While it might seem odd at first to include atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism in a series on religion, these three systems of thought
should be addressed here. Religion is sometimes defined as whatever about which a man is deeply concerned,’ and it is to such concerns that we now turn. Everyone, even the non-theist attempts to make sense of and explain the reality around him. While those who believe in some form of God attribute this world’s existence in some way to that God (or gods); the atheist, agnostic, and skeptic form an alternative naturalistic explanation for this world.
Since our space is limited, we usually will refer to the three views as one, recognizing the great overlap among them. Where their distinctions are important we will point them out. After defining the three terms we will review briefly the history of the non-theist (apart from God) movement. Then we will discuss five kinds of objections which represent most of the arguments brought by nonbelievers against a belief in God. These five objections include problems in the areas of language, knowledge, moral concepts, scientific method, and logic. Since this is to be a survey of non-theistic religions, and not a presentation of Christianity, we will not present systematic proofs for the existence of God, but we will present short theistic resolutions to the five problems mentioned. We have included the names of the major philosophers whose writings would be helpful in understanding these areas of belief.
The word atheism comes from the Greek prefix a- (no or non-) and the noun theos (god or God). An atheist is one who believes that there exists positive evidence that there is no God. To the atheist, all of existence can be explained naturally rather than supernaturally. An atheist is convinced that all religious belief, evidence, and faith are false.
Popular authors and philosophy professors William and Mabel Sahakian explain it as follows:
Unlike Agnostics, the Atheist takes a definite stand, arguing that proof regarding God’s existence or nonexistence is available, but that the evidence favors the assumption of nonexistence (William and Mabel Sahakian, Ideas of the Great Philosophers, New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1966, p. 100).
Bishop Charles Gore summarizes atheistic belief as presupposing
that we see in the world of which we form a part no signs of anything corresponding to the mind or spirit or purposes which indisputably exist in man no signs of a universal spirit or reason with which we can hold communion, nothing but blind and unconscious force (Charles Gore, The Reconstruction of Belief, London: John Murray, 1926, pp. 45,46).
Historically, atheism sometimes refers to a rejection of only particular gods or a particular God. Hans Schwarz informs us that
When the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, for instance, declared that the sun was an incandescent stone somewhat larger than the Peloponesus, he was accused of impiety or atheism and forced to leave his hometown Athens (Hans Schwarz, The Search for God, Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1975, p. 16).
Plato in his Laws X (c. 352-350 B.C.) defined two basic kinds of atheists: those who are sincerely convinced God (or gods) does not exist; and those who assert that there is no place for God (or gods) in this world. The first kind of atheist is considered moral and upright while the second kind is seen as an anarchistic (without law) threat to society.2 Socrates may have been put to death for being this second kind of atheist. Again, Schwarz notes,
… when Socrates was indicted for “impiety” in 399 B.C. on grounds that he had corrupted the young and neglected the gods during worship ceremonies ordered by the city and had introduced religious novelties, he was sentenced to death and was condemned to drink the hemlock within twenty-four hours. But Socrates’ position and that of other atheists was far from being atheistic in the modem sense (ibid., p. 17).
Agnosticism comes from the Greek prefix a- (no or non-) and the noun gnosis (knowledge, usually by experience). An agnostic is one who believes there is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the existence or nonexistence of God or gods. Agnostics criticize the theist and the atheist for their dogmatism and their presumption of such knowledge. William and Mabel Sahakian say that agnosticism “refers to a neutralist view on the question of the existence of God; it is the view of the person who elects to remain in a state of suspended judgment” (Sahakian and Sahakian, Ideas, p. 100).
The Runes Dictionary of Philosophy defines agnosticism as:
1. (epist.) that theory of knowledge which asserts that it is impossible for man to attain knowledge of a certain subject-matter. 2. (theol.) that theory of religious knowledge which asserts that it is impossible for man to attain knowledge of God (Dagobert D. Runes, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams & Company, 1960, 1962, p. 7).
This is complemented by Peter Angeles’ Dictionary of Philosophy, which defines agnosticism as:
1. The belief (a) that we cannot have knowledge of God and (b) that it is impossible to prove that God exists or does not exist. 2. Sometimes used to refer to the suspension of judgment… about some types of knowledge such as about the soul, immortality, spirits, heaven, hell, extraterrestrial life (Peter Angeles, Dictionary of Philosophy, New York: Harper Row, Publishers, 1981, p. 20).
There are two types of agnostics. One type says there is insufficient evidence but leaves open the possibility of sometime obtaining enough evidence to know with certainty. The second type is convinced that it is objectively impossible for anyone to ever know with certainty the existence or non-existence of God or gods.
William and Mabel Sahakian add this distinction to their definition of agnosticism (see above):
One group of Agnostics assumes that it merely lacks the facts necessary to form a judgment and defers any conclusion pending the acquisition of such facts; another group assumes a more dogmatic position, contending that facts are not available because it is impossible now (and will continue to be impossible) to obtain these facts-a view exemplified in Immanuel Kant’s attacks upon the traditional arguments for the existence of God (Sahakian and Sahakian, Ideas, p. 100).
