You Can't Know Atheism is True Unless God Exists

Jason Dulle

I am not an advocate of the presuppositional approach to apologetics. I am more of an evidentialist myself. But presuppositionalists are correct that the apologist's task includes challenging atheists' presuppositions about reality--exposing how they unwittingly borrow from theism, all the while denying God's existence.

One such presupposition is that knowledge is objectively meaningful. Those who deny God's existence claim to know God does not exist, and believe their reasons for denying His existence are superior to theists' reasons for affirming His existence. What they fail to recognize is that genuine knowledge is not possible if God does not exist.

Through the course of this paper I will argue that if God does not exist, what we think to be true is wholly determined by materialistic processes that preceded our own existence, not something obtained through an independent exercise of reason, deliberation, and free will. As such, we cannot attain to genuine knowledge (traditionally defined as true, justified belief). While what we have been determined to believe to be true may--by chance--correspond to reality, we cannot claim to know it is true because our belief is not justified. Atheism, then--even if true--undermines any reason for believing it to be true. As such, it is a self-refuting worldview, founded on a bankrupt epistemology, and therefore, not an intellectually viable option for the rationally-minded.

Only something like a theistic worldview is capable of grounding knowledge in objective reality. For to know atheism is true we must possess free will. To exercise free will we must possess a soul. And if we must possess a soul, we must account for the origin of the soul. And theism offers the best explanation of its origin.

Atheism is a Materialistic Worldview

Atheism is a materialistic worldview at its core: all that exists is matter in motion (philosophic naturalism). According to naturalism there are no metaphysical realities such as God, angels, or the human soul. There are only atoms and molecules working according to natural law and random chance processes. Man himself is a mere conglomeration of physical parts working together in unison. Every one of our thoughts, feelings, and acts can be explained by, and reduced to physical processes. This sort of anthropological perspective creates an epistemic problem of massive proportions, for in a wholly material world knowledge is impossible. Let me explain.

The nature of wholly material entities is that they function according to predictable patterns as determined by natural laws. To discover what a physical entity will do in the future we need only know all the variables affecting it. If our knowledge of all the preconditions is complete, we can accurately predict the way in which that entity will behave. As David Papineau wrote,

I take it that physics, unlike the other special sciences, is complete, in the sense that all physical events are determined, or have their chances determined, by prior physical events according to physical laws. In other words, we never need to look beyond the realm of the physical in order to identify a set of antecedents which fixes the chances of subsequent physical occurrence. A purely physical specification, plus physical laws, will always suffice to tell us what is physically going to happen, insofar as that can be foretold at all.1 (emphasis in original)

For example, consider the boiling of water. If we know the precise amount of water, the precise amount of heat applied to the water, and the water's locale in relation to sea level, we can determine the exact moment at which the water will boil. Water boils when the necessary preconditions are present. Indeed, it must boil. It cannot not boil. Why? Because wholly material entities do not decide; they simply react in predetermined ways to antecedent conditions.

We might also consider a chain of dominos. When domino P falls and strikes domino Q, domino Q must fall. It cannot not fall. The same is true when domino Q falls and strikes domino R, and so on, for all subsequent dominos in the chain. Once the causal chain of events has begun there is no domino along the way that can decide to remain standing once it has been acted upon by the preceding domino. Why? Because material entities are governed by a wholly deterministic cause and effect relationship. They merely react to their preconditions. They possess no mechanism to will an action different than what has been determined by antecedent physical preconditions.

I think most readers are already beginning to see the epistemic implications of philosophical naturalism when applied to anthropology.

No Vacancy for Free Will at the Inn of Knowledge

If human beings are wholly material entities, having no immaterial aspect to their being (i.e. a soul), we are affected by the same deterministic cause and effect relationship all other wholly material things are affected by. In the same way water cannot decide to not boil, and dominos cannot decide to not fall, mankind cannot decide to think or do anything other than what physical precursors have determined for us. Every one of our thoughts and acts would be mere reactions to prior events--some invisible domino falling on us if you will. These thoughts and acts would not simply follow the cause, but would necessarily follow. Free will deliberation and independent thought are impossible in a wholly material world.

