Many Christians have, over the course of their ministry, made it a point to bring up the fact that they were once atheists—but have now since found Jesus. Yet if you look into their life as a so-called atheist, you will often find that it was, more or less, liberal Christianity. Granted, even liberal Christianity seems pretty atheistic in dense pockets of Evangelical and Fundamentalist belief, but even the famed C.S. Lewis wasn’t a true blood atheist. He grew up in the Church of England, had a brief stint in college where he questioned his beliefs, and in this period of his life, for his own reasons, he didn’t feel he believed perhaps as much as a devoted parishioner should, and on this ground declared himself an atheist.
This is what I consider to be a type of pseudo-atheism. It is when the believer is critical minded enough to recognize their own doubts, but it isn’t skeptical enough to actually renounce their spiritual beliefs altogether. Even C.S. Lewis held on to his Christianity through his brief flirtation with “atheism,” although I hesitate to use that term for him. For Lewis, and many like him, it wasn’t really nonbelief so much as unbelief they grappled with—and there is an important distinction. Nonbelief is to atheism as unbelief is to agnosticism. Having studied C.S. Lewis thoroughly, I would not call his form of atheism the type of atheist I view myself as. Rather, Lewis was, by my account, a strong agnostic who questioned his beliefs—a healthy thing for anyone to do.
After a short time questioning the existence of God, C.S. Lewis found logical ways to justify the lingering Christian beliefs which he clung to, and filled with the righteousness of a deeply spiritual man, C.S. Lewis had a revival as one of Christianities greatest apologists.
Indeed, C.S. Lewis often had a way of simplifying complex theological and philosophical questions in such a way, as was his fashion, to make the layman positively delight in the simplicity of the choices (but I would caution Lewis, a trained reductionist (as are all men of literature), was often guilty of oversimplifying). C.S. Lewis once affirmed that “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
I would be remiss, however, if I did not correct Lewis’s assumption, for it is mistaken. When he claims that the most probable explanation is that of another world, I call fallacy. Can we honestly assume Lewis experienced all the desires, and all the corresponding experiences therein, that this world has to offer? Because this is what Lewis is tacitly admitting, that he has experienced everything there is worth experiencing in order to quench the thirst for some unexplainable thing. Although, it is a little dishonest of Lewis, as learned as he was, to suggest he experienced all the desires and experiences worth experiencing. But before he could begin on a proper journey searching for the answers, he quickly settled back into the Christianity of his youth. Lewis was of the same mind as the Christian poet and theologian Thomas Traherne, who affirmed, “There are invisible ways of conveyance by which some great thing doth touch our souls, and by which we tend to it. Do you not feel yourself drawn by the expectation and desire of some Great Thing?”
Christians all ultimately profess they feel being drawn by the expectation and desire of some Great Thing. For them, they call this thing God, or a “personal” relationship with God. For as Trahern also informs, “Being made alone, O my soul, thou wouldst be in thy body like God in the World, an invisible mystery, too great to be comprehended by all creatures.”
There you have it—God is both to great to be comprehended and invisible. The difference of opinion here should be obvious—Christians believe this means God is Transcendent—whereas atheist interpret this as nonexistent. The question is, what would it take to convince a skeptic that something which is both impossible to comprehend and invisible to our senses actually exists? And the answer is: evidence—real tested and proved—and tested again—evidence. Without any empirical evidence, all theists have is an incomprehensible invisible nothing which they call God. Can you blame atheists for not believing in such a thing?
Barlin’s Atheism Part 2
Empiricism is the philosophical principle that all knowledge, and by extension our beliefs, are founded upon our real world experiences. Every cause has and effect, and vise versa, and in reality, these causes are testable—and thus science involves the methodology of finding ways to test these experiences and see whether or not they constitute an actual tangible part of our reality—or whether we our mistaken about the nature of these naturalistic causes and effects that we experience.
This brings us to Barlin’s second objection to atheism. Barlin claims that despite the empiricists goal of discovering objective explanations for things, it just doesn’t go far enough, as the way in which the evidence is interpreted must always be done subjectively.
But this is exactly why we have checks and balances via deduction and induction, and the ability to test, and repeat the tests, and double check our findings, and with a little bit of reason we can, albeit in a strictly subjective sort of process, come to a well reasoned and objective result(s). What Barlin seems to be doing here is offering the old canard of atheists can’t be objective because they can only think subjectively about the evidence—but this ignore the empirical methods devised to rationally come to terms with the evidence. As such, his objection is wanting. But before dismissing it entirely, we should consider the possibility—so what if all our reasoning cannot, ultimately, be trusted? Well then, what right would anyone have to claim they “know” God exists? I’m afraid Barlin’s objection is a double edged sword which cuts both ways. You can either admit we are capable of working toward objective answers, or not, but you can’t have it both ways.
