atheistsMany atheists are assured of the truth of their position, arguing that religious beliefs are merely blind faith at best and stupidity at worst. As Richard Dawkins writes, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.” This is the great assumption of atheism: that there is no objective evidence to ground a belief in God in general or any evidence that one or more of the theistic traditions in particular is true.

This essay does not attempt to demonstrate that there is proof that God exists, but it simply asks would it take for atheists to be able to claim that they are in a superior position intellectually.

First, atheists would have to be able to provide proof or justification for their own belief that they suggest theists lack. Atheism presumes the truth of the proposition that there is no such being as God. This is a claim to know something. Just as the atheist demands that the theist provide “proof” for the existence of God, so too must she give her justification for why she believes it to be true that God does not exist. This is a much more difficult task than it may at first appear to be. The following types of arguments for the truth of atheism are not exhaustive, but they are common. First, atheists claim that certain religious beliefs are impossible, and thus they are false. Further, they appeal to the imperfect world in which we live. Finally, atheists invoke science as a death blow to religious belief.

bibleFurthermore, a great number of atheists criticize religious beliefs. They point to particular passages of scripture that seem too bizarre to believe. For example, many challenge the biblical claims that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish, that Noah gathered two of every species of animals on an ark, or that a serpent spoke to a woman named Eve in a garden. To the atheist’s mind, (1) if these are fantastic, then they are unbelievable; (2) if they are unbelievable, then they must be false; and (3) if they are false, then God must not exist. However, this kind of tactic does not do the task it sets out to do. Even if the atheist is successful in showing that particular scriptures lie outside empirical verification or are fantastic in nature, it does not follow that they are false. However, let us suppose that the atheist was successful in showing that certain scriptural events did not, in fact, take place. This still is not proof that atheism is true; rather, it would show that certain stories were false.

What the atheist needs to do is to offer a set of true premises in the form of a valid argument that leads to the necessary conclusion that the proposition “there is no God” is true. On the one hand, the theist’s critique shows that these recorded events could only truly take place if there actually is a God. Thus, if Jonah did not spend three days in the belly of a big fish, it does not follow that God does not exist. On the other hand, if Jonah did spend three days in the belly of a great fish, then it is most likely that God had something to do with it. The point here is that the reliability of scripture does not determine whether or not God exists. The Christian scriptures could conceivably be false, yet God can still exist.

Many atheists recognize that the task of creating the case for atheism is much more challenging than simply attacking scripture. One philosophical argument they offer is based on the existence of evil. This suggests that if God exists, then evil should not exist. Yet evil does exist. Therefore, the atheist concludes that God does not exist. This argument brings into question two aspects of God’s nature: His power and His goodness. The presumption of this argument is that if God is all powerful, then He would eliminate evil. Given that evil exists, God must not be able to rid the world of it. Thus, God is not all powerful. The argument also brings into question God’s goodness in that if the God that exists is beneficent, then He would not allow the suffering that evil causes. However, there is suffering in the world, and therefore the atheist concludes that a loving God does not exist.

The argument based on the existence of evil is powerful indeed. This, coupled with criticisms aimed at specific religious beliefs, may lead one to think that this is a one-two knockout combination. However, there are at least two problems with the argument. First, it is self-referentially defeating; that is, if it is true, then it falsifies itself. This is much like making the claim that “there is no such thing as truth.” If the statement is true, then it falsifies itself. This is because it cannot be true according to the statement “there is no truth.” The argument in regard to evil falsifies itself in the same way because if objective evil exists, then objective moral values must exist. Objective moral values are not created by cultures; they are discovered. For example, no matter how much a culture accepts the practice of raping children, the act is objectively evil. Objective moral values are not merely the sociological observations of accepted and rejected behaviors in a given culture. They tell us what we ought to accept or reject. Cultures are judged by objective moral truths. Objective moral values require God to exist. The atheist’s argument rests on the idea that objective evil exists, which requires God to exist. Yet the atheist denies the existence of God and is thereby caught in a vicious circle. For if there is no God, then there are no objective moral values. If there are no moral values, then there is no objective evil. If there is no evil, then there is no argument based on its existence. But if there is objective evil, then there is objective moral value. If there is objective moral value, then there is a God.