Christian authors Norman Geisler and Paul Feinberg also point out the distinction between the two kinds of agnostics:
One form of agnosticism claims that we do not know if God exists; the other insists that we cannot know. The first we’ll call “soft” and the second “hard” agnosticism. We are not here concerned about “soft” agnosticism, since it does not eliminate in principle the possibility of knowing whether God exists. It says in effect, “I do not know whether God exists but it is not impossible to know. I simply do not have enough evidence to make a rational decision on the question. ” We turn, then, to the “hard” form which claims that it is im-possible to know whether God exists (Norman Geisler and Paul Feinberg, In-troduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980, p. 296).
Skepticism is derived from the Latin scepticus (inquiring, reflective, doubting). The Latin in turn comes from the Greek scepsis (inquiry, hesitation, doubt). The Greeks used the word to refer to a certain school of philosophical thought, the Skeptics’ (see History below), who taught that because real knowledge is unattainable, one should suspend judgment on matters of truth. This meaning is carried in Runes’ Dictionary of Philosophy:
A proposition about a method of obtaining knowledge: that every hypothesis should be subjected to continual testing; that the only or the best or a reliable method of obtaining the knowledge of one or more of the above kinds is to doubt until something indubitable or as nearly indubitable as possible is found; that wherever evidence is indecisive, judgment should be suspended; that knowledge of all or certain kinds at some point rests on unproved postulates or assumptions (Runes, Philosophy, p. 278).
This is confirmed by B. A. G. Fuller’s A History of Philosophy, where he reminds us that the “role of skepticism is to remind men that knowing with absolute certainty is impossible” (B. A. G. Fuller, A History of Philosophy, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1955, vol. 11, p. 581). Peter Angeles shows in his definition of skepticsm that there is a range of belief within the system. He writes,
1. A state of doubting. 2. A state of suspension of judgment. 3. A state of unbelief or non-belief. Skepticism ranges from complete, total disbelief in everything, to a tentative doubt in a process of reaching certainty (Angeles, Philosophy, p. 258).
While skepticism is sometimes synonymous with certain definitions of agnosticism, other writers distinguish between skepticism and agnosticism as does Warren Young, who writes:
Skepticism carries the negative attitude a step farther than agnosticism, denying the possibility of human knowledge. Truth in an objective sense is unattainable by any means within man’s reach (Warren Young, A Christian Approach to Philosophy, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954, p. 61).
Keeping in mind Geisler and Feinberg’s two kinds of agnosticism (see above under the definition of agnosticism), their comments on the differences between agnosticism and skepticism are important. They write,
The skeptic neither affirms nor denies God’s existence. And in contrast to the (hard) agnostic, the skeptic does not say it is impossible to know. For (hard) agnosticism too is a form of dogmatism -negative dogmatism. The skeptic claims to take a much more tentative attitude toward knowledge. He is not sure whether a man can or cannot know God. In fact, the complete skeptic is not sure of anything (Geisler and Feinberg, Philosophy, p. 299).
Because of the overlap of definitions for atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism, it is at times difficult and even unnecessary to distinguish one’s usage of the terms. What is most important to remember is that most non-religious people, while they may label themselves with one of the three terms, usually have no clear understanding of how their own views fit one category but not the others. A person may be regarded as an atheist ‘but, in actual practice, fall under the common definition of an agnostic. Another person may be regarded as a skeptic but admit to the possibility of change to accept some universal truths. If someone questions everything, the title “skeptic” can be applied. But since certainty might be found someday it would be appropriate to be seen as an agnostic. However, if at this time that person does not believe in God, is “atheist” the proper term? While the three terms are useful to us (as in reading other philosophy works), the terms are relatively unimportant in most personal encounters. If we can establish what someone believes about knowledge, about obtaining knowledge, and about the ultimate meaning of existence, then we can deal with that person on the level at which he is comfortable. In such a situation, the label of atheist, agnostic, or skeptic is unimportant.
As we look at brief histories of atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism, we will reverse our order of discussion to reflect the chronological development of these three areas of philosophical thought. There have been skeptics, atheists, and agnostics throughout the history of mankind, and we will treat skepticism first, then atheism, and finally agnosticism.
The Greek schools of Skepticism began around 365 B.C. The first skeptic philosopher of note was Pyrrho of Elis (365-275 B.C.). The Pyrrhonic School held that skepticism was so pervasive that even their theory of skepticism was not certain. Skepticism was adopted as a way to avoid mental and emotional distress caused by conflicting data.
… the central idea of the early Skeptics was to avoid mental insecurity or doubt by abstaining from judgment on issues; suspension of judgment (epoche) became the fundamental theory of Skepticism. The policy of withholding judgment applied not only to metaphysical and logical questions, but also to value judgments pertaining to right conduct, the good, and the desirable. . . .
The Skeptics, who were called the doubters, suspenders of judgment, and inquirers, based their philosophy on the premise that since we can know nothing of ultimate reality, then such basic things are matters of indifference to us, and they must be treated as inconsequential (William Sahakian, History of Philosophy, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1968, pp. 48,49).
A second school of Skepticism is called Academic Skepticism, or the Middle Academy. Its leaders were Arcesilaus of Pitane in Aeolia (315-241 B.C.), Carneades of Cyrene (214-129 B.C.), and Clitomachus (187-109 B.C.). The basic premise of Academic Skepticism is summarized well by Sahakian:
The Academic Skeptics set forth the fundamental premise that they could know only one thing, namely, that nothing is knowable (ibid., pp. 49,50).
