What is atheism?

Atheism is a belief or worldview that denies the existence of any supernatural deity. The Oxford English Dictionary provides the following description: "To believe nothing of a designing Principle or Mind, nor any Cause, Measure, or Rule of things, but Chance . . . is to be a perfect atheist."

Broken down, a- ("no") with theism ("god") means simply "no god." Although the word itself has a straightforward meaning, atheism as a philosophy raises a wide range of complications and issues to be addressed and clarifications to be made.

The first and foremost problem that arises from atheism is the type of truth claim it makes. Dr. Mortimer Adler describes the difficulty in this manner: "An affirmative existential proposition can be proved, but a negative existential proposition – one that denies the existence of some thing – cannot be proved." That is, proving existence is possible, but proving non-existence is not. Just ask all the zoologists who believed the coelacanth was extinct—before a living specimen was fished out of the sea in 1938.

When a negative existential truth claim is put forward, the one making the claim has shot himself not in the foot, but in the head. Unless the person can be in all places of the entire universe at the same time, he has no way of confirming that whatever he claims does not exist does not, in fact, exist. Just because I see no evidence of God here doesn't mean there's no evidence of God there. This is conundrum the atheist faces.

Recognizing their predicament, atheists like Richard Dawkins counter by saying that, while they cannot prove a flying spaghetti monster does not exist, it is highly improbable such a thing actually exists, so the wiser intellectual position is one that says such a thing does not exist.

However, this argument commits two errors. First, comparing God with a flying spaghetti monster commits the logical error of faulty analogy. Second, just because something is improbable does not rule out its existence. For example, all scientists admit that humanity's existence is inordinately improbable. They acknowledge that it is against all mathematical odds that all the cosmic constants and biological mechanisms necessary for life would ever come to be. And yet, here we are. Improbable or not, humanity exists.

The question is not whether the existence of God is improbable but, rather, is there logical, reasonable evidence that moves one toward a conclusion that God exists?

Atheists answer that question negatively, usually by way of saying that God "probably" does not exist. A recent example of this has been the ad campaign in various countries using bus signs stating, "God probably does not exist."

This claim, however, is flawed for at least two reasons. First, it is not the way human beings approach any other important area of life. Few people would eat a meal labeled "probably not poison," and less would board a plane marked "probably safe to fly."

Second, it ignores the fact that the seriousness of a truth claim dictates the amount of evidence necessary to support it. If it is wrong, the atheist's truth claim will have enormous, irreparable and eternal consequences. That being the case, it is intellectually and morally incumbent upon the atheist to produce weighty and overriding evidence to support his/her position. What evidence is there to substantiate the limp assertion that God "probably" does not exist? None is forthcoming.

Using a supposed argument from silence, the atheist slides into death with his fingers crossed, hoping he does not have to face any unpleasant realities. Eternity is an awfully long time to be wrong.

Some atheists recognize the gravity of this situation and, when pressed for evidence, take the stance that "science has disproven God." There are several reasons why this claim is a brittle one. But first, to understand the rationale behind the position, a little history is necessary.

After the events of 9/11, a branch of atheism – militant atheism (sometimes referred to as "hatetheism") – rose up and demanded that society rid itself of all religion. Rather than focusing on extremists who use religion to justify their murderous actions, the militant atheists lumped all peoples of faith together and labeled all religion "dangerous."

The question facing the militant atheists was, "How will we get rid of religion?" The apparent answer was to use science as a tool to replace the need for religion. This tactic is nothing new; it was the same strategy promoted by Thomas Huxley in the 1800s when he sought to install scientists as the new priests for humankind. This "faith" in science is not science at all, but scientism, which says that science and science alone is the way to discover truth.

While science has indeed provided many gifts to humankind, the hope atheism has for scientism replacing other religions is ill founded. For one thing, scientism is self-refuting. The statement "we should only believe what can be scientifically proven" itself cannot be scientifically proven (because it is a philosophical statement). So, based on its own criteria, scientism should be rejected.

Also, scientism ignores other much-respected and used methods for obtaining knowledge. For example, the legal/forensic/historical method of discovering truth is used every day and is very well respected. The legal method does not discount facts because they are not empirically reproducible or testable. By a process of elimination and corroboration, the legal method allows history to be established and testimony to speak for itself until a verdict is reached. In the end, all reasonable doubt has been satisfied, and the balance of probability is achieved. The legal method is not "scientific," yet it can arrive at the truth.

