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Are Atheists in Denial?

Myths About Atheism: Atheists Know God Exists and are Lying to Themselves


You actually know that God exists, but you are in denial for some reason.

This is a very common claim, perhaps for a number of reasons. Some people are so sure of the existence of their god that they have trouble imagining that someone else could honestly not feel the same way. Some may also imagine that the existence of evidence for their god is so abundant and so overwhelming that genuine disbelief cannot exist. It may be possible for a person to be confused as to what the “real” God is, but not that God does exist.

Because honest disagreement is not possible, the cause of disbelief must be denial. Such an attitude has a venerable pedigree, going right back to Paul:

    For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Romans 1:18-21)

Paul's point here is that no one can claim not to know that a god exists — there are no agnostics or atheists. The alleged reason is that God has “showed” us his existence, evidently through the existence of things in the natural world. If anyone claims not to know that a god exists (much less use that as a basis for not believing in a god), then they are lying to the theist and/or to themselves.

When this claim is made on the basis of the alleged evidence in nature for the existence of God, then the claimant is assuming the validity of the Argument To Design. Unfortunately, it is not entirely clear in Paul’s passage what it is about the “things that are made” which are supposed to “show” us that God exists. If he is talking about the natural world generally, then the claim simply begs the question because it would need to be shown that the natural world is evidence for some particular god. That isn’t something which can simply be assumed without questioning.

Whatever his rationale, what Paul wrote is not only question-begging, but it is also little more than an ad hominem fallacy. One would have to have very good reasons to assert that a particular person, much less an entire class of people, were all deceiving themselves and/or others. The mere assertion that the alleged evidence for this god is “obvious” is insufficient. How would theists feel if they were told that they “really knew” that their god did not exist, but that they were “in denial” because they were afraid to face a world where they are on their own?

Such a statement, made in such a manner, is an ad hominem argument (specifically, the Genetic Fallacy) because it purports to dismiss the validity of theism by attacking the alleged motivations for theism. Theism, however, can only be rationally rejected by examining the theistic claims themselves — not people’s motives for being a theist. Such a statement is also an implicit statement of self-superiority because the underlying message is, “At least I’m not afraid to face life on my own.”

All of these problems also exist for the claim that atheists are in denial. So, if a theist finds the above to be insulting and irrational, then they shouldn’t say the same about others. Sadly, some atheists do make the above statements about theists, and they should learn better.

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