Saturday, October 25, 2014

Presuppositional Atheism?

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I was a Presuppositionalist. I've discussed this briefly before, but having grown wary and suspect of the weaknesses of apologetic methods like Thomistic arguments and evidentialism, I turned to the seemingly-unassailable circularity offered by this “epistemology.” I just used scare quotes there because Presuppositionalism probably isn’t as much of an epistemology as it is an apologetic method (if it’s even that). The basic claim of Presuppositionalism is that the Christian understanding of reality is the only internally consistent worldview and that the propositions contained in the Protestant Bible, and implicitly the Westminsterian interpretation of those propositions, are to be taken axiomatically. All other worldviews will fail the internal scrutiny of a reductio ad absurdum.

There's a lot to unpack about this apologetic method and much could be said in critique of it. Maybe one day I’ll attempt my own full blown write-up. For now I want to focus on one particularly annoying aspect of it. Because in this view the propositions contained within the Reformed interpretation of the Protestant Bible are presupposed to be true, the claim is frequently made that there are no such things as atheists. Indeed everyone believes the proposition that the monotheistic god of the Protestant Bible exists. How do they know this? Well, the Bible tells them so, of course. Romans1:18-32 in particular can be appealed to in order to demonstrate this truth. Since it is a proposition contained in the revealed word of an omniscient being, it must be absolutely true. There are no true atheists or even pantheists. God said so. The people claiming to be atheists only pretend to not believe in the existence of Yahweh by “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” and deceiving themselves into thinking that they don’t believe.

Aside from, “for the Bible tells me so,” other evidence is sometimes brought forward. John Calvin spoke of the sensus divinitatis or sense of divinity within every person and others of like mind will point to the overwhelming religiousity of the human race as evidence of this outworking. The vast majority of humanity has (or will admit to) some concept of the divine, so the argument goes, and this is evidence that human beings must have this innate sense of the reality of the divine. Of course, things like the uneven distribution of beliefs and the highly diverse nature of specific beliefs, even within Christianity itself, militate against this.

What makes this claim particularly annoying, though, is that it reduces to a standard ad hominem attack. It’s just another way to call your opponent a liar and accuse his reason of being inherently corrupt. The presuppositionalist can say that he is right, that everyone knows he is right, and anyone who says he is wrong is just lying because of their corrupt sin nature. From the inside this looks completely sound. From the outside it looks like the height of apologetic douchebaggery and it makes interaction with these folks nearly insufferable.

Cornelius Van Til
AKA the Father of Apologetic Douchebaggery
They, of course, interpret frustration as evidence that their argument is getting to their opposition because they know they’re right and they believe the opposition knows they’re right and simply won't admit it. Add to this the fact that any time one attempts to use logic to argue against their approach, they will disallow it on the grounds that one has to implicitly posit Yahweh as its foundation or "borrow" from their worldview. It’s enough to make any sane person want to completely avoid their tribe entirely, which is interpreted by them as victory, of course. This may explain my reluctance to bring up Presuppositionalism at all and instead focus my attention on that Everest of internally-inconsistent propositions called the Bible. That is, after all, the giant barge of bullshit they are attempting to sail through the tiny crack of epistemological uncertainty that everyone has to deal with.

Recently, though, I got to thinking about how this method could lend itself to a nontheistic approach. What can I say? Old habits die hard. So what if nonbelievers used this line on believers? What would that look like and would there be evidence we could point to in order to demonstrate that believers don’t really believe? Is there such a thing found in many humans that we might call the sensus merdae taurorum? Maybe there is. Let's examine the possibility that those who profess to believe in the Christian god really know (or at least suspect) he doesn't exist.

First, Christians typically pray for things they know can actually happen in a universe where their god might not exist. For example, when someone is sick, many will pray for healing, but this is almost always done though secondary means. E.g. "Father, just please give the doctors wisdom, Father, as they perform this operation, Father. Just grant your peace and just bring healing to Brother Phil." I know people will still pray for miracles, but it's often couched in this type of hedging language and almost always applies to physical processes that are hidden from view. Those even more in touch with reality will often simply pray that their god will give the person peace or help them through the experience in some way. Nobody prays for God to regrow the limbs of amputees. It's just accepted that he won't...because he can't in a world in which he probably does not exist.

Second, even though they claim to believe the propositions contained in the Bible, most will find ways to avoid the rather clear, but really difficult biblical mandates that would leave them desolate or unprotected. Few are going to "take no thought for tomorrow" and let tomorrow worry about itself. Their 401Ks are evidence of as much. Fewer still will give half their stuff to a poor person with nothing, much less sell all and give to the poor. They will be quick to posit an interpretation that says this saying was just intended for that one person who loved his possessions too much. Uh, huh. Sure. Few will require women to cover their heads in church, but many will still deny women positions of ecclesiastical authority based on the alleged writings of the very same New Testament author.

