I recently watched a debate between a presuppositional apologist and an atheist and decided to make a blog post about this discussion, but I am presupposing that the reader is already familiar with the discussion to some extent. If you are atheist, you might be tempted to forgo reading this blog post, but I hope you will stick around and wrestle with its content especially what is at the end.
What I want to do is analyze the presuppositional position from three perspectives: exegetical, theological, and scientific. Let’s start by analyzing the central claim of presuppositional apologetics that scripture states all people know that God exists. Here is the commonly cited passage for review:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse. . .” (Romans 1:18-20a, NRSV)
Is Paul really saying that someone born into an atheist culture (perhaps a post-Christian European country) would start with innate knowledge of God and then need to suppress this to as a rite of passage into their atheist culture? Before jumping to this conclusion we should read the passage in more context. It becomes obvious that Paul is talking about people who “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (verse 23). In other words, Paul is talking about the pagans. Paul is explaining to his readers why the pagan religions exist and their origins from the beginning of civilization. And, Paul is not even addressing individuals but rather the entire culture.
Further, do we find Paul adopting a particular apologetic approach like evidentialism or presuppositionalism? We can look at how Paul approached the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at Athens. Did Paul say, “You already know that God exists and you must be suppressing this knowledge”? NO! Paul says that God is the creator of all things and “he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each of us.” (Acts 17:26-27, NRSV). Is Paul presenting an argument in such a way that it only appeals to evidence? Or, is Paul telling them that they already know God exists? No and no. Paul was neither an evidentialist nor a presuppositionalist.
So, going back to Romans 1, why would someone extrapolate from pagans to modern cultures and from culture to individual? I have an idea. Here is a telling quote from a well-known presuppositional apologist:
“Would it not follow logically if the person did not know that God exists, had no concept of God, and stood before him and God says, ‘I am going to send you to hell for not believing in me.’ . . . that would not make sense.”
-Sye Ten Bruggencate on Dogma Debate radio show
It is clear from this quote that a major reason for adopting presuppositionalism is because it makes God fair. In this scheme everyone is equal because we start out with innate knowledge of God. It’s as if there is a theological problem of God’s fairness and presuppositionalism is the solution.
From my perspective the reason that God’s judgment is perfectly fair is NOT because we all start off with innate knowledge of God, rather it’s because God is omniscient and knows what to expect of each one of us no matter what our circumstances are on earth. Indeed, our circumstances are radically different from person to person and culture to culture, and this is no accident. Then, how will the atheist be judged? By their actions and their conscience (i.e., see Romans 2:6-16). If God calls an atheist to convert, then specifically rejecting this call is grounds for condemnation. But, it will not be arbitrary. The point here is that we don’t need innate knowledge of God for God to be fair.
Alright, you have waited patiently with bated breath for the scientific analysis. The answer is quite simple. We do not naturally believe in specific gods. We do have a propensity to believe in god(s), but these must be refined by culture. Here is a video which explains this and takes it a little further:
I think the apostle Paul would be agreeable to this. The human brain has the capacity and propensity to believe in gods, but this is refined through outside information, namely revelation, which leads to Christian theism, the belief in the one true God who created all things and will make them new.