What Every Atheist Knows: Authority

March 20, 2010 — 1 Comment


It still may strike some as rather arrogant to presume to declare “what every atheist knows.” It certainly would be arrogant, were not for the authority on which the claim is based.

Being a Christian entails a commitment to the authority of God and His word. Before even getting an argument off the ground, a person has embedded in their thinking some personal authority. Whether or not this entity is recognized by the person in question as their ultimate authority is a different issue, but one has to possess some kind of ultimate authority. For the Christian this authority is God.

Interestingly, the authority has to be personal (as opposed to impersonal). The reason this is interesting for the atheist at least, is that on naturalistic principles, ultimate reality is impersonal in nature. As soon as discussion of authority emerges, there is already a tension in atheistic thought. Even if one wanted to punt to natural selection or reason as the ultimate authority, it still gets personalized.

When a Christian and an atheist (or any non-Christian) engage in argument, it will be these personal authorities that come into conflict. Or as Bahnsen says it, “Disagreements in world-view (the axis of metaphysics-epistemology-ethics) will finally reduce to an absolute antithesis in personal authority.” He then explains:

“The unbeliever as much as the believer, has a final authority to which he appeals in order to defend the world-view that embraces his interdependent metaphysic and epistemology. When two people, Christian and unbeliever, are arguing, their ultimate authorities will be distinguishable by what they refuse to impugn or contradict in the long run.” (pg. 87)

For the same reason it will be impossible to move the Christian to abandon God in his argument, it will be hard (not impossible though) to move the atheist to abandon his final authority. The reason for this then is that at base, when one is giving reasons for his fundamental outlook on life (a worldview if you will) he will appeal to some personal authority. Typically the popular choices are:

  • One’s own mind
  • Esteemed scholars or scholarship in general
  • A group of thinkers
  • The majority opinion
  • God

I could provide examples of each of these, but since it’s still fresh, let’s use the example provided by the recent discussion on here. What emerged in the discussions on Hitchens was that all of the atheists that commented relied on majority opinion as the authority to authorize ethical principles. This is frankly ethnocentric and ignorant of both sociology and world history. For one, this makes ethics completely relative to one’s current time and location. It also eliminates the ability to ethically critique another culture’s majority opinion on a matter as being “wrong.” The holocaust gets over used so let’s consider a different example.

For most of our nation’s history, we were at best split on the issue of racism. It would be hard to statistically validate that stable over time was a majority of people who harbored a racist bent, but given the Civil War, I would say that the majority of our nation was more or less racist, even a good bit of the way into the middle of this past century. The South was obviously more explicit about it, but they weren’t too much kinder in the North as a whole.

But then, along comes Martin Luther King Jr. Racism, which was once mainstream and deep seated in our “majority opinion,” is now something that is (rightfully) denigrated in the culture at large. The question though for the atheist is, “On the basis of what authority can racism be condemned?” The majority opinion is obviously against it now, but it was rather clearly for it, or at best ambivalent about it 100 years ago. Who in fact held to the objectively true moral norm?

I can answer the question given the authority of the Word of God and it’s teaching that man is made in the image of God and so from a Christian standpoint racism is wrong because it conflicts with the nature of God and with the clear teachings of His word regarding how to treat one another. Any Christian who is harboring racist feelings or intents is doing so inconsistently with their Christianity. I could make the case further from a Christian point of view, but there are probably very few atheists who would disagree with this particular point. They would just disagree with the authority on which the claim is based.

The charge might be made that the OT endorsed racism because of the genocide present and that only in the NT is loving one another encouraged, but all I’ll say at this point is that this much like comparing apples and oranges as if they were literally the same thing. The issue there (between OT and NT) is not the same as the issue between a sway of majority public opinion in our nation’s heritage.

This more or less brings us full circle though. In many ways, Christians and atheists can agree in principle on some moral norms. The antithesis emerges in the basis for holding them and in regards to the authority on which one bases them. As Bahnsens says,

“Providing that no mistakes have been made in logical calculus or observation, a difference in personal authority will always lie behind an argument that is at an impasse.” (pg. 87)

Citing the antithesis alluded to earlier, Bahnsen then concludes:

“Until one’s authority structure changes, his ultimate philosophic position will remain unaltered. Therefore, all argumentation between non-Christian and believer must inevitably become circular, beginning and ending with some personal authority (and not a question of epistemology or metaphysic abstracted from the other).” (pg. 88)

The reason for the circularity is that the beginning of any argument (logically, not necessarily linearly) is a personal authority not previously argued for. When the atheist and Christian have worked there way through all the twists and turns and find an impasse, it is at this clash of ultimate authorities. The question then becomes, “Whose ultimate authority is actually capable of making sense of reality?” and at that point the argument for the Christian at least, turns to an argument from the impossibility of the contrary (or at least one centering on the preconditions of intelligibility).

In other words, for illustrative purposes, the atheist’s ultimate authority is presupposed and then demonstrated to be unable to make sense of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. Many times, the atheist will refuse to follow the line of argumentation that is starting (logically) with his own presuppositions, not because it is inherently illogical, but because he is dissatisfied with the end result. This is because he does actually know that God exists, even if he verbally refuses to admit it. By not following the logical conclusion of his own arguments, he condemns himself as either inconsistent, or as failing to actually believe what he claims to believe.

Either way, in the end, I still claim that every atheist knows that God exists, not because I’m clever and I think I know something, but because my ultimate authority makes that claim. Romans is very clear in the first chapter that all men know God exists and some will attempt to suppress the truth. All I’m doing is pointing that out when I see it, and it is most clearly seen in reference to what one takes as their ultimate authority.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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