Does God exist? Can we know?

The Little We Know

by Ty Gibson  |  November 12, 2015

A rational appeal to the atheist:

Intending no disrespect at all to the scientific achievements of mankind, I want to call our attention to the fact that the human data bank of knowledge is minuscule compared to all there is to know. After about 500 years of scientific advancement, those who know the most tell us we know very little compared to the vast ocean of unexplored reality. If what we know is measured against what we don’t know, it is far more accurate to say we’re ignorant than to say we’re enlightened.

And the implications of our relative ignorance are significant.

This is one of the reasons why atheism is a bold claim that exceeds the boundaries of rationality. Atheism claims to know that God does not exist. But to say that God does not exist is a claim to know more than any human being can possibly know, by virtue of the fact that we simply don’t know most of what there is to know. So perhaps God exists just right outside our very small informational orbit!

Atheism claims to know that God does not exist. But to say that God does not exist is a claim to know more than any human being can possibly know . . .

The claim to know that God doesn’t exist is similar to a man claiming that there aren’t any black swans in the world simply because all the ones he’s ever seen are white, paying no attention to the fact that he has traveled no farther than his local park. He lacks knowledge, but he has gone a step further and added arrogance to ignorance by making the claim that no black swans exist simply because he hasn’t seen one.

The person who claims to know that there is no God either has a very inflated sense of what he knows, or a very small sense of how truly vast reality is, like the schoolboy who only knows basic arithmetic and so he can’t fathom algebra, or like a blind person claiming there is no such thing as color, or like a deaf person claiming there is no music. The atheist would have us believe that he has searched all of reality, knows everything, and can report with a straight face to the rest of us that God’s not there.

Think of it like this. If all knowledge is represented by the value of 100%, and if I were to ask you what percentage of all knowledge you possess, I would venture to say your answer, like mine, would be something like, “Very little.” But then let’s ask: How much progress has humanity as a whole made in acquiring all knowledge? Five percent? Ten percent? Probably not! It would be audacious to claim that we know even one percent of all there is to know. But let’s be generous and flatter ourselves. Let’s say we posses 50% of all possible knowledge. The question would be, is it possible that God may exist in the 50% of reality we know nothing of?

The only rational answer we can give is, yes, of course. But if I say that God may exist somewhere in the vast realm of my ignorance, then I am not actually an atheist. The most I could say is that I am an agnostic. I just don’t know if God actually exists. Whereas atheism is a claim that amounts to an embarrassing intellectual conceit, agnosticism is merely a claim to lack information.

If God actually does exist somewhere in the vast realm of reality I don’t know, would I want to know?

But logic drives us a step further. If God actually does exist somewhere in the vast realm of reality I don’t know, would I want to know? And what if that God happens to be infinitely good and offers me eternal bliss free from all the evil that presently haunts our world—would I want to know of such a God’s existence? And again, the only rational answer I can possibly give is, yes, of course I would want to know. But if that’s my answer, then really I’m not even an agnostic, but rather an open-minded seeker for the truth.

So then, considering the fact that we humans know so very little of all there is to know, and realizing that it is only logical to confess that God very well may exist beyond our limited bank of knowledge, and acknowledging that if God does exist it is only rational that we would want to know of His existence, we  must conclude that the only reasonable position for any human being to occupy is one of humble and honest investigation without bold claims to know God does not exist.

Which raises one more question: since we cannot amass all knowledge by scientific investigation, is there another way of knowing if God exists?

God may be known . . .

Actually, there is: by personal encounter. God may be known, not the way a scientist discovers a protein or a planet, but the way a person comes to know another person. It is possible to know God by means of God revealing Himself in the realm of an individual’s personal experience.

