Theism, Reloaded

You can theorize on the fence, but you can’t live there.
on Nov 12, 2013 · No comments

Tintoretto AllegoryLast week, in the comments of my post, a debate arose concerning theistic vs. atheistic as being analogous to morality vs. amorality. Notleia kicked it off with the following comment:

And I have to disagree with amorality being a type of morality. That’s a little like saying that atheism is a kind of religion. (Clarification: atheism is not a religion.)

I mostly watched that side of the discussion unfold, evaluating my thoughts on the matter. A realization hit me and I wrote a response. By the time I finished, I had a full blog post, so decided save it for this week.

I agree that atheism is not a religion, in any organized sense like Christianity or Taoism. It is, however, a belief system for those who hold to it. They hold to a belief that God doesn’t exist. While it is in the negative, it still puts forth a truth proposition: no matter how long man looks, he will never find proof positive that God exists. They will base this belief upon different evidences they believe point to it, which they feel are compelling.

I don’t think the theistic equivalent of amorality is atheist, but agnostic.

Amorality says there are no morals, because I cannot know whether a value is good or bad, right or wrong for myself, much less anyone else. Agnosticism says we cannot currently know whether God exists or not. The antithesis of belief isn’t unbelief, but “I don’t know.”

The truth is there is some agnosticism in all of us. That is, in human knowledge and logic, we cannot prove with 100% certainty that X or not X is true. Human knowledge is incomplete. Every philosophy or theology devised by man breaks down at some point. Every argument for or against the existence of God contains logical holes.

While those arguments may carry us part way toward knowing, it is always a degree of probability. There is always the possibility we are wrong, understood wrong, misinterpreted, don’t have all the relevant data. Because we are not God, because we are limited humans, we can never know anything with 100% degree of certainty.

But practically we have to live one way or the other. I can say in the end I don’t know with my human knowledge that God exists without a doubt, but it is by faith that Christ is who He claims to be, that I leap over that doubt and live believing that He does exist. Another agnostic, however, takes the bet by faith that Jesus and the testimony in Scripture is wrong, that God doesn’t exist, because he lives his life as if God doesn’t exist.

Those who claim the label of agnostic are so in theory, but practically are atheist.

How we live our lives doesn’t allow us the luxury of sitting on the fence. It forces us to live one way or the other using a step of faith in who or what we will believe or not believe in.

Likewise, if I were to break into a house of someone who claims to believe in a form of amoralism, steal their stuff and kill their kids, I’ll bet that person would suddenly find morals that I should be living by.

You can theorize on the fence, but you can’t live there.

That’s what I’m getting at with fiction. The characters are living lives, making choices. The consequences or lack of them generally create a moral order in that world no matter whether the author espouses a morality or doesn’t believe one exists. The story will still communicate a morality that readers pick up on and see in the story, consciously or unconsciously.

Amorality and agnosticism are cognitive realities, but not living realities. Belief one lives by always requires an element of faith, whether by choice or by default.

Who or what does your life show you are placing or not placing your faith in?


As a young teen, R. L. Copple played in his own make-believe world, writing the stories and drawing the art for his own comics while experiencing the worlds of other authors like Tolkien, Lewis, Asimov, and Lester Del Ray. As an adult, after years of writing devotionally, he returned to the passion of his youth in order to combine his fantasy worlds and faith into the reality of the printed page. Since then, his imagination has given birth to The Reality Chronicles trilogy from Splashdown Books, and The Virtual Chronicles series, Ethereal Worlds Anthology, and How to Make an Ebook: Using Free Software from Ethereal Press, along with numerous short stories in various magazines.Learn more about R. L and his work at any of the following:Author Website, Author Blog, or Author Store.
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  1. David James says:

    If you don’t think Atheism is getting more organized, then you should look at this article here –

    • R. L. Copple says:

      Interesting. Of course that movement is only a tiny segment of atheist, of recent origin, and is more a club than a church. Whereas in Christianity, the default understanding is to “not forsake the assembling of yourselves together” because we are doing more than being a club. We are worshiping God as one Body. Among atheist, there is no such motivation. It is by far not the default practice. As the article states, they are not getting together to worship anything, but for what some of them miss about church, minus the belief.

