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Is Christianity Unintelligible?

Douglas M. Jones III

George Smith's much touted case against God is strong on bravado but fallacious to the core. Atheists need to be less gullible.

Anti-Christian literature can be very edifying. Such literature often addresses the reader in authoritative and table-pounding tones which suggest that enlightenment has finally arrived. One can envisage squealing college freshmen devouring these works to free their consciences from the Sunday school bondage of their earlier "naive" days. Humanist publishing houses rave about the newest refutations of Christianity, and atheist debaters enthusiastically push these wares at the back of auditoriums. But when all is said and done, the arguments contained in some of the better texts are really quite silly and dogmatic, thus serving to edify the believer by confirming the Christian view of reality. Such is the case with George Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God. [1]

Smith's well-known book is one of the better defenses of atheism currently available. Smith's aim in the book is "to demonstrate that the belief in god is irrational to the point of absurdity; and that this irrationality, when manifested in specific religions such as Christianity, is extremely harmful" [2] The book is partitioned into four discussions covering such topics as the nature of atheism, the concept of God, reason and faith, natural theology, atheistic ethics, and "the sins of Christianity."

My aim is to evaluate several pillars in Smith's case for atheism. He aims to demonstrate that the notion of a supernatural and transcendent god, in general, and the Christian God, in particular, are "permeated with ambiguities, contradictions, and just plain nonsense" resulting in "a conceptual mess of unequaled proportions" (50). (Presumably Smith has a complete list of conceptual messes somewhere.) According to Smith, this conceptual mess largely derives from the theist's claim that:

god is mysterious, unfathomable or in someway beyond man's comprehension. The idea of the unknowable' is the universal element linking together the various concepts of god, which suggest that this is the most critical aspect of theistic belief. The belief in an unknowable being is the central tenet of theism, and it constitutes the major point of controversy between theism and critical atheism (39).
Smith goes on to argue that knowledge of the unknowable is contradictory, and so, Christianity, in particular, is unintelligible. He concludes this discussion by claiming that "In essence, the case for atheism is fully established at this point....Atheism has won by default" (88). So, given Smith's own claims regarding his case for atheism, when we find that his central arguments for the unintelligibility of the Christian God are silly, we may justifiably maintain that his general case for atheism is silly too.

Smith's Case for Unintelligibility

The path by which Smith concludes that the concept of God is unintelligible may be sketched in the following manner.

Smith begins the second chapter, "The Concept of God," by claiming that the theist bears the burden of explaining the content of his belief that God exists. Smith chooses to use the term "god' generally to designate any supernatural or transcendent being" (32). Such a notion, Smith maintains, implies that (a) "god must be something other than part of the natural universe," and (b) "a god must be a being of some kind which is presumed by the theist to exist" (32).

Smith holds that the use of "supernatural" in his definition of god has metaphysical connotations, whereas the term "transcendent" connotes epistemological concerns. He takes the first term to suggest that god is above or beyond the natural universe, exempt from "the framework of natural law"(37).

In turn, the concept of a supernatural being implies, according to Smith, that god is "epistemologically transcendent; i.e. it falls beyond the scope of man's intellectual comprehension" (38). Smith takes this point to be the most critical dispute between theism and atheism (39).

No Supernatural Beings

Smith then turns to criticize these notions of "supernatural" and "transcendent" in order to make his case against theism in general. He offers three arguments against a supernatural being. The first is that the term "supernatural" is insufficient in that it only "tells us what a god is not -- that it is not part of the natural universe -- but it does not tell us what a god is" (39).

Smith's second argument is that the notion of a supernatural being is incomprehensible since we cannot conceive of a being outside of a natural law framework.

The third and most important argument is that a supernatural being cannot exist because entities may only exist within a framework of natural law, since existence requires finite characteristics which are only available within natural law. (No, I'm not making this up.) We will return to this argument in a moment, but we must note Smith's concluding thoughts on this point: "The theist, even if he agrees with this analysis, is bound to remain singularly unimpressed" (41) -- surely this last claim deserves some international prize for gross overstatement.

Nevertheless, Smith has the theist respond to his arguments against a supernatural being by conceding that "we cannot comprehend supernatural' existence...'See, I told you so. God transcends human understanding; he is unknowable'" (42). Smith then uses this "standard defense" of theism to turn to criticize the second aspect of his definition of god, namely, "transcendence," which again Smith uses to mean "unknowable in principle" (42).

