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Are There Really No Atheists? (1996)

Michael Martin

 

Some Christians maintain that there are no atheists. They believe, of course, that some people profess to be atheists. But according to them these people suffer from a form of self-delusion. The doubters insist that in their heart of hearts people who profess not to believe in God really do. Cornelius Van Til held this position and so did Greg Bahnsen.[1] Thus, for example, Bahnsen accused me of begging the question when on the first page of my book on atheism I asserted that there are millions of atheists in the world. [2] According to Bahnsen I should only have said that there are and have been professed atheists. In fact, according to Bahnsen, there have not been and are not now any atheists in the world.[3]

In this paper I will evaluate the claim that no atheists exist. I will begin by distinguishing the strong form of the claim put forth by Christians like Van Til and Bahnsen from weaker or at least different forms that might be confused with it. I will then evaluate the support for the claim.

The Strong Claim Distinguished.

Make no mistake about it. Christians like Van Til and Bahnsen are asserting a very strong and controversial claim. Let us call their claim the No Atheists (NA) thesis:

(NA) There has not been and never will be any atheists.

To see the controversial nature and breath takingly wide scope of NA it is useful to distinguish it from other theses that might be confused with it:

  • Some professed atheists have really not been atheists.
  • It is sometimes difficult to tell whether or not someone who professes atheism is really an atheist.
  • It does not follow logically that if someone professes to be an atheist he or she really is.
  • It is never possible to know for certain that a person who professes to be an atheist is or is not an atheist.
  • It is foolish to profess atheism.
  • It is foolish to be an atheist.

Thesis (1) is hardly controversial. Surely there have been people who for various reasons have professed atheism but have not been atheists. Moreover, it is extremely doubtful that their profession has always been the result of self-delusion; indeed, sometimes it seems to be the result of deliberate lying. Be this as it may (1) does not entail NA since statements of the form "Some A's are B" do not entail statements of the form "All A's are B."

Thesis (2) is also noncontroversial. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether a person who professes being an atheist really is, but this problem is not unique to atheism. It is also can be difficult to tell what beliefs people really hold about politics, laundry soaps, and their spouses. For various reasons --fear, spite, confusion -- people sometimes profess one view and hold another. Nevertheless, it is one thing to hold (2) and quite another thing to claim that is always impossible to tell whether anyone is an atheist. In any case, advocates of NA do not hold (2) since they seem to assume that it is easy to determine that NA is true.

Thesis (3) is also noncontroversial and, once again, the general principle involved is hardly unique to atheism. For example, it does not follow logically that if X professes to be a Christian, X is. Indeed, it seldom seems to follow that if X professes to be Y, X is Y.[4] In any case, (3) is different from NA. Advocates of NA are making the much stronger claim: if X asserts that X is an atheist, X is not.

Depending on what one means by "certain," (4) is also noncontroversial. If by "certain" one means "could not be wrong ," then one could not be certain (no matter how good the evidence) that someone, say, Bertrand Russell was an atheist. However, not being certain in this sense does not preclude the possibility that the probability for the hypothesis that Russell was an atheist is extremely high and that because of this we have excellent grounds for believing that he was. Again there is nothing unique to this context. No evidence for any hypothesis is certain in this sense. In this sense it is not certain that the present Pope believes in Catholic doctrines or that Karl Marx believed in communism. In any case, (4) is different from NA. Advocates of NA seem to assume not only that they know for certain that Russell is not an atheist but that they know that no one is.

Thesis (5), on the other hand, is controversial. It is, however, very different from NA. Indeed, there is no logical relation between NA and (5) in that one might accept (5) and reject NA. Many Christians believe that (5) is true but hold that there are lots of atheists (thus denying NA). Moreover, it is possible to affirm NA and deny (5). If society were controlled by militant vindictive professed atheists, professing atheism might not be a foolish thing to do even for believers.

Finally (6) is different from NA. Atheism may well be a foolish view but there may be lots of fools. Questions about the foolishness of a view and questions about the existence of people who hold that view are completely different.

Why Hold This Strong Thesis?

