Note: This post makes mention of Ravi Zacharias. It is with a heavy heart that I must acknowledge a tragic independent report concerning evidence of sexual abuse and predatory behavior on the part of Ravi Zacharias. This man was a huge inspiration to me, as is evident from reading my blog, and the news was more than heart shattering. Some ministries leaders have come to the conclusion that removing articles about and references to Ravi is the right move; I have come to a different conclusion, and here is why:
- Though I cannot begin go to imagine the grief or pain of those Ravi hurt and the emotional toll of his behavior, it is also the case that to discredit a piece of information due to the character of the source of such behavior is to commit the genetic fallacy. If I quote or mention Ravi, it is because I believe those items to contain truth value on their own merit.
- To go back and change previously written information without a careful disclaimer is, I believe, a form of revisionist history. If a disclaimer must be offered anyway, I believe there is value in keeping the material accessible. So while I know it is a difficult ask to say, “Just trust the ideas and disregard his personal character,” I must ask that of you as a careful thinker.
- I have seen a lot of comparisons by Christians to not removing Ravi’s work because biblical characters like King David and others had fallen into terrible sin, and they have obviously been given to us as a gift to learn from (Romans 15:4). Why “cancel” Ravi if we’re not “cancelling” the Bible? It does seem to me, though, that there are two problems with this line of thinking: (1) These books are inspired by God and thus we can trust his revelation to us. They were examples given for a purpose. (2) These characters also seemed to show true biblical repentance of their wicked actions. Ravi remained unrepentant until his dying day. Therefore, I do not think these are 1-and-1 comparisons. This behavior reflects SERIOUS error and dangerous behavior on the part of Ravi and, to an unknown degree, RZIM as a whole, and that must not be taken lightly or swept under the rug.
I do not expect you to agree completely with this decision. I do ask that you respect the thought, prayer, and seeking of counsel in which I engaged regarding it.
In recent times, and especially since the wide-spread influence of the New Atheists, those who hold that there is no God (historic atheism) no longer feel the need to shoulder the epistemic responsibility of such a view, in stark contrast with atheist thinkers and philosophers of days gone by. This has led to the redefining of the term “atheism.” This trend is not new. In fact, in many fields–science, the humanities, religion, philosophy, etc.–terms often lose or change their meaning based on new information which is either more or less favorable to those who hold a particular view. We could call this the fallacy of redefinition. In order to form a point of comparison, consider the term “science,” which we dealt with in a recent podcast episode. Historically, the term simply means “knowledge.” So when someone says that something is a “fact of science,” they are actually saying that it is fact that can be known about reality. But is this necessarily true? For example, some would say that evolution1 is a fact of science. Yet, there are many well-educated and credible scientists who don’t feel as though the general theory of evolution (GTE) is able to account for the biological diversity we see. Evolution might be a good scientific theory, but it is far from a settled fact of knowledge. Of course, there are multiple legitimate definitions of science. That’s not the issue. The issue is when the context demands one definition, and another one is used. Ultimately, this is the fallacy of equivocation, of which the fallacy of redefinition is a subset. It is this sort of wordplay I fear has been committed on the term “atheism.” The below will be an attempt to defend that claim.
