Nontheism: When pagans don’t believe in God.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 September
NONTHEIST 'nɑn.θi.ɪst adjective. 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 noun.]

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

See, Greco-Roman pagans believed in gods. Lots of gods. Not just their own gods—and the titans, demigods, and daemons in the Greco-Roman pantheon. They also accepted the existence of the gods of other pantheons. They didn’t presume they knew them all. So whenever they encountered an unfamiliar god, they accepted it. Even added it to their pantheon, which is why they had multiple gods of the sun (Apollo, Helios, Hyperion) and war (Ares, Athena, Enyo, Polemos).

Sometimes they figured it was just one of their gods with a different name: The Latins worshiped a Deo Pater/“Father God” (which later got contracted to Jupiter), and the Greeks presumed this was just Zeus with a Latin alias… and over time this became what the Latins believed too. The Greeks did the same with the Egyptians’ Amun-Ra; they figured he was just what Egyptians called Helios. (The Seleucids tried to pull this with our LORD, claimed he was just the Jewish version of Zeus, and tried to put a Zeus statue in the temple. The Maccabees objected rather vigorously to that idea.)

So the Greco-Romans believed there were gods everywhere. Whereas Christians and Jews have only the One, and believe the beings pagans consider “gods” aren’t gods at all. Either they’re devils pretending to be divine, or they’re the made-up gods of scam-artist priests. You know, like atheists nowadays claim about our God. (But without devils in their explanations, ’cause they don’t believe in any spirits, including evil ones.) To the ancient pagans, rejecting all their gods felt kinda like Christians didn’t believe in any god.

So if you imagine Christians and nontheists are opposites: Not really. Because both Christians and nontheists don’t believe in Zeus, Odin, and Amun-Ra. We likewise reject the divinity of Krishna, Olodumare, the Horned God, and any other pagan deities. We think it’s wrong, unhealthy, silly, or dangerous, to follow and worship such beings—same as nontheists! In that, we’re on the same side.

Where we differ is we do worship YHWH/“Jehovah”/“the LORD,” the one true God and father of Christ Jesus. Nontheists simply lump him together with all the other gods, and reject him too.

Not a lot of them.

The Pew Forum regularly tries to gauge the religious temperature of the United States, and in their 2019 survey they determined about 9 percent of Americans consider themselves either atheist or agnostic. Atheists firmly believe there’s no God; agnostics simply doubt God, or any godlike being, exists. As for the 17 percent of Americans who consider themselves of no religious affiliation or practice at all, they won’t go so far as to claim they’re nontheist… but functionally a lot of ’em are.

Now. When you talk to any Christian apologist, you’ll notice most of their time and study is spent in preparation to debate atheists.

I know. Even though one out of every five pagans they meet is really just unaffiliated: They do believe in God, kinda. They’re just not Christian. Apologists worry all these unaffiliated people are also nontheist… but bear in mind these folks refused to call themselves atheist or agnostic. Nobody has to convince them 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 reason apologists suck at evangelism.)

Don’t get me wrong: Nontheism’s an actual problem. Christian apologists will insist it’s a growing one, because there are a growing number of zealous nontheist apologists in the mass media. Most people falsely assume if people are speaking about it more often, and more vigorously, there must therefore be more. And in the United States, nontheism is a growing group. Five percent of Americans called themselves nontheist in 2009; 9 percent in 2019. But the much greater issue is unaffiliated pagans—people who do believe in God, but don’t believe in Jesus. But the percentage of nontheists isn’t growing all that quickly. Outspokenness isn’t winning people over to nontheism. In fact it’s the opposite: Most of the outspoken ones are real jerks. (Who’d wanna join that team?)

Outside North America, nontheism is far 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. Lots of ’em presume religion is just a phase humanity has to go through, and grow out of, and then we’ll be as enlightened as they. But they’re not seeing humanity grow out of religion. They see fluctuations. They see atheist friends quit their cause and become agnostic, or even Christian. It’s making ’em shriek 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.

Since 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 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 do a rubbish job of religious instruction. Their kids notice their parents claim to believe in God, but have nothing to do with him. They teach their kids nothing. My grandparents, fr’instance—on both sides, but I’ll focus on Dad’s parents. Claimed they kinda believed in God, but didn’t care about him any, didn’t follow him any, and taught Dad nothing. They figured he’d make up his own mind eventually. And he did: He chose atheism. The “God” popular culture taught him—’cause my grandparents were no help—sounds ridiculous. His insistence on moral behavior kept getting in the way of Dad’s dirty fun. So Dad rejected the idea as stupid, and doesn’t believe in God.

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 doesn’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 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 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 plans 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 ideas 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 authentic 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 know 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 it. ’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. Nontheists 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 is to share good news, you failed big-time. You turned it into 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.