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How to Speak to an Atheist

Matt Fradd

No question is more important than “Does God exist?”

If he does not, then we must admit, however unpleasant the thought may be, that there is ultimately nothing special about the world and the beings that inhabit it. Mankind is merely the product of a random and senseless cosmic process that will eventually swallow us in death, both personally and as a species.

As the late atheist author Bertrand Russell wrote: “All the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins” (“A Free Man’s Worship,” essay).

If there were no God, the universe would have no meaning, and neither would we. On the other hand, if God exists, then the universe and the beings that inhabit it do have meaning and purpose.

Several years ago, brightly colored billboards appeared on the sides of buses in England that read, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

That an atheist group could raise the money needed to do this kind of anti-evangelizing shows that there has been revitalization among those who call themselves atheists. Indeed, the zeal of contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens is enough to put even the most colorful televangelist to shame. But despite atheists’ newfound passion, there is nothing new about their arguments.

In my new booklet, I respond to twenty common objections that atheists make against belief in God. In this article we will look at five of those objections. It’s my sincere hope that this article, and my new booklet, will help you as you study the issue of God’s existence and share it with others.

After all, it’s no small question.

The first thing you’ll need to get straight when talking with an atheist is what the word atheism means. The atheist you’re speaking with may assert, “You, a believer in God, must prove your case. Atheism is not a positive proposition. An atheist is merely someone who withholds belief in God. Therefore, the burden of proof is on the believer.”

The assertion that atheism is not a claim to knowledge but merely a suspension of belief is incorrect. The term atheist refers to a person who rejects the existence of God. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy states: “Atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief.”

We have a perfectly good word in the English language to describe a person who withholds belief in God: agnostic (from the Greek roots a– [not] plus gnostos [known]). If your position is that you do not or cannot know if God exists, then you should call yourself agnostic.

Redefining atheism to mean something less resolute is a move some atheists make because they don’t think they can make a compelling argument against the existence of God.

Ultimately, anyone who is trying to convince another person of his position must shoulder the burden of proof. If someone who believes in God wants to convince someone who doesn’t, then he must offer evidence for his case. If a person who does not believe in God wishes to convince a believer, then the burden of proof is on him. “There is no God” is as much of a truth claim as “There is a God.”

You’re atheist friend will likely respond by saying that he can’t prove that God does not exist because it is impossible to prove a negative proposition. “To prove that,” he will say, “I would have to know every single thing in reality and that none of these things is God. That’s humanly impossible.”

Despite his protestations, It is entirely possible to prove a “negative proposition” (a denial that something exists). People do it all the time.

For example, you can prove that there are no square circles or that there are no living, breathing lions in the room with him right now, or that there are no flaming snowflakes (as cool or terrifying as that might be!).

In fact, the claim “There are no negative propositions that can be proved” is itself a negative proposition. So any argument in favor of it can’t work because that would undermine the claim it‘s attempting to prove.

You also don’t have to scan everything in the universe to prove that there is no God. If the idea of God is nonsensical, as atheists often claim, then you could show it by considering God’s nature alone, the same way that you can show that there are no square circles. A mathematician doesn’t have to scan the universe to see if there are any square circles in it. Geometry itself tells him that.

On the other hand, if the idea of God isn’t nonsensical, then you must provide evidence why a believer should conclude that he doesn’t exist. You also must be open to evidence that the believer might provide in favor of God’s existence.

That, in fact, is what I am anxious to do. Traditional arguments for God’s existence do not amount to “One can’t prove there is not a God, and therefore there must be a God.” (Whereas a typical atheist argument is the opposite: “One can’t prove there is a God, and therefore there must not be a God.”) Rather, arguments for God’s existence offer positive reasons for believing in God as creator, designer, moral lawgiver, first cause, and so forth.

So if you want a believer to conclude that there is no God, you must provide evidence. In the same way, if I—a believer—wish to convince you, then I must provide evidence that there is a God.

At some point in the conversation, your atheist friend is likely to point out that science has done away with the need for God and that we should accept as true only that which can be shown scientifically.

The assertion that science has done away with God is fallacious. It is not within the ability of science to do so.

Science is a method that one can use to discover information about the natural world. It has nothing to say about that which cannot be scientifically observed or tested.

Examining God’s material creation using a method which, by its very nature, is limited to the material universe cannot provide evidence against the existence of an immaterial God.

Science involves observing the phenomena we see around us in the world and figuring out how they work, but it can never reach the ultimate explanations for things, because these cannot be observed, either directly or indirectly.

Even if science were to exhaustively describe the physical universe, it would still leave the question: Why do the universe and the laws that govern it exist?

