If there is one thing that presuppositionalists have become known for, it is their assertion that “Atheists do not exist.” While the assertion is well known, however, the reasons for the assertion are typically not known by professing atheists. Some have argued that the assertion is nothing more than a cheap rhetorical trick. The complaint runs something like this:
“Christian apologists say ‘Atheists don’t exist’ in order to halt further conversation about the reasons why there actually are atheists. By making the claim, these apologists are refusing to engage, running away from critically assessing their own beliefs, etc…”
Now, in all fairness, I can agree that some professing Christians behave in this manner. Not everyone is a critical thinker, so there are some among Christians who approach serious conversations about the existence or non-existence of atheists in an unreflective manner.
However, not all Christians are this way. Moreover, not all Christians assert that “Atheists don’t exist” in order to put the kibosh on a conversation beyond their intellectual capacities. Believe it or not, there is a biblical reason why the assertion is made by presuppositionalist apologists and biblically literate, biblically faithful Christians. What is that reason? Scripture reveals to us that there are no atheists in Romans 1:18-23:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
The words of scripture inform as to the nature of man: Man is the image of God. The words of scripture, likewise, inform us as to the nature of fallen man: He suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. This is why Christians say atheists don’t exist. God himself tells us that there are no atheists.
Disambiguating the Assertion
A common response to the claim that atheists do not exist is the rhetorical question: But what about me? The person who responds this way is confusing a number of issues. Firstly, the knowledge of God, as Paul states in Romans 1:18-23, is being suppressed. The knowledge of God that man is created with is being silenced by man. Secondly, the suppressed knowledge of God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” resurfaces in man’s worship of creation. Thirdly, therefore, fallen man attributes to creation the attributes only possessed by the One True God. Nancy Pearce describes this at some length in her book Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. She writes:
An idol is anything in the created order that is put in the place of God. […] Those who do not honor the transcendent God beyond the cosmos must make a divinity out of some power or principle immanent within the cosmos. What about matter? Is matter part of the created order? Sure it is. Thus the philosophy of materialism qualifies as an idol. It claims that matter is the ultimate reality—the uncreated first cause of everything else. It denies the existence of anything beyond the material world, such as soul, spirit, mind, or God. It urges us to set our minds “on things that are on earth,” not on things above (Col. 3:2).
[…] What about reason? Can it be an idol? Certainly. The philosophy of rationalism puts human reason in the place of God as the source and standard of all truth. […] Rationalism refuses to accept any source of truth beyond human reason, such as information communicated by the Creator. It is dogmatic in worshipping the idol of “unaided” or “autonomous” human reason .
This explains why the Bible does not contrast Christianity with atheism but with idolatry. […] Humans have a tendency to look to some power or principle or person to make sense of life and give it meaning. And that constitutes their de facto religion, whether they use theological language or not.
In stating that atheists do not exist, therefore, we are not denying that there are persons who refuse to worship the only true Triune God. Furthermore, we are not denying that they may identify themselves as not believing in any form of deity, and in particular the Triune Yahweh. Rather, we are asserting that all men have an innate knowledge of God that they suppress by placing some created thing/aspect of creation in the place of God. The rhetorical question asked by the atheist, in other words, misses the point. Sure, John Doe may self identify as an atheist, but he, in practice, contradicts his claims to being an atheist.
As atheism predicates divine attributes of the created order, as a whole or in part, it is a form of creature/creation worship. When we assert that atheists don’t exist, therefore, we are saying that there exists no individual who does not predicate divine attributes of either God or his created order. We don’t make the assertion because we are afraid of critical engagement – at least not all of us. I surely don’t, and neither do my presuppositionalist friends.