evil-and-sufferingThe second part of this argument brings into question God’s goodness. Is it true that a benevolent God would not allow evil and suffering? First, as stated above, there cannot be objective evil if there is no God. This is because evil is a privation of goodness, which is grounded in the nature of God. The question as to why God would allow suffering and evil is a common one. Yet, in order for God to allow the suffering from evil, He must first exist. One who does not exist does not allow anything. However, what does this say about God’s power? Can God eradicate evil? If God is maximally powerful, then it would seem that He could. Why, then, does He not do so? Throughout the centuries, theologians and philosophers have spilled much ink attempting to answer this question. The most common argument is known as a theodicy, which asserts that the existence of a beneficent God is consistent with the existence of evil and suffering in the world.  Theodicies rest on the idea that God has created a world in which creatures are free to act as they choose. Because of their free will, they often rebel and hurt one another. A theodicy claims that a world without evil is a world without free will. Although a world that has free will is one with evil and suffering, such a world is preferable. This is because love that is freely given is preferable to love that is guaranteed by design. The first claim of the problem of evil brings into question the existence of God, and yet it also requires God’s existence to work. The second claim brings into question God’s love, and with it a deeper understanding of His desire for us to freely enter into a relationship with Him.

Atheists often claim that, somehow, science has proven that God does not exist. Many believe that, in some way, the Big Bang Theory and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution have proven once and for all that theism is false. Is this true? What most atheists do not know is that the Big Bang Theory was first postulated by a Catholic priest, Monsignor Georges Lemaître. Opposition to Lemaître’s theory did not come from the theistic community. Instead, it was the atheist Fred Hoyle who pejoratively coined the term “Big Bang.” Hoyle and others rejected Lemaître’s theory because of its religious implications. Far from proving that God does not exist, the opposition saw his theory as an attempt to use science to prove His existence because the theory demonstrates that the universe did not always exist. Furthermore, since the universe came into being, it needed a cause. This cause could not be physical since the physical universe did not yet exist. Therefore, this cause must have been non-physical and uncaused itself. This is the “uncaused cause” that Thomas Aquinas referred to as God.

Darwinian evolution has not fared so well either. There has been much criticism of Darwin’s theory amongst his fellow evolutionists. Many recognize that his theory of natural selection is not consistent with the evidence. This is not to say that evolution has been abandoned all together. In fact, numerous scientists have offered different accounts of how evolution might have occurred. The late Stephen J. Gould argued that, instead of small changes over long periods of time, species showed long periods of stasis with short periods of rapid change. This theory is known as “punctuated equilibrium.” Gould presented this theory in light of the dearth of evidence from the fossil record of gradual change over time. Even still, evolution is not incompatible with the belief in God. Many theists believe that God had a hand in the evolution of species. Some of the most prominent Christian scholars embrace “theistic evolution;” a short list includes Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Robert Audi, Howard J. Van Till, Simon Morris, Kenneth Miller, and Pope Benedict XVI.

The problem with the arguments discussed above is that they do not necessitate the conclusion that God does not exist. The more damning problem is that atheists’ arguments are conscripted by theists to adequately show that there is, in fact, evidence for the existence of God.

In addition to justifying the claim that atheism is true, the atheist must give an account of all the phenomena that are internally consistent with his claims. What this means is that the atheist must be able to give an explanation of the contents of the world that is consistent with the truth claims of atheism. For example, part of the atheistic worldview is that rights do not originate from God. As argued above, if there is no such thing as God, then God did not endow man with rights. This would mean that there are no unwritten rights as part of man’s endowment. If there are no unwritten rights, then there is no unwritten obligation to treat others equally. Yet many atheists argue that religious groups have unjustly used their positions of authority to oppress women and minorities. Even if this were true, the atheistic worldview does not possess a theory of morality with any position to judge such acts as immoral. Those who judge the religious as immoral can do so only from a religious worldview that includes the concepts of good and evil. Atheism denies the grounding for objective good and evil. Thus, it cuts off the branch it sits on to make such a claim. According to the atheistic worldview, there are no demons or angels; there are only animals of varying degrees of social complexity. Furthermore, just because humans are more cognitively complex than other species, it does not follow that one group of humans is bound to another by any moral obligations at all. Yet this is the type of claim that academic atheist groups such as secular humanists make when they write, “For the first time in human history, we possess the means provided by science and technology to ameliorate the human condition, advance happiness and freedom, and enhance human life for all people on this planet.” There is nothing about atheism that requires this moral position. Yet, the most learned of atheists collect themselves to commit themselves to such behavior. Lest the point be lost, my argument is not that atheists are immoral. My argument is that they tend to believe that there is an obligation to be moral when, in fact, their worldview does not require this.