Similarly, Christians don't read the Bible. New Testament professor Bart Ehrman relates his experience with this phenomenon:
So, part of the deal of teaching in the Bible Belt is that lots of my students – most of them? – have very conservative views about the Bible as the Word of God.    A few years ago I used to start my class on the New Testament, with something like 300 students in it, by asking the students a series of questions, just for information.  I would ask: 
  • How many of you in here would agree with the proposition that the Bible is the inspired Word of God (PHOOM!  Almost everyone raises their hands) 
  • OK, great: Now, how many of you have read the Harry Potter series? (PHOOM! Again, almost everyone raises their hand) 
  • And now, how many of you have read the entire Bible? (This time: scattered hands, here and there, throughout the auditorium) 
Then I’d laugh for a minute and say, “OK, so I’m not telling *you* that *I* think the Bible is the inspired Word of God; you’re telling *me* that *you* think it is.   I can see why you might want to read a book by J. K. Rowling.   But if God wrote a book – wouldn’t you want to see what he had to say???”
According to Barna's numbers, nearly 59% of Americans claim to believe the Bible is inspired and inerrant (whatever that means). In spite of this, nearly two-thirds of those same people admit they don't read it. Don't read it? Look, I know it's boring and difficult to read, but if people thought the creator of reality wrote a friggin' book, it stands to reason they would want to...oh...I don't the damned thing? Is it possible their sensus merdae taurorum is telling them that it’s not that important or relevant to their daily lives, despite what their pastor drills into them every Sunday? I’m sure many feel guilty or “convicted” about not reading it, but how far does that feeling extend? I’d be willing to guess it extends to about the book of Leviticus, which is where they get bored out of their minds and go watch Walking Dead.

Speaking of Walking Dead, I wonder how many who claim to be believers ever bring their god to the fiction they consume. Do they think about how God relates to the events that unfold in the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, etc? Why is it so easy to imagine a universe like the Star Wars universe or the Harry Potter universe where clearly the Christian god does not exist? What about stories that are set in our universe? Do Christians really think about God while they’re watching Law and Order? Perhaps they worry when one of their favorite characters like Jack Bauer is in peril, but do they ever have any concern over his soul? Do they worry if he’s killed by the terrorists that he’ll die and go to hell? I’d bet most don’t.

While I’m on the subject of hell, I’ve talked before about how Christians do not behave as though such a place exists in relation to their offspring, but on the whole, the doctrine itself should produce vastly different actions from people that actually believed it. This is the worst possible imaginable outcome for any human being. Christians claim to believe they are surrounded by vast swaths of people headed for an eternity of unimaginable suffering. Faced with this horrifying truth, what do they do? They mostly do what everyone else around them who doesn’t believe such a horrifying mythological place actually exists does. They certainly don't behave like decent, compassionate people who believe such a mind-numbingly terrifying place is the possible destiny for many of their friends and neighbors.

Most of them don’t even speak of it directly, but prefer to hint around about it. I encountered this after my apostasy. People would say (usually to my wife rather than to me), “I’m just worried about the direction you’re heading” or “we’re concerned about the situation you and your family are in - eternally.” It was clear what they meant. “You’re going to burn forever!” But they didn’t want to be rude and come right out and say it. Now, some did. But most did not. In fact, I’m still baffled at how little time anyone spent trying to convince me to return to the fold outside of the passive-aggressive nonsense that was “church discipline.” It’s almost like they were worried I’d infect them with my unbeliever cooties or something, as if my falsehood would prove stronger than their truth. What did they have to fear?

I had a little fun a few days ago making light of how Christians try hard to keep their god within the boundaries of unfalsifiability in contrast to the way the characters in the Bible went about making ample demonstrations of their claims. Indeed the pre-scientific world was much more willing to posit the supernatural than our own and this often rears its head in Christian hymns and creeds. People still confess that Jesus ascended into heaven when that's not really what they mean. What they really mean is that Jesus floated up into the sky and was eventually translated to some other dimension once out of sight. Think about it. But is that what Christians that confessed that 1500 years ago believed? No. They believed heaven was somewhere up there in the sky and that's where Jesus floated off to. With every scientific advancement that explains more and more about how natural processes come together to make our reality, it becomes increasingly difficult to pretend to really believe.

