Theism, Atheism and Agnosticism… What’s All the Fuss?

National-Atheist-day-2

You may not be aware of it, but every year on April first we celebrate Atheist Day! OK…the official designation might be April fool’s day, but I think that the two names are interchangeable, and I believe that I have biblical precedence for believing so. In Psalm 14:1, King David writes, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Why would David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, make such a claim? Why is it foolish to say that “there is no God?” To answer this question, let’s take a look at what atheism is and what it claims. You may be surprised to discover that this task is not as easy as it might seem.

Language is said to be arbitrary. That is, there is no natural relationship between words and the concepts that they represent. However, words, as a linguistic form, do have a history; they have an etymology that is useful in tracing them or their component parts to a common source and meaning.

The word atheism comes from the Greek word “theos” (God) and the prefix “a” (without). So in the broad sense of the word, an atheist is a person who lives his life without acknowledging the existence of God. Atheism is in contradiction to “theism,” which is the belief in a deity or deities.

Let’s look at another word – agnostic. This word is also derived from two Greek words; the word “gnosis” (knowledge), and the prefix “a” (without). An agnostic is one who believes that we do not possess sufficient knowledge to justify belief in a deity.

Atheism has undergone somewhat of a transformation over the past few decades. Prior to the mid twentieth century, the standard use of the word atheist was to designate someone who believed that there were no deities at all. It was a positive assertion of the nonexistence of God. There were very few people who actually would claim to be an atheist, and most people who did not believe in God would claim to be agnostic instead. The reason for this should be apparent; the assertion that “there is no God” is as much a claim to knowledge as is the claim “there is a God,” and requires the atheist to provide evidence of his assertion. However, It is impossible to prove a negative, “there is no…” In order to assert that there is no God, one would have to possess all knowledge (be omniscient) about everything, everywhere (be omnipresent). Ironically, this would give the person claiming that there is no God, some of the very characteristics of God.

Primarily through the writings of prominent atheists such as Antony Flew (who later in life embraced theism), the concept of the “presumption of atheism” gained wide-spread acceptance among what would become known as the “new atheists.”  The presumption of atheism, according to Flew, meant that we should presuppose atheism until empirical evidence of God was made known. It made atheism the default position and placed the burden of proof on the theist to provide evidence for the existence of God. As Flew explains,

“In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist.” (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford:  Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew)

This changed the standard definition of atheism to a broader definition that also embraced agnostics, and gave way to several hybrid theological positions (see diagram below).

Hybrid Theological Positions

Hybrid Theological Positions

This “new atheism” freed the atheist from the untenable position of having to prove that God did not exist, but blurs the distinction between atheist and agnostic. As William Lane Craig points out, “They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.”  (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/).

But is lack of knowledge about the existence of God – the core belief of atheism and agnosticism – really true? Is there a God and can he be known? As a theist and a Christian, I look to the Bible to answer these questions.

There are numerous references in the Bible that make it clear that God has made himself known to people everywhere through the process of natural revelation. (See my earlier post – Revelation, Inspiration, Illumination…What’s the Difference?)

Natural revelation is the reveling of information about God that can be found in the natural world and is discoverable or discernible by such disciplines as natural science, astronomy, biology, physics, etc… The Bible says in Psalms 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

Natural revelation is also referred to as “general” revelation because it is part of Gods common grace which is given to all people everywhere to make known certain truths about God. Romans 1:19-20 says,

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

God adds, at the end of verse 20, that because of this knowledge about him that is given to everyone, people are “without excuse” for not believing in him. It is not a matter of not having knowledge of God, as the atheist and agnostic claims, but, as Romans 1:18 tells us, the unrighteous suppress the truth about God because they do not want to acknowledge him as God.

The Apostle Paul continues in Romans 1:21-22, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools…”

And that, my friends, is why we have Atheist Day.

Soli Deo Gloria

(Author’s Note: For more information about how to dialogue with atheists, click here for an article at the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry for some excellent suggestions.)

About Mike Ritt

I am a 53 year old writer trapped in the body of a Consumer Safety Inspector for the USDA. I love to spend my free time (ha-ha) reading and writing, and I write everything – stories, poems, essays, and shopping lists – it doesn't matter. I have been married to my redhead (Tami) for over twenty-three years now. Although we live out on the eastern plains of Colorado, we are still die-hard Packer fans! I have been a Christian for over thirty years now, and each day seems like a brand new day, with more to learn about God and his word. What a wonderful journey this has become! Click the “Contact” button on the menu bar if you want to write me for any reason, whether it’s to know more about me or the glorious gospel of grace.
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3 Responses to Theism, Atheism and Agnosticism… What’s All the Fuss?

  1. Dillon says:

    This was a very informative post! I managed to get into a few conversations on April 1st with the same idea of it being “Atheist Day.” I think a big problem with communication is people just tossing around words like “atheist” and “agnostic” without having any idea what they’re actually saying. Thanks again for the clarification.

    • Mike Ritt says:

      Dillon, I appreciate you stopping by to read my blog. It is hard to keep track of what people mean when they attach a label to themselves when the meanings change. That’s why it is important to ask specific questions when someone says that they are an atheist or an agnostic, or a Christian for that matter.

  2. Mike Ritt says:

    Reblogged this on The Emmaus Road and commented:

    In recognition of National Atheist Day (April 1st), I wanted to re-post the following article that I wrote last year in honor of the unofficial celebration. Feel free to leave a comment or to share it to your favorite social media.
    “If I did not believe in God, I should still want my doctor, my lawyer and my banker to do so.” – G.K. Chesterton

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