No Transcendent Beings

Smith argues that all theistic views which maintain "that god's nature is unknowable in principle " (he includes Christianity among them) can ultimately be reduced to religious agnosticism. Religious agnosticism maintains that the nature of god is completely unknowable, but this view is hopelessly contradictory, according to Smith, for several reasons.

First, agnosticism claims to know something, namely existence, about a being that is completely unknowable. Second, it claims to know that one attribute of god is unknowability, but such an attribute cannot be known. Third, it requires omniscience, since one must know all things in order to claim that certain items are beyond the reach of man's understanding.

Smith concludes that "to claim that god is incomprehensible is to say that one's concept of god is unintelligible, which is to confess that one does not know what one is talking about....The idea of the unknowable is an insult to the intellect, and it renders theism wholly implausible" (45). But Smith doesn't stop there; since his understanding of "supernatural" is a "metaphysical corollary" (a bit of Aristotelian magic) of Smith's understanding of "transcendent," then by refuting his understanding of the latter, he has refuted his understanding of the former -- a job well done; Smith has refuted Smith and saved me some time.

Smith, seriously convinced that he has the theist sweating, argues that the theist has two alternatives: either abandon the notion of a supernatural being or defend a supernatural being but maintain that this being is knowable at least to some extent. Since the former is atheism, the theist will generally choose the latter, which "brings us to the Christian conception of God" (46).

Smith's goal in his discussion of "The God of Christianity" (Chap. 3) is to demonstrate that Christianity reduces to the absurdity of religious agnosticism: "Scratch the surface of a Christian and you will find an agnostic. The Christian God is simply the agnostic god with window dressing" (50). Smith attempts to demonstrate this claim in four stages:

First, he argues that Christian theology historically lists "incomprehensibility" as one of the attributes of God, but if so, then knowledge of God "lies beyond the reach of man's reason" (48).

Second, he argues that the Christian attempt to provide some knowledge of God fails since it invokes the notion of "unlimited attributes" (omnipotence, omniscience, etc.) which is a contradiction in terms. According to Smith, this notion is contradictory since in a natural law framework, all attributes must be determinate and limited. (Again, I'm not making this up.) But, if so, then an "unlimited attribute" is a contradictory "unlimited limit."

Third, Smith argues that all attempts to describe the attributes of God, either negatively or positively, fail, since human language, with its finite references, can never provide "direct knowledge of God's nature" (59) -- the Christian God cannot be captured by human language.

Fourth, he evaluates and rejects each of the major attributes of the Christian God as contradictory and/or confused.

On the basis of these four arguments, Smith notes that:

The atheist is now saying more than, I do not believe in god because there is no evidence for its existence.' It is logically impossible for a god -- a concept replete with absurdities and contradictions -- to have a referent in reality, just as it is logically impossible for a square circle to exist. Given the attempts to define god, we may now state -- with certainty -- that god does not exist (88).
Don't confuse these sentiments with old tele-evangelist scripts. Smith has seriously convinced himself of these claims. But should he be convinced?

The Follies of Atheism

The most embarrassing aspect of Smith's presentation is that no great technical interaction is necessary to confute his claims. From beginning to end, Smith's most basic fallacy is that he begs-the-question on the grandest scale. In other words, his arguments only succeed because they blatantly presuppose that atheism is true and Christianity is false. Given that assumption, it is a simple exercise to conclude that atheism is true, in which case Smith's book would have been much shorter and not sold as well, However, as we will see, he not only assumes what he attempts to prove, but his critique only succeeds if he is omniscient, in which case, his book would have been much more expensive.

On Begging the Question

The weapon Smith uses most significantly throughout the various turns in his argument is his claim regarding the limits placed on the concept of God by a non-theistic natural law framework. But this assumes what needs to be proven. A parallel and equally silly counter-argument might be that Smith's atheism is false since it fails to account for divine attributes. But a silly response is all that a silly argument calls for.

We find Smith's question-begging argument in his initial discussion of a supernatural being. His argument (40) can be filled out as follows:

Premise 1 -- The universe and every entity behave in accord with natural law ("uniformity of nature").

Premise 2 -- Natural law is determined by the limited nature of existence.

Premise 3 -- Existence is limited in that every entity has a specific nature, determinate (finite) characteristics, that determine the capacities of that entity.

Premise 4 -- Whatever does not have finite characteristics does not exist.

Premise 5 -- A supernatural being does not have finite characteristics

Conclusion -- A supernatural being does not exist.

