The Confident Christian
8/11/12 at 12:24 PM 58 Comments

What is Atheism?

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A survey recently released by WIN-Gallup International appears to show atheism on the rise in various countries. Although some of the wording used in the survey has been questioned (e.g. “religious” vs. “spiritual”), the research shows nearly a 10% increase in those labeling themselves as a “convinced atheist”.

This being the case, it’s good to revisit exactly what atheism is and the claims that it makes.

Getting Started

Atheism is a belief / worldview that denies the existence of any supernatural deity. Shaftesbury says: “To believe nothing of a designing Principle or Mind, nor any Cause, Measure, or Rule of things, but Chance . . . is to be a perfect atheist.”

Broken down, “A” (no) “theism” (god), means simply “no god(s)”. Although the word itself and its meaning is certainly straightforward, there are a wide range of philosophical complications and issues that must be addressed, and clarifications that need to be made where atheism is concerned.

The first and foremost problem that arises from the word “atheist” is the type of truth claim being made. Dr. Mortimer Adler describes the difficulty in this manner: “An affirmative existential proposition can be proved, but a negative existential proposition – one that denies the existence of some thing – cannot be proved.”[1] 

When a negative existential truth claim is put forward, the one making the claim has shot themselves not in the foot, but in the head. Unless the person can be in all places of the entire universe at the same time, they have no way of confirming that whatever they claim does not exist, in fact, does not exist. This is conundrum the atheist finds him/herself in.

Recognizing their predicament, atheists like Richard Dawkins counter such an argument by saying that, while they cannot prove a flying spaghetti monster does not exist, it is highly improbable such a thing actually exists, so the wiser intellectual position to hold is one that says such a thing does not exist.

However, such an argument commits two errors. First, comparing God with a flying spaghetti monster commits the logical error of faulty analogy.

Second, just because something is improbable does not rule out its existence. For example, all scientists admit that humanity’s very existence is inordinately improbable. Scientific scholars acknowledge that it is against all mathematical odds that all of the universe’s cosmic constants and biological mechanisms necessary for life would come to be. And yet, here we are.

The question is not whether the existence of God is improbable, but rather is there logical, reasonable evidence that moves one toward a conclusion that God exists.

Atheists answer that question negatively, so the next move they make is to say that God “probably” does not exist. A recent example of this stance has been the advertorial bus signs that have appeared in various countries the past few years stating: “God probably does not exist”.

This claim, however, is flawed for two reasons. First, it’s not the way human beings live most every other area of their life they consider important. Few would eat a meal labeled “Probably not poison” and less would board a plane marked “Probably safe to fly”.

But secondly, it ignores the fact that the seriousness of a truth claim dictates the amount of evidence necessary to support it. The atheist truth claim carries with it enormous, irreparable and eternal consequences if it is wrong. That being the case, it is intellectually and morally incumbent upon the atheist to produce weighty and overriding evidence to support his/her position, but they provide nothing to substantiate the flippant assertion that God “probably” does not exist.

Atheism simply cannot meet the test for evidence for the seriousness of the truth claim it makes. Instead, using a supposed argument from silence, the atheist and those whom he/she convinces of their position slide into death with their fingers crossed hoping they do not face the unpleasant reality that eternity is an awfully long time to be wrong.

Has science disproven God?

Some atheists recognize the gravity of this situation, and therefore when pressed for evidence, they take a stand that can be boiled down to “Science has disproven God”. However, there are several reasons that show this claim to be both enormously brittle and not well thought out. But first, to understand the rationale behind the position, a little history is necessary.

After the events of 9/11, a branch of atheism – militant atheism (which I call hatetheism) – aggressively rose up and demanded that society must get rid of all religion. Rather than focusing on religious extremists who use religion to justify violent and murderous actions, the militant atheists lumped all peoples of faith into the same basic bucket and labeled religion as a whole dangerous.

But the question facing the militant atheists was, “How will we get rid of religion?” The apparent agreement was to use science as its bedrock and tool to replace the need for religion. This tactic is nothing new and was the same position put forward by Thomas Huxley in the 1800’s when he sought to install scientists as the new priests for humankind. This “faith” in science is not science at all, but scientism, which says that science and science alone is the singular way to discover truth.

While science has indeed delivered many great gifts to humankind, the hopes atheism has for scientism replacing religion are ill founded. First, scientism is self-refuting. The statement “we should only believe what can be scientifically proven” itself cannot be scientifically proven (because it is a philosophical statement), and so based on its own criteria, it should be rejected.

