Revised Introductory Note
Since the first posting of this article in 2013 it has received 100’s of comments on my blog and has been reposted to numerous atheist forums and private blogs.
What I’ve noticed about the general nature of atheist responses to this article is an unfortunate misunderstanding concerning my purpose. Most seem to imagine that I had in mind a full scale Christian apologetic against atheism, or at least a presentation of insurmountable evidence for Christianity’s claims. This was not the vision.
For the sake of clarity, this article is meant to expose why the following atheist arguments (or, rather, assertions) fail to hit their target when debating with Christians. There are great arguments against Christianity, but this article is not about the great arguments, its about the most popular ones.
My rebuttals are aimed at exposing why these overplayed hands are ineffective and will continue to be ineffective, not with atheists, but with many (hopefully most) believers. If I were to present an exhaustive apologetic against atheism it would require many long articles, which I have no intention to write since it’s all been done before.
Plus I hate long articles.
1. There is no evidence for God’s existence.
There is at least one major problem with this line as it is typically presented.
One often hears, “there is no evidence for God, therefore Christians believe in fairy tales,” (or something to that effect) when what is actually meant is more like, “there is no physical proof of God’s being in the physical world, therefore Christians believe in fairy tales (since all ‘real’ things for the atheistic-materialist are assumed to be physical).”
The fact that Christians have never claimed to believe in a physical God – as merely one more physical being among all other physical beings in the universe – does not stop these sorts of atheists from thinking they have laid waste to 40 centuries of religious thought, experience, and refinement with the mere mention of this evidentiary boogieman. It rarely occurs to them that such physical proof would actually run 100% counter to Judeo-Christian theistic claims. Their argument against a physical God is actually applauded and defended by Christians. The Bible proudly declares many times over that God is spirit.
Simply put: Christianity believes in a immaterial God, thus to demand material proof of His existence is nonsensical.
This fact is not, of course, proof that the Christian claim is true, but merely proof that with such attacks the atheist has not even begun to swing in the direction of Christianity.
Many atheists will protest saying rather that God’s ‘activity’ should be detectable in the physical world, not His actual being. Fair enough, but when presented with evidences of God’s activity in the world these same atheists roundly reject them, regardless of the scientific or philosophic soundness of the evidence. There simply seems to be no evidence of God’s activity in the world that passes the jury of popular atheist opinion. Many seem to think that admitting a single evidence into their court would equal a total breakdown in their case against Christianity. I remind the reader to please keep in mind: “evidence” does not equal “proof”. One is not intellectually forced to accept Christianity based on good evidence.
For one of many excellent presentations of arguments for God, try the book Evidence for God, which gives 50 separate evidences in science, philosophy, and theology each by top-notch scholars in the respective fields.
However, if by “no evidence” an atheist has in mind something more like, “There is no logical evidence of God’s existence…” then the straw man suddenly becomes a brick wall. The logical arguments for God are vast and time tested against some of the greatest minds of all time working tirelessly against them. They are well-known arguments and can be easily found online or in print. But what is discouraging when engaging with atheists in debate, particularly online, is the constant charge that the faith is illogical, irrational, or the stuff of ancient fairy tales believed only by the ignorant and the mentally ill. It’s one thing to willfully deny the evidence for God after giving it an honest hearing, its another thing to remain willfully ignorant of an opposing view while claiming the opposing view is ignorant. I have found that such behavior is typically a sign of a person woefully insecure about his or her position, using an abundance of insults as cover for a bankruptcy of insight.
2. If God created the universe, who created God?
This is one of the more peculiar arguments I’ve ever come across. It is an argument usually levied once a theist posits that God is required for the existence of the universe (an absolute being upon which all other things exist by way of contingency). Some atheists then shift the weight over to the theist saying, “Well then who created God?” This very familiar argument demonstrates a failure to understand what almost any form of classical theism understands by the name “God”. Speaking for Christianity, God is the One who is – i.e., the only One who is the source of His own being. He is worshiped as the uncreated One who always was and always will be. God is not seen by the Christian as one more being in the total aggregate of all beings in the universe. Rather He is the source and ground of all being, of all existence (follow this link for more).