chimpanzeeThe atheist’s morality is internally inconsistent with the requirements of atheism. Instead, atheists tend to adopt ethical actions that are more at home in religious worldviews. The Humanist Manifesto 2000 issued by the Council for Secular Humanism declares that “the underlying ethical principle of Planetary Humanism is the need to respect the dignity and worth of all persons in the world community.” The atheist position has no answer to the question of why humanity is of any more value than the animal kingdom. Theists believe that man bears the image of God, and thus he has eternal intrinsic value. From the atheistic position, there is no such intrinsic worth. Thus, as philosopher William Lane Craig argues, “any suggestion that man has higher value than the animals, on the atheistic model, amounts to nothing more than speciesism.” The idea that humans have intrinsic value is simply unnecessary in the atheistic view of reality.

Many atheists have replied to this argument by suggesting that morality is an aid to survival. However, this view is not exclusive to the atheistic worldview. Just as in the cases of the Big Bang Theory and the Theory of Evolution, theists can embrace this theory without violating their belief that God exists. The problem is that atheists presuppose something very theistic in this answer. This atheistic explanation of morality presupposes that life is good. This implies that there is something more than just descriptively different about living things and non-living things. The claim is that life is intrinsically more valuable than non-life. While it is nice to know that atheists recognize intrinsic value, the concept is not part of the atheistic framework. Keep in mind that atheists believe that life is an accident. According to atheism, life happened as the unintended consequences of time and chance. Rocks and cells differ in complexity, not in value. Even Daniel Dennett recognizes this when he writes, “Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares.” The belief in value statements in general and the value of human life in particular stands as a glaring inconsistency in the atheistic worldview.

Finally, if atheists are truly smarter than those who believe in God, then it would seem that they have more true beliefs than religious folk. More specifically, if atheists are smarter than those who believe in God, the deciding factor should be that atheism is true. The most educated of atheists have failed to prove that God does not exist. As a matter of fact, one of the most influential atheists of the twentieth century recanted his atheism. In 1976, Antony Flew wrote an essay titled “The Presumption of Atheism.” In 2007, this philosophical hero of atheists everywhere wrote the book There Is a God, recounting his conversion to theism. Although one man’s abandonment of atheism does not show the position to be false, it does demonstrate that even the most intellectually entrenched atheist can be swayed by philosophical arguments for the existence of God. Moreover, it shows that those committed to atheism are not without their doubts. Atheism is not obvious to the intellectually honest while intellectually depraved theists embrace fairy tales and superstitions. The belief that God does not exist requires maintenance in the face of the evidence for the existence of God.

shutterstock_70816705If atheists were successful in proving that God does not, in fact, exist, then certain statements would necessarily follow. First, if God does not exist, then the world is without a cause. Yet if the world was caused, then, as Aquinas argued, the uncaused cause known as God exists. Second, if God does not exist, then there is no objective moral value to ground objective human rights. Yet there is objective human value, which, in turn, grounds objective human rights. And if there are objective human rights, as atheists readily agree, then there is a God who grounds such rights. Finally, if God does not exist, then there really is no objective purpose to life, but if life does have objective purpose, then God exists. The fact that humans throughout history have sought objective purpose beyond the fulfillment of their appetites is testimony to the fact that man’s life has little meaning without it. Man does not determine his purpose—he discovers it. If man has purpose apart from his own desires, then something else must determine this. Purpose is not an accident. Purpose requires design, and design requires a designer. It is not the result of time and chance. Purpose is given, and only that which has purpose can give it. If atheism is true, then man has no cause, no value, and no purpose. Yet mankind does have a cause. Mankind does have value. And mankind does have purpose. God created man, God endowed man, and God gave man purpose. Thus, it cannot be true that there is no such being as God.

In my years as an academic, I have challenged my atheist colleagues to show me the truth of atheism. Many have admitted that the best they could even convince themselves of is robust agnosticism. Yet for those who desire to claim intellectual superiority, this is not good enough. If all atheists can do is muster up agnosticism, then they cannot claim intellectual superiority over theists.

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16 replies to this post
  1. Since this article is composed of Straw Men, then you failed to prove your point.

