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Putting the Atheist on the Defensive

by Kenneth R. Samples

It may come as a surprise to many Christians to discover that all atheists are not alike. Atheists argue differently depending on what it is that grounds their unbelief. In this first of two installments I will discuss two ways in which atheists attempt to explain and defend their atheism. I have labeled them "offensive atheism" and "defensive atheism." I will also offer suggestions as to how Christians can successfully answer some of the claims made by atheists and effectively present the claims of Jesus Christ. In Part Two I will examine some of the traditional arguments for God's existence.

Offensive Atheism. When Christians and atheists engage in debate concerning the question, Does God exist? atheists frequently assert that the entire burden of proof rests on the Christian. This, however, is a false assertion. As Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has stated, when an interrogative such as Does God exist? is debated each side must shoulder the burden of proof and provide support for what they consider to be the correct answer. This is unlike debating a proposition such as God does exist, where the burden of proof rests entirely with the affirmative side. It follows then that when debating the question of God's existence, both the Christian and the atheist are obligated to provide support for their position. The Christian should insist that the atheist provide proof as to God's alleged nonexistence. This, however, leads to a logical bind for the atheist.

By definition, atheism is the world view that denies the existence of God. To be more specific, traditional atheism (or offensive atheism) positively affirms that there never was, is not now, and never will be a God in or beyond the world. But can this dogmatic claim be verified?

The atheist cannot logically prove God's nonexistence. And here's why: to know that a transcendent God does not exist would require a perfect knowledge of all things (omniscience). To attain this knowledge would require simultaneous access to all parts of the world and beyond (omnipresence). Therefore, to be certain of the atheist's claim one would have to possess godlike characteristics. Obviously, mankind's limited nature precludes these special abilities. The offensive atheist's dogmatic claim is therefore unjustifiable. As logician Mortimer Adler has pointed out, the atheist's attempt to prove a universal negative is a self- defeating proposition. The Christian should therefore emphasize that the offensive atheist is unable to provide a logical disproof of God's existence.

Defensive Atheism. Many sophisticated atheists today are fully aware of the philosophical pitfalls connected to offensive or dogmatic atheism. Prominent atheists such as Gordon Stein and Carl Sagan have admitted that God's existence cannot be disproven. This has led such atheists to advocate what I call defensive atheism. Defensive atheism asserts that while God's existence cannot be logically or empirically disproven, it is nevertheless unproven.

Atheists of this variety have actually redefined atheism to mean "an absence of belief in God" rather than "a denial of God's existence." For this more moderate type of atheism, the concept of "God" is like that of a unicorn, leprechaun, or elf. While they cannot be disproven, they remain unproven. Defensive atheism's unbelief is grounded in the rejection of the proofs for God's existence, and/or the belief that the Christian concept of God (or any other God) lacks logical consistency.

An appropriate Christian rejoinder at this point is that defensive atheism is using a stipulative or nonstandard definition for the word atheism. Paul Edwards, a prominent atheist and editor of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, defines an atheist as "a person who maintains that there is no God." Atheism therefore implies a denial of God's existence, not just an absence of belief. It should also be stated that defensive atheism's absence of belief sounds very similar to agnosticism (which professes inability to determine whether God exists). The Christian should force the defensive atheist to show just how his (or her) atheism differs from agnosticism. Does he know or not know that there is no God?

The Inadequacy of Atheism. Whether offensive or defensive, there are a number of reasons why atheism is inadequate as a rational world view. First, atheism cannot adequately explain the existence of the world. Like all things, the world in which we live cries out for an explanation. The atheist, however, is unable to provide a consistent one. If he argues that the world is eternal, then he is going against modern science which states that the universe had a beginning and is gradually running down. If the atheist affirms that the universe had a beginning, then he must account for what caused it. Either way, the atheist cannot adequately explain the world.

Second, the atheistic world view is irrational and cannot provide an adequate basis for intelligible experience. You see, an atheistic world is ultimately random, disorderly, transitive, and volatile. It is therefore incapable of providing the necessary preconditions to account for the laws of science, the universal laws of logic, and the human need for absolute moral standards. In short, it cannot account for the meaningful realities we encounter in life.

The Christian theistic world view, however, can explain these transcendental aspects of life. The uniformity of nature stems from God's orderly design of the universe. The laws of logic are a reflection of the way God Himself thinks, and would have us to think as well. Absolute moral standards, such as "Thou shalt not murder," mirror the perfect moral nature of God.

The Christological Argument. If individual atheists are willing to consider the evidence for God's existence, direct their attention to the claims of Jesus Christ. Jesus claimed to be none other than God in human flesh (John 8:58). This astounding claim was supported by His matchless personal character, His fulfillment of predictive prophecy, His incalculable influence upon human history, His many miracles, and ultimately by His historically verifiable resurrection from the dead (for a fully developed discussion of the Christological argument see William Lane Craig's book, Apologetics: An Introduction). The evidence is definitely there for the honest atheist to examine. As the late Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer put it, "God is there and He is not silent."

Part Two

In Part One, we examined how atheists go about explaining and defending their naturalistic world view. I gave suggestions as to how Christians can respond to both the dogmatic (offensive atheism) and skeptical (defensive atheism) approaches taken by atheists. In this installment we will examine a way in which the Christian can go on the offensive by offering evidence for God's existence, thus illustrating the rationality of Christian theism.

