Are Atheists Haunted by the Possibility of Being Mistaken?

Archibald Alexander (1772-1851)

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Archibald Alexander, who was the first professor of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote in the 18th century:

Whatever may be the truth in regard to religion, it must be admitted to be the most important subject which can possibly occupy the thoughts of a rational creature. It cannot be wise to treat it, as many have done, with levity and ridicule: for even on the supposition that there is no true religion, it is a serious thing that it has got such a hold of the mind, that it cannot be shaken off; so that men of the noblest powers of intellect and the highest moral courage have been subdued and led captive by its impressions. And they who boast a complete exemption from its influence, and glory in the name of atheist or sceptic, do nevertheless often betray a mind ill at ease, and in the extremity of their distress are sometimes heard to call upon that God whose existence they have denied, and to implore that mercy which they have been accustomed to deride. . . . They seem to be haunted with a secret apprehension that the reality of religion will at some moment flash upon their conviction. It is with them a common saying, that ‘fear made the gods;’ but it would be much more true to assert, that fear made atheists; for what but the dread of a Supreme Being could be a motive strong enough to lead men to contend so earnestly against the existence of God? . . . . Indeed, a man should first take leave of his reason before he advocates an opinion demonstrated to be false by everything which we behold.

Alexander suggests that atheists and religious skeptics often are haunted by the possibility of being mistaken. One good reason for this is that there is good evidence for the existence of God.

I’ve noticed that some of the most public and argumentative atheists today deny that there is any good reason at all to believe there’s a God. This, surely, is over-stating the case, even if you think that, on balance, the case against the existence of God is stronger than the case for God’s existence.

Another feature of Alexander’s statement has continuing relevance. The atheist who campaigns for his worldview in a public way today attests to the importance of the question of God’s existence by his vigorous efforts in the marketplace of ideas. And this, too, confirms the claim that religious concern is, for all intents and purposes, a universal concern.

Some who are agnostic about God’s existence may be understandably reluctant to deride religious belief, lest it turn out that God does exist. But if it should turn out that God exists, will it be so much better to have been an agnostic than an atheist?

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

13 Responses to Are Atheists Haunted by the Possibility of Being Mistaken?

  1. Sola Ratione says:

    Hi Doug,

    Yes, there are likely to be some atheists who take a strong stand against theism as a way of trying to suppress their suspicion (or “dread”) that it might be true — just as there will be some Christian apologists who engage in debates as a way of shoring up their ‘leaking vessel’ of faith.

    There are, no doubt, also some atheists who take theism to be a serious contender in the marketplace of ideas, and so worthy of their considered attention — again, just as there will be Christian apologists who take atheism to be a serious position.

    But there is another motivation that drives many atheists that, I think, should be mentioned in this context — one that will, of course, find a parallel in not a few Christian apologists.

    Some atheists “contend earnestly against the existence of God” for precisely the same kind of reason that people “contend earnestly against” preventable, but devastating diseases like Malaria. In other words, it is not the ‘dread’ that an actual ‘Supreme Being’ might exist that motivates them, but rather (what they consider to be) the deleterious impact of BELIEF in such a Being — both in terms of the well-being of individual believers and society at large. Atheists of this kind would much prefer to live in a world where their “public campaigns” were entirely unnecessary.

    Best wishes,
    Sola Ratione


  2. Doug Geivett says:

    Hello ianam,

    Thanking you for making my point.


  3. Pingback: Are Atheists Haunted by the Possibility of Being Mistaken? « Doug Geivett’s Blog - Attempts at Honesty | Attempts at Honesty

  4. ianam says:

    Atheists are haunted by the possibility of being mistaken the way a-SantaClausists and a-leprechaunists are.

    “This, surely, is over-stating the case” Beg the question much? It is my view, and the view of most atheists, that not only is there no evidence for the existence of God, but there’s a great deal of evidence against it.


  5. Eldnar says:

    FYI Re: Steve Colbert. Steve Colbert is a devout Catholic and Sunday school teacher. Most of what he says on TV is purely an act. He admits he actually believes little to nothing of what his “character” says on TV.


  6. coco cocoon says:

    If i come across unusual things, i will change my mind in it !It’s telling that missionaries introducing the gospel message to stone age peoples of our current world are not met with, “What are you talking about? You must know, my dear fellow, there really is no God.


  7. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Cam,

    You make a good point. Couldn’t it be said, though, that there are Christians who believe because it’s convenient, and who haven’t seriously relinquished their wills to the Creator? My own view is that atheists are not utterly unique in this respect.



  8. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Marty,

    I wonder if there’s a link to that episode of The Colbert Report. If so, I could add it here for further discussion. It’s an interesting idea, that someone may have enough respect for a group he disagrees with and think that they may be seeing something he is incapable of seeing, but should like to see if it’s true.



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  10. cam says:

    The tooth fairy doesn’t exist. No universal, vitriolic argument for his existence. Kids grow up. No lasting impact. Usually……… ; )

    God exists and has a claim on our lives. This is unacceptable to those who believe they themselves are supreme and can believe and do as they desire. Our relationship with God is the core, fundamental issue in all of our lives. So the effort to deny that we have a maker, which is really pretty obvious to even the most casual (honest) observer, becomes a tremendously weighty and intricate argument.

    It’s telling that missionaries introducing the gospel message to stone age peoples of our current world are not met with, “What are you talking about? You must know, my dear fellow, there really is no God.”

    Often those carrying the good news are met with, “Where have you been? We have waited long for this message.”

    Those that build a wall against the incoming tide are quickly disappointed. Those that deny their maker, likewise. Just a longer time frame. And the consequences are greater.


  11. Marty Georges says:

    Interesting that you should be discussing this topic today. We discussed this very subject yesterday during my men’s fellowship group in the context of Roman 1, i.e. God is evident to all. One of our group described a recent episode of the Colbert Report, where Stephen Colbert lamented his inability to see the truths that evangelical Christians see so readily—implying that the Christian has been endowed with some sort of special, enviable rational acuity. I don’t know how sincere Colbert’s statement was, or whether it was just part of his ‘shtick.’ Nevertheless, I think this is a demonstration that Alexander is absolutely correct.


  12. Marty Georges says:

    Interesting that you should mention this today. We were discussing this subject yesterday in my men’s fellowship group. One of the men related a discussion on a recent episode of The Colbert Report where Stephen Colbert expressed concern that so many people (e.g. evangelicals) seem to see truths that he does not. I don’t know how sincere Colbert was in this comment—it could just be part of his ‘schtick’, but nevertheless I think it captures something of Alexander’s point.


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