Atheism and presumptuousness

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The Christian philosopher Paul Copan wrote in his essay The Presumptiousness of Atheism:

Atheist Antony Flew has said that the "onus of proof must lie upon the theist." Unless compelling reasons for God’s existence can be given, there is the "presumption of atheism." Another atheist, Michael Scriven, considers the lack of evidence for God’s existence and the lack of evidence for Santa Claus on the same level. However, the presumption of atheism actually turns out to be presumptuousness . The Christian must remember that the atheist also shares the burden of proof, which I will attempt to demonstrate below.

First, even if the theist could not muster good arguments for God’s existence, atheism still would not be shown to be true. The outspoken atheist Kai Nielsen recognizes this: "To show that an argument is invalid or unsound is not to show that the conclusion of the argument is false. All the proofs of God’s existence may fail, but it still may be the case that God exists."

Second, the "presumption of atheism" demonstrates a rigging of the rules of philosophical debate in order to play into the hands of the atheist, who himself makes a truth claim. Alvin Plantinga correctly argues that the atheist does not treat the statements "God exists" and "God does not exist" in the same manner. The atheist assumes that if one has no evidence for God’s existence, then one is obligated to believe that God does not exist — whether or not one has evidence against God’s existence. What the atheist fails to see is that atheism is just as much a claim to know something ("God does not exist") as theism ("God exists"). Therefore, the atheist’s denial of God’s existence needs just as much substantiation as does the theist’s claim; the atheist must give plausible reasons for rejecting God’s existence.

Third, in the absence of evidence for God’s existence, agnosticism, not atheism, is the logical presumption. Even if arguments for God’s existence do not persuade, atheism should not be presumed because atheism is not neutral; pure agnosticism is. Atheism is justified only if there is sufficient evidence against God’s existence.[1]

The abstract for the academic journal article Rethinking the presumption of atheism by University of Texas at Arlington Professor Keith Burgess-Jackson states: "

Is there—or rather, ought there to be—a presumption of atheism, as Antony Flew (1923–2010) so famously argued nearly half a century ago? It is time to revisit this issue. After clarifying the concept of a presumption of atheism (which includes clarifying the concept of a presumption), I take up the evaluative question of whether there ought to be a presumption of atheism, focusing on Flew’s arguments for an affirmative answer. I conclude that Flew’s arguments, one of which rests on an analogy with the (legal) presumption of innocence, fail.[2]
Sir Isaac Newton stated: "Opposition to godliness is Atheism in profession and idolatry in practice. Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind that it never had many professors."[3]

Alex Kepfter wrote in his piece 'In-your-face' atheists are obnoxiously presumptuous:

I am not a deeply religious person, but I am intelligent enough to know there is no scientific proof that there is or isn’t a God... Presuming to know this great mystery with absolute certitude is beyond arrogant, and if he is wrong, it could be disastrous.

The second thing that irritates me is factual errors atheists use to justify their convictions. There are many scientists who are deeply religious, including famous ones like Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendel and Blaise Pascal... So to make a blanket statement that atheists are somehow more enlightened than believers is not only arrogant, but ignorant.

The third thing is how blatantly offensive it is to belittle someone’s religion. In this politically correct world we live in, how can it be wrong to criticize someone’s race or sexual preference but be OK to criticize their religion? What has this country come to when Miley Cyrus’ “twerking” is OK, but a nativity scene on public property is somehow wrong?

I often wonder what is the motivation of “in-your-face” atheists. Maybe they are insecure and want to pretend they are smarter than everyone. Perhaps they are seeking attention.[4]

The Christian philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig states concerning atheism and presumptuousness:

Theists have complained that the usual arguments against God's existence do not pass philosophical muster. One of the most commonly proffered justifications of atheism has been the so-called presumption of atheism. At face value, this is the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist. So understood, such an alleged presumption seems to conflate atheism with agnosticism. When one looks more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism use the term "atheist," however, one discovers that they are sometimes re-defining the word to indicate merely the absence of belief in God. Such a re-definition trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition atheism ceases to be a view, and even infants count as atheists. One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist.