Defining the Terms
Before I can make a case, we need to get extremely clear about the terms involved and what they have meant historically. If one calls himself an atheist today, yet claims to bear a different kind of epistemic responsibility than one who claimed to be an atheist 100 years ago, then we need to examine the difference and find out if there is warrant for the change in understanding. Webster’s provides the following two definitions of the term “atheism”:
- a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods
- a philosophical or religious position characterized by disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods
Even Webster’s falls short of perspicuity here, since I would argue that there is a significant difference between a “lack of belief” and “strong disbelief,” despite their lumping the two together. To be favorable to the atheist’s view, however, let’s characterize definition #1 as simply a “lack of belief in the existence of a god or any gods.” Most atheist’s I have conversed with claim that this is indicative of their beliefs. Many popular atheists (Dillahunty, Ra, Smalley, et al.) have also claimed a similar position. What I want to argue is that most atheists profess to hold to definition #1, while acting as though they hold to definition #2, which historically characterizes atheism writ large. Actions speak louder than words, remember? First, however, I need to show that atheism has been historically understood as “a philosophical or religious position characterized by disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods.” In Can Man Live Without God, Ravi Zacharias lists definitions from multiple sources:
- “Atheism is the deliberate, definite, dogmatic denial of the existence of God. It is not satisfied with appropriate truth or relative truth, but claims to see the ins and outs of the game quite clearly being the absolute denial of the absolute.” (Etienne Borne, Atheism 1961)
- “An atheist is a person who maintains that there is no God; that is, that the sentence “God exists” expresses a false proposition. . . . a person who rejects belief in God. (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1967)
- “We atheists believe that nature simply exists. Matter is. Material is.” (Madalyn Murray O’Hair, What on Earth Is an Atheist?, 1972)
Despite the fact that most atheists scoff at the theist’s attempt to argue this point (since it’s apparently obvious that atheism which literally means “without God” should be somehow defined to mean “I can’t prove that God does or doesn’t exist”?), the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell–arguably the figurehead of atheism in the 19th century–struggled with this. Consider this excerpt from the aptly titled, “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?”: “I never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods. None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof. Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.”2 Notice the specific reason he gives why, if speaking to an audience of philosophers (who properly understand that distinctions must be made in order to arrive at truth), he would be careful to claim he is an agnostic: “because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.” And yet, he claimed that he might popularly say he is an atheist! He continues, “There is exactly the same degree of possibility and likelihood of the existence of the Christian God as there is of the existence of the Homeric God. I cannot prove that either the Christian God or the Homeric gods do not exist, but I do not think that their existence is an alternative that is sufficiently probable to be worth serious consideration. Therefore, I suppose that that on these documents that they submit to me on these occasions I ought to say “Atheist”, although it has been a very difficult problem, and sometimes I have said one and sometimes the other without any clear principle by which to go. When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also admit that some things are much more nearly certain than others. It is much more nearly certain that we are assembled here tonight than it is that this or that political party is in the right. Certainly there are degrees of certainty, and one should be very careful to emphasize that fact, because otherwise one is landed in an utter skepticism, and complete skepticism would, of course, be totally barren and completely useless.” My point is that while modern “atheists” take it as a given that they shoulder no epistemic responsibility,3 Bertrand Russell did not so easily dismiss the issue. He wrestled with it constantly, and seemed to realize that his personal views were more accurately defined as “agnosticism.” In On Guard, Craig helpfully points out in reference to atheism and the inevitable absurdity of life it offers, “The British philosopher Bertrand Russell, for example, believed that we have no choice but to build our lives upon “the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” Only by recognizing that the world really is a terrible place can we successfully come to terms with life. Camus said that we should honestly recognize life’s absurdity and then live in love for one another.” The above, of course, speaks to the moral implications of atheism. The point I want to make is that the consistent atheist is one who realizes the absurdity of life without God–the one who is willing, at some level, to face the reality of a purposeless universe–one where, according to Dawkins, “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference.… We are machines for propagating DNA.… It is every living object’s sole reason for being.” I believe what we have today is a world full of agnostics who think they are atheists because they have not carefully thought through these issues. But, what’s the difference? Does it matter? Is it just semantics, or are there consequences with how one defines his worldview? Zacharias, in reflecting on the three definitions above, concludes: “Atheism is not merely a passive unbelief in God but an assertive denial of the major claims of all varieties of theism; atheism contradicts belief in God with a positive affirmation of matter as ultimate reality. Some atheists avoid this frontal attack upon theism and try to soften that absolute denial of God. Their argument asserts that God’s existence is rationally unprovable and is therefore at best a meaningless proposition. In effect, their atheism is arrived at by default. This approach is often taken so as to be conveniently relieved of the burden of defending one’s own alternative view. In actual terms both the soft and the hard form of atheism accomplish the same goal and end up denying God’s existence either implicitly or explicitly. Any attempt to escape the ramifications of its absoluteness is unsuccessful.” To offer one final evidence for what I deem to be the proper understanding of atheism, please allow me to quote a very lengthy, but fruitful excerpt from an article on Dr. William Lane Craig’s website: “Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist. Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists. So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken. For the assertion that “There is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “There is a God.” Therefore, the former assertion requires justification just as the latter does. It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence. He confesses that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or whether there is no God. But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.” So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists). As Antony Flew confesses, the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way. Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist. (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford: Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew). Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view. It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all. On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists! In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God. One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in. So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position? Here I agree with you [Craigs questioner] that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists. If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view. But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof. So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions. They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities. This is disingenuous and still leaves us asking, “So is there a God or not?” The above should serve as definitive evidence from influential atheists, Christian philosophers, and an important philosophical work that atheism–properly understood–is much, much more than a passive disbelief in god(s). For a very short, yet philosophically punchy video regarding this notion, see here. For even further justification, see this video (which is a republishing of an episode of Craig’s “Reasonable Faith” podcast), in which Craig and Kevin Harris discuss the points made by an Australian atheist philosopher commenting on the vacuous nature of this redefinition. 4 Before moving on we should also define the term “worldview.” According to Ken Samples in A World of Difference, a worldview “refers to the cluster of beliefs a person holds about the most significant issues of life—such as God, the cosmos, knowledge, values, humanity, and history. These beliefs (which may in reality be right or wrong or a combination thereof––not unlike the visual clarity or distortion given by glasses) form a big picture, a general outlook, or a grand perspective on life and the world…In more technical terms, a worldview forms a mental structure that organizes one’s basic or ultimate beliefs. This framework supplies a comprehensive view of what a person considers real, true, rational, good, valuable, and beautiful. In this vein, philosopher Ronald H. Nash defines a worldview as “a conceptual scheme by which we consciously or unconsciously place or fit everything we believe and by which we interpret and judge reality.” To reiterate my point from above, I think I can demonstrate that most atheists actually live as though they subscribe to Webster’s definition #2, namely, “a philosophical or religious position characterized by disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods,” which implicitly entails dreadful moral and ethical consequences. If this is true, then we can properly define atheism as a worldview, since it will refer to “the cluster of beliefs a person holds about the most significant issues of life—such as God, the cosmos, knowledge, values, humanity, and history.” The following points will serve to support that case.
The Myth of Neutrality Revisited
In another article I’ve written, I make the case that no one is able to remain philosophically neutral with respect to beliefs about God, etc. One can only properly understand an opposing worldview from within the context of his own. And according to the Christian worldview, there is no such thing as a neutral party. Therefore, if Christianity is true, atheism is indeed a worldview. To be honest, there is not much to say on this point, for if I were to grant that neutrality is possible, I would be proving that it isn’t by opposing my own worldview! Do you see the problem? Now, the informed atheist might counter by claiming that, since (in his view) there is “no proof” that God exists, the proposition (that he is a neutral party) can only be evaluated in light of his worldview. But again, the same problem applies. For by asserting that it must be done on his terms, he explicitly denies the truth of the Christian worldview before even evaluating any evidence! Therefore, neutrality is impossible–it’s a myth. I see no way around that problem. I’ll again refer you to point #5 of the article mentioned above for further discussion, including biblical support for this contention.
The Problem of Proselytizing
So, we’ve already seen that there is no question about the classical definition of atheism, at least in the opinion of legitimate philosophical sources and some of the most influential atheistic figures of the past century (all quoted above). But do the actions of most modern atheists (including those who reject the classical definition) most reflect this classical definition or this new sort of “agnostic atheism”? A simple illustration: I don’t really have an opinion about hockey. Don’t like it, don’t hate it. I’m indifferent. I could barely tell you the name of any players or teams (other than Wayne Gretzky and the Philadelphia Flyers), I have never been to a game in my life, and probably never will. I simply have no opinion. By any reasonable definition, I am agnostic with respect to hockey. Question: What if I were to walk up to you while you were wearing a [insert name of favorite hockey team here] jersey, and insult you because you thought they had a good team? What if I were to strike up a debate, and start giving reasons why my favorite team5 is better. What if I were to hand you literature about the team, including an upcoming game schedule and urge you to consider the foolishness of your position? When you begin to defend your belief in your team, would it not seem quite disingenuous for me to then say “wait a minute now…I don’t really think your team is bad…I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other…”? And yet, not once have I been accused by an atheist of not knowing what atheism is when the person was not defending their view as an atheist against my belief in God! Many self-proclaimed atheists (David Smalley, to use a specific example) who make this sort of claim say that their “worldview” is best characterized as “humanism,” and that atheism is just a part of their humanism. Okay, fine. Call yourself whatever you wish. But that’s not the issue. The