The Academics spent most of their efforts attacking the teachings of the Stoics,” and their presentation of Skepticism was often done in
direct contrast to Stoicism. Arcesilaus stated that, while one could not know, even about ethics, one could judge probability and that, in fact, one should order his life by probability. He was followed by Cameades, who postulated three degrees of probability.
1. In the first place, we have mere probability, where we act with little or no observation of similar situations to help us, and where the chances therefore are about fifty-fifty, but seem worth taking in view of what we shall gain if we win.
2. Secondly, we have undisputed probability, where empirical observation shows us that other people have repeatedly taken the same chances successfully and to their advantage, and have never lost. Here the face-value of the probable truth and reliability of an impression is backed up by all the other impressions and notions related to it.
3. Finally, we may be able to act upon chances that not only look worth taking on a fifty-fifty basis and are uncontradicted and backed up by the experiences of other people, but have been thoroughly investigated and found to have solid reasons for taking them. In other words, we may be able to discover a “system” for life’s gamble that mathematically, so to speak, ought to work. Then, says Cameades, we have a basis for action that is probable, undisputed, and tested (Fuller, Philosophy, pp., 277,278).
Clitomachus (sometimes spelled Cleitomachus) was the third leader. He attacked the three degrees of probability, opting for a more uniform system of Skepticism.
Sensationalistic Skepticism was the last of the classical schools of Skepticism. Its two most prominent leaders were Aenesidemus of Gnossus (first century B.C.) and Sextus Empiricus (200 A.D.). Aenesidemus exposed what he felt were fallacious tests for truth: sensation and confirmed opinion. He felt that these were subjective tests and could not be trusted. However, he had no objective tests for truth and instead was a confirmed skeptic, viewing life and existence as uncertain but livable on the basis of custom and probability. Sextus Empiricus was a doctor, from the empiricist school of doctors, and he put forth the maxim that life should be ordered by observation, or empiricism. Loyal to skepticism, Sextus promoted the study of Socrates’ remark, “All that I know is that I know nothing.
“Sextus set forth his skepticism as follows:
The arch_, or motive, for skepticism was the hope of reaching ataraxia, the state of “unperturbedness”….. Sextus Empiricus’ skepticism had three stages: antithesis, epoch_ (suspension of judgment), and ataraxia. The first stage involved a presentation of contradictory claims about the same subject. These claims were so constructed that they were in opposition to one another, and appeared equally probable or improbable. . . . The second state is epoch_, or the suspension of judgment. Instead of either asserting or denying any one claim about the subject at hand, one must embrace all mutually inconsistent claims and withhold judgment on each of them. The final stage is ataraxia, a state of unperturbedness, happiness, and peace of mind. When that occurs one is freed from dogmatism. He can live peacefully and undogmatically in the world, following his natural inclinations and the laws or customs of society (Geisler and Feinberg, Philosophy, pp. 85,86).
Skepticism died out for the most part during the ascendency of Chris-tianity. It did not become a noticeable philosophical movement again until the post-Reformation period of western European thought with Bishop John Wilkins (1614-1672) and Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680). They are sometimes called “mitigated skeptics”. While clinging tenaciously to one area of skepticism, they compromised by not embracing skepticism as the answer to all knowledge problems in all fields. They distinguish-ed between two types of knowledge. The first type, which they agreed was unreliable, was called “infallibly certain knowledge.” Nothing, in other words, could be known infallibly and certainly. However, the sec-ond type of knowledge, by which one could order life, was called “in-dubitably certain knowledge.” This was knowledge that one had no reason, experience, evidence, or report by which to doubt its veracity. Using this knowledge, Wilkins and Glanvill developed their own system of deter-mining truth within the limits of “reasonable doubt.”
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) wrote at the same time as Wilkins and Glanvill, although he is not considered to be a “mitigated skeptic.” As a Christian theist, he used skepticism as a tool to prove the existence of God. Rather than seeing skepticism as an end in itself, he saw it as the way to begin to show the undeniability of the existence of God.
For Descartes, skepticism was not the conclusion of some argument, but the method whereby all doubt could be overcome. Descartes claimed that it is possible to arrive at indubitable knowledge through the rigorous and systematic application of doubt to one’s beliefs (ibid., p. 91).
From the time of Descartes, the majority of such thinkers have been atheists or agnostics. We will treat some of these skeptical thinkers more thoroughly in the historical sections on atheism and agnosticism. However, we will mention them briefly here.
David Hume (1711-1776) is known as a metaphysical’ skeptic. He believed that it was impossible to have any accurate knowledge about anything metaphysical. He pointed out that standards of probability for beliefs go beyond our immediate experience and must be accepted with some measure of faith.
Nicholas Horvath in his book, Philosophy, explains that:
Hume claimed that only sense-knowledge based on experience is possible. Ideas are mere copies of sense impressions. Impressions and ideas constitute the human intellect. Ideas are not entirely unconnected; there is a bond of union between them and one calls up another. This phenomenon is called association of ideas.