I know this may sound crazy if you’ve never done it before, but if you want to be genuinely honest with the fact that you don’t know enough to be an atheist, and if you want to know for yourself if God exists, get alone somewhere so you don’t need to feel self-conscious or silly, and then, with an honest, humble attitude, get on your knees, and say something like this:

God, I don’t know if You exist or not. But if You do, well then, I want to know. So I’m opening myself up to the possibility that You are there and that You want me to know You. If You do exist and there is more to life than meets the eyes of science, of course knowing You would be the most amazing discovery ever. So here I am. I’m listening and watching as the days go by. Please reveal Yourself to me in some way, because I really want to know.

Then get up off your knees and pay attention. Now, at least, you are humble enough to see things that elude the notice of those who claim to know more than they actually do.

Ty Gibson Co-Director
Light Bearers
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  • jschwirzer

    Great, Ty. I remember this line of reasoning from a sermon in the past and it is flawless. It utilizes (non-manipulatively, honestly) the psychology of identity reframing (from atheist to seeker). Great job.

    But I would suggest that most people are atheists for emotional reasons, versus logical ones. Could you write another article addressing atheism from that standpoint, helping people cope with the risks entailed in believing in a God who might disappoint them, as He has disappointed all of us at times?

  • As an atheist, I don’t consider the existence of a god or gods likely. It was a logical conclusion for me, after decades of Christian belief, and it was not without emotional consequences.

  • Glenn Hurlow

    Really well formulated argument, exposing that our choice of belief system or meta-narrative is a metaphysical choice, which in itself should give materialists pause. One small thing, self-conscience should be self-conscious?

  • DHum

    I’m sorry to hear this Vera. Would you like to talk about it?

  • Engage, perhaps. It’s not something I have to get off my chest.

  • John Pinner

    I agreed with how that article started out, especially that “If what we know is measured against what we don’t know, it is far more accurate to say we’re ignorant than to say we’re enlightened.”

    I have to admit that it lost me by the third paragraph: “Atheism claims to know that God does not exist”. This is a VERY common misconception that I see repeated over and over, and I’d like to clarify it. Atheism isn’t so much “a claim that God does not exist”, as much as it is “a lack of belief that God does exist”. That might seem like minutia, but it’s really quite fundamental. To clarify: Atheism is not at all a claim or a belief, it’s a LACK of a claim and a lack of a belief. This is where the line between agnosticism and atheism can sometimes get fuzzy, and it’s here that I say that it’s up to the individual to define their (lack of) belief however they personally would like to.

  • John

    jschwirzer: You said that “I would suggest that most people are atheists for emotional reasons”. May I ask what you’re basing that suggestion on? I find that to be quite condescending and a tad insulting, and – even more importantly – not my experience at all.

  • jschwirzer

    Hi John. I’m sorry I sounded condescending. I accept that you arrived at your atheism (true?) on the basis of reason, if that is the case. I suppose the reason for my view is that as a psychotherapist, I talk to people constantly and have found that many people make decisions emotionally, even if they believe themselves to be rational. Notice i didn’t say all, I said most. Peace.

  • John Borton

    “Atheism claims to know that God does not exist.”

    This is a very common misconception of atheism. One need not claim to know that god(s) do not exist to be an atheist. Most atheists (myself included) make no such claim – we merely state that we have no belief, or a lack of of belief in god(s). We take this position for the same reason that most of us don’t believe in the Loch Ness Monster – we have not been shown evidence that has been convincing to us.

    If you want to describe most atheist accurately, and create convincing arguments for them, you’ll have to take a different approach than the one dominate in this article.

    JB

  • Don Anderson

    Wikipedia

    Atheism

    Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.[1][2] In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.[3][4][5] Most inclusively, atheism is the absence of belief that any deities exist.[4][5][6][7] Atheism is contrasted with theism,[8][9] which, in its most general form, is the belief that at least one deity exists.[9][10][11]

  • dcsimo

    This incorrectly assumes atheism is claiming to know God doesn’t exist.