One needs good reasons for NA since initially it seems so implausible. In fact, even most Christians implicitly seem to reject NA. For example, fundamentalist Christian preachers rail against the spread of atheism, not professed atheism; The World Christian Encyclopedia details the number of atheists in world, not the number of professed atheists; famous contemporary Christian philosophers such as Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga assume there are atheists, not professed atheists, whose arguments they purport to refute. Even Bahnsen and the Southern California Center for Christiant Studies (SCCCS) seem at times to assume that there are real and not just professed atheists. In his taped lecture "How to Argue with Atheists" Bahnsen apparently begged the same question he accused me of begging: according to his own scrupples he should have entitled this lecture "How to Argue with Professed Atheists."[5] SCCCS begged the question when it referred to me in its advertisements as an atheistic scholar, not a professed atheistic scholar.

Could NA be supported? I know of only three ways. The thesis could be supported by empirical evidence of the social sciences and psychology, it could be supported from Scripture, and it might gain support from philosophical argument.

Construed as an empirical hypothesis the evidence for NA is weak, to say the least. Indeed, the negation of NA seems to be extremely well-supported by the evidence.

(~NA) There have been and there are some atheists.

Not only have many people professed atheism but they have devoted their lives to atheistic causes and the fight against religion all of their lives. Using every criterion of scientific hypothesis evaluation, for example, simplicity, explanatory power, variety of the evidence, the claim that such people are atheists is better supported than its opposite claim. However, since no empirical claim can be known to be true with certainty, it is possible that such seeming atheists do believe in God. But by the same token the same thing is true of Christianity. Consider the No Christian (NC) thesis:

(NC) There has not been and never will be any Christians.

The probability of NC in terms of the evidence is just as low as that of NA.

However, considering NA as a hypothesis that is supported or refuted by the evidence is perhaps beside the point. One strongly suspects that defenders of NA do not consider it as such. Indeed, it is plausible that NA is construed by its advocates as what the philosopher of science Karl Popper called an unfalsifiable theory--a theory which no empirical evidence can overturn.[6] Although evidence may be used to support such a theory, no evidence will be accepted by its advocates as counting against it.

If NA is construed in this way, recourse to empirical evidence is irrelevant and there is no scientific way to evaluate NA. However, NC can be interpreted in precisely the same way. Atheists could argue that, appearances not withstanding, there are no Christiansand all professed Christians are self-deluded. Construed in this unfalsifiable way both NA and NC are scientifically unacceptable theories.

2. Could NA be supported by reference to Scripture? The problems of supporting anything from Scripture are specified in detail in my debate with John Frame on the Secular Web and readers are referred to my discussion there for details. First, there are alternative and conflicting alleged sources of revelation. Second, there are conflicting interpretations of the revelation from the same sources, for example, the Bible. There seems to be no objective way to decide between these conflicts. Appeal to historical investigation does not support Christian revelations over alternatives and Christians fight among themselves over the interpretation of Christian Scripture without any clear way of reconciling their differences.

Does the Bible support the view that there are only professed atheists? Perhaps a scriptural argument can be given since one can be given for almost anything. But there is no doubt that scriptural arguments can be given for the opposite thesis as well. For example, in Psalms 14 and 53 one finds:

"The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'"

Here it is seems clear that the Bible is saying that there are atheists but they are fools. It certainly implies that the fool does not just profess atheism since he says there is no God in his heart. The fool really believes it. This passage was used by St. Anselm in his notorious Ontological Argument and Anselm's reading supports my interpretation. Anselm argued that the fool's denial of God was not conceivable; that is, it was inconsistent, since a Being such that no greater being can be conceived must exist. Anselm was not saying that the fool was not an atheist. Rather he was saying that atheistic belief is inconsistent.[7] Although few Christians today uphold Anselm's Ontological Argument and the argument has serious problems in all its various forms, Anselm's reading of the passage from Psalms is surely correct: Psalms assumes that there are atheists.