Neither material nor spiritual substances exist in reality; their ideas are purely imaginative concepts, being nothing other than a constant association of impressions. Likewise there is nothing in man!s experience that justifies a notion of necessary connection or causation; cause and effect designate merely a regular succession of ideas. Since the principle of causality is mere expectation due to custom, no facts outside consciousness are known to man.
Granted the negation of substance, the existence of God and the immortality of the human soul are only hypothetical. Freedom of will is an illusion; virtue is that which pleases, and vice is that which displeases (Nicholas A. Horvath, Philosophy, Woodbury, NY Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1974, pp. 88,89).
More recently, A. J. Ayer (1910-1970), a limited skeptic, taught that any talk about metaphysics is meaningless. In addition, Albert Camus (1913-1960), one of the most important of the so-called “irrational” skeptics asserted that there is no meaning, no knowledge that is objectively true, and no objective value. The entire history of skepticism has the same basic theme. Is suspends judgment about truth. At various times skeptics have said that even their statement of skepticism is doubtful. At other times they have said that the one non-skeptical statement is the same statement, that skepticism is doubtful.
Although the term atheism as a reference to the belief that God (or gods) does (do) not exist dates from the late sixteenth century, Niccolo Machiavelli (d. 1527) had already promoted a social ethic which did not depend on belief in, or the existence of, a supreme God. In his satirical essay, The Prince, he taught that the ruler ought to rule wisely and justly in order to secure his position and to satisfy his ego, rather than to satisfy some divine mandate. Machiavelli was one of the first to champion the then novel idea that “the end justifies the means.” He argued that a ruler should not burden his subjects too much, not because it would be morally wrong to do so, but because it would not be expedient, for his oppressed subjects would then be more likely to revolt, depose him, and perhaps even kill him for his cruelty. Although Machiavelli cannot be termed an actual atheist, his system for successful governorship does not depend on, or presuppose, any divine order to this world.
Ideas from many philosophers, not all of whom were actually atheists, helped shape the atheistic philosophy of today.
During the enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the Baron P. H. T d’Holbach referred to an atheist as
a man who destroys the dreams and chimerical beings that are dangerous to the human race so that men can be brought back to nature, to experience, and to reason (Enclyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago, et. al.: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1978, Macropaedia, II, p. 259).
As a brief and circumscribed overview of the history of atheism, we will review some of the contributions to modem atheism made by Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Comte, Nietzsche, Jaspers, and Sartre. Ideas from philosophers such as Bayle, Spinoza, Fichte, and Hume, although not mentioned here, also contributed to the development of modem atheistic thought.
Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) was the man whose writings became an inspiration for the modem atheistic movement. He was one of the first prominent philosophers to advance the idea that God’ was dependent upon the world at least as much as the world was dependent upon God. He said that without the world God is not God. In some way, God needed his creation. This was the first step in saying that, since God was not sufficient in Himself, he was then unnecessary and ultimately imaginary.
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) was an early prominent atheistic philosopher. He denied all supernaturalism and attributed all talk about God to talk about nature. Man, he said, is dependent not on God, but on nature. Feuerbach promoted what is sometimes referred to as the wishfulfillment idea of God. He postulated that the idea of God arose as a result of men desiring to have some sort of supernatural Being as an explanation for their own existence and the events they observed around them. This wish, or desire, is the seed from which the God-myth grew. Feuerbach thought this hypothesis proved that God actually did not exist. Hegel and Feuerbach strongly influenced Karl Marx (1818-1883) and his English collaborator, Frederich Engels (1820-1895). Marx, an avowed atheist, preached that religion is the opiate of the people and the enemy of all progress. Part of the task of the great proletariat revolution is the destruction of all religion.
Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was an early contemporary of Marx and Engels. He believed that God was an irrelevant superstition. As a result, Comte divided human development into three main stages:
“The Theological, or fictitious,” “the Metaphysical, or abstract” and “the Scientific, or positive”. In the first the human mind looks for first causes and “supposes all phenomena to be produced by the immediate action of supernatural beings!’ The second is a transitional stage where the mind searches for “abstract forces” behind phenomena. But in the third and ultimate stage man’s mind applies itself to the scientific study of the laws according to which things work. God and the supernatural are left behind as irrelevant superstition (Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1968, pp. 241, 142).
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is often called the Father of the Death of God School. He laid the cornerstone for later nihilists by teaching that since God does not exist, man must devise his own way of life.
Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1971) were two prominent existentialist thinkers who discussed the ambiguous (and therefore meaningless) nature of religious transcendence. In addition, Heidegger stressed that one’s salvation lay in his own independence as an individual separated from every other individual, including, of course, any sort of God.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1981) was the most popular proponent of existentialism. He argued that man not only creates his own destiny, each man has only himself as the sole justification for his existence. There is no ultimate, objective, eternal meaning to life. An individual simply exists without reference to others.
A good example of atheistic perspective is contained in the Humanist Manifesto (1933). It was composed and signed by leading secular humanists who declared, in part, that “Humanism is faith in the supreme value and self-perfectability of human personality”. Although there have been many other important thinkers in the history of atheism, these are representative of the most influential contributors shaping modem atheistic thought. Other modem atheistic thinkers are discussed in some of the references mentioned in the bibliography.
