It’s important for a Christian ministry to have a good definition of God (tongue in cheek). In fact, the definition I’m proposing will turn billions of religious people into atheists by the end of this article. How many people in the world are already religious? How many profess a belief in a divine being?
The way we define our terms will take center stage in our athe-izing much of the world’s religious population.
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Atheists comprise about 2% of the world’s population. Those who claim no religion at all (or “non-religious”) make up 16%. Atheists number close to 140 million. Combined with the non-religious, this add up to just over 1.2 billion. Christians make up close to 2.2 billion of the world’s population. Muslims hoover around 1.2 billion. The next largest religious population is Hindus at one billion.
Half the world’s population believes in God and half does not.
It looks like the those who believe in God greatly outnumber atheists, but I don’t think this is the case. In fact, I think half the world’s population believes in God while half does not. That’s about 3.5 billion people on each side. How do I come up with such figures? Let me explain.
A Definition of God Starts with Asking the Right Questions
The key issue is not defining atheism. Whether one defines an atheist as one who believes there are no gods or just lacks belief in God/gods, makes no difference. It is trivial. The issue is not atheism, but how one defines “God”. Because everything is being defined around the concept of God, don’t you think we should work toward an agreement on what qualifies as God?
This is a philosophical conversation before it is a religious conversation. Let me start by giving some ways that people define God/god(s):
- The one whom you worship.
- That which you worship.
- The most powerful being(s) in the universe.
- Transcendent Creator all all that there is.
God is… The One Whom You Worship
If the first is accepted as the definition, then just about anyone qualifies for deity so long as there is some out there that will ascribe such worth to them and engage in some form of religious worship. Whether it is Apollo, Caesar, or Bono, the could all qualify. The issue then becomes how one defines worship. But this definition will never due in the initial philosophical conversation that we are having.
God is… That Which You Worship
If God is “that” which one worships, the definitional doors are wide open. People can worship their country, money, fame, or drugs. In this case God would be defined as that which one seeks the most. This will not do.
If God/god(s) is defined as the most powerful being in our universe, we get really sidetracked. Lex Luthor angrily watching Superman saying, “Look at him . . . a god.” What did he mean by that?
Look at him . . . a god. ~Lex Luthor
Well, it’s quite simple. Often “god” is defined as the most powerful being(s) in our universe. Normally, this being is different in nature and abilities than humans. But this will not due either. God cannot be defined simply as a being of another nature that happens to be more powerful than our race, even if this being is worshiped.
The Sine Qua Non of God
Before we move into issues of power and prestige, the issue of transcendence must be established. This is the sine qua non (“without which not”) of God. If God is not transcendent (above, beyond, outside of) all creation, He is not really God.
God must be outside of our natural box. He must be the creator of the box.
God must be outside of our natural box. He must be the creator of the box. Time, space, and matter have to have come from Him, and these must have been created out of nothing (ex nihilo). If God created everything out of pre-existing matter and time is always with Him, then there’s a dependence (on that which pre-existed) that nullifies His transcendence.
We often call this God’s necessary aseity. To be “a se” is to be “of oneself”. To lack any dependence on anything that precedes for this being is the First Cause of all there is. I know this is philosophical, but, once again, we must be speaking of the same type of being to avoid talking past one another.
If what I propose is correct, then about half the world does not believe in God.
If what I propose is correct, then about half the world does not believe in God. All forms of polytheism are atheistic (including Mormonism) due to their lack of a transcendent first cause. Zeus, Thor, Baal, and Superman (along with all aliens we might find who take interest in us) may be called god, but they are not really. They just happen to be the most powerful beings in our present universe. The Greek pantheon was atheistic. The Roman legion of god, atheistic. Hinduism, atheistic. Why? Because all of their “gods” are not really God. They are immanent within our universe, obeying the laws as they find themselves bound. They aren’t transcendent.
Transcendence – A Good Starting Point for God
God must transcend time, space, and matter in his essential being (ontos). He must be the creator of all things out of nothing. And he must be one (for any ontological division necessitates space in which God cannot exist). It is only after we get past this basic philosophical definition that we can talk about “who” this God is.
Unfortunately, both Christians and atheists bypass this essential first step and stumble all over themselves trying to defend or ridicule the idea of God. This is seen when atheists try to compare a Christian’s lack of belief in Thor to their lack of belief in God. Thor and the unmoved mover are completely different types of being whose existence or non-existence one would defend in completely different ways.
It’s this definition of God that causes me to say atheists might outnumber theists.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]