What Every Atheist Knows: Thought

March 18, 2010 — 1 Comment


Based on some of the dialogue from the Answer a Fool post, I think it might be helpful to make explicit some of the assumptions I bring to the table in rational argumentation. Since that post (and the one preceding it) got their jump start from Bahnsen’s book, it might be best to return there as he lays out some key considerations.

The main idea we’ll address is in regards to self-deception. To be clear, this is an epistemological consideration, and is based on Bahnsen’s Ph.D dissertation from USC. Hopefully though, I can break it down into plain language, and we’ll analyze his ideas in regards to the following proposition:

  • God exists (hence forth P)

While it may seem radical, based on Romans 1:19ff, I would suggest (along with Cornelius Van Til and Bahnsen) that everyone in fact knows P to be true. Not everyone openly claims to believe that P is true (obviously) but everyone knows P is true. It is a justified true belief that everyone possesses by virtue of being human.

The question then is, “How can you account for atheism in thought and practice?”


It may be helpful in regards to thought to distinguish between knowledge and belief. It probably would not be wise to drive too strong of wedge between the two, but it is best not to treat the words as synonymous. For the purposes here, knowledge can refer to justified true belief (see how they cannot be mutually exclusive terms?). In a sense then knowledge includes belief, albeit only true beliefs. So if we refer to the classes of true beliefs and false beliefs, the former is actual knowledge, the latter is not.

(You might initially argue that people hold all kinds of false beliefs, which is an issue we might cover here, but in that case, the person is mistaken about the truthfulness of their beliefs. The propositional content though does not correspond to anything real, so it is not an item of knowledge. I could pursue this further and clarify more but it would just get more complicated epistemologically, so we’ll have to chase that rabbit later on.)

In this case we are referencing P (God exists). Based on Romans 1:19ff we are suggesting that this is something everyone knows, but clearly not everyone believes that this piece of their knowledge is in fact true. Everyone knows this, but not everyone explicitly knows that they know this.

Interestingly, psychological conviction is not invariably associated with all instances of genuine knowledge. To actually quote Bahnsen on the matter:

“It would be well if we were to keep separate a man’s claims to know and his actual knowing; the presence of one is no guarantee of the presence of the other. The man who claims to know that p may be mistaken, while the man who genuinely knows p might never utter a claim to that effect. (pg. 92)

He then explains that the latter condition can exist for a number of reasons:

  1. The knower may never have occasion or interest to report his knowledge
  2. The knower may not be confident that the reasons for his belief constitute justification for it (while in fact they do)
  3. The knower may not personally realize that he knows such and such

Each case is usually related to the following basis:

  1. Circumstance have’t arisen to report knowledge
  2. Related to doubt about the specific claim to knowledge
  3. A state of affairs that precludes any claim to knowledge

Based on all of this, there is in fact no valid reason to suppose that someone does not know something simply because they refrain from claiming to know it. That may be the case, but it shouldn’t be assumed. Behavior many times can indicate what a person subconsciously actually knows (and hence believers at some level), but that will have to wait for the next post to be fleshed out.

So for instance, the typical atheist, via his own rational ability claims to know that God does not exist (non-P). In reality though, because of restraints on universal negatives, this is not something a person can actually know. Rather it is something that they can believe, and feel very strongly about (psychological certainty), even reason logically to prove, but in the end, it is not something one can actually know to be true or something that can validly be proven via logic (you can build an argument where “God does not exist” is the conclusion, but it may very well be an un-sound argument). The question still remains, is that an actual justified true belief, or is it just something the person feels strongly about in an emotional sense and is endeavoring to build arguments to substantiate?

This is most likely what is often the case, as strong evidence to the contrary and adequate justification for a belief being true can easily be overturned if the conclusion possesses enough adverse emotional force. What would normally intellectually satisfy the individual may not do so in cases where the conclusions of the argument necessitate a major lifestyle change. Or as Bahnsen puts it,

“If a proposition poses a possible threat or anxious situation for someone, he can refuse to grant the validity or sufficiency of the justification for that proposition. One’s psychological disposition can compel him to ‘close his eyes to the facts.'”‘ (pg. 95)

At best, one can believe that God does not exist, but still have to admit that they do not know for sure whether or not He actually does. They cannot demonstrate justified true belief for the proposition not-P (God does not exist). That though places them as an atheist in regards to psychological conviction (“I don’t believe God exists”), but an agnostic with respect to the actual content of their knowledge (“I don’t know” related to point 2 above). This still certainly allows for point 3 to be the actual state of affairs, even if psychologically the person is strongly committed to point 2.

At this point, a few questions probably remain. It might seem very much like the atheist could turn the argument around and say pretty much everything I’ve just said in regards to Christians. That would certainly be true if the burden of proof can validly be shifted to the Christian and not remain on the atheist. While I probably won’t tackle that question, we’ll instead turn to the issue of practice and see if it can demonstrated that even though atheists believe God doesn’t exist, no one in practice actually lives their life to this effect. Or as stated earlier, behavior can be a very strong indicator of what someone actually knows and believes.

Another way to look at it is to say that the emotional force of the valid conclusions to the premise “God does not exist” usually throws people and the argument is not followed. The reason for that, which I will argue, is that people know that God exists and so do not want to follow the logical conclusions to atheism. But that will have to wait for this weekend to be explained.


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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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