Where To Start

When it comes to disagreements about the existence of God people usually want to proceed without ever setting down a clear set of rules by which to make a case. We often assume that we are all thinking along the same lines as to what the rules are when it comes to discussions about God and truth and knowledge and other such subjects. This assumption is unfortunate because Christians and non-Christians “play” by a different set of rules. The amount of literature written about the subject of the existence of God could fill libraries, yet if we searched through all of the volumes of what has been written on this topic we would likely find very little mention about the rules we should follow when addressing the topic of the existence of God. Let us now take a closer look at some unargued assumptions about the rules of debate between a Christian and an atheist.

Typically when a Christian and an atheist come together to debate the topic of the existence of God the Christian provides a host of proofs to try and show the atheist that God does in fact exist. The object is usually to persuade the atheist from the raw facts of experience and reason that God exists. Meanwhile the atheist is in the more comfortable position of knocking these proofs down and showing that the arguments being offered by the Christian do not bring one from atheism to belief in God. Sometimes an argument for the nonexistence of God is provided by the atheist, but usually only to further discourage the plausibility of the proofs offered by the Christian. Now we already mentioned the subject of rules, but before we enter back into that discussion we need to ask first if there is a “level playing field“. Though most people never notice, the atheist has an advantage over the Christian in the scenario just described. The atheist has set the rules and the Christian has made the giant mistake of playing by them without question.

The atheist in the account given starts from the position that God does not exist. The Christian does as well. The atheist has assumed his position from the very beginning of the debate and does not need to do anything to protect it apart from critiquing the arguments for the existence of God. In other words, atheism is accepted as the default position. What is troubling is that the Christian typically goes right along with the default position of atheism and proceeds to offer proofs for the existence of God to try and get out of atheism. The Christian and the atheist both assume that atheism is correct and that anything that needs to be proven is up to the Christian, not the atheist. This hardly seems fair. We will turn the scenario around to emphasize this point.

Many people would consider it unfair for the Christian to just assume that God exists when engaging in a debate on the existence of God. There appears to be no purpose to a debate where the correctness of one position is assumed before the debate even begins. We might be quick to scoff at a Christian who would take the position that God exists from the beginning of a debate without offering a logical proof for the existence of God, but why when the atheist is doing the exact same thing with his own position? A neutral position from which to debate the existence of God is never taken by either side but rather the position of atheism is usually taken for granted by both sides. Often this defaulting of atheism is attributed to where the “burden of proof” should be assigned.

To have the “burden of proof” is to be obligated to present some type of evidence or reasons for one’s position. It is often asserted, incorrectly, that the “burden of proof” lies with the individual who is attempting to prove the existence of God. Without going into this in too great of detail, such a notion is incorrect. Both the Christian and the atheist make claims when entering into debate against one another, and both parties must therefore offer supporting arguments. The burden of proof lies with a person making a claim. Starting a debate from the position that there is no God is just assuming without argument that God does not exist. Why should the atheist be allowed to just assume the very same position he needs to prove when the Christian is expected to do so much more? The debate is unfairly thrown in favor of the atheist from its inception when this traditional approach to such a classic debate topic is adhered to.

It may still strike you as odd that the question of which side we start with has been raised for consideration. Something just does not seem right about the Christian assuming from the outset of the debate that God exists. However, the alternative to assuming from the outset that God exists is assuming from the outset that God does not exist, which is essentially the position of the atheist. Why should the atheist be given the benefit of the doubt from the outset of the debate instead of the Christian? Not only is it unfair for the Christian to have to start from the position of atheism in order to make his case, but it is also hypocritical, for the Christian does believe that God exists and is trying to bring the atheist to that position as well. It is dishonest to act as though God may not exist and then argue that He does. This is where the discussion of rules from earlier comes into focus but first we will spell out in a more formal way the ramifications of what we have discussed so far.

