Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Are there any atheists? Are Carr, Loftus and Lippard just lying to us? Or themselves?

Hello Dr. Reppert,

I ntoiced that you had said that the claim by presuppositionalists that "there are no atheists" was "silly."

I was wondering why you thought so? Certainly, though I could use more modern terms, the doctrine of the innate knowledge or, natural knowledge of God that all men posses is a robust view with a long and distinguished pedigree. Are you calling calvin, Hodge, Murray, Van Til, Bahnsen, et al. all "silly?"

I wrote a critique of the paper you site, as well.

It's silly to me not because I am prepared to deny the claim that there is some innate knowledge of God. It is silly because I think you have to assess what someone really believes based on what they say and how they act. It could be that they have an awareness of God that they are suppressing. But when I look beyond Scripture to what I can give any real evidence for, I find that I don't have any argument that proves the existence of God with such certainty that anyone who rejects it has to be fooling himself or herself in some way. And that includes all the versions of the argument from reason that I defend in my book, and every other argument that Lewis, Craig, Plantinga, Swinburne, and the rest defend. So if someone says that God does not exist, and they sleep in on Sunday and save ten percent, I figure they're atheists. But if any atheists want to tell me that they aren't really atheists, but have been fooling themselves all this time, I'll take their word for it.


Error said...

Hello Dr. Reppert,

It is not my position that Carr et al are lying to us, nor is that the claim of the "no atheist" (NA) thesis. It appears that you didn't read what I wrote, oh well.

First, if you do not deny the tradition of innate knowledge then how can you say someone knows something that they do not believe?

Second, I do believe that they really believe that they are atheists. I may "really believe" that I am a centaur. In fact, I may belong to a community of people that really believe that we are centaurs. Does it follow that there *are* centaurs?

Now, if you say that all an atheist is is someone who "believes" that God does not exist, fine. But that is not inconsistent with the NA position.

I don't understand what you mean by "looking beyond Scripture" to what you can give "real" evidence for. Do you assume that Scripture is not real evidence? maybe "fake" evidence? I didn't understand the claim. I mean, if Scripture said X, but you found no (real) evidence of X in the world around you, would you deny X?

Also, whether there is an *argument* for the existence of God such that to doubt it means you're fooling yourself is beside the point. I think there is, but that doesn't matter. The claim of NA is not that people know God based on arguments. Maybe some people do, but that is not the NA (or even the innate knowledge) thesis.

So, if all men do know that God exists then there are no atheists.

All men do know that God exists.

Therefore there are no atheists.

Basically, you may disagree or find what I (and Van Til, Bahnsen, et al) say to be unpersuasive, but I think it is far from "silly." "Silly" should be a term reserved for philosophies like "Objectivism". ;-)


Victor Reppert said...

Knowledge is justified true belief. I'm not sure I disagree with what the position so much as with saying it with the expression "there are no atheists."

Scripture is not evidence that an atheist is prepared to accept. It may in fact be true that the atheist has an innate awareness of God, but I don't know of any way to show that with an argument strong enough to show that he ought to believe it.

What is your definition of belief? Maybe that's where we should start. It seems to me that to get this result you need an unusual conception of belief, one that I don't think is the appropriate outcome of an "ordinary language" analysis of the word.

Error said...

Hi Dr. Reppert,

Steve Hays has offered a response:

Also, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed your book, "C.S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea;" read it twice so far.

Now, to your comments:

I want to reitierate that my main contention was to address your claim that the NA thesis is "silly." I really do not mind if you agree with me or not, but I would at least like you to see that our view is not "silly."

You said: Knowledge is justified true belief. I'm not sure I disagree with what the position so much as with saying it with the expression "there are no atheists."

Me now: Well, we don't need to get into Gettier so I'll go with the traditional tripartite understanding on knowledge.

Anyway, I didn't understand the above. You said that you didn't really disagree with "the position" but with the "saying" that "there are no atheists." But, that is the position. The position is, "there are no such things as atheists.