Why do believers seem to constantly forget God exists? Despite the fact that they think their god disapproves of porn and is always looking over their shoulders, a recent survey conducted in part by Barna, showed quite a number of Christian men have difficulty remembering one of those two things while at their computers on a regular basis. I'm certain many feel guilty about it afterward and engage in self-loathing and repeat the cycle. That doesn't explain why, for example, if their mothers were standing over them, they would doubtless have little difficulty showing restraint. Is it because they have actual evidence that their mothers exist and therefore they believe their mothers exist, unlike another being that supposedly has an even greater propensity for disapproving of that activity?

Now, I'm certain there are those who will relate all sin to unbelief and claim that in these instances believers were just allowing their sin nature to take control so that they do things contrary to their professed beliefs. OK. Fine. But what if those are the times they're more in touch with reality? What if these are really signs of their inner sensus merdae taurorum telling them that their god really isn't a part of reality? What if on the rare occasions when they do act in accordance with their professed beliefs they are merely suppressing the truth in religious bullshit? What if most adults of sound mind who know better aren't believers? What if there are only children and the mentally infirm who truly believe and the vast overwhelming majority of sane adults only believe in belief and have deceived themselves into thinking they believe?

What if the real reason why Christians get so angry and upset with apostates is because Christians are angry with reality and want to continue to deny it? What if they are all liars who don't really believe in the Christian god and they're merely pretending they do? Better yet, what if from now on I just assume that everyone of sound mind knows the Christian god does not exist and if they say otherwise I'll just assume they are lying and tell them so. Everyone agrees with me that the Christian god does not exist. Either they will admit it or lie about it. I win.

On second thought, that approach probably isn't very convincing, is it?


  1. This post is as dead-on as it is devastating.

    It occurred to me, many years ago after my then-pastor died of brain cancer despite the prayers of many thousands of Christians, that it had been a very long time indeed since I'd asked for anything concrete of my god during prayers. I'd couched my prayers like you describe, making them as unfalsifiable as possible.

    It's slowly occurring to me that my current belief system may suffer from the same flaws. A belief system that relies on totally unfalsifiable ideas creates a sense of the divine that is superfluous at best.


  2. "I know it's boring and difficult to read, but if people thought the creator of reality wrote a friggin' book, it stands to reason they would want to...oh...I don't the damned thing?"

    Indeed. In fact, if the Christian god did create the universe, and if he did write a book that he wanted everyone to read and understand, one would think that he would put the urge to read that book high up the ladder of human biological desires. He seems to have had no trouble giving us the biological desire to eat food, drink hydrating liquids, and have sex. Yet, when it comes to this supposedly basic need to know more about him through his word, watching reruns on TV easily trumps that desire. Hell, sorting my socks would trump that desire. Some would blame Satan's influence for that, but Satan is usually unable to stifle our other biological desires, so we know it's possible for the Christian god, if he indeed created us, to place biological urges in us that can overwhelm anything else in our lives. Yet when it comes to reading the Bible, there is no such desire in most sane people.

    Either that, or Yahweh is just a shitty writer who refused to submit his work to an editor to help with the book's clarity of message or flow. Or, he just doesn't exist at all, and the individual books were written by individual men with individual ideologies and motives, or something.

    1. “Yet when it comes to reading the Bible, there is no such desire in most sane people.”

      Your premise is correct, of course. If an omnipotent being wanted something, what, other than some greater desire within himself, could stop it from happening (assuming the idea of conflicting desires within such a being is even coherent)? I’m sure most thoughtful Christians recognize this. I don’t think they’d attribute the lack of desire to Satanic influence as much as they would to “sin nature.” Many would argue that this condition has to be changed by the Holy Spirit in order for the desire to change and some would even argue that God doesn’t truly want everyone to understand his message even when it is right in front of their faces (see, for example Matt.11:25, 13:13-17, 1 Cor. 1:18-29, 2:6-16), which kind of makes him a bit of a jerk.

      The problem is, even among people who claim to have undergone this change, the lack of desire for the most part, remains the same. I’m sure many think they should have a hunger for the word of God and they try very hard to pretend that they do and feel guilty when they don’t. What I’m suggesting is that it’s not their fault. There’s nothing broken inside them that leads them to find large portions of holy writ completely dull and preferring a Harry Potter book; just like there’s nothing wrong with them for finding their attendance of a meaningless contest of athletic prowess more fun than listening to a sermon.

