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An apologetic argument to drop

July 18, 2013

There’s an argument against atheism that floats by fairly often according to which atheists can’t accurately claim to be atheists unless they have infinite knowledge, or are omniscient. They should rather call themselves agnostics.

I think this is an argument that should be dropped. It sets a higher standard for atheists than for Christians. We don’t need to establish with Cartesian certainty that God does exist to believe He’s there. Why should atheists have to prove Cartesian-style that God doesn’t exist to believe He doesn’t? Shall we call ourselves agnostics, too?

“But,” it’s argued, “maybe the finite reach of their own knowledge doesn’t extend far enough to find God. He might be somewhere outside that.” This can’t be speaking of the God of the Bible because He isn’t localized in the universe outside the range of the atheist’s vantage point. In fact, His Scripture claims that He can be seen anywhere through the things He’s made (e.g., Ps. 8; Rom. 1). He isn’t playing hide-and-seek.

I’m not sure why this argument is used. Maybe it’s because we fail to maintain the distinction between philosophy of religion and theology. God is a Person who cannot be considered entirely within the confines of philosophical analysis. What does Scripture say about how God can be known?  Paul said this:

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being”; “For we are indeed his offspring.” (Acts 17:26-28)

Another possible reason is a lack of belief by apologists that Acts 17 (and Psalm 8 and Romans 1) tells the truth. If someone says he doesn’t believe God exists we don’t want to get into an “oh yes you do know” / “oh no I don’t know” argument. So we try to overcome the atheist’s claim by denying his omniscience or maybe by informing him that he can’t prove a universal negative.

Throwing out this line of argumentation, however, isn’t to give ammunition to atheists. No, they don’t have to be omniscient to deny God. But their lack of omniscience is no excuse not to see Him. God has revealed Himself. So perhaps a better response would be to do apologetics as Christian apologists, to believe what Scripture says, and to work to clear the dust from the air so the atheist can see better, i.e., clear away objections, and trust God to make Himself known.

Addendum:

Another reason for using this line of argument came to mind after posting the comments above. It came from a Christian philosopher/apologist to whom I posed this question several years ago.

His justification was that to argue thus was, in effect, to join the atheist on his ground and help him see that, given his theory of knowledge that makes the individual the ultimate authority for knowledge, and which cannot draw on the resources of revelation, he cannot make a strong claim that there is no God.  It could be useful in one sense to argue thus; it’s rather like using a tu quoque, not to prove one’s point, but to draw the other person up short for a moment: how can you say I’m wrong about such-and-such when you do the same thing yourself? That doesn’t justify me, but it suggests that the other person isn’t in a position to criticize me.  So maybe to tell the atheist that, on his own terms, he cannot know God isn’t there can serve to give him pause.

But if one’s purpose isn’t just to engage in philosophical debate but to guide the person to the biblical God, one still has to turn to revelation at some point. Why not from the beginning? Why go along with a false understanding of the knowledge of God and of the state of the individual? The apologist must keep in mind that the atheist’s rejection of the knowledge of God, if Scripture is correct, is more a moral issue than an epistemological one. The discussion takes a much more personal turn when the apologist suggests to the atheist that he can’t see God, not because he can’t search the entire universe, but because he doesn’t want to see Him. That’s personally risky. But it is a conversation that will eventually have to take place.

 

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