The Weaknesses of Atheism
Making headlines in atheist circles is the fact that one of the former members of John Loftus’ team over at Debunking Christianity has left atheism and ‘reconverted’ back to Christianity. In Autobahn To Damascus, Darrin Raspberry outlined some of his reasons for reconversion, and those reasons lead me to make the following observations.
1. All world views have weaknesses
Can Christianity satisfactorily answer all ultimate questions? I don’t think so. There are many issues which apologists and theologians have wrestled with over the centuries, and many of these are still disputed, having no absolute or complete answers.
Sure, we can come up with some logically consistent theodicy for the problem of evil, or some nuanced explanation of inerrancy of scripture that attempts to account for the missing originals, or for how Noah fit all the animals on the Ark, or for how the conquest of Canaan was somehow morally justified.
But the existence of answers does not mean we have successfully or completely nullified these objections. Especially if we realize that ALL world views have lists of similar weaknesses.
The challenge is to (a) realize that our pet worldview has inconsistencies or gaps, and (b) determine how to choose the BEST POSSIBLE world view in light of ubiquitous imperfections among them.
2. Atheism IS and IS NOT a worldview
Atheists can be just as blind to the weaknesses of their position as any religious convert who, for emotional security, NEEDS their position to be unassailable and true. One common defense I have heard from atheists when real limitations to atheism are brought up is ‘that’s because atheism isn’t a full orbed world view, it’s simply a declaration of unbelief in God, nothing more.‘
I think retreating to this half truth is really a dodge on their part – realizing the limits of the explanatory power of atheism, this pose still fails to answer the questions that challenge atheism.
Joining atheism with congruent ideologies such as secular humanism, or naturalism, or scientism may make atheism a fuller view, and perhaps from that perspective an atheist might make a rational response to challenges. But do THOSE combinations answer the questions any better, or supply the foundational assumptions missing in simple atheism? The answer is typically ‘NO.’
This dodge is intellectually dishonest for a couple of reasons.
First, it fails to acknowledge that even an atheism/secularism/Darwinism/naturalism cocktail will most probably still lack answers to the same issues, and that fact needs to be faced rather than evaded.
Second, it fails to acknowledge the world view implications of an atheist stance – it pretends there are no implications at all except with regard to personal belief.
3. Atheism has significant weaknesses as as world view that hardliners ignore
Darrin the ex-atheist mentions just a few of the most significant shortcomings in atheism’s ability to answer important questions. Here they are, with my commentary:
a. The existence of the universe
This is a reference to the Cosmological argument for God, and it certainly challenges the atheistic naturalist view of origins, i.e. the idea that there is no Creator, but rather, the universe just came into being from non-being or ‘nothing’.
In the past, this presumption led scientists to believe that the universe was of infinite age, and had no beginning, because a beginning demanded a first cause that was (a) fairly recent (compared to infinity), (b) outside of time and space, and (c) all powerful, and perhaps even (d) a conscious mind.
- Everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence;
- The universe has a beginning of its existence;
- The universe has a cause of its existence.
- If the universe has a cause of its existence then that cause is God;
- God exists.
Many atheists and scientists used to agree with this syllogism, but they doubted Premise 2. But since the advent of the big bang theory, and the conclusive subsequent support for it by empirical data, atheists have had to admit that their guess about the age of the universe, based on their assumptions that there is no God (not to mention evolution), was wrong.
Of course, some have tried to switch to doubting Premise 1 or Premise 4 by claiming that the universe CAN come from nothing, but that we just don’t know the mechanism yet.
This argument from ignorance is not a bad one, in that they give room for science to explain this enigma in the future. Their only weakness here is that on the theist side, the intelligent design position posits an intelligent cause, not from a “God in the gaps” argument, but from direct inferences of what we DO observe – that is, a positive case, not just insertion of God into our ignorance, nor a ‘we don’t know yet,’ which is their current stance.
