Atheists: Believers in Fate, Reincarnation, and Karma?

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The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of atheism is: “a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods.” Of course, that does not encapsulate everything that atheism is or everything atheists believe. For example, because of their belief that there is no god, atheists hold to naturalism and materialism and therefore, they are supposed to disavow anything supernatural or spiritual. . . but do they?

Can’t Quite Seem to Get Away From the Supernatural

A recent study on atheists and agnostics (those who say we cannot know whether or not a God or gods exist) showed that they are not quite as naturalistic as most might believe.

A recent study on atheists and agnostics (those who say we cannot know whether or not a God or gods exist) showed that they are not quite as naturalistic as most might believe. Despite not believing in a God (or gods), neither of these groups seem to have completely rejected supernatural beliefs about issues such as “life after death, astrology, and the existence of a life-force.”

During a UK-based study, Understanding Unbelief, atheists and agnostics from various countries, including Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom were interviewed.1 In the New Scientist overview of the study, they highlighted that the majority of atheists (71%) and agnostics (92%) believed in “at least one supernatural phenomenon or entity,” the most common being a belief in “fate” (“significant life events are meant to be” and “underlying forces of good and evil” exist), but astrology, reincarnation, and karma all made the list as well.2

For some atheists/agnostics, it is easy to mix certain aspects of different religions into their worldview. For example, over 8% of Japanese respondents and 1% of Chinese respondents identified themselves as Buddhists. In most forms of Buddhism, there is no personal God or gods, and, ultimately, Buddhism teaches that any “god idea” has its origin in fear, which needs to be mastered and put away by meditation, and that belief in God is not necessary to achieve enlightenment.3 Buddhism could best be described as non-theistic: that if there are any gods, they don’t matter.4

But for most, it is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile atheism or agnosticism with a religion that believes in God—like Christianity. Nevertheless, atheists and agnostics still borrow many aspects from a biblical worldview—whether they realize it or not. For example, logic, truth, knowledge, morality, and science—which are predicated on the Bible being true—do not come from a materialistic and naturalistic view of things. Atheists and agnostics often agree that logic, truth, morality, and so on exist, but it cannot be justified in their worldview.

Why This “Irrational” Belief?

Returning to the New Scientist popular summary of the study, it describes these beliefs as irrational and, indeed, in the naturalistic worldview of atheists and agnostics, they certainly are illogical beliefs. If there is no God or gods sovereignly directing what happens on earth, how can one believe in anything like fate? And with no ultimate foundation for right and wrong, there can be no good or evil, let alone a “force” of good or evil. So why do so many atheists and agnostics hold to one or more of these irrational beliefs?

While some of the more ardent atheists like to paint the picture of all atheists being completely (and obligately) naturalistic, the numbers say differently.

Some “supernatural” beliefs among agnostics could be expected in their “can’t know for sure” mindset, but the results among atheists (average of 71% and up to 90% in China) were definitely surprising. While some of the more ardent atheists like to paint the picture of all atheists being completely (and obligately) naturalistic, the numbers say differently.

One of the leaders of the project, from Queen’s University Belfast, Jonathan Lanman, provided this explanation:

Humans are not rational. All those individual supernatural beliefs might have a distinct psychological foundation, it’s not like there’s a ‘religion’ module in the mind that produces all of them.

But the Bible provides a much different answer:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:18–22, c.f. Ephesians 4:17-19, Titus 1:15-16).

Romans 1 is clear: it is obvious from what God has made that he exists, and those who refuse to acknowledge it suppress the truth in unrighteousness. But they are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and have a difficult time completely getting rid of their innate knowledge of God. They try, but cannot quite seem to do it. Instead, they hold to irrational beliefs that are inconsistent with their worldview.

A Deep Longing

Like everyone, atheists and agnostics long for meaning, purpose, and hope. After all, God has written eternity on their hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), so they know there must be more to this life than what we can see. But their worldview does not offer any ultimate meaning, purpose, or hope. In their worldview, when you die, you cease to exist. That’s it. The end. Or is it? If that were really true, then why do up to 25% of atheist and 35% of agnostic responses “agree” or “strongly agree” that reincarnation exists? And (even more surprisingly) why do up to 30% of atheists and agnostics “agree” or “strongly agree” that life after death exists?5 That certainly seems like a core-belief contradiction.

Since atheists and agnostics know there is no ultimate meaning, purpose, or hope in that kind of outlook, what do many atheists and agnostics do to give themselves the very thing their worldview cannot supply? They add a (false) hope to their worldview: karma, astrology, fate, reincarnation—or many other things for which the study didn’t account. Each of these beliefs gives some idea that there is more to us and this life than just naturalism. That, somehow, our lives have some kind of cosmic purpose or meaning, and maybe, just maybe, there really is something beyond the here and now.

The Hope Everyone Needs

But what these atheists and agnostics really need to do is acknowledge the bankruptcy of their worldview and ditch it! They need to give up a worldview that cannot give them what they truly long for and embrace the only one that can: a biblical worldview grounded in the reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In a biblical worldview, we were created by God in his very image. We have been created with purpose: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Or, as the Shorter Catechism puts it, “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” We have purpose and meaning in loving God and loving others (Matthew 22:37 and 39). That is how we bring glory to the One who made us and whose image we bear.

The biblical worldview does not just give us purpose and meaning, it also provides us with a hope that can never be taken away.

And the biblical worldview does not just give us purpose and meaning, it also provides us with a hope that can never be taken away. Scripture is clear that we are sinners and, looking around the world, it is pretty obvious that we are. We cannot keep God’s law, and the penalty for our rebellion against God is death (Romans 5:12).

So Jesus stepped into history and died on the cross, taking the penalty of death for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). If we repent (turn from our sin) and put our faith and trust in Christ and his completed work (Romans 10:9), we are forgiven of our sin, clothed in the very righteousness of Christ, and given new (2 Corinthians 5:17) and eternal life that can never spoil or fade (1 Peter 1:4). We have hope for now and eternity because of the gospel!

That’s the message every single person needs to hear and believe.

Footnotes

  1. Stephen Bullivant, et al., “Understanding Unbelief Atheists and Agnostics Around the World,” St Mary’s University, Twickenham, UK, 2019: 1-24 https://research.kent.ac.uk/understandingunbelief/wp-content/uploads/sites/45/2019/05/UUReportRome.pdf.
  2. New Scientist, “Most atheists believe in the supernatural, despite trusting science,” last modified May 30, 2019. https://institutions.newscientist.com/article/2204958-most-atheists-believe-in-the-supernatural-despite-trusting-science/.
  3. Ven S. Dhammika, “Do Buddhist believe in god?,” accessed July 23, 2019. http://www.buddhanet.net/ans73.htm.
  4. Barbara O'Brien, “Atheism and Devotion in Buddhism,” last modified on June 11, 2018. https://www.learnreligions.com/atheism-and-devotion-in-buddhism-449718.
  5. Stephen Bullivant, et al.,13.

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