Naturalists will be the first to agree with this assessment. They recognize that free will and philosophic naturalism do not mix. Naturalist thinker, John Searle, wrote, "Our conception of physical reality simply does not allow for radical freedom."2 He admitted that there is no hope of reconciling libertarian freedom with naturalism when he wrote, "In order for us to have radical freedom, it looks as if we would have to postulate that inside each of us was a self that was capable of interfering with the causal order of nature. That is, it looks as if we would have to contain some entity that was capable of making molecules swerve from their paths. I don't know if such a view is even intelligible, but it's certainly not consistent with what we know about how the world works from physics."3

John Bishop candidly stated that "the idea of a responsible agent, with the 'originative' ability to initiate events in the natural world, does not sit easily with the idea of a natural organism…. Our scientific understanding of human behavior seems to be in tension with a presupposition of the ethical stance we adopt toward it."4 Again, Bishop writes that

the problem of natural agency is an ontological problem--a problem about whether the existence of actions can be admitted within a natural scientific perspective… Agent causal-relations do not belong to the ontology of the natural perspective. Naturalism does not essentially employ the concept of a causal relation whose first member is in the category of person or agent (or even…in the broader category of continuant or 'substance'). All natural causal relations have first members in the category of event or state of affairs.5

Bishop's point is that naturalism does not allow for the existence of free will agents who simply decide according to their autonomous will. There is no such thing as agent-causation; only event-causation. Event-causes work in a strictly deterministic cause and effect relationship, with no room for free will. If naturalism is true, human activities are better classified as "happenings" or "events," rather than "acts." "Acts" implies the involvement of a personal, willing agent. That concept is vacuous in a naturalistic worldview. Cornell University professor, William Provine, agrees, noting that "free will as it is traditionally conceived--the freedom to make uncoerced and unpredictable choices among alternative possible courses of action--simply does not exist…. There is no way that the evolutionary process as it is currently conceived can produce a being that is truly free to make choices."6

If naturalism is true, and there is no free will, no one would be capable of choosing to believe something because of good reasons. He would believe what he does because he has been determined to do so by prior physical forces acting on his physical stuff, wholly apart from reason. Arguments would not matter; reasons would not matter; only prior physical events acting on one at that moment would matter. One's belief in determinism/atheism would be just as determined as another's belief in free will/theism. So if naturalism is true--and there is no such thing as free will--no one could know it to be true. And if no one could know it to be true, it undermines the very rational foundation for such a belief in the first place.

A Soul is Required to Ground Free Will and Knowledge

"Event-causation is the correct account of normal events in the natural world, like bricks' breaking glass. But when it comes to the free acts of persons, the person himself as a substantial agent directly produces the effect."7

Only the existence of an immaterial soul can provide us with the free will necessary to employ reason to arrive at true, justified beliefs about the world. The soul--being immaterial in nature--transcends the physical realm, allowing us to transcend the determinism inherent to physical reality. When faced with prior physical forces acting on our physical stuff, we are not forced to react in a manner determined by those factors. Through the soul we are enabled to step back from the cause and effect cycle to adjudicate, deliberate, and then decide what we will believe or do. We can adjudicate between competing views based on the merits of the views themselves, independent of prior physical forces. The soul allows us to be an unmoved, first-mover; "an agent that can act without sufficient causal conditions necessitating that the agent act--the agent is the absolute source of its own actions. … Only first-movers are the sources of action, not instrumental movers that merely receive motion passively and pass that on to the next member in a causal chain."8

What can explain the origin of the soul: an immaterial, conscious, personal, and rational substance? From whence could it come? Surely it cannot be a material source. Material things only producer material things, are not conscious, are not personal, and are not rational. It stands to reason, then, that an immaterial, conscious, personal, and rational substance like the soul has its origin in a source that is also immaterial, conscious, personal, and rational. Such a source sounds remarkably like the God of theism.

Atheism: A No-Win Situation

This puts the atheist in a tough spot. He can bite the logical bullet and deny the existence of free will, but he will undercut his claims to knowledge in the process. His other option is to affirm the reality of free will. This will save his claims to knowledge, but will be at odds with his stated worldview. If he takes this option he will have to explain how he can ground free will, given the tenets of naturalism.

Few atheists are willing to bite the logical bullet because it undercuts his knowledge claims, and more importantly, it smacks in the face of our deepest intuitions about the knowing process (a serious liability). Others, however, are willing to bite the bullet--at least in theory. While they pay lip-service to the death of free will, in practice they speak and behave as if they are free will agents who are causal first-movers in the world. In the academy they advance the naturalistic paradigm, but when they leave the lecture hall and return to ordinary life, they switch to a different paradigm that treats free will as a bona fide reality.

