I recently attended a debate at the Atheist Alliance International Conference in Kamloops, BC. Michael Horner of Power to Change, and Dr. Paul Chamberlain of the Institute for Christian Apologetics at ACTS Seminaries represented the theist position. Conversely, Matt Dillahunty of Iron Chariots, and Chris Dicarlo, who is a philosopher of science and ethics, represented the atheist position.
During the debate it became apparent just how difficult it is to hold the atheist position. Many times the atheist view and the agnostic view are confused. The assertion that “God does not exist” or “I do not believe a god exists” will be made, and justified by objections to the arguments for God’s existence. The problem with this line of thinking is that even if the arguments for God’s existence fail this only gets an individual as far as agnosticism, which simply says “I don’t know if there’s a god.”
The error that we can make in attempting to answer the question “Does God Exist?” is to assume that we validate, or prove, our position to be right by showing another position to be wrong. This line of reasoning does not work when it comes to the question of God’s existence because there are more than two possible answers to the question. There are three; which are: theism-Yes, atheism-no, agnosticism-maybe. Consequently, even if I show that the arguments for God’s existence fail the honest enquirer will admit that two possible answers still remain: No-Atheism, and Maybe-Agnosticism. The reason that agnosticism remains a live option is a result of the reality that even if all the arguments for God’s existence are shown to be false, there still remains the possibility that God exists, it is just the argumentation that is flawed. We simply cannot prove our position to be true by showing the other position to be false.
In order to show our position to be “right,” or most likely true, we must give good reasons to believe our position. For the atheist this task is extremely difficult because this position is arguing for a universal negative, which is the assertion that there is nowhere that God exists. Paul Chamberlain illustrated what it would require to prove a universal negative at an Apologetics Seminar on the Saturday following the debate. He asked those attending the seminar what it would require to prove that a golf ball was not on the stage to which the obvious response was that he would have to search the whole stage. He then asked the audience to consider what would be required to prove the same statement true for Kamloops, British Columbia…the universe. This illustration shows that in order to prove the statement “God does not exist” one must search the whole universe and know that there is absolutely no possible way that God exists somewhere in the universe, or eternity. In other words, for me to make such a statement would require me to be omniscient because if there is something I do not know; it could be in that very thing that I do not know that God exists.
Now let’s assume I search the whole universe and cannot find “the golf ball,” and I am still unable to claim that there is no golf ball in the universe because it is possible that while I was looking in the kitchen the golf ball was in the living room and when I moved into the living room the golf ball moved down the street. Then when I went down the street the golf ball moved to India. Once I finally got to India the golf ball was floating in Alpha Centauri, however when I arrived in Alpha Centauri the golf ball was back in the kitchen. This playful analogy shows that in order for me to make the claim, “God does not exist,” I would not only have to search all of existence for God, but I would also have to be equally present in all of existence. In other words the omniscience required to make the assertion, “God does not exist,” would require one to be omnipresent. The irony in all of this is that in order to make the claim “God does not exist” one may not be god, but (s)he is well on his/her way.
Proving a universal negative is a pretty tall, if not impossible, order to require of an atheist. Why is the same challenge not required of the theist? This challenge is unique to the atheist because it is inherent to his negative claim. Because the atheist is making the claim that there is absolute “nowhere” that God exists. The theist, on the other hand, is only claiming that God exists. Therefore the theist must only search until (s)he finds God. Appealing to the analogy of the golf ball, if I make the claim a golf ball exists I must only search until I find a golf ball.
Now one may feel this is unfair to require of the atheist position. After all, is the atheist claiming there is no god, or simply that (s)he believes there is no god? Even if one is only asserting that (s)he believes there is no god, there is still the responsibility to offer reason(s) for believing there is no god. Now the honest seeker may proclaim that (s)he has looked and looked for god and never found him. While this is a fun fact about the seeker, it tells us nothing about the validity of God’s existence. The difference between the seeker and the theist, is that the theist has found God.
At the debate Matt Dillahunty attempted to maneuver around the obligation when he asserted that he was not saying he believed there is no god, but he was saying he did not believe there is one. At first glance this appears to be semantical games, however he is actually making a very precise distinction. Matt is being very clear about what he does not believe and vague about what he does believe. While this position has the illusion of atheism it is really agnosticism in atheistic apparel. This is most evident by Matt’s unwillingness to assert that he believed there is no god. As soon as one is not willing to claim that there is no god, (s)he has moved from atheism to agnosticism because (s)he has opened the door to the possibility that there may be a god.
The obligation of proving a universal negative makes rationally holding to atheism a truly momentous task. However, if one is simply saying I have not found reason to believe in god, (s)he can throw off the cloak of atheism and admit (to?) his/her agnosticism. It would be convenient for the atheistic position if one only had to hurl objections at the theist in order to justify his/her position. However this epistemic rock throwing does little if anything to warrant belief in atheism. Quite simply: One Wrong doesn’t make me right.
Article by, D.H. Lunn