Lesson 9: Atheism and Agnosticism

Part III: The Weaknesses of Unbelief and Unorthodoxy

Lesson 9: Atheism and Agnosticism

Thus far in our study we’ve shown that it’s reasonable to believe the documents and ideas central to Christianity and that criticisms of the Bible and of Christianity are weak and unconvincing. Part of the apologetic task is defensive, but part is also offensive. We now take the offensive, and our task is to show how weak and unbiblical unorthodoxy is. We’ll start by examining atheism and agnosticism.

Atheism


Atheism is the belief that there is no God. The word literally means “no-god-ism.” We live in an age when people are very skeptical of claims that cannot be proven to be true. Our culture also places a high value on science and technology, which have, to the modern mind, removed the need for God. Scientists can explain nearly every phenomenon that man encounters, so there is no more need for God. Clinging to a belief in God is a proof that one is unable to deal with the truth that we live in an impersonal universe ruled, not by a sovereign God, but by the laws of nature. Science yields no evidence that God exists; in fact, science clearly asserts that God does not exist. There is just not enough evidence to affirm the existence of God, or so the atheist claims.

A philosophy that is closely associated with atheism is naturalism. Atheists are usually naturalists. Naturalism teaches that nothing exists outside the material, natural order. The material universe is the sum of all reality. There is no supernatural realm—no gods, no angels, no devil or demons, nothing beyond that which occurs naturally. The material universe has always existed—no god created it or sustains it. Miracles are impossible because they are supernatural, i.e., outside the boundaries of the natural order. Everything that happens can be explained in terms of natural, material processes. Scientific laws are adequate to account for all phenomena. Man has no soul or spiritual existence, nor is there life after death. Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. Humans are mere animals or machines who inhabit a universe ruled by chance, and whose behavior and thoughts are determined by the constant and impersonal forces of nature and environment. It’s never necessary to seek an explanation for events beyond the natural realm because there is nothing beyond or in addition to nature.

Atheists tend to focus on the here-and-now rather than on the eternal. They are often concerned about the quality of human existence. Because they believe that life is strictly limited to earthly existence, some atheists seek to make their life, and the lives of others, as rich and enjoyable as possible.

Obviously atheism and naturalism are in stark opposition to Christianity. How should we respond to those who hold these philosophies?

  1. Encourage them to examine their presuppositions.

What is a presupposition? An unproven starting point for all following arguments. Like in math there are various laws/axioms that everything else is based on. Everyone starts with certain presuppositions. These may be reasonable or irrational.

The Christian must not allow the atheist to think that the steps by which he came to atheism are in any way superior to the steps by which a Christian comes to a theistic point of view. There is no more proof to support atheism or naturalism than there is to support theism. Science does not somehow compel open-minded people to become atheists. It’s impossible for anyone to prove that nothing exists outside the boundaries of nature. People become atheists because the idea of God doesn’t suit them, not because of evidence, proof, science, or sound reasoning. It’s more of a religious sentiment than an intellectual conclusion drawn from the facts.

Weaknesses of naturalism:

  • It’s utterly impossible to prove that nothing exists outside the boundaries of the natural realm. Naturalism is a statement of faith, not of reason or science.
  • Science seems to show that matter is not eternal. If matter is not eternal, then naturalism is invalid. If there ever was a time when nothing existed, then nothing could ever exist. Something could never come from nothing.
  • Atheism has no answer for the question “Why is there something rather than nothing at all?”
  • If one event could be proven to have happened outside the boundaries of nature, then naturalism is finished. We’ve already seen that at least one supernatural event, the resurrection of Christ, is well supported by substantial proofs.
  • Naturalism cannot adequately explain how mind, knowledge, reasoning, and morality arises from random, mindless, natural processes. Atheists must assume that the personal somehow arose from the impersonal.
  • The natural world is exceedingly complex and sophisticated, especially when viewed by an electron microscope. Such complexity argues against a purely mechanical origin for all things. DNA, for example, is so extremely complex that it’s hard to believe that it developed without a designer.
  • Naturalism generates pessimism and despair. Life is meaningless if we live in a cold, impersonal, indifferent universe. Good and evil can have no meaning for a naturalist. As one atheist stated, “Man is an empty bubble on the sea of nothingness.”
  1. Encourage them to examine the arguments for the existence of God.