subject matter in question is the existence of God (or, any gods). Humanism is not the antithesis to theism (in the logical sense), a-theism (literally, “without God”) is! Therefore, if I have a theistic worldview, an atheist has an atheistic worldview. It is a worldview centered on something that is “without God”–whether it be himself, or the flying spaghetti monster. The self-proclaimed “humanist” is only a humanist because of his non-belief in God. If he believed in God, he would not be a humanist. This is because humanism is the antithesis to theism in the theological sense. The point is that his humanism is a result of his atheism–it’s not the other way around. To make matters worse, atheists not only proselytize in one-on-one conversation, but there are atheist “televangelists” (such as Matt Dillahunty), radio personalities (such as David Smalley, mentioned above), and chapter/organization leaders (such as Aron Ra), who literally make their living lambasting theism on the world stage.6 Am I really to believe that these three gentlemen–who have all publicly claimed to hold this new “soft” form of atheism–are simply indifferent and without opinion with respect to the existence of God? Give me a break. Actions always speak louder than mere words. Now–don’t miss (or misrepresent) my point. I am not saying “atheists proselytize, therefore, atheism is a worldview.” Rather, I’m pleading with you to consider, according to common sense and sound thinking–is proselytizing something that is characteristic of someone with a view (or, opinion) on something, or without? Remember–the reason I don’t proselytize about hockey is because I am not a-hockey, I am literally indifferent about it. I have no opinion. If I were a-hockey–that is, I were strongly opinionated against the existence of the game of hockey–I might tell others and try to convert them to “a-hockeyism” as well. An agnostic is one who does not have an opinion, but an atheist has an opinion–a view–a view of the way the world is. A world-view. And it is characterized by his disbelief in God. He must make a claim about reality with an epistemic responsibility to defend.
The Atheist’s One Exception
Alan Guth, a leading and widely influential cosmologist and theoretical physicist, once claimed that the universe is the “ultimate free lunch.” By this, he means to say that, even though “something” cannot come from “nothing” under usual circumstances, it appears that the universe did. Why is that? Well–we are here, of course! It must have done this, because “no one created it,” and yet, here we are!7 A skilled logician will quickly realize that this is “the fallacy of irrelevant thesis.” This happens when someone merely states an obvious truth, but one that is irrelevant to the question at hand. To expose the fallacy, allow me to craft a fake dialogue between a news reporter and the sole-survivor of a tragic bus accident: Reporter: “Mr. Smith, it’s amazing that you are the lone survivor of this tragic accident! Why do you think you were able to stay safe?” Mr. Smith: “Well, I’m here aren’t I? So obviously, I was able to stay safe.” But this point is obvious, and unrelated to the reporter’s question. Mr. Smith gives no supporting reasons why he was able to say safe–he merely stated the obvious. Herein lies a difficult problem for those who adhere to atheism, and specifically for those who claim to be atheists and yet shirk their epistemic responsibility. The atheist inevitably holds views about the current state of things in modern science, most likely including origins. But without appealing to a logical fallacy to explain why he is even in existence, he must exercise faith. Faith, that universes are the only thing that can come from absolute nothingness. Faith, that the universe is the ultimate free lunch. But the atheist is diametrically opposed to the notion of faith, touting instead that he is the bastion of reason and logic. He might say that he doesn’t have faith, but rather confidence about the God-less beginnings of the universe. But this will not help either, since the word “confidence” comes from the Latin con fide–meaning, “with faith.” In further contradiction, the atheist will often accuse Christians of appealing to the “god of the gaps.” This is, of course, a blatant mischaracterization of how Christians actually believe. Yet, all the while, the Christian must be more rational, for at least his faith is placed in someone. Christians need not appeal to fallacious logic to understand the origin of the universe, but atheists have no choice. Now–to be fair–an atheist might legitimately claim that he simply doesn’t know about what happened in the beginning. And, that’s fine. He does not have to form an opinion about this. But, remember–even if he doesn’t explicitly claim that he knows what happened in the beginning, he has no problem believing that whatever it was, it wasn’t creation ex-nihilo by God. Taking this point further, consider the overwhelming majority of scientists who believe in Darwinian evolution (97%+) and the amount who are self-proclaimed atheists (about 70%+). Atheists (such as those specifically mentioned above) pretty much universally appeal to Darwinism to explain things that Christians claim only the existence of God can explain, such as morality, consciousness, etc. But remember–without the faith necessary to believe that universes come from nothing, and without the explicit affirmation of naturalism and implicit (and, sometimes explicit) denial of the existence of God, how can one rationally affirm that Darwinian evolution has even happened? There is no philosophical or scientific reason to suggest that universes can actually come from nothing (indeed, there is much philosophical and scientific evidence against this notion including fundamental laws of science), therefore, doesn’t the claim that evolution has happened require faith in one godless exception to the laws governing the universe in the beginning? And, based on the illustration used to open this section, is not this entire way of thinking based on a logical fallacy? At a practical level, how can this possibly be more rational than believing in the existence of God as described in the Bible? As William Lane Craig has so rightly quipped, “To claim that something can come into being from nothing is worse than magic. When a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, at least you’ve got the magician, not to mention the hat!” You see, the atheist claims faith is irrational. Yet, in order to explain the universe as we see it, he needs just one exception to the rules in the beginning. Give him his one exception, and he can use contrived theories to explain the rest. Atheism is a worldview. It requires an irrational and unscientific claim about the origin of the universe, even if one claims he has no opinion about origins, and especially if he does have an opinion about the theory of evolution–which nearly all do, because they must. After all, what would be the alternative?