Although agnosticism is a very broad field, we have chosen to limit our historical discussion of it to three of the most influential philosophers in its recent expressions. As we stated before, there is some overlap among atheism, agnosticism and skepticism, and many of the philosophers important in the development of one are also important to the others.
David Hume (1711-1776), known for promoting metaphysical skepticism, showed the close marriage between skepticism and agnosticism. As a British Empiricist, he declared that the probabalistic standards for beliefs go beyond our immediate experience. We act on faith, then, not on knowledge. We do not know for sure: we are agnostic. However, we still act, having chosen to trust faith while at the same time being prepared for faith to let us down. Belief is not to be confused with ultimate truth, which is unknowable.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), although a theist, developed Hume’s skepticism into metaphysical agnosticism. He believed it was impossible to know reality and consequently impossible to know metaphysical reality
Colin Brown credits T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) with the term agnostic.
The word agnosticism is of much more recent coinage. It is generally ascribed to T. H. Huxley, the Victorian scientist and friend of Charles Darwin, who devised it to describe his own state of mind. He used it, not to deny God altogether, but to express doubt as to whether knowledge could be attained, and to protest ignorance on a great many things that the -ists and the -ites about me professed to be familiar with. (ibid., p. 132).
Hume, Kant and Huxley represent a short history of contemporary agnosticism, which is distinguished by its assertion that one cannot know. Other prominent agnostics include Charles Darwin and Bertrand Russell.
Arguments Against the Existence of God
We will now summarize five types of arguments most non-theists use against the existence of God, and then give a Christian response to each. Space limitations preclude direct quotes, but some of the most important thinkers on these arguments include Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel in addition to those we refer to.
It is not important here to distinguish atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism from each other since nonbelievers of all three persuasions can use each of the arguments in various forms. But an understanding of these five arguments will give the reader useful principles for responding to many of the arguments against God’s existence.
These areas of our divisions (languages, knowledge, moral concepts, scientific method, and logic) are not strictly demarcated nor are they generally accepted philosophical categorizations, but they are simply made as a convenience to the reader. They will help you find that area of argument in which you are most particularly interested.
Example: Talking about God is meaningless.
“There are only two kinds of meaningful statements. A statement can be purely definitional (all triangles have three sides) without telling us about the real world (whether triangles actually exist). Or, a statement can be about reality by containing empirically verifiable (testable by the senses) information (this is a triangle). To talk about God in purely definitional statements does not tell us if He actually exists. However, because He is not empirically verifiable, we cannot make empirically verifiable statements about Him. Since purely definitional and empirically verifiable statements are the only kinds of meaningful statements there are, to talk of God’s existence is meaningless or [as it is often put] nonsense”.
This argument does not actually deny that God exists, but declares all talk about Him futile. Leading thinkers on this subject include A. J. Ayer, Paul van Buren, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Example: We can’t know the real.
“We can know about things in the real world through the use of our senses and our mind. However, since our senses are imperfect and selective, and our mind is affected by all it has experienced previously, our perception of a thing is thereby affected. Therefore, we can know a thing as it is to us, but not as it is in itself.”
This does not argue specifically against God’s existence, but can be used to deny that one can know objectively about God. Immanuel Kant and David Hume were instrumental in developing this theory of knowledge.
Example: The Christian God could not allow evil.
“If there were an all-powerful God, then He could destroy all evil. If He were all-good, then He would want to destroy all evil. If your all-powerful, all-good God existed, then He would have had to destroy all evil. Evil exists. Therefore, your all-powerful, all-good God must not exist. Or, if He exists, He is not able to do away with evil.”
This idea does not argue against the existence of all gods, but only against this “all-powerful, all-good God”. From this basis the other problems of evil emerge. Among those issues are the suffering of innocents, natural calamities, etc. One of the earliest proponents of this idea was Epicurus. More modem thinkers were David Hume and J. L. Mackie.
Example 1: God is man’s wish.
“Man feels inadequate in himself. He wishes for Someone who is big enough to rescue him from life’s tragedies. He desires God to exist. God arises from man’s mind. Therefore, God has no objective reality He does not exist “.
Leading supporters of this idea included Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud.
Example 2: God is a result of superstitious belief (sociology).
“Primitive man could not explain the world around him in naturalterms. He invented God to explain the unknown. Today science has shown us the natural laws governing our world. Natural laws explain everything. We no longer need belief in God to explain things. Therefore, God does not exist “.
Some of those instrumental in developing this argument included David Hume, Sir James George Frazer, Sir Edward Burnett Taylor, and Bertrand Russell.
Example 1: God’s all-powerfulness is contradictory.
“There cannot be an omnipotent (all-powerful) God. Such a God would be stuck with the following contradictory questions (antimonies):
1. Can God create a rock too heavy for Him to lift?
2. Can God make 2 + 2 = 6?
3. Can God make Himself go out of existence and then pop back into existence?
4. Can God make a square circle?
If God is all-powerful, He should be able to do these things. But, in doing them, He is thwarting His own omnipotence. He must not exist.”
Example 2: God’s attributes contradict each other.
“How can one being possess both love and wrath? How can God be all-loving (giving man free will) but be all-knowing (predestining man’s actions by His foreknowledge)? How can God be absolutely good and yet absolutely free (able to choose evil)? Because God’s attributes contradict each other logically, He must not exist.”
