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.

The Definition of God Determines Who's An Atheist

Further Reading:

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):

  1. The one whom you worship.
  2. That which you worship.
  3. The most powerful being(s) in the universe.
  4. 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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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 Seminar (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]


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

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 Seminar (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]

    13 replies to "3 Mistakes Our Definition of God Must Address to Avoid Atheism"

    • Steve Martin

      There’s a lot of Christianism out there…but how much ‘faith’?

      How many really trust that Jesus has done it all…and that they do not have to do anything at all towards their salvation?

    • Glenn Shrom

      Hmm,… looks as though you are wanting to define atheism as all that which is not traditional monotheism. Should such a thing instead be called amonotheism? I realize that someone could believe in one god without it fitting this definition, but for the most part the idea of one god and the idea that that one god fits this definition are inclusive.

    • Tio Papo

      Frustrated with this post after being drawn to it enthusiastically since the definition for God is key to our sharing the Gospel in a religious plural society.

      In simple English: What are the three mistakes we Cristian make when defining God? And what would the correct definition look like? Ex. “God is the ……..”

      • TJ

        Hi Tio,

        1) Defining God simply as “the one whom you worship”.
        2) Defining God just as “that which you worship”
        3) Defining God as non-transcendent.

        At least that’s the way I look at it.

    • Wayne

      “To lack any dependence on anything that precedes for this being is the First Cause of all there is”

      But this ‘quality’ of God is a philosophical image that came from Greek philosophy. It doesn’t find its roots and support in the Hebrew scriptures. It can certainly be ‘read back in’ to the Hebrew scriptures, but many things can be read back in without any foundation (e.g. Adam’s ‘first’ wife Lilleth).

      The Hebrew scriptures say nothing about where Yahweh came from or about him creating the earth and sky outside of space and time. I have heard many apologists argue against ‘arguments from silence’, so I would suggest taking the same advice when it comes to arguments from silence about the nature of Yahweh. The Hebrew Scriptures also attribute non-transcendent qualities to Yahweh like ‘showing regret’. A being who exists outside of space and time cannot, by definition, show regret or be sorry for a decision he made at some previous point in time.

      • Andrew

        Wayne, out of curiosity, would you worship Superman? Or Santa? Or the Great Intelligence from Doctor Who? Or a Lovecraftian deity like Cthulu? Or the Engineers from Prometheus? Or perhaps Q from Star Trek? Would you worship Talos from Skyrim? Or perhaps the goddess popular among so many Liberal feminist Episcopalians?

        All these beings – and indeed Yahweh if taken with wooden literalism – are far too small. They’re just humans projected on the skies – perhaps the very best of people, but nonetheless humans. Powerful, yet finite, mistake-making, beings which necessarily depend on something higher than themselves for their existence. If there isn’t a philosophical conception of God greater than this, then the very idea of the ‘divine’ is extraordinarily silly. Its on the level of Ufology.

        Incidentally, this doesn’t classify as an argument from silence – we have good grounds from classical philosophy to say that, if there is a God worth talking about, then he is necessarily separate from that which he creates and sustains. If you insist on only arguing from scripture, then I suspect you might generate the kind of problems which you discuss. At any rate, I know of numerous Biblical scholars who would dispute the claim that Genesis 1:1 does not imply Creation ex Nihilo. But even if Genesis didn’t address the issue, that would be no reason at all for denying the principle of an origin for all time and matter – a principle which is firmly grounded in sound philosophy and science.

        On a slightly different topic, to Mr Patton, I broadly agree with the general thrust of your article, but would probably stop short of defining all the anthropomorphic conceptions of god as “atheism”. Its a bit of a departure from the classical understanding of atheism, and would implicitly define many individuals with a simple faith – say children, or those who haven’t thought deeply on this issue – as atheists. I know a minister who literally imagines that God is a “thin Santa Claus” figure (his words, not mine). This is, of course, deficient, but hardly warrants the man the description of “atheistic”. Perhaps I have misunderstood something. Still, thank you for the post.

        • Wayne

          test. posts not showing up. testing to see if this one does.

        • Wayne

          Andrew,
          I don’t think of the beings you listed would be ‘worthy of worship’, but looking back at my post, I’m not sure what the question is getting at.

