Slick's Fuss: A Review of CARM's "Is Atheism Viable?"
by Dawson Bethrick

 

The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, or "CARM.org," has an entire section of their website devoted to responding to atheism. One of the site's articles is a short essay called Is Atheism Viable? by author Matt Slick. This essay gives the author's reasons for why he thinks atheism is wrong and indefensible. As is the case with many attempts to make mysticism seem rational, Slick's faulty conceptions leave a lot to be desired.

The author is accurate when he states at the beginning of his essay, "Atheism is, essentially, a negative position." (1) In fact, I would modify this statement further to read, "Atheism is, essentially, a negation." The idea of a "negative position" seems somewhat oxymoronic and unnecessary if a better expression, like the one I am suggesting, can be supplied. Otherwise, one could say that atheism is a negative condition in the sense that it is the condition of those who do not have theistic beliefs.

The title of Slick's essay asks the question "Is Atheism Viable?" What does it mean to be viable? Webster's Dictionary defines 'viable' as "capable of working, functioning, or developing adequately"; "capable of existence and development as an independent unit"; "having a reasonable chance of succeeding." Is atheism any one of these things?

Since atheism is essentially a negation or negative condition, it is up to considerable debate whether atheism can be said to be "viable." One does not typically think of a negation as being "capable of working" or of developing "as an independent unit." But the essence of the Slick's question is clear: Is atheism the proper alternative to god-belief? As an atheist myself, I would answer with an emphatic yes to this question. This is, of course, because I think god-belief is irrational. (2)

Slick states that, "In discussions with atheists, I don't hear any evidence for the validity of atheism." But what would Slick consider to be "evidence for the validity of atheism"? As he acknowledges in the opening of his essay, he is essentially asking for evidence for the validity of a negation. But a negation is necessarily valid, epistemologically, in the absence of evidence or convincing argument for the positive. To illustrate, consider the example of the Greek god Zeus. Let us call "Zeusism" the belief that Zeus exists and that he is the supreme being. Let the term "aZeusism" mean the absence of such a belief. Clearly, the term "aZeusism" is a negation, just as the term 'atheism' is: it is the absence of a particular kind of belief. Does Slick hold to Zeusism, or to aZeusism? I would wager that he is an aZeusist, i.e., one who has no Zeus-belief. But what would one consider to be evidence for the validity of aZeusism? If Slick is an aZeusist, he would have to present such evidence if he wants to be consistent with his expectation that atheists should present "evidence for the validity of atheism." I don't suppose we should hold our breath.

The expectation that non-believers present "evidence for the validity of atheism" is symptomatic of the intention to evade the onus of proving one's existentially positive claims. If Slick claims that a god exists and he expects others to accept this claim as truth, then he would have to support this claim. Clearly the default is not belief, but non-belief. Pining as Slick does that he doesn't "hear any evidence for the validity of atheism" simply misses the point.

However, Slick does give some indication of what he would consider to be "evidence for the validity of atheism" when he states, "There are no 'proofs' that God does not exist." Of course, this is the expectation that one prove a negative, an onus which non-believers do not bear. To illustrate, how does Slick prove his claim that "There are no 'proofs' that God does not exist"? This is a negative claim, but where's the proof? Does Slick special plead his case, assuming that he has no onus to prove that "There are no 'proofs' that God does not exist" while those who do not believe the claim that there is a god must "prove" that god does not exist? How does Slick know that "There are no 'proofs' that God does not exist," and how does he show this claim to be true?

The irony of Slick's predicament, however, does not stop here. For even Slick, after announcing that "attempted proofs [that God does not exist] are invariably insufficient," asks, "how do you prove there is no God in the universe?" (I thought Christians believed that God exists "beyond" the universeÖ) Does Slick think that "a proof of God's non-existence" is necessary for atheism to be the proper response to theism? If so, why does he think this? Apparently, Slick thinks that god-belief - indeed, his god-belief - is true until proven false. It seems that he thinks a proof for God's existence is not necessary. One does not need a reason to believe; rather, one needs a reason not to believe. How consistently would Slick apply such a reversal of rational principle?

