Theist or Atheist: a Red Herring


By reading through several discussions on religious themes on SDMB, it can be noted that there are usually several distinct “threads” going on at the same time. A lot of confusion arises because different people attribute different meanings to words like “love”, “faith”, “freedom”, etc. These words are heavily overloaded in English (as in other languages), so in this thread I would like to propose a few definitions from scratch, and see how much sense they make for the other board members.

Next, based on these definitions, I would like to analyse the statements A)“Those who believe in God will be saved”, and B)“Those who don’t believe will be damned.”

I think these statements are not “logically valid”, but are “satisfiable.” That is, they are false under some (common) interpretations of “believe”, “saved”, or “damned”, and other implied terms, but may be true if they take other meanings, perhaps less common, but reasonable nevertheless. The definitions suggested below are an attempt to provide an interpretation of the latter sort. Assuming these meanings, I am attempting to prove that it’s reasonable to say that one’s theist or atheist stand is largely irrelevant as far as one’s salvation is concerned (assuming God and salvation exist.) What matters in the Long Run is not whether one believes in God’s existence or not, but rather how one relates to love.

In other words, Christianity and atheism may be incompatible in a technical, superficial sense; but many people in either group will find themselves on the same side with respect to God when the Day comes.

(Warning: long post ahead!)

Basic Definitions

Love is unconditionally doing good to someone else, while not denying their freedom, or anyone else’s. Good is taken as a primary notion, assuming each person’s inner understanding of what is good. Freedom is one’s ability to choose. In relation to love, it is one’s ability to choose whether to love or not, or whether to accept someone else’s love or reject it. Freedom is axiomatically good.

Loving requires several things:

  1. Willingness to do what is good;
  2. Knowledge of what is good for that person;
  3. Ability to make that goodness a reality;
  4. Action to make it happen, regardless of any unfavourable consequences to us, while not denying the freedom of the beneficiary (or of others.)

When someone freely desires our love, we have to act on it. When someone freely rejects our love, we must abstain from the acting. If that person later changes his or her mind, we are required to resume active participation in our practice of love. This is called forgiveness.

We say one is faithful when one doesn’t change.


  1. Love is not a feeling; our willingness to love is what matters. Love being unconditional, it is irrelevant whether the person we choose to love is likable or not.

  2. Faith means permanence in act. Faith can be instantiated in many different ways. For instance, one who loves, does so faithfully, in the sense that the act of loving never ceases. Likewise, when one holds a belief based on evidence, and continues to hold that belief despite of any pressures: the faithfulness here means unabashed adherence to what one knows to be true, even when faced with unfavourable consequences.

Faith is not intrinsically good; one can be faithful in good things, as well as bad. Faithfulness in relation to anything good becomes itself good, because it strives to make that goodness permanent.

Interpretation of A) and B)

God loves us unconditionally. If we don’t reject His love, and we love Him back, we are with Him (because that’s what we want.) If we reject it, we are without Him (for the same reason.)

When God asks us to believe in Him, he asks us to have faith in Him, to trust Him. That is, once we get to know Him and His Love, we are told to not cease to believe in Him and His Love, even when under pressure (i.e., be faithful in Him.) This trust should be based on the Love we experienced personally, just as the trust between two people in love is based on their knowing of each other.

Nobody can love or trust somebody if they don’t know that person to begin with; indeed, it’s absurd to love somebody while being convinced that person doesn’t even exist! An atheist is doing the only reasonable thing when he/she rejects invitations to “love God”, or “trust God”, when he/she sincerely doubts God exists in the first place. Conversely, the mere recognition that someone exists, is not sufficient for a relationship based on love. That means that just accepting the fact God exists, doesn’t do anything to get one close to Him.

Finally, it is possible to love God, even while believing He doesn’t exist. Jesus explained how this works: […]Then the righteous will answer him, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' "The King will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

In other words, by the definition of love above, “whenever you love the ones around you, you love Me.”

(I do not claim any deeper understanding of these concepts than others on this board – quite the contrary, actually. This discussion may well evolve above my ability to contribute. I hope, nevertheless, that it will garner the interest of those more knowledgeable, and generate new insights for all.)

Hi Lambda. Well, your post might convince people that do believe in god that atheists are not neccesarily doomed, so you reconcile atheism with theism.

But you have not reconciled theism with atheism. You haven’t convinced me (an atheist) that a theistic point of view is pretty much the same as a non-theistic point of view. Either an entity that fits the definition of god exists, or it does not, and I think it matters whether god exists or not.

So your post may help the theists from worrying about us atheists, it isn’t going to stop us atheists from worrying about the theists.

Hi, Lemur866. You said:

I wasn’t trying to convince you that theism and atheism are “pretty much the same”, because I don’t think they are. I agree with the stated dilemma: God either exists, or He doesn’t. This matters. But, for one’s salvation (assuming salvation is real,) it is not essential that one believes He exists.

I appreciate when someone worries about me :wink:

Really? How about all those cities he destroyed, or all those times he demanded his people to commit genocide in his name? If that’s defined as love, your definitions are faulty.

Aside from that major point, your argument has been made many times. It is a very New Testament concept, having more to do with Jesus than with any deity figure (YHVH/Elohim in the canon). I’m just waiting for someone to say that ‘God=Love, Atheists can Love, therefore Atheists are Theists’. Not what you meant, but the argument has been made. Something tells me I’ll have to define what an atheist is again before this is through.


What you have deduced (loosely) was given to me by revelation.

God said to me, “I am the Love Everlasting. Whatever men say about me with their minds is vapor. I cannot be known by the mind, but only by the heart. Stop dividing the world between theists and atheists, and start dividing it rightly, as I do. There are those who love and those who don’t. Those who love, they are my disciples.”