Nearly everyone, at least in their more reflective moments, has asked some simple but deep-seated questions such as: Where did the world come from? Why is there something rather than nothing? How did the world come into existence? The asking of these elementary but profound questions has led to the formulation of a popular argument for God's existence. The argument is known as the "cosmological argument." It derives its name from the word kosmos, the Greek word for world. While there are several variations of the argument (see Scaling the Secular City by J. P. Moreland [Baker Book House, 1987] and Questions That Matter by Ed L. Miller [McGraw-Hill, 1987]), the basic point of the argument is that God is the only adequate explanation for the world's existence. This argument, which I consider to be both cogent and persuasive, was first formulated by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Its most famous presentation, however, was given by the medieval Christian philosopher/theologian St. Thomas Aquinas. We will now examine a popular and simplified form of the cosmological argument that can be presented to the atheist.

Just how do we account for the universe? How do we explain the existence of the world? Well, logically speaking, there are only a few options -- and only one of them is rationally acceptable.

Our starting point in discussing the world is to assume that a real world of time and space does in fact exist. There are some who would dispute this assumption, arguing rather that the universe is simply an illusion. However, most atheists, being materialists (who believe that all reality is ultimately matter and energy), will be willing to accept your starting point. (If the world was an illusion, there would be no good reason to believe that we would all perceive the world even remotely the same way. But we do, generally speaking, experience the world the same way -- and can even make accurate predictions [science]. To argue that the world is illusory violates our common sense and experience.)

Since we have a real world staring us in the face, how do we account for it? Well, the first option is that the world somehow caused or created itself. This, however, is an irrational conclusion. For something to create itself, it would have to exist before it was created, and that is completely absurd. Something cannot both exist and not exist at the same time and in the same way. Concluding that the world created or caused itself is simply not a rationally acceptable alternative.

A second suggested explanation is that the universe came from nothing by nothing. Some atheists do, in fact, argue this way. This, however, is also irrational because something cannot be derived from nothingness. An effect cannot be greater than its cause -- and in this case the cause would be nothing. One of the basic laws of physics is expressed by the Latin phrase ex nihilo, nihil fit, "from nothing, nothing comes." It's a tremendous leap of faith to believe that the world emerged from nothing. Remind the atheist that he is not supposed to have any faith.

Our third option is that the universe is simply eternal. It has just always been here. This alternative, however, is also doomed to failure. First, the world that we live in shows signs that it is contingent (dependent for its continued existence on something outside itself, ultimately something uncaused and absolute). The fact is, no single element in the universe contains the explanation for its existence. Therefore, this chain of contingencies we call the world necessitates the existence of a noncontingent or absolute ground of being.

Further, the concept of an eternal universe directly contradicts the prevailing view of contemporary science which teaches that the universe had a specific beginning (Big Bang) a finite period of time ago. Worse still, it contradicts the scientific fact that the world is gradually running out of available energy (Second Law of Thermodynamics). If the universe was always in existence (i.e., eternal), it would have already run down (see The Fingerprint of God by Hugh Ross [Promise Publishing, 1989]). Additionally, if the universe was eternal, then it would have an infinite past (i.e., an infinite number of days, weeks, months, years, etc.). This, however, leads to a logical contradiction. By definition one can never reach the end of an infinite period of time; nevertheless, we have arrived at today, which completes or traverses the so-called infinite past (see Scaling the Secular City). These points make an eternal universe theory scientifically and philosophically untenable.

Seeing that these other alternatives have failed, the only truly rational alternative is that the universe was caused by an entity outside space and time, an entity that is by definition uncaused and ultimate. And, because this Being created other beings who possess personality, He must also be a personal Being (remember, the effect cannot be greater than the cause). This explanation is perfectly in line with what the Bible teaches: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1).

This argument, even if it is considered cogent, does not bring the atheist to personal faith in Christ. At best, he or she arrives at a deity with many theistic attributes. However, this argument does illustrate that believing in God is rational, and in this case is the only rational alternative in explaining the universe.

It is at this point that we can turn the discussion back to Jesus Christ and set forth His credentials as being God incarnate (see Christian Apologetics by Norman Geisler [Baker Book House, 1976] and History and Christianity by John Warwick Montgomery [Bethany House Publishers, 1964). Remember, simply believing in a God does not save a person. It is a relationship with Jesus Christ that saves (John 14:6).

We haven't been able to discuss some of the objections atheists have raised concerning this argument. For a list of objections and responses concerning the cosmological argument, consult Faith and Reason by Ronald Nash [Zondervan Publishing House, 1988] and The Existence of God by Richard Swinburne [Oxford University Press, 1979].

About the Author

Samples is currently serving as director of the Augustine Fellowship Study Center at Post Office Box 23, Hemet, CA 92543; (909) 654-1429.

Taken from the Witnessing Tips column of the Christian Research Journal, Part One, Fall 1991, and Part Two, Winter 1992, page 7. Copyright © 1994 by the Christian Research Institute, P.O. Box 7000, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688-7000. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller. Faith and Reason Forum would like to thank CRI for graciously allowing us to put this article on our website. This data may not be used without the sole permission of the Christian Research Institute for resale or the enhancement of any other product sold. This includes all of its content with the exception of a few brief quotations not to exceed more than 500 words.

End of document, CRJ0131A.TXT (original CRI file name), "Putting The Atheist on The Defensive, Parts One and Two" release A, July 31, 1994 R. Poll, CRI. A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their help in the preparation of this ASCII file for BBS circulation.