Slick continues: "Besides, if there were a proof of God's non-existence, then atheists would be continually using it." This would only be true if the atheists in question a) knew about the supposed proof, and, perhaps, b) considered the proof to be consistent with their own worldview outlook. However, as indicated above, a proof of the non-existence of something is certainly not warranted simply because someone makes the claim that the something in question exists. One does not inherit an obligation simply because another presents a claim.

Slick himself acknowledges the problematic nature of his expectations when he states, "The atheist position is very difficult, if not impossible, to prove since it is an attempt to prove a negative." If it is the case that it "is very difficult, if not impossible, to proveÖ a negative," then what exactly is Slick's fuss? And, furthermore, if perchance an atheist were to present a proof that god-belief is irrational, would Slick accept it and abandon his god-belief? Again, I am not supposing that we should hold our breath. Reason as such does not seem to be his epistemological absolute. Instead, a commitment to a primitive worldview, complete with invisible magic beings, is what he considers to be non-negotiable. Reason is dispensable when it gets in the way: he has no onus of proving his positive claims, but those who do not accept his claims bear an onus of disproving those claims. Where is this man's confidence?

Slick concludes his point with the following statement: "Therefore, since there are no proofs for atheismís truth and there are no proofs that there is no God, the atheist must hold his position by faith." I am compelled to ask: how does he show that "there are no proofs for atheism's truth"? Even Slick himself makes the point later in his essay that atheists "cannot say there are no evidences for God because the atheist cannot know all evidences that possibly exist in the world." Where does Slick present an argument which soundly concludes, "therefore, there are no proofs for atheism's truth"? Indeed, he nowhere presents such an argument so far as I can determine. Perhaps he knows of one, but insists on holding back?

But Slick's immediate agenda comes quickly to light when he insinuates that "the atheist must hold his position by faith." Apparently, holding a position "by faith" is philosophically suspicious in Slick's view. I would agree. But even before we attempt to examine Slick's dependence on faith, we must ask: does Slick present a sound case to establish the supposition that "the atheist must hold his position by faith"? I thought atheism was a negation, yet here Slick is treating atheism as if it were a positive belief. If atheism is the absence of god-belief, then atheism is properly classed as a negation, not as a positive belief. Atheism "means not believing in God - which leaves wide open what you do believe in." (3) This is a point which Slick and other theists need to integrate into their thinking.

In contrast to what Slick apparently desires, he does not establish that atheists must assume their positions as a matter of faith. He seems to be assuming that one must either hold a belief by proof, or by faith. While there are good reasons not to accept this dichotomy (4), Slick overlooks the fact that atheism is not a belief, but the absence of a belief. Does one need faith not to believe that Zeus exists? It would be preposterous to suggest this, yet this is precisely what Slick is suggesting when he wants to conclude that "the atheist must hold his position by faith," even when Slick himself has recognized that atheism is a negation.

Slick states that faith "is not something atheists like to claim as the basis of adhering to atheism," thus making the whole matter sound like it's an issue of likes or dislikes, or whimsical preference. Apparently Slick resents the prospect that non-theists are justified in not accepting his god-belief claims, so he attempts to derogate non-belief as such. This is a sign that such a course is all Slick has: make atheism as such appear to be ridiculous. But to do so, he must characterize it in such a way to make it appear ridiculous. If Slick's god-belief had a genuine rational basis, he would not need to do this. All he would need to do is present his proofs for the existence of his god, and leave it at that. Those who do not accept his proofs certainly do not need Slick's approval not to accept them.

What we have here, and with so many apologists (particularly on the internet) is a kind of sobbing complaint: "they don't believe my god-belief claims, those horrible atheists!!" To say that this non-acceptance of god-belief claims is itself an expression of faith, is to miss the point and set up a straw man. In addition to these, such subterfuge on Slick's part simply closes him off to an honest examination of reasons why god-belief is irrational (indeed, look what defending god-belief drives Slick to do!). Thus, he vilifies atheism to spite himself.

