably concludes, “Well, that can’t be right.”

A lot of parents did a rubbish job of religious instruction. Their kids noticed full well their parents claimed to believe in God, but had nothing to do with him, and taught their kids nothing. My grandparents, fr’instance—on both sides, but I’ll focus on Dad’s parents. Claimed they believed in God, but taught Dad nothing, figuring he’d make up his own mind when he was old enough. And he did: He chose atheism. The “God” popular culture taught him—’cause my grandparents taught him nothing—sounded ridiculous. His insistence on moral behavior kept getting in the way of Dad’s dirty fun. So out he went.

Dad’s testimony: One day he dared God—if God was even there—to strike him down with lightning. God didn’t, so Dad figures this confirms his unbelief. He’s been atheist ever since.

“That’s Zeus,” I objected when Dad first told me this story. “You got the wrong god. Of course he did nothing.”

That’s every nontheist’s problem: Wrong god! Both pagans and nontheists wanna knock the idea of the “old bearded guy in the sky”—and they’re surprised I totally agree with them. I don’t believe in the old bearded guy either! They suspect I’m trying to trick ’em; I’m really not. I don’t accept ridiculous ideas about a fictitious God either. Nor any of the other inaccurate, fruitless, stupid ways pagans and Christians alike get God wrong. I believe the LORD is, as Christ Jesus and his apostles and prophets describe him. Those nontheists are looking for God in the wrong direction; of course they can’t see him. They put God to the test, but their tests are looney, and of course God won’t play along. Why would he strike down someone he loves, and wants to save?

Whenever I hear nontheists describe God, it’s clear they've not heard him described properly. Usually he’s the Calvinist interpretation, who’s secretly evil and doesn’t really give a crap about humanity. He’s all about glorifying himself, and humans are expendable. Understandably, nontheists don’t wanna worship or believe in that God; he’s a royal dick. I agree with them: That guy doesn’t exist. God is love.

Quite often God’s described as legalistic in a way really popular in Fundamentalist and cultic circles—the big bully in the sky who’s planning to smite most of us because we’re just not good enough for him. Just as often he’s the Santa Claus version of God, as proclaimed by the prosperity gospel: Believe really hard and he’ll give you whatever you wish. But these nontheists stopped believing in magic and Santa long ago. So did I.

Each of these false ideas tip you off to the sort of wayward Christians these nontheists know. Sometimes grew up with. They taught of a defective God, and the nontheists rightly rejected the idea. But whereas Christians will reject the bad idea, but not God, nontheists figure God’s the bad idea, and throw out the baby with the bathwater. “There’s probably no God, so relax and enjoy your life.”

Share the real God.

As I said, Christian apologists spend a bunch of time preparing to debate nontheists. Likewise nontheist apologists—yes, there are nontheist apologists!—spend a bunch of time preparing to debate theists. So if you wanna debate them, I should warn you: They’ve learned all your arguments. They’re ready for you with counter-arguments. If you haven’t learned them, man are you in for a pounding.

But I don’t bother with apologetics. I do testimonies. And it makes nontheists nuts when I do that. ’Cause they went to all the trouble of learning these clever arguments, and here I go sharing personal experiences—which they don’t know how to challenge or debate.

You remember how I began this article by pointing out Christians are atheist when it comes to other gods. One of the nontheists’ favorite tactics is to show us Christians how all our arguments against pagan gods can be turned right around and applied to the LORD. Some years ago, one of ’em challenged me to give him five reasons why I believe in the LORD as opposed to the Norse god Thor. (Apart from the comic books, of course.) Fine; challenge accepted.

  1. Thor never spoke to me—then later confirmed he spoke, through someone else who likewise heard him.
  2. Thor never told me something would happen before it did. (And no self-fulfilling prophecies either. Those never count.)
  3. Thor never sent me prophets, who told me things uniquely related to my own life.
  4. Thor never healed me, nor my relatives, of illness—in a way doctors can’t adequately explain, nor seconds after I prayed.
  5. Thor has no moral teachings I can follow. He’s a feudal god: You follow him ’cause he’s mightiest. (Although he’s destined to lose the battle of Ragnarök, so he’s actually not mightiest.)

Y’see, most Christian apologists try to explain God through logical deduction, so that’s what nontheists are prepared to challenge. But my belief in God isn’t based on deducing him, but experiencing him. I don’t need to logically defend the existence of my mom (though I can; my navel is evidence I was umbilically attached to someone) because I know Mom. Same deal with God. I’ve convincingly experienced him. They haven’t (or think they haven’t) and assume their non-experiences are universal. They don’t know how to argue I haven’t really experienced God—at least, not without sounding like condescending jerks. (“Okay, I concede you think you met God…” Gee, what a nice way of implying I’m delusional. Does it sound like a compliment if I “concede you think you’re open-minded”?)

There’s no logical reason to argue with nontheists. Nor learn to argue with them more effectively. In fact it runs a way greater chance of alienating them, so if your goal was to share the good news, you failed big-time. You made it bad news.

Plus if they’re willing to debate you, they’re dead-set in their convictions. You won’t convince them. If you have a more clever argument than they, they’ll simply put your debate on pause, go find a better argument than yours, and come back at you with it. ’Cause that’s precisely what you’d do. Don’t be naïve.

But if you have real, authentic God-experiences, any nontheist who wants a debate will quickly realize they can’t win. Unless they’re dense; I’ve met one or two. Most of ’em are bright enough to realize you know what you saw and heard, Ac 4.20 and all their arguments to the contrary won’t make a dent. ’Cause it stopped being a debate about theory: Now the question is whether you’re lying or delusional. (So I hope to goodness you’re honest and sane!) But if we really had those God-experiences, they have no leg to stand on. All they know, and can prove, is they haven’t had those experiences. Yet.

So when you share Jesus with nontheists, do the same thing as you’d do with anyone: Share your stories of how God shows up as you follow him. Testimonies are way better than arguments. Way less hostile. Way more fruitful.