The Great Divide

Donn R. Day

For as long as I can remember there have been three threads running through my life. The first thread was made up of metaphysical questions, such as what's the meaning of life, why are we here, and what happens after we die? The second was a vague sense that there was more to the world than that which we could "see" with our five senses. The third has been a curiosity to know what motivates me, and others to do the things that we do. These three threads represent my life-long search for truth. This journey has led me through most of the major worldviews that make up our philosophical world; cultural Christianity, practical atheism[1], Eastern philosophy and religion, philosophical atheism[2], agnosticism, New Age beliefs, Deism, Liberal Christianity, and finally conservative Evangelical Christianity. These various (theistic) worldviews do not represent, as many believe, various spokes in a wheel that all lead to the same God at the wheels center. Rather, these worldviews, atheism included, all hold mutually exclusive views of our world, and mankind's place in it. In short, these worldviews represent what I call, The Great Divide.

For my present purposes, rather than following the sequence noted above in my own search for truth, I am going to concentrate on the two major categories that make up The Great Divide; atheism vs. theism, and general theism vs. specific theism. Whether a person is aware of it or not, everyone has their own worldview. The term worldview comes from the German word Weltanschauung. A worldview is: a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic make-up of our world. The presuppositions that make up our individual worldview are unprovable, and as such are based on faith.

There are two main divisions in the atheistic worldview, which I describe as practical, and philosophical. Practical atheism can be divided into two additional subdivisions; open or closed[3] practical atheism. Of these three categories, the majority of people could be classified as open practical atheists. People that fit into this subgroup live their life within one of the major worldview classifications, whether or not they are aware of this fact. So that we can get a clear understanding of what I mean by these various divisions of atheism, I will start by examining the first stage of my spiritual journey, cultural Christianity.

As an infant I was baptized as a Lutheran. During my elementary school years I served as an Acolyte, and one summer I remember attending Vacation Bible School. During my early teen years I attended church and Sunday school most weeks, and at the age of 16 I was confirmed in the Lutheran Church. At this point I stopped attending church completely. During these 16 years I lived with mostly unexamined presuppositions, which fit into the category of a specific theistic worldview. Even though I believed that Lutheranism represented the truth, my own spiritual journey shows that I was open to alternative ways of viewing the world. Even though I identified myself as a Christian, I was actually a practicing (practical) atheist, because my personal views and lifestyle remained unaffected by my religious training in these first 16 years. Once I stopped attending church, it was 16 years before I ever returned.

To see the difference between an open and closed worldview, we can look at the example of my Norwegian grandparents. The Lutheran Church is the official state church of Norway, and exerts a large cultural influence over many Norwegians, especially those born in the late 1800's. My grandparents were raised Lutheran, and died Lutherans. It was due to their influence that I spent the first 16 years of my life also as a Lutheran. As my own spiritual journey traversed through the various stages mentioned above, I had many conversations with my grandparents over our now differing beliefs. One thing that became clear through the many conversations that ensued, my grandparents were adamantly closed to the idea of examining their own particular worldview. We can see this same pattern with many people that are raised Roman Catholic.

The last of these first three categories I want to examine is philosophical atheism. While it's possible to support the claim that there have always been practical[4] atheists, philosophical atheism as a worldview didn't emerge until the European Enlightenment. The engine that drove philosophical atheism was the newly flowering scientific enterprise, which while in its early stages was theistic in nature, soon turned naturalistic[5] (atheistic) in orientation and outlook. While many (if not most) philosophical atheists remained closed within their particular worldview, at least in theory, they remain open to examining the presuppositions that make up their atheistic views. Certainly, atheists could make a similar claim about those of us that embrace specific theism.

Of these three groups, open or closed practical atheists, and philosophical atheists, the group that seems most likely not to alter their own particular worldview, would be the closed practical atheists (again, you could make a similar case with a closed specific theist). The defining factor is not atheism or theism itself, but rather whether or not a person is open or closed to examining their belief system. If a person is not even willing to discuss the issues, it seems unlikely that any change could be forthcoming.