We acknowledge that the best approach to apologetics is one that recognizes that all people know God exists, and that they have suppressed that knowledge (Rom 1:17f). People need to hear the Gospel, because within the Gospel message is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). One should not attempt to argue an unbeliever into submission. The best method is to present the good news about Jesus Christ as clearly and as often as possible, and to urge people to repent and believe. However, within a serious discussion with an atheist, a presentation of various arguments for the existence of God may be profitable. One may be able to show the unbeliever that belief in the existence of God is rational and reasonable.

These arguments are logical rather than biblical. Even though the atheist/agnostic does not acknowledge the validity of the Bible, believers may still build logical arguments that point to God.

The Teleological or Design Argument

Argue that the presence of order in the universe requires the existence of a Designer.

A typical formulation of the argument:

1. The universe manifests evidence of design.

2. All design demands a designer.

3. Therefore, the universe must have a designer.

4. This designer is the God of the Bible.

Intelligent design seems to be incorporated into nature. Many physicists and cosmologists recognize that the universe had a beginning and that many physical laws look suspiciously “fine tuned” for the existence of intelligent life. In addition, biochemists and biologists have discovered a microscopic world of mesmerizing complexity belying the simple blobs of protoplasm that Darwin imagined.1

A popular expression of the design argument is Paley’s Watch argument:2

While walking through a field, one finds a watch on the ground. He naturally and rightly concludes that someone must have made it. Likewise, if one studies the more complex design in the natural world, he must conclude that there is a world Designer behind it.

This argument may be of some value, but it’s unlikely that an educated evolutionist will find it very compelling.

  • Various observers can look at the same thing without agreeing that it shows design.
  • Modern science has shown that apparent design and chaos often exist side by side.
  • The presence of apparent design might be an isolated exception. Perhaps we are an island of design in a vast ocean of chaos. Our own world may have occurred by chance, no matter how unlikely that seems.
  • Design is not an inescapable deductive proof of biblical theism. Design points to the presence of a designer, but not to much more than that. Although the teleological argument makes the existence of a designer likely, the argument by itself does not lead necessarily to belief in biblical monotheism. It could, for instance, also support polytheism.
  • Critics feel the Darwinian theory of natural selection has destroyed the teleological argument by showing that changes come from purely natural causes rather than by special design. Evolutionists commonly use terms like “design” to describe purely natural processes without implying a Designer. Nature’s “designs” are simply the unintended side effects of nature’s productive self-sufficiency.
  • Modern scientists embrace a “something from nothing” viewpoint. They really believe everything evolved from nothing.

“There is no reason why the physical universe cannot be it’s own first cause. … [O]ur relatively complex universe could have arisen out of the entity that is simplest and most mindless of all—the void.”3

The Cosmological, or Cause-and-Effect, Argument

Science and reason assert that any effect or result must have a cause. Since the universe is an effect or result, then the universe as a whole must have a cause. Something has caused the universe to exist rather than not exist.

A summary of the Cosmological Argument

  • Some dependent beings exist. A dependent being is one whose existence is not necessary. E.g., people are dependent beings—we owe our existence to causes other than ourselves.
  • All dependent beings must have a cause or explanation for their existence.
  • An infinite regress of causes is impossible. I.e., you can’t trace causes back infinitely.
  • Therefore, there must be a first uncaused Cause of dependent beings.
  • This Uncaused Cause is the God of the Bible.

R. C. Sproul’s cosmological dilemma is another formulation of the same argument. Either the universe is:

  1. An illusion – but if so, then it’s an illusion to my mind, so I must exist, which shows that the universe cannot be an illusion.
  2. Self-created – but something cannot create itself. It’s impossible to both exist and not exist at the same time.
  3. Eternal – but all natural effects must have a cause. Matter is dependent, not eternal. Also, if an eternal God is unacceptable, eternal matter is as well.
  4. Created by something eternal, i.e., God.