Now, if you agree that men cannot know something that they don't believe, and if you do not want to deny (using Steve's more appropriate term) that all men have a "natural knowledge", then how can you say that there are any atheists in the sense they do not, at any level, believe that God exists? On what definition can a person who believes that God exists be called an 'atheist' in the traditional understanding.

How do we resolve this. Well, by self-deception (the subject of Greg Bahnsen's doctrinal dissertaition). Note then, that this is self-deception, not lying. Some are bound to ask, "how is it then that there are people who not only profess atheism but seem to whole-heartedly believe there is no God?" The answer is that the professed atheist is engaged in self-deception.

We should note is that self-deception is not an unfamiliar notion. Dr. Bahnsen writes:

"Popular, cynical platitudes about man's proclivity to self-deception have been published continually by men from Demosthenes to Benjamin Franklin, who once quipped, "who has deceived thee so often as thyself?" The Puritan preacher, Daniel Dyke, wrote a four-hundred page treatise published in 1617, entitled The Mystery of Selfe-Deceiving. A century later, the Anglican apologist, Bishop Butler, included his famous sermon "Upon Self-Deceit" in a published collection of his sermons. In it he correctly recognized, "A man may be entirely possessed of this unfairness of mind, without having the least speculative notion what the thing is." It has been common to make mention of self-deception, even though it may be uncommonly difficult to explain philosophically just what it is."

So when the Christian proclaims that the professed atheist is self-deceived he is not claiming something that is unfamiliar; self-deception does happen. We can see instances of self-deception in the AIDS victim who continues to have unprotected sex, when we refuse to believe the death of a loved one, or when a family member is tried and convicted of a horrible crime and we still support their innocence in the face of overwhelming evidence of their guilt.

Some might say that self-deception may be a familiar notion, but it seems contradictory. That is, we seem to be saying that man believes and does not believe the same proposition. To this we can reply that God has revealed to us that man suppresses their knowledge of Him, and since God cannot lie, it follows that we are not saying something contradictory 9even if we don't understand it). People who think there is a contradiction may have the wrong analysis in mind, and so showing the correct analysis should be helpful. The NA position is not saying that X believes P, and also, X believes ~P. Rather the correct analysis is X believes P and X also believes that X does not believe P. Self-deception is a second level belief.

So how does the believer deceive himself? He does this by a self-covering intention. Once a self-covering intention is accomplished it covers itself and goes away, similar to the process we go through while falling asleep.

You said: Scripture is not evidence that an atheist is prepared to accept.

Me now: I fail to see how this is relevent? Remember, you claimed that the NA theisis was "silly" and, I assume, that you accept Scripture as evidence (of the highest kind!?) and so I want to know how you call the NA theisis, "silly." So, it appears that the discussion is now shifting gears and so i just wanted to bring it back into context.

You said: It may in fact be true that the atheist has an innate awareness of God, but I don't know of any way to show that with an argument strong enough to show that he ought to believe it.

Me now: See, we have shifted gears. If you believe that all men have a knowledge of God then why would you call the claim silly?

Btw, I gave an argument for this [showing that the unbeliever ought to believe it] in the blog entry I wrote.

You wrote: What is your definition of belief? Maybe that's where we should start. It seems to me that to get this result you need an unusual conception of belief, one that I don't think is the appropriate outcome of an "ordinary language" analysis of the word.

My reply: belief: A positive cognitive attitude toward a proposition, an action-guiding mental state on which a person relies (whether intermittently or continuously) in his theoretical inferences or practical actions and plans.

best regards,


Edwardtbabinski said...


One day a man was asked if there were any true atheists. Do you think, he replied, that there are any true Christians?

I believe in God, although I live very happily with atheists...It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but not at all so to believe or not in God.

Denis Diderot (1713-1784), cited in Against the Faith by Jim Herrick

I give blood. I volunteer my organs. I donate to charities. I return my shopping cart. I never needed religion to puppeteer me through life and tell me how to feel about gays, abortion, and capital punishment or how to raise my kid. When people ask me what I am, I say Earthling.