One way to say it, though it might sound odd at first, is that Christians do not believe that God ever came into existence (Kierkegaard). Think of it in the old ‘Cosmological Argument’ sense. Whatever begins to exist must have a cause. The universe began to exist, therefore it had a cause. But God never began to exist; He always was, i.e., eternal.
The atheist will typically respond with, “who cares what you assert about God, it still does not answer the question.” And this is a great example of the moment when atheists and Christians begin to talk past one another. For the Christian the question is purely nonsensical, for the atheist it’s pure logical fallacy.
On that note, for those who would cry “Special Pleading” at this claim must defend the alternative, which, strictly speaking, is illogical in a universe made entirely of contingent realities. Without the logical assignment of an absolute upon which all things are contingent, one is left with something like absolute contingency or unconditional conditionality of the physical universe (this assuming one believes in the eternality of nature; if not, if one believes the universe had a beginning, then he must defend an even more fantastic illogical leap, that of “just-thereness” of the universe, which differs very little from pure magic). But the belief that God alone is eternal in His being is not special pleading to begin with for the simple fact that the subject matter is something truly unique, justifiably “special”. If one cannot claim that at least one thing is Absolute, or “Necessary” in a universe of conditionality, then reality as we know it is irrational (for a great book on this see David Bentley Hart’s, The Experience of God).
Better to be wrongly accused of a logical fallacy then rightly accused of a logical absurdity.
3. God is not all-powerful if there is something He cannot do. God cannot lie, therefore God is not all-powerful.
This argument would be fantastic—devastating maybe—if God was more of the ancient Greek god persuasion, where the gods themselves were subject to fate and limited to their specific roles in the cosmos. The Orthodox doctrine of God is much different. Christians (at least Orthodox Christians) view God’s ontology as subject to His perfect free-will. Why is He good? Because He wills to be good. Why does He not lie? Because He wills to be honest. Why does God exist as Trinity? Because He wills it. He could just as easily will to not exist. And yes, He could just as easily will to lie. The fact that He doesn’t is no commentary on whether He could.
(Note: Due to the immense amount of discussion that this point has raised, one clarifying statement is worth noting. An argument based on strict logical word games can render the idea ‘all-powerful,’ or ‘omnipotent’ self-defeating. When one considers the juvenile question, “Can God create a rock so big that He can’t lift it?” this point becomes clear. But there is a serious error at work here if one interprets the Christian belief in an “almighty God” with this understanding of omnipotent. Christianity’s claim that God is almighty simply means that all power and authority are God’s. If the nuance escaped you, please read the last sentence again. It’s very important. Christians do not mean by all-powerful that God can do the logically absurd, such as make a two sided triangle, count how many miles are in purple, or defeat the flying spaghetti monster in a paper-rock-scissor death match. But, for giggles let’s answer the question: can God create a rock so big that He can’t lift it? No. There you have it. If you’re in jr. high school you may now slap yourself a high-five for defeating the “all-powerful god” that Christianity never claimed to believe in.)
4. Believing in God is the same as believing in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
What I love about this well-worn atheist ‘argument’ is that it actually serves to demonstrate how vastly different a belief in God is to these myths and imaginations. When one honestly assesses the Judeo-Christian doctrine of God he will find multiple thousands of years of human testimony and religious development; he will find martyrs enduring the most horrific trauma in defense of the faith; he will find accounts in religious texts with historical and geographical corroboration; etc (these fact are of course not ‘proofs,’ but rather ‘evidences’ that elicit strong consideration). Pit this against tales of the Tooth Fairy, Santa, and Spaghetti Monsters and one finds the exact opposite: no testimony or religious refinement, no martyrs, no historical and geographical corroboration, etc. Instead, one finds myths created intentionally for children, for point making, or for whatever. It’s strawman argumentation at its worst.
Again, just to be clear, testimony, martyrs, geography, etc., are not “proof” that God exists, but rather proof that comparing faith in God to faith in fairies and Santa is totally different.
