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Natural Versus Revealed Religion: How Atheists Drop the Ball

This essay makes the assertion that atheists fail to distinguish between ‘natural revelation’ and ‘special revelation’ but they are not entirely to blame.  Arguments for the existence of God tend to be in the realm of ‘natural’ theology.  Then, Christians speak of the Bible as revelation without qualification.  Unfortunately, atheists almost uniformly believe they are smarter and more well informed than every other person on the globe, so we would expect that they would be able to see past these factors to Christianity’s toughest arguments instead of attacking the weakest links.

It is not my purpose today to offer one of those toughest arguments but to draw this distinction and explain its relevance.

Simply put, ‘natural’ revelation, or ‘natural theology,’ is what one can learn about God running exclusively on your own steam without any assistance from God.  Aristotle’s Prime Mover arguments and Aquinas’s ‘Five Ways’ are such efforts.   Intelligent Design, when the inference is made that God is the Designer, is ‘natural’ theology at work.  ‘Special revelation’ concerns that which is known and can only be known because God himself reveals it.  Indeed, by the very definition of God according to Christian theists, there is a great deal that could only be known if God told us.  We may be able to infer using our senses alone that there exists an unmoved mover which we call God but we cannot on the same basis infer that God has this or that preference regarding human behavior.

One of the confusions here is the treatment of the Bible as revelation.  It certainly is revelation.  However, when it concerns God, it is strictly speaking revelation about revelation.   So, the ‘special revelation’ would be what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus.  He then reveals what was revealed to him.  In other words, the accounts of this incident are Paul’s revelation.  Also, all that we know about Jesus is revealed to us through his disciples.

Atheists at this point are probably scratching their heads because from their perspective I will not have made the situation any better.  What many of them are specifically looking for is their own ‘Road to Damascus’ experience.  Short of that, no evidence will persuade. Many Christians probably have their hair standing on end, too, because this sounds like I am diminishing the authority of the Scriptures.

To deal with the latter charge first, we must always remember that most of the books of the Bible have value on their historical merits alone.   Just because we believe that the Scriptures are more than history they do not cease to be history.  Insofar as they have historical material in them that doesn’t depend on a prior belief in God to interpret this allows for useful common ground to discuss them with nonChristians.  This leads into the former charge.

It may sound like ‘reducing’ much of the Bible to human revelation about special revelation I have greatly diminished its veracity but in truth what this move does is place our testing of the Bible’s claims into the same category of testing that we use for any other historical claim.  In other words, it is the atheists that raise special challenges against the Biblical texts (ie, ‘Extraordinary claims…’) while Christians worth their salt are merely asking atheists to employ the same standards of evidence and proof, the same principles of reasoning, the same sense of fairness, that we apply to any other claim.

It is the Christians who are content to evaluate the text based on the same tests we apply to, say, Tacitus.  For example, we might say, “Do we have any particular reason to think Paul is lying?”  Or we might wonder, “How confident are we that the texts we have resembled the original autograph?”

With all this in mind, while I personally find most of the ‘natural’ arguments for the existence of God persuasive, I do not believe that they hold the most potential for addressing anything really interesting.  We use those arguments on the (mistaken) assumption that since the Bible is out of the picture nonChristians will be more objective in their analysis of the arguments (they aren’t).  Instead, I prefer an argument for the existence of God that imports right along with it things of real interest about God.

In a word, if the resurrection of Jesus really occurred, we have good reason to believe that he was God as he said he was.  As such, the question of God’s existence is settled at the same moment we hear a bit about God’s views about the world:  namely, he is not indifferent to our troubles and our plight but has taken specific, direct action to deal with it.  So, in the same event (if true) not only is the question of God’s existence settled but also an answer is proposed to the problem of pain and suffering.  The answer is a hard answer in that God doesn’t spell out everything we want to know, but at the same time it can’t be said that God is particularly happy that the human race suffers so much and has no intention of dealing with it.

In conclusion, it is a simple fact that anything really interesting to know about God must be revealed to us by God himself.  If we operate on the assumption that everything must be interpreted under the presupposition of philosophical naturalism then of course any claims of revelation must be false and must be interpreted another way.  If, however, we have an open mind, and understand that special revelation would be superior if only we had it, we would examine with objectivity the various ‘revelation’ claims that are out there to see if any are superior to the others.  By superior, of course, I mean according to the normal standards of investigation, and not the mystical ‘special case’ standards that atheists tend to argue we must use.

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1 comment

    • Urnext on May 19, 2010 at 10:39 am

    I used to be a very active christian, but now I consider myself an atheist, and I have to say your argument is week. You’re saying I should have an open mind and evaluate the personal revelations in the Bible to see if they have any merit. But I’ve done that, as I believe most atheist have. And I’ve openly study the Bible along with the Book of Mormon and Koran and several other religious book. Have you had an open mind and employed the same standards of evedince and proof to the personal revelations of Mohammed and Joseph Smith? If you have and you don’t think they actually received special revelation from God, why do you feel they haven’t? The reasons you give for feeling Mohammed and Joseph Smith didn’t actually receive revelation from God are the same reasons I believe Paul and every other Bible writter didn’t receive special revelation either. The burden of proof always lies with the person making the claim, weather it’s Joseph Smith or Moses, not the person who’s sceptical of the claim.

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