    The very first argument, that atheists have a positive claim to prove, is a false statement. First, there is no standard atheist belief. Second, atheism is the lack of belief in a god, not the belief there is no God. The two are similar, but separate. An atheist is unconvinced by any religious claim. A religion has a positive claim of a diety or some type of theology. An atheist simply remains unconvinced. Like UFO crashes or Bigfoot, proving them wrong is not required to not believe in them.

    You might be confused because often an atheist will argue one point or other of belief, to demonstrate a specific thing we don’t believe. My atheism, for instance, started when I asked my parish priest teaching my confirmation class to explain the Trinity to me. After a load of waffle and silliness and special pleading and “just so” descriptions, I remained unconvinced. He told me it was a mystery and I should meditate on it. That told me he had no idea what it was, either. To this day I haven’t heard or read an explanation that wasn’t ridiculous.

    I don’t have to prove it wrong, just point out where the reasoning fails, say try again, and remain unconvinced.

    • So Mike, you reject the notion that there are things mysterious that lie beyond human comprehension. You hold as the highest source of proof an explanation that makes sense to you and if one priest fails at it, then that is evidence enough for you to adopt disbelief as position? This sounds awfully narrow and perhaps even intellectually lazy- If you hold as your highest source of credibility your own mind properly perceiving the explanations of certain less than capable men, you are bound to end with disbelief. Why don’t you ask St. Augustine what the trinity is? He is sure to have a much better answer.

  2. Hi Mike,
    Thanks for taking the time to read my article. I would like to respond to some of the critiques you had. First, you accused me of offering up straw men arguments. One way for you to prove this is to offer a stronger version of the argument that I gave. So if you have a stronger version of the atheistic argument, then show it to me so I can address it properly. Second, you stated that “there is no standard atheist belief.” Yet, in the very next sentence you gave a standard when you wrote “atheism is the lack of belief in a god, not the belief there is no God.” If there is no standard, then atheism is neither of these. However, what you have done was to say that all those who call themselves “atheists” are merely those who are unconvinced. I personally know many atheists that do not fall under this standard that you have given.
    The definition of atheism that I am working from is not “a lack of belief.” Instead, it is a claim that God in fact does not exist. If you call your skepticism atheism, then this article is not about you. I could have asked “can those who are not convinced by religious claims possess the intellectual high ground?”, but I did not. However, I chose to ask if (atheists) those who believe that God does not exist have the intellectual high ground? So your task is to address my claim that those who believe that God does not exist do not possess the intellectual high ground. To do so, you must give an argument as to why their position is intellectually superior. Merely denying that you have any beliefs about God will not grant you intellectual superiority.
    Now I want to address your statement about how you became an atheist. First, just because a priest cannot adequately describe the triune nature of God does not mean that God does not exist. Philosophical theology may not be this priest’s expertise. But even if the Trinity cannot be comprehended by man, it does not follow that it is false or that God does not exist. I believe in atoms and the parts that make them up. However, physicists cannot explain them in ways that we all understand them. Moreover, physicists disagree among themselves about the nature of subatomic particles. Yet, for all the misunderstandings, I have not denied that atoms or their parts exist. This is not to convince you that God exists, but to show that merely not being able to explain something does not mean that it does not exist. I find that those who do not believe in God do not reject Him on the basis of evidence. Instead, I have found that those who do not believe in God just want Him to not exist. My challenge to you is to ask yourself (not for me) if you would like God to exist, or if you would like Him not to exist? This has nothing to do with evidence.

  3. I have a couple of points to make. First, though I understand the point being made, IMO the article seems to confuse moral high ground with apologetic high ground. If we are talking about one’s moral high ground, this always includes ones actions toward others. Here, both history and the Scriptures teach us no one has the moral high ground. Religious people who argue otherwise are, IMO, more interested in establishing authoritarian credentials.

    Second, we need to distinguish what is need for the atheist to disprove the claims of a religion from proving that there is no supernatural or that any gods exist. Here, we must be upfront about the inconsistencies in the Scriptures and how some of the stories are difficult to believe. But such does not mean that the Scriptures are wrong. Here we are dealing with more than a few problems from small mistakes addressed by lower criticism to the necessity of God’s Spirit in believing what God’s Word says. The real question for the atheist is this: Can he/she explain how the world could come about and exist outside of the existence of the God of the Bible? Here, some of the questions which Holzer asked above also come into play.

    • “Here, both history and the Scriptures teach us no one has the moral high ground.”

