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#28 Must an Atheist Be Omniscient? Re-Visited

October 29, 2007

I have just read your reply to the question “Must the Athiest be Omniscient”. While agree with some of your conclusions, other made little sense and as an athiest with an interest in religion (as an observer of course) i’d like to ask a few follow up questions.

Firstly we have to make a distinction between strong and weak atheism. Strong Atheism says that there is no god. Logically this position, as you note, is unsupportable. Weak atheism however asserts that it is unlikely that god exists and therefore pointless to worship him. Pascals wager of course says otherwise but fails to note the sheer diversity of different gods and thus ends up proving atheism as the more sensible idea.

So, to the burden of proof. As a weak atheist i assert that the burden of proof is on you since i cannot proof a negative. You handily provide an example of this by stating that “no microbes on earth have brains”. You are of course correct but you can’t prove it. To prove it you would have to gather and examine every microbe on earth. And you’d never know if you missed one. You are the atheist in this case, asserting a negative. As the theist in this case i might prove you wrong by finding and showing you a microbe with a brain. My inability to do so weakens my position and adds credibility to yours.

In much the same way you go on to say that “no US senators are muslim” again asserting a negative. All i have to do as the “theist” in this case is find a single US senator that follows Islam. Of course in this case, there aren’t any and that strengthens your position and weakens mine.

Now let me take the atheist position and you the theist. I assert that “there is almsot certainly no god”, i am asserting a negative. All you have to do to disprove me and weaken my position is to show me a god. Any god will do, it doesn’t have to be the christian god. Thor or Anubis would do nicely.

The failure of Christianity in particular (i’m from a nominally christian country, the UK) and religion in general to prove me wrong, despite all my searching weakens its case.

When we search for proof of god in the scriptures, I find barbarity, contradictions, and downright errors. Apologetics tries to reconcile these with faith but ultimately, there is an easier way to explain them. The bible is not divinely inspired, god did not guide the israelites. Miracles don’t happen (unless you define miracle as enormous co-incidence or luck) and there is no god. Thats a negative claim, so all you need to do to disprove it is to provide evidence of any of the above.

Many atheists and especially most of the new group of atheists simply see no reason to believe in god. We have been given the tools of reason, inquiring minds and a good education and we judge religion as we judge everything else. It simply fails to convince.

So to my question (finally). As an atheist i assert that god, and your god in particular does not exist. What prove, evidence or arguement can you provide to convince me otherwise?


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Dr. craig’s response


I’m glad that you wrote, Oliver, and I appreciate the spirit of your letter. Let’s think about this together and see if we can’t come to some agreement on at least the preliminaries before discussing arguments for and against God’s existence. (I suggest that readers first take a look at my answer to Annissa’s question, “Must the Atheist Be Omniscient?” in the Question Archive as background for this exchange.)

Now right out of the chute, we need to think about this distinction you want to draw between strong and weak atheism. Let me suggest that while there is a distinction to be made here, you’ve drawn the line of distinction in the wrong place. As a view there is no such thing as strong or weak atheism. Atheism is simply the view that

1. There is no God.

That claim is either true or false. There is no middle ground. If you don’t think (1) is true, then you are not, by definition, an atheist.

The distinction you want to draw comes in when we consider the justification for (1). Some atheists claim to have very powerful grounds for thinking (1) to be true. We might say that theirs is a strong atheism. Other atheists would say that they have adequate, but not decisive, grounds for thinking (1) to be true. Some might say that they have little or even no grounds for (1) but believe it anyway, perhaps for emotional reasons. All of these we might class as holding to a weak atheism.

Now notice that what’s strong or weak here is not (1) itself, for atheists all regard that statement as true; rather what’s strong or weak is the case they offer in support of (1): some claim the evidence for (1) is overwhelming, while others are more modest in their assessment of the case for (1). What is important to see here is that the strength or weakness has to do, not with the claim, but with the justification being offered on behalf of that claim.

I trust that we can agree on this much. What I’ve said so far should not be controversial.

So the question now is, how strong do you think the case for atheism is? In my reply to Annissa, I expressed my puzzlement at the argumentative strategy adopted by many popular atheists today—you don’t find professional atheist philosophers arguing this way, which ought to tell you something—which says that because (1) is a universal, negative statement, first, it cannot be proved, and, second, the atheist is therefore relieved of providing any justification for his belief in (1)! As I showed in my reply to Annissa, the first claim is demonstrably false. There are lots of ways to prove a universally quantified, negative statement, for example, show that the concept under discussion involves a logical contradiction. Many atheists in the past have tried to show that the concept of God is logically incoherent (“Can God make a stone too heavy for Him to lift?”), from which it would follow that God does not exist.

I think a large part of your reservations about my reply is due to your taking the word “prove” in the sense of a mathematical proof. That sense of “prove” is not very interesting, since in that strong sense, we can prove very little, indeed. But we can prove things in the sense of “prove” as that word is used in science or in the law court. Some of my examples of justifying a universal, negative statement were proofs in this more modest sense (though in the case of demonstrating a logical incoherence, one will have a mathematical-type proof).

