Thursday, February 02, 2006

Are there any atheists either in or out of the foxholes?

Paul Manata, a Van Tilian, and Victor Reppert, a disciple of C. S. Lewis, have gotten into a public dispute over there are any bona fide atheists or not. This is what Reppert has to say:


Are there any atheists? Are Carr, Loftus and Lippard just lying to us? Or themselves?

It's silly to me not because I am prepared to deny the claim that there is some innate knowledge of God. It is silly because I think you have to assess what someone really believes based on what they say and how they act. It could be that they have an awareness of God that they are suppressing. But when I look beyond Scripture to what I can give any real evidence for, I find that I don't have any argument that proves the existence of God with such certainty that anyone who rejects it has to be fooling himself or herself in some way. And that includes all the versions of the argument from reason that I defend in my book, and every other argument that Lewis, Craig, Plantinga, Swinburne, and the rest defend. So if someone says that God does not exist, and they sleep in on Sunday and save ten percent, I figure they're atheists. But if any atheists want to tell me that they aren't really atheists, but have been fooling themselves all this time, I'll take their word for it.


Before delving into the details, I’ll make a couple general comments:

1.Manata’s material is worth reading in its own right—both his original piece and his reply to Reppert—so don’t stop with what I have to say on the subject.

2.Reppert has posted a lot of fine material on ID and the mind/body problem, so whatever you think of his position on the immediate issue at hand, he’s still worth reading on other subjects—well, maybe not on politics, but that’s another story.

Moving on to Reppert’s comment:

3.It is needlessly provocative to introduce the issue by insisting that the atheist lying to us or to himself. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, but it’s prejudicial to cast the question in such sweeping and exclusive terms.

4.It also carries the smarmy insinuation that a Christian apologist or theologian who takes this position is slandering the atheist by automatically imputing to him the worst possible motives. The debate needn’t be that emotionally charged.

I’m not saying that 3-4 couldn’t be true. But to frame the issue at the outset in such invidious and unqualified terms anticipates a possible conclusion in advance of the supporting argument.

5.To some extent, the idea that unbelievers are repressed believers, or believers are repressed unbelievers, depending on which side you take, is inevitable on either score.

Atheism tries to harmonize two propositions:

i) There is not God

ii) Many men believe in God

These two propositions are stand in apparent tension to each other. If (i) is true, how is (ii) true as well?

If there is no God, then theistic belief must be accounted for by some naturalistic mechanism.

Atheism harmonizes the two propositions by assigning the source of faith in God to a naturalistic factor, commonly supplied by psychology (e.g. Feuerbach, Freud), or sociology (e.g. Marx, Durkheim).

You have a parallel situation in Christianity:

Christian theology tries to harmonize two propositions:

i) There is a God

ii) Many men disbelieve in God.

For its own part, Christian theology harmonizes the apparent tension by a parallel, but opposing move. In Calvinism, infidelity is attributed to the noetic effects of original sin.

There’s nothing inherently offensive about ascribing belief or unbelief to an ulterior motive since the opposing positions are, in fact, logically committed to some indirect explanation.

If there is no God, then you could explain unbelief on the simple grounds that there’s no God to believe in.

Yet if many men believe in God, although there is no object answering to their faith, then an atheist must account for theistic belief by seeking the source of origin outside of God. And Christian theology makes the same move in reverse.

Hence, there’s no reason to take this analysis so personally. Both sides do it because both sides must account for an apparent disconnect between what there is, and what people believe there is.

On one view (atheism), there is often a belief without a corresponding extramental object; on another view (theism), there is an extramental object, but often absent a corresponding belief.

6.From a Christian standpoint, does this make an atheist a liar? There are a couple of problems with framing the issue that broadly:

a) Maybe there is no general answer to that question. Maybe some are liars and some are not. Must we characterize every unbeliever the same way to characterize any unbeliever in a certain way?

b) At the risk of stating the obvious, deception and self-deception range along a continuum with many levels and degrees.

We all hold inconsistent beliefs. We all compartmentalize our beliefs in some measure.

7.Reppert says: “you have to assess what someone really believes based on what they say and how they act.”

Why do we have to do that? Is this a proposition that Reppert would care to universalize? I hardly think so. Counterexamples leap to mind from every direction.