      Other atheist have had clubs around things like science fiction, secular studies, science in general, etc. This isn’t much different. Just because they make it have the trappings of church doesn’t make it an “organized religion.” This group represents a tiny segment of atheist. Atheism is a long ways from being organized. It is, however, a belief system.

      Incidentally, this illustrates what is wrong about a lot of modern worship services. The focus tends to be on fellowship, singing, improving yourself, having fun, instead of on the worship of God and uniting to Him. Not that those things are all bad or should be thrown out, but those are not the reasons we’re organized. But our focus on those things, practically communicates “this is why we are here” and can make our purpose not much different than the atheist “church service” the article talks about.

  2. Julie D says:

    My environmental science class pointed out that science cannot 100% prove anything, but it can bring so much evidence that something is highly unlikely. A similar fact applies to “theories.”

  3. Literaturelady says:

    I love what you said here: “…if I were to break into a house of someone who claims to believe in a form of amoralism, steal their stuff, and kill their kids, I’ll bet that person would suddenly find morals that I should be living by.”

    Great article! I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future!


  4. notleia says:

    To expand on literary amoralism, it shows up most in deterministic and naturalistic things, like Frank Norris or Jack London. Cormac McCarthy has a deterministic flavor. Usually the center of the amorality is Nature, as a Big, Faceless Entity, the biggest honey badger to never give a ****. Help each other to survive? It don’t care. Bash your neighbor over the head with a rock and steal his stuff? It don’t care.

    • No one who’s spent more than a day at a time in the great outdoors can deny that nature’s red in tooth and claw. Moreover, it’s shamelessly red. Animals don’t feel guilty after slaughtering each other in their endless quest to survive and reproduce. They aren’t capable of overriding their instincts. But if an author simply stops after making such observations, if he or she digs no further, thus allowing the amorality of nature to color the thematic substance of a novel, then moral statements are indeed being made: ‘survival is the ultimate morality,’ ‘might makes right,’ ‘the ends really do justify the means.’

      The point that R.L. Copple is making, with which I agree, is that it’s impossible for people to exist — or even spend time — in a moral vacuum. We were created as spiritual beings, and will be held to account for every careless word we speak. When it comes to morality, there can be no neutrality. It stalks us as implacably as a shadow cast by God. Whatever we touch, we inevitably suck into the moral sphere. Though nature itself is amoral, those people who attempt to use it as a ward against morality just end up becoming enslaved to the desires of their own flesh, that part of themselves most akin to nature. There’s no ticket out. For human beings, morality is everywhere.

      • notleia says:

        Yeah, it’s easiest to phrase it in human/inhuman terms, but the Faceless Entity of Indifferent Nature doesn’t promote one system of morality over another. Most people do subscribe to a moral code even without a religion (most atheists are humanists), so while we may conclude that people have moral codes, there still is the question of which one. After all, amorality and relativism aren’t the same thing.

    • R. L. Copple says:

      I’ve not read those authors. I can see where they’d make that connection, especially from a secular perspective that man is just an animal, an extension of nature as it has evolved.

      Problem with that view is that nature is amoral because it isn’t an individual with the ability to decide to go one way or the other. Most animals don’t either, operating on instinct and passions rather than a conscious decision. But man can. To make those decisions, he must base it upon some sort of value system. That, in essence, is morality. It is the value system upon which one bases their decisions.

      Which is why I said, in theory, one can talk about amorality. But one cannot live it. Because life is about making value-based decisions on many levels. If one refuses to make them, they end up choosing one by default.