      This is, of course, ridiculous. This is the sort of moral relativism/moral equivalency that states that Charles Manson and Mother Theresa are morally the same.

      • Eric,
        Some of the Scriptures that support what I wrote:

        1. Parable of the two men praying
        2. Parable of the unmerciful servant
        3. The New Testament verses telling us not to judge others (Matthew 7 and Romans 2)
        4. Paul’s statement in Romans on how the religious are not better than those who don’t believe because all are under sin (Romans 3:9)
        5. The part of the Lord’s prayer where we are to pray ‘forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors’ and Jesus’ explanation of it.

        See, it isn’t just moral relativists who say that no one has the moral high ground. And perhaps what is confusing is that different people can agree on the same statement but for different reasons.

        But perhaps my statement needed to be more nuanced. For when we compare people with people, you could say that some have the moral high ground at times. But that is only perhaps. When we compare ourselves with God and His law, we are all under sin and in need of mercy and grace. There is no hierarchy between people when the standard is God’s law. We are all at the bottom or we have no need for Jesus.

        • I’m not sure what your point is, other than you seem to dislike the idea of a moral hierarchy. But without one there would be chaos. The murderer would be the moral equivalent of the saint.

          • Eric,
            The appropriateness of moral hierarchy depends on context. And that is my point. For example, one only needs to read the parable of the two men praying or to read the scriptures I listed.

  4. For what it’s worth…and perhaps not much…but my “favorite” atheisms are of the Nietzsche/Heidegger/Sartre kind, because they pass over all the back and forth and go straight to the heart of the matter. They simply start from the “obvious” conclusion that the God of the Bible is not, and then move forward from there and try to cope. Basically, they invite us in to observe their personal religious/poetic struggles. They ask all the right questions, but specifically demand that these questions be answered within a system that is contained within this world, as it were, which is consistent with their starting points. And interestingly, along the way, they make many incredible and truthful insights into human life.

    The problem is that each time (well in my experience at least) I find something insightful, I also recall that the same insight can also be found in Scripture.

    Eventually in their trying to cope, they eventually fail, at least in my readings, because there is no real answer, at least a workable one. At least for N and H, the answer seems to be something like, “we should be good, strong Greeks”. But without the violence, of course….not really something that is attainable. And of course Heidegger’s politics, well, that seems to me to be entirely compatible with if not demanded by the whole trajectory of his thought. So they fail, and their system of questioning, philosophisizing with a hammer and all, fails and for those that buy in entirely, it increases misery.

    But in my experience, starting from a different starting point, namely, that the God of the Bible is, and then moving forward with that, has worked pretty well and answers the difficult questions of life. And as I go about that, I have found less and less to talk about with committed atheists, because we are simply starting from utterly different starting points, and these starting points color every idea and every experience. This makes dialogue nearly impossible, and in my experience, unpleasant b/c they become angry and well, alas, I don’t have time for that…..

  5. On a side note, the faith in government power and promise does have a very real faith attached to it by, you might say, believers. I find myself skeptical on that, the justification presenting itself every day, more so recently. There’s all kinds of faith, isn’t there?

  6. I didn’t find there to be straw man arguments here at all. I have found that when atheists are cornered they come up with one of two replies. (1) Evolution, everything came through evolution, as if evolution came about by magic, and (2) straw man argument. Everyone that makes cogent points is always making a straw man argument. Nice essay Mr. Holzer. It’s always good to review these points every so often.

  7. Is it the belief, or non-belief in a God that is important? Isn’t the recognition that Christianity, and its fulfilment of Mans nature to believe in a higher order, has done nothing but improve Mankind’s existence, enough? The problem with wide spread atheism, is that it would result in a society based on anarchy, or a totalitarian police state. Put it this way, if a group of atheists were to formulate an ideology, that motivated Man to be civil, without the need of State control legislating every part of ones life, and to broadcast that ideology to various cultures, so that it is understood equally from the highest educated elite, to the most illiterate, wouldn’t that ideology in the end look a lot like Christianity?

  8. “Can Atheists Claim the Intellectual High Ground?”

    Maybe. But can they claim the moral and spiritual high ground? No.

  9. The difference is between “Claiming the moral high ground” versus whether it exists at all. That’s why moral relativism is such a loathesome concept.

    • Moral relativism is not denying there is a high ground in terms of sin, moral relativism starts with the denial of the significance of one party’s sin whether that party is oneself or some group one is defending.

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