Other advocates of the presumption of atheism use the word in the standard way but insist that it is precisely the absence of evidence for theism that justifies their claim that God does not exist. The problem with such a position is captured neatly by the aphorism, beloved of forensic scientists, that "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." The absence of evidence is evidence of absence only in cases in which, were the postulated entity to exist, we should expect to have more evidence of its existence than we do. With respect to God's existence, it is incumbent on the atheist to prove that if God existed, He would provide more evidence of His existence than what we have. This is an enormously heavy burden of proof for the atheist to bear, for two reasons: (1) On at least Christian theism the primary way in which we come to know God is not through evidence but through the inner work of His Holy Spirit, which is effectual in bringing persons into relation with God wholly apart from evidence. (2) On Christian theism God has provided the stupendous miracles of the creation of the universe from nothing and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, for which events there is good scientific and historical evidence—not to mention all the other arguments of natural theology. In this light, the presumption of atheism seems presumptuous, indeed![5]

The philosopher and ex-atheist Antony Flew, who was one of the most prominent atheist academics in the world before adopting deism, said about the new atheist Richard Dawkins: “The fault of Dawkins as an academic…was his scandalous and apparently deliberate refusal to present the doctrine he appears to think he has refuted in its strongest form”.[6]

J. Randolph Tucker, the Attorney General of Virginia wrote:

I say 'young men,' for I well know how prone are such to the delusions of a supposed rationalism, which presumptuously claims to be able to fathom the unsounded depths of the Divine Omniscience, and to grasp the unknown elements of the Divine reason.

YOUNG MAN! my object is to warn you of your danger; to point out the true method of religious investigation; to lead you by its adoption to the only solution of that most solemn question, which haunts us in our day-dreams, which breaks in with solemn note upon our revels, which speaks to us in the day's business, which whispers to us in the night's stillness; which banish as we may--avoid as we may--take, though we may, the wings of the morning and flee into the uttermost parts of the sea, Omnipresent still is there, pressing for its answer, and yet with angel wings, hovering in mercy over us!

Who has not heard the question from within--by whom asked, he knows not--WHAT AM I NOW? AND WHAT SHALL I BE HEREAFTER? How few have answered it at all! How many evasively! How few honestly! How many drown the voice of the earnest querist, that they may frame an answer which will serve the present moment, and avoid that response whose joyous echo shall resound forever!

How many young men have I seen fight their way from the camp of Christianity, into the tents of Infidelity, and even atheism! and answer the question thus: "Dust I am--to dust I will return!" How many turn from the peaceful ways of the Christian's life, to the dreary gloom of a cheerless materialism, from the calm unperturbed tranquility of the one, to the feverish delights, or the revulsive melancholy of the other![7]

Peter S. Williams, Assistant Professor in Communication and Worldviews at Gimlekollen School of Journalism and Communication, NLA University College, Norway indicates:

Relying on the 'Insufficient Evidence' objection is a risky gambit for the atheist. As philosopher William Rowe observes, 'To fail to provide any arguments for the non-existence of God is ... to virtually concede the debate to the person who at least gives some arguments, however weak, in behalf of the position that God exists.' Arguing for atheism on the basis that there is insufficient evidence for belief in God (and that, in the absence of such evidence, the benefit of the doubt should be given to atheism rather than theism or agnosticism) is always vulnerable to the possibility that new evidence – or a better formulation and appreciation of old evidence – might turn up. Such atheism cannot afford to be dogmatic, for 'even if the theist could not muster good arguments for God's existence, atheism still would not be shown to be true.' As atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen admits: 'To show that an argument is invalid or unsound is not to show that the conclusion of the argument is false.… All the proofs of God's existence may fail, but it still may be the case that God exists.'

According to Robert A. Harris, 'a common sense look at the world, with all its beauty, apparent design, meaning, and vibrancy, would seem to predispose a neutral observer to presume that God exists unless good evidence for his non-existence could be brought to bear … The fact that materialists often struggle with this issue, working to explain away the design of the creation, for example, would seem to back up this claim.' Nevertheless, British humanist Richard Norman asserts that, 'the onus is on those who believe in a god to provide reasons for that belief. If they cannot come up with good reasons, then we should reject the belief.' It was another British philosopher, Antony Flew (who recently became a theist), who most famously urged that the 'onus of proof must lie upon the theist', and that unless compelling reasons for God's existence could be given there should be a 'presumption of atheism'. However, by 'atheism' Flew meant merely 'non-theism' – a non-standard definition of 'atheism' that includes agnosticism but excludes atheism as commonly understood. The presumption of atheism is, therefore, not particularly interesting unless (as with Richard Norman explicitly and Lewis Wolpert implicitly) it really is the presumption of atheism rather than the presumption of agnosticism. However, the former is far harder to defend than the latter.[8]

A common and legitimate criticism of the atheist worldview is that atheism is irrational.[9]

The article Why Is Atheism a Failure? states:

An atheist is a person who denies the existence of God. A little reflection, however, reveals that the atheist’s position is indefensible. The only way anyone can prove no God exists is to be God Himself! Let me explain.

