How Can I Know God?
Most people want to know God but how can we know him? Explore the idea here.
OK, so maybe there is a God. But even if that’s true, how can we know him? It’s not like you can just build up the nerve and ask him out for coffee—or can you?
Most of us—atheists, Buddhists, and Christians alike—have experienced a feeling of wanting there to be something more, a longing to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. After a particularly rough day, disappointing week, or devastating year, we sometimes find ourselves involuntarily hoping that this isn’t all there is.
Such thoughts have led many of us not only to wonder about the existence of God but even to ask ourselves how we can go about getting to know such an entity. For better or worse, there may be as many opinions on how to know God as there are grains of sand on the seashore.
But do you believe there’s even a God to know? Many people simply don’t. Perhaps science is all you feel you need; reason and rationale provide satisfactory answers to life’s greatest questions. God seems to be just a catch-all to describe events that cannot yet be explained by science. As Carl Sagan suggested, “Whatever it is we cannot explain lately is attributed to God . . . And then, after a while, we explain it, and so that’s no longer God’s realm.”1
Or maybe you feel it’s possible that there is a supreme being who designed the universe, but you can’t imagine that entity wanting anything to do with you. It is, after all, a hard concept to wrap your head around. How small we surely would seem to a being massive enough to create the entire world. Albert Einstein once said, “I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.”2 So we might leave it at that.
But say there is a being as magnificent as this and even a slight possibility that we could know him on an intimate level. Wouldn’t it be worth it to at least try? I, for one, have to admit to a bit of curiosity.
Throughout history, people have believed in the existence of a knowable God—that is, a God who exists not only on a grand scale, but also at a personal level. People will try all sorts of things to feel closer to a higher being or to find enlightenment. Some use drugs or other methods to find their high. But most have turned to some form of religion in an attempt to know and understand God.3
People from nearly every religion known to man have tried to know God by living monastic lifestyles, separated from the world and denying themselves various comforts. For thousands of years, adherents to religions like Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism have practiced yoga—a physical, mental, and spiritual form of meditation—to pursue knowledge of God.4 Others, including many Jews, Muslims, and Christians, have sought to know God through strict adherence to religious rules and rituals, believing they could earn God’s favor by distinguishing themselves from the masses through religious practice.
Could it be, though, that despite man’s best attempts, the keys to knowing God have nothing to do with being religious? Maybe God’s desire is not for us to follow rules or perform rituals, but simply to pursue a relationship with him.
Whether or not we believe in God, humans are, by nature, worshipers. We all choose something as the object of our ultimate devotion.5 It may be a loved one, a band, a sports team, a job, or even ourselves, but each of us select our own objects of worship and focus our time, energy, and money there.
What if this predisposition to worship is actually an internal longing to know God? What if God created within mankind a deep desire to know him?
C. S. Lewis, the famous scholar, novelist, and atheist-turned-Christian, illustrated this point: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”6
As adherents to the Christian and Jewish belief systems understand it, God created humans with great care and deep concern for each of us individually. God cares for each person’s joy, well-being, and unique life path.7 Thousands of years ago, the Hebrew psalmist rejoiced in this, singing of God’s great love for him.8
Christians believe that, because God cherishes us, he longs for us to seek out a relationship with him—even if we have done wrong in the past.
For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?J.I. Packer
Have you ever heard the tale of the prodigal son? There was a young man who demanded his inheritance from his father; upon receiving it, he proceeded to live it up and squander all his wealth. After hitting rock bottom, the son returned home, full of remorse, shame, and apologies. But what did his father do? He didn’t turn his son away or mock him with I-told-you-sos. Instead he accepted his son’s repentance without hesitation and rejoiced that his lost son had returned to him.9
This is how Christians understand it to be with God. Each of us is a broken person, bruised by the world and guilty of hurting others with our selfishness. Yet, like reconciling with anyone, the first step in moving forward in that relationship is simply to acknowledge the wrong done, ask for forgiveness, and continue to grow together through communication.