  • John

    Thanks for the reply, Jane. And peace back atcha! My gripe with this article is that the author makes very big assumptions on a topic that he very clearly doesn’t understand. I’m not saying that the author is dumb: It’s okay to not have an understanding of atheism, but my hope is that people like the author would refrain from making claims about things that they don’t understand.

    The reason that I asked you what you based your suggestions on is that your claim seemed be anecdotal versus being based on more “hard” evidence. Not that there’s anything wrong with an anecdotal perception, but they – by nature – are of course extremely personal and subjective. I could share that MY personal experiences show the exact opposite of yours: My observations are that people who believe in an unknowable god do so out of emotion rather than logic, but making those kinds of claims do nothing other than condescend, so I try to keep them to myself.

  • jschwirzer

    Hi John. Okay, fair enough. Believers can believe out of emotion. But belief arrived at through emotion alone tends not to survive the vicissitudes of life and either evaporates or becomes a mere lip-service. True faith, whether it be in God or something else, tends to engage all the aspects of the mind and emotions. I wouldn’t say my belief in God has no emotional drive behind it, but it is, at the same time, based on evidence. Of course, if you want to go really deep, see (as Hebrews 11:1 does) the existence of faith in and of itself being an evidence. Evidence of what? Evidence that something worthy of such an elegant faculty actually exists. Oh, and by the way, my name is Jennifer.

  • avila2284

    Thanks Ty. God’s working in my life, and I have started to hear His voice. We as ‘theists’ only say these things with wanting others to experience this relationship. Love awakens love.

    You made me think of when Elijah was fleeing Jezebel and persecution and God came to him;

    “Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a still small voice.” 1 Kings 19:11,12

    “Be still and know I am the Lord.” Psalms 46:10

    I grew up identifying myself as agnostic (for I thought claiming to be atheist was placing oneself on shaky ground), and about one year ago heard the small whisper of the Lord. And now, when I see the hurt or void in someone, I have hope. When I hand my brokenness over, and look toward Christ, I have hope.

    So, to our friends who are seeking God, please ask and don’t give up, sit and be still. Much love.

    Anthony Vila avila2284@gmail.com

  • Brandon

    Hi John,

    Hope you don’t mind my joining the conversation here.

    I was tracking with you until you mentioned “an unknowable god.” How do you reconcile this with:

    a) the self-contraction of knowing qualities of an unknowable entity—perhaps you don’t mean ‘unknowable’?

    b) the straw man this presents as the author is clearly speaking of a knowable God, as he states, “God may be known…”

  • Christie Hodson

    As the spouse of an atheist I think he would definitely disagree with your assertions on several matters in your article. I would like to address those but first I will say that the one thing an atheist cannot argue with is someones personal encounter. That goes for the atheist or agnostic as well. The movie “Contact” has a great depiction of this. There are however some claims in your article that I will play the devil’s advocate or play my husbands part in the matter to just let you know what the “others” are thinking.
    “Atheism claims to know that God does not exist. But to say that God does not exist is a claim to know more than any human being can possibly know, by virtue of the fact that we simply don’t know most of what there is to know.” (Most atheists are agnostic. They don’t know so they live their life as if He doesn’t exist. I went to an “athiest” meeting with my husband once out of curiousity and out of the 13 there. 12 were agnostic athiest. If God presented himself and they were convinced of His presence they would believe. The “atheist”….stated he KNEW He didn’t exist and that was that. The takeaway from this statement would be that we can’t assume all non-believers are atheists. We as believers don’t KNOW, we Believe! To know would challenge this statement of OUR level of knowledge and evidence)

    “The person who claims to know that there is no God either has a very inflated sense of what he knows, or a very small sense of how truly vast reality is,”
    (There are many believers that claim they know that there IS a God. And they see US as having the inflated sense. I’m not sure saying such of them will convince them in any way that your statement is authentic. I know this from experience. I’ve made all the mistakes in the world, ill stated statements, have been “puffed up” and “adversarial”. Many atheists study the natural sciences more than believers and I know most scientists are not creationists and most scientists understand the vastness of reality.)

