If someone asked you, “What does the New Atheism have in common with Protestantism?” you might say, “Nothing!” It would seem that devout Bible believing Christians such as Protestants would be as far away from atheists as possible.
Yet there is more to this comparison than meets the eye. Protestants may not be similar to modern atheists in the content of their belief (e.g., God exists, Jesus is God, we will rise from the dead, etc.), but their approach to arriving at knowledge of their subject matter is similar.
A tale of two “onlys”
Consider how modern atheists restrict their rational inquiry about reality to science. For example, in a 2012 debate with former Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, popular atheist Richard Dawkins asserted that appealing to God to explain the universe in the place of science is “a phony substitute for an explanation” and “peddles false explanations where real explanations could have been offered.”
For Dawkins, science is the only thing that counts as a real explanation, and thus scientific knowledge is the only real form of knowledge. This view has led many to deny God’s existence based on the reason that there is no “evidence” for God. Take a recent caller to Catholic Answers Live for example. He expressed his doubt in the supernatural due to a lack of evidence.
When Trent Horn replied with the question, “Are you saying there is no evidence of the supernatural because science has not detected the supernatural?” the caller answered, “Correct.” For the caller, science is the only tool available for detecting the supernatural. And since he hasn’t found God with that tool, he chooses not to believe in God.
In a similar way, Protestants have a restrictive approach to arriving at knowledge of God’s revelation. They believe that the Bible alone is the infallible guide for knowing revealed truth, a belief we know as sola scriptura or “Scripture alone.”
Just as science is the only tool Dawkins and company are willing to use to arrive at knowledge of the natural truth, Protestants use only the Bible for determining what is revealed truth. And as many modern atheists reject anything that science cannot detect, so too do Protestants reject any teaching that is not found explicitly in the Bible. Where Dawkins and others like him are science-only atheists, Protestants are Bible-only Christians.
Not a real form of knowledge
A second note of similarity is that both scientism and sola scriptura are self-refuting ideas.
The statement, “Scientific knowledge is the only legitimate form of knowledge,” is not scientific knowledge—that’s to say, we cannot determine the truth-value of this statement using the scientific method. With what sense can we observe the truth of this statement? Or what scientific tests can we perform to prove this statement? The truth-value of scientism is not empirically verifiable nor quantifiably measurable, and consequently is not subject to scientific inquiry—it’s an assumption.
But this is a fatal problem for the believer in scientism—namely, scientism is not real knowledge. If science can’t verify the truth of scientism, then how can scientism itself be a legitimate form of knowledge?
The answer is, It can’t.
Why should anyone believe scientism is true if it’s not real knowledge? If scientism is not real knowledge, as implied in scientism itself, then it’s self-refuting, and thus should not be accepted as a reasonable worldview.
Similar to scientism, the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura is self-refuting.
As mentioned, sola scriptura teaches that the Bible is the only infallible source for knowing God’s revelation. Therefore, if a teaching is not found explicitly (or perhaps even implicitly) in the Bible, then it’s not part of God’s revealed truth and thus not binding for salvation.
But notice the doctrine presupposes knowledge of what scriptura is. It presupposes knowledge of exactly which books are inspired by God and which books are not, and thus which books are to be counted as Scripture and which are not.
The problem for the Protestant is that his knowledge of exactly which books belong in the canon cannot be derived from the Bible. In other words, nowhere do we find in the Old Testament or the New Testament a list of historical books among the Jews or Christians that are believed to be inspired by God. There is no inspired table of contents.
So, if the Bible is the only source of infallible knowledge concerning God’s revelation, and the Bible never tells us which books are inspired by God, then how can a Protestant have infallible knowledge of which books are inspired by God? How could he know what scriptura is?
Even if a Protestant develops extra-biblical positive criteria for determining whether a specific writing is inspired (e.g., written by an apostle or prophet that performed miracles and claimed to be inspired), he would still not be able to rule out other writings that don’t fit his criteria—e.g., Mark and Luke’s Gospel, Hebrews, the Didache, the Epistle of Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas.
Furthermore, to appeal to such extra-biblical criteria would be to violate the doctrine of sola scriptura, since such an appeal would be relying on a non-biblical guide for determining God’s revelation.
The bottom line is that a Protestant can’t have infallible knowledge of exactly which writings belong in the canon of Scripture within the framework of sola scriptura. And if he can’t know what scripture is, then Scripture can’t be the only infallible source for knowing God’s revelation. In other words, sola scriptura can’t be true.
The need for an infallible voice
The only way to know exactly which books are inspired by God is if there exists an infallible authority outside the Bible that can speak on God’s behalf. Catholic hold that authority to exist in the pope and the bishops in union with him. But Protestants reject this idea, which gives rise to another conundrum.
If no infallible voice outside the Bible exists, and Protestants believe that our knowledge of which books are inspired is infallible, then we would have an infallible effect produced by a fallible cause, which is absurd.
I highlight the incoherencies of these foundational beliefs of the New Atheism and Protestantism because, as happens so often with erroneous beliefs, they are based on false assumptions. And it is these false assumptions that stand in the way of people coming to know the fullness of truth subsisting in the Catholic Church.
If we can expose these false assumptions, then we put those whom we’re evangelizing one step closer to experiencing the joy God intends for them to experience in the Catholic Church.