William P.O’Neil, “Playing the God Card,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 10, 2000

I have often remarked that the Christian in his treatment of the freethinker passes through three distinct stages. In the first instance he depicts the heretic as someone almost incredibly vile. There is a good reason for this, since in order to justify his suppression, he must be loaded with moral opprobrium and the social censure used to enforce the religious condemnation. So to the orthodox imagination unbelief becomes a mere cloak to cover incredible scoundrelism. A catalogue of vices is drawn up of which the Freethinker ought to be guilty, and the heretic of religious fiction is made to live up to the program. The next stage is when the freethinker is better known, and the Christian assumes a pitying attitude. The heretic may be a decent sort of a fellow, although he is terribly mistaken in his view, but--and the “but” is altogether fatal. Then, as freethinkers become better known, he is promoted to almost the level of the Christian himself. Sometimes we are told that he may be as good as a Christian, a degree of excellence which to a visitor from another planet would hardly appear to mark an incredible degree of moral development.

Professor Drummond used to address his class, “I knew a student, an avowed atheist. He roomed with a man who contracted typhus. What do you think the atheist did? He neglected his classes to nurse his chum, who after a severe struggle, recovered. What of the nurse? He contracted the disease and died. The atheist died and went to heaven and received the ‘well done, thou good and faithful servant.’” Drummond thought it worthwhile to point out that an atheist did what hundreds, probably thousands of people are doing every week in some form or another. Of course, in the majority of cases it is not advertised. Men and women help each other, nurse each other, take risks for each other, and sometimes pay the cost of the risks they run. It is only advertised when it happens to be done in the name of Christ, while the larger number of cases are known only to an immediate circle of friends. Clearly, if Christians had lied less about their opponents, if they had slandered them less, if they had been brought up with a healthier appreciation of the qualities and capabilities of normal human nature, Professor Drummond would not have needed to inform his class that an atheist might be a decent human being.

The author from whom I have taken the Drummond anecdote tells the story as illustrating the latter’s liberality of mind. It is quite clear that had his hearers really understood the nature of morality, had they been taught that morality springs from, and has sole regard to the social relationships, there would have been no point in the story and no need for its telling. The atheist does not need an anecdote to inform him that a Christian may act in a human manner. He knows that human nature, like murder, will out, and the moral promptings which are expressions of so many thousands of generations of associated life cannot be prevented expressing themselves by the most anti-social religious teachings.

Chapman Cohen, Essays in Freethinking

I am not of the opinion that we should make use of the concept of God in striving for a better world. This, it seems to me, is incompatible with the integrity of a modern cultured person.

Albert Einstein

There is a wonderful Hasidic story about a rabbi who was asked whether it is ever proper to act as if God did not exist. He responded, “Yes, when you are asked to give to charity, you should give as if there were no God to help the object of the charity.”

Alan Dershowitz, Letters to a Young Lawyer

Error said...

Hello Edward,

I think you're the Edward Babinski who started "," right?

Anyway, I fail to see how anything you said either (1) refuted my claim, (2) refuted anything Dr. Reppert has claimed, and (3) shown that there are not any "true Christians."

So, maybe you could point that out for us. Michael Martin and John W. Loftus both tried to reverse the NA thesis and I think I adequately answerd both of them.

best regards,


P.S. If you remember me, I posted under the moniker "ex-monkey" over at your website.

P.P.S. I also debated Derek Sansone and you had commented on the debate.

Jason Pratt said...

(hm... and yet, when _I_, or Victor, willingly and seriously say the sort of things that were quoted from Professor Drummond via Cohen, Ed never seems to pay attention to that... oh, well. Par for the course there.)


I suspect part of Victor's problem with the position (as it is commonly applied), is that it involves what amounts to self-referential absurdity.

There _are_ people, after all, who profess there is no God. A person who professes this, _is_ (by profession) an atheist; whether the person is honestly mistaken, or dishonestly ignoring what would otherwise be clear to him.