I imagine we’ve all heard the word “prayer.” But what does that really mean? At its most basic, prayer is just another way to say having a conversation with God, talking to him—the main way we get to know anyone.
That can sound a little intimidating, can’t it? But you’ve already been building up the courage to ask for that coffee date. Besides, if he already loves you, what do you have to lose?
- Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, (New York:Penguin Press, 2006).
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (New York: Mariner Books, 2008).
- Gallup International, "Losing our religion? Two thirds of people still claim to be religious," April 13, 2015, http://www.wingia.com/web/files/news/290/file/290.pdf.
- Swami Prabhavananda, How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, The Vedanta Society, 1953, 1981.
- See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEtdMKjohR8, an intriguing video by author Timothy Keller on “Counterfeit Gods.”
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins, 1952), 136.
- “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.” The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Jeremiah 1:5.
- “I will praise you, O Lord my God, with all my heart; I will glorify your name forever. For great is your love toward me; you have delivered me from the depths of the grave.” The Holy Bible, Psalm 86:12–13.
- To read the full story of the prodigal son, see The Holy Bible, Luke 11–32.
- Photo Credit: TTphoto / Shutterstock.com.
What Is Atheism?
What is atheism? What do atheists believe? Is atheism a religion?
Have you ever heard the phrase, “You can’t prove a negative”? Because nonbelief can’t be described in the same way that belief can, summing up atheism can be a difficult project—akin to herding cats.
Atheism has no central rule structure. Since no one can be excommunicated from atheism, nonbelievers are free to hold a huge variety of opinions, convictions, and personal philosophies. Still, there are a few central threads that tie together most atheists and define them as followers of a non-religion.
Who Are Atheists?
Within the United States, atheists are most likely to be young, male, white, and college-educated. A Pew research poll found that 67 percent of self-described atheists are male and 38 percent are between the ages of 18 and 29. As of 2012, nonbelievers in general made up 19.6 percent of the American population, but of that number, only a fraction actually call themselves atheists. More common labels are “unaffiliated,” “no religious preference,” or “agnostic.”1
Many atheists frequently cite advanced education as a trigger for their lack of belief. Those with advanced degrees in science, medicine, and philosophy are more likely than the general public to describe themselves as atheists.2
Throughout our lives, we all run the risk of encountering things that will challenge our worldviews and conflict with the beliefs we hold closely. The years when we pursue advanced education are those during which we most frequently strengthen, adapt, or change our belief systems.
The Atheist Worldview
The central idea in atheism is found in the name: a-theism, using the prefix “a-,” meaning “without,” and “theism,” belief in a God or gods. So, simply put, atheism means without belief in a deity. This is at first obvious, but it’s worth pointing out that the word is distinct from more hostile terms like antitheism, meaning against a deity.
Though this is a common misconception about atheists, atheists are not angry with or rebelling against a god. Atheists simply don’t think that a god exists. Atheists are not angry at God for not existing in the same way that believers aren’t angry at their toothbrush for failing to tap dance. It just isn’t the way the world works from the atheistic perspective.
For better or worse, religion has played a huge part in shaping the world as it is today. It is for this reason that many atheists define their behavior and beliefs as a reaction against something: against a god, against a church, against religious families or societies. It is primarily for this reason that atheists have a reputation for being argumentative or militant.
Whether this kind of behavior is worthwhile or not is up to the individual to decide. But the fact remains that, at least in the United States, atheists are frequently better-informed about religion than many casual and even some devoted believers.3 Atheists choose to live their lives without a god for many reasons, but those reasons are almost never borne out of ignorance or a failure to hear the gospel.
Atheists and Society
Throughout history, nonbelievers of all kinds have been persecuted by the majority belief system.4 Though most religions have been oppressed in certain places and times, in the Western world the last 1,500 years have seen atheists banished, silenced, tortured, and killed.