    “The atheist would have us believe that he has searched all of reality, knows everything, and can report with a straight face to the rest of us that God’s not there.” (As I said before most atheists are agnostics. If there is an atheists reading this I welcome their critique of this point, that being said, they can and will with a straight face say they “dont know” more readily than most believers. They are about natural evidences and natural laws. I think the discussions have to start there. Is this not to say that there are some very arrogant atheists out there….YES THERE ARE. But need I say believers don’t contain the same amidst themselves.? To state that atheists are arrogant will only buy you a closed door and a condescending look and return statement that echos the same sentiments toward believers.)

    “Whereas atheism is a claim that amounts to an embarrassing intellectual conceit, agnosticism is merely a claim to lack information.
    But logic drives us a step further. If God actually does exist somewhere in the vast realm of reality I don’t know, would I want to know? And what if that God happens to be infinitely good and offers me eternal bliss free from all the evil that presently haunts our world—would I want to know of such a God’s existence? And again, the only rational answer I can possibly give is, yes, of course I would want to know. But if that’s my answer, then really I’m not even an agnostic, but rather an open-minded seeker for the truth.” (As I said before most atheists I’ve met would believe God if they KNEW he existed. Often they base their positions on evidence that’s tangible and measurable. .But then there is the added statement of “what if that God happens to be infinitely good and offers eternal bliss free from all evil”. In convincing them that God exists and He’s all powerful, then you have to answer their question about, “then why doesn’t he stop the evil in the world IF He is all powerful” They often quote the famous statement by Epicurus “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God? Unless we can answer the question of suffering thats convincing I’m not sure how we can say that we KNOW God is good. The evidence doesn’t tell them that. We do as the end of your article suggests…pray they have a PERSONAL ENCOUNTER.)

    These are just my thoughts regarding your article Ty. I appreciate the work done by Samir Salmenovic in this area of truth seeking. He works in NYC and reaches out to the “others” on a regular basis. If we are to be convincing we cannot make this an us vs them business or worse….a logical vs. illogical debate. This is just MY personal experience of living with an athiest/agnostic for 14 years. BTW, my spouse was a believer when I met/married him so he’s very aware of the believing word and religion.
    Thanks for letting me share.

  • David Roeske

    I think most thoughtful atheists would reply with Hitchens Razor: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

  • Gary

    Telling someone to prove that something isn’t there is a setup. They are setting up the question in a way they think they cannot lose. I could say that pink unicorns are flying through space, and if you don’t belive me, then prove they do not exist. The burden of proof rests on me to prove they do exist. Christians cannot prove god is there, they can only show anecdotal evidence through feelings they have, and what they would call miracles, which can all be attributed to natural processes. The article claims science knows so very little of all the knowledge that is out there, which is true. But there is something science is doing that Christianity is not. Science is continually seeking more knowledge. Science loves to find that what they thought was true was actually wrong in some way, and in doing this, we are coming to a fuller understanding of truth and what is out there. Christianity, on the other hand rejects anything or anyone who says that what they believe is not true. So which is their belief based on, fact or faith? In the latest debate of creation vs. evolution between Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum, and Bill Nye the Science Guy, at the end they were both asked the same question… “What would get you to change your mind?” Nye’s answer, “evidence.” Ham’s answer, “nothing.” And there is the crux of the question, “show me god does not exist.” Even if you could, they would not believe you!

  • Tim Sampson

    I’m with John, and I’m a Christian. We have to understand what atheism is before we try to engage with atheists.

  • Tim Sampson

    I feel that this is likely to just annoy any intelligent atheist. Atheism does not mean what the author wants it to mean and that is where most of the article falls down. I’m sure an atheist would readily admit that they haven’t looked everywhere for God but the God that has been presented is generally not one that they desire to find. I like the suggestion in the closing paragraphs but I wonder if God will see fit to provide the kind of proof that atheists normally demand. To be honest, I wish that God would write in the sky for these people but it seems that searching with all your heart is supposed to be harder than that.

