Sunday, February 05, 2006

Are there any atheists?

Some Response to Triablogue:

I want to first focus on the issue of whether, based on the Bad Faith Theory of atheism, we can reasonably say that there are no atheists. In other words, let me concede for the sake of argument, that all atheism stems from a suppression of the truth, by that meaning that if the atheist formed beliefs in the way that he ought rationally to form beliefs, he would be a believer and not an atheist.

In other words we ought to distinguish the question of whether or not someone is an atheist from the question of whether that person has become an atheist in an intellectually honest way. It may be a nice rhetorical flourish for presuppositionalist to say that there are not atheists, but it is linguistically inaccurate and highly misleading. Vantillianism is better off without it.

After all the Bible does not directly say that there are no atheists. But maybe I should type the phrase into a Bible program to see if maybe I missed a verse somewhere. Maybe it's hidden away somewhere in the Book of Hezekiah. On the assumption that Ps 14:1 is talking about atheists, it seems pretty clear that the Bible teaches that there are fools who say in their hearts that there is no God.

Nevertheless, if that is the case, you still have to say that these self-deceived people are atheists, by any reasonable analysis of "S believes that P." You can't say that a person doesn't really believe something if he professes and acts on the belief.

I am a little bit concerned by Gene's implied claim that there cannot be evidence against a claim clearly taught by Scripture. By his account, nothing could count as evidence against any biblical claim, because all experience must be interpreted by Scripture and not vice versa. At this point you are running afoul of what I think is right in Flew's falsification challenge. An atheist can just as easily say that his experience must be judged in light of atheism, in which case nothing we can say can possibly count as evidence against it. This is why Vantillianism is often perceived as a form of fideism.

There are serious and difficult objections to Christianity. There are Scripture passages that are hard to reconcile with one another, we lack overwhelmingly strong arguments for theism (including the ones that I've defended in print), why God permits evil is difficult to understand, etc. There are also sinful motivations for not wanting to be a Christian, and there is plenty of evidence that these are at work (Oedipal hatred, desire for sexual freedom, an unwillingness to submit to a supreme being, etc) in many cases, surely, but I know other atheists with stable marriages and good father-relationships.

There is a further problem with this "hermeneutic of suspicion" directed toward the unbeliever. According to logic, once an argument is on the table, it is the subject of discussion, not the reason why someone might be putting the argument forward. Once you say "I don't believe in God for such and such a reason," it commits the ad hominem fallacy to say "You're only saying that because you don't want to submit to a supreme being."

A response to Manata that I had on the comments line on this blog:

We need to decide the question "What does Loftus believe about God" in the same way that we decide the question "What does Reppert believe about the Suns' chances in the NBA playoffs?" We can't be using cooked criteria to make our interpretation of Scripture come out true. We have to do honest philosophy of language. If the evidence suggests there are people who do not believe in God, and we are interpreting Scripture to say that everyone believes in God, then either there's something wrong with our Bible interpretation or we have evidence against the inerrancy of Scripture. If the latter we are left with a choice of exercising "faith" in Scripture in the teeth of strong evidence to the contrary, or not. But if it comes down to that, we no longer would have a defensible apologetic position.

Suppose the following were true: everyone would come to know God if they would set aside their attitude of "I will not serve" and open their minds to the possibility of a Lord over their life. If that were true, then we would still have to say that apparent atheists are atheists. If we introspect and report certain beliefs when asked, and if our conduct is consistent (for the most part) with those beliefs, then the person in question has those beliefs.

To say that someone is not an atheist on the grounds that, according to the Bible, deep down inside there is an awareness of God which is clearly being completely rejected by the people who have that awareness, seems, well, silly. By our normal means of deciding what a person believes, that person believes that God does not exist.


Jason Pratt said...

[Note: this is actually a reply to Paul Manata from the previous comment thread on this topic. Seeing as the post of Victor's which it's attached to, is much further down the page, I'm following Victor lead in posting a reply up here instead. I've left a different reply in the thread prior to that one, too; I suggest replies to it, if any, be tacked in here, since it'll be off the bottom even sooner. I'll have to defer my own comments, and exegesis, of relevant portions of Romans 1 and 2, until tomorrow at the earliest.]


"Let us stop and analyze the situation," as Bahnsen says. (Would that be analysis with or without "philosophical constructs" such as, for instance, the law of noncon, as I was applying? Looks to me as though he's attempting a use of similarly basic constructs here--but maybe they only count as fair and proper for use when defending a particular position, and not otherwise...)

I suppose my first question, after reading your use of Bahnsen here, is why you didn't make this use of Bahnsen earlier in the other thread, when replying to Blue Devil Knight.

In that reply, you treated BDK as though BDK's own _judgment_ (not merely his own external profession) of what BDK did and did not believe, was so radically incompetent as to be useless. ("I'm not asking you to 'look deep inside.' Indeed, I would say that you *cannot* discern your true nature. Your heart is wicked and deceitful, only the power of the Spirit can give you 'new eyes.'" [Paul's asterik emphasis])

Very well. Supposedly, this has happened by BDK's own choice in insisting on atheism rather than theism. (Otherwise why are we talking about self-deception at all?) In effect, this can only mean that BDK has reached a state equal to the following description (substituting BDK for Jones): "BDK, aware that p is false, intends to make himself believe that p is true, and succeeds in making himself believe that p is true."

