Why I am a theist
I am a theist.
For most people, that probably collapses into the fact that I'm a Christian. But they are separate things, and I embrace each of them for different reasons.
I embrace Christianity because I am incredibly drawn to Jesus of Nazareth, and his unique outlook on the world. I love the scriptures because he did, and because he shows us where the beauty lies in them.
But I am a theist because I believe in humanity. I believe in possibility, in open-ended potential, in flourishing and learning and growing. And for me, there is no way to believe in these things without being a theist.
I know this goes against many people’s intuitions. A lot of people see theism as a way to assert a closed universe, a hard set of limits around human behavior, and a limited imagination. This is the unfortunate legacy of much of medieval-tinged religion. But the truth is much different, and it doesn’t take a lot of thought to see why.
There are only two possibilities: either reality is limited, or reality is unlimited.
If reality is unlimited, then theism is true. Other beings are out there, other forces larger than we are, living immense lives on incredible scales.
And this would mean that hope is real. If there is no upper limit on reality, then human society can grow and flourish without fearing that one day we will hit a insurmountable wall. Every obstacle we encounter, we can come to with the knowledge that there is something beyond it.
But what about the other possibility?
Think about what it actually means to be an atheist. An atheist may embrace their viewpoint for many commendable reasons. Maybe they value science, rationality, free thought — maybe they simply don’t see any evidence, or haven’t been convinced that anything larger exists. But if they actually hold to atheism as an assertion about reality, then they are asserting that reality is limited, capped at a certain level, and that nothing else exists beyond that.
Consider Richard Dawkins. Most people identify him as one of the “new atheists”, but I count him as a fellow theist. He believes that there are superhuman beings, living immense lives, at levels far beyond our current imaginings. He even suspects that we might be in a universe created by one of these beings1. For historical reasons, he doesn’t like to call these beings “gods”, but they are gods by every definition worth having.
Why does he believe in these creatures? Because he thinks life isn’t limited to what we know on this planet. Reality is big, and the bigger it is, the more we have to consider the existence of entities larger than us.
To be a true atheist then, one would have to believe in a universe smaller than that of Richard Dawkins. One would have to believe that the universe is bounded, not just in light-years, but in possibility. One would have to look at our expanding, twenty-billion-light-year-wide universe, and conclude that not only is this the limit of everything that exists, but that within all this immense reality, there is not a single being more powerful than the one reading this blog.
Atheism must hold to a very limited existence.
The great atheists knew this, and recognized the consequences. Bertrand Russell believed that the universe was limited, and that this meant that everything in reality would eventually die. The stars would be snuffed out, the universe would become cold, all matter would ultimately decay into nothingness.
This meant, he said, that all human life must be built on despair, that everything we care about must vanish, that existence itself is futility.
He was right. Death is the inevitable end of a closed system. If reality is limited, then there is nothing left but despair.
But if reality is not limited, but is in fact unending, then there is hope. The world doesn’t have to die, the things we love about life do not have to vanish forever. If we do not live in a closed system, there is no reason for despair.
I’m not saying any of this to disparage atheism or atheists. I admire the courageous stance of Bertrand Russell, Isaac Asimov, and many others who stood against tradition and irrationality, and created meaningful lives in what they saw as a brutal universe. I admire someone who can face difficult truths and not shrink from them.
But our universe is bigger than the universe they knew about. And every year, it gets a little bigger.
There are only two possibilities. Either reality is limited, or reality is unlimited. So far, every time humans thought they had found the limits of reality, they were wrong.
My guess is they always will be.