Dennis Overbye is a case-in-point. He wrote, "Take free will. Everything I know about physics and neuroscience tells me it's a myth. But I need that illusion to get out of bed in the morning. Of all the durable and necessary creations of atoms, the evolution of the illusion of the self and of free will are perhaps the most miraculous. That belief is necessary to my survival. But I wouldn't call it good physics."9

We might also consider Richard Dawkins. While speaking at a D.C. bookstore on his The God Delusion book tour, Dawkins was asked to explain his views on determinism, free will, and personal responsibility. Dawkins responded:

The philosophical question of determinism is a very difficult question. ... What I do know is that what it feels like to me, and I think to all of us, we don't feel determined. We feel like blaming people for what they do or giving people the credit for what they do. We feel like admiring people for what they do. None of us ever actually as a matter of fact says, "Oh well he couldn't help doing it, he was determined by his molecules." Maybe we should. …
You probably remember…Fawlty Towers. The episode where Basil where his car won't start and he gives it fair warning, counts up to three, and then gets out of the car and picks up a tree branch and thrashes it within an edge of his life. Maybe that's what we all ought to… Maybe the way we laugh at Basil Fawlty, we ought to laugh in the same way at people who blame humans. I mean when we punish people for doing the most horrible murders, maybe the attitude we should take is "Oh they were just determined by their molecules." It's stupid to punish them. What we should do is say "This unit has a faulty motherboard which needs to be replaced."
I can't bring myself to do that. I actually do respond in an emotional way and I blame people, I give people credit, or I might be more charitable and say this individual who has committed murders or child abuse of whatever it is was really abused in his own childhood.

When asked if he saw this as inconsistent with his naturalism, Dawkins replied, "I sort of do. Yes. But it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with otherwise life would be intolerable." Dawkins recognizes that his behavior and emotions are inconsistent with his worldview, and yet he cannot help but to feel and behave the way he does. In his words, he can't bring himself to blame molecules for bad behavior. But who else is there to blame if humans are nothing but a large conglomeration of molecules? Dawkins wants to blame a free-will agent, all the while denying the existence of that which is necessary for a free-will agent to exist: an immaterial soul. This ought to tell us something. As Nancy Pearcey noted,

the purpose of a worldview is to explain the world--and if it fails to explain some part of the world, then there's something wrong with that worldview. … Since their metaphysical beliefs do not fit the world God created, their lives will be more or less inconsistent with those beliefs. Living in the real world requires them to function in ways that are not supported by their worldview. … In evangelism we can draw people's attention to the conflict between what they know on the basis of experience and what they profess in their stated beliefs--because that is a sure sign that something is wrong with their beliefs.10

The consistent atheist must confess that while his thoughts may have the appearance of independent rationality and genuine deliberation, these are mere illusions. Knowledge is not objective or verifiable. It is wholly determined by physics, and we are trapped behind the illusion. This has grave consequences for a naturalistic account of epistemology.

The Mind-Truth Divide: Did Evolution Produce a Bridge or Sword?

Richard Rorty wrote, "The idea that one species of organism is, unlike all the others, oriented not just toward its own increased prosperity but toward Truth, is as un-Darwinian as the idea that every human being has a built-in moral compass-a conscience that swings free of both social history and individual luck."11 According to Rorty, on an evolutionary account of things the goal of humanity is mere survival and increased posterity, not the discovery of truth (which raises a question: How, if evolution does not orient humans toward truth, does Rorty know it is true that evolution does not orient humans toward truth?).

Rorty is right. On an evolutionary account of things our cognitive abilities evolved by natural selection working on genetic variation and random chance events. Rationality, then, is not the end product of a process designed to produce mental behavior capable of discovering truth, but a mere survival mechanism to help us pass our genes on to the next generation.12 As Craig and Moreland note: "According to naturalistic evolutionary theory, human beings, their parts and cognitive faculties, arose by a blind, meaningless, purposeless process such that these things were selected for solely in virtue of survival value and reproductive advantage. If our cognitive faculties arose in this way, then their ultimate purpose…is to guarantee that we behave in certain ways, i.e., that we move appropriately in getting nourishment, avoiding danger, fighting and reproducing such that our chances of survival are enhanced."13

This is a defeater position because the naturalist has no way of knowing if the conclusions he has come to about the world using his rational mind accurately reflect the world, or if his beliefs are false-having been foiled on him by the evolutionary process to move him to behave in ways beneficial to his survival. The naturalist has no way of knowing if evolution produced a bridge to link the mind-truth divide, or a sword that cuts us off from truth. On an evolutionary account of things there is no good reason to believe evolution supplied a bridge rather than a sword.

