Common Problems in Atheist/Theist Discussions


In this post I want to point out some of the problems with the discussions with atheists and theists. I am by no means saying that all atheists succumb to some of these issues. So please don’t accuse me of using straw man arguments. I am speaking from first hand experience.

#1: The issue of evidence and proof

First, I want to bring up the issue of equivocation which is both a formal and informal fallacy. It is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning or sense. Terms like ‘evidence,’ and ‘proof,’ all need clarification. Some atheists (mostly popular atheists and not necessarily academic atheists) like to set the ground rules in that unless you can produce some sort of airtight argument for God’s existence, He just doesn’t exist. And then they call the shots as to what qualifies as evidence. So in many of the discussions between atheists/theists, the following topics come up:

  1. How do you explain the Origin of the Universe?
  2. How do you explain the Mathematical Fine-Tuning of the Universe?
  3. How do you explain the Terrestrial Fine-Tuning of Planet Earth?
  4. How do you explain the Biological Fine-Tuning of Complex Life on Earth?
  5. How do you explain the Informational Fine-Tuning of the DNA molecule?
  6. How do you explain the Origin of Mathematical Laws?
  7. How do you explain the Origin of Logical Laws?
  8. How do you explain the Origin of Physical/Natural Laws?
  9. How do you explain the Origin of the First Cell?
  10. How do you explain the Origin of Human Reason?
  11. How do you explain the Origin of Human Consciousness?
  12. How do you explain the Origin of Objective Morality?
  13. How do you explain Ultimate Meaning in Life?
  14. How do you explain Ultimate Value in Life?
  15. How do you explain Ultimate
     in Life?

In regards to these questions, any attempt by theists to give scientific data (a peer reviewed document or book) is cast off as a “God of the Gaps” argument. Granted, I thinkwe have provided answers to the “God of the Gaps” charge. And in return, the atheist just punts to a “nature and chance of the gaps” argument. In other words, whatever God explanation is given, some atheists assume that science (which is not a search for natural/material causes alone) will be able to show that eventually we will arrive at naturalistic explanation. The same goes for historical arguments. For some, any resurrection claim about Jesus will always have a naturalistic hypothesis. I think this has problems (as we discuss in some of our resources here). But I won’t be addressing the resurrection issue in this post.

Also, to insist that God has to be a material object which can be tested with the five senses is to commit a category mistake. A category mistake is to assign to something a property which applies only to objects of another category. Paul says that God’s existence and attributes can be “clearly seen” (Romans 1:18-20) since they have been “shown” to the unbelieving world through “the things that are made” (nature). Notice that Paul never posits that we can view God as a material object. But he does say that people can look at the effects in the world and infer that there is a Creator. Hence, we can use the inference to the best explanation model. The inference to the best explanation model takes into account the best available explanation in our whole range of experience and reflection. So while theism employs a model that is seen in science and history (inference to the best explanation), some atheists say we can’t ever consider the possibility of non-naturalistic explanation. Also, any time there is new evidence that looks theistic will inevitably cause the atheist to move the goal posts in a way so that the theist can’t possibly kick the ball through and win the game.

#2: Bad Epistemology

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with questions about knowledge and belief and related issues such as justification, truth, types of certainty.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have encountered the following comments by internet and popular atheism:

“There is not one shred of proof or evidence for the existence of God”

“There is absolutely no evidence for Jesus or your God”

“Science has shown that there is no God”

“Unless you can perfectly demonstrate that God exists or Jesus is the Son of God, you need to admit all you have is faith”

It is statements like the ones here that demonstrate to me that there is not even a basic understanding of epistemology. Keep in mind that I am not asking everyone to get a philosophy degree and to be an expert on such a heady topic. While in seminary I was blessed to take some classes in philosophy. However, I am by no means an expert! But the people making these types of claims just overstate their case and sound very naïve. A more nuanced approach would be to say “ I have looked at the evidence in this area and I don’t find it to be sufficient.” Or, “I don’t think there are good reasons to think God exists or that Jesus is the Son of God.”

#3: The Issue of Certainty

Humans are knowers. Many people are looking for confidence about why they believe. But the question becomes how certain can we be about what we believe. I don’t have any need for absolute or exhaustive knowledge. As Paul Copan says here:

“We do not need 100 percent certainty to truly know. After all, we cannot show with 100 percent certainty that our knowledge must have 100 percent certainty. We believe lots of things with confidence even though we do not have absolute certainty. In fact, if most people followed the “100 percent rule” for knowledge, we would know precious little. But no one really believes that.

Now, if our only options were either 100 percent certainty or skepticism, then we would not be able to differentiate between views that are highly plausible, on the one hand, and completely ridiculous, on the other. They would both fall short of the 100 percent certainty standard and so both should be readily dismissed. But that is clearly silly. We know the difference. And what about those who seem to know with 100 percent certainty that we cannot know with 100 percent certainty. Interestingly, skeptics about knowledge typically seem quite convinced — absolutely convinced — that we cannot know.”- see the entire article here:

A similar approach to this issue is seen in Mortimer J. Adler’s Six Great Ideas where he has a chapter called The Realm of Doubt. The problem we meet is when we attempt to decide which of our judgments belong in the realm of certitude. In order for a judgment to belong in the realm of certitude, it must meet the following criteria: (1) it cannot be challenged by the consideration of new evidence that results from improved observation, nor can it be criticized by improved reasoning or the detection of inadequacies or errors in the reasoning we have done. Beyond such challenge or criticism, such judgments are indubitable, or beyond doubt.

A judgment is subject to doubt if there is any possibility at all (1) of its being challenged in the light of additional or more acute observations or (2) of its being criticized by more cogent or more comprehensive reasoning.

So in looking at some of the discussion points above (the universe, first life etc.), how many theists and atheists would be silly enough to admit that we have arrived to certitude? Are the claims that both parties are making beyond such a challenge or criticism? Are such judgments indubitable, or beyond doubt? No, I’m afraid not. And this leads me to my last point:

#4: The Word “Faith”

We still have plenty of problems with this word. I don’t see a lot of effort to learn about what Biblical faith both is and isn’t. My advice is to stop using dictionary definitions and popular culture definitions of faith. Could we at least attempt to stick with some exegesis and see how the authors of the Bible use the word “faith?”

Therefore, that means we need to stop taking the Hebrews 11:1 passage out of context. It says “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” So whatever you do, please do not conclude the author of Hebrews is saying:

1. If we can’t empirically verify God’s existence,  faith is blind, irrational, and silly.

2.  We can’t empirically verify God’s existence

3. Therefore, faith is blind, silly, and unsupported.

I already talked about the problems with insisting God has to be a material object that can be seen in a test tube. However, as I already said, we can look at the effects in the world and make rational inferences. But as far as Hebrews 11:1, my advice is to read the entire chapter in context.  Furthermore, if you really want to learn how faith is used in a variety of contexts,  read this. You might see the various ways faith is used in the Bible and it may prevent you from using cultural definitions such as “faith is believing what you don’t know.” If you don’t care, then so be it.