The total amount of knowledge any single person possesses is infinitesimal compared to the vastness of the universe and the immeasurable amount of information it contains. A person would have to be omnipresent (present everywhere at once) and omniscient (have all awareness and understanding) in order to have enough information to know that no deity exists. And these attributes are part of most people’s concept of God! Hence, no finite human being can prove God does not exist because God may very well exist beyond one’s comprehension or experience.

Of course, this fact stops few atheists from arguing against the existence of God. But it does illustrate that dogmatic assertions for the nonexistence of God are presumptuous and irrational. No one can prove God doesn’t exist.[10]

Paul Copan in his work Atheism and the Burden of Proof indicates:

I was at a local philosophical discussion recently (I am organizer and moderator of a Socrates Café),6 and one participant exclaimed, "You can't know that God exists."

I gently replied, "But how do you know that you can't know?" I then pressed him: "I can understand that you obviously speak for yourself about not knowing if God exists. But how can you say that no one else can truly know that God exists? That just sounds presumptuous to me." The militant agnostic speaks for all people, claiming to know that no one can know God exists. But how can he support the claim to know this? Like that atheist, the militant agnostic must justify his claim as well.[11]

In Japan, researchers found that Japanese children see the world as designed.[12] See also: Atheism and children

Randy Hough wrote:

Therefore, free thinkers reject all other contenders as authoritative sources of knowledge. Among these are the notions of cultural traditions and culture as such, authority (whatever that means), common sense, intuition, personal experience, fine art, philosophical reflection, history, natural theology, dogma (undefined as to type) and, yes, even Divine revelation.

Clearly, free thinkers have been busy as they considered all the contenders as sources of knowledge in order to determine absolutely that science, logic, and reason are the ONLY keys to the kingdom of knowledge.

Such echoes the voice of Dr. Carl Sagan, speaking as a scientist, claiming that, “the Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” But, after thinking about freethinking, I wonder whether such an emphatic statement was intended not as one describing the way things really were, are, or will be, that is, a truth claim, but was merely his opinion.

Were he alive today, I would bet that he would be warmly welcomed into the Freethought Society. But, I digress.

Finally, the statement at issue is clearly pretentious, presumptuous, deceptive, and irrational. Before I explain why, I want to peel back the Free-thought onion a bit.

But, here is where the problems begin for atheism and atheists, problems that make irrefutable my claim that to hold such opinions is pretentious, presumptuous, deceptive, and irrational.

For atheism MUST presuppose that nature is all there is, that any form of being is composed only of material or matter, and that any and all such beings exist without design, purpose, or meaning.

Conversely, atheism presupposes that every form of being exists by virtue of random, natural events which themselves are determined by mindless, natural, and unguided causal chains that preceded their existence and over which they had absolutely no control.

Determined only by the foregoing, all beings, including atheists themselves, are simply mindless, purposeless, and meaningless random molecules in motion.

Readers must understand that by subscribing to naturalism, or materialism, or scientific naturalism, an atheist, must reject the thinking mind since the mind, as understood for the past two thousand years, is itself non-material.

Since materialists’ orthodoxy holds that a material universe is all that exists, they must, by their own logic, reject any non-material construct such as mind. They must also reject any abstract thoughts that derive from a mind such as ideas, notions, or beliefs; and yes, even opinions themselves.

Moreover, based on their own claims, atheists cannot use logic, science, and philosophical reflection to form opinions or rational arguments.[13]

Dr. Greg Bahnsen became known as the "man atheists fear most" due to Michael Martin's cancellation of their scheduled debate.[14]

Greg Bahnsen was known for his work within Presuppositional apologetics. See also: Atheism and presuppositional apologetics

See also: Atheism and presuppositional apologetics

In his BBC documentary The Trouble with Atheism the award-winning journalist Rod Liddle indicates:

Some atheists have become rather dogmatic. Terribly certain in their conviction that there is no God and anyone who thinks there is is a deluded and dangerous fool. ...atheists are becoming as intransigent about their own views as the people they so despise.