Slick then makes the charge that "atheists must go on the attack and negate any evidences presented for God's existence in order to give intellectual credence to their position." Exactly who is "on the attack"? Atheists in western society are not a new thing per se, but their freedom of expression is relatively new, thanks to secular rights-affirming philosophy and documents like the US Constitution. Slick ignores the fact that, historically, atheists in western cultures have for the most part found themselves in a predominantly theistic society where god-belief is the norm and atheism has been vilified and discouraged, even at the level of the state, sometimes to the point of intolerable persecution. If anyone has been "on the attack," history shows that it has not been the atheist, but those theists who believe they are charged with the mission of converting the world. To say that "atheists must go on the attack" is symptomatic of Slick's myopia on this larger context of the matter. Apparently he considers it to be an affront to him personally when people do not accept his god-belief claims.

And, precisely what does Slick take to be "evidences presented for God's existence"? Are those "evidences" the same as those which theists defending a different god present in defense of their god-beliefs? And are atheists necessarily acting "on faith" if they find the "evidences" proposed to support the claim that a god exists insufficient to the task? If one were to claim that the moon is made of green cheese and presented "evidences" for this claim, would Slick be acting "on faith" if he found those "evidences" insufficient to establish this claim and thus did not accept it as truth? What exactly does Slick consider 'faith' to mean? And does he not recognize that the Bible, which nowhere advocates rationality, claims all its "truths" as a matter of faith? (5)

Slick writes, "If they [i.e., atheists] can create an evidential vacuum in which no theistic argument can survive, their position can be seen as more intellectually viable." Why would one have to "create an evidential vacuum" in order to show why theism is irrational? One merely needs to show why the notion of a universe-creating, reality-ruling god is a terminally invalid idea to show that belief in such a being is wholly contrary to reason. Theistic arguments quite literally invalidate themselves before they even attempt to get off the ground.

Slick thinks that there is "only one way that atheism is intellectually defensible and that is in the abstract realm of simple possibility." By this, he is referring to the supposition that "it is possible that there is no God." This, however, Slick holds, is not sufficient to disprove theistic claims since "stating that something is possible doesn't mean that it is a reality or that it is wise to adopt the position." Slick gives an example to demonstrate his point. He reasons:

If I said it is possible that there is an ice cream factory on Jupiter, does that make it intellectually defensible or a position worth adopting merely because it is merely a possibility? Not at all. So, simply claiming a possibility based on nothing more than it being a logical option is not sufficient grounds for atheists to claim viability. They must come up with more than "It is possible," otherwise, there really must be an ice cream factory on Jupiter and the atheist should step up on the band wagon and start defending the position that Jupiterian ice cream exists.

Ironically, the very point which Slick is making here is one which works against his own commitment to theism in two fundamental ways. For one, this same objection can serve adequately to parody Slick's god-belief in order to show just how unstable it is. For, simply by saying that it is possible that there is a god which created the universe, does that make it intellectually defensible or a position worth adopting merely because it is suggested as a possibility? Slick should agree with himself here: "Not at all." And he provides the reason why: "simply claiming a possibility based on nothing more that it being a logical option is not sufficient grounds for [theists] to claim viability." Indeed, it's even worse if the proposed possibility in question does not have the advantage of being "a logical option," but turns out to be an idea completely antithetical to the very foundations of logic.

And notice something else: Slick is obviously assuming the primacy of existence principle in his reasoning here: he is assuming that reality does not conform to one's desires or hypotheses. And he's right - reality does not conform to consciousness. However, it is this very principle, ironically, which tells us why god-belief is irrational, since it is this principle which god-belief essentially contradicts. (6) Rather than bolstering his overall case, he simply points to the very principle which one must both assume and deny whenever he makes the claim that a god exists, since the notion of a god is squarely planted on the contradiction of the primacy of existence principle, which is the primacy of consciousness.