Traditionally when people want to prove the existence of God they begin with the idea that God does not exist and try to work their way to establishing that God does exist. The traditional method looks something like this:

Arguments -> God

To clarify, the person who uses this method comes alongside the atheist as if there is no God. An argument for the existence of God is then introduced in order to try and prove that God exists. Such arguments usually consist of questions about how the world began, the recognition of design in the universe, historical evidence and other philosophical proofs concerning morality, beauty, and the nature of God.

An example of one such proof for the existence of God is the Kalam Cosmological Argument:

1. Everything which begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore the universe has a cause.

Additional steps may be added to the proof to show that the cause of the universe is God. For now, just understand that the traditional method introduces an argument with God at the end of the argument.

This site takes somewhat of an opposite approach to the question of the existence of God. We will begin with the existence of God and then make our arguments from there. The method explained on this site looks something like this:

God -> Arguments

To clarify, the person who uses this method does not come alongside the atheist as if there is no God. The existence and nature of God are introduced and then an argument is made to prove that it is impossible for God to not exist. Make sure you are clear about this; we do not just assume that God exists without warrant for doing so, but instead offer a very powerful argument to show that it is impossible that God does not exist. The main difference in the traditional method and the method presented on this site is what was just mentioned; the traditional method has God at the end of arguments, the method this site teaches has arguments at the end of God.


10 Comments

Daniel K. MacKenzie

What if the argument is not weather God exists or not, but weather there are good reasons for belief in God? God may exist, but it doesn’t neccesarily follow that good reasons for belief in God exist. This is actually what most atheist argue. So if this is what we are debating is it not appropriate to introduce arguments like the kalaam cosmological argument?

chrisbolt

“God may exist, but it doesn’t neccesarily follow that good reasons for belief in God exist.”

I disagree. If God exists then there are not only good reasons for believing that He exists, but it is also impossible to believe otherwise.

Jason Dulle

I agree that it is unfair to assume atheism is the default position in a debate. If the question being debated is “Does God exist?”, both presenters have the burden of proof to establish their respective claims before the audience.

Given that William Craig is the biggest promoter of the KCA, I imagine that this is directed, at least in part, at him. If so, I disagree that Craig’s approach is to assume that God does not exist. Just because he offers arguments for that conclusion does not mean that He assumes God doesn’t exist (anymore than an atheist who offers reasons to think God doesn’t exist is assuming that God does). And if you are familiar with his epistemology, Craig is quite Reformed in his approach to how one personally knows God exists (through the self-authenticating witness of the Spirit). But as he notes, there is a difference between how we know God exists, and how we show that God exists. In a debate in which you have to defend an affirmative position that God exists, it does you little good to merely state your personal assurance that God exists. You need to present reasons to back that up so that others might come to know what you already know. That’s what Craig does. But he doesn’t stop there. He also speaks of his personal encounter with God, showing that one can know God exists wholly apart from rational investigation.

C.L. Bolt

“I disagree that Craig’s approach is to assume that God does not exist.”

Is it not characteristic of Craig’s approach to convince the atheist that God exists by using arguments that would be acceptable to the atheist from within the context of the atheist’s own worldview? Do you mean to imply that Craig does not do this, but rather assumes the existence of God from the outset of his argumentation? If this is the case, then in your view is Craig actually a presuppositionalist?

“Just because he offers arguments for that conclusion does not mean that He assumes God doesn’t exist”

There is a deeper epistemological issue we might probe at this point regarding God being a necessary being, but it would probably be better in this context to refer to my questions above instead especially with respect to the arguments as presented to the atheist.

“(anymore than an atheist who offers reasons to think God doesn’t exist is assuming that God does).”

An atheist who offers reasons to think God doesn’t exist assumes that God does exist though!

“And if you are familiar with his epistemology,”

I am. I cut my teeth on Craig.

“Craig is quite Reformed in his approach to how one personally knows God exists”

Insofar as Craig considers God belief to be properly basic, this may be true. However we must be careful to differentiate between what Craig believes and the way in which Craig presents his arguments. My argument with respect to Craig would be that his methodology is inconsistent. If I am correct then we should expect to see such inconsistencies as you may be pointing out here.

“(through the self-authenticating witness of the Spirit).”

