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Posted by on May 20, 2012 in Craig debate, Do Atheists Know God Exists? | 0 comments

Do atheists know God exists?

I recently noted that William Lane Craig takes the view, apparently, that atheists know in their hearts that God exists. It would seem to follow that atheists are liars when they claim not to know that God exists (assuming they know they knows God exists, and that to lie is to assert what one knows to be false).
Theist Andy Everist, in an independent post, sees that this conclusion is implausible, and writes:

The Bible claims all men (atheists and skeptics included) have a knowledge of God. Romans 1:20-21 states, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”

Many atheists find such a claim both wrong and offensive. This is because it generally seems, both to skeptics and Christians alike, that there are only two choices for response when an atheist claims he doesn’t really know God exists. First, we can accuse him of being dishonest. Second, we can accuse him of being deluded. Neither seems particularly appealing. Is there a way to harmonize the biblical record without being firmly committed to one of these options? I think there is.

I believe the answer lies both in intuitive knowledge and the idea of awareness. Intuition is knowledge gained independently of a process. It is simply “in born,” as it were. This passage seems to teach we have some kind of sensus divinitas within; we know God exists.[1] This knowledge does not require conscious awareness of that fact. Here are some clear, everyday examples of knowledge not requiring conscious awareness: ever described something as being “on the tip of your tongue”? Or what about saying, “Oh! I know his name, I just can’t remember it!” You do in fact know his name but you are not currently aware due to forgetfulness.

These examples of forgetfulness are not the only ones of knowledge without awareness. I know my breathing is regular and my individual breaths to be quite frequent and high in number throughout a day. However, when I am sleeping, I am completely unaware of these and other bodily functions that I do in fact know about. Even when I am awake, there are facts of which I have knowledge but of which I am not always aware, like: the 16th amendment of the U.S. Constitution concerns income tax, my mother’s favorite thing is strawberries, South Africa has another country within its borders, etc. It’s quite apparent one can know something and yet not be aware of it.

So how does this apply to the atheist? Well, I do not think he is necessarily being dishonest or deluded, at least not in the senses these terms immediately imply. We see in life as well as the Bible that character is formed by choices and experiences (cf. Exodus 7:13). These do not causally determine our choices, but they are influencers of these choices. A result of these choices (not to worship God for who he is) is a suppression of knowledge (cf. Romans 1:28)—in other words, they have knowledge of which they are not aware. “But Randy,” one may protest, “doesn’t this mean they are deluding themselves, or just lying to themselves?” Not quite. Instead, I think this rather has to do both with the will of the individual and the consequences of choosing to suppress the knowledge. Now an atheist may find this just as offensive, but I think it’s a better alternative to “lying” or “delusional.”

Has Everist has explained why atheists are not liars? True, we can know something without being aware of the fact that we know – and Andy has illustrations.


However, they are all examples in which one knows some fact, and even knows one knows it, even though one is not consciously aware of it (I know her name, even if I can’t recall it right now, and I also know I know her name; I know I breathe when I’m asleep, and know I know this, even if I am not ever consciously aware of doing so). If Everist is drawing an analogy between these cases of knoweldge and the atheist’s knowledge of God, the analogy would be – atheists know God exists (though they are not aware he exists right now) and they also know they know he exists.

But if they know they know God exists, and say they don’t, they still come out as liars. Whether or not they are currently consiously aware of God is irrelevant. If I say I don’t know I breathe when asleep, I am a liar, despite the fact that I am never consciously aware of breathing when I am asleep.

Suppressing conscious awareness of a fact doesn’t entail that one does not know that fact (as Everist says), but neither does it follow that one doesn’t know one knows it. And if you know you know it, and say you don’t, you are a liar – for a liar asserts what he knows not to be true.

What Everist needs to show is that atheists know that God exists but, for certain reasons, don’t know they know. Then they would not be liars when they say they don’t know God exists. I guess Everist thinks that atheists suppress their knowledge that God exists, so they have it but don’t know they have it. However, confusingly, none of his examples are of such a case.

Conscious awareness of a state of affairs P, and knowing the fact that P, are obviously not the same thing. You can lack conscious awareness while knowing the fact. But I cannot see how this particular distinction helps Everist avoid the conclusion that atheists are liars. If an atheist knows (P), where (P) is the fact that he knows God exists, then if that atheist asserts he does not know (P), that atheist is surely a liar, whether or not he is currently consciously aware of God’s existence.

Maybe Everist could say – one can know without knowing one knows. e.g. the nervous schoolboy who has revised thoroughly and knows the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, but, at the moment his made to stand and answer in class, while blurting out “1066”, doesn’t believe he knows it (and, if belief is required for knowledge, doesn’t know he knows it). Reliabilist theories of knowledge also have the consequence that one can know without knowing one knows. So perhaps one can know God exists without knowing one knows God exists, but exactly how this is possible, and also why it is that the atheist is in this position, still needs explaining.

If the explanation is in terms of suppressed knowledge, it would also need explaining what the motive would be for suppressing such knowledge, given the known, infinitely horrible consequences of doing so.

Moreover, if sending the atheist to hell is justified given their denial of what they know to be true (that God exists), it must be the case that the atheist’s lack of knowledge of what they know does not exonerate them (they must be “without excuse”). Yet in many cases, not knowing you know does seem to exonerate you for not acting on what you know (if reliabilism is true and I “just know” by psychic means that Fred will die if I don’t persuade him not to board that train, but I don’t know I know this (having no clue that I am psychic and every reason to suppose I’m not), it’s not clear I can be blamed for not trying to persuade Fred not to board the train. (Yes, I find myself stuck with the belief he’ll die, but I can’t understand why I hold this belief, and indeed have every reason to suppose it’s both irrational and false. As a result, I don’t act on the belief. Am I culpable? I think not…).

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