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Vol. 11 No. 1 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. -
January/February 1994

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Why Atheists Can't Find God

The Unreasoning Clergy

By Michael Hakeem, Ph.D.

Some theologians and clergy are fond of trying to persuade atheists that their unbelief is due to the limitation of their knowledge or the inadequacy of their search. Were it not for these deŽciencies, they would know God exists. There were a number of theologians of the past century who made much of this reasoning--or unreasoning.

One of these was Thomas Chalmers. He argued that atheism was not supportable because to deny God, the atheist "must be a God," that is, "must arrogate the ubiquity and omniscience of the Godhead." To prove the truth of atheism, he claimed, the atheist would have to "walk the whole expanse of inŽnity." Writing in the same vein, John Foster contended that unless the atheist is omnipresent "he cannot know but that there may be in some place manifestation of a Deity by which even he would be overpowered." More than this, Foster insisted that the atheist must investigate every single part of the universe for every past moment in its history before being entitled to say there is no God. Robert Flint presses the point with the same vigor, holding that one cannot deny God's existence unless one has probed every last object that ever existed in the universe through all the ages.

The fallacies manifested in these bizarre challenges should be obvious. Need it be stressed that they come from fervent believers who found God as mere tots before they could have examined even a relatively microscopic proportion of the universe? These stalwart theologians don't even know their own religion. Christian doctrine holds that God is omnipresent and also immanent (inheres in the human being)--even in nonbelievers, according to some theological treatises. If so, why should the atheist be called upon to chase after God all over the globe?

Demolishing the claim that God exists does not require omniscience or omnipresence. It just takes critical analysis. These challengers are involved in a great evasion--evasion of their responsibility to present evidence to prove what they claim and to refrain from shifting the burden of proof on those who deny the validity of their claim.

Atheists are still being confronted with the same sort of attempted invalidation of their stand. In fact, it is a quite popular ploy, and one gets the impression that theologians and the clergy feel that they have discovered in it a sure-Žre method of defeating the atheist. A few examples will further illustrate the tactic. Josh McDowell puts it this way:

"Atheists afŽrm there is no God. Yet they cannot hold this position dogmatically. For us to be able to make this type of statement with authority, we would have to know the universe in its entirety and to possess all knowledge. If anyone had these credentials, then by deŽnition he would be God. Thus we see that, unless the atheist is all-knowing, he cannot make a dogmatic statement [McDowell is wary of dogmatism!] on God's existence. Therefore, he can only state that he is uncertain whether or not there is a God, and this view is agnosticism."

The wise atheist does not "afŽrm there is no God," contrary to what McDowell says, but claims that the concept does not make sense, whether in its anthropomorphic or metaphysical version. Leaving that aside, it should be noted that McDowell propounds rules of thinking for the atheist that he himself refuses to abide by. Unless omniscient, he says, the nonbeliever can only assert agnosticism, not atheism. Now, McDowell would be the last person in the world to claim omniscience. Yet, he does not subscribe to agnosticism. In fact, he professes, with an impassioned certitude that is hard to match, that God exists. As a traveling staff member of the Campus Crusade for Christ, he has crisscrossed the earth many times to proclaim the unquestionable existence of God to "8 million students and faculty in 74 countries," to quote a blurb on his latest book.

The Reverend Ravi Zacharias, president of the ministry bearing his name, writes: "Postulating the nonexistence of God, atheism immediately commits the blunder of an absolute negation, which is self-contradictory. For, to sustain the belief that there is no God, it has to demonstrate inŽnite knowledge, which is tantamount to saying 'I have inŽnite knowledge that there is no being in existence with inŽnite knowledge.'" It does not take inŽnite knowledge to show that God-talk is unintelligible; that there are as many conßicting views of God as there are schools of theological thought; that the proffered evidence of God's existence does not pass the tests for credibility; and that believers fail to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

The last example is from a book by Leighton Ford, a well-known associate evangelist with the Billy Graham ministry. He is chairman of the Lausanne Committee of World Evangelization and is interested in "soul-winning":

"A young lady taking part in a discussion group led by Stuart Briscol brashly asserted she was an atheist [It is not considered "brash" for Christians to assert they are believers]. 'Do you know everything?' he asked. 'No.' 'Then is it possible that God exists outside of what you know?' 'Yes, it is.' 'Well, then,' he said, 'you aren't an atheist; you're an agnostic. Would you like to know God if he does exist?' She replied that she would. 'Well,' he smiled [why is that man smiling?], 'you've come to the right place. You're not an agnostic--you're a seeker.'"