Modern societies don’t tolerate religious violence—thank goodness—but persistent distrust of atheists remains. More than half of Americans consider atheists “threatening.”5
Atheists face the highest prejudice for political office—the average American voter is more likely to vote for a homosexual person or a Muslim than to put a nonbeliever in office.6 There are seven US states where atheists are barred from holding public office altogether.7 Atheists are the fastest growing religious minority in America but are still underrepresented in government.8
Giving Life Meaning Without God
But the hardest part of being an atheist, in my experience, is arriving at a meaning for life. You read that right: I'm an atheist. And in honest conversations with Christians and others who ask me about this, I say that, for me, the most difficult aspect of life without belief in a deity is understanding why we are all here.
Though we all sometimes need a little help getting out of bed in the morning, believers have a reason for being built right into the religion of their choice. Christians go out into the world each day to work toward glorifying God. Hindus try to improve themselves so that their next reincarnation will be a happier one closer to being free from a cycle of rebirth in an illusory world.
For atheists, the question of the meaning of life is much harder, more open-ended, and more deeply personal. The reasons we find for getting out of bed in the morning are the same as most believers: our families need us to provide; our jobs need us to work; our communities need us to serve.
Beyond those immediate needs, though, the question becomes more difficult. Without our help our communities will fail, but . . . so what? This is a question that most introspective atheists will struggle with once or several times during their lives.
Noted atheist and author Christopher Hitchens wrote on this topic in his memoir. Hitchens took great offense at being asked about his thoughts on the meaning of his life—something that I don’t completely agree with. The meaning found in believers’ lives, after all, can be investigated in their holy books. With atheists, the only way to find out is to ask.
Regardless, Hitchens thought of life in this way: “A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless.’”9
For me, the answer has always come down to helping others. Through charity, friendship, and love, I try to make a positive impact on the lives around me, so that they will be in a better place to impact lives around them. In this way, maybe we can all contribute to making a species that is happier, healthier, and better than we are today.
Why should that matter? Because I want it to.
- Michael Lipka, “5 facts about atheists,” Pew Research Center, October 23, 2013, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/20https://www.exploregod.com/5-facts-about-atheists/.
- “Scientists and Belief,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, November 5, 2009, http://www.pewforum.org/20https://www.exploregod.com/scientists-and-belief/.
- “U. S. Religious Knowledge Survey,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, September 28, 2010, http://www.pewforum.org/20https://www.exploregod.com/u-s-religious-knowledge-survey/.
- Robert Evans, “Atheists, Humanists Suffer Persecution World Wide, Report,” Huffington Post, December 9, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/20https://www.exploregod.com/atheists-humanists-suffer_n_2268681.html.
- Hemant Mehta, “New Survey: 50% of Americans Find Atheism ‘Threatening,’” Patheos, June 26, 2013, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/20https://www.exploregod.com/new-survey-50-of-americans-find-atheism-threatening/.
- Jeffrey M. Jones, “Atheists, Muslims See Most Bias as Presidential Candidates,” Gallup, June 21, 2012, http://www.gallup.com/poll/155285/atheists-muslims-bias-presidential-candidates.aspx.
- Jones, “Atheists, Muslims.”
- “‘Nones’ on the Rise," Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, October 9, 2012, http://www.pewforum.org/20https://www.exploregod.com/nones-on-the-rise/.
- Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22: A Memoir (Ontario: McClelland & Stewart), 331.
- Photo Credit: Trinette Reed / Stocksy.com.
Has God Left Us to Ourselves?
Deism states that God created the world then left us on our own. Is this true?I was scarce fifteen when . . . some books against Deism fell into my hands. . . . It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.Benjamin Franklin1
Franklin’s experience is not unique. During the eighteenth century, Deism was sweeping through the intellectual elite in places like England, France, and America. Many embraced this new way of understanding God and the world. Indeed, most of America’s Founding Fathers, like Franklin, were Deists.2
Deism is the belief that there is a God who created the world but does not intervene in its affairs. There are other tenets to traditional Deism, but its view of God as a distant deity is the most prominent.3 And while few actually call themselves philosophical Deists anymore, many continue to wrestle with this all-important question: Did God set the world in motion and then just leave us to ourselves?