Encountering a variety of arguments against the existence of God at one time can be overwhelming. Many Christian students who are unfamiliar with secular philosophy sometimes are at a loss to answer those arguments when they are first confronted with them. We have presented a few of the most common arguments which are representative of the skeptical/agnostic/atheistic attitude prevalent in many secular circles today. (For further discussion of such arguments, see the books referred to in the Bibliography.) We have found that most arguments against the existence of God can be answered by the simple principles we will present below. Due to space limitations the arguments and our responses have been simplified. However, we are confident that the reader can establish a reasonable defense against such arguments with the following principles and personal study.
Refutation of Skepticism
Skepticism is a powerful tool in the hands of an agnostic or atheist. As we saw in our definition and history sections, skepticism is utilized in many areas of non-theistic thought. It often is presupposed or asserted openly as part of an argument against the existence of God. For this reason, we shall deal with the claims of skepticism before we deal with the specific arguments raised above.
Skepticism is ultimately meaningless. It refutes itself. If one declares, “You can never be sure about anything,” he is catching himself in his own trap. If we can be sure of nothing, then we cannot be sure of the state-ment, “nothing is certain. ” But, if that statement is objectively true, then we can be sure about one thing, the statement. But, if we can be sure about the statement, then the statement must be false. If the statement is false, then we cannot be sure. The inexorable fate of the skeptic is to be condemned by his own sentence.
The Sahakians comment:
Nihilism and Skepticism are both self-contradictory and self-defeating philosophies. If truth does not exist (Nihilism), then the posited truth of Nihilism could not exist. If knowledge is impossible (Skepticism), how could we ever come to know that? Apparently some things can be known.
Even the less extreme view of Protagoras is self-defeating, as demonstrated by Plato’s charming argument in the following paragraphs. .: .
PROTAGORAS: Truth is relative, it is only a matter of opinion. SOCRATES: You mean that truth is mere subjective opinion?
PROTAGORAS: Exactly. What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me, is true for me. Truth is subjective.
SOCRATES: Do you really mean that? That my opinion is true by virtue of its being my opinion?
PROTAGORAS: Indeed I do.
SOCRATES: My opinion is: Truth is absolute, not opinion, and that you, Mr. Protagoras, are absolutely in error. Since this is my opinion, then you must grant that it is true according to your philosophy.
PROTAGORAS: You are quite correct, Socrates. (Sahakian and Sahakian, p. 28.)
Geisler and Feinberrg continue in the same vein:
… The skeptic’s assertion that we cannot know anything is itself a claim about knowledge. If the skeptic’s claim is false, then we need not worry about the skeptic’s charge. On the other hand, if it is true, then his position is self-contradictory because we know at least one thing -that we cannot know anything.
… But suppose that the skeptic responds by saying that we have misunderstood his claim. He is not claiming that the sentence, “You cannot know anything” is either true or false … The skeptic’s position is shown to be necessarily false, for his is still a claim about knowledge: “For all sentences, we know that we cannot know whether they are true or false. ” Therefore, total or complete skepticism is rationally inconsistent (Geisler and Feinberg, Philosophy, p. 94).
Christians who often encounter non-believers (agnostics or atheists) find that many arguments against the existence of God or the claims of Christianity are basically claims that one cannot know. They are essentially skeptical arguments and are self-refuting. This one principle is sufficient for answering several anti-theistic arguments.
Refutation of Language Argument
The language argument is self-refuting, just as skepticism is self-refuting. To say that one cannot talk meaningfully about God is to talk meaningfully about God. Either one’s statement (“One cannot talk meaningfully about God”) is meaningful, in which case it gives us meaningful information about God, or it is, itself, meaningless, in which case we need not heed it. As Geisler puts it,
… the principles of empirical verifiability as set forth by Ayer is self-defeating. For it is neither purely definitional nor strictly factual. Hence, on its own grounds it would fall into the third category of non-sense statements…. the attempt to limit meaning to the definitional or to the verifiable is to make a truth claim that must itself be subject to some test. If it cannot be tested, then it becomes an unfalsifiable view (Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976, p. 23).
Refutation of Knowledge Argument
One who adheres completely to the idea that we cannot know the real is another example of one who refutes himself. Reasonably we could say that we do not know everything about the real, but it is self-defeating to say one knows nothing about the real. If one really knows nothing about the real, then his statement (“I know nothing about the real”) is false: he really knows the truth of his statement. His statement cannot be true unless, contradictorily, it is also false. The Christian philosopher Warren Young put it this way:
The basis of the possibility of knowing rests on a belief in the rationality of the human mind. Apart from belief in rationality, knowledge is impossible. Unless the organizing ability of the mind be granted, it is impossible to know. The data organized by reason are the data of human experience. In spite of the skeptic’s rejection of the reliability of experience, his answer is not final. Man is not only deceived by his senses, but in almost all cases he knows that he is being deceived. His reason leads him to compensate for possible deception, to interpret sense data properly, and so he is able to know (Young, Philosophy, p. 62).
