The problem with atheism
Kevin Simington

Kevin Simington

Over the years I have encountered many earnest seekers and sceptics who claim that there is insufficient evidence to prove the existence of God – and I completely agree with them! You cannot indisputably prove the existence of God. In fact, final and irrevocable proof of anything is impossible. Philosophically speaking, I cannot prove that I exist. I cannot even prove that the physical universe exists; that it is not some giant simulation into which I am plugged. For the most part, we must satisfy ourselves, not with indisputable proof, but with the weight of reasonable evidence which leads us to conclude that something is probably true. The same is true in regard to God. While I cannot indisputably prove His existence, the weight of observable evidence leads me to conclude that the most likely explanation of that evidence is the existence of an all-powerful Creator God.

Of course, skeptics dispute either the fact of this evidence or its significance. They argue that much of the evidence commonly proposed by God’s defenders is either weak or has convincing alternate explanations. Consequently, many skeptics claim that if God does exist, and their unbelief ultimately turns out to be wrong, they cannot be blamed for their unbelief – the fault lies with God for not making the evidence for His existence more convincing! In other words, many skeptics claim that they cannot be held culpable (to blame) for their unbelief if it turns out that they are wrong, and God would be unjust for punishing them for their honest mistaken unbelief.

Acclaimed theologian and philosopher, William Lane Craig, answers this objection by proposing that “there is no such thing as non-culpable, reasonable unbelief.”[1] He contends that there is sufficient evidence for God’s existence if one searches with an open heart and mind. According to this view, those who reject that evidence are entirely culpable due to their hard hearts, and God is justified in condemning them. Sceptics, however, argue that reasonable non-belief does exist. They claim that there are many sincere people who have searched for God and failed to find Him. So, the crucial question appears to be, “Is there such a thing as reasonable, non-culpable unbelief?”

The rarity of true atheism

On June 24th, 1982, a British Airways Boeing 747 bound for Australia out of Jakarta was cruising at 12,000 metres over the Indian Ocean, when suddenly, without any warning, all four of its engines failed. For the next 12 minutes the pilots fought desperately to restart them, and the plane plummeted 8,000 meters. For the 263 passengers and crew, it was the longest 12 minutes of their lives, and they were convinced they were about to die. But finally, the Boeing Rolls Royce Engines refired, the pilots managed to pull the plane up out of its dive, and about half an hour later the plane landed back at Jakarta airport. An enquiry found that the engines had stopped because the plane had flown into an invisible cloud of volcanic gas from Mt Galunggung, which was erupting 170 kms away, in West Java. With the gas in the air there was insufficient oxygen to support engine combustion, and so the engines simply stopped! Only after the plane emerged from the gas cloud at 4,000 metres, were the engines finally able to be restarted.

This terrifying event became known as the “Jakarta Incident”, and it made world headlines. One of the passengers later published a book on the incident, entitled “All Four Engines Have Failed”, and, in 2007, the Discovery Channel Canada and National Geographic produced a TV documentary about it, called “Falling From The Sky”[2].

There are two really interesting aspects to the incident. The first is what was happening in the cockpit during those 12 minutes. The crew went through the start-up procedure 67 times before the engines finally restarted. Their remarkable calmness and diligence in following the set procedures has become the classic case study in how to persistently follow procedures during an emergency, and this incident is now quoted and studied in just about every pilot training program around the world.

But what fascinates me most about this story, is what took place in the passenger compartment during those 12 long minutes. It all began with an announcement over the cabin speakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.” Many of the passengers later acknowledged that they were convinced they were about to die. Some of them got their passports out of their overhead luggage and placed them in their coat pockets so that their bodies could be properly identified. Several women confessed to putting on stilettoes, just in case they survived, so they could kick the sharks with their heels! The most common response, however, was prayer; desperate, pleading prayer as people cried out to God to save them.

When these praying passengers were later interviewed, they were asked, “Do you believe in God?”, and many of them replied that they didn’t really have a faith in God.[3] When asked about this inconsistency, some of them explained that it was a natural response arising from their sheer terror. This is certainly not unique. It is not uncommon for people who are professed atheists or agnostics to cry out to God in desperation when they find themselves in terrifying or traumatic circumstances. Atheist, J.D. Moyer, in his article, “Why, As An Atheist, I Pray”,[4] speaks of enjoying the experience of feeling as though he is “talking to someone more powerful than us, who loves us”. He says that “prayer can satisfy a sort of psychological craving … an inner void”. Furthermore, he states that he does not believe in God, and he acknowledges that “the entity I’m addressing exists only in my mind — a construct, yet it feels like I’m addressing someone outside of myself — an externality”.

Both the British Airways incident and J.D. Moyer’s admission about his prayer life, illustrate a central truth of Romans 1; that humanity has an innate sense of God’s existence, which many people choose to supress:

“… people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” (Rom 1:18-19).