      People continue “fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered [them]," to borrow CS Lewis' phrasing, because the part of their brain that is in touch with reality tells them that this promise of infinite joy and the strings attached to it are highly suspect. But they try to hang on to it just enough on the outside chance that it’s true, mostly because they are afraid of death and especially hell. They “go on making mud pies in a slum” not because they “cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea,” but because they rightly suspect the offer is bullshit. They are not “far too easily pleased.” They are merely inescapably drawn to that which nearly every part of their experience tells them is real. They understandably prefer pies they can see and touch and taste and smell over invisible pie in the sky.

  3. Well said. Your writing is an excellent introduction to Presuppositionalism, a concept I literally never encountered until today. You really burned it to the ground.

    I am an ex-Mormon atheist. While I my experience differs significantly from ex-evangelists, I really do find a lot of common ground in the mental gymnastics necessary to believe in the most basic teachings of these faiths.

    Everybody knows this. If they don't, they are lying or evil. This is fun!

    1. Thanks, Matt. There's much more to this apologetic method than what I posted above. There's quite an extensive philosophical argument to it. I just focused on one particularly annoying aspect that seems to get picked up in other quarters.

      I'm sure there is a lot of common ground from our perspectives as apostates. I suspect those on the inside of the evangelical and Mormon bubbles would not find those commonalities as easily recognizable.

      Evangelicals make fun of Mormons all the time for beliefs they find completely absurd, rarely realizing they hold to some pretty big whoppers themselves that require just as many silly excuses to overcome.

  4. "The people claiming to be atheists only pretend to not believe in the existence of Yahweh by “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” and deceiving themselves into thinking that they don’t believe"
    Evidence for that proposition:
    1. Atheism nearly universally targets Judeo/christianity. Why so? Look at the events in Paris yesterday at Charlie Hebdo, where is the scathing atheist critique?
    Do you realize the Dalai Lama thinks you're coming back as a snail? Why no relentless attacks on him?
    answer: you dont take his views seriously, who cares, they arent threatening to you. Judeo/Christianity is extremely threatening.
    2. there is most certainly a willfull suspension of disbelief when it comes to the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the existence of choice and the historicity of Jesus Christ.
    3. Have atheists examined their belief system? Nearly universally the answer is no. With the exception of people like Crossan and Borg the vast majority are anti-theists not atheists. The only common thread is a rejection of the Judeo/Christian view.
    4. Atheists professed beliefs are inconsistent with their arguments. Time and time again we see that atheists argue as there is an absolute standard of right and wrong, and that we are all capable of choice.The atheist world view simply has no manner to provide either.

    "Since it is a proposition contained in the revealed word of an omniscient being, it must be absolutely true... [that] Everest of internally-inconsistent propositions called the Bible"
    What makes your claim particularly annoying is that it reduces to a standard ad hominem attack. It’s just another way to call Christians a liar and accuse our reasons for being Christians inherently corrupt

    1. Hey, Richard. Since you made the same comment to this post over at Neil's blog I'm just going to link to it here for the sake of convenience and direct traffic there for replies. Cheers.

  5. Hello fellow apostate.

    There's a bunch of anthropological and philsophical work along similar lines to your post. If I can be so bold as to link to my own blog, there's George's Rey's meta-atheism, where he argues that most Christians don't act like God exists; my own observations (which match yours) that Christians have an idea of what's realistic to pray for; and some stuff on belief in belief and what anthropologists think religious beliefs are about.

    Matt McCormick wonders whether he might have a sensus atheistus, and the commenters at Common Sense Atheism discussed it. sensus merdae taurorum is much funnier, though.

    I'm not convinced of the wisdom of making any of these arguments to Christians, for similar reasons to why it's a bad tactic for them to make Romans 1 arguments to us. But yeah, "belief" is a complicated thing and religious beliefs at the very least don't function like every day ones.

    1. Thanks for the links, Paul. I enjoyed the analogy of sensible Christians possessing and following a map of reality that the nuttier ones seem to be disregarding when they actually take their dogma seriously. Bad things appear to result when they abandon simply trying to find creative ways to keep their religious beliefs in the realm of the unfalsifiable.

      I'm not that surprised that others have already discussed this more thoroughly and even coined a term for it. I've accepted that Koheleth was right about things under the sun, at least when it comes to topics for dime-a-dozen, non-theistic blogs like mine.

      I think you're right that the argument is largely only helpful in demonstrating how bad the Romans 1 style tactic is. I also like to think of it as a way to promote some introspection. I feel relatively safe in assuming other minds exist. I'm not as comfortable making arguments based on what I suspect might be going on in them.

  6. I have for years referred to most believers as “pragnostics.” That is, having just enough doubt to allow themselves to do what they want to do in moments of moral ambiguity...or inconvenience. Your unpacking of practical unbelief is much more thorough. Great post!