While it's outside the purview of this essay to consider, from the specific theistic view of some streams of Christianity, the above distinctions could easily be dismissed. Calvinism[6], for example, contends that all fallen and unredeemed mankind remains in a closed atheistic worldview, until and unless God draws them by the power of the Holy Spirit, and makes them willing to alter their beliefs. Also, just because a person remains their whole life within a closed theistic worldview (as my grandparents did), it does not necessarily follow that a person would automatically be wrong, and one could even say it's likely that much personal heartache and turmoil could be avoided by remaining within a closed theistic worldview, provided it represented the truth.[7]

While I believe that the reasons that a person would move from their current worldview and decide to embrace a different one are as unlimited and different as people themselves, in most cases, at the point of presuppositional change, the most likely cause is emotional in nature. It's entirely possible that logic and rational discussion could be steps that lead up to the moment of change, and certainly rational support would be critical after a basic shift in a person's worldview, but at the point of change, a basic leap of faith takes place. This is because all worldview presuppositions, as I stated above, are unprovable, and require faith to embrace. Soren Kierkegaard accurately describes, I believe, the basic human conditions that precipitate this leap of faith. Kierkegaard believed that:

Life [is] lived on three different planes or stages: the aesthetic stage, the ethical stage, and the religious stage. Man in the aesthetic stage lives life only on the sensual level, a life that is self-and pleasure-centered. This need not be gross hedonism. Man on this level could be very cultivated and even circumspect; but nevertheless his life revolves around himself and those material things-whether sex, art, music, or whatever-that brings him pleasure. The paradox of life on this level is that it leads ultimately to unhappiness. The self-centered, aesthetic man finds no ultimate meaning in life and no true satisfaction. Thus, the aesthetic life leads finally to despair, a sort of sickness with life.

But this is not the end, for only at this point a person is ready to live on the second plane of existence, the ethical plane. The transition to the ethical stage of life is a sort of leap motivated by despair to a higher level, where one affirms trans-personal moral values and guides life by those objective standards. No longer is life lived only for the self and for pleasure, rather one is constrained to seek the ethical good and to change one's conduct to bring it into conformity with that good. Thus, man in the ethical stage is the moral man. But life on this level, too, ends in unhappiness. For the more one tries sincerely to bring one's life into conformity with the objective standards of the good, the more painfully aware one is that one cannot do it. Thus, the ethical life, when earnestly pursued, leads ultimately to guilt and despair.

But there is one more stage along life's way: the religious one. Here one finds forgiveness of sins and a personal relationship with God. Only here, in intimate communion with one's Creator, does man find authentic existence and true fulfillment. Again, Kierkegaard represents the transition to this stage from the ethical as a leap. The decision to believe is a criterionless choice , a leap of faith into the dark. Although man can be given no rational grounds to leap, unless he does so he will remain in despair and inauthentic existence.[8]

Not only does Kierkegaard's account roughly parallel my own life, but also I think it fits well with Biblical revelation. Obviously, if God exists, He could have created us to easily recognize that fact, or He could provide everyone with absolute proof of His existence. But God wants us to believe He exists, by faith, and like it or not, this requires a Kierkegaardian leap into the unknown. Often our willingness to take this leap comes only after we have exhausted every other way to find peace and meaning for our lives.

From the age of 16 when I turned my back on Christianity, I never stopped searching for the answer(s) that would tie the three strands of my life together in one coherent package. Around the age of 30, however, I finally had drifted into an uneasy agnosticism, believing that true truth was that no ultimate truth was to be found. It seemed my life's journey had reached the end of the road. During the next two years I struggled to move from the aesthetic stage to the ethical stage. I began reading pop-psychology and New Age type books. As I struggled to leave my hedonistic lifestyle, the issue was no longer seeking ultimate truth; I had given up that search, but rather what to make of the word, and concept of love. I began to order my life around this highest of all ethical concepts, but before the next year was out, profound personal failure brought me to the brink of total despair. I was now ready to make the final leap of faith to the religious stage.

Since I had tried the leap onto the religious stage before (in the form of Eastern religion and philosophy)[9], and had not found the answers I was searching for, this time I moved quickly from general theism, to specific theism. Starting with modern-day Deism[10], I quickly entered into a liberal form of Christianity. For some reason, from the very first moments of this new religious stage, I developed a voracious desire to read. I started reading everything available from the many area libraries. Since I had already traveled through Eastern religion/philosophy and New Age beliefs, I started off reading books purporting to merge Christianity and Buddhism, and books by Catholic mystics such as Tomas Merton. Every so often I would pick up books by orthodox Christian writers, and it wasn't long before I was moving in a more conservative Christian direction. Soon I discovered the world of Christian apologetics, and finally the answers that tied together the three main threads of my life, began to merge in one unified and coherent picture.

