I have heard many people use an illustration when talking about atheism and its viability. Many will say that they can convert an atheist to an agnostic with this simple illustration. Here is how it goes. If someone claims to be an atheist, you can easily convert them to agnosticism thereby moving them one step closer to theism. How? By asking them a series of questions. First you ask them how certain they are that there is not a God. If they say that they are not certain, that is just what they believe, then you inform them that they are not really an atheist–one who is certain that there is no God–but an agnostic–one who is uncertain about God’s existence. If they say that they are certain that there is no God, then you move to step two. Here you draw a large circle that represents all knowledge in the universe. You ask them to draw a circle within that circle that represents their relative knowledge in relation to all knowledge. Of course, they will draw a much smaller circle within the large circle knowing that they do not possess all knowledge, only a small portion of the whole. Once they have created this smaller circle, you ask them if God could exist somewhere in this vast area that you have no knowledge about. They should always answer yes since that area is their area of ignorance. At that point, it is said, you have converted them from atheism to agnosticism.

Let me start by saying that while this sounds really appealing and irrefutable, it is actually a terrible illustration and represents a very modernistic mindset for the requirements of belief. Why? I am glad you asked. Let me turn the tables on you, the one who believes in God. Why couldn’t an atheist use the same illustration for you? You say you believe in God, how certain are you. Absolutely certain? Oh, okay. Well let me draw this circle that represents all knowledge. Now you draw a circle within this circle representing your knowledge. Oh, that small eh? Could it be that the evidence for God’s non-existence is found outside of your circle of knowledge? Yes? Well then, I have just converted you from a theistic worldview to an agnostic worldview.

You see, it works both ways. Don’t use this illustration. The fallacy on both sides is that it assumes that certainty is only attained and belief is only justified when we possess all knowledge. In order to have true belief, we have to have absolute intellectual certainty about the matter. Since none of us do, we are all necessarily suspended in agnosticism about the matter and must adopt a worldview of hard skepticism. But this is not the case. All of us base our beliefs on incomplete data, but this does not mean that it is inaccurate data. The case for atheism and theism lies not in absolute knowledge of all things, but in the preponderance of the evidence in the knowledge that we do have. That creates an obligation to believe or not believe something. Otherwise we would be suspended in a state of perpetual indecisiveness about all issues, spiritual or mundane, and never have justification for any belief at all.

The key here is that belief is not based upon absolute certainty, but upon reliance in the evidence and information we do have. This creates an obligation to trust. This trust is a combination of intellectual, emotional, and experiential data. It creates degrees of trust according to the evidence provided.

We cover this way of thinking in Introduction to Theology of The Theology Program, session 6.5.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    10 replies to "An argument against atheism?"

    • davidthew

      “The case for atheism and theism lies not in absolute knowledge of all things, but in the preponderance of the evidence in the knowledge that we do have. That creates an obligation to believe or not believe something. Otherwise we would be suspended in a state of perpetual indecisiveness about all issues, spiritual or mundane, and never have justification for any belief at all.”

      Cogent statements, Michael. Thanks. Press on!

    • C Michael Patton

      I agree David. Good word. Thanks for the congrats. I pray things are going well in your ministry.

    • John Carroll

      What you are saying ( a person is obligated to believe on the preponderance of evidence) could be extended to the final judgement. Can a person be obligated and yet unable, since none can come to Christ except the Spirit draw him?

    • Zach

      I disagree and here is why…

      If I said “there is no gold in China” I would have to have absolute knowledge of China, what is under every rock, in every Chinese person’s fillings, et cetera.


      If I said “there is gold in China” I would only need a small bit of knowledge of China in order to make that statement.

      One is an absolute negative where as infinite knowledge is required, basically someone who denies God is saying, ” I have infinite knowledge in order to say there is nothing with infinite knowledge.”

      Whereas on the adverse, to make the absolute positive arguement only a finite knowledge is required.

      Ravi Zacharias uses this arguement, except he uses the speckled rock nowhere in the universe.

      Food for thought…maybe I missed something, but hey, its all relative right? ;-).

      p.s. completely kidding… lol ABSOLUTE TRUTH DOES EXIST!!!!! and im thankful for it.

    • C Michael Patton

      Zach, very interesting. I will have to think about that…but upon first glace, I do feel that I have to recant of this blog post. Thanks!

    • Zach

      Well, perhaps the post, but the category needs addressing because we do have a LOT of analogies and hypotheticals out there that really don’t do the Gospel justice.

    • Michael–

      I agree with your basic premise. I’ve never had a lot of use for analogies, illustrations, etc. when discussing atheism/agnosticism/theism.

      I’ve never been one for KNOWING that God exists (or the alternative). Belief has been enough for me ever since a Christian teaching an Intro to Philosophy course gave me permission. Before that, everyone I heard from said they KNEW that God existed, that their church was true, and so on. As for me, I believe, and that’s enough.