      • notleia says:

        I’m not questioning the substance of your argument, but I think those perspectives color the issue. Mankind has animal aspects, though the realists/naturalists (my bad, the name of the movement was Realism, and it incorporated determinism) took a rather Hobbesian view of the individual, “nasty, brutish.” There’s a lot to debate in those ideas, but it doesn’t come from nowhere. There’s something rather Hobbesian about the idea of the “fallen, sinful nature of man,” though nowadays I hear it used in a more pitying context than as a condemnation.
        You do frame your argument in terms of Christian morality vs nothing at all, and that’s rather simplistic. Then again, relativism and amorality are different conversations.

        • R. L. Copple says:

          Yes, amoralism and relativism are different things. Relativism, while saying there are no absolute morals, would acknowledge individualistic morals a person is guided by.

          I’m not sure what gave you the idea that I was saying it was Christian morals or nothing. I stated morality as a values-based decision making without defining whose morality we’re talking about. Naturally, as a Christian, my morality is derived from that worldview. But on the morality vs. amorality, I’ve only said that amorality is an academic construct that can’t be sustained in real life. Living requires making decisions based upon some type of value system, whatever that value system might be based upon, Christian or otherwise.

  5. Kirsty says:

    I think it’s overstating it to say that atheism is a belief system.

    I know what you mean – they don’t believe there is a god, and base their lives on that. But equally, I don’t believe that there is a tooth fairy, or a flying spaghetti monster, or that the stairs will turn to jelly when I walk down them. And I live in accordance with those non-beliefs. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have an a-tooth-fairy / a-flying-spaghetti-monster / a-stairs-turning-to-jelly belief system. I don’t even think about them because they’re irrelevant.

    Of course, there are some people who have an atheistic belief system, such as humanism (or, indeed, buddhism). And I would say there are some atheists who do elevate atheism and anti-theism to the level of a belief system – or even religion.

    But to say disbelief in a god is inherently a belief system I think only makes sense if we are coming from the point of view that they are rejecting something that would be a valid thing to accept, not something as irrelevant as my silly examples above.

  6. R. L. Copple says:

    Thanks, Kirsty, for joining the discussion.

    On your point, I see what you are saying, and I’m sure that’s how an atheist would view it, but I would say that you do have an a-tooth fairy and so on. The only reason you don’t think about it much is because you don’t have a Tooth Fairy Church on every corner trying to get others to believe in the tooth fairy. If there were such, would that fact suddenly make not believing in the tooth fairy a belief?

    From an atheist standpoint, belief is believing *in* something. But they in effect do believe in something: that their knowledge is so complete that future discoveries will never show that God exists.

    In effect, people who first discovered radio waves and the possibility of talking over great distances using them would seem to believe in the tooth fairy, but those who held a belief that radio waves didn’t exist would not only be wrong, but doing so by having faith that new data would not negate their belief.

    However, the fence phrase you quoted didn’t refer to atheist, who are on one side of the fence already, but agnostics, who academically say they don’t know, but practically live as atheist. Agnostics who are theist don’t usually call themselves agnostics, but because they are having faith that their religion’s beliefs and sacred text are right even though as humans, none of us can know for sure whether it is or isn’t. Faith is required for both theist and atheist beliefs.

  7. bainespal says:

    I think that we can’t say that all atheism is religious or non-religious. For that matter, I don’t think we can even say that about Christianity!

    One atheist I had a class with over a year ago was downright evangelical about atheism. Not only was he out to “convert” people to unbelief and always ready with a defense of atheism, but when I asked him to show me a good book about atheism from the community college’s library, he had a positively religious look in his eye as he told, “Spreading the knowledge.”

    “Knowledge” = atheist gospel

    That experience, combined with the article about atheist megachurches that David James linked, makes me concluded that yes, some atheists are religious, at least in some sense of the word.

    I think the atheist megachurch movement could even be classified as a Low Church movement, in a way. (After all, we all know that the outwardly professing church is full of non-believers. If large sections of the outward Western Church is apostate, it should come as no surprise that there are atheist churches.)

What do you think?