According to the Bible, those who profess to be atheists – either soft atheists (“I don’t believe in God”) or hard atheists (“there is no God”) – are suppressing an instinctive awareness of God’s existence that He has placed within each of us. Of course, as this innate awareness is suppressed over a long period of time by increasing layers of rationalisation, it grows increasingly dimmer. The determined atheist, through the persistent iteration of a dissenting viewpoint and the accumulation of layers of rational counter-argument, can all but extinguish this spark of spiritual awareness. Romans 1 refers to this process as the darkening of the heart:

 “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (Rom 1:21-22).

The fact that atheists sometimes cry out to God in moments of extreme danger, however, indicates that the spark of spiritual awareness is never completely extinguished. In moments of mortal terror, the carefully constructed layers of disbelief can be stripped away in an instant, revealing the primal, instinctive awareness of God that has never completely deserted them.

Many atheists, if they read this, would, no doubt, strongly disagree with this concept of an intrinsic, universal concept of God within humanity. They would argue that they have no such inner sense of God’s presence and that their atheism is untainted by even the slightest equivocation. Yet, history is replete with ardent atheists who, when placed in extreme mortal danger, execute spiritual backflips that would make any gymnast proud.

·     Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English–American political activist, one of the founding fathers of America, and a very outspoken and influential atheist. He published the book, “The Age Of Reason”, which was an atheist manifesto that influenced thousands of people to question God’s existence. As he lay dying, however, he uttered these famous words, “I would give worlds if I had them, that The Age of Reason had never been published. O Lord, help me! Christ, help me! No, don’t leave; stay with me! For I am on the edge of Hell here! If ever the Devil had an agent, I have been that one.”[5]

·     Sir Frances Newport (1555 – 1623) was the founding president of the British Infidel Association. As he lay dying, several members of the Association had gathered around his bed, to encourage and support him. Suddenly, Newport called out, with a look of terror in his eyes, “You need not tell me there is no God for now I know there is one, and that I am in His presence! You need not tell me there is no Hell. I feel myself already slipping. Wretches, cease your idle talk! I know I am lost forever! Oh, that fire! Oh, the insufferable pangs of Hell!”[6] He then slumped into unconsciousness and died.

·     Sir Thomas Scott (1535 – 1594) was an outspoken atheist and member of the British Parliament who was instrumental in passing several laws that were detrimental to the Church in Great Britain at that time. As he lay dying, he cried out, “Until this moment, I thought there was neither God nor Hell; now I know and feel that there are both, and I am doomed to perdition by the just judgment of the Almighty!”[7]

·     Voltaire (1694 – 1778) was a famous French philosopher and an outspoken atheist. His real name was Francois Arouet, but was he better known by his non-deplume, Voltaire. His atheistic writings influenced thousands of people to abandon religious faith. On his death bed, he cried out these final words to his attending physician, “I am abandoned by God and man! I would give you half of what I am worth if you would give me six months life. But I am going to Hell! Oh Christ! Oh Jesus Christ!”[8]

These are some of the more extreme examples of how mortal terror and the imminence of death can bring a long-buried awareness of God to the surface, one that has been denied and supressed by years of rationalisation, but which is still innately present in the subconscious. I also suspect that as these men lay dying, poised between this realm and the next, they began to glimpse their fate, as if a door to the afterlife began to open as the door to this life closed.

Is there such a thing as indubitable, unequivocal atheism? Many atheists would vehemently declare so. Yet it is the Bible’s proposition that even the most emphatic declarations of unbelief, sincerely held by many atheists, represent an unwillingness to attend to the innate sense of God that He has placed within us all. Such people “suppress the truth … since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them” (Rom 1:19). While atheists may convince themselves of their absolute unbelief, they do not convince God, who declares that, “people are without excuse” (Rom 1:20). According to God, there is no such thing as non-culpable unbelief.

[This article is an excerpt from my book, “Finding God When He Seems To Be Hiding”]


[1] William Lane Craig, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/question-answer/P10/is-unbelief-culpable

[2] Discovery Channel  Canada and National Geographic, “Falling From The Sky”, 2007

[3] IBID

[4] http://www.jdmoyer.com/2011/07/25/why-as-an-atheist-i-pray/

[5] https://www.christian-faith.com/words-of-dying-atheists-and-skeptics/

[6] IBID

[7] IBID

[8] IBID

***

Kevin Simington (B.Th. Dip. Min.) is a theologian, apologist and social commentator. He spent 31 years in Christian ministry as a church pastor and a Christian educator. He is the author of Finding God When He Seems to be Hiding; No More Monkey Business: Evolution in Crisis; and Making Sense of the Bible. He is now a full time author and speaker. Visit https://smartfaith.net/.