But that isn't the real issue at stake. The real issue is one of culpability and judgment. It is worth noting that the whole position, as you've represented it, involves a claim of _only_ self-deception (i.e. _only_ of sin), and an effective denial of _any_ mere mistake, in any given person's profession of atheism.

The central claim, in other words, is not that there are no atheists; but that there are no _honestly mistaken_ atheists.

This would, admittedly, simplify the question of culpability, if true; and/or bring the topic in line with a prior notion of culpability perhaps.

But this is an entirely different kind of question, and claim, from "no atheists".

So, I agree with Victor (probably in line with what he meant when he said it): the claim, from this branch of theology, that there are no atheists _is_ "silly". It's silly, because the whole topic is really about the judgment of a person who denies the existence of God--and if _that_ person is not an 'atheist', then I suppose I would be willing to agree that no one is. {g} If people exist who deny the existence of God, then those people do exist. They do not not-exist. It would be silly to claim they exist (for purposes of judgment, for instance) and also that they don't exist.

It would be similarly silly to say that a position does _not_ involve claiming that x-group of persons are lying to the rest of us about what they believe, while also saying the position does involve claiming these people are necessarily lying to themselves about what they believe. If they're lying to themselves about what they believe, and claiming X to themselves in the process, and then claiming X to us subsequently--well, then they're just as intentionally lying to us, aren't they?

Or, again, I'm entirely willing to agree that it would be silly to claim that a position does not involve denying that a person of x-group really believes X claim, while also claiming as part of the same position that no person of x-group really believes X claim.

Granted, such attempts may not be 'silly', in the sense that the person who tries this tactic may be quite serious in trying to say it; but considering the immediate self-refutation involved in how the person is practicing the claim, I agree with Victor there's no good reason to take the claim seriously. Putting it another way, I believe it _would_ be silly _for me_ to agree that all people denying the existence of God are deceiving themselves in their denials of God, _and_ that there really are no people denying the existence of God.

What I'm willing to agree isn't silly (though I believe it's mistaken, where not morally pernicious itself), is to claim that _all_ people denying the existence of God are intentionally deceiving themselves, sinning against the light they _can_ see (so to speak), without any of them at all being merely mistaken (about the character of what they're perceiving, for instance).

This kind of claim would be similar to a psychologist saying that it is necessarily true that all people affirming the existence of God are intentionally deceiving themselves (for any of various reasons) from acknowledging the truth about God's non-existence. That claim may be affrontive (and I've run across a few claimants of that sort in my time, myself), but I would be willing to agree it isn't "silly".

What I _would_ be willing to acknowledge as being "silly", would be a further claim from the same psychologist that there are really no people affirming the existence of God (i.e. 'no theists').

I wouldn't only regard this as silly; I would be curious why he would make such a self-refuting move at all, in connection with his other claim. It would give me grounds to suspect, even if I couldn't immediately put a finger on it, that this psychologist _knows_ there is something inherently wrong with his claim, something so wrong that he is even willing to resort to self-referential absurdity in his attempt to promote the claim.


Victor Reppert said...

Look, I think it is rather an abuse of language to say "There are no atheists," and when it is pointed out that there are plenty of people who walk, talk, and act like atheists, reply that what is meant here is that there are no intellectually honest atheists.

Frank Walton said...

Paul, it may interest you to know that Ed Babinski is an expert at posting overflooding and off-topic emails. Despite his apologizing to me he continues to hack and troll.

Blue Devil Knight said...

So how does the believer deceive himself? He does this by a self-covering intention. Once a self-covering intention is accomplished it covers itself and goes away, similar to the process we go through while falling asleep.

I am an atheist. Do you have any methods I can use to lift the veil of deceit from my mind? What data would convince you that your hypothesis, that there are no atheists, is false?

Ironically, it was exactly this kind of argument that convinced me to become a nonchristian about 15 years ago. I was a Christian, and some Campus Crusaders asked me to look deeply and honestly into my heart and see if I believed, if I knew, that Christ rose from the dead. When I looked deep into my heart, I realized I just didn't buy it! I realized I had been believing in an anachronistic superstition, and became a nonchristian, almost instantaneously, though I briefly retained a belief in a God. I was surprised that I had accepted this strange magical picture of the world for the first 20 years of my life.