Moreover, Slick's entire analogy is wholly misapplied in the context of the debate on the existence of a god. He wants to characterize "the atheistic position" with one asserting the existence of an ice cream factory on Jupiter. However, it's more likely to be the other way around: the theist is the proper analogue of the hypothetical somebody claiming the possibility that an ice cream factory exists on Jupiter, and the atheist is the who points out that merely asserting the existence of a god is not sufficient to show that assertion to be true. The theist, like the one making a claim about an ice cream factory on Jupiter, is making an existentially positive claim, for he is the one saying that somewhere a particular something exists. The atheist is making no such claim; he simply does not accept the existentially positive claim which the theist asserts. Ironically, Slick not only inadvertently makes the atheist's case all the more simple to grasp, he also weaves the rope to hang himself in the process.

But the point which Slick should be considering is not whether something is possible simply at the suggesting thereof, but whether or not he can prove the negative. Does Slick believe that "it is possible that there is an ice cream factory on Jupiter"? If he does, how would he substantiate this belief? If he doesn't believe this supposed possibility, how does he rule it out? If Slick accepts the proposed possibility that a god exists, why wouldn't he accept the proposed possibility that an ice cream factory exists on Jupiter? He does not argue in an attempt to prove that there is no such ice cream factory on Jupiter; rather, his whole concern is to point to reasons why one can justifiably dismiss such claims.

Slick points out that "there is another problem for atheists." That problem, he holds, consists of the following: "Refuting evidences for Godís existence does not prove atheism true anymore than refuting an eyewitness testimony of a marriage denies the reality of the marriage." How are the two situations which Slick has in mind here at all analogous? In the case of a disputed marriage, what is being debated is a contract between two people. This dispute can be settled simply by asking the couple involved. But is there any dispute that either party of the marriage in question exist?

But even more importantly, Slick simply points to the evasive nature of his god-belief commitment. Where earlier he expected proofs of god's non-existence from atheists, he now admits that he would not allow himself to accept any such proofs as conclusive. In other words, Slick is simply announcing that he intends to believe that there is a god regardless of the rational merits (supposing there are any) of his particular god-belief. As Richard Robinson points out, the essence of faith is "the determination to believe that there is a god no matter what the evidence may be." (7) In other words, no matter what criticisms are brought forward against his god-belief, and no matter how irrational his god-belief turns out to be, Slick is determined to believe anyway. So the ultimate question amounts to: what relevance does argument have to Slick's god-belief in the first place?

Slick reasons, "Since atheism cannot be proven and since disproving evidences for God does not prove there is no God, atheists have a position that is intellectually indefensible." But where does Slick prove that "atheism cannot be proven"? How does Slick establish this claim? All he does is assert it in one form or another. But assertion does not equal proof. Besides, Slick is again missing the point by treating atheism as if it were a positive claim which needs to be proven. As has already been shown, atheism is the absence of a belief, and it is fully justified if the context of one's knowledge does not support the claim that there is a god.

Slick then admits that "atheists can only say that there are no convincing evidences for God so far presented." But if that's the case, then what precisely is Slick's fuss? If a particular non-believer holds that the "evidences for God" are not convincing, does Slick think that the non-believer should believe anyway? If a person is honest to himself and finds, after reviewing arguments and "evidences" proposed on behalf of proving one's god-belief, that those arguments and "evidences" are insufficient to convince him, he will acknowledge that believing the claim that there is a god would be irrational.

When Slick points out that atheists "cannot say there are no evidences for God because the atheist cannot know all evidences that possibly exist in the world" [sic], he overlooks the fact that an atheist can justifiably say that he does not know of any legitimate evidences for god. And, given that the same "evidences" are offered in support of claims that different gods exists, it is hard to see how any "evidences" can be considered legitimate. Again, knowledge and belief are hierarchically and contextually dependent upon prior knowledge and beliefs, reducing ultimately to one's starting points (assuming one is systematic about the content of his mind). If one is not aware of any "evidences for God," he is certainly justified in not accepting the claim that there is a god. If one has been presented with "evidences for God" and, after examining those evidences, concludes that they are insufficient, he is justified in not accepting the claim that there is a god. Furthermore, if one can present good reasons for why belief in a god is irrational, then by all means, he is fully justified in rejecting the claim that a god exists. Slick does not seem to be aware of these points.