If person believes they have found the correct answer to any specific question, the search for truth has ended. Once a person accepts that 2 + 2 = 4, there is no longer a need to search for the right answer. Since my quest for truth had traveled through all the major worldviews, I had a good basis for accepting the truth, and seeing the difference, of my new Christian worldview. My life then began to take a new direction, and one that has remained constant for the past 15 years. The very first scripture I ever memorized was Colossians 2:8; "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ" (NIV). My primary passion these many years has been interacting with atheists. I once had a three-year debate with an atheist that I worked with, however, he was the only avowed atheist that I have knowingly worked with since becoming a Christian. When I first logged on the Internet three to four years ago, I was surprised at the strong presence of atheist websites, chat rooms, and newsgroups, because I had met very few atheists in my day-to-day life. There is no one more eager to debate with theists in general, and Christians in particular, then atheists. There is also no one better to sharpen a person's beliefs than a worthy opponent that happens to hold views 180 degrees from your own. It has often been said that a person never truly understands their own position until they understand those of their adversaries. The goal of atheistic philosophers and apologists is exactly the same (from an opposite viewpoint) as Christian apologists. First, atheists desire to provide support for their fellow atheists through rational philosophical and scientific writings, and second, they want to lead those of a theistic persuasion toward an atheistic worldview. It's somewhat surprising that atheism is primarily a reaction to Christianity. I have heard it said, for example, that there are virtually no atheists in India. I believe this is the case because of all of the world's major religions, the Judeo-Christian worldview is the most rationalistic, and thus it is open to critique from within its own rationalistic foundations.

The focus of my Christian journey has not only been in responding to atheism and atheists, but also in refining my own theological viewpoint, which I would describe as conservative evangelical. The Internet also has a strong presence of just about every theistic viewpoint a person could imagine. While I have interacted with many apologists of these various theistic beliefs, my primary interaction has been with LDS apologists. Interacting with Mormons defending the Book of Mormon has given me a new understanding of how atheists feel when interacting with Christians over the Bible.

No matter what worldview a person decides to embrace, it is always open to criticism and critique. As I mentioned, the presuppositions that make up a persons worldview, even a scientific one, are based on unprovable assumptions. The best quote I have seen that puts the atheistic worldview in proper perspective, and illustrates the preceding point, is the following one by Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung.

Atheism, too lives by an undemonstratable faith: Whether it is faith in human nature (Feuerbach) or faith in the future socialist society (Marx) or faith in rational science (Freud). The absolutizing of sensible experience (Feuerbach), of the Sociological process (Marx), or of scientific development (Freud), remains a dogma of humanist, socialist, psycho- analytical antidogmatism. The question, then can be asked of any form of atheism, whether it is not itself an understandable projection of man (Feuerbach), a consolation of serving vested interests (Marx), or an infantile illusion (Freud).[11]

The best a person's worldview can do is provide a picture closest to reality, as that person sees it. No worldview is provable in any certain sense, but that is not to suggest that a person's personal worldview is not important, in fact, defining your own worldview is the most important endeavor a person can engage in!


[1] I use the term practical atheism to mean anyone who lives their life, regardless of their personal belief/non-belief in God's actual existence, as if God did not exist.

[2] In contrast to practical atheism, philosophical atheism represents, in an historic sense, the positive belief in the non-existence of God. Many modern day atheists, however, realizing that it is impossible to defend positive atheism, actually hold views more in common with classic agnosticism.

[3] People falling into either category of open or closed practical atheism are living with primarily unexamined worldview presuppositions, but I'm using open to describe those that are willing, and closed to describe those that are not willing, to discuss their beliefs.

[4] One can even say that many (if not most) of the Hebrews of the Old Testament were practical atheists.

[5] The key development that turned science from a theistic orientation to an atheistic orientation was Darwinian evolution.

[6] While I personally reject the Calvinist viewpoint, one could certainly make the Biblical point that the Holy Spirit plays a major role in helping us move from atheism to specific theism!

[7] My use of the word truth here represents what I believe from within an historic, orthodox, Christian worldview. I would accept that the use of the word truth would be rejected from someone outside my particular worldview.

[8] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Crossway, 1994) pp. 55-56.

[9] I became an ardent follower of Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti, and American philosopher Alan Watts.

[10] My name for the concept of a higher power.

[11] Hans Kung, Does God Exist? (Doubleday and Company, 1980) pp. 329-330.

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