By Bob Sullivan
Sooner or later, you are going to find yourself discussing the existence or non-existence of God with an atheist or an agnostic.
Atheists deny the existence of God. Agnostics are doubtful or uncertain whether God exists. Anti-deists actually believe that God exists, but they dislike God. Many Satanists are actually anti-deists.
Hopefully the conversation is not with one of your own children or your spouse. But even if it is, there is one fundamental rule of engagement that can help you keep the conversation from deteriorating into nonsense (though this is difficult on many occasions).
The fundamental rule is: Do not refer to Scripture, the Catechism, the saints, or any other religious source for your belief, as these sources are considered fiction by most atheists.
In fact, some atheists have specific scripture verses and historical events in their hip pocket so they can make God or the pope sound like an angry, violent and merciless, tyrant. One example is Exodus 21:7 which reads: “If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do.” In so quoting, the inference is that God approves of slavery and discrimination against women. We know this isn’t true, but instead of trying to explain the New Covenant with someone who has chosen to use Scripture as a sword, it is better to approach the discussion from a secular perspective.
One approach is to appeal to science. Most atheists have a deep respect for science, even though the scientific method owes its origins to the Catholic Church. One thing science tells us is that everything in the universe has a source, a cause or a beginning. A good question to pose is this: “Is there anything known to man, which came into existence out of absolutely nothing?”
The likely answer is “no,” but the correct answer is “yes.” The universe itself came into existence out of absolutely nothing. This is known as the Big Bang theory (developed by none other than a priest, Father Georges Lemaitre, S.J.). The great majority of respected scientists agree that about 13.9 billion years ago, there was no space, time, energy, force or matter in existence. There wasn’t even darkness, gravity, chaos or a vacuum. There was absolutely nothing. Suddenly, there was an enormous explosion and all space, time, energy and matter came into existence. This is our universe. The universe is all space, time, matter and energy. Included in this universe are things like darkness, gravity, the other laws of physics, order and intelligent life.
Now that you have created a little thought for the discussion, your atheist friend may be ready for the next question: “Is there anything in the universe which came into existence out of absolutely nothing?” This time the correct answer to this is “no,” or at least, nothing we have found up to this point in time.
You have now established two facts that are totally supported by science. Nothing in the universe has come into existence out of absolutely nothing. But the universe itself is believed to have come from absolute nothingness. You can then see if they can agree with the following statement: “The total amount of energy in the universe does not change. In other words, energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only change form or be transferred from one object to another.”
Any atheist worth his weight in skepticism will agree with this statement because it is known as the First Law of Thermodynamics. This is another way of proving that the universe could only be created by something outside of itself (the universe, remember, is all space, time, matter, force and energy). Most of us choose to call this thing “God” and as we grow in experiencing the good, the true and the beautiful (as well as the evil, false and ugly), we learn that God is much more than the creator.
At this, the atheist may scoff. But you can pose one more question: “Why can’t I call the creator of the universe, ‘God’?” This is actually a question the atheist should try to answer. This is because if they try, they will wrestle with the futility of their position and it can create an intellectual change.
Many atheists will pose a question right back to you, “Why can’t I call it a flying spaghetti monster?” To this you can reply, “That is just the name you give to God, but at least you acknowledge His existence. I’m okay with you calling God anything you choose, because now we both agree that some creator of the universe actually exists.”
Now for the second fundamental rule when evangelizing atheists: The goal is not to convert the atheist to Catholicism, or even Christianity. Your goal is to promote thought.
If, after wresting with your questions, the atheist walks away a skeptic, he is in no worse a state than when you started your discussion. But he may walk away with a little more respect for the reason behind your faith. He may even see that a person could reasonably call the creator of the universe, “God,” the Creator, Father, Abba, Allah or even the flying spaghetti monster. At a minimum, an honest atheist (and yes, many such people exist) should be able to see that faith in God is not unreasonable.
The bottom line is that an atheist cannot prove that God does not exist, just as we cannot prove that God does exist through the scientific method. We are both left with the goal of giving evidence of God’s existence or non-existence. A scientific argument for the existence of a creator can be a good place to start.