A Word of Advice: Keep the Conversation Focused
In a video I recently recorded, I argue that one should strive his hardest to keep the “main thing” the “main thing” in spiritual conversations. Thus far I have argued pretty dogmatically that the classic definition of atheism fits within the parameters of a worldview. I have also argued that the actions of modern atheists are indicative of a deeper commitment to something much greater than a “passive disbelief” in God or any gods. However, this is a massive point of conversational tension. And I never want to leave you without a way to make sense of these things in your witnessing opportunities. I can think of three conversations in the past year that went almost nowhere, simply because we could not move past this point. And while it can be mind-numbing and frustrating to watch someone live in such confusion and contradiction, nevertheless, it is the apologetic task to try our best to get through–to give this person the hope of Christ, and to make a difference in their life. Rather, then, to argue that this person is simply mistaken in their terms, I think you should simply ask what your interlocutor believes. No need to fight over definitions. Ask what he believes, and respond accordingly. However, part of that response can certainly be pointing out contradictions. When someone’s actions begin to betray what they’ve confessed with their lips, point it out! It could even be with another question. For example, if a “passively disbelieving” atheist begins to deride how God deals with people, and especially with how the Old Testament presents this, you could respond: “Wait a minute, I thought you had no opinion about God. Why, then, do you so ardently disagree with the way the Bible casts God in the Old Testament?” It’s interesting that folks with “no opinion” often think the evolutionary system of morality is better than God’s system of morality. Of course, myriad examples could be given. So, while I certainly believe that getting definitions right is of the utmost importance, the most important thing is to keep the conversation moving. If this is a subject you find that you are too “married to”, so to speak, then you need to find creative ways to change the flow of conversation so that you don’t get caught in the trap of attempting to prove what atheism is. Point the person to some helpful resources, and move on. Finally, don’t get discouraged. The easiest way to get caught in this trap is dealing with a person who says they don’t have to prove a disbelief in God because they don’t have a disbelief in God. Again–simply point out contradictions where you can, ask important questions to keep things moving, and use helpful tactics in navigating your spiritual conversations. Your opportunities to share Christ will be much more fruitful for it. — Questions? Feel free to comment below and start the discussion, or click the blue button on the right (desktop only) to ask a question with a voicemail. We will do our best to answer in an upcoming post. Thanks!
- In the sense that all life-forms are related and descended from a common ancestor.
- For purposes of irrelevance, we’ll resist the urge to address the glaring problem that one ought not to cast the Homeric gods in the same category as the Christian God. Certainly, they should not be handled the same, as they are altogether different.
- A responsibility to prove that there is no God.
- I would have linked to the original article, but it has been since taken down, unfortunately. The original source is linked on Craig’s website.
- Here, the informed atheist might think “gotcha” because he supposedly doesn’t have a “team,” so to speak. But, he does, as will be shown below.
- Don’t forget–this living is made using the dollars and support of their followers, who also “don’t have an opinion” about God, yet are passionate enough to throw thousands of dollars at these public figures each month.
- So as to not appear disingenuous, it should certainly be stated that there is MUCH more nuance to this, including a discussion of quantum-level particle physics. Much of this additional nuance, however, I have already addressed here.