Monday, 11 February 2008

How not to argue with an atheist

Most of todays atheist activists believe themselves to be championing the values of reason, logic, rationality and science.

If you find yourself in a debate with one, you'll often find that they give you a challenge something like this:

"OK. You say there is a God - so you get to prove it. Show me the evidence - and I'll follow you wherever it goes. I'm a reasonable person; show me the reasons, and I'll worship your God; but if you don't, please don't say I shouldn't be an atheist."

Sounds fair? Uh-uh. Agree to a debate on those terms, and you're selling the pass.


How come? Because you've just allowed the atheist a free ride. You've let him claim for himself a load of territory which, as an atheist, doesn't belong to him.

On the supposition that God is, and is our maker, then a lot of things follow very quickly. Firstly, it means that everything is his. That's everything as in everything - things you can see, and things you can't. All the physical territory in the earth, solar system and universe - and all the intellectual territory that you can tour through too.

In other words, all the tools of logic, reason, rationality and science are his too. They're part of the fabric of his creation - we think rational thoughts because God constituted us as rational beings; he made us and he owns us.


That means then, that on the supposition that God is our maker, that all the "neutral territory" from where the atheist presumes to sit and judge the evidence that you throw his way, isn't in fact neutral at all. It's God's.

In a created universe, made by an intelligent and personal God, things like logic, reason and rationality can be accounted for easily. On the supposition that God is a logical, reasoning, rational being, it is easy to understand that the world he made would be populated by other logical, reasoning, rational beings. If he made man to reflect something of his own being and character, then it is no wonder that we do things like seeking after meaning, thinking great thoughts, process and understand great concepts, etcetera. When I make a cake, it reflects something of my being - I'm a poor cook, so it's a mess! When God makes a world, it reflects something of him - immense, glorious and to bring it to the point - rational.


What about atheism, though? How does it account for all of this? If impersonal matter is the origin of everything and if immense amounts of time and random chance are the explanation for everything - then what is this "logic" that we speak of? If the universe is a closed system, working out according to fixed laws, then what is this apparent experience of free thought and inquiry? If our behaviour is ultimately reducible to nothing more than atoms banging together, then a) why should we trust the results of this banging together, b) what significance does it have anyway and c) what, in this atheistic impersonal universe, is this "we" that we're talking about anyway?

Do you get it?

What I'm saying is this. When you allow the atheist to set the terms of debate as above, you've just allowed him to seize whole tracts of intellectual real estate for free. By allowing his claim to be a rational, logical, thinking and personal being without having to justify it on his own, atheistic terms, you basically allow the atheist all that he wanted in the first place. Allowing him his place to sit and reason independently of God, you've already given him what he was seeking. Instead, you need to say:

"Whoah! Steady on there. I'm happy to discuss my evidence and talk about reason and logic with a fellow Christian, because my fellow Christians believe in the God who is the basis for it all. You, though are an atheist! I'm not going to allow you to masquerade as a rational being until you've justified it. Please, what are logic and reason in your atheistic universe, and why should we trust them or care about it all anyway? If atheism is true, then it's just atoms banging together - why should we believe that any certain results can come from that?"

This is called a presuppositional approach. It exposes the fact that the "neutral" territory in between atheist and Christian doesn't exist. It exposes the atheist to the fact that from the point of view of atheism, he can't even begin to think, let alone come to any worthwhile conclusions.

In other words, it exposes the atheist to the inescapable fact that hate him as he does, this is still God's world. The facts are not neutral, to be used to construct competing arguments. Unless we begin by presupposing the reality of the Creator God, we can't actually prove anything at all.


Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
So.. you can only prove god exists by presupposing that god exists... This is known as circular reasoning.

The rest is arguing from ignorance and straw men.

Anonymous said...

Wh'sup, bro. I'm an atheist, used to be a Christian.

"When God makes a world, it reflects something of him - immense"... Dude, are you calling me fat? Just kidding. :)

I thought you were just kidding when I first read your post, then I got the impression that you are serious. So I thought I'd chime in.

Your argument seems to run like this: the power to reason comes from God, therefore one who doesn't believe in God must explain where his ability to reason came from.

Have I got it right?

Your "presupposition" that there is a God who created my ability to reason is precisely the point of contention any debate would be about. If you wish to use the existence of the ability to reason as an argument for the existence of a God, you certainly could try. I'd listen, then tell you what I thought.

But you cannot, when arguing for the existence of God, use an assumption that he exists as a proof that he does. You have to demonstrate he exists before using that existence to support some other claim.

Pretend you and I are sitting together over coffee and you say, "look, there's some coffee."

I look at the table and, lo and behold, there is coffee there which we ordered not five minutes ago.

Then I say, "look, there's a little man on my shoulder who tells me how we should live our lives." You look and see... nothing. You look at me, wondering what I'm up to.

I say it again. "Look, there's the little man. He's right there."

You look where I'm pointing and, no, there's nothing there.

At this point you must draw one of two conclusions. I am either a) joking or b)deluded.

If I want you to believe c)I'm telling the truth, then I must provide some reason for you to buy into my assertion.

Your argument boils down to "you're crazy if you don't believe in God," which isn't an argument at all.

I'm doing a series on my blog called "how to talk to an atheist" which you may find informative.

Have a great day!

David Anderson said...

