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The impossibility of atheism II

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 27 February 2009

The responses in the comments section of my previous article “The impossibility of atheism” have persuaded me to have a second “bite of the apple”. Many of the commentators complained there was no evidence for what I was proposing. By “evidence” they mean the kind of evidence that scientists rely on to prove or disprove their theories. The fact that this kind of evidence (empiricist) is understood to be the only kind of evidence that counts in all areas of intellectual pursuit is a sign of the dominance of the rationality of the natural sciences in our thinking.

Of course there is a place for such rationality in the scientific laboratory and in practical dealings with the physical world. But an exclusive reliance on such rationality in the whole of life produces a sterility that is dangerous to the human soul. As Blaise Pascal wrote “The heart has reasons that reason does not know”. Scientific rationality cannot be applied to the arts or to the affairs of the human heart. This does not mean that they are necessarily irrational but that they rely on a different kind of rationality that is more suited to its subject.

The rationality of theology includes a poetic/historic outlook that cannot be tested at the bar of logical positivism. Theological insights find a place in both the heart and the mind, they appeal to the whole person, not just the rational nor just the emotional. They are more like art than a scientific hypothesis. Art must be internally consistent; it has a moral basis in that it points to a truth and not to a lie. This is not special pleading on behalf of theology but recognition that it has its own discipline as do most intellectual pursuits.


If you trawl through the comments section of my last article you will find some very good expressions of the above. It is obvious that those who object to any kind of theological discussion on the grounds of scientific rationalism could not in fact live according to their creed. For how would they ask anyone to marry them? How would they relate to their children? How could they maintain rich friendships? What do they do when they begin to feel strongly about anything? Any attempt to reduce life to the logically demonstrable is dehumanising and this is one of the most dangerous products of the modern age as the bloody 20th century has aptly demonstrated.

There is an irony here. I protested in my last article that the God that atheists did not believe in bore no resemblance to the God worshipped in orthodoxy Christianity. This is because, in the 16th century the question of God was hijacked by the cosmological argument. Much of the controversy in the 16th century was to do with how God fitted into the new understanding of the universe as mechanism, or how Spirit related to matter. An impossible system was created when Spirit was defined as the opposite to the material: when Spirit was defined as the immaterial, i.e. in terms of the material. This was an empty definition because it defined the Spirit in terms of what it was not, a form of negative theology. When you combine this with a belief in a God who providentially controlled all events, then the system was fraught with contradictions, as the atheists rightly point out. How could an immaterial substance, whatever that is, affect the material?

The way was thus opened for modern Atheism. But it also gave rise to Deism, the belief that God created the universe, and was thus the first cause, and then absconded or looked down with amusement at how it all turned out while not interfering. One of the other products was Unitarianism in which God is a self conscious monad. The irony in this is that it all unfolded because of an attempt to come to certain knowledge by the application of human reason. Reason was used to deny that the God Christians worshipped could be three persons in one. For if each person had an individual consciousness, as persons have in our experience, then this could only lead to Tritheism and thus heresy.

In other words, the God that atheism objects to is a product of just the kind of rationality that atheists use to say that there is no God. In their insistence on the priority of reason, thinkers such as John Locke, although a devoted Christian, failed to embrace the doctrine of the Trinity and contributed to the erosion of Christian dogma that continues to this day.

Christian theology rightly begins with what we can see and touch, with the person of Christ. It begins with an historical event, an objective phenomenon. If we cling to the narrow rationality of the laboratory we will, first of all, discount any such event as hearsay. The constant demand for proof and certainty will mean that we will be blind to the Christian proclamation.

All we have to do to disprove the whole thing is to point to the miracle stories which are clearly impossible. But if we are willing to look further we will find that the miracles stories are not told primarily as evidence of the supernatural status of Jesus. They point to the human reality of the deep brokenness that we all experience in our lives and the possibility of healing.


The healing miracles of Jesus are not medical miracles, they are spiritual miracles. In an age before science and technology people understood the world theologically. While we see a healing miracle as medical, they saw it as spiritual. Thus when Jesus heals a leper in the gospel of Mark he tells him to go and show himself to the priests.

So, to understand biblical texts we must make an attempt at standing in the shoes of the writers and recipients. We must remember that everything was about theology. When we make this step we can understand the miracle stories, for example, for what they were originally, signs of grace. An evidentialist epistemology will close our explorations before we begin.

The other objection to any attempt at expressing theology in our time comes from humanism. The humanist objection is that religion brings suffering instead of healing. Those who argue this trawl through the history of the church to argue that Christianity is intolerant and violent to anyone who opposes it. The crusades and the burning of witches are favourite examples of Christian brutality. The recent upsurge of militant Islam, 9-11 and the extreme violence perpetrated by warring factions of Islam in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan are all fuel to the fire of a humanism that protests against religion.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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