Limitations:

  • If everything requires a cause, one may argue that God requires a cause. If God requires no cause, then some things do not require a cause. However, if it can be shown that the eternal existence of God is different than the (supposedly) eternal existence of the universe, this argument might hold up.
  • Making the jump between the cosmological cause and the God of the Bible may present a problem. Many religions believe in a creator/designer god, but not the Christian God (e.g., Islam).

Note: God is not self-caused; He is self-existent and eternal. He did not cause Himself to come into existence. He has always existed in, of, and by Himself.

The Moral Argument

Moral values, the idea that certain behaviors are right or wrong, are common to all cultures. While a few cultures support certain “wrong” behaviors (e.g., cannibalism, human sacrifice), most people agree on basic ethical standards. Most cultures acknowledge that murder and theft are wrong and that it’s good to be kind and generous. Ethical values for most people go beyond mere personal feelings. We believe that certain behaviors ought to be done and others ought not to be done. Where do such ideas come from? If the naturalist is correct, there should be no moral values, because the natural world doesn’t seem to be governed by morality. There are no ethical standards in the animal kingdom. Survival of the fittest is the only constant. If man is the result of natural evolution, where did he get the idea that any behavior is good or evil? On what basis can an impersonal, randomly-ordered universe develop morality? Even cultures that have no organized religious system recognize ethical standards. Why?

Obligations and loyalties arise from personal relationships, not mechanical ones. The legal system tells us that certain behaviors are acceptable and others are not acceptable. A hierarchy of moral authority suggests that there must be somebody at the top who dictates what is right and wrong. In a natural, mechanistic universe, there is no need for, nor process to explain, morality. But a higher moral law does seem to exist, and such a law seems to be independent of natural processes. If so, there must be a law-giver, and that must be God.

Agnosticism

The word “agnostic” literally means “no knowledge.” Agnostics claim that they personally don’t know if God exists. Some claim that no one can know for certain if there is a God. A few agnostics dabble in religion just in case there is a God. They want to cover themselves in the off chance that God really does exist. But most agnostics behave just like atheists. Agnosticism is not a halfway position between theism and atheism; it’s atheism under another name.

Just as there are no true atheists, so there are no true agnostics, because all have some genuine knowledge of God. A true agnostic would be receptive to the Gospel, because he’d be convinced that the God of the Bible does exist. Unfortunately, most agnostics are very skeptical about biblical claims. They are self-deceived, claiming not to know if God exists, but in reality rejecting the knowledge that they have.

Conclusion: The Bible teaches that atheists are fools (Ps 14:1; Rom 1:28). Scripture denies that anyone can be a true atheist or agnostic. God has clearly revealed Himself to all, so that all know Him, although some suppress and deny that knowledge (Ps 19:1-3; Rom 1:16-23). Believers must confront atheists and agnostics, insist that they re-examine their presuppositions, and challenge them to respond appropriately to the Gospel. Such unbelievers will not be brought to faith by weighty arguments and logical discussions. They need to understand their sinfulness and their alienation from God, and they must be challenged to forsake their rebellion and to seek forgiveness from Christ. It may seem foolish to preach the gospel to those who reject the Bible, but the gospel message contains the power to convert the most earnest atheist.

Discussion:

  1. Define atheism. The belief that there is no god(s).
  2. Define agnosticism. The belief that one cannot know if there is a god or gods.
  3. Define naturalism. The belief that nothing exists outside of natural processes.
  4. What is one supernatural event that is very well attested? The resurrection of Christ.
  5. Why does the complexity of DNA argue for a designer? It’s hard to believe that such a complex system could arise without some outside direction.
  6. Why can’t the universe be self-created? It would have to exist and not exist at the same time, which is absurd/irrational.
  7. Briefly discuss the three arguments for God that we examined. Design, cause-effect, morality

1 Jay Richards, “Intelligent Design Theory: Why it Matters” http://www.intellectualcapital.com/issues /issue178/item1315.asp

2 William Paley, Natural Theology, cited in Geisler, Norman L., Christian Apologetics, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House Company, 1976) pp.88,89

3 Vic Stenger, “Flew’s Flawed Science,” http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/RelSci/Flew.htm. Accessed Aug 2006. Stenger is a professor of physics and astronomy.

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