Now as for the atheist’s second claim, that he is relieved of providing any justification for his belief in (1), that obviously doesn’t follow from the unprovability of (1). If the atheist continues to believe (1) without any justification, then he simply “takes it by faith” and is just as irrational as people who believe theism just by faith. Can you imagine in any other field of inquiry someone’s trying to get away with saying that because his position is unjustifiable, he is therefore relieved of providing any evidence for it? If a person has no justification for (1), he should be at worst an agnostic, someone who says, “I don’t know whether (1) is true or not.”

So when you say, “As a weak atheist i assert that the burden of proof is on you since i cannot proof a negative,” you’re shirking your share of the burden of proof. (1) is a knowledge claim and therefore requires justification. Now I think that you, as a weak atheist, would be prepared to offer some sort of case by way of justification for (1). You surely have some good reasons, but just not decisive reasons, for (1). That’s fine; I’d like to hear them. I myself defend what you’d call a weak theism: I can’t offer a mathematical proof of God’s existence, but I think that the evidence for God’s existence makes the negation of (1) more probable than not.

Now when you assert (like Richard Dawkins) that “there is almsot certainly no god,” I regard that as an enormously strong assertion! You are saying that (1) is “almost certain.” You must have an extraordinarily strong case to justify such an assertion. This is a very strong atheism, indeed, and I’d like to hear the case for it. (Lest you think that Dawkins provides it, see my “Richard Dawkins’ Argument for Atheism” in the Question Archive.)

You’re right that I have only to show that God exists in order to show that your claim is false. But if I fail to offer such a case, does that show that your claim is true? Obviously not! Until you present your case, our agnostic friend will still be left suspended in doubt, not knowing whether (1) is true or false. Sophisticated atheist thinkers recognize this point. For example, Austin Dacey and Lewis Vaughan write,

What if these arguments purporting to establish that God exists are failures? . . . Must we then conclude that God does not exist? No. Lack of supporting reasons or evidence for a proposition does not show that the proposition is false (The Case for Humanism, 2003, p. 162).

As I say, there is nothing particularly controversial about this. We should be able to agree that anyone making a knowledge claim needs to have some adequate justification of that claim. Popular level atheists cannot in good conscience go on shirking their share of the burden of proof, especially when they make such extraordinarily strong claims as that God almost certainly does not exist.

As for your specific objections to a “proof of god in the scriptures,” I myself wouldn’t offer such a proof. Since I’m not concerned to show that the Bible is divinely inspired, my case is not affected by the “ barbarity, contradictions, and downright errors” that you find there. My case holds even if we treat the biblical documents as merely human, fallible records and reflections on various matters, such as the life of Jesus. But if you’ll read the Four Gospels of the life of Jesus contained in the New Testament as ordinary historical documents, I think you’ll find, as I did when, as a nonbeliever, I first read them, that Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most attractive figures you have ever encountered— brilliant, compassionate, authentic to the core. As a non-Christian, I, too, had problems with certain parts of the Bible (like the Virgin Birth), but when it came to Jesus, I knew that I couldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I finally decided to just bracket the problems as inessential to the truth of the central Christian claims and to place my trust in him as my Master and Savior.

You note that “Many atheists and especially most of the new group of atheists simply see no reason to believe in god.” Right! And therefore they either trivialize atheism by re-defining it to mean merely the absence of belief in God (which makes it just a psychological state indistinguishable from agnosticism) or else by saying that absence of evidence for God is somehow evidence that God does not exist (which, as Dacey and Vaughn note, is fallacious reasoning). What they do not offer is careful, reasoned argument in support of their view.

I’m telling you the truth, Oliver: back in the first part of the twentieth century freethinkers may have been able to claim justifiably the intellectual high ground in relation to theists. But ever since the 1960s, that has no longer been the case. There has been a revolution in Anglo-American philosophy that has transformed the face of our discipline. Today many of the finest philosophers at the most prestigious universities in Britain and the U.S. are outspoken Christians. When I read the works of the so-called “New Atheists,” I find them sophomoric in their naïveté and desperately ignorant of the issues in cutting edge discussions today.

The claim on the lips of today’s New Atheists, “ We have been given the tools of reason, inquiring minds and a good education and we judge religion as we judge everything else” now appears to be empty posturing. If this assertion is really true, then when you say, “As an atheist i assert that god, and your god in particular does not exist,” you’d better be prepared to respond when I ask, “Really? What proof, evidence, or argument can you provide to convince me?”

To come, at length, to your question concerning the case I myself would present on behalf of theism, you’ll find it on this site in my articles on the existence of God and in the some of the debate transcripts. An excellent book to read would be my and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s book with Oxford University Press entitled God?: A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist (2003). That will enable you to see both sides presented and to decide for yourself which way the evidence points.

- William Lane Craig