The point is, naturalistic atheism has NO explanation for the beginning of the Cosmos. But on the other side, when you couple this beginning point for the Universe with our observations that all things have a cause, that the creation of the universe would have a cause with attributes we often attribute to God, and with the arguments from design, atheism is now in a position of having less explanatory power than the theistic view.
This is not to say that the theistic view is proven, just that it is, at this time, a better argument. And atheists ought to admit this.
b. Moral values and duties
This point, typically called the Moral Argument for God, is very simple – if there is no external and greater standard giver for objective moral truth, then such truth must be subjective, that is, declared or discovered by mankind. In the end, it means that whatever our human consensus or opinions are, those determine morality.
Not only that, to whom do we have a duty to be moral? Who enforces this morality? If I can get away with rape, and my genes are passed on, who says I have a moral duty to do otherwise? Perhaps that IS my moral duty.
Here, I think that atheists often resort to obfuscating the idea of objective morality and the inability of atheism to ground it by using one of more of the following tactics.
The first tactic is admitting that there is objective morality (which I agree with), but that it can be known without God (which I agree with, though I think their use of the Euthyphro Dilemma is a red herring – not only is this a false dilemma nicely split by Wm. Craig), and therefore, objective morality and atheism are compatible.
Their mistake is, as Craig would say, confusing moral epistemology (how we discover or know what is moral, which can be done using our conscience, and to some extent, without the scriptures or God) with moral ontology (that is, how you logically root the existence of morality – in what authority is it rooted?).
Even Paul the apostle admits that we can know right and wrong without the law (moral epistemology), but this fact does not mean that atheists have answered the problem of moral ontology:
[The Gentiles] demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right. ~ Romans 2:15
A second tactic to try to explain the existence of objective morality without God is to propose many other ways of grounding objective morality. They have attempted many methods, but none seem to truly ground morality outside of human consensus, desire, or some appeal to the greater good over time (which, in truth, is really not possible to know, esp. on an individual basis). I am not up on all the latest atheist philosophic attempts to ground morality in something other than God, but you might try these:
However, in the end analysis, none of these attempts can come up with any kind of specific, central set of moral principles that truly grounds morality outside of human subjective opinion – even if the theistic model has it’s challenges, these models have arguably more. Even worse, some of these methods rely on our ability to see the future consequences of events, or the grander ‘butterfly effect‘ – things we can’t predict well at all.
A third tactic is to agree that the non-existence of God leads to the conclusion that morals are subjective, and any intuition to the contrary is illogical and wrong. “But,” they argue, “what’s wrong with moral relativism? If it’s true, then that’s enough for me.”
The problems with subjective morality, however, are obvious in history, including:
- Eugenics – those in power resort to the next logical moral imperative – human survival and thriving. The problem is, when social utilitarianism replaces the objective morality of individual worth (i.e. we should do what’s best for society), it almost always devolves to eugenics.
- Might makes right – when the majority define what is ‘right,’ the fallen human heart always ends up justifying horrors for the common good.
- Killling off the weak – including the sick, elderly, and unborn or children.
A fourth tactic is to accuse theism as being subjective, even though theists are claiming an external authority in God. In the end, they claim, humans wrote the bible (and of course, atheists deny inspiration in the writing of scripture), and humans have to interpret and apply it, so it’s still subjective. That’s not a bad argument, but it’s not a good one either.
To conclude, while attempts to explain the existence of objective morals have been made by atheists, the arguments are not strong enough to overcome the moral argument for the existence of God – at the very least, to many the moral argument appears more viable, and this is enough reason to claim that atheism does not have a conclusive or even adequate answer.
Again, Christianity has some inadequate answers, but those objections made here to atheism are significant and should be admitted.
c. Objective human worth
Atheism in itself declares nothing about human worth, but its common bedfellows, Darwinism and humanism, do make claims or have implications regarding human worth. However, they have the same problem of subjectivity as in the moral argument – when the humanist tries to define why humans are of more worth than animals, the Darwinist (or anyone else) can respond “who says so?”
