Imaginative Atheists

Michael Metzger

Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky…

John Lennon was right – it is easy to imagine no heaven or hell… and no god. Atheists imagine this all the time. And they seem to be enjoying a mild resurgence in popular media.

“The New Atheists,” as Wired magazine dubs them, “condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil.” Led by such luminaries as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel C. Dennett, the New Atheists find antique absurdities like God a “debilitating curse: the curse of faith.”1 Dawkins is the celebrated Oxford biologist and author of The God Delusion. Dennett is director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He wrote Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Sam Harris is featured in the most recent Newsweek and has authored Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Both books made the New York Times Best Seller List.

What the new “Fab Four” probably don’t realize is that the very act of imagining the non-existence of God actually points toward the existence of a deity. It’s true. Try this simple mental exercise: Think of something that does not exist – and has never existed. Go ahead – I’ll give you 30 seconds.

Got it?

Now here’s the kicker: Anything and everything we imagine is in reference to something that already exists. I conducted this experiment with 13 college graduates the other day. Several drew a unicorn. Except that a unicorn consists of real things rearranged – a horse and a horn. If someone imagines people leaping over tall buildings, the reference points are things that do indeed exist – people, buildings, and gravity. We’re simply bending the rules to imagine people clearing 40-story towers. But it’s not true that people, buildings, and gravity aren’t real.

Human beings are a species that simply cannot imagine anything that has never existed, which is why John Lennon and the New Atheists are some of the better pointers toward the existence of God. No one can push against a vacuum. If there was no supreme being, no transcendent something or someone, we’d never even imagine it. And atheists wouldn’t push against it. If the New Atheists are right, we wouldn’t even be entertaining this conversation. There’d be no atheists because there’d be no theists!

But let’s be clear: atheism does not prove the existence of the Judeo-Christian God. But it does point toward something transcendent inhabiting the universe. The fact that we can imagine such a living being is one of many “signals of transcendence” – human experiences that are instinctive yet assume and require a reality that lies beyond us.2 These daily experiences, such as giving thanks, expressing joy – even atheism – point toward a greater reality. For example, the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche was plagued by the realization that in our moments of greatest joy – a wonderful evening with friends or lounging on the beach watching the afternoon sunset – we never want these moments to end. Joy points toward eternity, as Nietzsche wrote:

All joy wants eternity,
Wants deep, deep, deep eternity!3

Yet Nietzsche denied the existence of God and eternity. He was tripped up by what he longed for. “Men occasionally stumble over the truth,” Winston Churchill once noted, “but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.” The New Atheists who imagine no heaven, hell or God actually point to a universe where such things must exist. None of us can push against a vacuum – we need a real door, for example, to push against when passing from one room to another. Otherwise, we fall flat on our faces. If there really was no door, we’d never imagine the need to push against it.

If the New Atheists recognized how human imagination in reality works, they’d stumble into a deep, deep truth – God is really here. And then they might also realize that what John Lennon imagined – and longed for – points toward promises found in an ancient faith tradition called Christianity.

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say that I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

2 This term was developed by Peter Ludwig Berger, a University Professor and Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University. This phrase is taken from his book A Rumor of Angels (New York: Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1990), pp.59-65.
3 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This is taken from Zarathustra’s Roundelay, a philosophical poem that first appears in Chapter 59: The Second Dance-Song.


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