This article originally appeared in The Free Mind: The Newsletter and Forum of the University of Minnesota Atheists and Humanists 2(7), May/June 1996.
In his brief article "Is Atheism Logical?", Hank Hanegraaff tries to show that atheism is not rationally justifiable. For the most part, Hanegraaff's article makes flat assertions without presenting any argument for them.1 One exception to this rule is Hanegraaff's argument that atheism is illogical, so this particular claim is worth treating in detail.
I will transcribe Hanegraaff's argument in full here:
Atheism positively affirms that there is no God. But can the atheist be certain of this claim? You see, to know that a transcendent God does not exist would require a perfect knowledge of all things (omniscience). To attain this knowledge you would have to have simultaneous access to all parts of the universe (omnipresence). Therefore, as an atheist, to be certain of this claim you would have to possess Godlike characteristics. Obviously, mankind's limited nature precludes these special abilities. The atheist's dogmatic claim is therefore clearly unjustifiable. The atheist is attempting to prove a universal negative. In terms of logic this is called a logical fallacy.
Although Hanegraaff's argument may have a superficial plausibility for some believers, it contains numerous errors.
First of all, Hanegraaff seems to believe that atheists must be able to be certain that there is no God in order for atheism to be rationally justifiable. This is not at all true. Although I am not certain that the sun will rise tomorrow (for all I know, a great cosmic catastrophe will annihilate the sun before it can rise tomorrow) I am certainly rationally justified in believing that it will. Examples like this can be multiplied indefinitely. The point is that rational justification is not equivalent to certainty. In asking whether a belief is rational, one must not ask whether or not one can be certain of the claim — one must ask, rather, whether or not there are good reasons to believe the claim is true. Many, if not most, atheists hold that although one cannot be certain that God does not exist, there are very good reasons to believe that God does not exist — reasons good enough to justify acceptance of the proposition that "God does not exist."
Secondly, even though atheists do not need to strictly prove a universal negative, there is nothing impossible about doing so. When Hanegraaff asserts the contrary, he is probably thinking about claims like "No ravens are white" — a claim which certainly cannot be proven unless we have inspected every cubic foot of the universe and found no white ravens. However, think about the following claim: "No round squares exist." This sentence is an assertion of a universal negative, and it can certainly be proved; namely, by showing that the concept of a round square is incoherent. A number of atheists (Kai Nielsen, for instance) believe that the concept of God is likewise incoherent. Moreover, if the consequences of the existence of a certain entity would entail a state of affairs that we know does not obtain, then we can know with certainty that the entity does not exist. For instance, we can know for sure that "Bod" does not exist if "Bod" is an entity that is capable of ending human suffering and also wishes to, since it is easily verifiable that there are humans who are suffering. Similarly, some atheists believe that the existence of God entails states of affairs that obviously do not obtain (for example, the absence of gratuitous evil). Hence even atheists who claim to be certain that God does not exist are not necessarily committing any kind of fallacy in making that claim.2
I want to stress my original point, though: atheists do not have to believe that the concept of God is incoherent, or that certain existent states of affairs are logically incompatible with the existence of God, in order to be rationally justified in being atheists. If it seems intrinsically improbable that certain states of affairs would obtain in a universe with God, and probable that they would obtain in a universe without God, then there is ample justification to believe that God does not exist.
A third error Hanegraaff makes (but along the same lines as his first) is his failure to recognize that a lack of evidence for the existence of God, in and of itself, makes atheism a more rationally justifiable position. If we see nothing in the universe that cannot in principle be explained by natural processes, the principle of parsimony precludes our postulating a God behind it all. Hanegraaff himself no doubt recognizes the principle of parsimony as a source of rational justification for the assertion of universal negatives; if not, then Hanegraaff is forced to suspend judgement about Allah, Krishna, fairies, 900-foot fire-breathing clowns, and any other entities that may be hiding in some corner of the universe to which Hanegraaff's experience does not extend.
Hanegraaff's fourth error is not a very important one, but it illustrates further how incautious he is in constructing arguments. Hanegraaff asserts that "to know that a transcendent God does not exist would require a perfect knowledge of all things " (italics added). This is clearly not true; if it were, it would mean that while a person who knew everything could know that God does not exist, a person who knew everything except for Orel Hershiser's stats could not, which is absurd.
To conclude, then, Hanegraaff's argument that atheism is illogical fails on two counts:
Having failed to prove that atheism is illogical, and having failed to back up any of his other assertions about why theism must be true, Hanegraaff's article fails to show that atheism is not rationally justifiable, and, indeed, allows theism as a whole to fall prey to the principle of parsimony.
1 For instance, Hanegraaff asserts that "the atheistic world view is unable to provide the necessary preconditions to account for the laws of science, the universal laws of logic, and, of course, absolute moral standards," but does not even try to explain why he feels this is the case. Hanegraaff makes unsupported assertions so frequently in his article that it is clear he is only interested in preaching to the choir.
2 (Note added 31 Dec 2005) For an anthology of 33 articles devoted to these kinds of disproofs of the existence of God, consult Martin M and Monnier R (eds). 2003. The Impossibility of God. Amherst: Prometheus Books.
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