5. Christianity arose from an ancient and ignorant people who didn’t have science.
Indeed, those ancient, ignorant people who believed in the virgin birth of Christ must have believed it because they did not possess the knowledge of how babies were born. Goodness. The virgin birth of Christ was profound and of paramount concern to the ancients precisely because they understood that conception was impossible without intercourse. Ancient man considered the virgin birth miraculous, i.e., impossible without divine action (and at the time most people scorned the idea), and the same could be said with every miraculous story in Scripture.
Indeed ancient people did not have the Hubble telescope, but they were able to see the night sky in full array, something almost no modern person can claim (thanks to modern lighting which distorts our ability to see the full night sky). On average, ancient people lived much closer to nature and to the realities of life and death than many of us moderners.
In terms of a living relationship with these things the ancients were far more advanced than we are today, and this relationship is essentially the nature of religious inquiry. If people lack religious speculation today, maybe it is because they spend more time with their iphones and Macs then with nature. Maybe.
But the claim that Christianity was viable in the ancient world because it was endorsed by wide spread ignorance is a profoundly ignorant idea. Christianity arose in one of the most highly advanced civilizations in human history. The Roman Empire was not known for its stupidity. It was the epicenter of innovation and philosophical giants. I would wager that if a common person of today found himself in a philosophical debate with a common person of first century Alexandria, the moderner would be utterly humiliated in the exchange.
6. Christian’s only believe in Christianity because they were born in a Christian culture. If they’d been born in India they would have been Hindu instead.
This argument is appealing because it pretends to wholly dismiss people’s reasoning capabilities based on their environmental influences in childhood. The idea is that people in general are so intellectually near-sighted that they can’t see past their own upbringing, which, it would follow, would be an equally condemning commentary on atheism (if one was consistent with the charge), but the idea is fairly easy to counter.
Take the history of the Jewish people for example. Let us say that to ‘be’ Jewish, in the religious sense, is much more than a matter of cultural adherence. To be a Jewish believer is to have Judaism permeate one’s thinking and believing and interaction with the world. But is this the state of affairs with the majority of the Jewish people, whether in America, Europe, Israel, or wherever? One would have to be seriously out of touch to believe so. The same phenomenon is found within so-called Christian communities, that is: many sport a Christian title, but are wholly derelict in personal faith. “Believing” in Christianity is a far more serious endeavor then merely wearing a church name tag. Indeed, being born in a Jewish or Christian centric home today is more often a precursor that the child will grow up to abandon the faith of his or her family, or at least be associated with the faith by affiliation only.
7. The gospel doesn’t make sense: God was mad at mankind because of sin so he decided to torture and kill his own Son so that he could appease his own pathological anger. God is the weirdo, not me.
This is actually a really good argument against certain Protestant sects (I’ve used it myself on numerous occasions), but it has no traction with the Orthodox Christian faith. The Orthodox have no concept of a God who needed appeasement in order to love His creation. The Father sacrificed His own Son in order to destroy death with His life; not to assuage His wrath, but to heal; not to protect mankind from His fury, but to unite mankind to His love. If the reader is interested to hear more on this topic follow this link for a fuller discussion.
8. History is full of mother-child messiah cults, trinity godheads, and the like. Thus the Christian story is a myth like the rest.
This argument seems insurmountable on the surface, but is really a slow-pitch across the plate. There is no arguing the fact that history is full of similar stories found in the Bible, and I won’t take the time to recount them here. But this fact should not be surprising in the least, indeed if history had no similar stories it would be reason for concern. Anything beautiful always has replicas. A counterfeit coin does not prove the non-existence of the authentic coin, it proves the exact opposite. A thousand U2 cover bands is not evidence that U2 is a myth.
