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The impossibility of atheism

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 29 January 2009

Since there are many who profess to be atheists and that three academics and a prominent journalist have recently come out with books underlining their case to be so, the title of this article does seem to be mere wishful thinking. The solution to this lies in the definition of atheism, or rather, the definition of the God that atheists do not believe in. I have not read any of the recent books that attack belief in God because I sense that they say nothing new. I sense that the God that is held up to ridicule is the same old tired product of the modern age obsessed as it has been with the material world.

When our attention turned to the physical world, under the stimulus of the early scientists, the question arose as to how God fitted into this new world of mechanism. For example, if God was omnipresent, ubiquitous, then he must be extended since he must fill all of space. God then became very much like the fine substance that the stoics thought filled all space, very much like the ether that was eventually proved not to exist. If God was the ether, the medium by which gravity wrought its attractive forces, then God must have some kind of body even if an immaterial body.

This produced problems as Thomas Hobbes pointed out, it is a contradiction in terms to say that there is any such thing as an immaterial body or substance. This was one of the ways in which modern atheism came to exist. If God was some kind of body then His existence could be proved or disproved.


Of course, those on the side of God’s existence pointed to the marvellous complexity of the universe, of nature and the human body which produced the argument from design much loved of creationists. But that only made matters worse because this made God necessary for the existence and order of the world and again God became trapped in mechanism.

This was a sure sign that this God was not the God that Christians worshipped because his entrapment in necessity robbed him of his freedom. Darwin’s theory of evolution was the nail in the coffin of an already disreputable theory. Indeed, scientists all over the world are able to describe and explain natural phenomenon from black holes to the smallest microbe without having to bring God into the question.

So, it seems that the atheists have it all their own way. There is no evidence that God exists as some supernatural personality or substance necessary for the origin or continual working of the world. We must say that this kind of God is indeed dead and on this count modern atheism is undeniable.

However, just as the early Christians were accused of atheism because they refused to give homage to the gods of the Greeks or the Romans, modern day Christians can similarly be accused of atheism because they do not believe in the God delivered to us by 17th and 18th century scientists/theologians.

My argument is that the God that the atheists do not believe in is not the God that Christians worship, but rather an idol of our own making or unmaking.

Jesus says in the gospel of John, “Who has seen me has seen the Father”. During Christmas we are reminded that God has been born a vulnerable child for whom no room was found in society, whose life was threatened by the vicissitudes of history and who died the death of an outsider. This produced a profound crisis in the theism of the ancient world. God could no longer be likened to the playful and envious gods of the Greeks or the civil gods of Rome. The God that Christians worshipped was all powerful but his power was shown in weakness. In the dereliction of the cross God transformed the world.


The failure of atheism to appreciate this is a failure to distance ourselves from the paganising of Christianity; the continuing tendency to see God in Greek or Roman terms. God transforms the world not by controlling the orbits of the planets or even holding each electron in place, but by exposing human beings for what they are, well intentioned, maybe, but essentially driven by desire and fear. For it was desire and fear that placed the man Jesus on the cross. In judging him, we judged ourselves and the scales fell from our eyes.

All of the old attributes of God, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence must now be interpreted not from the a priori of philosophy but from the biblical witness of how God acts. The first thing to be said here is that God acts in the bible in the form of the Trinitarian persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Pauline blessing: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” reveals how the three persons act in the world. These acts are interdependent. Jesus displays the love of God in his graciousness in the power of the Spirit. The Son and the Spirit have been called the two hands of God by which he acts in the world. Christian speech about God is essentially Trinitarian and is quite different from pagan speech about God.

My point is that modern expressions of atheism are an objection not to the Christian God, who escapes their criticism, but an objection to paganism. All we Christians can say is “welcome”, we have been doing that for 2,000 years!

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Key insights to this article were gained from Colin Gunton’s Act and being which is highly recommended.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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