Three Bad Attitudes Atheists Have Towards Theists
by Trent Horn
Filed under Atheism, Religion
Earlier this week I described three bad attitudes that theists sometimes have towards atheists. Now, in the spirit of mutual correction, let’s examine three bad attitudes atheists sometimes bring to the debate over the existence of God.
Bad Atheistic Attitude #1:
“All religion contradicts science.”
Certainly, there are some religious beliefs that contradict science. Some Hindu creationists think modern human beings have existed for billions of years, while some Christian creationists think modern humans are only 6,000 years old. Both of these estimates are far off the mainstream scientific view.1
But just because some religious beliefs don’t line up with certain widely accepted scientific conclusions doesn’t mean that religion—or theism—is in itself anti-science. In fact, Catholic scientists like Fr. Georges Lemaitre (who discovered the Big Bang) and the friar Gregor Mendel (who discovered genetic inheritance), followed the medieval motto fides quaerens intellectum, or “faith seeking understanding,” and were among those who contributed to the flourishing of modern science.
Belief in a God who carefully made the world and watches over it is one of the reasons Christians have desired to explore how the world works through the natural sciences.2 If the world had no intrinsic order or design, then trying to explain how it works would be like trying to assemble a puzzle that was the result of an exploding toy factory. There would be no guarantee that rational explanations could even be discovered.
The allegation that religion contradicts science usually refers to religious beliefs that contradict the age of the universe or the theory of biological evolution. But once again, there are many theistic belief systems that explain only non-scientific truths, like the ultimate origin of reality itself, and do not try to replace the natural sciences that are focused on determining how reality functions. For example, the majority of Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and mainline Protestant Christians accept the theory of evolution.3 When I told a group of atheists in New York that I believed in evolution as well as the teachings of the Catholic Church, they questioned me not in a spirit of hostility but in a spirit of curiosity. These students were intrigued because they had never met a practicing Christian who did not deny the theory of evolution.
The Catholic Church teaches that the first chapters of the book of Genesis are primarily concerned with expressing theological truths, like that God created the world and man’s immortal soul, and not scientific truths about the earth’s physical history.4 As Cardinal Caesar Baronius is reported to have said, “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”
Bad Atheistic Attitude #2:
“Religion is just a product of geography.”
Some atheists say that if you were born in India, you would be a Hindu, but since you were born in America, you are probably a Christian. Therefore, your religion has little to do with objective truth and depends only on where and when you were born. But just because someone is born in a place where they fail to discover the right answer about life’s important questions does not mean there is no right answer. This goes for any kind of truth claim.
If you were born in the year 1714 as opposed to the year 2014, you probably would have supported the enslavement of native Africans. If you were born in 2014 B.C., you probably would have denied the Earth revolved around the sun. If you were born in modern North Korea, you probably would believe that democracy was evil. But none of these facts proves that slavery is moral, the sun revolves around the Earth, or that dictators are a great idea. All they prove is that large numbers of people can be wrong.
For all of our political, scientific, and ethical beliefs we would say that even if other people disagree with them, and do not live in places that teach these beliefs as truths, that does not mean these beliefs are false. We can put forward rational arguments to defend these beliefs and then say that those other cultures who disagree are simply mistaken. If we can do this for disputed scientific, political, and ethical beliefs, then why not say we can put forward rational arguments for religious beliefs that are not universally believed but are nonetheless true?
Bad Atheistic Attitude #3:
“All religion is a ‘God of the gaps’ fallacy.”
If our argument for God is that he explains what is currently unexplainable in the universe, then once science does explain a mystery (whether it’s the cause of lightning or the complexity in the human cell), then it will have erased part of our evidence for God. As the Lutheran pastor and Holocaust victim Dietrich Bonheoffer once wrote,
"[H]ow wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat."5
However, atheists should not presume that “gaps” are the only evidence a theist can muster. The philosophical arguments from necessity, first cause, design, and morality don’t start from what we don’t know and say, “God must have done it.” Instead, they start from what we do know and conclude that God is the best explanation for certain features of the universe we observe.
For example, the Kalām cosmological argument (which I cover this more extensively in my book) uses philosophical and scientific evidence to demonstrate the non-religious truth that the universe began to exist from nothing. Then the argument joins that evidence with the philosophical truth “Whatever begins to exist has a cause for its existence.” It follows logically from these two known truths that a cause brought the universe into existence.