If you remember, Smith is so impressed with this argument that he has the theist concede and shift the debate. But why would a theist concede to such a silly argument? What theist would grant the anti-theistic premises? Even theists who hold to some form of natural law metaphysic would not grant that every entity is limited by natural law, and yet that is exactly what Smith requires.

Even more laughable are the universal generalizations contained in most of the premises. How does Smith justify such claims as "Every entity has a specific nature," or "to be something is to be something specific," or "regularity in nature is a con sequence of limitations," or "no existing thing can randomly do anything at any time under any conditions," or "the principle of natural law itself is a constant."

Has Smith investigated every entity and every aspect of the universe? Can he provide empirical studies demonstrating his claims about existence and regularities? And while he certainly provides no a priori proof for such dogmatic claims, they would be fun to see anyway. Perhaps Smith would like us simply to bow before the authority of Aristotle on such questions, but Christians are far too skeptical for such dogmatisms.

Smith's premises require omniscience, and short of that, Smith's own epistemology leads to skepticism, since the above magical premises are so integral to his epistemology (90). This outcome is not surprising to the Christian, since this tension is the constant state of those who reject a Biblical view of reality; they are tossed back and forth between omniscience and skepticism.

On Begging a Bigger Question

Smith not only happily assumes a universe which precludes the Christian God, he also begs-the-question regarding the ultimate standards one uses to evaluate the war between atheism and Christianity. Both Christianity and atheism evaluate arguments and evidence on the basis of some standard beyond which there is no further appeal; this Absolute standard is inescapable. For the Christian, the Absolute standard is the personal triune God revealed in Scripture. There is no higher court of appeal by which the Christian evaluates what is rational, ethical, or real. A Biblical outlook simply does not countenance any human standard of rationality to which God must answer. If God is truly Absolute, as he is presented in Scripture, then He stands as the ultimate judge over all issues in logic, ethics, reality, and knowledge. The Christian God is not in the dock being forced to answer to our finite standards.

Atheists must howl at this sort of stance, since it appears to beg-the-question against any atheistic claim. Yet the atheist's howling is naive. If there were some higher standard of "reason" or "conceivability" by which both the atheist and Christian could adjudicate their dispute, then the Christian God would not be Absolute; He would be limited by something outside and above His nature. Yet the Christian does not worship some being subordinate to Platonic Forms or some alleged higher standard of reason or goodness. The Christian God is truly the final court of appeal.

The atheist also has a final court of appeal. The atheist also bows before an Absolute standard. And just like the Christian, the atheist does not permit anything to correct or evaluate this ultimate standard, for if he did then the standard would obviously not be the final court of appeal.

The ultimate standard for the non-Christian, in general, and Smith, in particular, is finite human rationality -- or the autonomous human mind. Though this Absolute standard is often portrayed as "Reason," it is, from a Christian standpoint, a distortion of reason. Nevertheless, this non-Christian Absolute functions in much the same manner as the Christian Absolute. Non-Christians even use religious terminology when they refer to this Absolute -- "bowing before the bar of reason" or "reason is the only guide" or "we cannot dispute reason" or "an offense against reason."

Smith is rather blatant in specifying his religious commitment to his Absolute. Note just a sample of statements which point to his atheistic dogmatism:

"We obviously cannot accept the proposed attributes of God uncritically; we must determine if they are intelligible" (61);

"According to atheism, all of existence falls (in principle) within the scope of man's knowledge" (89);

"The idea of the unknowable is an insult to the intellect" (45);

"We cannot imagine an immaterial being' because the concept of matter' is essential to our concept of being'" (67);

"How can one conceptualize existence apart from matter, energy and their derivatives, when these are the only kinds of existence of which we have knowledge" (54);

"Theism offers us a bit of knowledge' which, if true, would destroy the foundation of all present knowledge by obliterating the naturalistic context within which we comprehend reality" (90).

What more need be said? Any being not bowing to the finite human intellect cannot exist! Smith in principle rules out any Absolute which stands as an epistemological judge over his Absolute. But since the Christian God is just that -- an Absolute standard evaluating finite human rationality -- Smith again begs-the-question against the Christian, this time by using a standard which guarantees the falsity of Christianity. It is no wonder then that he can offer such bravado as "the Christian...is defending the rationally indefensible" (88). Smith's bravado, however, reduces to the assertion that Christianity is false because atheism is true (said perhaps with a loud voice and an authoritative glare). But this sort of claim is not very convincing.

