Excursus on Natural Theology (Part 28): The Presumption of Atheism

June 01, 2016

The Presumption of Atheism

We’ve been looking at epistemological objections to belief in God. The word “epistemology” comes from the Greek word epistime which means “knowledge.” So these are objections based upon the fact that God cannot be known to exist for some reason or other.

Last time we looked at the first objection – the objection of verificationism – which held that the question of God’s existence is meaningless. It is neither true nor false to say that God exists because the question of God’s existence is simply a meaningless question. We saw that that verificationist viewpoint was based upon a principle of meaning that was in the first place completely implausible, and then to make matters worse self-refuting. Therefore verificationism has been virtually universally rejected among philosophers of science and epistemologists today.

We now want to turn to a second type of objection – what I call the presumption of atheism – that atheism is in some way a sort of default position that doesn’t require any evidence in favor of that position.

First would be the attempt of many contemporary atheists to redefine the meaning of atheism. Atheism traditionally is the view that God does not exist. Atheism is a position that there is no God. But very often atheists today (at least on a popular level) will put a different spin on atheism. They will say something like this: no one can prove a universal negative like “there is no God.” They think that because atheism is a universal negative that somehow excuses them from needing any evidence for God’s non-existence. Since it is a universal negative that there is no God and universal negatives cannot be proved, it is impossible to prove that God does not exist. Therefore, as atheists, they don’t need to prove such a thing.

Not only is it obviously false that you can’t prove a universal negative – all you have to do is show a self-contradiction in some idea to prove that it has no instances. For example, the idea that there is a married bachelor. It is easy to prove that there are no married bachelors because that is a self-contradictory concept. Therefore a married bachelor cannot exist. So, in fact, you can prove universal negatives.

But the more important point here is that this claim by the atheist is really an admission on his part that it is impossible to prove atheism! Atheism involves a universal negative. He says you can’t prove a universal negative. Therefore, atheism is unprovable. So it turns out to be the atheist who is holding a belief for which there is and can be no evidence on his own view. This argument, far from being some sort of defense for atheism, ought to be a part of the Christian’s apologetic arsenal. It would show that if the atheist is right that you can’t prove a universal negative then atheism is simply unjustifiable and therefore cannot be reasonably held.

What many atheists try to do at this point is to revise the definition of atheism so that it is no longer the view that God does not exist. Instead they say atheism is just the absence of belief in God. Anyone who lacks belief in God counts as an atheist. This is, again, not only contrary to the traditional meaning of the word, but when you think about it it is really quite hopeless as a definition. For on this new definition, atheism is no longer a viewpoint or a position as it is traditionally.[1] Traditionally atheism is the position “There is no God.” But on this new redefinition atheism is no longer a position or a truth claim. It is just a description of somebody’s psychological state. It is the psychological state of lacking a belief in God. As such, atheism is therefore neither true nor false. It is just a psychological state. Even babies, on this definition, turn out to be atheists because they don’t have the psychological state of believing in God. But that is surely absurd. Can you imagine the following conversation between two young mothers:

Mother 1: Julie, I just heard that you had twins! Congratulations!

Mother 2: Yes, thank you. But, you know, it is so sad.

Mother 1: What is sad?

Mother 2: Well, they are both atheists.

On this definition, even our cat, Angel, turns out to be an atheist because I am sure Angel has never thought about the question of whether or not God exists.

All of this would still leave us wondering whether or not there is a God – whether or not God exists. You can call this view atheism or schmatheism. It doesn’t matter what you call it. The question is: does God exist? Is there a God? Anyone who says that God does not exist, even if you call that schmatheism rather than atheism, still we can call upon him to give us some arguments or some evidence for his position.

This attempt to get off the hook of giving arguments for atheism merely by redefining it, I think, is utterly unavailing.


Student: I was also really struggling with this idea of atheism being the default position. I thought a great conversation that you had with another atheist – I think his name was Dr. Shook I think.

Dr. Craig: That was a debate at the University of British Columbia.[2]

Student: He said something like, “I believe that nature exists.” He had no reason to think that there is anything more than that. That was kind of like a presumption of atheism like “I don’t have to prove that there is something more than nature. It is clear that nature exists. Why go any further?” So he called himself an atheist. You challenged him by saying, “Doesn’t that make you an agnostic? You don’t know that there is anything more. You are just saying . . .” And he gave an example of the stock market and whether to invest in the stock marker or not. You gave all these arguments for investing, and he doesn’t really think they are good. Then you came back with, “That just means you don’t know whether the stock market is going to go up or go down. It doesn’t mean it isn’t going to go up or it isn’t going to go down. You just have to be an agnostic about it.” I thought it was a really good conversation to bring out what it going on.