Thanks, Campus Crusade for Christ.

Incidentally, Victor is right. This is silly and I am surprised he is giving this kooky quasi-psychoanalytic position so much space. Freud's psychoanalytic diagnosis of the religious impulse in Future of an Illusion is almost as loopy.

Error said...

I'll respond to Jason later.

Dr. Reppert, so now you just think the *language* is silly and not the *thesis?*

And, you write,

"and when it is pointed out that there are plenty of people who walk, talk, and act like atheists, reply that what is meant here is that there are no intellectually honest atheists."

That is not my claim, and I've not impied that. My claim is that there are no people who have *zero* God belief, on anly level.

Dr. Reppert, you have the same problem. You have not yet denied the natural knowledge of God (or, innate) and you also admitted that belief is a sub set of knowledge. Now, if these claims are correct then it appears that even you think that atheists "believe" in God.

So, my argument is: if I'm silly then you are too. :-) I know that wasn't percise logical language.

Jason, basically my response to you will focus on you misunderstanding my position. Also, I do not believe that "atheism" is an "honest mistake." Actually, it is supression of the truth and they will have no excuse for their rebellion. No atheist will be able to stand before God and say, "but it was an honest mistake, God." Because, "what may be known of God was made clear to them, that they would have no excuse."

Honestly, I find it "silly" that philosophical constructs woudl be brought to bear over against the teaching of the Bible. When debating Christians on this matter, you would think that we would debate egegesis, the text. If the Bible teaches that all men know that God exists then there are no atheists (in the sense meant by atheists). If the Bible teaches this, then so much the worse if man thinks it is 'silly." "Let God be true, though all men are liars."

Blue Devil Knight,

The method that lifts the veil is none but the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. no man made methods will do.

My argument is not the argument that you portrayed. 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."

Now, we can distinguish between *causes* and *reasons* for belief. The above was the cause. The *reasons* are myriad.

Anyway, you end your salvoe by name calling. You've offered *zero* rebuttal but just called it "silly" and then tried to poison the well and committed the guilt by association.

Anonymous said...

Paul, give it a rest. Just give it a rest. You've made your points and they are rejected. Now move on. You cannot expect people to agree on every issue. You should know that by now.

Error said...

I notice, John, that you did not tell anyone else to give it "a rest." Indeed, Dr. Reppert even posted his latest entry on this subject. So, apparently, he's not "giving it a rest." But, for some reason, I am supposed to be the one who is scolded? Maybe this is because of our interaction on the atheist hour and on your blog? I can understand why you might be a bit hostile towards me. ;-)

Blue Devil Knight said...

Everyone believes that there is an invisible unicorn on their shoulder. Those who claim to not believe this are just deceiving themselves. Only the spirit of the unicorn can help them, though. If you make fun of this position, you are especially steeped in your denial, and I pity you.

Furthermore, if you think I am wrong, you must prove it. You must prove that at an unconscious level that you have no access to, you do not believe that there is an invisible unicorn on your shoulder.

Join me, brother, in loving admiration of the invisible unicorn on your shoulder.

Jason Pratt said...


Fwiw, unlike BDK I don't think this is a useless discussion (his good use of the invisible unicorn analogy notwithstanding); but I think it's one which isn't going to be very accessible to many of the people on the board, because a lot of the underlying basis for the position involves interpretations of scriptural testimony, as well as more fundamental understandings of the character of scriptural authority and its relation to analysis and conclusion.

This is one reason why I stayed away from scriptural exegesis in my reply.

Another reason was that for the first two of your own comments (not counting the letter Victor printed in the introduction of his post, which I suppose could be only partial), you also engaged in no scriptural exegesis. Since the position, as presented and defended by yourself up to this point, as a Christian to a Christian (i.e. Victor), had not involved exegesis, I decided to keep my comment shorter by not introducing a discussion on, for instance, St. Paul's meaning in the opening chapters of the Roman Epistle, etc. (I will add that I do not consider brief prooftextual references to count as exegetical analysis; in that sense, this thread _still_ lacks what you've chided _me_ for not providing for discussion.)