Geisler also discusses this dilemma with his analysis of complete agnosticism. He writes,
Complete agnosticism is self-defeating; it reduces to the self-destructing assertion that “one knows enough about reality in order to affirm that nothing can be known about reality”. This statement provides within itself all that is necessary to falsify itself. For if one knows something about reality, then he surely cannot affirm in the same breath that all of reality is unknowable. And of course if one knows nothing whatsoever about reality, then he has no basis whatsoever for making a statement about reality. It will not suffice to say that his knowledge about reality is purely and completely negative, that is, a knowledge of what one cannot meaningfully affirm that something is not that it follows that total agnosticism is self-defeating because it assumes some knowledge about reality in order to deny any knowledge of reality (Geisler, Apologetics, p. 20).
Refutation of Moral Concepts Argument
The argument of the problem of evil and its various forms and development is probably the most frequently used argument against the existence of God. Whole books are devoted to a Christian reconciliation of the problem. Whole books are devoted to exploring the ideas of non-Christian proponents of the concept. Many sub-arguments against God’s existence come from this basic argument. Why does God allow babies to suffer and die? Why are there murder victims? Why does God allow natural calamities?, etc. By understanding the basic problems with the view, one can learn the principles for answering the different forms the view takes.
A good way to find answers to such arguments is to look at each step of the argument and see whether or not it tells the truth. If even one step of the argument is invalid or untrue, then the weight of the entire argument crashes down. When we examine this argument, we find little disagreement with its first step (premise): “If there were an all-powerful God, He could destroy all evil”. We begin to have problems with the second premise: “If He were all-good, He would want to destroy all evil”. There are two problems here. First, an all-good God may have beneficent uses for evil. Second, the arguer has not taken into consideration the element of time. What if God were to use evil for a time and then, ultimately, destroy it? That would allow for a good God and yet also allow evil at this present time.
Richard Purtill sums it up this way:
Now on this view there can be a problem of evil, since some things that happen in the world seem to be contrary to what a loving God would permit. But the problem must somehow be soluble, since the events we condemn and the moral law by which we condemn them are both traceable to the same Source. If God is what Christianity says he is, he is the God of Love and justice, and also the God who permits apparently useless suffering. It must be, then, that there is a reconciliation. (Perhaps the suffering is not useless, for example.)
Thus evil is a problem for Christianity, but not an objection to it. The view that admits a problem holds out the hope of a solution (Purtill, Reason, p. 52).
Geisler and Feinberg point out some of the problems:
The theist responds by first pointing out that (the) premise… places an unjustified time limit on God. It says, in effect, that since God has not yet done anything to defeat evil we are absolutely sure He never will. But this cannot be known for certain by any finite mind. It is possible that God will yet defeat evil in the future. This is indeed what Christians believe, for it is predicted in the Bible (Revelation 20-22) (Geisler and Feinberg, pp. 274,275).
Refutation of Scientific Methods Arguments
To say that man’s wish for God to exist proves that God does not exist is completely illogical. Because I wish for my children to grow up as strong Christians is no proof that they will grow up as atheists. My wishing does not make things exist, nor does it preclude things from existing. The arguments for the existence of God must be taken on their own merits, regardless of whether men have wished for God to exist. Does the fact that atheists wish for God not to exist prove that He does exist? Of course not. One must look at the evidence.
In the same manner, the idea that man (or at least some men) derived their belief in God from superstition says nothing about whether or not that God actually exists. In Ideas of the Great Philosophers, this is identified as the genetic fallacy in logic:
….According to this argument, religion was spawned in fear, superstition, and ignorance; and fear of the unknown, at a time of ignorance concerning scientific causes, drove man to superstition.
Logicians criticize the preceding argument as an example of a genetic fallacy, the error of assuming that a point has been proved merely because it has been traced to its source. It may be of interest, and definitely is of interest to at least the psychologist and the historian, to ascertain how our religious beliefs emerged and what gave them their initial impetus, but so far as proof of Atheism is concerned, such factors are irrelevant. Thus, evidence that a particular science grew out of magic or alchemy does not imply that science today is invalid (Sahakian and Sahakian, Ideas, p. 102).
Richard Purtill quickly took apart the argument when he wrote:
Let us begin with the accusation that Christianity represents a pre-scientific, “magical” view of the world. Of course Christianity is pre-scientific in the sense that it began before modern science began. So, for that matter, did mathematics, logic, history, and a great many other things. But that Christianity is opposed to a genuinely scientific view of the universe we will deny. As for the accusation that Christianity represents a “magical” view of the universe, “magical” here either just means un- or antiscientific, or else it has some connection with historical beliefs in magic. This is a confusion. Magic, as believed in for many centuries, was an attempt to exert power over nature by means of words, ceremonies, mixtures of materials, etc. It was essentially an attempt of a sort of technology, an attempt to master forces that would give men power, wealth, and secret knowledge. Insofar as it was an attempt to satisfy curiosity and give power over nature, it was the ancestor of science rather than of religion.
Christianity, on the other hand, believes that certain wonderful events have occurred, sometimes as an answer to prayer. But these events are the result of the will of the Person who created nature and its laws, and could not be predicted, demanded, or forced. The effects of these events may sometimes be beneficial to men but their purpose is to reveal something about God or to authenticate such a revelation. The whole attitude and atmosphere of magic and Christianity are opposed. On the one hand you have the magician, with his secret knowledge, forcing certain things to occur by his spells or potions. On the other hand you have the Christian saint with his message for all men, praying that God’s will be done, and sometimes finding a marvelous response to his prayer. The two things are poles apart (Purtill, Reason, pp. 38,39).