Smith has entirely missed the debate. Instead of assuming the falsity of Christianity and passing this off as some high-level rational analysis, Smith should enter the debate between two competing Absolutes. Which Absolute is superior? We may ask this question because we are not abandoned to relativism; we are not left with two faith commitments. We may determine the superiority of one of the views by, among other things, demonstrating that one view fails to meet up to its own claims, or similarly, by determining which view of reality provides the preconditions of the knowledge we do indeed have.

The Christian argues that Smith's Absolute fails on its own standards. Smith's atheism claims to provide a basis for knowledge when in fact it destroys the very foundation of rationality, logic, science, and ethics. For example, Smith needs to explain how he can appeal to reason at all. How does a materialist account for logical laws which are universal and immaterial? How is he justified in invoking universal generalizations when he is not omniscient? How can he reconcile appealing to a naturalistic framework and yet repeatedly invoke ghostly entities such as essences, natures, consciousness, justice, and evil? In short, if Smith were more consistent with his outlook, then he would weed it of its dependence on Christianity, but such a purge would destroy all his claims to knowledge as well.

Unknowability, Inapprehensibility, and Incomprehensibility

Given Smith's fallacious moves so far, we may clearly reject his case for atheism. He needs to try again. But Smith repeatedly makes another mistake which is worth noting. Following his rejection of a supernatural being (by begging-the-question), he turns to a critique of a transcendent being. He emphasizes that it is on this point that he secures the destruction of Christianity and theism in general.

As noted above, Smith's central criticism rests on the claim that "theism [including Christianity] maintains not just that god's nature is unknown to man at the present time, but that god's nature is unknowable in principle" (42). According to Smith, this means that the theist has knowledge of the unknowable. But this is contradictory, and so Christianity, in particular, is unintelligible.

All of Smith's arguments in support of this criticism rest on an elementary misunderstanding. Smith simply confuses incomprehensibility with inapprehensibility. Inapprehensibility is the view that God is unknowable. Incomprehensibility, as Frame states, "presupposes that God is known. To say that God is incomprehensible is to say that our knowledge is never equivalent to God's own knowledge, that we never know Him precisely as He knows Himself."[3] God knows as the Creator, and we know as creatures, but both may know the same objects, use the same criterion of knowledge, and understand truths of God's nature. We are not forever cut-off from the Christian God.

In fact, rather than being unknown to anyone, Scripture maintains that God is known to everyone. He has revealed Himself so clearly that unbelievers are "without excuse" (Rom. 1:20; Ps. 139). They show evidence of their knowledge of God, but they deny and suppress that knowledge (Rom. 1:18). Hence, contrary to non-Christian claims, the Christian God is inescapable. Everything one does, from mathematics to common discourse, presupposes the reality of the Christian God.

Though Smith must radically deny all of this, he need not assume the non-Christian view of God evident in his "unknowability" claims. If Smith could stand outside his narrow-minded atheism for a moment, he too could see the rationality of these claims regarding the knowability of God. For Smith, is it so strange to imagine that if the Christian God exists, controls all things, reveals Himself, enables humans to communicate and understand His work, and provides standards of rationality, that He has no hindrance to making Himself known? As Frame notes, "He is not incapable of revealing Himself because of the finitude of the human mind....There are no barriers to knowing Him."[4]

Nevertheless, Smith's claim regarding God's alleged unknowability is not simply a vocabulary mistake. Smith could and does respond that the problem is that God is unknowable because he is outside of the naturalistic framework required for knowing anything. But such an appeal merely begs-the-question against the Christian a third time. We, therefore, need not be impressed with Smith's conclusions.

We see then that Smith's main pillars in his case for atheism, i.e. his critiques of a supernatural, transcendent, unknowable being, are strong only if we begin by assuming that atheism is true. But this is what he was supposed to prove. Any true skeptic, then, whether Christian or non-Christian, ought to reject Smith's arguments as being rather silly. Ironically, Smith's failure to make his case, despite his bravado, helps confirm Scripture's claim: "The fool has said in his heart, There is no God'" (Ps. 14:1). And that is why Atheism: The Case Against God can be a very edifying text for the believer. I highly recommend it.


[1] (New York: Prometheus Books, 1989).

[2] Ibid. p. xi. Hereafter, page citations will appear in the text.

[3] Frame, John, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Presbyterian & Reformed Publ. Co., 1987) p. 21.

[4] Ibid. p. 20

Doug Jones is editor of Antithesis
Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1990
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