Dr. Craig: Good. I’m glad that that was helpful. There are several types of non-theism traditionally. Non-theism could be atheism, which is the belief that God does not exist. Or you could be agnostic, which is the position, “I don’t believe that God exists but I don’t believe that God does not exist.” In the same way, “I don’t believe the stock market is going to rally, but I don’t believe it is going to fall either. I don’t know what the stock market is going to do.” That is agnosticism. The other position that would be possible would be a kind of non-cognitivism which is the old verificationism which says it is a meaningless question whether God exists or not. All of these would be varieties of non-theism. When the unbeliever says that he doesn’t believe in God or he lacks this psychological state of believing in God, we still want to know, well, are you an atheist who says there is no God, are you an agnostic who is just undecided about the matter, or are you a verificationist who believes that there is no cognitive content to this question? I think you can see that all of these persons will have the same psychological state of lacking belief in God, but that doesn’t answer the question of how we should assess the fact of God’s existence.[3]

Student: One thing I like to do in these conversations – because I find the people that I talk to get very hung up on these words “atheism” or “agnosticism” - I just write down all these words, I’ll give the definitions for them, and then I’ll erase the words and leave the definitions and say, OK, which one do you fall under? It is amazing how much they start to struggle to give me an answer at that point. Because you find out what is going on is they get attached to the word atheism, but once you give the definitions but take out the words and say call it whatever you want.

Dr. Craig: You are right. People are offended or they get defensive when you say you are misusing this label. They say, “I have a right to call myself what I want!” But what you are doing is, for atheism, you would say “God does not exist.” For agnosticism, “I don’t know whether God exists.” Non-cognitivism, “It is meaningless to affirm or deny God’s existence.” Then just erase the labels and say, OK, which of these propositions do you affirm? That is a wonderful way to just get past the question of labels. Very good, thank you.

Student: Just for a pragmatic view on trying to define atheists, is it pragmatic to actually try to debate the definition at all? Just concentrate on the subject matter instead. Or do you think for the purposes of evangelism we should be talking about . . .

Dr. Craig: I do think it is very important to try to understand what your conversation partner believes because there is a huge difference between an atheist and an agnostic. The agnostic makes no knowledge claim at all. But the atheist is making a knowledge claim. He is saying God does not exist. That is a knowledge claim that requires an argument or justification in the same way that the claim God does exist. I think it is very important to identify exactly what your conversation partner really does believe, however it is labeled. I think some of these folks may not really know what they believe. They may have just used words. This may actually promote some self-examination on their part to say, “Do I really believe this or not?”

Student: It was more of a question about should we get caught up on the definitions of words rather than subject matters.

Dr. Craig: No.

Student: My experience is that there are many people who don’t want God to exist. So they prefer a life void of what they understand God to be. Therefore they say they are atheist but they don’t want to get into the quagmire of sorting through all of that. They say, “Look, my life is fine the way it is. I don’t think there is a God, I don’t want there to be a God, so move on.” That is what I think many of them feel.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and I don’t have a label for that position. The philosopher Thomas Nagel says that. He says, It is not just that I don’t believe that God exists. I don’t want there to be a God. I don’t want to live in a universe like that. I am troubled by the fact that many of my most brilliant and gifted colleagues in philosophy believe that there is a God. He finds that disturbing because he doesn’t want there to be someone like that. So you are quite right. In dealing with a person like that, I think we need to maybe take a step back and talk about the existential implications of atheism – the absurdity of life without God. Here you can appeal to French existentialist atheists and others who have recognized how the implications of this worldview are really dreadful.

Student: I think the alternatives of their non-belief in God is very severe. So it is worth the exercise of exploring that. I just wanted to comment on one thing. As you know my brother was an atheist. As he was close to death, he said, “I don’t understand why this is happening to me.” Which to me is saying . . . I mean, if he is truly an atheist, why not?

Dr. Craig: Isn’t that odd? As though he expected there to be a purpose or plan or reason.[4]

Student: Yeah, it was very puzzling and depressing. Why? Why? I thought that opened up . . . at least the thought for further . . . or how you can deal with that with another person. I guess that is the God-hold.

Dr. Craig: That’s a very poignant example of how deep that sort of God-consciousness is that he would say, “Why is this happening to me?” That is very interesting.

Student: I think that when you are talking about any subject matter you really have to be honest with yourself. I think that is especially true with philosophy. I think we have to realize that truth (whether it is in mathematics, physics, or things like that) exists independently of our desires. For example, I can walk out my door and I could drive a car around or something like that and I can bemoan being stuck in traffic and I say “I wish gravity doesn’t exist.” But my mere desire to temporarily suspend the law of gravity so I am not stuck in a traffic jam will not make my car start to levitate. My point is that the same is true with regarding the question “Does God exist?” I can wish that God does not exist, but if he does, he does so independently of my desire for him not to exist. It is interesting because the people who espouse this belief “I don’t want God to exist” it is like, don’t you want your life to have some kind of meaning? It is kind of interesting because they want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want their life to have meaning, but if there is no ultimate justice, if there is an absence of ultimate justice, then there is really an absence of ultimate meaning as well. Those two things – ultimate justice and ultimate meaning – can only exist if there is a God who is all-powerful. Only an all-powerful being can ensure those things so an all-powerful being would by definition be God if nothing is greater.

