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A Strategic Aversion of An Irresolvable Problem
Among contemporary atheists, one will often hear the claim that atheism is simply a lack of belief in God or gods. This is a strategic move that avoids the impossible task of collecting and examining all of the possible evidence that God exists. If one does not make a positive assertion about the existence or non-existence of God, in other words, he avoids having to provide justification for such claims. The atheist shifts the focus from the objective reality or non-reality of God’s existence to the subjective reality of his (i.e. the atheist’s) own unbelief.
While the atheist has managed to slip out from the under the burden of having to provide a complete induction of all of the evidence – past, present, and future – for the existence of God, he has now made a positive assertion about himself that can only be proven true if he can perform a complete induction of all the evidence for his lack of belief in God.
Since the atheist is ultimately dependent upon the process of inductive reasoning, any axioms he employs in the delimitation of his inductive reasoning are chosen either (a.)in light of his proving his position or (b.)arbitrarily, without consideration of one’s end goal. Problematically, (a.) reduces to begging the question, and (b.) is, well, arbitrary and may or may not, therefore, be related directly to the issue at hand.
So does the atheist really lack a belief in God?
While the atheist lacks the comprehensive knowledge required for him to know that he lacks a belief in God, God’s knowledge is absolutely comprehensive. And God says there are no atheists.
The Positive Belief that There is No God?
But let us grant the supposition that atheism is a lack of belief in God. What are the consequences of holding this definition of atheism? This short dialogue will help us see where this supposition leads.
Me: If atheism is simply the lack of a belief in God, then it follows that atheists are those entities which lack a belief in God. Problematically, however, this would include all non-conscious entities. All non-conscious entities are absolutely belief-less; consequently, it follows that they are lacking a belief in God. Does this mean that they are atheists, too?
Atheist: Of course, it doesn’t. Rather, atheists are entities imbued with consciousness which lack a belief in God.
Me: That helps a little bit. But I’m wondering…if animals imbued with consciousness lack the capacity to think, then it would follow that they do not possess beliefs. And if they don’t possess beliefs, in general, then it follows that they don’t possess a belief in God in particular. Doesn’t that make them atheists?
Atheist: No, it doesn’t.
Me: Could you explain why?
Atheist: When I say “entities imbued with consciousness,” I obviously mean humans.
Me: I didn’t want to assume your position, so I had to ask. But your answer raises another question in my mind.
Atheist: If you must ask…go ahead.
Me: Well, you say that “entities imbued with consciousness” means humans. Is that correct?
Me: And by “imbued with consciousness” you mean that they possess self-awareness, as well as the higher order cognition required to form beliefs about any given subject within their cognitive grasp, correct?
Me: That’s what I thought you meant by “imbued with consciousness.” And that’s another problem.
Atheist: How so?
Me: What I mean is this: All humans are imbued with consciousness. However, we lose consciousness, according to you, every night when we fall asleep.
Atheist: You’re beginning to annoy me. Where is this going?
Me: Bear with me, please! I have a point.
Atheist: Well, go on…make it.
Me: If we lose consciousness when we go to sleep, as in the past you’ve told me is indeed the case, then does it not follow that theists who fall asleep become athesist as soon as they lose consciousness? For if they are without consciousness even temporarily, then for that moment they lack beliefs of any kind, including their belief in God. So by virtue of their having fallen asleep, it follows that they have become atheists because, being asleep and therefore without any beliefs, they lack a belief in God.
Atheist: (stentorian laughter) You really think that I believethat?
Me: I don’t know. I do know, however, that it follows logically, if atheism is simply the lack of a belief in God.
Atheist: Look, friend, we all know that what we mean to say is that humans, i.e. entities imbued with consciousness, while conscious and lacking a belief in God are atheists. Would you stop with these games?!
Me: I’m not playing a game, just trying to suss out the implications of your definition of atheism as the lack of a belief in God.
Atheist: Right. Go on.
Me: Thank you. So far we’ve clarified that it is only conscious humans imbued with consciousness which lack a belief in God who are rightly called atheists, right?
Me: Okay. Then this would include those humans who due to a birth defect or as a result of an accident or psychological trauma lack all beliefs extending beyond object permanence and relations to objects in the world requisite to surviving.
Atheist: What do you mean?
Me: What I mean is that our current, revised understanding of an atheist includes the mentally challenged and the clinically insane. Correct?
Atheist: Obviously not.
Me: Wait. Why?
Atheist: Because atheism is not the lack of a belief in God due to one’s inability to form beliefs of this kind.