  • Tim Sampson

    I disagree about the emotional part. I would say that most of my atheist friends are atheists because of their logical/scientific mindset. God defies logic and those of us with such a mindset struggle to make everything add up. There are probably as many reasonable arguments for the existence for God as there are against, but we can never satisfy the atheist’s demands for proof.

  • jschwirzer

    Hi Brandon! I think your logic is sound.

  • jschwirzer

    “There are probably as many reasonable arguments for the existence of God as there are against, but we can never satisfy the atheist’s need for proof.” In other words, the thing that leads to the atheist’s atheism isn’t lack of evidence, but internal qualities that under-interpret the evidence? Might that internal quality be, at least in part, emotional?

  • LouAnneWhite

    You are correct that this article is likely to just annoy any intelligent atheist. Atheism certainly does NOT meant what the author wants it to mean and most atheist will get that far in the article, roll their eyes and move on. I too wish that if a god exists that he would show himself in an unmistakable way. Not only for the sake of the atheist (most of which are realists)
    but for the sake of the whole world which seeps in confusion. Depending on the country where you were born that is the indoctrination of a god that you grow up with. If there is a god he is an ass hole for allowing such confusion especially if it is important enough that it decides your destination after death. Therefore, I tend to believe that if there is a higher power that is responsible for life it is a power that could care less about the dogmas that have been created on its behalf.

  • Tim Sampson

    I guess it might but I am not convinced.

  • Doug Yowell

    “I like the suggestion in the closing paragraphs but I wonder if God will see fit to provide the kind of proof that atheists normally demand.”

    Much of the problem lies in the evidence demands of the atheist which are generally not evidences but rather proofs. If the God of the Bible does exist then doesn’t He have the right to dictate the terms of His revelation? Not according to many atheists. And it’s not that God hasn’t told anyone exactly how He can be found so He can continue to hide from humanity. And it’s not like atheists don’t have their own set of inherent beliefs about the human existence which they don’t feel any need to prove either. And it’s not like there’s no evidence that human beings are NOT the super beings of the universe. But the bottom line is still that a real live Jesus claimed to be intimately acquainted with God and there are few that find either His life or His teachings a denial of a Superior Power. What the article does quite well is encourage those who are truly interested in discovering the truth of the issue for themselves to follow the instructions of the One who wants them to “find” Him.

  • Doug Yowell

    “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

    Would the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth be “extraordinary”? Yet, Hitchens questioned the very existence of Jesus despite an abundance of reasonable evidence.

  • Doug Yowell

    “If there is a god he is an ass hole for allowing such confusion”

    But even that mass confusion would lend itself to the existence of some sort of God. Why would the overwhelming majority of people ever to have lived on this earth believe in something that did not inherently appear to exist? That there is a living supernatural existence must have come from somewhere. If so many atheists complain that their views are being distorted here at LB how much more distortion of a real and perfect universal God would one expect from this world?

  • John

    I realize this is 18 days later which is an eternity in “internet time”. I have to admit that I’m puzzled with question a) – I don’t get what you mean. Perhaps we are interpreting “unknowable” differently?

    Regarding b) I wasn’t directly addressing the author of the article, I more speaking to Jennifer’s assertion that “I would suggest that most people are atheists for emotional reasons, versus logical ones.” I disagree with (or at the very least, I’ve experienced the exact opposite).

  • Ali

    Hi Gary, I would have to disagree with you when you stated that Christianity fails to continually seek more knowledge as opposed to the science community. I think they are very much the same. Like a true scientist wanting to “dig deeper”, a true Christian will do the same. Scientists have gained ground in their research not because they have been “spoon fed” the information by word of mouth, but because they have an inherent desire to know more. Can’t the very same be said about Christianity? the Christian walk grows deeper as we each search for ourselves.