When do Atheists have to Study the Arguments for God’s Existence?

In a previous post, I argued that atheists have no general obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence in detail – that is, a typical atheist doesn’t have to review the academic literature about the existence of God to be justified in believing that God doesn’t exist. In this post, I will discuss the conditions under which an atheist is morally obligated to study the arguments for God’s existence carefully.

The first category is atheists who have an academic obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence. I know from personal experience that a philosophy major at a good school will be required to understand a number of arguments for the existence of God in order to get good grades in their classes. There is obviously much more to a philosophy degree than arguments for the existence of God, like the nature of knowledge, but understanding arguments for the existence of God is a big component of what a philosophy major has to study.

Why is this? Are philosophers just obsessed with arcane details of the past? No, there is a good reason why philosophy majors have to understand the arguments for the existence of God. A philosophy major should come away from the degree with a fairly strong understanding of the history of philosophy, especially as that history is relevant to the most important modern debates. There are certain basic things that a BA in philosophy should be able to do, like explain what logical positivism was in outline. This is in spite of the fact that logical positivism as such is almost never defended today, because it has been so influential and its ideas are still called upon implicitly by so many people.

The second category is atheists who intend to defend atheism in public, whether that is by arguing with people on the street, writing letters to the local newspaper, or having a formal debate in front of an audience. If you are going to be defending atheism in public, then you need to know what theists will say in defense of theism and be able to respond to it. This isn’t because theists’ arguments are especially cogent, but rather because they can be very tricky to unravel on the spot and there are a lot of variants on them that can add additional complexities.

This is where atheist philosophers of religion come in. Atheist philosophers of religion are not only clever, as anyone has to be to get a job as a professional philosopher, they are specifically educated for the task of developing and refuting arguments in philosophy of religion, and they have usually been writing in the field for decades. Atheist philosophers of religion can come up with much stronger arguments for atheism and much stronger objections to arguments for the existence of God than a typical layman atheist can.

Sometimes this is just a matter of laying things out more clearly than a layman knows how to do. For example, if a layman presented the problem of divine hiddenness, it would probably look something like this:

Well, if God exists, why hasn’t he shown himself to us? God isn’t loving!

Compare that with J. L. Schellenberg’s argument from divine hiddenness:

  1. If there is a God, he is perfectly loving.
  2. If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable nonbelief does not occur.
  3. Reasonable nonbelief occurs.
  4. No perfectly loving God exists (from 2 and 3).
  5. Hence, there is no God (from 1 and 4).

This is a much clearer and more thorough way of making the argument from divine hiddenness, and if you study Schellenberg in depth by reading his book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, you will find that he piles arguments on top of arguments in support of his premises (which are pretty compelling to begin with, frankly).

In other cases, atheist philosophers of religion have an advantage due to their superior understanding of theistic philosophy. For example, Anthony Kenny in his book The Five Ways has argued that Aquinas’ five ways were originally based on Aquinas’ completely false scientific views about the universe, like his astronomical view that the planets moved around on crystal spheres. This isn’t the sort of thing a layman could learn without studying Aquinas in depth, so reading Kenny’s book is a major time saver.

So, there are a lot of advantages to studying atheist philosophers of religion if you intend to defend atheism in public, to the point that I think anyone who is going to defend atheism in public has a moral obligation to make some effort to research their work.


10 thoughts on “When do Atheists have to Study the Arguments for God’s Existence?

  1. dstamps2173

    You continue to use abstract logic containing false assumptions to justify your blind position. We don’t live in an abstract world. Our world is real.

    In the meantime, you have done nothing to explain how 1000s of synergistic processes can occur through some unthinking process. The first is real. The second is impossible.

  2. Christ Centered Teaching

    I agree. Oder cannot come from chaos. Certainly not the highly ordered DNA language in all living things or the fine tuning of the first three seconds of Bing Bang. Our best science proves intelligence because it reflects intelligence.

  3. myatheistlife

    I have to ask: This post is about atheists and their knowledge of theology. The real question that should be asked is why theists do not know what atheist believe and understand. They do not know or understand the arguments against their belief. The question of whether atheists should study religion is moot. The real question is why theists cannot make a good argument for their belief as they are called to do. 1 Peter 3:15

    It turns out that atheists are doing a better job of what Christians are told to do than Christians have done. The argument about it is pointless.

    1. dstamps2173

      When it comes to the existence of GOD, there is nothing about which to argue. Nature speaks for HIS existence. Of course, the self-serving nature blinds many from seeing what is before their eyes.

      1. myatheistlife

        You say there is nothing about which to argue yet there is argument. There is much reason to believe that nature does not speak of a supernatural being. You can say I am blind yet you cannot explain your belief other than to say it is so. Show me your god that I might know. Call me Thomas if you must but show me your god.

        1. dstamps2173

          Obviously, you have not been reading much in this forum. I have left a question in this forum that all atheists appear to want to ignore. Feel free to give me an answer.

          1. myatheistlife

            with such a cordial invite I’m not going to read the forum. If you’d like to ask the question so that I know which it is, perhaps I’ll answer. Such an amorphous challenge is much like tilting at windmills. That’s not my bag.

              1. myatheistlife

                Judging me? I’d thought that was not your bag but I might have mistaken you for a true follower of the christ. You see, if we keep talking and not judging, eventually we will all get to know one another and then it is difficult to consider others as ‘out group’ so we must consider the ideas of others. It is not until that point that religion can be truly tolerant of others. Go back, read what your Jesus said. You’re not doing it right. Yes, I get to say that. It is exactly because of people like you that I left religion and faith behind. I live much more honestly now, much more free of the sins your Jesus spoke of. You judged me before I spoke and both Jesus and Paul would correct you for such a sin. If you don’t believe me, go read your holy book. Also, be prepared to give an accounting of your faith and belief. Witness by action so that the sinner can see what you have and make them desirous of it. ’nuff said.


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