Barlin gives a fitting example of two people arguing whether a glass is half empty or half full—correctly pronouncing that each is correct, but that their subjective interpretation of the glass and its contents are diametrically opposed. As such, I agree with Barlin when he asserts, “Far from being ‘the impartial judge’ empirical evidence has proved itself time and time again to be open to subjective interpretation.”
But I think he mistakes the evidence for the method in assuming that empirical evidence, when I think he means to say empiricism, is an impartial judge. Either way, empiricism is only claiming that each person has had an experience of a glass filled partially with water. Whether or not one can judge if the glass is half empty or half full depends on further evidence. Was the cup filled entirely, to full capacity, then 50% of its contents were depleted? Or was it only filled up to 50% of its capacity at which time the source of the contents stopped? Both are testable, and as a matter of fact, the test (or tests) will reveal, with great precisions, which person is objectively correct in their claim.
In other words, although both persons are correct in their observation that the glass holds water up to 50% of it’s capacity—only one man is correct in the claim of whether it is half full or half empty, because only one will be correct in the fact of whether the cup was emptied or merely filled part way.
Barlin then shifts the analogy over to God. He claims that when we look at the universe, for example, theists and atheists are interpreting the same evidence differently. He say a Christian who looks out at the galaxies is basically awe struck at the beauty and attributes God as the artificer of such, whereas the atheist will claim such beauty is inherent in the majesty of random events—and are not dependent upon a creator. Barlin clarifies his point, by saying:
If a person has convinced himself beforehand that there isn’t a God out there, he wouldn’t be able to see Him even if all the empirical evidence in the universe was staring him straight in the face. “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”
Again I would seek to correct Barlin’s mistake. Atheists have not jumped to conclusions as theists have. Remember, we are distinctly without the prerequisite evidence which would allow us to pronounce on the existence of God. As such, there is no “evidence” to be at odds about. Moreover, most atheists I know became atheists because of their undying curiosity, and they are always in search of answers and new truths, which is to say they are continually opening their eyes and aiming them toward new horizons because they want to see! It is the theist, who in blind faith, has closed their eyes to the evidence—because they don’t like the fact that the evidence we do have largely makes their God concept irrelevant.
Here Barlin moves on to his third objection to atheism, insisting:
Closely related to this and perhaps the biggest flaw in atheistic thinking of all, is that it subjectively defines and dogmatically insists on applying its own set of rules.
Barlin gives a series of examples, ranging from a star further than we can see (still actually might exist beyond our scope of horizon so we should not dismiss it)[i] to a version of the elephant in the dark room exercise, to a football analogy. Although they are fun analogies, they seem to be getting away from his point about atheism making its own rules, except that these analogies are meant to clarify his meaning, which I’m afraid they don’t—because after reading them I was a little puzzled at what he was trying to say. Although he mentions the supernatural, and metaphysical realities, apart from the natural world—but how this relates to atheists making “their own rules” I cannot tell.
After sorting through a bit of confusion, Barlin offers a hypothetical discussion between God and an Atheist. It goes like this:
Along comes the atheist and insists that there can’t be a God because he can’t see Him with his physical eyes. God turns around and says: “You won’t be able to see me with your physical eyes because you are using the wrong piece of equipment. I am a Spirit (something that exists beyond the physical realm) if you want to see me you must make use of your spiritual eyes. (John 4:24). To which the atheist replies “But I’ve used my physical eyes all my life, why should I use a different pair of eyes now? To which God replies: “Like it or not, I make the rules around here because I am God. If you want to see me you will have to position yourself so that I can reveal myself to you, you will have to activate the spiritual dimension of your make up and, by the way, I made you.” To which the atheist, rather offended by now retorts: “I am a self-made man I’ll have you know and have a very clever mind thank you very much. Furthermore I don’t believe in this “spiritual dimension” thing that you talk about because I can’t feel it and I don’t really see the need for something that I can’t feel and that I don’t understand. I am a good person in my own way and haven’t really done anyone any harm. My I.Q. (I don’t want to boast), is a bit above average and my brains have got me pretty far in life thus far so, if you can’t make me see you in a way that I can logically understand, you can’t possibly be out there, in fact, I’m being a bit of a fool talking to you like this. God’s answer: “I don’t make anyone do anything. I have given you a free will. You must choose if you want to see me. If you do then I will be able to reveal myself to you, if you don’t, my hands are tied.” The atheist responds: “Listen, I’ve already told you, because I can’t see you, you can’t be there. You can’t really be God if, as you say, ‘your hands are tied’, surely if you were God, you could do anything? Anyway, as I said, my rules are – no see, no believe. Capiesh!” To which God, with tears streaming down His face replies: "You’re playing with the wrong set of rules, this is the spiritual world that we are dealing with here, not the physical - goodbye fool" and goes back to running the Universe. The atheist however carries on along his merry way thinking smugly to himself – I really sorted his case out this time!