Further, scientism has proved disastrous from a moral perspective. Militant atheism asserts that if religion were banished, then humankind would have peace and harmony. But even a cursory look at history since the Enlightenment says otherwise. Instead of initiating peace, the Enlightenment ushered in one bloody revolution after another, climaxing in the twentieth century with its long list of atrocities, butchery, and carnage. Ironically, one of atheism's chief heralds, Nietzsche, predicted that, because he and others had supposedly killed God in the nineteenth century, the twentieth century would be the bloodiest ever. In that, Nietzsche was right.

Rather than pointing away from a transcendent Creator, advances in science have – more than ever – confirmed the existence of God. The death of the steady state theory, the apparent fine tuning of the universe for human life, and the confirmation of specified complexity all act as pointers to an intelligent source behind it all.

In truth, atheism's position on science commits the logical fallacy of the false dilemma. Atheism demands that a person choose between science and God, but, in fact, no such choice need occur. Making such a demand can be likened to forcing a person to choose between a belief in (1) the laws of internal combustion and (2) Henry Ford, to explain the existence of cars. The fact is the two choices are not contradictory, but complementary. The atheist misses the important difference between agency (Henry Ford) and mechanism (internal combustion). God is the intelligent agency and efficient cause behind everything; His natural laws and mechanisms carry out His intentions to produce His desired end result.

In the end, the atheist cannot rely on science to disprove the existence of a transcendent Creator and is forced to admit that atheism itself is a belief system that relies on faith. The real clash is not between science and religion but between the atheistic/naturalistic and theistic worldviews.

This being the case, the atheistic worldview must address two mistakes it makes regarding the concept of faith: (1) that faith is only a religious concept; and (2) that faith means believing in something where there is no evidence. Neither assumption is true.

Concerning the first point, some atheists will admit that atheism is a worldview based on faith. One example is atheistic scientist George Klein, who writes, "I am an atheist. My attitude is not based on science, but rather on faith. . . . The absence of a Creator, the non-existence of God is my childhood faith, my adult belief, unshakable and holy." Faith, then, is not at all religious for Klein. It is the basis of his atheism.

As to faith being defined as a belief that lacks evidence, nothing could be further from the truth. Science has faith in logic, mathematics, natural laws, and the intelligibility of the universe. Science believes all such laws are firm and will never change.

People act on "faith" every day; they trust restaurants to serve them good food, doctors to give them the right medicine, and spouses to keep their wedding vows. Such faith is not "blind" but is based on certain evidence. The same is true for the faith spoken of in the Bible.

In the Bible's New Testament, the word pistis is translated "faith." It is a noun that comes from the verb peitho, which means "to be persuaded." The best lexicons (e.g., BDAG) show the meaning of pistis to be "a state of believing on the basis of the reliability of the one trusted"; "that which evokes trust"; and "reliability, fidelity pertaining to being worthy of belief or trust." In other words, the idea that faith means "blind belief in the face of opposing evidence" is not found in Scripture.

Both atheism and theism make statements on faith that concern ultimate reality. Both must refer to something eternal because each recognizes that everything that exists owes its existence ultimately to something other than itself.

To the atheist, that ultimate reality is an eternal universe where only physical matter exists. Atheism's challenge is to explain how the universe is eternal (all scientific discovery shows it had a beginning) and how (since an effect always resembles its cause in essence) an impersonal, non-conscious, meaningless, purposeless, and amoral universe accidentally created personal, conscious, moral beings (who are obsessed with meaning and purpose).

The theist has no such problem because theism holds that a personal, conscious, purposeful, intelligent, moral, and eternal God created beings in His likeness and established the universe and its laws to govern their existence.

One of atheism's chief spokesmen, Jean Paul Sartre, described life as "a long, hard, cruel business." In contrast, the Bible says God created a meaningful and rewarding existence where "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge." (Psalm 19:1-2).

In conclusion, Dr. John Lennox clarifies the choice between atheism and theism: "There are not many options – essentially just two. Either human intelligence ultimately owes its origin to mindless matter; or there is a Creator. It is strange that some people claim that it is their intelligence that leads them to prefer the first to the second."

Related Truth:

What is agnosticism?

What is Naturalism?

What does natural law teach?

How is belief in God different than belief in a Flying Spaghetti Monster?

Can the existence of God be proven?

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