Are there any atheists properly so called?
We deny

Statement of the question.

I. As there is so large a number of atheists now in the world, it might at first sight seem amazing that anyone should either question or deny that there could be any. After laying down certain distinctions, it will be apparent in what sense it may be true that there can be many atheists, and yet that there are none.

Speculative or practical atheism.

II. First, an atheist may be either speculative or practical: the former as to faith, not acknowledging a God; the latter as to manners and life, recognizing but not worshipping him (who live just as if there were no God or wish in their hearts there was none). For although there is no practice which does not imply some knowledge (nor any knowledge at least concerning the worship of God which does not tend in some way to practice); so there is no practical atheism which does not arise from a depraved knowledge and corrupt judgment of mind and no speculative atheism which does not also draw after corrupt practice. Yet this does not hinder the denomination being made from the prevailing quality, so that the atheism which consists rather in ostentatious words and blasphemies should be called speculative, but that which is rather occupied with impious deeds should be termed practical. Now while we admit there are many practical atheists, we deny that there are any speculative.

Speculative atheism.

III. Second, a speculative atheist is either direct and express or indirect and interpretative. The direct is one who shakes off all knowledge, sense and belief of deity. The indirect is one who attributes to or denies to God such things that by necessary consequence God is denied. For example, he who denies the providence and justice of God (although he may profess to acknowledge a God) by that very thing denies him because God cannot be without providence. We do not here treat of the latter, but of the former.

IV. Third, the direct atheist is either one externally disputing (yea even maliciously denying against his sense); or internally doubting (for a time vexed with doubts of the existence of God and appearing to yield to them for a moment in paroxysms of temptation); or studiously affecting a total want of perception of deity (anaisthēsian); or plainly and certainly persuaded in his heart that there is no God. Concerning the former we do not treat (who, moreover, we do not deny can be found), but concerning the latter (whom we do). The question then is whether atheists are supposable not practically, but speculatively; not indirectly and interpretatively, but directly; not those who externally dispute, or deny, or internally doubt and endeavor to persuade themselves that there is no God; but who expressly believe it in their hearts and profess with their mouth. This we deny.

Proof that atheism cannot be granted.

V. The reasons are: (1) There is implanted in man a knowledge of God and sense of divinity, of which man can no more be destitute than of a rational intellect. Hence he cannot divest himself of it without putting off himself (as was proved before, Topic I, Question 3). If in Scripture the saving and practical knowledge by which they may be converted is denied to sinners (1 Jn. 2:4), it is not as if a theoretical and inefficacious knowledge is therefore denied. And if the ignorance of a depraved disposition is attributed to them (1 Thess. 4:5; Eph. 4:17, 18), the ignorance of pure negation cannot be attributed to them equally.

VI. (2) The atheist has the work of the law written in him (Rom. 2:14), and a natural observation and conscience in which God has erected his throne to be extinguished only with the light of reason. For although men of desperate impiety often endeavor to shake it off, yet they cannot. And as for a time they may seem to have rendered themselves insensible and conscience may slumber, at length it starts up and pierces their hearts with severer pangs, so that involuntarily they are held captive and then feel deeply him whom they desire to be ignorant of (as was the case with Caligula, Nero and many others). Nor can it be properly objected that this conscience is not always joined with any knowledge or fear of God. The scourge of conscience might be occasioned by the fear of men; for although this might be the case in known crimes, in those secret sins which men are ignorant of and perpetrated by those recognizing no superior on earth, whence could such terror arise except from a sense of God’s justice, smiting their consciences the more as they endeavored to escape it? Hence here truly there must be present something divine (theion ti).

VII. (3) God has so clearly manifested himself in his works that men even by feeling may find him (Acts 17:26, 27), and cannot open their eyes without being immediately struck with the majesty and splendor of so great a deity. Nor does the particle (ei ara) used by the apostle throw doubt upon the evidence and certainty of the divine revelation, but refers to the senselessness and negligence of the seekers (as in Acts 8:22). Thus what is added concerning the presence of God (“he is not far from every one of us”) does not denote the special promise of grace to his faithful worshippers, but indicates the blessing of providence common to all men.

VIII. The acquired knowledge of God is usually obtained in the threefold way of causality, eminence and negation. By way of causality, when from the effects we infer the cause and from second causes we ascend to the first: “He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? He that formed the eye, shall he not see?” (Ps. 94:9). By way of eminence, we eminently ascribe (kat’ exochēn) to God whatever of perfection there is in creatures. By way of negation, we remove from him whatever is imperfect in creatures, as when he is said to be invisible, immortal, immutable. By way of negation we arrive at the knowledge of negative attributes. By way of eminence, we know the positive attributes. And by way of causality we ascend to the knowledge of relative attributes.