Observe Gaudere, an atheist, and you will see what God means.

Lambda – great post which I largely agree with, excepting the following terse criticisms.

It is not possible to love others in a way that denies them their freedom.

I admit, plowing the rock, as they say, is a waste of effort. But acting in love is a universal state of being which applies to all others. You can not shut it off for this or that other person; nor should you if you chose to love. Love even those who curse you.

Faith, as it is meant Biblically, means essentially putting your faith or trust in God.

I don’t think it is a question of will. Do or do not, there is no try ;).

faithful and faith do not mean the same thing.

True, but there is a fairly simply experiment you can perform which gives a reasonable inference the God exists, in so much as God’s promises (through Christ) are true.

True. However, that is only because reason and love are not of the same lineage.

BTW, Libertarian has yet to figure out the meaning of his revelation apparently. He can not see that there are different degrees of love, and it is a divine love which is required to be a disciple of God. If you do not love perfectly, you do not truly love.

Is perfect love not reserved for God alone? Doesn’t Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrate that no man can love perfectly?


Hm, so if I say that the IPU promises that if we drop a ball of a skyscraper it will fall to the ground, and in fact if I drop a ball off a skyscraper it falls, is a reasonable inference that the IPU exists?

[Edited by Gaudere on 09-11-2000 at 02:16 PM]


There is no imperfect Love. Love is perfect. Love is God. You are blinded by the atoms.

I believe Jesus commanded his followers to be perfect, just as God is pefect. But your statement, with divine understanding, is not false. However, if at any given moment you are not in a state of sin, you are loving perfectly in that moment. It is said that even a just man falls seven times a day (although I don’t think that is a requirement of being just, as some would try to argue!) but that means the just man must have a height from which to fall and must be continually lifted up yet again into a state of love.

How is that?

Gaudere – point taken. I don’t think even Ockham’s razor would quite cut through the Gordian knot of revelation a life of faith reveals – you may not wish to call what is left “God” – but science, through quantuum mechanics, can write anything off.

(the beginning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead comes to mind, where one of them keeps flipping a coin and it keeps landing on heads)

Lib – there is courtly love and divine love. Until you learn that there is a difference, you are the one who, while not blinded, are at best one-eyed.


I worship He Who lives in my heart. Whether He is the same One Whom you abandoned, I cannot say. But I trust His revelation, and recognized the intermediacy of no man. You included.

If your God does not profess the Virtue of Charity as an element of Love, then I would say they are not the same. Certaintly this is a Virtue which can be lived either imperfectly or perfectly depending on the type of love involved.

which love?




It is the kind of Love that will neither force faith from you nor reject it. It is the most beautiful Thing there is. No one who comes to Him is turned away, and no one is forced to come.

Ah, but what of those who do not come? Sure, we are not forced, but the time of judgement comes as it must, there is going to be some weeping and grinding of teeth.

(Navigator – what means “philo”?)

It’s a thin, flaky, many-layered pastry, used in baklava. Maybe not better than agape, but still pretty tasty. ::d&r::

scuse muh spellin…





John 21:15 (NASB)



I agree.

(AAH! You trademarked the opposite statement, and now this one sounds funny, too. Debating will never be the same.)



I agree, but that is how you understand love. And, while I may see it the same way you do, other people might have a different notion of what love is. For instance, some say “I love you” when they really mean “I need you.” That kind of “love” tends to limit the “loved” one’s freedom.

This is why I was trying to come up with a definition from scratch – to restrict the meaning of the word to that definition, in order to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing (at least for the purposes of this thread.)

I agree again, and I realize I let plenty of room for confusion there. I was trying to separate what you call “state of being” as it applies to the one who loves – according to the definition in the OP – from the effects of that love as they are perceived by the loved one. The receiver must be able to say “don’t act on your love, don’t interfere with my life; just leave me alone.” That was what I meant by acting: exterior acting. You have to continue to wish that person well, but not intervene in fact, if you were specifically asked not to.

I referred to the Biblical sense in the same terms in the last part of the OP. But this is just some people’s notion of faith. I was attempting to start from first principles. For instance, many people (not all) find it difficult to have faith in some God that they think is only the product of human imagination. When they hear you say “I have faith”, they think you mean “I believe things without proof.” They assimilate faith with credulity.

Also, faith still has a useful meaning when applied, say, to friends, or parents, as opposed to God. I wanted to highlight the general meaning, while ridding it of the connotation of irrationality.

Well, I guess this is what happens when a foreigner lectures natives on their own language ;). I meant “faithfulness.” (But I can’t resist noting that you previously explained what “faith” was in response to my definition of “faithful”!)

How do you mean? I agree “they are not of the same lineage”, but that doesn’t make love irrational. We can only love (or trust) what we know. (Unless we take into account my newly discovered love for the Invisible Pink Unicorn :))

And your point?

With the caveat that this should not apply to the public forum. Jesus said some things which some of those in his audience found distasteful enough to kill him over, and he knew that they would not wish him to say such things.

That is largely the fault of some who call themselves Christians and claim they are “saved through faith” but do not, in fact, put their trust in God but in worldly things. The language has evolved to fit their connotation.

As you know, you must start with certain axioms. If you start with the wrong axioms, reason will not lead you to love. And this is the true complete Reason which leads you towards Love, but it can only take you so far. Because if you are a servant to Reason you are not a servant to Love, though Reason itself serves love as best it is able. You are more able to serve Love yourself directly than Reason is able to once you have reached the perfection of servitude Reason calls you to.