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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.