Sources of explanation.

IX. When it is said, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Ps. 14:1), the certain and firm persuasion of an atheist denying God is not so much described, as the doubt and endeavor of the impious man striving to extinguish this knowledge. Therefore he does not say he believes and maintains, but he “says” (i.e., silently says to himself and endeavors to persuade himself of it). (2) A direct speculative atheism cannot be meant here because it treats of the wicked and sinners in general, as is evident from a comparison with Rom. 3. Now it is certain that all sinners cannot in this sense be called atheists. (3) Here is denoted not so much a denial of the existence as of the providence of God (as is evident from Ps. 10:4 where what is said of the wicked man “who through the pride of his countenance, will not seek: God is not in all his thoughts”). Verse 11 refers to the denial of providence: “He hath said in his heart, God hath forgotten: he hideth his face; he will never see it.” Hence Owen rightly says:

The fool says in his heart, there is no God,
He spoke, and no one believed this fool;
The fool denies God to be if no one, who therefore
Is an atheist? No one who wants God to be.
—“De Atheo,” Epigrammatum 3.16 (1622)

X. An external negation of God (or only an erratic thought and doubt concerning him) differs from a fixed and constant denial in the heart. We allow that the former may exist in man, but not the latter.

XI. Whatever authors say of the stifling and obliteration of the light of nature for a time in a paroxysm of fury and of the cauterization of conscience (its lethargy and senselessness [anaisthēsia]), ought not to be referred to the total extinction of that natural knowledge, nor to the certainty of a contrary assent and persuasion. Rather it ought to be referred to a certain suppression and darkening of that light and knowledge by which impious men cast off (as much as they can) the actual thought of God and endeavor to persuade themselves that there is no God; nor believe nor fear the vengeance of God as Judge.

XII. The Gentiles are called atheists (atheoi, Eph. 2:12) not because they recognize no deity at all, but because they are destitute of the knowledge of the true deity. He who holds not the true God, must necessarily have no God. In fact the polytheist (polytheotēs) is an atheist (atheotēs).

XIII. Those who were branded with the infamous name of atheists among the ancients were not so much enemies of every deity, as despisers of idols and false gods (which Apuleius and Agellius testify concerning Socrates, who was declared by the oracle of Apollo to be the wisest man in all Greece).

XIV. It is one thing for the actual thought of God to be absent for a time from the mind of an atheist, and that through negligence and criminality. It is another for the knowledge of God (which is primarily impressed after the manner of a permanent disposition or habit, and thence by ratiocination receives its form from the book both of nature and of the Scriptures) to be absent. The former can sometimes occur, but not the latter.

XV. To the examples of atheists who seem to have abjured all sense of deity (as is said of Julius Caesar, Vaninus and others who persisted in their obstinacy even to the last gasp of life), we may reply that they indeed externally denied and internally zealously strove to extirpate this sense. However we cannot tell what their real persuasion was. Further, if their morals are considered, we can gather not obscurely that they were not free from internal tortures of conscience (whatever they might externally simulate for the purpose of obtaining glory by a profession of unyielding atheism). Nor does it hinder that they continued even to death in that madness because as the heart of man is deep and desperate, they could profess it (against the interior sense and the dictation of conscience) to merit the praise of unconquerable constancy and bravery among their surviving associates.

XVI. Although no one knows what is in man, save the spirit of man which is in him (1 Cor. 2:11), it does not hinder us from certainly maintaining that no one can utterly cast out of his heart all sense of deity, even as he can never divest himself of conscience. These are self-evident principles, depending upon the very consitution of man. So although an individual may profess that he neither knows, nor understands anything, does not perceive the truth of this principle (“nothing can be and not be at the same time”), has no law of nature or movement of conscience accusing or excusing; to such an insufferably vain sceptic, protesting falsely and contrary to the internal sense of his mind, universal experience, reason and the Scriptures can rightly be opposed, so that whatever he may say, we may charge him with doing violence to his own conscience.

Turretin, F. (1992–1997). Institutes of Elenctic Theology. (J. T. Dennison Jr., Ed., G. M. Giger, Trans.) (Vol. 1, pp. 177–180). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.

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