On Christmas Eve Lee Strobel tweeted that he didn’t have enough faith to be an atheist:
To continue in atheism, I would need to believe that nothing produces everything, non-life produces life, randomness produces fine-tuning, chaos produces information, unconsciousness produces consciousness, and non-reason produces reason. I simply didn't have that much faith.
— Lee Strobel (@LeeStrobel) December 24, 2017
This tweet is a standard rejoinder to the atheist who says she doesn’t have enough faith to be a Christian (or a theist). And Strobel definitely has a point. The popular idea that atheism simply consists of belief in one less claim than does the theist (or several less than the Christian) is misleading at best.
To return to an example I’ve oft used in the past, consider the contrast between the realist and the idealist. The realist believes that there are human minds and also an external world that corresponds to the conscious experiences of those minds. By contrast, the idealist insists that all we need to accept is human minds and their conscious experiences. There is no need to posit an external world of physical stuff (trees, houses, physical human bodies, stars, etc.) that corresponds to that conscious experience.
If I told you that idealism requires less faith than realism because it involves belief in one less thing — the external world — you’d immediately recognize that my claim was false. Granted, idealism subtracts the physical world from the ontological catalogue, but by doing so it adds much more. And for those reasons, idealism has rarely seemed plausible to anyone other than the imaginative philosopher.
Strobel is making a similar point: atheism is not simply a matter of subtracting one thing — God — from the ontological catalogue, for by making that subtraction one adds much else. Just as the realist doesn’t have enough faith to accept the idealist’s world, so Strobel insists he doesn’t have enough faith to accept the atheist’s world.
It seems to me that Strobel’s tweet works as a rhetorical rejoinder to atheist disavowals of faith: if an atheist believes they can subtract God from the ontological catalogue without cost, they are mistaken.
That said, it would seem that Strobel is not simply leveling a rhetorical rejoinder. On the contrary, it would appear he really does mean to insist that it is objectively the case that atheism requires more faith than theism and that he lacks sufficient faith to be an atheist. What should we think about that claim?
First, a side note: As I noted in the article “On not having enough faith to be an atheist,” this way of phrasing the situation is potentially misleading because it suggests that faith could be a disposition to believe in the absence of appropriate evidence. And few Christians would want to accept that definition of faith.
Further, there is something deeply problematic about the underlying assumptions of this rhetorical rejoinder. The call to exercise faith is a common theme in the New Testament. But if we take Strobel seriously, the Christian, in fact, exhibits less faith than does the atheist. Does Strobel really want to say this?
Leaving those problems aside, the main problem is that Strobel’s tweet is completely one-sided. He lists a series of counterintuitive claims that he believes are entailed by atheism and he then says he doesn’t have enough faith to believe them. But surely theism also has its list of counterintuitive claims. (And don’t forget the additional claims of Christianity: Trinity, incarnation, atonement, general resurrection, etc.!) In short, Strobel cannot opine on the epistemologically inferior status of atheism until he has added up all the prima facie counterintuitive claims he accepts as a Christian theist.
To summarize the problem, Strobel is engaged in the fallacy of special pleading. One can only conclude that theism (or Christianity) require less by way of faith than does atheism when they have laid out all the claims for these different views side by side.