Thinking again about atheism

My recent encounters with atheists on this blog have got me thinking again about what atheism is.  I write from the perspective of an ex-atheist.  From the age of 18 to 23 I called myself an atheist and even joined a Marxist party for a few months. This post is a refection on the limits of my knowledge at that time.

Atheism is the belief that there is no God. This belief is founded on a rejection of claims by theists to know that God exists and a lack of (empirical) evidence. Are these sufficient grounds to be an atheist?

Theistic knowledge is not empirical but revealed. Therefore, my knowledge as a Christian believer is based on the self revelation of God in the bible and creation. I presuppose that a creator God can speak to his creation using the language he created and that the bible proves to be a consistent and reliable record of this revelation. The 39 articles of the Church of England state:

VI. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

Knowledge can, therefore, be represented diagrammatically:

The atheists says “I reject revealed knowledge and have found no empirical evidence for the existence of God therefore God does not exist.” The atheist must assume that he has sufficient knowledge to make his claim.

The problem with atheism is that we don’t know how much we don’t know. If the atheist presupposes that reliable knowledge is empirical then there are a number of questions he must ask about his supposition:

  1. Is the empirical method the only means available for detecting the existence of God?
  2. Is it possible that a creator God might have made a universe where his presence is undetectable using empirical means?
  3. Have all empirical means of detecting God been discovered and the limits of the known universe and its history explored?
  4. If the fingerprints of a creator God might be discovered empirically how would I know what those fingerprints would look like? If I can’t see them is it because they are not there or because I am looking for the wrong sort of fingerprints?

That’s probably enough questions to demonstrate that the suppositions of atheism require a giant leap of faith. The sum of human knowledge is insufficient as a means for determining the existence or otherwise of a creator God. The atheistic, scientific, empirical search for the non-existence of God is a project which is doomed to fail because no matter how much we know, we will never know how much we don’t know.

Job 38:1-4 Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said:  “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?  Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.  “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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19 Responses to Thinking again about atheism

  1. noreligion says:

    What is revealed is not knowledge. knowledge is only obtained through science, logic or reason. Faith is not logic, science not reason, if ti were it would be called science, logic or reason but it isn’t.

    And you said The atheists says “I reject revealed knowledge and have found no empirical evidence for the existence of God therefore God does not exist.” putting it in quotes to make it seem authoritative and true. It is a lie. An atheist says “I reject revealed religion and have found no empirical evidence for the existence of any supernatural gods.”

    • neilrobbie says:

      Hello noreligion, welcome to TG. Your reply makes me wonder if you read my post, because you agree with what I wrote about what an atheist says, see the second paragraph above. What I am interested in is your response to the 4 questions about your presuppositions. I look forward to your reply. Neil

  2. noreligion says:

    “I reject revealed knowledge and have found no empirical evidence for the existence of God therefore God does not exist.” does not equal “I reject revealed religion and have found no empirical evidence for the existence of any supernatural gods.” Besides when has saying I don’t believe in any god equal saying I believe god doesn’t exist? As far as number 1, yes it is true there is no way to determine anything supernatural by empirical methods. However if the supernatural entity (god) has any effect on the natural world, that can be seen empirically. Of course 2 is possible but is it likely? the answer is no and if he (or she or even it) made itself undetectable, that would mean it isn’t a perfect god since it lacks the ability to be detected empirically. The answer to 3 is a qualified no. The entire universe and it’s history has not been fully explored but that has nothing to do with god. It is quite disingenuous to add god to that statement. One would look like amputees regrowing limbs when they are prayed for. Another would be no needless suffering or evil in the world. Another would be an answer to the prayer for world peace made by untold millions daily. Another would be an end to evil in the world. There are many clear fingerprints saying not to believe in god. It is only through faith and ignoring evidence that one can believe in god. There is nothing wrong with believing in god as long as you recognize your belief is just a belief based on faith and not science, logic or reason and as a result of that, your faith should not be pushed in ANY way where it is not welcome.

  3. The atheists says “I reject revealed knowledge and have found no empirical evidence for the existence of God therefore God does not exist.” The atheist must assume that he has sufficient knowledge to make his claim.