Honestly, I don’t know where to begin. Instead of being meaning, and tearing apart the inconsistencies and discrepancies of this hypothetical piece, I will just say this, any rational atheist who paused long enough to realize he was in fact having a conversation with something other than himself, and that this entity called itself God, would at least admit to the possibility that God exists. However, atheists being rational, also have the habit of recognizing when they are merely talking to themselves, and would never mistake such inner monologues as conversations with God, as so many theists seemingly do.
I also like the part where God keeps reminding the atheist that he is strictly a spiritual being, with no actual body to see, but later has tears streaming down his face; and then insults the atheist calling him a fool. Such a loving God! But enough of my commentary, back to critiquing Barlin’s horribly misconstrued vision of atheism.
Emphatically, Barlin insists:
The atheist insists that everyone (even God) plays according to his empirical evidence rules. In other words, empirical evidence, the scientific method is elevated above God, (should He be around).
Again, some correction is needed. Atheists don’t insist God must abide by the scientific method, empirical evidence, rules and all. What we are saying is, that given the laws of this universe, if God wants to interact with nature and effect things—whether it is answer the faithful prayers or inflicting hurricanes on infidel nations—all this requires a God which abides by the same physical laws he supposedly put into place. It is a telling fact that we see no evidence for any such God. So contrary to Barlin’s point, atheists aren’t insisting God play by their *man-made rules, but rather, we are only holding God to play fair according to his own rules—the rules he set up in the first place.
This brings us to Barlin’s closing remarks.
Don’t be a fool. Atheism will get you nowhere, has no logical foundation and is a sure-fire belief system that will mess up your life and ultimately destroy you. There is no need for you to discard your intellectual integrity when you approach God. He will satisfy your mind and so, so much more. If you are prepared to “open the curtain” of your life for Him to shine in, He will and if you are prepared to play the game “according to His rules” you will win every time. As the ancient psalmist put it so beautifully: “O taste and see that the LORD is good: Blessed is the man that trusts in Him.” (Psalm 34:8)
Personally, I feel Barlin’s closing remarks are somewhat distasteful. Not because he has completely confused atheism, in every possible degree, or conflates being an atheist with being a fool, not only a tad insulting if not entirely untrue, but that he feels atheism will “destroy” you. Powerful words from someone who has missed the side of the barn entirely. Barlin’s take on atheism is everything we have come to expect from theists who write outside of their expertise, it is a jumble of misrepresentations, unrelated facts, needless trivia, and so many tangents that the initial point becomes lost in the debris of random and unrelated thoughts and fragments.
Needless to say, I do happen to find Barlin one of the better Christian writers I have come across, even though he still gets stuck behind useless analogies, tangential asides, and hyperbolic language which only clutter what he could say more precisely. In the end, although I could sometimes guess what points he was trying to make, I frequently found his points rather unimpressive, or else, sorely in need of support. Barlin talks with authority on things he hasn’t really looked into all that much, such as empiricism, as is evident by his often misuse/misrepresentation of the concept. I would have at least expected the author to research his subject matter before writing an entire piece on it. Beyond these failings, it seems to me that Barlin failed to explain why atheism is in any way destructive—or at all undesirable—which means he failed to support his conclusion. Contrary to what Barlin may think, which I am still unclear about—except for that we know he feels atheism is somehow “destructive”—I feel he actually (perhaps unintentionally) helps to show what atheists are really trying to say when we claim most theists really don’t understand the position of the atheist or what atheism really means.
Subsequently, I have sent Pastor Graham Barlin a link to several atheist explications of what atheism is and what it means to be an atheist, written by other atheists, hoping he would see the accord between the various atheists and how they describe themselves. I don’t know whether or not he will read these articles, but I’ll provide the links here if you want to read them and freshen up on your knowledge about atheism.
Dead Logic: What is Atheism?
Advocatus Atheist: Atheism Defined
Infidels.Org: An Introduction to Atheism
Infidels.Org: Atheism, Agnosticism, Noncognitivism
The Secular Outpost: Being Identified as Atheist
Atheism: Proving the Negative: Philosophical Atheism Bibliography
Iron Chariots: Atheism
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Atheism and Agnosticism
Philosophical Disquisitions: Maitzen on Morality and Atheism
[i] Although the analogy is fine to paint the example of not taking things for granted just because they remain unseen, Barlin’s science is a little confused. If there are stars which exist beyond out sight, it is because they exist outside of the currently observable universe—technically speaking they would need to exist before the big bang. Which isn’t out of the realm of possibility—but then we would, in essence, be dealing with purely theoretical concepts—which would be synonymous (not analogous) with God existing outside of the known universe. Either way, it does nothing to explain why this is problematic for the atheist. By my reasoning, it only reinforces the atheist’s point that God concepts are just concepts, until evidence establishing said God’s existence is brought forth. Finally, if there is no tangible evidence for God, and God cannot be empirically verified, then such a being is as good as nonexistent, making it difficult to establish said belief.