Are you sure that this is the Reformed position on the matter? See Frame’s interaction with Craig in Five Views On Apologetics.

“But as he notes, there is a difference between how we know God exists, and how we show that God exists.”

Which I have a problem with if our knowing that God exists is merely a subjective matter. In what relevant ways does Craig’s Holy Spirit epistemology differ from that of the Mormon’s burning bosom epistemology, for example?

“In a debate in which you have to defend an affirmative position that God exists, it does you little good to merely state your personal assurance that God exists.”

It serves to clarify your position and it is honest. Other than that you are correct, but who is suggesting that anyone should merely state one’s “personal assurance that God exists”? Certainly not the presuppositionalist.

“You need to present reasons to back that up so that others might come to know what you already know.”

The idea that someone comes to know God is inconsistent with Scripture, which teaches that everyone already knows Him, howbeit not in a saving way. I am not sure what party in this discussion you believe will not “present reasons to back that up”. It is certainly not the presuppositionalist.

“That’s what Craig does. But he doesn’t stop there. He also speaks of his personal encounter with God, showing that one can know God exists wholly apart from rational investigation.”

Speaking of one’s personal encounter with God, according to the program you here present, does nothing to show that “one can know God exists wholly apart from rational investigation”. By differentiating between knowing and showing in the way Craig has one has already precluded the possibility of this task.

Thanks for the comment!

Jason Dulle

My point is that Craig obviously believes in the existence of God, and does not believe that one must have rational reasons for that belief to be rationally justified. But he also believes that such reasons exist, and that they are persuasive for those who are willing to be persuaded.

In a debate on the question of God’s existence, in which someone is tasked with defending the affirmative position that God exists, how else could one do so unless they supply reasons for thinking God exists? Are they just supposed to get up there and say, “God exists and you all know it”? That’s hardly a defense (not saying that’s what a presuppositionalist would do). Even if you don’t think that giving reasons to believe God exists can be an effective form of evangelism (a claim I do not think it borne out by either Scripture or experience) due to the volitional bias against God shared by the unsaved, surely that does not detract from the legitimacy of those reasons. And so what if the people don’t convert. The reason they are rejecting the evidence is not because it is not rationally persuasive, but because their hearts are set against God. But for people like that, no form of apologetic is going to “work,” even a transcendental approach. I happen to like the argument offered by presuppositionalists that rational inquiry and knowledge depend on the existence of God. But a person whose heart is set against God won’t be persuaded by that argument either, unless the Spirit has opened their heart to attend to it. But if that’s what makes presuppositional arguments persuasive, why wouldn’t that be true of evidential arguments?

Contrary to my claim, you assert that an atheist who offers reasons for thinking God does not exist is assuming God exists. I disagree. While you and I know that deep down he knows God exists, on the surface of it, some atheists actually think that they really do think they know God doesn’t exist. Surely those people are not assuming that God exists when they make their arguments. And even if you will not grant that, surely on the level of methodology, they are not presupposing God’s existence in order to make arguments against Him. They no more assume that God exists when they make arguments against Him than I assume Santa Clause exists when I make arguments against His actual existence. The only thing we are both assuming is that the concept of God/Santa Clause exists.

I have read Five Views. Apparently I missed something, or forgot what I read. I’ll have to go back again.

C.L. Bolt

It would be beneficial for you to interact with the works of presuppositionalists, namely me in this context, when you are attempting a response to them. It is difficult for me to make sense of your response. The questions are in regard to Craig’s argumentation rather than his personal belief. Is it not characteristic of Craig’s approach to convince the atheist that God exists by using arguments that would be acceptable to the atheist from within the context of the atheist’s own worldview? Do you mean to imply that Craig does not do this, but rather assumes the existence of God from the outset of his argumentation? If this is the case, then in your view is Craig actually a presuppositionalist?

“In a debate on the question of God’s existence, in which someone is tasked with defending the affirmative position that God exists, how else could one do so unless they supply reasons for thinking God exists?”

I do not know, and I do not see how this is relevant.