Interestingly, humanists may use some of the same attributes that Christians would use in describing human exceptionalism, such as cognitive function, ability to conceive of self, ability to know one is in pain rather than just experience it, having a concept of the passage of time, etc. However, though these attributes may describe our differences from other animals, this does not mean that we are of more worth – that ends up being a subjective value decision.
Christianity declares our worth based solely on the authority of God, and these attributes merely confirm it – they can’t ground it.
Worse are the ethics that spring out of Darwinism – that we are merely animals, and we are of worth only because we survive and dominate. This ethic gave rise in the past to scientific support for racism, eugenics, and even the genocides of Hitler (as argued elsewhere in such worthy books as From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany or Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress.
Again, in conclusion, while atheists attempt to ground human worth in some attributes, or in the Darwinian case, deny our worth, they really don’t have a good answer. This weakness is real and not to be poo pooed – especially when Christianity does have answers that are arguably better.
But even if you don’t buy the Christian answers, if you buy the atheistic ones as sufficient, I think you are kidding yourself.
d. Consciousness and will
If materialistic atheism (the idea that only the material world exists, and not God or human souls/spirits) is true, then we have no self apart from our brain chemistry.
What this would mean is that you don’t really make decisions of will, your choices are all biologically determined. This then leads to such logical conclusions as – you don’t really believe or disbelieve because you’ve chosen to think about it, it’s all decided by your chemistry and your experiences.
Not only that, but you are not responsible for your choices, you just react chemically to your environment. There is no ‘you’ apart from your body at all.
This flies in the face of some modern science and meaningful ethics, as well as our experience. I call this the ‘evidential problem of free will (a humorous, if not cynical reference to the evidential problem of evil, used to discredit theism).
Atheism leads naturally to the conclusion that we have no free will – but experience, (which could be wrong – but probably is not in this case), seems to overwhelmingly support free will.
For you Calvinists, this does not conflict with our need for prevenient grace in the process of salvation, it merely states the obvious – that in many moral and ethical decisions, we are both able and responsible to choose our actions.
In conclusion, atheism’s logical conclusion is that we don’t have free wills or a soul. Some atheists deny this is a logical conclusion to atheism, others affirm it and have no problem with saying that we are merely machines. Experience, science, and philosophy make strong arguments against this position, and that is why this is another strong weakness in atheism.
4. The affects of overreaching in our arguments in either direction
This caught my attention in Darrin’s article:
The months of study rolled on to years, and eventually I found an increasing comfort around my God-believing enemies and a growing discontent and even anger at my atheist friends’ inability to kill off these fleas in debate and in writing, an anger that gave birth to my first feeling of separateness from skepticism after reading comments related to a definitively refuted version of the Christ Myth theory, the idea that Jesus Christ never even existed as a person at all.
Line after line after line of people hating Christianity and laughing at its “lie,” when solid scholarship refuting their idea was ignored completely. It showed that the motive of bashing and hating Christianity for some skeptics wasn’t based in reason and “free thinking” at all.
Darrin was disappointed to find that, in falling in with atheists, rather than becoming an objective, intellectual person, he had become a ‘Christ-hater,’ encouraged to buy into some criticisms of Christianity which were so ludicrous that they finally offended his sense of honesty.
Christians make this same mistake, and in doing so, also cause people to leave with bitterness. For example, calling all atheists or people of other religions immoral miscreants, or assuming that there is no wisdom outside of Christianity, or overstating our claims (including plenary inerrancy, which is one of my least favorite doctrines), are immature and dishonest attempts at shoring up doubt.
All world views, including atheism and Christianity, have weaknesses. The sooner we admit that and practice honesty in discussing these, the sooner we can come to respectful decisions for ourselves, and allow others the space to make their own decisions. We can make decisions about God without ironclad, 100% answers for every issue. We must.
Blaise Pascal would tell us to choose the best bet. Darrin Raspberry has re-evaluated, and has chosen. Good for him.
Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists. ~ Blaise Pascal
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