On atheism and open-mindedness


G.K. Chesterton, a notable convert to Catholicism from the 20th century, once rightly pointed out, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” So are atheists open-minded? If not, is their mind shut on something solid?

In some of my experiences, if asked whether atheists are open-minded, they will state that they are. They say that if you show them the evidence that God exists, they will believe. However, if presented with evidence for the existence of God, they’ll often reject it thinking you are putting forth a flawed God of the gaps argument. They don’t want to rush to put God as the explanation when we can just wait for science to explain things.

At first, this seems rational. Science has a great track record of explanatory power. For example, it can help us explain the evolution of life, show that the universe began to exist 13.8 billion years ago and help us to cure complex diseases. However, the nature of evidence for God takes on a philosophical form rather than scientific. If one says any possible evidence for God isn’t good enough because there must be an undiscovered scientific explanation, then that’s not really open-minded. That’s just assuming no evidence is good enough unless it’s scientific evidence. It’s making up your mind before you’ve given God a chance.

If you are an atheist reading this, answer the following question: What specific evidence would make you believe in God? I’m not wondering what type of evidence, but come up with a specific example of something that would change your mind. One reasonable answer to this I have heard is to request a miracle. For example, one might pray and then have an amputated limb spontaneously regenerated. However, this doesn’t exactly solve the problem if we are to avoid an argument from ignorance. Calling a spontaneously regenerated limb after prayer evidence for God is just saying, “I don’t know what caused it, therefore God.” It’s a God of the gaps.

No serious defender of the existence of God would put forth an argument in the form of, “I don’t know, therefore God.” Instead, he or she would simply point out the fact that there are good reasons to believe certain things will never be explained naturally, so they must be explained supernaturally. In particular, we have reason to believe the origin of the universe will never be explained naturally. Because the beginning of the universe was the beginning of all space, time and matter, its cause must transcend these. And because space, matter and time are the mediums through which we do science, the original cause of the universe cannot be explained scientifically.

If you believe that amputated limbs won’t grow back from nothing without a divine cause, then why is the universe different? If you are truly open-minded, then go look at reasons that God exists from the best philosophers, past and present — Edward Feser, St. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, etc. — If you find them unconvincing, at least after you have examined the reasons critically, you can say what is wanting about the arguments. That’s a lot better than just assuming they don’t succeed and not bothering to do some critical thinking on one of the most important issues there is.