Second, it ignores other much-respected and used methods for obtaining knowledge. For example, the legal/forensic/historical method of discovering truth is used every day and is very well respected. The legal method does not ignore testimony or facts because they are not empirically reproducible or testable. By a process of elimination and corroboration, the legal method allows history and testimony to speak for itself until a verdict is reached beyond a reasonable doubt and the balance of probability is achieved.

Third, scientism has proven disastrous from a moral perspective. Militant atheism asserts that if religion can be banished, then humankind will have peace and harmony. But even a cursory look backwards at history since the Enlightenment says otherwise. Instead of resulting in peace, the Enlightenment ushered in one secular bloody revolution after another climaxing in the twentieth century, which produced the largest mass grave in history. Ironically, one of atheism’s chief heralds – Nietzsche – predicted (correctly) that, because he and others had supposedly killed God in the nineteenth century, the twentieth century would be the bloodiest ever.

Lastly, rather pointing away from a transcendent Creator, advances in science have – more than ever – confirmed the existence of a theistic God. The death of the steady state theory and the current understanding that the universe as we know it exploded out of nothing into existence, the incredible fine tuning of the universe for human life, the confirmation of specified complexity like DNA that in a single strand contains digital information equivalent to 600,000 pages of intelligence and is mathematically identical to a language, all act as pointers to an intelligent source that is behind it all.

In truth, atheism’s position on science commits the logical fallacy of the false dilemma. Atheism demands that a person choose between science and God, where in fact, no such division need occur. Such a requirement can be likened to a person being forced to choose between (1) the laws of internal combustion and (2) Henry Ford, as to why a car exists.

The fact is the two choices are not contradictory, but complementary. The atheist misses the important difference between agency (Henry Ford) and mechanism (internal combustion). In the same way, God is the intelligent agency and efficient cause behind everything, with his natural laws and mechanisms carrying out His intentions to produce His desired end result.

Where to go from here?

In the end, the atheist cannot rely on science to disprove the existence of a transcendent Creator and is forced into the admission that atheism itself is not a fact, but instead a belief system that relies on faith. The real clash is not between science and religion but between the atheistic/naturalistic and the theistic worldviews.

This being the case, the atheistic worldview must address two fatal mistakes it makes regarding the concept of faith: (1) that faith is only a religious concept; (2) that faith means believing in something where there is no evidence. Neither is true.

In terms of the first point, some honest atheists will admit that atheism is a worldview and faith. For example, atheist George Klein wrote: “I am an atheist. My attitude is not based on science, but rather on faith. . . . The absence of a Creator, the non-existence of God is my childhood faith, my adult belief, unshakable and holy.”[2] 

As to faith being defined as a belief that lacks evidence, nothing could be further from the truth. Science has faith in logic, mathematics, natural laws, and the intelligibility of the universe and believes all such things are firm and will never change. People also act on faith every day from meals they eat in restaurants, medicine they take from doctors, and marriages they participate in with their spouse.

In the Bible’s New Testament, the word “pistis” is used for “faith”. It is a noun that comes from the verb “peitho”, which means “to be persuaded”. The best lexicons (e.g. BDAG) show the meaning of “pistis”, to be: “a state of believing on the basis of the reliability of the one trusted, “trust, confidence”, “that which evokes trust”, “reliability, fidelity pertaining to being worthy of belief or trust”. In other words, the idea that faith means blind belief in the face of opposing evidence is foreign in Scripture.

In conclusion, then, both atheism and theism make statements on faith that concern ultimate reality. Both must refer back to something that is eternal because each recognizes that everything that exists depends upon and owes its existence ultimately to something other than itself.

To the atheist, that ultimate reality is an eternal universe where only physical matter exists. Atheism’s struggle is to explain how the universe is eternal when all scientific discovery shows it had a beginning, and how – since an effect always resembles its cause in essence – an impersonal, non-conscious, meaningless, purposeless, and amoral universe accidentally created personal, conscious, moral beings who are obsessed with meaning and purpose.

The theist has no such problem because it holds that a personal, conscious, purposeful, intelligent, moral, eternal God created beings in His likeness and established the universe and its laws to govern their existence.

Far from atheism which one of its chief spokesmen - Jean Paul Sartre – described as “A long, hard, cruel business”, the Bible says that God created a meaningful and rewarding existence where, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard” (Psalm 19:1–3).

In the end, Dr. John Lennox makes the choices between atheism and theism clear: “There are not many options – essentially just two. Either human intelligence ultimately owes its origin to mindless matter; or there is a Creator. It is strange that some people claim that it is their intelligence that leads them to prefer the first to the second.”[3]

A PowerPoint presentation of this article is also available.

[1] Adler, M. 1990. Truth in Religion. (New York: McMillian, 1990), pg. 36.

[3] John Lennox, God’s Undertaker, Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion, 2007), 210.

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