Epistemically speaking, while we might experience an illusion of knowledge, we could never know if what we think we know about the world is the way the world really is, or if it is merely the way we have been determined to believe it is due to prior physical forces acting on our life. We cannot use reason to discern between the two, because reason itself is an evolutionary illusion. Our use of reason is just as determined by prior physical forces as are the conclusions we come to using reason. As such, reason cannot be trusted as a means of obtaining objective and meaningful knowledge. As Norman Geisler and Frank Turek argue, "If materialism is true, then reason itself is impossible. For if mental processes are nothing but chemical reactions in the brain, then there is no reason to believe that anything is true (including the theory of materialism). Chemicals can't evaluate whether or not a theory is true." In similar fashion, Frank Beckwith makes clear why reason is epistemically vacuous in a naturalistic worldview:

In order to defend this point of view, the materialists must draw inferences derived from reasoning; that is, they must have the ability to think, exercising the powers of a rational agent. According to the materialists, however, reasoning is an activity of the brain, a wholly material entity, like the kidney or large intestine that is subject to the forces of natural selection and random mutation, not to mention the laws of physics and chemistry. If reasoning is the result of "nonrational" causes, however, such "reasoning," including the reasoning on which materialism is based as a philosophical theory, cannot be trusted. Consider this illustration: if while playing Scrabble, the letters randomly spell "materialism is true," should I change my belief and embrace materialism? Of course not, for this collection of letters is the result of nonrational forces; but if the brain's "reasoning" is like the random string of Scrabble letters, then its apparent contentions - including the claim that materialism is true - are arrived at in no more rational a fashion than the phrase "materialism is true" on a Scrabble board.14

William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland second Beckwith's observation, noting that "such a deterministic view of human agency cannot be rationally affirmed. For if our thought life is merely the byproduct of our material make-up and external stimuli, then the decision to believe that determinism is true can be no more rational than having a toothache."15 Ironically, naturalism guts our ability to ground our truth claims in reality, including the truth of naturalism. Genuine knowledge requires freedom and rationality, and yet neither is possible in a purely material world.

If rationality-and our use of it-is dictated by the laws of physics, having no independent existence from the physical world, it ceases to be a meaningful guide to truth. If our mental states are just the result of a historical process involvoing non-rational causes, rationality can no longer be trusted. That means the philosophical naturalist has no way of knowing if the rationality afforded us by the evolutionary processes is capable of getting at the truth of our world or not, including the truth of God's non-existence.

Darwin was acutely aware of this epistemological problem, calling it his "horrid doubt." He wrote, "With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?"16 An evolutionary account of rationality cut off the very branch Darwin found himself sitting on.

This has grave consequences for science, which has supposedly discovered the truth of evolution. As Alving Plantinga explains, if non-rational processes produced human rationality, that is the best reason "for doubting any beliefs produced by those faculties. This includes, of course, the beliefs involved in science itself. Evolutionary naturalism, therefore, provides one who accepts it with a defeater for scientific beliefs, a reason for doubting that science does in fact get us to the truth, or close to the truth."17 That includes the truth of evolution. David Lack, a loyal Darwinian, echoes Plantinga:

Darwin's "horrid doubt" as to whether the convictions of man's evolved mind could be trusted applies as much to abstract truth as to ethics; and "evolutionary truth" is at least as suspect as evolutionary ethics. At this point, therefore, it would seem that the armies of science are in danger of destroying their own base. For the scientist must be able to trust the conclusions of his reasoning. Hence he cannot accept the theory that man's mind was evolved wholly by natural selection if this means, as it would appear to do, that the conclusions of the mind depend ultimately on their survival value and not their truth, thus making all scientific theories, including that of natural selection, untrustworthy.18

Leon Wieseltier is of the same mind, noting that "if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else. … Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it."19 If rationality--and our use of it--is dictated by the laws of physics, having no independent existence from the physical world, it ceases to be a meaningful guide to truth.

C.S. Lewis argued in Miracles that if reason came into existence by a chance historical process that was not designed to produce mental behavior capable of discovering truth, then we cannot trust that it evolved in such a way to bring us into contact with truth. And if we cannot trust reason to lead us to truth, we cannot trust the conclusions we come to using it.

Where does this leave the atheist who claims to know God does not exist? That knowledge could not have come via a free will, rational evaluation of the evidence. No, it is merely the result of prior physical causes acting on his physical stuff. The belief was caused by external and internal physical events, as they played themselves out in his life. Ultimately, then, the atheist's belief that there is no God is not based on good reasons, but good (or bad) physics!

The only reason to trust our rationality is if our minds were designed in the image of the same Great Mind who created the universe, thereby providing a bridge between the world and our minds, and enabling us to discover truth.