3. Could philosophical arguments support NA? The only such argument that I can think of is The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God (TAG). It is not accidental that Van Til and Bahnsen used TAG and affirmed NA for both men supposed that TAG establishes NA. However, the serious problems connected with TAG that surfaced in my debate with John Frame and in my exchange with Michael Butler should make any rational person suspicious that TAG can be used to support anything. TAG did not show that logic, science and ethics presuppose the Christian world view and thus that atheists who use logic, science and ethics presuppose the Christian God. For the details of my arguments readers are referred to these discussions on The Secular Web.

But even if TAG were a sound argument it would hardly show that NA is true. TAG is meant to show that logic, science and ethics presuppose the Christian God. In one sense of "presuppose" X presupposes Y if X entails Y. But why does it follow from this that professed atheists really believe in God? It is not true that everything that a person presupposes he or she actually believes. Indeed, there are countless things that are presupposed by people that they don't believe. Suppose Mr. Jones believes the proposition that 2+2 = 4. This proposition entails proposition q (Either 2+2=4 or space is finite but unbounded or Mickey Mouse is President.) However, it is extremely unlikely that Mr. Jones believes that q.

In another sense of "presuppose" X presupposes Y if Y is a precondition of X. For example, in order for a gardener to have prize winning orchids there must be water in the soil and carbon dioxide in the air surrounding the orchids. Water and carbon dioxide are preconditions for prize winning orchids. But it does not follow that the gardener believes that there is carbon dioxide in the air. Indeed, she may never have heard of this substance. To repeat: p presupposes q does not entail that if X believes that p, then X believes that q.

The upshot is that even if TAG is sound it would hardly support NA. However, it is not sound.[8]

Conclusion

Are there really no atheists? No good reason has yet been given for NA and, until one is, we professed atheists have every reason to suppose that we really are atheists.[9]

Notes

[1] See Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. 1969), p. 13, Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia, PA.: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 1955), pp. 171-175. See for example, the taped debate between Bahnsen and George Smith, A Case For/Against God, (Nash, TX: Covenant Tape Ministry), audiocassette.

[2] Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990), p. 3.

[3] See Greg Bahnsen, Michael Martin Under the Microscope, tape 1, (Nash, TX: Covenant Tape Ministry), audiocassette.

[4] One possible exception is if X professes to exist. If X professes to exist, does it follow that X does exist? If one is inclined to say "yes," what about if X is a fictional character? Another possible exception is when X is described in a certain way. Suppose Bob Dole, a candidate for President, professes to be a candidate for President. Does it follow that he is? Certainly not from the mere assertion of the fact!

[5] Greg Bahnsen, "How to Argue With Atheists," (Edmonton, Canada: Still Water Revival Books) audiocassette.

[6] Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (NY: Basic Books, 1959)

[7] St. Anselm, "St. Anselm's Ontological Argument," The Ontological Argument, ed. Alvin Plantinga (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1965), p. 3.

[8] The Christian philosopher D. Z. Phillips in Faith After Foundationalism (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995), pp. 102-106 raises specific objections to Van Til's arguments.

  1. He criticizes Van Til's analogy of atheists as being like people who see the world though yellow colored glasses. (A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 259) He argues that Van Til begs the question against nonbelievers by using this analogy. In the case of the person with the yellow glasses the assumption is that the person's perceptual conditions deviate from reality. But in the case of atheists this is what is at issue.
  2. He criticizes Van Til's claim that a person who denies the existence of God shows knowledge of God by the presence of a troubled conscience (A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 292). Admitting that this has sometimes happened Phillips denies that examples of troubled conscience always shows belief in God.
  3. Van Til argues that professed nonbelievers who do good works are deceiving themselves and are implicitly relying on God's teachings (A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 225). Again admitting that sometimes professed nonbelievers who do good work are implicitly relying on belief in God Phillips denies that this is always so.

[9] Although I will not develop this idea here, the very existence of millions of atheists in the world can be construed as grounds for nonbelief. For this argument see Theodore Drange, "The Argument from Nonbelief," Religious Studies, 29, 1993, pp. 417-432. Drange argues in detail that if there were a Christian God, then very probably there would not be so much nonbelief in the world or even so much professed nonbelief.


"Are There Really No Atheists?" is copyright © 1996 by Michael Martin. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Michael Martin. All rights reserved.

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