Dr. Craig: I agree. I think the example that someone earlier gave, as well as Thomas Nagel, indicate that it is not only theists who can be accused of wishful thinking, but atheists, too, can fall into this trap, as you say, of thinking that the world has to conform to their desires.

Student: In regards to the earlier comment, I just in my mind coined the term displacement – people who are atheists want to make themselves God until they come to a point in life when they realize they are not, like at the point of death and sickness and that they are not in control. Then the questions come up – why?

Dr. Craig: I hope so.

Student: One of the things I’ve noticed – and some of you all have probably noticed – I think atheists or agnostics are so desperate to avoid being labeled, they will mix-and-match these definitions to the point of saying “I’m an agnostic-atheist.” They matrix it out and say I’m over here a little bit. It is pretty interesting.

Dr. Craig: I’ve heard that same blend, too. I think that is just a lack of clarity in their thinking. Again, as someone earlier so nicely emphasized, don’t argue about labels. Just say “What is that? Tell me what that belief is. What is the position here?”

Student: First of all, I don’t think cats are atheists. They are demons!

Dr. Craig: [laughter] Oh, no, no, no! Our cat is named Angel, with good reason!

Student: I was just wondering, in your view and your experience, do you see that if someone takes a position that says there is no God, is it easier to discuss things with them than if they go, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

Dr. Craig: Certainly if they don’t care, that is very true. As I said the other day, sometimes that is called apatheism – there is a label for that. That is very difficult to deal with. My professor, Norman Geisler, differentiated between two kinds of agnosticism – ordinary agnosticism (which is just a confession of ignorance, “I don't know whether God exists”) and what he called ornery agnosticism (which is, “No one can know that God exists. It cannot be known that God exists”).[5] The ordinary agnostic is open-minded and I think easy to deal with. The ornery agnostic is actually making, again, a claim. He is claiming it cannot be known that God exists. Therefore that requires some evidence or argument. We need to hear his justification for that claim that it cannot be known that God exists. It depends on what kind of agnostic you are dealing with.


Let’s move on to the next epistemological objection for the presumption of atheism. This is the view that atheism (that is to say the belief that God does not exist – atheism on the traditional definition) is the default position. You should assume that something does not exist unless and until you have evidence that it does exist. In the absence of evidence you should believe that God does not exist. You hold that something doesn’t exist unless and until you have evidence for it. This is an attempt to place a differential burden of proof. The atheist on this view has no burden of proof. His is the default position. It is the theist who carries the whole burden of proof because he asserts that God does exist.

I think there are two very significant problems with this position.

The first problem is the one that was pointed out to me by an Australian criminologist. He says there is a saying that is beloved among criminologists which is “absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence.” As a criminologist he knew that just because you didn’t have any positive evidence, say, that the butler was the murderer, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the murderer. The absence of evidence isn’t necessarily evidence of absence. I think that that is very evident. Take, for example, the claim that there is a flea in this room. We don’t have any evidence that there is a flea in this room. Does that therefore imply that there is no flea in the room? I think obviously not. There could very well be a flea in this room even though we don’t have any evidence of it. So the absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. On the other hand, suppose somebody were to say there is an elephant in this room. In that case the absence of evidence would be, I think, evidence of absence. If we have no evidence that there is an elephant in this room, that is pretty good evidence that there is no elephant in the room. So what is the difference between the case of the flea and the case of the elephant? Why, in the one case, is the absence of evidence not evidence of absence, but in the other case the absence of evidence is evidence for absence?

I think there are two conditions under which absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

First of all would be that we have fully canvassed the area where the evidence should be found. If you haven’t even looked into the room there might be an elephant in there because you’ve never looked at the evidence. You’ve never sought for it. Or if you examined the evidence very superficially you might not simply have discovered the evidence for the thing in question. So the first condition under which the absence of evidence will count as evidence of absence is that you have fully canvassed the area where the evidence should be found. Now translate that to the case of God. That will mean that you have done a thorough and in-depth investigation of the arguments of natural theology for God’s existence. That will be necessary in order for the absence of evidence to count as evidence of absence of God. You have fully canvassed all of the arguments for natural theology in-depth before you can judge that there is no evidence for God’s existence.[6]

