Atheism,  Chris Stedman,  Cornelius Van Til,  Religious Pluralism

The Antithesis of Christianity is not Atheism

Most Christian apologists set themselves up against atheism. Moreover, their suggested approach is to begin with defeating atheism by showing why theism is more likely to be true.

Cornelius Van Til was a little different.  Rather than opposing the belief that there is no God, he opposed the belief that there is an option. Van Til’s primary opponent was not one anti theistic belief, but the possibility of a plurality of religious beliefs being, in principle, rational. It was an apologetic contra religious pluralism.

The root of unbelief, for Van Til, is not a rejection of God (although that is what follows), but the consideration of multiple options in basic commitments. Van Til called this “epistemic pluralism,” the conceiving of alternative (workable, correct, innocent) interpretations to God’s interpretation.

Van Til suggested that at the fall of man, “Eve was obliged to postulate an ultimate epistemological pluralism and contingency before she could even proceed to consider the proposition made to her by the devil.” Eve accepts an offer from the devil to take on the role of judge. She was compelled to put God to the test since to make a judgment, one requires a hypothesis. This compulsion is based on a denial of an absolute knowledge in God and, according to Van Til, leads to the notion of neutrality: “Eve was compelled to assume the equal ultimacy of the minds of God, of the devil, and of herself. And this surely excluded the exclusive ultimacy of God. This therefore was a denial of God’s absoluteness epistemologically.” The temptation of Eve was tantamount to the offer of thought free of the dependence on revelation from God. Interpretation was now possible from a virtual neutral space. Indeed, the fall of mankind meant the possibility to deny revelation from God as possible.

Van Til’s apologetic is in contrast to standard defenses of theism. This is, in large part, because he felt that the basic sin of unbelief is the belief that one can, without incurring any of God’s wrath, consider alternatives to God’s view based on assumed external standards like reason, observation, personal meaning, cultural sensitivity or any other standard one might choose that, according to the unbeliever, is possible without God. Van Til argued that, when placed side by side, worldview options cannot be evaluated with the view to seeing which one might be the most reasonable, the most verifiable. To do that is to assume the pluralistic hypothesis – that multiple interpretations of reality are possibly true. But to assume this possibility is to step out of the faith in order to test it by another standard. Since the highest of all standards is what God thinks, there can be no higher standard.

Van Til’s apologetic sought to show how the Christian worldview is the only one that can make sense of human experiences and that all alternative possibilities fail to do so. Such a claim is not aimed at defeating generic atheism, but atheism’s root – the possibility of an alternative worldview that, in principle, could succeed in its endeavor to replace God’s interpretation of the world. He did this through examining the standards by which one judges worldview – reason, observation, meaning etc. He argued, through the use of the transcendental argument, that none of these standards would be possible unless Christian Theism was true.

Some Christians might object saying that the greatest present threat is militant atheism, an atheism no longer content with disbelief, but who are promoting the destruction of all religion in public life. However, just how permanent is such a movement? Dawkins and Hitchens are not representative of all atheists, they are also not representative of younger, more postmodern atheists. Just listen to Chris Stedman. Stedman describes himself as a “faitheist,” one who, while not believing in any god, is engaged in interfaith dialogue with the goal of finding common ground with religious people (see here for full interview):

When I first became active in the atheist movement, I was taken aback by the degree of hostility I saw directed toward religion and, in many cases, religious believers. It has often felt to me that atheism and anti-theism are treated as synonyms by many segments of the atheist community, when they are in fact different. This “face” of atheism estranges many atheists who do not agree with the strategies and positions put forth by some of the more visible atheists. I believe it is counterproductive, and often harmful, to assume that being an atheist means you should focus your activism on trying to bring about the end of religion. My top priorities as an atheist and a Humanist are promoting pluralism, education, and compassion; these are goals I share with many religious people, and they are things we can work on together.

And one can see that Stedman’s approach is largely built on a strategic move to promote “pluralism, education and compassion” in the cause of atheism and humanism. In other words, atheism is to be advanced, not through negative hitchensian rhetoric, but in promotion of a set of values that Christians and atheists could come together on. His basic assumption is that it is not in the least bit wrong to believe that multiple interpretations of reality are possible. This, I think, should be the assumption that Christians should challenge in our defense of the Christian faith.

Religious pluralism is different to a social/political pluralism. One can be committed to social/political pluralism (multiple communities holding to multiple worldviews living side by side) and not be committed to religious/epistemological pluralism. Consequently, an argument for Christian theism might be to show how Christian theism makes sense of social/political pluralism. It might even be an argument to show that only the Christian worldview can make sense of social/political pluralism. But the argument is not to somehow ban multiple religions or create a theocracy of some sort in our present, fallen world. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.