“I Lack Belief in a God or Gods,” A Christian Response
This is an article Josh has wanted to write for a very long time. It may not be entirely conclusive, and the response conveyed could use refinement. However, this should be a good starting point for those wanting to know how to respond to that statement, “I lack belief in a god or gods.”
Christians are often confronted with the atheist’s qualification, “We do not make the claim that ‘God does not exist.’ Rather, we merely lack belief in a God or gods.” This negative definition of soft atheism has confused many. Indeed, when I was first confronted with this statement, I didn’t know what to say. That’s because the atheism I was familiar with was hard atheism (i.e. “God does not exist”).
Under that assumption, that atheists believe that God does not exist, we Christians often approach the apologetic situation with confidence, knowing they can’t really prove “God does not exist” using their sense perception and limited knowledge of the universe (because no one knows all things exhaustively).
Some apologists have argued that God could simply be hiding in the deepest corners of the universe never to be explored by humanity, or perhaps that God may hide behind the moon, and then behind Mars, then behind Jupiter, and so on, depending on the rate and whereabouts of human cosmological exploration. This, of course, is an absurd way to argue for God’s inability to be disproven since it makes God, essentially, nothing more than some Greek demi-god who can propel himself through space.
The point of what I’m saying is this: Christians know that the more direct statement, “God does not exist” is subject to much harsher criticisms than a position which is defined in the negative. When “negative atheism” is presented to the Christian, it is hard to know where to go next when it comes to an internal critique of atheism as a worldview. This is because the atheist rightly asserts (should it be true his position is wholly negative) that the Christian maintains the burden of proof.
Does the Negative-Only Definition of Atheism Hold Up?
The atheist will often say, “I simply lack belief in God because there are no good reasons to believe He exists.” A statement like this gives the atheist a strategic advantage because it leaves the Christian fumbling for positive evidence and proofs he can offer to the atheist. The ball, it is thought, is in the Christian’s court. The Christian needs to provide sufficient evidence for God, evidence the atheist wants to accept. The atheist, on these terms, may simply accept or reject this evidence based on what he or she deems acceptable.
Is this fair? Is it really the case that the Christian must hand over the reigns of total judgment to the atheist, and the atheist alone? Before we can answer this question, the concept of an entirely negative definition of atheism must be examined and tested for reasonableness (and a probe for intellectual honesty wouldn’t hurt either). Suffice it to say that something smells fishy. The atheist, to the complete exclusion of the Christian, has somehow ended up with the prerogative of judgement. This seems too convenient.
The notion of a negative-only definition of a position is somewhat of an anomaly in the world of philosophy. But just because it’s an anomaly doesn’t necessarily mean it’s untrue. Could it be the case that atheism is defined simply as a position upon which one merely holds that they “lack a belief”?
This is suspect, especially since the paradigmatic nature of the one usually necessitates the consideration of the other. For example, when I say, “my yard lacks grass,” I am implicitly saying something about the property upon which that grass may have theoretically existed, that is, “my yard is all dirt,” or, “my yard is clear of grass.” Either of those two conclusions, or something like them, are mere logical conclusions of my negative statement, “my yard lacks grass.” So, the “lacking” (negative) says something else about my yard, namely that it “is” (positive) all dirt.
Another example may be seen in the statement: “As a theist I do not say, ‘God exists!’ I merely claim that I ‘lack belief in the non-existence of God.’” Or, even more specific, “I merely lack belief in the non-existence of the Christian God of the Scriptures!” What would happen if, upon the atheist’s presentation against God, I introduced these statements? Better still, what if the atheist and I started on the same note, both with our negative (“lacking”) definitions? It would seem as though no productive discussion would be possible. We would just lack belief in certain claims of one another’s position!
It could be objected that the Christian, even in their negative claim, assumes the existence of something, namely God, rather than non-existence. The atheist may say, in this case, that the Christian still maintains the burden of proof, therefore resuming control over what constitutes as usable evidence. The atheist becomes, once more, the magisterial judge over which kind (and how much) of evidence is needed to prove God.
But this commandeering of epistemic boundaries is arbitrarily taken for granted. After the atheist’s negative claim necessarily comes something like, “I believe the non-existence of God is true,” regardless of whether or not that statement is vocally expressed. In their negative, they necessarily say something positive, albeit in an implicit way.