If that young lady had been a sophisticated atheist who was competent to think critically, she would have evaded the trap set to discombobulate her mind and would have said many things that would expose her interrogator's shallow thinking. Though there are numerous things to be said, she should have at least said: "Well now, don't you know there are countless gods? Have you not read the book just published by Facts on File, Encyclopedia of Gods: 2,500 Deities of the World? And the author admits his compilation is not exhaustive! Since you would admit that you don't know everything either, the real god might be hidden in that part of knowledge you don't know. You very well might have stopped looking too soon and therefore failed to encounter the true god. Furthermore, I can give you many logical arguments against your belief system, and my lack of omniscience has nothing to do with them."

The clergy who try to maneuver atheists into acknowledging what is alleged to be the untenability of nonbelief in God insult their intelligence by treating them with the same intellectual dishonesty--dishonesty, unless they plead ignorance of the chaotic state of affairs in Christian doctrine--with which they treat their gullible parishioners. They talk about Žnding "God"--as though it is a unitary, clear, single, deŽnite, known, agreed-upon concept--as if an informed atheist does not know that the concept of god is in an extreme state of disarray in theological circles. If the amount of disagreement, conßicting formulations, incoherence, muddle, contradictory notions, and bitter dissension about God that plagues the theological fraternity and the world of philosophy were more widely known, perhaps there would be fewer pews occupied, unless rationality counts for nothing, which it very well may in religion.

Some thirty-three professors of philosophy, having expertise in religion, and academic theologians convened for the fourth annual New York University Institute of Philosophy, this one devoted to a symposium on "Religious Experience and Truth." One of the participants, Professor Howard W. Hintz, hurled this blockbuster at his colleagues:

"One of the major shortcomings of this symposium, to my mind, was a failure in each of the sessions to reach any satisfactory clariŽcation of the central term under discussion, the term 'God.' Some efforts in this direction were made by some of the discussants, but the theologians present never really approached an explicit deŽnition. It must also be said that many of the philosophers present used the term frequently without being any more clear or explicit about its meaning.

"The classic principle that any term must be deŽned before it can be meaningfully used applies with particular force to the term 'God' and to any of its synonyms. There are few terms connoting such a wide variety of meanings and conceptions as this one. There are few terms about which so much confusion prevails as to the meaning intended to be conveyed by the user, or the meaning accepted by the reader or listener. It was primarily for this reason that the discussions at all three of the Institute sessions so often ßoundered in obfuscations, irrelevancies, circular arguments, and question-begging statements. At no time was it precisely clear what the speakers or discussants were actually discussing." In short, even these mighty experts on the concept of God--and they were indeed that--don't know what they are talking about when they discuss it.

Many authorities have pointed out that theology--which is basically the study of God--is in a chaotic state. In his recent book, Tracking the Maze, Clark H. Pinnock, Professor of Systematic Theology at McMaster Divinity College, puts the matter colorfully: "To begin, I have to say with all the other interpreters that modern theology is incredibly pluralistic and diverse [he doesn't mean this as a compliment] . . . Christian theology is being shaken to its very foundations. . . . Basic disagreements have surfaced over who God is [he includes other basic Christian doctrines]."

A professor of the philosophy of religion at Southern Methodist University titled an article, "Oh God, Poor God." He deplores the present state of theology as "mostly an ailing enterprise." He suggests that Christianity ought to jettison most of its doctrinal baggage, including the biblical God, and transform the faith into some sort of social service enterprise.

In the eight-volume The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Professor Paul Edwards, the entry, "God, Concepts of," begins as follows: "It is difŽcult--perhaps impossible--to give a deŽnition of God that will cover all usages of the word. . . . Even to deŽne God generally as 'a superhuman or supernatural being that controls the world' is inadequate."

The article on "God" in the sixteen-volume The Encyclopedia of Religion points out that the Bible itself contains serious disagreements about the concept of God, a fact documented deŽnitively time and again.

Michael Hakeem, Ph.D. is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He will be taking a leave of absence from this popular column for a few months to work on a book. Working title: The Unreasoing Clergy.



January/February 1994 Excerpts