If all that exists is the material world, man is a wholly material entity. And like all other material entities, he would be incapable of exercising free will. What we believe to be true is determined by physics, not the independent use of reason. Reason is an illusion of evolution, whose purpose is to help us survive and reproduce-not to facilitate the apprehension of truth. If reason cannot be trusted, then neither can the conclusions we come to using it. As such, we can never know if what we have come to believe as true has any corresponding relation to reality, or if it is a falsity forced on us by physics. For knowledge to be meaningfully related to reality requires the existence of some immaterial entity (soul) that can transcend the determinism inherent to a wholly material word. Such an immaterial entity begs for an immaterial source to explain its origin, and the most reasonable source is God.

And yet the existence of an entity like the soul, and the existence of a personal God are expressly denied by the philosophical naturalist. The atheist cannot claim to know God does not exist, while at the same time denying the very mechanism necessary to ground such a claim. The atheist finds himself in a predicament wherein he must embrace theism if he is going to try to make any meaningful claims at all concerning the non-existence of God. And if theism must be assumed before such an argument can be made, the argument for God's non-existence can no longer be made. In the end the atheist must confess that for him to know God does not exist, God must exist. That is self-contradictory.


Summary Argument

If there is no God everything is purely material, including ourselves. Material things do not make decisions, but respond in determined ways to prior physical events. They do not act, but simply react to prior physical factors. For any particular event there exists a series of prior physical events that not only result in the event, but necessitate it.

If man is just physical stuff, then our "choices" and "knowledge" are like boiling water and falling dominos: they are necessary reactions to prior physical processes. There is no free will.

Where does the atheist's knowledge that God does not exist come from, then? Does it come from a free will evaluation of the evidence? No, his belief is the result of prior physical causes acting on his physical stuff. It is caused by the way prior physical events randomly played themselves out in his life. Ultimately the atheist's belief that there is no God is not based on good reasons, but good physics!

If materialism is true we cannot claim to know anything; we are simply led to believe them (whether they be true or false) by prior physical factors, and cannot believe anything else. If all that exists is the material world knowledge is determined by physics, not meaningful and objectively related to reality. For knowledge to be meaningfully related to reality requires the existence of some immaterial aspect to man (soul) that can transcend the determinism inherent to a purely physical word. Such an immaterial aspect to man begs for an immaterial source for its existence. That source must be God, because physical stuff cannot produce non-physical stuff, of which the soul is. Ultimately, then, God must exist for one to know He doesn't.


Related Articles:

Knowledge Requires a Soul, and a Soul Requires God: An Argument for Theism
Eternity and Forever: An Argument for Theism


1. David Papineau, Philosophical Naturalism (Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 3 as quoted in J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 93.
2. John Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 98, quoted in J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 104.
3. John Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 98, quoted in J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 106.
4. John Bishop, Natural Agency (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 1, quoted in J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 104.
5. John Bishop, Natural Agency (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 1, quoted in J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 40.
6. Cited in Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial, 2d ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 127. Based on Johnson's research notes, it appears the quote is drawn from Provine's paper "Evolution and the Foundation of Ethics," appearing in MBL Science, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 25-29 (a publication of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, MA).
7. J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 129.
8. J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), pp. 125, 8.
9. Dennis Overbye, New York Times review of What the Bleep, Down the Rabbit Hole; available from; Internet; accessed 26 September 2006.
10. Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Book, 2004), 110-1, 319.
11. Richard Rorty, "Untruth and Consequences," The New Republic, July 31, 1995, pp. 32-36., quoted in Alvin Plantinga, "Darwin, Mind, and Meaning"; available from; Internet; accessed 21 March 2005.
12. Alvin Plantinga, "Darwin, Mind, and Meaning"; available from; Internet; accessed 21 March 2005.
13. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 104.
14. Francis Beckwith, "Mere Materialism: Chronicles of Nonsense"; available from; Internet; accessed 07 November 2004.
15. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 508.
16. Charles Darwin, Letter to William Graham, Down, July 3rd, 1881. In The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin Including an Autobiographical Chapter, ed. Francis Darwin (D. Appleton and Company, 1887), vol. 1, 255.
17. Alvin Plantinga, "Darwin, Mind, and Meaning"; available from; Internet; accessed 21 March 2005.
18. M. Grene, "The Faith of Darwinism," Encounter, Vol. 74, November 1959, 56.
19. Leon Wieseltier, "The God Genome," a review of Daniel Dennett's book, Breaking the Spell; available from∨ Internet; accessed 21 February 2006.

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