Thus, if the atheist wants to establish a burden of proof for the Christian simply because the Christian’s statement implies the existence of God—to be consistent—they must exact the burden of proof on themselves since they are implying the existence of an alternate worldview. In other words, either negative statement implies certain positive propositions.
Therefore, to prevent the logical deducing of a positive statement as a result of a negative statement is arbitrary and prevents rational discourse.
The Atheist’s Elbow Blows
Those who run populated 5Ks, half-marathons, and marathons know what it’s like to be elbowed by those trying to immediately jump in front of the pack. The atheist, at the start of a discussion, does this by way of grabbing control of the conversation as early as possible. They masterfully accomplish this by defining their position negatively (i.e. a lack of belief in God). However, we have examined the faulty nature of this conveniently advantageous description.
Could it be said that the atheist is being intellectually honest in attempting to define their position in wholly negative terms? I will grant that many unbelievers are taking cues from people they trust and thus may not understand the nature of the case. I am not claiming, therefore, that all atheists who do this are intentionally dishonest. But is it fair to the Christian that the atheist should have this type of control within the discussion? How should Christians respond to this situation?
Just as it’s not fair for one runner to intentionally trip another at the start of a race, it’s also not intellectually fair to snatch the win from the Christian at the outset of the conversation. In an effort to demonstrate this unfair advantage, I once asked an atheist what he would do if Jesus descended from Heaven and stood right in front of him. I said, “Let’s say that Jesus landed in front of you right now, in all His glory, and exclaimed, ‘I am the Lord of lords, the King of kings, the Alpha and Omega.’ What would you do?” I asked him. He immediately answered, “It is more likely that this Jesus you speak of could just be an alien acting like the historical Jesus of Nazareth who supposedly ascended to Heaven.” He had no intention of permitting even the slightest possibility of the real Jesus appearing before him.
At that moment, I knew something wasn’t right. “They could just take anything we present to them as evidence, and throw it over their shoulder into the trashcan, without the slightest bit of consideration!” I thought.
The atheist has a burden to justify his rejection of God and His truth. If his answer to this is, “No, because there are no good reasons to believe such things!” He must then justify his version of “reasons.” He must justify, or give an account for, what makes evidence evidence! Otherwise, he can simply define evidence however he wants in reflexive accommodation of anything we throw at him.
I could say, “Scripture has over 10,000 historical manuscripts in supports of its originality!” Their reply? “So what? That’s not extraordinary enough!” The unbeliever will continually do this, no matter what type of argumentation we throw at him.
Discussion is Impossible Then, Right?
Some, like Abraham Kuyper, have given up the possibility of fruitful dialogue between the Christian and the unbeliever. Both will simply draw their conclusions, and then nothing else can be done, it is thought. Is this where the apologetic situation ultimately ends? After all, what else can we do? We surely can’t force someone to believe.
It’s discouraging at times to see unbelievers write off every piece of evidence given at the end of a time-consuming discussion. I have questioned many times, “Is this even worth it?” My conclusion would’ve been, “Nope, this isn’t worth it. We just need to pack up and go home,” if it wasn’t for Scripture.
James writes, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth (Jas 1:18).” Surely this means that a person is brought forth (lit. birthed) because of God’s will. Paul writes that we are dead in our sins apart from God’s work (Eph 2:1), and that no one in the flesh, that is, without the Spirit of God living in them, can please God (Rom 8:7, 8).
What does this mean, then? God says that faith comes by way of hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ (Rom 10:17). Thus, it is the gospel that God uses to sovereignly bust a slave of darkness out of their bondage. We must move forth, in the apologetic discussion, in hopes that God will do this. This gospel, presented through our defense of Christianity, is our point of contact with the unbeliever.
With the Commission to make disciples everywhere (Matt 28:18-20), and to give an answer for the hope we have in a spirit of gentleness and respect (1Pet 3:15), we have the necessary responsibility to make the gospel central in our apologetic discussion and the main destination toward which the conversation ought to be driven. Moreover, we are commanded to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength (Matt 22:37; Lk 10:27). Thus, we are called to point out inconsistencies in a reasonable and respectable manner in an effort to submit the intellect to Christ.
All this we may do to the glory of God as we prevent the atheist from gaining an unfair advantage, either intentionally or unintentionally. But remember, let’s point these things out so we can point to their need for Christ, all in hopes that God will make these same atheists our brothers and sisters in Christ one day.