Atheist Arguments Devalue Reason and Science

In debates with atheists, Catholic apologists often overlook a key tactical advantage, exemplified in the adage: “First beat your opponent with his own stick, and then beat him with yours.” 

This means using your opponent’s arguments and presuppositions against him. It’s similar to the difference between karate and judo: In karate, the goal is to strike your opponent to stop him; in judo, the goal is to use your opponent’s moves against him. When an opponent charges, a judoka will not try to stop him, but, rather, will use the opponent’s momentum to his advantage, putting him under his control.

In apologetics, judo should be our first strategy.

When debating the existence of God, atheists frequently open by invoking the supposed clash between science (“rational evidence”) and faith (“irrational belief”). They will commonly argue against God’s existence by citing a lack of scientific evidence that supports belief in his existence. To bolster their argument, they may also cite the many conflicting views of God contained in the world’s religions. In the end, they cling to the assertion that because knowledge of God’s existence is inaccessible through scientific investigation (“objective proof”) belief in God is confined to the mists of faith and revelation (“subjective preference”).

For these reasons, atheists logically conclude that God and the Catholic faith are at best harmless illusions or at worst dangerous delusions. Either way, the existence of God and his attributes are reduced to mere products of human construction, perception or belief. God is not real, not a fact that can be known, they say.

Informed Catholic apologists often counter with scientific appeals of their own, like the Big Bang theory or the fine-tuning of the universe. They use the law of cause-effect and the finely tuned order of the universe to make a case for God’s existence.

By doing so, however, Catholics are playing an “away” game, for atheists have tacitly, but definitively, set the ground rules for what constitutes real knowledge and how real knowledge may be discovered and used. Consenting to respond to questions according to atheists’ ground rules, Catholic apologists have ceded the initiative and control of the debate. As a result, they rarely make it to the atheists’ side of the field. 

Without fully realizing it — offering responses and retorts according to atheist ground rules — Catholic apologists leave some of their best offensive strategies on the chalkboard and resign themselves to merely playing defense against atheist questions and objections. In other words, by giving atheists the home-field advantage, Catholic apologists let atheists define the field of battle, dictate the ground rules and use tools they don’t properly own or understand. 

However, when the source and substance of these tools — reason and science — are rigorously examined within what atheists must accept as true by virtue of their insistence on an exclusively materialist account of reality, their case against God vanishes before it can even be made. 

It vanishes because atheists have no way to explain the existence or reliability of reason within the materialist account of reality implicit in their view of the universe — for within a wholly physical universe, reason is reduced to a mere biological phenomenon and nothing more. Even if there were a way to explain it, however, reason would remain only the product of an accidentally ordered physical universe. That is, reason would remain without any real order or power, because its source was and continues to be random biological activity. Without Logos, there can be no logos

In order to take the offensive back, Catholics must reappropriate the tools of reason and science. The beginning point of this offensive is to insist that atheists give a clear and thorough account of the nature, power and the very existence of reason itself. Without providing such an account, atheists cannot legitimately appeal to reason — and its powerful progeny, science — as a means to establish the veracity of their claim that there isn’t enough good evidence to believe in God’s existence.

Without reason, science would be unable to discover even empirical truths, because it would possess no way to make sense of what it measures and observes. Moreover, without reason, atheists’ most pointed and powerful questions and objections to God’s existence become meaningless chatter, reduced to hollow and inflammatory rhetoric. 

The empirical truths they seek and the scientific method itself rest on reason’s existence, its rules and its power to explain and prove things reliably. Atheists are rightly able and entitled to use reason in their debates with Catholics — so long as they provide an adequate account of how reason came to be, what it is, how it works and what it can and cannot know. 

To claim legitimate purchase on the use of reason, atheists must be willing to pay the intellectual costs associated with its use. If they cannot, then their use of reason in debate is unlawful: One cannot use tools whose very existence and reliability cannot be given sufficient account by one’s cosmology and ontology. Atheists are using tools for which they have not paid. This is, in effect, a form of apologetics shoplifting.

When atheists explain reason as merely a form of cortical activity in specific locations in the brain, Catholic apologists must identify this maneuver as a vapid answer — as a smokescreen masking their evasion of the question about the very nature and origin of reason. It goes without saying, of course, that human reasoning is made possible by the physiological makeup and activity of the brain. This does not, however, explain the origin or nature of reason — a nature that is, it can be argued, much more than the physical organ and its operations that make the exercise of reason possible.

Physiology and brain activity is not reason, and the human brain is not reason’s ultimate origin. To say there is a physiological basis for the exercise of reason is not the same as saying reason is itself a material reality or that reason, an immaterial reality, could somehow arise from a material reality.

In the legal system, shoplifting is usually classified as a misdemeanor. But in the grand scheme of life, this atheistic shoplifting is a felony, a capital offense. Atheists are the victims of their own felonious thinking, and your effort to win them over by offering a reasoned apologetic for God’s existence is also an effort to save them from themselves. To do so, you may have to prevent them from shoplifting the tools of reason and science and show them how truly defenseless their position is.

To establish the credibility of their argument, atheists must bring their epistemological presuppositions out into the light of day and provide a reasonable and persuasive case for their validity. They must explain how they can know what they claim to know through science and reason within the limitations of a universe composed of exclusively material elements. If they are unable to do so, they must confront the irrational and unscientific nature of their worldview and be held accountable for their acts of apologetics shoplifting.

Francis X. Cronin is a writer, educator and administrator

with the Nashville Dominicans at Aquinas College and

at Overbrook School in Nashville, Tennessee.