Refutation of Logic Arguments
Arguments which attempt to make the Christian God self-contradictory are many. However, almost all of them concern God’s attributes. The most popular target is God’s omnipotence or all-powerfulness. We listed just a few of the arguments that supposedly argue against the omnipotence of God. What does it mean when we can say that God is all-powerful? Do we mean that he can do anything we can imagine?
No. When we say that God is all-powerful, we mean that anything which is capable of being done, God can do. He cannot do the logically or intrinsically impossible. The Christian theologian James Oliver Buswell, Jr. writes,
… omnipotence does not mean that God can do anything, but it does mean that He can do with power anything that power can do. He has all the power that is or could be.
Can God make two plus two equal six? This is a question which is frequently asked by skeptics and by children. We reply by asking how much power it would take to bring about this result. The absurdity of the question is not too difficult to see. Would the power of a ton of dynamite make two plus two equal six? or the power of an atom bomb? or of a hydrogen bomb? When these questions are asked it is readily seen that the truth of the multiplication tables is not in the realm of power. Power has nothing to do with it. When we assert that God is omnipotent, we are talking about power (James Oliver Buswell, Jr., A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962, pp. 63,64).
Sahakian and Sahakian point out that this sort of logical argument is logically inconsistent. It is known as the fallacy of contradictory premises.
… When contradictory premises are present in an argument, one premise cancels out the other. It is impossible for one or the other of the two premises to be true, but not for both to be simultaneously true. Note the contradictory premises in the following questions: “If God is all-powerful, can he put himself out of existence, then come to life with twice the power he had originally?” “Can God make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it?” “Can God make a round square?” “What would happen if an irresistible force met an immovable object?” (One student’s answer: “An inconceivable smash!”) (Sahakian and Sahakian, Ideas, p. 23).
The principle is spelled out clearly in Thomas Warren’s words:
Rather than saying that God cannot do the things just referred to, it would be more in harmony with the truth to say simply that such things cannot be done at all! God is infinite in power, but power meaningfully relates only to that which can be done, to what is possible of accomplishment -not to what is impossible! It is absurd to speak of any power (even infinite power) being able (having the power) to do what simply cannot be done. God can do whatever is possible to be done, but he will do only what is in harmony with his nature. Rather than saying that God cannot make a four-sided triangle, one would more accurately (or, perhaps, more meaningfully) say (in the light of the fact that the word “triangle” means a three-sided figure and cannot refer to any four-sided figure) that the making of four-sided triangles simply cannot be done (Thomas B. Warren, Have Atheists Proved There is No God?, Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate Company, 1972, pp. 27,28).
With the preceding thorough refutation of the problems with God’s omnipotence, it seems hardly worthwhile to examine the other claims to God’s self-contradictions. However, a quick look will show that such purported contradictions are not contradictions at all. The Christian God has a unified nature of complementary attributes. None cancel out any others.
If we simply examine the presuppositions of the arguments, we can see their problems. For example, the skeptic is presupposing that God’s love and his wrath (the pouring-out of his justice) are mutually exclusive. We would answer by bringing it to a human level. No one would argue that a father’s discipline of his child or a judge’s punishment of a criminal proves that the father or judge have no love. On the contrary, their justice should work with their love.
While we would agree that it is loving for God to give man free will, we would not agree that foreknowledge causes predestination. Merely knowing the future does not predetermine it. Finally, freedom for the infinitely good and eternal (never changing) God does not have to include the ability to choose evil to be genuine freedom. Freedom does not mean freedom to contradict one’s nature. God’s nature is immutably good, holy, and perfect. (By perfect we mean complete). His will is the selfexpression of His nature and as such His will is necessarily good, holy, and perfect.
Geisler sums up the unity of God’s attributes in the following way:
Perfections such as love and justice are not incompatible in God. They are different, but not everything different is incompatible. What is different, and sometimes at least seemingly incompatible in this world, is not necessarily incompatible in God. For example, there can be such a thing as just-love or loving-justice. Likewise, God can be all-knowing and all-loving, for his infinite knowledge may be exercised in allowing men the freedom to do evil without coercing them (in accordance with his love) against their will so that through it all he may achieve (by infinite power) the greatest good for all (in accordance with his justice) (Geisler, Apologetics, p. 229).
While we have just touched the surface of the broad fields of atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism, we have given viable Christian responses to some of the most significant arguments against the existence of God. We urge the reader to check the bibliography for more intensive study of the subject.
As Christians in a non-Christian world we alternately defend the gospel (1 Peter 3:15) and aggressively proclaim the truth (Acts 2:14-39). God is no stranger to logic and philosophy. His Word will endure long after the thoughts of men have turned to ashes (1 Peter 1:25). The apostle Paul was not afraid to preach Jesus Christ among the non-believing philosophers of his day. He proclaimed to them:
For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD! ” What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.
The God who made the world and all things in it since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things… that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him, though He is not far from each one of us (Acts 17:23-25,27 NASB).