Atheism is becoming a religion of its own. It already has its gurus and its revered sacred texts... It has its magnificent temples within which lie mysteries and unknowable truths.[15]

The Encyclopedia Britanica (Edinborough 1771) in its article on atheism declared: "Many people both ancient and modern have pretended to atheism or have been reckoned atheists by the world, but it is justly questioned whether any man seriously adopted such a principle. These pretentions therefore must be founded on pride or affection."[16]

Professor Ralph McInerny in his work Why the Burden of Proof is on the Atheist declares:

My own first question envisages a meatier interpretation than that. I am asking whether the skeptic is justified in calling into question the truth of 'God exists.' Why not put the burden on him? Why not insist that he is attempting to convict of irrationality generations of human beings, rational animals like himself, whole cultures for whom belief in the divine and worship are part of what it is to be a human being? Were all those millions, that silent majority, wrong? Surely to think something against the grain of the whole tradition of human experience is not to be done lightly. It is, need one say it, presumptuous to pit against that past one's own version of the modern mind. This suggests that the present generation is in agreement on things incompatible with belief in God. Or that all informed people now alive, etc. etc. Meaning, I suppose, that all present day skeptics are skeptics.

Is there thus a prima facie argument against atheism drawn from tradition, the common consent of mankind both in the past and in the present time? I think so. There is a way in which it is natural for human beings to believe in God. I think of St. Thomas who on several occasions observed that a person need only look around at the world and gain the idea of God. The order and arrangement and lawlike character of natural events impose the idea. Indeed, so easily does the idea come that it seems almost innate.[17]

Contrary to the mistaken notion of individuals who are inexperienced in logic/philosophy, there are plenty of cases where universal negatives can be proven.[18] However, atheists' universal negative claim that God does not exist is not a reasonable universal negative claim.[19] Given their limited understanding of the vast expanse of the universe/reality, atheists unconvincing pretend to have godlike powers when they claim to know God does not exist.[20] See also: Attempts to dilute the definition of atheism

See also

External links


  1. The Presumptiousness of Atheism by Paul Copan
  2. Rethinking the presumption of atheism by Professor Keith Burgess-Jackson at University of Texas at Arlington, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 84(1), 2017, DOI:10.1007/s11153-017-9637-y
  3. Newton, Isaac. A Short Scheme of the True Religion. Unpublished writing quoted in Brewster, David (1855). Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (Edinburgh, UK: Thomas Constable), vol. 2, p. 347. Retrieved from GoogleBooks archive on February 19, 2015.
  4. 'In-your-face' atheists are obnoxiously presumptuous by Alex Kepfer
  5. Theistic Critiques Of Atheism by William Lane Craig, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, pp. 69-85. Ed. M. Martin. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  6. Ten years on from that book of atheistic faith, the God Delusion by Mike Taggart
  7. THE BIBLE OR ATHEISM by J. Randolph Tucker, the Attorney General of Virginia
  8. Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Peter S. Williams
  9. Atheism by Matt Slick
  10. Why Is Atheism a Failure?, Kregel Publications
  11. Atheism and the Burden of Proof by Paul Copan
  12. Children see the world as designed
  13. Enslaved by free-thought: Not much thinking going on in it by Randy Hough
  14. Pushing the Antithesis on Greg Bahnsen
  15. BBC Documentary The Trouble With Atheism BBC Horizon Documentary
  16. The Repressive Denials of Atheism in Britain in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries by David Berman, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature Vol. 82C (1982), pp. 211-246. Published by: Royal Irish Academy
  17. Why the Burden of Proof is on the Atheist by Professor Ralph McInerny
  18. A universal negative: Can it be proven?
  19. Putting the Atheist on the Defensive by Kenneth R. Samples, Christian Research Institute Journal, Fall 1991, and Winter 1992, page 7.
  20. Putting the Atheist on the Defensive by Kenneth R. Samples, Christian Research Institute Journal, Fall 1991, and Winter 1992, page 7.