          The main point of my post is that I see a tendency in the apologetic community to conflate the “God of Philosophy” with the “God of the Bible” without foundation. I brought up just one point: that the God of Philosophy is said to exist outside of space and time, but there’s little, if any, foundation to say that the Bible presents Yahweh as existing outside of space and time. I honestly don’t think that the ancient Israelites thought about things in these categories (never having been exposed to relativity theory and the like). To point out that Genesis has Yahweh explicitly saying “I regret doing X” is not to adhere to a “wooden literalism”. It’s not hearsay we’re dealing with here (e.g, Noah said “Yahweh told me he regretted X” where Noah might have heard wrong), it’s an actual quote from the Deity. How might we interpret a Deity saying “I regret doing X” metaphorically or figuratively and reconcile it with him existing outside of space and time?

        • Wayne

          Trying to reply, but WordPress is not taking anything over a few sentences.
          My reply here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/180Bha3n1NNP18Z_vGA8bstcKoJDqtycLLiMAU6aL76I/edit?usp=sharing

      • wayne

        I’m not sure where the ‘worthy of worship’ question is coming from.

        The main point of my post is that I see a tendency in the apologetic community to conflate the “God of Philosophy” with the “God of the Bible” without foundation. I brought up just one point: that the God of Philosophy is said to exist outside of space and time, but there’s little, if any, foundation to say that the Bible presents Yahweh as existing outside of space and time. I don’t think that the ancient Israelites thought about things in these categories (never having been exposed to relativity theory or quantum theory). To point out that Genesis has Yahweh explicitly saying “I regret doing X” is not to adhere to a “wooden literalism”. It’s not hearsay we’re dealing with (e.g, Noah said “Yahweh told me he regretted X” where Noah might have heard wrong), it’s an actual quote from the Deity. If not to be taken literally, how might we interpret a Deity saying “I regret doing X” metaphorically or figuratively and reconcile it with him existing outside of space and time?

    • Wayne

      I don’t think of the beings you listed would be ‘worthy of worship’, but looking back at my post, I’m not sure where the question is coming from.

      The main point of my post is that I see a tendency in the apologetic community to conflate the “God of Philosophy” with the “God of the Bible” without foundation. I brought up just one point: that the God of Philosophy is said to exist outside of space and time, but there’s little, if any, foundation to say that the Bible presents Yahweh as existing outside of space and time. I honestly don’t think that the ancient Israelites thought about things in these categories (never having been exposed to relativity theory and the like). To point out that Genesis has Yahweh explicitly saying “I regret doing X” is not to adhere to a “wooden literalism”. It’s not hearsay we’re dealing with here (e.g, Noah said “Yahweh told me he regretted X” where Noah might have heard wrong), it’s an actual quote from the Deity. How might we interpret a Deity saying “I regret doing X” metaphorically or figuratively and reconcile it with him existing outside of space and time?

    • W a y n e

      The main point of my post is that I see a tendency in the apologetic community to conflate the “God of Philosophy” with the “God of the Bible” without foundation. I brought up just one point: that the God of Philosophy is said to exist outside of space and time, but there’s little, if any, foundation to say that the Bible presents Yahweh as existing outside of space and time. I honestly don’t think that the ancient Israelites thought about things in these categories (never having been exposed to relativity theory or quantum theory). To point out that Genesis has Yahweh explicitly saying “I regret doing X” is not to adhere to a “wooden literalism”. It’s not hearsay we’re dealing with (e.g, Noah said “Yahweh told me he regretted X” where Noah might have heard wrong), it’s an actual quote from the Deity. If not to be taken literally, how might we interpret a Deity saying “I regret doing X” metaphorically or figuratively and reconcile it with him existing outside of space and time?

    • debbie thompson

      Where’s your proof that your god created anything from nothing? just because your book says so, doesn’t make it so. maybe I do want to worship baal, or thor, or the flying spaghetti monster, and I say that THEY created everything from nothing–how do you know they didn’t? the argument is totally valid: belief in thor, etc. is NO different from your belief in your god. Maybe their deity created the box, too. their definition of god may be the same as yours, but they may choose to include or exclude differently than you–where’s your proof that you’re right and they’re wrong? THIS is what non-believers have an issue with–you can’t logically claim that your deity fulfills criteria that theirs don’t, because you have no more proof (and maybe even have less) than they do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.