Slick then wants to conclude that "since there could be evidences presented in the future, the atheist must acknowledge that there may indeed be a proof that has so far been undiscovered and that the existence of God is possible." That would be the case if the what is claimed were shown to be a legitimate possibility. However, if one recognizes that god-belief is inherently contradictory to reality and thus irrational, then it would be wrong to think that "there could be evidences presented in the future" for such belief. Thus I cannot accept Slick's contention that an atheist is really only an agnostic "since at best the atheist can only be skeptical of God's existence." Clearly this is not the case for those who embrace reason consistently. One need not "prove that there is no god" nor does he have to worry about hypothetical "evidences presented in the future." If he does not believe, he is an atheist.

Slick closes his little piece with the following statement:

This is why atheists need to attack Christianity. It is because Christianity makes very high claims concerning Godís existence which challenges their atheism and pokes holes in their vacuum. They like the vacuum. They like having the universe with only one god in it: themselves.

While it is the case that "Christianity makes very high claims concerning God's existence," it is not the case that these claims pose a challenge to atheists. Christianity is long on claims, but short on proofs, and even shorter on rationality. Slick seems to think that the recognition of these facts constitutes a "vacuum" and reflects a desire to see oneself as a god. However, it is hard to rule out, judging by Slick's tone of resentment here, that his comments are not motivated by disingenuous intentions. For not believing in the Christian god does not mean that one necessarily considers himself to be the Christian god, any more than not believing that Zeus exists means that one necessarily considers himself to be Zeus. If Slick could achieve any consistency in applying the principles which he himself wants to throw around in his rant against atheism, he might begin to see some of the holes in his own faith commitments.

 


Footnotes:

(1) See for instance my article Definition of an Atheist.

(2) I agree fully with CJ Holmes' arguments as presented in his essay Why God-Belief Is Irrational.

(3) Leonard Peikoff, "Religion Versus America," The Objectivist Forum, June 1986, p. 14.

(4) In response to Christian apologist John Robbins' essentially identical criticism of the Objectivist axioms (insinuating, as Slick does here) that a thought must be either a product of proof or accepted on faith if it is to be believed as truth, Bryan Register points out the fact that Robbins' criticism

assumes that there are only two kinds of claims: those one proves and those which one takes on faith. In fact, as the Objectivist literature makes clear, there is a third type of claim: one which is valid because it formulates a fact that is directly perceived. Such are the most fundamental perceptual judgments and such are the axioms. (Has Objectivism Been Refuted?)

Thus Slick's own endorsement of the "proof or faith" dichotomy, like Robbins, is simply a ploy in the attempt to discredit non-believers.

(5) CJ Holmes has prepared two lengthy discussions about the nature of 'faith' as it is both defined and used in the New Testament. In Some Comments About 'Faith' Part I, he discusses the various ways one can interpret Hebrews 11:1, which is supposed to serve as a definition of 'faith'. In Some Comments About 'Faith' Part II, he responds to a Christian apologist who attempted to defend the idea that faith is compatible with reason, and in so doing he points out the exceedingly problematic fact that the definition for 'faith' provided in Hebrews 11:1 is insufficient given the many examples of faith in the gospels which portray faith as a means of conforming nature to one's will. It is doubtful that someone who is so confessionally motivated as Matt Slick of CARM.org would accept any of these points, even though they must be contended with if one wants to defend the idea that biblical faith is in any way rational.

(6) For details on why this is the case, see Anton Thorn's How the Theist Checkmates Himself and How the Claim "God Exists" Contradicts Itself.

(7) "Religion and Reason," An Atheist's Values, pp. 113-123, quoted in Holmes, Some Comments About Faith Part I.

 

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