In Favor of Deism
The idea that God set the world in motion and left it to run on its own has several strengths. For one, Deism starts with belief in God. Admittedly, relatively few people today are true atheists in the sense that they believe there is absolutely no God. The majority of people believe that a higher power does exist, and a large portion of the remainder believe we simply can’t know either way.4 Even if they call God by different names and have differing opinions on what he (or she) is like, most think that the beauty and design of nature itself are evidence that a powerful God created the world.
But despite our grand ideas about God, we all live in a world governed by predictable, scientific laws of nature. We’ve never seen an apple fall upward from a tree, or a piece of paper withstand a fire, or time move backward. And though we may use the word “miracle” now and then, hardly any of us can claim to have observed a genuine miraculous event that transcends all scientific law.
So what seems to make the most sense is the idea that God set the world in motion but now just lets it run according to the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, and such. Deism seems to correspond to our everyday human experience.
Most importantly, Deism upholds human responsibility. If God set the world in motion and has left us to ourselves, we cannot blame him for our problems. Nor can we count on him to magically fix anything. It is up to us—we hold the destinies of our lives, families, cities, and planet in our own hands. This is not only responsible; it is empowering. And many Americans, whether they espouse Christianity or some other religion, are practical Deists in this sense.5
Nevertheless, there are some compelling reasons to challenge the idea that God merely set the world in motion and then left us to our own devices. As the simplest starting point—and hear me out here—Deism is at odds with the teachings of most world religions.
For example, the Bible portrays God as very engaged in human affairs: he hears and responds to prayer, shows mercy and grace, brings justice to the oppressed, and most significantly, becomes a human himself in the person of Jesus Christ.6 Other religions, such as Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism also uphold beliefs that divinity is intimately involved in the lives of people.
Of course, this does not automatically make Deism untrue; it is entirely possible that the teachings of most world religions are incorrect. But it does reveal that the idea of God leaving the world on its own is inconsistent with religious thought and tradition throughout history and is largely a product of modern Enlightenment philosophy.
Second, at its heart, Deism understands God as remote, distant, impersonal, and unapproachable. There is no place for prayer with a God who has left us to ourselves. There is no possibility of receiving compassion, grace, sympathy, or help from him. He is only a creator—a powerful one but nothing more. Few find comfort in this view of God.
What benefit is there to God’s power if he cannot or does not help his creation? What source of hope do we have when people fail us and human systems remain unjust? In what sense can God be called a Father if he does not care about his children? And more logically speaking, what was the point of creation if God was just going to walk away?
Simply wanting a compassionate, interactive God does not make his existence true. But for many of us, the belief that we are all alone in this world just does not resonate with the deepest recesses of our souls.
Finally, the view that God has left the world on its own propagates the huge potential for human pride and fear. We believe that all success, progress, and good fortune are results of our own hard work and efforts. We pat ourselves on the back and place ever-more confidence in our own achievements. This kind of pride in the amazing nature of human progress drove the Enlightenment movement. It also came crashing down when the twentieth century revealed how “progress” could lead to world wars, economic collapse, ethnic cleansing, and atomic bombs.
It’s of course possible that God created the world, set it in motion, and then left us to ourselves. It is also possible that God desires to be engaged and involved in our lives. In the absence of indisputable proof, both viewpoints require faith. The question is this: In which view will we put our faith?
- Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1886), 77–78.
- For excellent background information on this issue, see Steven Waldman, Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty (New York: Random House, 2008).
- A helpful background of the historical origins of Deism as it emerged from Christianity is found in James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought, Volume 1: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).
- “The Global Religious Landscape,” Pew Forum, December 18, 2012, http://www.pewforum.org/20https://www.exploregod.com/global-religious-landscape-exhttps://www.exploregod.com>
- See Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) for their assertion that young people embrace what they call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
- For a treatment of how the Bible portrays God as intimately involved in the world’s affairs, see N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (San Francisco: Harper, 2006).
- Photo Credit: ssguy / Shutterstock.com.