Strange as it may sound, it can be a surprisingly difficult task to determine what the difference between being a theist and an atheist really amounts to. The difficulty comes in when one considers the terms in question. To be a theist is to believe in God, and to be an atheist is not to believe in God. The atheist, having rejected God, normally commits themself to the belief that the ultimate principle and cause of the world and everything in it is nature; but what do the respective terms God and nature really mean? Coming up with joint, non-overlapping definitions is surprisingly difficult. In the theologies of several religions (certainly of traditional Christianity and Judaism), the inherent definition of God’s nature is inaccessible to the human mind. The Divine mystery, it is claimed, is simply beyond us, and admits no definition in terms of ordinary language. True, God is described in these religions as all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful etc., but—as Christian theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas or Jewish theologians like Moses Maimonides would say—these terms cannot be said of God in the same way that they are said of human beings. Instead, these properties apply only analogously to God: their meaning when attributed to God shares some sense with their meanings when applied to worldly beings, but the valence changes enough so that the ultimate meanings of the language become mysterious to us.
Philosophers deal with a similar difficulty in trying to describe nature. None of our ordinary definitions of what makes a phenomenon natural rather than supernatural truly fit. Nature evades all of our attempts of understanding in common-sensical language; only the abstracta of mathematics give us any bearing of nature’s patterns and movements at the highest level of physics (or so my scientist friends tell me), and even then our grasp is multivalent and tenuous. God and Nature: they are both illimitable mysteries to us, so how can we possibly tell the difference between them?
Perhaps I have been somewhat overstating the difficulty. Certainly there are several things that can be uncontroversially ascribed to God that cannot be said of nature. Nature is not, for instance, omni-benevolent as theologians say God is, nor does it have the specifically divine power of bringing something out of nothing (I wanted to say as well that nature lacks an intellect or will as God does, but because there are always panpsychist naturalists among us, so I am cautious of making such a claim). But there is one trait in particular that I want to focus on: one vital trait that belongs specifically to God—or, at least, to an “en-Godded” world—that would not apply to a naturalist world whatsoever: that is, universal explanation.
For the theist, everything in the world has a sufficient explanation. Pick any state of affairs in the universe you please; if you ask the question “why does this thing exist in the way it does” you can always expect—with the proper scrutiny and patience—to find an answer to the question. “Why is the oven warm?” Because I was baking a pizza; “why were you baking a pizza?” Because I was hungry; “why were you hungry?” Because I hadn’t eaten, and hunger kicks in when the human body hasn’t taken in enough food; “but why does hunger begin when the human body hasn’t taken in enough food?” And so on, and so on. Every question has an answer behind it, and seemingly every answer can (at least on some level) be met with another question about how it comes to be true. But can this line of question and answer go on infinitely? For the theist, the answer is a decisive no. God, as the sole creator and principle of the Universe, is the ultimate explanation for each individual link in the whole chain of question-and-answer: God is the ultimate explanation, and the ultimate terminus of inquiry. But what about God Himself? Why does God exist? The answer to this question signals one of the main differences between the atheistic world-view and the theistic world-view. For the traditional theist, God explains His own existence. The definition of God’s nature encompasses and necessitates the fact of God’s own existence—God, in other words, can’t not exist: His nature explains His existence.
The same cannot be said about nature. The naturalist may say that everything can be explained with reference to the laws of nature, but do the laws themselves have a reason to exist? If they are nothing but physical events, how could they? A physical event might be physically necessary, but to be ontologically necessary (i.e. to be necessary in Being) belongs to a mode of being which transcends our way of thinking about physical things altogether—a way of thinking, so the theologians claim, that is appropriate for God only, and not for the various beings of the natural world. If the existence of the laws of nature is invoked as the “ultimate fact” that explains all other facts, it is an unexplained, ungrounded fact—a “brute fact” as philosophers say, a fact which has no more reason for being true than for being false. The theist’s world-view does not countenance such a possibility. God, for the theist, is not a brute fact: He is self explanatory in His essence. In attempting to explain the existence of the world, atheism cuts the lines of inquiry short at some random event in nature (the big bang for instance), whose status as the beginning-point of nature is an unexplained brute fact. But the theist—in saying that God is the explanation for Himself and for everything else—says that reality is explainable all the way through without remainder. Everything is accounted for, everything makes sense; if only we had the minds to see it.
Image: Lake Chateaugay (photo by author)