“Are they just supposed to get up there and say, ‘God exists and you all know it’?”

I think I have already answered this.

“That’s hardly a defense (not saying that’s what a presuppositionalist would do).”

So why are you writing about it?

The following two statements are inconsistent with each other:

“I happen to like the argument offered by presuppositionalists that rational inquiry and knowledge depend on the existence of God.”

“Contrary to my claim, you assert that an atheist who offers reasons for thinking God does not exist is assuming God exists. I disagree.”

“But a person whose heart is set against God won’t be persuaded by that argument either, unless the Spirit has opened their heart to attend to it.”

I differentiate between reason and cause as well as proof and persuasion, but all this has little to do with the discussion.

“Contrary to my claim, you assert that an atheist who offers reasons for thinking God does not exist is assuming God exists. I disagree.”

Then what is the atheist assuming? What school of thought is the atheist basing his or her arguments upon?

“While you and I know that deep down he knows God exists, on the surface of it, some atheists actually think that they really do think they know God doesn’t exist. Surely those people are not assuming that God exists when they make their arguments.”

Do people know that God exists or not Jason? Are they actively suppressing that knowledge or not? Your inconsistency on this point is becoming more evident as we go on.

“And even if you will not grant that, surely on the level of methodology, they are not presupposing God’s existence in order to make arguments against Him.”

Yes, they are. Do you believe that the existence of God is the necessary precondition for rationality or not?

“They no more assume that God exists when they make arguments against Him than I assume Santa Clause exists when I make arguments against His actual existence.”

Santa Clause is not the precondition of rationality. God is.

“The only thing we are both assuming is that the concept of God/Santa Clause exists.”

So you are saying that some do not believe God exists? I think you are a bit confused about all of this.

Daniel K. MacKenzie

chrisbolt said “I disagree. If God exists then there are not only good reasons for believing that He exists, but it is also impossible to believe otherwise.”

Could you please show why this is so and what definition of
God you are starting from? Are you starting from the premise that the Bible is the Word of God or just that God is the giver of laws of logic? I still can’t see why using the KCA has anything to do with pressuposing that God doesn’t exist.

C.L. Bolt

Yes, the God I am starting from is the Triune God of Christian Scripture and the reason I write that there are good reasons for believing that He exists and that it is impossible to believe otherwise can be found in Romans 1.18ff. The Bible is the Word of God and the Kalam allegedly does not presuppose God in its premises because to do so would be to beg the question. This is not necessarily what I am saying. Do you think that the Kalam does presuppose the existence of God?

Daniel K. MacKenzie

No, I don’t think the Kalaam presupposes the existence of God, but neither does it presuppose atheism. It presupposes the rationality of the world which points to God. What the Kalaam argument does is show to the atheist the problems with his own worldview, for if he rejects the Kalaam argument he either has to accept an infinite regress or the illusionary nature of time, or that something can come from nothing, all of which lead to the irrationality which many atheists accuse the believer of. Of course the TAG does the same, but why do you believe we must start with the TAG? Why do you seem to suggest it is irreverent to use the KCA? Is there a revelation that tells us this is wrong? Why is it wrong for the sake of argument to start from the atheist worldview just to show it’s irrationality? Or do you maybe think that the whole KCA is flawed? If so, how, for I don’t see it.

I’m also interested in how do you believe you received this knowledge that the Bible is the word of God, and how do you know what the Bible is? Is the end of Mark part of the word of God or not? How do you decide? Do you weigh evidence? Is Romans 1,18 talking about the full revelation of God in Christ and His Word, or only to those aspects of God that the creation points to? Is the revelation from the creation equal in scope to the revelation from Scripture?

Thank you for taking the time to respond!

Daniel K. MacKenzie

Actually I suppose I do believe that the KCA pressuposes the existence of God, but only in a indirect way. I believe atheism is essentially irrational and that there are many ways this can be shown to the athiest, and it seems to me that there is no problem in using the KCA to do that. If there is a problem, please could you explain it to me? I’m sorry if I’m a bit slow in understanding your position.


Leave a Comment