    Incorrect. This is the burden of proof fallacy. The burden of proof is on those putting forward the claim that this is actually knowledge. If I have no way of differentiating “revealed knowledge” from the ravings of a lunatic, I’m quite justified in suspending calling it knowledge until it is verified . It is indeed irrational to presuppose revelation is knowledge until such verification is made. That is what knowledge is – that which can be verified.

    Science is not only the best way to knowledge, it is the ONLY way which is reliable and verifiable. So in answer to question 1, yes.

    In answer to question 2, possibly. But not if that god intervenes (as the biblical one does) periodically within the universe. We would be able to detect this. For instance, a god which answers prayer can be detected by testing that hypothesis. To date, all results are negative.

    In answer to question 3, no. Of course not. But it is not rational to believe in something for which there is currently no evidence on the off chance that it might exist. I could tell you I believe there are pink unicorns prancing on Pluto, but is that rational just because we have not yet been there to see for ourselves?

    In answer to question 4, it depends on the god claim. For the Abrahamic god that answers prayer, etc., we have indeed looked for those “fingerprints” to no avail. When a claim is tested producing no positive results when evidence should be observable we are then justified in rejecting the claim.

    There is a common misconception about atheism that you seem to have, and that is that atheists do not claim “There are no gods.” We have no need. We simply recognize that all god claims to date have insufficient evidence in support to accept any one of them. That’s all. The burden of proof lies on those who make the claim of a particular god’s existence.

  4. neilrobbie says:

    Hello again, noreligion and shamelessly atheist, thank you for your replies.

    Can you tell me what you understand by presuppositions? Your answers to question 1 are simply restatements of the presupposition that empiricism is the sole arbitrator of truth. How do you know that to be true?


  5. neilrobbie says:

    noreligion, a presupposition is an implicit assumption about the world or background belief relating to an utterance whose truth is taken for granted in discourse. In your discourse on this blog you clearly presuppose that empiricism is an objective common ground. I’m questioning that supposition, essentially because your argument is circular:

    You believe and state, repeatedly, that empiricism is the sole means of establishing truth. You, therefore, adopt empirical methods for investigating truth. You find no empirical evidence for, say, the resurrection of Christ from the dead or that prayer makes a difference. As a result you believe empiricism is the sole means of establishing truth. That’s a circular argument where the initial supposition is reinforced by the results of your research. But the initial supposition must be questioned. Is it really the sole arbiter of truth? If so, who says? On what authority? How do we know? Those sorts of questions must be answered before you can assert it to be true.

    My presupposition as a Christian is that God speaks in the words of the bible. I read the bible and find that it is consistent with God’s character, history and so on. My initial supposition is reinforced by my reading and so this too is a circular argument. And so I must ask the same questions of my supposition. Who says that God speaks? On what authority does this supposition stand? How do we know God speaks through the bible?

    Going back to atheism, what justification or authority does your presupposition about empiricism stand outside the circular argument you have produced so far? I am really and genuinely interested to know if you have an answer.

    • noreligion says:

      Asking you to show evidence otherwise is a circular argument? Asking you to show one instance of knowledge revealed in the bible that could not have been known any other way and saying that I can show you two instances of the bible saying pi is 3 which we know to be incorrect is a circular argument? Ok, fine. Believe what you will but I am done with this.

  6. neilrobbie says:

    noreligion, I’m not arguing, I am refusing to get drawn into answering empirical questions until we have established if empiricism is the sole arbiter of truth. I’m asking you to question your presupposition. You keep going back to the same unquestioned assumption. But before debating anything we have to demonstrate the legitimacy of our presuppositions, mine being “God speaks through the bible” and yours being “empiricism is a reliable judge of everything.” If you are not willing to investigate the assumed foundations of your argument with me, and for me to investigate mine with you, there can be no meaningful discussion.

    Go well and question the foundations of your faith.


  7. noreligion says:

    Atheism is a faith? Are you gonna provide the evidence I asked for or not?

  8. neilrobbie says:

    The nature of your questions demonstrate that you are seeking for empirical evidence. I’d like to use an example to reveal your suppositions and mine.

    Here’s a truth that we can’t prove empirically:
    2 Peter 2:4 God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell.

    By what authority is this knowledge accepted as true? You will say “I can’t prove it empirically so it is not true” and I’ll say “It is true because it is knowledge revealed to us by God.”