      I’ve argued for some time that there’s no such thing as a rational atheist–at least not as the definitions of the words would imply. Any atheist who is both informed and rational would quickly become an agnostic, on the basis that they can’t really KNOW that God doesn’t exist–all they can ever KNOW is that they haven’t yet found out whether God exists or not.

      You argue that the same argument can be made for theists, and I would have to agree with you, by and large (hence my own stance in favor of belief rather than knowledge). The same is not necessarily true, however, with theISM, although it is always true (as far as I have seen) of atheism.

      Theism finds truth in a variety of forms of knowledge, but almost always revolves around a central theme of faith and trust. Faith and trust are choices, axioms of the most basic and foundational kind, and therefore demand no facts or evidence beyond their own acceptance or rejection. Atheism, on the other hand, denouncing faith on principle and investing trust in information rather than people or ideas, founds itself in skepticism and the requirement of logical or evidential proof.

      Proof being unattainable by the very nature of science and logic (null hypothesis, etc.), and all evidence being indefinitely suspect, the basis of atheism is self-destructive. No atheist may both accept the methodology of their argument and its premises simultaneously.

    • To me, the problems of atheism, theism, faith, and proof, are best summed up by an acknowledgment of one simple truth: there are many forms of knowledge, and though they interact, each has its own sphere to dominate. Theistic faith may not be discounted by evidence, sensation, or repeatability, for it only intermingles with those forms of knowledge, but neither dominates nor is dominated by them. Furthermore, the honest atheist will acknowledge that each of those forms is subject to two axioms: 1) the axiom of its state, i.e. the conditions under which it is considered to be reliable and to what degree; and 2) the axiom of its operation, i.e. the standards by which knowledge is considered to be contained by/cross over into its domain. These are individually unique from person to person, and happen to be the same axiomatic pair that describe the knowledge domain of theistic faith. The primary difference is that theistic faith is self-proving (i.e. purely axiomatic, although it may be applied in like manner as the other forms), whereas these other forms are proven vicariously through the evidence of their perceptive products (i.e. they may only be proven by applying them to external phenomena and then feeding back the self-verifying perceptions produced by said application into the original axiom).

      In either case, knowledge is just belief, and everything we do is simply confirmation bias. As I always like to say, however, we go on living anyway as if we DO know what can’t possibly be known. It seems reasonable, then, to assume that most of what proves itself to be pragmatic or meaningful is only so because we make it so. I believe that God exists, and the meaningfulness of his existence is evident in my life because I allow it to be. The lack of his influence in the lives of atheists is, likewise, produced before the observation of the fact. The actual fact of his existence is the true mystery.

      Just some thoughts. Thanks for the great article…

    • Carl D'Agostino

      I happen to belong to a 12-Step program for alcoholism recovery. One does not reveal the name in press, media or written word as it is to be respected as anonymous. 8 years and change sober.The organization must remain anonymous but I don’t have to be so. I share my recovery to all without shame.
      Now my 6 sponsees(2 Jewish, 2 Catholic and 2 Protestant) had no problems with the God stuff. Whew! Some newcomers claim to be agnostic, other vehement and proud atheists.
      Agnostics seem to have a common thread: There really is no satisfactory explanation for unmerited suffering. Probably greatest contributor to loss of faith or inability to gain faith. This is not to suggest there exists no reconciliation here in the Christian belief structures but they can’t integrate into their personal plausibility structures.
      I have found that for the atheist, in most cases, it is not a matter of denying God’s existence. They have been so traumatized by people, places, and things, THEY WANT NOTHING TO DO WITH GOD WHATEVER HE IS OR IS NOT.
      Have had success with Higher Power thing. It’s secular. No religious trappings or resentments re religion. They develop their own understanding. If they grow in the program and stay sober perhaps one can attribute the success with partnership with a power greater than oneself. That’s where I’ve got them in God’s butterfly net! It’s a covenant. In many cases this leads to traditional faith with or without church attendance and expressions of faith. But it’s faith just as well. Upon arising we ask the higher power to sustain us for the day for sobriety. Now I’ve got the lad praying! And by my example I may even get the fellow to accept the invitation given freely to be healed in Christ. As we grow in faith we grow in maintenance as well.
      Please don’t condemn me as a con artist for Christ, but these days you gettem saved any way you can. The rest will take care of itself in perhaps more traditional paths to faith.

    • Carl D'Agostino

      To much logic in #1 – #8. It’s distastefully empirical. How do we prove with empiricism that which cannot be empirically proven? It becomes a maze which even I, a believer, find difficult to navigate. I call it “Word Algebra.” Do you really think this wets the appetite of an atheist? Perhaps best or only way to convert atheist is to live by example. That sure opened my mind. Seeing Christian love exampled impressed all doubt to leave my mind . And after to listening to this type of discussion the guy will probably exclaim “See, I told you religion was messed up?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.