The second condition would be: if the entity did exist then we should expect to have more evidence of its existence than that which we have. If there were a flea in this room, should we expect to have more evidence of its existence than that which we have? Obviously not. We don’t have any sort of flea detector that would let us know that he is here. On the other hand, if there were an elephant in this room then we would expect to have more evidence – visually and olfactory evidence (the smell of the elephant and so forth) that he exists. So the absence of evidence in that case is good evidence that there is no elephant. Again, translate this into the question of God’s existence. What this would mean is that if God did exist then we should have more evidence of his existence than that which we do have. Is that true? If there were a God, should we have more evidence of his existence than the existence of a contingent universe, the beginning of the universe at some point in the finite past before which it did not exist, the fine-tuning of the universe to an incomprehensible precision for the existence of intelligent life, the existence of a realm of objective moral values and duties, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead? If God exists should we expect to have more evidence than that? Well, that is far from obvious. It seems to me that what the atheist is saying then is that he is able to predict the sort of evidence that God would give if God existed. Once again we are thrown back onto the arguments of natural theology. I would say that we have very good evidence for God’s existence and that there is no reason to think that if God existed that we should have more evidence of his existence than that which we do have. So it will be a question once again of how good are these arguments.

Under what conditions, then, does the absence of evidence count as evidence for the non-existence of something? Two conditions. First you fully canvass the area where the evidence should be found, and then secondly if the entity did exist then you should expect to have more evidence of its existence than what you do, in fact, have. I don’t think that those conditions are met in the case of theism. Therefore I am unpersuaded by this argument. I don’t think that the theist and the atheist have differential burdens of proof at all. Both are making knowledge claims and both have to support them.


Student: When an atheist asks you about Bertrand Russell’s orbiting teapot, how do you respond?

Dr. Craig: Sometimes atheists will say, “What about the hypothesis that there is a teapot in orbit around the Earth? We don’t have any evidence of such a teapot orbiting the Earth. So isn’t that good evidence that it doesn’t exist?” In this case the absence of evidence, they would say, is evidence of absence. I think it is a bad illustration. I think we have boatloads of evidence that there is no such teapot orbiting the Earth. We know that no Soviet or American cosmonauts have carried teapots into space and discharged them out of their space capsules. Moreover, no extraterrestrial would bring teapots to the Earth in space because you can’t pour tea in space out of a tea pot. You might need to suck it out of a tube but in a non-gravity situation it is pointless to have a teapot. So I think we have every reason to think that there is not a teapot orbiting the Earth, and it is not just the absence of evidence for it. We have good reasons to think that there is no teapot orbiting the Earth.

Student: I find sometimes what happens in these conversations is sometimes the atheist, I think, misuses the term “proof.” A lot of times they will use examples like the teapot or even things like Bigfoot. They’ll say, “Now prove they don’t exist.” I think when they say “prove” what they mean is they mean “prove beyond all possible doubt” which is, as we all know, is a ridiculous standard.[7] By that logic, of course, I couldn’t even be a theist, which I point out to them. I would say even I wouldn’t claim to know that God exists with absolute certainty where I couldn’t possibly be wrong. But if I can say that it is beyond a reasonable doubt, then couldn’t atheism be like that?

Dr. Craig: Exactly. There you just have to go back to square-one with them and point out that you are offering arguments for God’s existence. You are not claiming you can offer a sort of mathematical proof. I think we have very good reasons, very good evidence, to think that Bigfoot doesn’t exist, that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist, or the Abominable Snowman. There is good evidence that those things don’t exist. So we want to hear from the atheist – what is his arguments and evidence that God does not exist? We are quite willing to give our arguments for God’s existence so I think we have every right to ask the atheist, “Give us your arguments as to why you think God does not exist.”

Student: In a way, theology is kind of like, I would say, astronomy or cosmology as you would put it. The reason I say that is because the less we know about a given subject matter, if we don’t even know the scope or the size of something exactly (like we don’t know the size of the universe) the more we have to rely on things like indirect observation. It is kind of the same with the Earth’s core. Nobody has seen it in person, just because obviously the conditions are not suitable for human life but we have to rely on indirect observation to see what it is like. I think the same is true with the supernatural realm to some extent as with astronomy and things like that.

Dr. Craig: I think that is absolutely right. That is by the very nature of the case. God is not a physical idol that you could observe with the five senses. We are talking here about a transcendent, personal mind beyond the universe. What you will see will be, as you say, the fingerprints as it were of the Creator in his creation. It will be indirect evidence of his existence such as plays a key role in astronomy – say, the evidence for a black hole or in high-level physics for certain theoretical particles and things of that sort. They are posited because of their explanatory value for that we which do observe and see.




[1] 5:06

[2] Dr. Craig discusses this debate in his Reasonable Faith podcast “A Lively Debate” found here: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/a-lively-debate – you can find a link to the debate itself in the transcript of that podcast. (accessed May 29, 2016).

[3] 10:13

[4] 15:03

[5] 20:11

[6] 25:00

[7] 30:02

[8] Total Running Time: 33:06 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)