An atheist may claim at this point that the theist is saying, “I don’t know how the universe was caused to exist, therefore God did it” and thus is still committing the God-of-the-gaps fallacy. However, the theist doesn’t reason this way. Instead, he reasons about what it means to be a “cause of the universe” and arrives at the conclusion that a being like God is the best answer. This is similar to the reasoning a scientist might use if he discovered the ruins of an ancient civilization on the moon and concluded that aliens existed. The theist arrives at the logical conclusion that the cause of space and time cannot be bound by those things, and thus the first cause must have the divine properties of eternal, immaterial existence.
The God-of-the-gaps objection also seems to commit an equivalent “science-of-the-gaps” fallacy, which presupposes that any question about anything can be filled in with the answer, “Science knows or will know some day.” But this seems to rule out theistic explanations right from the start.
For example, many atheists say they would believe God exists if a Christian could perform some publicly verifiable miracle, or if God appeared to everyone on Earth at the same time. But consider the following exchange:
Theist: Look, a giant being proclaiming to be God just resurrected every man named Brian and caused them all to sing “Don’t Stop Believin’,’’ by Journey.
Atheist: Well, one day science will be able explain this supposed miracle. Maybe there is a natural principle that explains it, or an alien species that can perform this feat using advanced technology. Ancient people used to be impressed by thunder just as we are impressed by this event. If we say this happened because God did it...well...that doesn’t explain anything!
Since it is restricted to explaining the natural world, science can’t answer every claim about reality. If there is a supernatural world, it is beyond the means of science to explore it. But if supernatural proofs for God are always dismissed in this way, then no evidence could falsify atheism, and atheism would be as unprovable as the religious beliefs it wants to criticize.
If even miracles can be considered “God-of-the-gaps” reasons insufficient to prove that God exists, then what reasons could the theist offer for belief in God? That is why the most popular proofs for God focus on major aspects of reality, like the evidence of design in the universe or the presence of moral truths, which would be nearly impossible for aliens to cause but would be expected if God exists. Atheists may yet reply, “Stop with the philosophy and show me the hard evidence for God’s existence.”
But what is so bad about using philosophical proofs to show that basic facts about the world are true? After all, philosophers use complex arguments to demonstrate truths about free will, the reality of the external world, and the nature of time and space. Most ordinary people believe in these things because they experience them, while philosophers put forward complex arguments in order to defend the same truths.
For example, most people who are not exposed to an undergraduate philosophy class will tend to believe in free will, or the idea that human beings can choose to act in certain ways. Many philosophers reject free will and say that human beings are completely determined by factors like genetics and environment and can no more choose to act or not act than a can of Coca-Cola can choose to fizz or not fizz. Those philosophers who defend genuine free will (also called libertarian free will) tend to use sophisticated arguments to make their case.6 But I don’t think philosophers would consider someone to be irrational because he believes in free will without studying the complex arguments that are used to defend the idea. For most people it just seems obvious they can freely choose to do or not do certain things. The arguments merely serve to confirm this basic belief.
If something as basic as the existence of free will can be confirmed via philosophical debate, then why not take the same approach with the existence of God? Most people believe in God without studying complex arguments, but those arguments can serve to objectively prove the validity of the faith they personally experience.
(This blog post is an excerpt from my newly released book, Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity.)
- For the Hindu view on creation see Michael Cremo. Forbidden Archaeology: The Hidden History of the Human Race (Bhaktivedanta Book Publishing, 1998). ↩
- For a good treatment of this period of history see James Hannam. The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (Regnery Publishing, Washington, DC, 2011). ↩
- See “Religious Differences on the Question of Evolution,” The Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, February 4, 2009, available at http://www.pewforum.org/Science-and-Bioethics/Religious- Differences-on-the-Question-of-Evolution.aspx. There is also a growing acceptance of evolution among evangelicals. One prominent example would be Francis Collins, the current head of the National Institutes of Health and the leader of the team who mapped the human genome. His case for the compatibility of Christianity and the theory of evolution can be found in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2009). ↩
- For an affirmation of both God’s act of creation and the reality of evolution see Pope Benedict XVI, In the Beginning...A Catholic Understanding of Creation and the Fall (Our Sunday Visitor: Indiana, 2010) 50. For a perspective from a Catholic scientist see Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (HarperCollins: New York, 1999). ↩
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Letters and Papers from Prison. (Touchstone: New York, 1997) 311. ↩
- For example see Timothy O’Connor, Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will (Oxford University Press: New York, 2000). ↩
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