Samuel: you have entirely missed the structure of the argument.

The point is that if you begin without assuming the reality of our maker, then you are unable to even give a coherent account for the process of logical argumentation.

You obviously trust the results of your own thought processes. I can account for the reason why you do that - because the rational, thinking God made you a rational, thinking being. You, though, cannot - you must ultimately ascribe it to impersonal chemical reactions which you have no reason for knowing could ever be trusted.

David Anderson said...


Thank you for your post.

In it your basic mistake is that you've pre-assumed a form of the philosophy of positivism. In English, I mean that you've apparently taken the position that knowledge only comes by beginning from a position from ignorance and then proving conjectures.

Take a step back though. How do you know that positivism itself is true? You have to first either prove it (which can't be done without circular argument), or you have to pre-suppose that it is true (which would leave you in the same position that you ascribe to me).

So, rather than tackle your argument head on, first I'd say - how do you know that the statement "If I want you to believe c)I'm telling the truth, then I must provide some reason for you to buy into my assertion" is true? Did you prove it, or did you assume it?

If you proved it, then I'd then ask you to prove all the statements you used to prove it. This would then involve us in either an infinite chain of reasons, or you'd eventually come back to something you'd assumed to be true. If on the other hand you assumed it, then we're in the same place. You've assumed something.

The point is Justin, that the positivistic method is all fine and dandy for proving or not the existence of little men on my shoulder, because those men are only a tiny part of the whole system of reality. When we're talking about the question of God, though, we're actually talking about the whole system itself. You can't prove any system only from within the system. To ask for someone to do that is philosophically naive, and smacks of having read too much of Prof. Dawkins.

The positivistic method is designed to exclude God by axiom. As it only allows for the discovery of things within the system, it could only ever at most discover some very small "god" who is just another object within the system. The God who is, though, is something else entirely - the Lord of it.

No doubt that's why positivism is such a popular method amongst atheists, as that's the only kind of "god" you'd like to exist - a small one that can be controlled and put in your pocket, rather than one who has to be bowed to and served.

Anonymous said...


You're using a mutated strain of Cosmological/Ontological argument. In English, I mean one which is entirely fabricated around an need to provide a rationalization for believing in God, given that no practical reasons can be found to do so.

If you seriously expect anyone to buy the idea that if God doesn't exist then the ability to reason wouldn't either, you're going to have to demonstrate why. To do otherwise isn't so much naive as insulting.

There are two possibilities here, man.

1)You have to give a reason, as the Apostle Paul says you do, for why you believe what you believe.


2)You get to expect me to behave like your sheep, trusting you implicitly without question, thinking of you as the prime arbiter of all that is true, decreeing what is and what is not by Davidian fiat.

The second will not happen.

The relevant assumptions here are these:

You're assuming that making up anything you want and believing it without reason is grounds for expecting others to go along with it.

You're assuming I'm a sheep who will just say, "if David says it, it must be true."

I'm assuming I cannot trust you.

Your assumptions are very, very wrong.

Mine has been clearly demonstrated as correct through your avoidance of any real conversation by using word games to hide your lack of reasons to believe.

There are many Christians I trust, with my kid, even. I do not trust you. Because, as you are clearly not stupid, I don't believe you could possibly mean what you say.

Just being honest, man.

There are arguments for the existence of God that can be taken seriously. I do not find them persuasive, but many Christians I know do. Discover those.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Actually chemistry is very predictable. I would (and do) trust more than my logical thought process to science. I also don't get why people think you need a designer to be logical. Why do I have to assume a creator? Actually, come to think of it, I'm not perfectly logical- but wouldn't I be if I was designed (computers are! Their failings are from bugs and size, not logic)

David Anderson said...


I think you missed my challenge. I didn't ask you to explain that your brain chemistry (if this is indeed all that your thought processes are) was predictable - I asked you to justify that they were correct.

From your atheist perspective, your brain processes are the result of millions of yours of DNA copying errors - and this process is ongoing. In a few million years your descendants will no doubt have evolved some more. They will think that your ideas are those of a primitive savage, and congratulate themselves that they are far more highly evolved.

On that basis, why should you trust your own thought processes? How do you know you don't have some mutations that make your part of the human family less logical than the rest? The answer can't be "because I've observed myself to be reliable" because that's circular - the suspect brain cells pronouncing on themselves!

So Samuel, what I'm saying is that if you begin with the atheistic position, you can't even begin to justify such things as logical thought and rationality. This shows that atheism is profoundly mistaken - it can't even account for the most basic human activities.

You ask how the Christian case fares better. The answer is as follows. The Christian claim is that we are made by an infinite and eternal being who is possessed with (amongst other things) infinite intelligence and wisdom. On those grounds, it is very easy to account for our intelligence and rationality - it was endowed upon us by him. The Christian view of reality explains why we are rational beings, whereas the atheist view does not.


David Anderson said...


Your response indicates to me that either you have no idea what the stick I'm thwacking you over the head with is, or that you understand it all too well and don't know what to do about it!

I think that our interaction is proving useful in illustrating the argument I was originally making. For that reason I'm going to put something up on the main blog rather than continue on this thread. Check the index in a few minutes time, God-willing (or, from your point of view, if the atoms bounce in the right directions!), and you'll see my response.

Best wishes,

IlĂ­on said...

Mr Anderson,
You rock!