8.Suppose you are a Bible-believing Christian. Suppose the Bible says there’s no such thing as innocent unbelief. If the Bible says an unbeliever is a fool, then isn’t the unbeliever fooling himself?

Should that information not figure in whether you take the unbeliever’s claim at face value or not?

9.As to judging an unbeliever by what he says and does, many unbelievers look like fugitives from divine justice.

10.In addition, the diagnosis of an unbeliever as a repressed believer is not limited to an outsider’s perspective. Believers and unbelievers are not static categories. Many of us have made the transition from infidelity to faith. So we know both states from mind from the inside out.

We know a rebel when we see one, because we were once on the run ourselves. Our own face was up on God’s ten most wanted.

11.What are we to make of Reppert’s stark disjunction between the Bible and “real” evidence?

12.To discuss or dismiss the awareness of God in terms of “innate” knowledge is too narrow. That suggests a particular theory of knowledge.

It would be better to speak of the natural knowledge of God. Whether we account for this knowledge according to rationalism, empiricism, or some synthesis thereof, is a separate issue.

13.In addition, to discount an appeal to the natural knowledge of God on the grounds that no theistic argument rises to the level of apodictic proof is a category mistake.

The natural knowledge of God need not be the result of a formal theistic proof.

And even if it were the result of a formal theistic proof, the theistic proof need to be absolutely certain for the unbeliever to be fooling himself if he denies the existence of God.

Again, would Reppert really want to universalize this rule of evidence or burden of proof?

14.Perhaps the larger point which Reppert is laboring to make, however inchoately, is that appeal to what the unbeliever “really” believes is strategically futile. For the unbeliever would deny the charge if it were false, and he’d deny the charge if it were true.

15.But even if this appeal is devoid of apologetic value, it might still be worth making simply because it is true.

If a psychiatrist diagnoses a patient as paranoid, that diagnosis won’t cure the patient. He’ll deny the diagnosis. Indeed, he’ll take the diagnosis as evidence that the psychiatrist is also out to get him. Does it follow that the psychiatrist should never make that diagnosis?

16.Also, it isn’t clear to me that this appeal is useless. Think of a homicide detective interrogating a suspect. Surely it’s quite germane to his line of questioning whether he believes the subject is innocent or guilty.

If he thinks the subject is innocent, he will ask straightforward questions, and take the answers at face value.

But if he thinks the subject is guilty, then he’ll ask questions which are designed to trip him up.

The suspect has every incentive to evade and mislead, while the detective will avoid questions that put him on the defensive. Instead, the detective will attempt to lull the suspect into a false sense of security so that he lowers his guard and lets slip telltale details of the crime that only the perpetrator would be privy to.

It’s really rather odd that a man of Reppert’s experience could get so much so wrong.


  1. Steve --

    Over the years at CARM I have had what I would call significant interaction with what I would call run-of-the-mill atheists. No real Philosophy Ph.D.s there, but the kinds of atheists you might actually meet outside of a dorm room.

    The single most valuable approach I have had with those types of atheists has been the approach that Romans 1 is right and that they are deceived themselves about the obvious evidence about God and in that have fallen into all kinds of sin.

    A classic example is this: I asked an open forum of atheists if sex outside of marriage was wrong. Unanimously, they answered "between consenting adults, no." However, when I then used that information to ask which of them had sisters for whom this was true -- and if I could please have their phone numbers -- you would think that I had been caught beating a kitten with a brick.

    They know the truth: they suppress it with vain reasoning. While we may not need to rub their noses in it propositionally, it is in fact one of the singular means we have of preaching the Gospel to them.

  2. Thanks, Frank, for bringing the conversation back down to earth. Although I tried to take the high road, it's true that the real motive often comes down to promiscuous sex, as documented by Paul Johnson ("Intellectuals") and Michael Jones ("Degenerate Moderns"), among others.


  4. well there sure as heck aint any atheists in Sudan! We've been feeding thousands a day, and three medical clinics have been full to capacity, and we have volunteers from all over the world.But I havemnt seen nary an athiest yet.Mebbe their landrover done broke down mon on de way out here! Surely dey been a come by now! surely!

  5. mr steve didn't use to live in ft worth tx eons ago did you? if so the neighbor around the corner at 300 says hi!