It may be 'puzzling', but (on this accounting) it has apparently happened. (Indeed, I really have no problem believing that it can and does happen. Though I will also note in passing that the puzzlement comes from Bahnsen somehow requiring that Jones still somehow believe p to be false after having convinced himself that p is true. The easiest way to remove the apparent incoherence is simply to note that at the success of Jones' endeavor, and afterward, Jones _doesn't_ any longer believe what he used to believe about p. But then, that wouldn't serve the purpose of defending the position that Jones still knows and believes p after all. Where, then, is the incoherence coming from...?)

After BDK has succeeded in making himself believe that atheism is true, though, what is the use in saying that BDK _isn't_ really an atheist? It would be like saying that Lucifer has made himself a rebel, and can now only be a rebel, and can never (apart from God's grace) be anything other than a rebel--but, really, there are no rebels. Not really. This is proven by Lucifer having been once loyal instead of a rebel; thus he isn't really a rebel now. Or doesn't exist as a rebel now. Or... etc.

This principle, applied to the claim "there are no atheists", is what I (and Victor, I think) have been primarily pinging against, as being "silly".

What is more interesting, though, is that your lead-in quotes to Bahnsen's article, seem to be prepping for a judgment _against_ this situation obtaining. This result, of 'Jones' succeeding in his intention of making himself believe that p is false (and succeeding so absolutely that he no longer can possibly discern that p is true), would appear to be a result of doing the 'natural thing': 'to model self-deception on the well-known activity of other-deception.'

Bahnsen, following _that_ model, arrives at this result; a result which matches how you treated BDK in practice.

So--in practice you accept and apply this model, or at least the results. Does Bahnsen go on to defend the result? Then he is _not_ defending the contention that BDK still knows and believes theism.

Does Bahnsen go on to defend the apparent incoherence (that Jones does and does not simultaneously believe p to be true?) Then he refutes your treatment of BDK; you should have answered him that _of course_ BDK really believes theism to be true... but then, either BDK is lying to us about the result of looking within himself, or else he just isn't looking hard enough to see that he really does still believe God exists.

Yet you insisted you weren't advocating he do that; and indeed told him he couldn't possibly succeed in doing that anymore. God would have to do it for him.

Furthermore, if Bahnsen is going to defend the result (either including or removing the apparent incoherence), then it turns out that doing the 'natural thing' of 'modeling self-deception on other-deception', does in fact lead to a proper result (one way or another). Yet earlier, you were insisting that this was the wrong approach; that self-deception is to be distinguished from 'mere lying'.

At the risk of sounding grossly obvious: the grossly obvious distinction between self-deception and other-deception, is that in one case the person is lying to himself, and in the other case the person is lying to someone else. 400 page treatises by Puritan divines to the contrary (apparently) notwithstanding. (Perhaps next we'll see an attempt at distinguishing between deception as lying and some other kind of deception. I might be prepared to accept an attempt at this, but only if there is a _moral_ distinction of intention in the deception; and I don't believe the proposition of a good self-deception by an atheist to atheism will serve your theological purpose. I would be interested to see the attempt in a way, however, just for the chutzpah of trying it... {g})

Again, if I may continue to appeal to sophisticated non-scriptural philosophical constructs: the obvious connection between lying to one's self (on topic A) and lying to someone else (on topic A), is the lying on topic A. Since I haven't produced this result through scriptural exegesis, though (using logic or otherwise), I suppose you will consider this conclusion something to be rejected, if it's problematic for acceptance.

If lying is lying, though (assuming an immoral intention in the lie either way), then so much for your insistences to Victor that _he's_ the one bringing in the bad vibes by morally equating the lie (and also the result) of a self-deception with an other-deception. Really, your position would be simpler and more coherent, from top to bottom, if you just contended that all atheists are liers about being atheists. (It isn't like you'd have to _prove_ it, after all; theistic presuppositionalism is steeped in overt circular argumentation methodology, which handily obviates such requirements as a valid argument to conclusion.)

All of which leads to the question: why defend yourself against Victor's contention that you're basically saying all atheists are lying about being atheists (or at least about being honest atheists)?

You could, of course, adjust to more coherency by saying that all atheists did at one time intentionally deceive themselves into being atheists; this would only require giving up the contention that there _are no_ atheists. Which you seem insistent on hanging onto.

Myself, I think I know the answer to this; but I'd rather wait and see what develops.


Anonymous said...

Paul, here's something else: Some guy claims he's gay. Well, is he or isn't he? Maybe you know something he doesn't know, based upon the Bible. But he doesn't believe the Bible. And he's not attracted to women. Yet your Bible says that's not the way he was created. But here he is. Are there gay people who like sex with their own gender, or not? So what if the Bible says they've suppressed the "truth."

To rephrase and to quote Vic, "if it talks like it's gay, walks like it's gay, acts like it's gay, it's gay."

It's silly to say otherwise.

Lippard said...


Self-deception on the model defended by Bahnsen and Manata may require some kind of divisible self; I think that's not only plausible but empirically well-supported (e.g., split-brain experiments and the results of various kinds of brain damage; some defenses include Michael Gazzaniga's _The Social Brain_ and Marvin Minsky's _Society of Mind_).

I think there are real cases of self-deception (see my post cited below for a very strong example), but it's probably not wise (and it's certainly not charitable) to attribute it without empirical evidence of it. I suggest an empirical test of the Bahnsen/Manata view here: