I can sort of see why this might be a useful argument when talking to believers and trying to persuade them to ignore atheist arguments. It’s a way to poison the well up front, by telling your fellow religionists that the atheists are simply lying (or deluding themselves) about not believing. And since it comes out of the Bible, it lends scriptural weight to the assertion – especially amongst those who accept the Bible as infallibly true and authoritative in everything it says. So it doesn’t surprise me, really, that Christians would tell each other this.
What does surprise me, though, is how often I see this assertion deployed directly against atheists in arguments: “You know that God exists; you’re just denying it.” It’s surprising because we don’t see the Bible as authoritative, and we’re pretty unlikely to prioritize it over our own experience on the subject of ourselves. So why say it? As far as I can tell, the only reasons for this would be because the person using it is either 1) saying it to try and reassure themselves, 2) saying it for the sake of any fellow believers who may be observing the argument, or 3) simply unable to grasp how the atheist viewpoint can differ so much from their own that the argument is worthless or even detrimental. On the chance that the third option is the case, or even that 1 and 2 are true but the Christian debater doesn’t want to undermine themselves in the argument in order to accomplish those goals, I thought I might give some discussion on why this is such a bad argument to use on an atheist.
Quite simply, it’s wrong. Atheists don’t know that your god exists; that’s why they’re atheists. And even if you cannot be persuaded that I’m telling you the truth about that, or even if you are 100% convinced that the atheist is simply “suppressing the knowledge,” somehow, you have to understand that atheists will at least perceive the assertion as wrong. Which means it can only undermine you if your goal is to convince them of the truth of your religion.
When someone says to me “you know that God exists; you’re just denying Him,” I know that the conversation is done. Because I know that there’s no point in talking to someone who will make that assertion. They aren’t listening. And because they are confidently asserting something about my own inner thoughts – something they cannot possibly know, but about which I know them to be wrong – as if it were absolute truth, I also know that they are comfortable with lying in order to prop up their argument. They are comfortable with simply dismissing me as a liar, and so nothing further I have to say will even be considered.
I know the counterpoint to this: that it isn’t the Christian saying it, but God via the Bible. So it’s not that the Christian is claiming to have access to my innermost thoughts. They’re claiming that God does, and has told them through his infallible word, the Bible, that I know He exists. It’s not that they’re comfortable lying about having access to my thoughts, it’s that they trust the Bible. And my response to this is, “so what?” Practically speaking, the result is the same; if the Christian is not going to listen to my sincere expression of my thoughts, having already dismissed them as lies, what’s the point in continuing to talk? I’ll move on to someone who seriously wishes to engage.
It bears repeating: atheists don’t believe that God exists. As a consequence, we don’t believe that the Bible represents the infallible words of an omniscient being. So when Christians tell us that we must know God exists because the Bible says we know it, we aren’t thinking “Oh, well, if the Bible said so it must be true!” We’re thinking “You’ve just given me another reason to believe the Bible is wrong.”
If your goal is to shut down conversation without changing any minds or reaching any understanding of other people’s viewpoints, I suppose it’s a worthwhile thing to say. From certain perspectives, it may even be honest insofar as your beliefs go. But if you want to have a meaningful conversation then it’s terrible. No matter how strongly you may disagree with someone else’s beliefs, if you can’t enter into conversation with them on the basis that they are at least sincere in holding them, then you might as well not talk about them at all.
I think we’re all better off when we try to understand each other. So please, don’t shut down the process before it’s even begun.