Ah, but that doesn’t address the fact that some of these stories were told before the Biblical accounts. True. But imagine if the only story of a messianic virgin birth, death, and resurrection were contained in the New Testament. That, to me, would be odd. It would be odd because if all people everywhere had God as their Creator, yet the central event of human history—the game changing event of all the ages—the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ had never occurred to them, in at least some hazy form, they would have been completely cut off from the prime mysteries of human existence. It seems only natural that if the advent of Christ was real it would permeate through the consciousness (or, if you prefer, ‘unconsciousness’) of mankind on some level regardless of their place in history. One should expect to find mankind replicating these stories, found in their own visions and dreams, again and again throughout history. And indeed, that is what we find.
9. The God of the Bible is evil. A God who allows so much suffering and death can be nothing but evil.
This criticism is voice in many different ways. For me, this is one of the most legitimate arguments against the existence of a good God. The fact that there is suffering and death is the strongest argument against the belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God. If suffering and death exist it seems to suggest one of two things: (1) either God is love, but He is not all-powerful and cannot stop suffering and death, or (2) God is all-powerful, but He does not care for us.
I devoted a separate article addressing this problem, but let me deal here with the problem inherent in the criticism itself. The argument takes as its presupposition that good and evil are real; that there is an ultimate standard of good and evil that supersedes mere fanciful ‘ideas’ about what is good and evil at a given time in our ethical evolution, as it were. If there is not a real existence—an ontological reality—of good and evil, then the charge that God is evil because of this or that is really to say nothing more than, “I personally don’t like what I see in the world and therefore a good God cannot exist.” I like what C.S. Lewis said on a similar matter: “There is no sense in talking of ‘becoming better’ if better means simply ‘what we are becoming’—it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as ‘the place you have reached.’”
What is tricky for the atheist in these sorts of debates is to steer clear of words loaded with religious overtones. It’s weird for someone who does not believe in ultimate good and evil to condemn God as evil because He did not achieve their personal vision of good. So, the initial criticism is sound, but it is subversive to the atheist’s staging ground. If one is going to accept good and evil as realities, he is not in a position to fully reject God. Instead, he is more in a position to wrestle with the idea that God is good. This struggle is applauded in the Orthodox Church. After all, the very word God used for his people in the Old Testament—“Israel”—means to struggle with God.
10. Evolution has answered the question of where we came from. There is no need for ignorant ancient myths anymore.
This might be the most popular attempted smack-downs of religion in general today. It is found in many variations but the concept is fairly consistent and goes something like this: Science has brought us to a point where we no longer need mythology to understand the world, and any questions which remain will eventually be answered through future scientific breakthroughs. The main battle-ground where this criticism is seen today is in evolution vs. creationism debates.
Let me say upfront that there is perhaps no other subject that bores me more than evolution vs. creationism debates. I would rather watch paint dry. And when I’m not falling asleep through such debates I’m frustrated because usually both sides of the debate use large amounts of dishonesty in order to gain points rather than to gain the truth. The evolutionist has no commentary whatsoever on the existence of God, and the creationist usually suffers from profound confusion in their understanding of the first few chapters of Genesis.
So, without entering into the most pathetic debate of the ages, bereft of all intellectual profundity, I’ll only comment on the underlining idea that science has put Christianity out of the answer business. Science is fantastic if you want to know what gauge wire is compatible with a 20 amp electric charge, how agriculture works, what causes disease and how to cure it, and a million other things. But where the physical sciences are completely lacking is in those issues most important to human beings—the truly existential issues: what does it mean to be human, why are we here, what is valuable, what does it mean to love, to hate, what am I to do with guilt, grief, sorrow, what does it mean to succeed, is there any meaning and what does ‘meaning’ mean, and, of course, is there a God? etc, ad infinitum.
As far as where we come from, evolution has barely scratched the purely scientific surface of the matter. Even if the whole project of evolution as an account of our history was without serious objection, it would still not answer the problem of the origin of life, since the option of natural selection as an explanation is not available when considering how dead or inorganic matter becomes organic. Even more complicated is the matter of where matter came from. The ‘Big Bang’ is not an answer to origins but rather a description of the event by which everything came into being; i.e., it’s the description of a smoking gun, not the shooter.
That’s it… my top 10 list. Thanks for reading. Cheers.