For that matter, I trimmed out some things I _had_ originally introduced while drafting it; such as the long-running Christian tradition of identifying _practical_ atheism even among people who would in other regards be considered believers--a tradition which I, for one, am quite willing and capable of carrying much further than most Christians, either now or in the past, would be prepared to agree with (much less be comfortable with).

Similarly, I trimmed out a section which would have clarified that I do, in fact, believe (actually rather more strongly than most Christians) that God (through the Holy Spirit) has not left any cognizant person without a witness to Himself--a position I can develop through exegesis (via such testimony as John 1, Romans 2, among others; and even including material such as Romans 10 which most Christians _don't_ recognize as being a profession of the witness of God by Christ to all persons), or which I can develop independently of scriptural authority (though that would take very much longer to do).

Had I included this, then aside from entering into technical exegetics (which has been avoided up to this point, _including_ by you)--thus most probably excluding the very people we're discussing, who _are_ readers on the board, from participating in this discussion _about themselves_ in any meaningful way--even aside from that, I would have also had to enter into a discussion about differences between the internal witness of God in the life of a person, and recognition by the person that God is Who is doing this in their lives; along with differences between various levels of recognition (or lack thereof) and the profession of atheism (with distinctions drawn between profession and belief).

To say the least, this would have been frightfully more complex, and would have extended my comment to something approaching even _my_ toleration of comment-length. {self-critically wry g} All things considered, I decided I might as well stay with a simpler claim: that to deny the existence of atheists, per se, is at best an abuse of language (as Victor has put it), and is even self-referentially absurd when combined with certain other positions.

As I allowed, the claim that all atheists are self-deceived is at least a position that can be discussed; and it can be discussed without needing to make self-contradictory claims. (e.g. all atheists are self-deceived, _and_ there are no such people as atheists.)

To which I can add, the claim that all persons have a witness of God within them of _some_ sort, their response to which is judged by God, is also a position that can be discussed without needing to make self-contradictory claims.

If either of these are what you are trying to claim, then (as I said before) you won't find me claiming they are "silly". (Although, as I also said before, I would consider one of them to be mistaken where not morally pernicious.)

What may be called the trivial sticking point (from my perspective, and Victor's as well from what I can see), simply involves your insistence on continuing to use the phrase "there are no atheists" (and synonymous variations). At best it's an example of merely rhetorical flash, seeking initial attention by means of a claim which is patently false, _but_ which does (inaccurately) describe either or both of two more 'serious' theological positions, and so can lead into discussions of them. (Which is how you yourself have made use of the phrase. Sort of, when not being distracted by trying to defend the use of the phrase and variations.) I also expect this is close to what Dr. Reppert is trying to say, concerning the language being silly but not the thesis.

Finally, concerning a more basic level of the charge that I have used "philosophical constructs" _instead of_ exegetics (when discussing theology, with a Christian or otherwise): I suppose basic logic principles may be called "philosophical constructs", though I wouldn't bother to do it myself. Noting that mutually exclusive contentions cannot both be true, is hardly like analyzing a claim via a system of Hegelian ethics or something of that sort.

In any case, exegetical analysis completely depends on an accurate use of such "philosophical constructs" as I may be accused of having used in my reply. Whereas basic logical analysis hardly depends on scriptural authority, much less on exegesis of scriptural witness. If you intend to reject my reply simply for being logical, and expect a scriptural exegesis without use of logic instead, then you can count me out; first, because the request is impossible to meet (even for VanTillian presuppositionists), and second because I would consider this to be an attempt to intentionally exclude the internal witness of the 3rd Person to the 2nd Person.

Which, ironically, is exactly what a self-deceived atheist would be doing. (I agree with Victor, and apparently you as well, that I'm generally doing this whenever I sin, too.) Thanks, but I'll take a pass on that opportunity. {g}