Reasons to Believe

Responding to the Nonempirical Case for Atheism

This article is an abbreviated summary of a white paper by the same title.

Today, the physical and historical evidence for the existence of the God of the Bible is so extensive and compelling that unbelieving skeptics are increasingly resorting to nonempirical arguments to defend their unbelief. That is, they appeal to what we do not yet know or cannot possibly know about the universe and insist that some exotic science might one day allow us to conceive of life existing apart from God.

Many years ago, I gave a talk to 300 nontheists at an event that was sponsored by Atheists United. Before I presented my scientific evidences for God, I asked the audience these two questions:

  1. How many of you would believe in God if you saw compelling scientific evidence for His existence and saw that evidence increase as we learned more about the universe and the record of nature?
  2. How many of you here would not believe in God until the scientific evidence eliminated all other alternate conceivable explanations for the universe and life?

One-third of my audience answered in the affirmative for question one, while two-thirds answered in the affirmative for question two.

Unbelievers in the first category can be reached through what we know and can know. We should not be surprised that unbelievers in the second category insist on taking the debate into the realm of the unknown and the unknowable. As long as they remain in that realm, we will not and cannot reach them for Jesus Christ.

Absolute Proof Trap

In presenting nonempirical arguments, nontheists lay a trap for Christian evangelists and apologists. Fundamentally, these nontheists are saying that Christians won’t possess a case for the existence of God until we are able to refute all the nonempirical arguments for God’s nonexistence.

This approach presents Christians with an impossible challenge. A Christian would need to acquire complete knowledge not only about the physical universe but also about everything that could conceivably exist beyond the universe. Neither goal is possible. Since our powers of investigation are constrained by the universe’s space-time dimensions, it is impossible for humans to ever gain a complete database about the properties of the universe, let alone about what lies beyond. Our inability to ever gain absolute proof, however, does not mean that we cannot attain practical proof.

For example, given the current state of knowledge about the simplest cells, scientists should have no trouble manufacturing a simple cell from chemical building blocks in the laboratory. However, in spite of all the technology, wealth, instrumentation, and highly intelligent manpower at their disposal, scientists have been stymied in their attempts to make life in the lab. All their efforts only demonstrate that a Causal Agent much more intelligent, knowledgeable, rich, and powerful than us is responsible for life’s origin.

One must not be surprised, however, that in spite of the overwhelmingly compelling case for a supernatural cause for life’s origin, nontheists will persist in claiming that some hypothetical, unguided, mindless set of processes in the realm of the unknown or unknowable actually resulted in the origin of life.

Now in the twenty-first century, an appeal to the multiverse is where nontheists have gone in their attempts to escape God. The history of science shows that every time scientists have observed the universe at a smaller or larger size scale, they have uncovered even more evidence of fine-tuning design. Will some phenomenon beyond the universe eliminate all the fine-tuning evidence we have accumulated over the past few decades? Those who appeal to the multiverse to explain away all observed fine-tuning are being philosophically inconsistent. A worldview must be founded on what we know and can know, never on what we do not know and cannot know. Absolute proof is unattainable, but practical proof is within our grasp.

God of the Gaps versus Naturalism of the Gaps

Nontheists often complain that Christians slip God into the scientific knowledge gaps. Specifically, they note that when scientists are unable to come up with a natural explanation for a phenomenon, Christians will use that inability to claim that God must have stepped in supernaturally. Nontheists will then point to several examples in the past where the apparent inability to explain a phenomenon by natural processes was satisfactorily resolved through additional scientific research.

There certainly have been many instances in the past where scientists’ failure to provide a natural explanation was overcome by ongoing research efforts. However, it does not necessarily follow, as many nontheists insist, that every failure to provide a natural explanation will eventually be overcome through ongoing scientific research. Such a priori insistence assumes, but does not prove, that God does not exist or that God will never intervene in the natural order of things. A classic way nontheists express this insistence is to assert that absence of evidence is never evidence of absence.

Similar to the God-of-the-gaps appeal, there is the nature-of-the-gaps argument. Some nontheists respond to any inability to explain a phenomenon by concluding that a natural process or some combination of natural processes must be responsible. The logical fallacy committed here is the presumption that gaps in our knowledge and understanding can only imply one possible conclusion.

Gaps in our knowledge and understanding can never be totally eliminated. They can, however, be made smaller or larger. It is what happens to the gaps in light of more extensive research that determines whether or not we are on the pathway toward more comprehensive and trustworthy knowledge and understanding.

Gaps in our understanding and knowledge thus provide a powerful opportunity to test competing explanatory models. If a biblical creation model delivers a progressively more comprehensive and consistent explanation of the record of nature where the gaps in knowledge and understanding grow smaller, fewer in number, and less problematic as scientists learn more, then such a demonstration establishes the veracity of that creation model. That model is all the more affirmed if the gaps in the nontheistic models are shown to simultaneously become larger, more numerous, and more problematic with increasing scientific research findings.

Investigating what happens to gaps as we learn more and more provides a means for shifting nonempirical appeals into the arena of the empirical. It takes appeals to the unknown into the realm of the known. It encourages skeptics to make their case on what is known and knowable rather than on what is unknown and unknowable.

Our goal, as always, should be to gently encourage nontheists to leave the world of fantasy and speculation and join us in walking the road to reality to meet the One who created us and everything we see.

Subjects: Argument from Reason, Atheism, Naturalism

Dr. Hugh Ross

Reasons to Believe emerged from my passion to research, develop, and proclaim the most powerful new reasons to believe in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior and to use those new reasons to reach people for Christ. Read more about Dr. Hugh Ross.