Me: Then atheism is the lack of a belief in God that depends upon cognition/reflection on the subject of whether or not there is a God.
Atheist: Of course!
Me:The one would have to first be imbued with consciousness, be conscious, have the capacity to reflect on subjects like whether or not there is a God?
Me: So the atheist is a conscious human who has exercised his capacity to reflect on the subject of whether or not there is a God, and, as a result of his having done so, lacks a belief in God?
Atheist: Have I not said as much already?
Me: I’m just making sure I’m hearing you correctly. You see, on the one hand you say that an atheist is simply one who lacks a belief in God. Yet on the other hand, you say that the only ones who meet this definition are conscious humans with the capacity to reflect on the subject and, as a result of their reflection on this subject, lack a belief in God.
Your position implies that atheists are simply those who lack a belief in God because they have concluded that there is no God. In other words, they have positively concluded that there is no God. Consequently, they lack a belief in God.
Atheist: Impious fool!
Fear and Trembling
I began to seek out arguments in favor of the existence of God, revisiting William Lane Craig debates I had dismissed only several years prior during my time in Bible school. I listened to others, too. But the more I listened and pondered the so-called “evidence for the existence of God,” the more I realized I was either all in or all out. I could always challenge evidentially based arguments, because evidentially based arguments assume a prior foundation of beliefs – e.g. the belief that God is knowable/has condescended to reveal himself to humanity, that the Bible has been reliably preserved, that certain kinds of data were or were not acceptable as evidence in favor of or against the existence of God, ad infinitum.
I suspended belief in God, choosing to spend more time in my old philosophy books. That’s when I decided to read Kierkegaard again. Sure, he was a professing Christian – but he was a brilliant and hilariously sarcastic Christian philosopher who had challenged me repeatedly over the years. What harm could it do? I reasoned.
I soon got my answer.
I began rereading the Danish philosopher’s book Concluding Unscientific Postscript. It was enjoyable up until the point I came across several key ideas in the book.
By virtue of its very nature, evidential reasoning is always open ended.
The quantitative accumulation and analysis of data does not inexorably lead one to transition from one qualitative realm (e.g. faithlessness) to another (e.g. faith). The jump from accumulated data, facts, arguments, etc to the acceptance of a truth is a subjective matter insofar as the subject must decide to transition from one realm to another.
Arguments against the existence of God are predicated upon a fundamental category error that identifies God as part of the spatio-temporally bound created order. “God does not exist,” he writes, “he is eternal.”
It is easy, and all too common, to deceive oneself that he will believe once he has accumulated data sufficient to make his transition justifiable.
Kierkegaard’s writing made it impossible for me to say that I would believe when I had enough evidence. It also made realize that I was the problem, not the evidence in favor of God’s existence. I was lying to myself, saying that I would believe given I had enough evidence, all the while knowing that evidential reasoning is always open-ended.
I was confronted with the real issue:
I didn’t want to believe.
The Cross of Christ
Kierkegaard’s writing presented me with a clear picture of myself: Faced with either God or absurdity, I dug in my heels and clung to absurdity. But I was being cornered day by day, as the futility of attempts to be my own sovereign diurnally lingered in my mind, an unwanted and unruly guest. I had nowhere to go, nowhere I could go.
So what did I do?
I suppressed the truth in unrighteousness until the weight of my guilt was more than I could bear. I suppressed the truth in unrighteousness, despite feeling the flames of Hell reach for my feet as I wandered to and fro. I continued this way for some time, until I was struck by the thought:
Christ died for sinners.
From my corner, I could see only one thing: The Son of God hanging on the cross, bearing my punishment. I understood what I had never understood before. God’s justice was no longer compelling and appalling, but beautiful and glorious, and nothing to fear since Christ had suffered in my place. I deserved eternal punishment, but the Son of God suffered and died in my place, to save me. Me.
Without applying any effort, despite my best efforts to remain an atheist in fact, I found that I had come to believe the Gospel.
In retrospect, I see the Lord’s hand in all of my experiences. I see his hand sparing me from overdosing, being imprisoned, dying from a terminal illness, losing my mind, losing my family, losing my soul. I see the Lord granting me the acuity to flesh out philosophical systems to their logical conclusions and, thereby, understand, and lament over, the futility of all rogue philosophizing. I see how my foray into substance abuse and sexual promiscuity led not only into deep states of depression, anxiety, confusion, but also clarity of thought to understand that they could never give me the peace with God I needed.
I was reconciled to God by the cross of Christ.