    The question is, which means of determining the truth applies in this case and on what basis do I decide which means is right? If you say “It can’t be empirically demonstrated” you need to ask, “why is empiricism the arbiter of truth in this case?”

    Do you see what I am getting at?

    • noreligion says:

      I have a piece of paper here that I wrote that says there is a teeny teapot orbiting Pluto that I am claiming was written by a leprechaun. As far as you are concerned, that is revealed knowledge. You can’t disprove it can you? What is revealed is not knowledge.

  9. neilrobbie says:

    Not all revelation is knowledge, clearly. Your response continues to assume that empiricism is the only means for assessing all forms of revelation. But all you are really doing is repeating atheist dogma and in doing so revealing the creed of your faith.

    • noreligion says:

      Oh, I get it. Your 2000 year old goatherder book is “revelation” but my paper written by a leprechaun isn’t. And you have the nerve to say I am talking faith. I’m done with you since you don’t want to think. It is people like you that make all Christians look like morons. Good job 🙂

  10. neilrobbie says:

    noreligion, I’m not sure you do get it. Let me explain what I’ve been getting at. Before using arguments like the one in your last post, we need to discuss the theory of knowledge or epistemology, the science of knowledge, in other words how do we know stuff?

    You’ll agree with me that empiricism is a branch of knowledge which relies on the senses for establishing knowledge, in essence holding to the presupposition that if it can’t be sensed it can’t be known.

    But empiricism has its limitations which the Scottish skeptic philosopher David Hume realised. Empiricism cannot justify any ethical values. All empiricism does is observe but observation alone cannot determine whether what was observed was good or bad, right or wrong. If I observe that things fall to the ground under the force of gravity I have empirical knowledge. But I cannot say “it is good that things fall to the ground under the force of gravity.” Why are the effects of gravity good? Gravity allows us to walk and not float away, it maintains the atmosphere and the distance between the sun and the earth, etc etc and those are good things, but empiricism does not establish what is good about gravity. So some knowledge other than empiricism is required to make a moral judgement.

    Now epistemology is a section of ethics and empiricism depends on the adoption of ethical values outside itself. So empiricism can only contribute observations to knowledge but it cannot determine true knowledge because it cannot be used to determine ethical values. In other words, empiricism does not and cannot legitimise itself as an arbiter in the moral or ethical sphere. Empiricism cannot justify anything, it can only make observations, so it cannot even justify itself.

    When an empiricist makes judgements about what is good or bad, right or wrong, prohibited or obliged, he is not making that judgement based on observation but rather on a presupposed moral value. Empiricists say “it is bad to accept revelation as knowledge” but that judgement is not based on empiricism it is based on some other source of knowledge. My question to you and other empiricists is; what source of knowledge do you appeal to if empiricism cannot justify itself? You need to know the source and legitimacy of your moral judgements.

    I cannot ignore the moral judgement that you made in your post about me being a moron. I accept that I was perhaps unhelpful in the way that I tried to get you to discuss epistemology, using weak questions and language or arguments that you have perhaps not come across before and for that I apologise. My reluctance to engage you in the debate that you want does not excuse you being rude.

  11. John says:

    The thing is, we atheists dont pretend to know what is unknown. We dont substitute a god in because we do not understand how something works. We appreciate life and the beauty around us. How the universe is inside of us and we are inside of the universe. We are connected to everything and everyone atomically. It’s an amazing thing.

  12. neilrobbie says:

    Hi John and welcome to Transforming Grace, thank you for your comment. As an ex-atheist now Christian, with a scientific/engineering background, I also really appreciate life and beauty. The difference between my old atheistic faith and my new faith is that this appreciation does not stop with life and beauty but makes me wonder “if God made this delicate buttercup, bolt of lightening, amazing insect” (or whatever aspect of life and beauty I come across, I not only appreciate the beauty in itself) I ask “what sort of God must God be?”

    And then the connection between me and everything else is not only atomical but also divine. Being a Christian adds to the experience of life, it does not subtract from my experience as an atheist. Being an atheist, I found, meant truncating a full experience of life. I agree that life is an amazing thing, but there’s much more to enjoy.


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