Atheism by Default?
It is important to begin our discussion of atheism with a proper definition of the term. Webster traces atheism from the Greek atheos (godless, from a- + theos god) and defines it as “the doctrine that there is no deity.” It is immediately clear that atheism is absolutely not a philosophically neutral position. It actually affirms the absence of God; it does not affirm the absence of evidence or plausibility. (Many sincere questioners may be better suited to identify themselves as agnostics, which Webster defines as “a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown,” or “one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god.”) It is crucial to differentiate between such positions because each results in a different deduction toward reality. Atheism asserts the non-existence of God, presumably because of lack of evidence, or in essence, by default.
The argument becomes problematic because to assert such an absolute negative requires that one has ultimate knowledge with which to make such a claim. It is not plausible to make such a statement purely on the basis of doubt or lack of evidence. In fact, even if the atheist could provide coherent arguments against the existence of God, the conclusion that God does not exist has not truly been proven. Atheist Kai Neilson says ‘To show that an argument is invalid or unsound is not to show that the conclusion of the argument is false….All the proofs of God’s existence may fail, but it still may be the case that God exists (Kai Nielsen, Reason and Practice, New York: Harper & Row, 1971, 143-44).” In other words, without transcendent knowledge of the universe, one cannot assert an absolute negative such as that God does not exist. Now here is the counterpoint: Though one may logically prove the illegitimacy of the atheistic argument, theism by default has not been shown to be true. One must defend theism with positive argumentation, not merely by assuming that since atheism is untrue, theism is true. Legitimate argumentation in this area can take many forms and approaches.
The cosmological argument that makes use of observational and philosophical points will be more coherent as our understanding of God’s existence must coincide with our understanding of reality. Thus, as we look at the apparent contingency of our universe as validation of the idea that it is not eternal, but has been caused. One may philosophically deduce that a universe that has come into being must have a first cause- one that transcends the essential existence of that which it causes. In other words, for God to be able to create the universe in which we exist, with all of its complexity and contingency, He must be essentially other- complete and sustained without His creation, and eternal in His nature. This understanding is necessary, as the typical argument against the first-cause proposition is that the first cause must have a cause, which in turn must have a cause, ad nauseum. The reason why this argument cannot apply to God as first cause is because God, as creator of the universe and all of its properties by which it operates (specifically and most important for our purposes: time, physics, etc.), must transcend those properties by not having come in to being Himself. Dr. Jonathan Sarfati provides a helpful illustration to this issue: “a more sophisticated questioner might ask: ‘If the universe needs a cause, then why doesn’t God need a cause? And if God doesn’t need a cause, why should the universe need a cause?’ In reply, Christians should use the following reasoning:
- Every thing which has a beginning has a cause.
- The universe has a beginning.
- Therefore the universe has a cause
(Read Dr. Sarfati's article here).” God cannot be subject to the laws of physics or time in his creation. Though He creates and employs those laws, He cannot be subject to them! Thus, logically, God requires no cause.