The view that science can or should provide the answer to every question is known as scientism. It claims that we should not accept as true anything that we cannot prove scientifically.

This view is incorrect. There is any number of things that science cannot prove. Among them:

1. The laws of logic or mathematical truths. The natural sciences presuppose logic and math, but they cannot prove them.

2. Metaphysical truths. Science can’t prove the external world is real or that the universe did not simply spring into existence five minutes ago complete with the appearance of age, including our memories of a past that never happened. These are rational beliefs, but they cannot be proven scientifically.

3. Statements of an ethical nature. Science cannot show that helping a starving child is good or whether Nazi scientists in concentration camps did anything evil. Good and evil cannot be measured in a laboratory, and so moral principles lie beyond what science can prove. That includes a principles used in science itself, such as, “It is wrong to fake your research findings.”

There are things that are worthy of belief that science cannot prove, such as the laws of logic and mathematics, metaphysical truths, and ethical truths.

There is also this fact: If scientism is true, then one should refuse to believe anything that cannot be scientifically proven. But this would mean that one should not believe scientism itself unless it can be scientifically proven.

Can it?

No, because the claim “You should not believe anything unless it can be proven by science” is a philosophical claim that you cannot verify by experiment.

It expresses a value judgment—what one should choose to believe—and that puts in in the realm of ethics and morals, which we have already seen that science cannot verify.

Without the ability to do an experiment verifying or falsifying the truth of this moral claim, there is no scientific proof.

That means that scientism is not only false, it is also self-refuting, because it cannot meet its own test.

Sometimes atheists such as Richard Dawkins will offer the old saw, “If everything needs a cause, then so does God. Aren’t you are still faced with the age-old problem of who created God?”

It’s important to point out to your atheist friend that believing philosophers and theologians do not maintain that whatever exists needs a cause. Instead, they propose that certain classes of things need causes, such as things that have a beginning or things that don’t have to exist.

If something came into existence at a certain point in time—that is, if it had a beginning—then there needs to be a cause, an explanation, for why it came to be. But if something exists outside of time—like God—then it does not need an explanation for its beginning because it does not have a beginning.

In the same way, if something doesn’t have to exist, then we need an explanation for why it does exist. But if something does have to exist—if it is a necessary being like God—then it does not need a further explanation.

The things we perceive around us in the universe, including space and time, appear to have had a beginning, and so they need a cause—a reason why they began in the first place.

In the same way, no particular bit of matter in the universe seems necessary. It could not exist. Therefore, we need an explanation for why it does exist.

Believing philosophers and theologians propose God as the ultimate explanation for these things. But since he is a necessary being that exists outside of time, he needs no further explanation. Indeed, the question, “Who created God?” is nonsensical, because it amounts to asking, “Who created an uncreated being?”

Sometimes atheists give up arguing against the existence of God, finding religion to be a much easier target. You may hear the objection that religion is the source of much evil in the world or that religious people are less motivated to build a better society on earth because they are so focused on heaven.

The problem with these objections is that they don’t get us to the truth of whether or not God exists.

The effects of a particular belief on society have nothing to do with whether that belief is true.

For example, the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin ran an atheistic regime that killed tens of millions of people. That was an enormous crime against humanity, but we can’t conclude from that fact that atheism is false, and that there must be a God.

But if crimes by atheists don’t prove atheism is false, then crimes by believers don’t prove that their beliefs are false, either.

Have atrocities been committed in the name of religion? Yes. Have atrocities been perpetuated in the name of atheism? Absolutely. Neither fact gets us closer to the truth of whether God exists.

Charging that believers are so heaven-minded that they are no earthly good does not get us closer to the truth, either.

First, belief in heaven and hell can be a powerful motivator to do good in this world, to practice love and charity toward others.

This is something that the New Testament constantly stresses. (See, for example, the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46).

And in fact believers have done enormous good, such as founding charities and hospitals and universities and other institutions to improve society.

Second, atheism can be a powerful demotivator. If atheism is true, then the earth, and consequently mankind, is insignificant and life is meaningless. So why waste time and energy building society or helping other people? If all is ultimately meaningless, why bother?

Who has more motivation to build a better society: someone who believes that life is meaningless and that he ceases to exist when he dies, or someone who believes that his actions toward others are good or evil and that he will be held accountable for them in the afterlife?

As we noted, the question of which viewpoint will benefit society more doesn’t tell us which viewpoint is true. But in light of the millions of deaths caused by atheistic dictatorships in the twentieth century and the basic motivation of the believer to do good, atheists should recognize both the good that can be done by believers and the evil that can be done by unbelievers.

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