The God Who Isn't There?*
Review of The Godless Delusion by Patrick Madrid / Kenneth Hensley

Review of The Godless Delusion: A Catholic Challenge to Modern Atheism (Our Sunday Visitor, 2010) by Patrick Madrid / Kenneth Hensley

The Godless Delusion: A Catholic Challenge to Modern Atheism(an expanded version of my review)

3 out of 5 stars(I give it 3 out of 5 stars)

I want to be honest with this book since I consider myself a "Catholic apologist" also. The Godless Delusion is good, but not great, and could have been more polite. It is certainly unique since I had never heard of "Catholic presuppositionalism" before I picked up this book.

What is surprising in a book sub-titled "A Catholic Challenge to Modern Atheism" is that Catholic writers (the Popes, Catholic theologians, etc) are not quoted for the most part (the Catechism is, and the evangelical anti-evolution lawyer Phillip E. Johnson is referred to often), and traditional Catholic arguments for the existence of God are not used or defended to combat atheism (a "presuppositional" approach is taken). This is in contrast to well-known evangelical apologists who use the traditional arguments for God quite effectively (William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Norman Geisler, etc). I would have preferred some direct quotes and refutations of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Vic Stenger, etc but it seems this book is a general reply to atheism, rather than a specific response to the "new atheists." (They are referred to a few times, but not quoted).

In chapter one ("A Tale of Two Worldviews"), we are given a nice distinction between "naturalism" vs. "Christian theism" and are told the problems began when "magicians in white lab coats equated science with naturalism." We are informed that "the two are quite distinct." Science is a "method for investigating the natural world" while naturalism "is a philosophy that says the natural world is all there is." This is commonly called "methodological" vs. "philosophical" / "metaphysical" naturalism. The authors state on science and God's existence that this is a philosophical (not scientific) debate:

"The question of whether God exists, or whether nature is all there is, is a strictly philosophical question. Its answer cannot be determined by the use of the scientific method or scientific instruments." (p. 29)

Glad to see this made clear (contra Dawkins). The authors should have no problem then with the scientific theory of evolution, taken within its limits. Cardinal Schonborn (Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution and a Rational Faith) and Pope Benedict XVI (Creation and Evolution: A Conference With Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo, and In the Beginning...: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, and the 2004 ITC statement "Communion and Stewardship") agree there is no problem with Catholic dogma and natural evolution. But it seems the authors have reservations with the science (p. 34, 43-45, 98, i.e. evolution as interpreted by most scientists as a purely natural process) which they mistakenly call "random chance" (natural selection is not random, and is "the opposite of chance," as Dawkins has frequently pointed out). Theists who accept modern science believe God is behind evolution, so it would not be "blind" either. We need to find a better "theology of creation" to reconcile our theistic doctrine with the science, as the best Catholic theologians point the way (Schonborn, Popes JPII, Benedict XVI, many others, etc). Since the best informed Catholic writers agree the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, Catholic apologists (and Christian apologetics in general) need to stop attacking evolution in their arguments against atheism.

In chapter two ("A Solution to the Delusion"), we find a version of "presuppositional" apologetics used, what you normally see in the hardcore anti-Catholic Reformed writers (e.g. Greg Bahnsen):

"This book is an exercise in what is called the presuppositional approach to Christian apologetics...When Christian apologists argue 'presuppositionally,' we seek to compare and contrast the theistic and naturalist worldviews, in order to show our atheist friend that while our worldview makes sense of human experience, his does not." (p. 38-39).

Unfortunately, this is basically the only argument in the book, and presuppositionalism itself has been very well critiqued (by even fellow Christian apologists) as being circular and invalid (the logical fallacy of petitio principii, "assuming the initial point" or "begging the question"). Presuppositional apologists themselves admit their brand of "apologetics" is indeed "circular" (but still valid?, see Van Til quotes below). Although I don't want to misrepresent the book. The authors don't quote or seem to rely on Cornelius van Til (the "father" of presuppositionalism) or Greg Bahnsen (the best modern defender of presuppositionalism) or Reformed writers at all. The Godless Delusion is mainly a "comparison of worldviews" (naturalism vs. Christian theism) with a reductio ad absurdum (or "reduction to the absurd") tossed in against the atheist. That is just part of the presuppositional case they are using in their arguments against atheism, and those parts need not be circular.

While they do call their main argument "presuppositional" apologetics, they don't go as far as Van Til or the following statements from The Portable Presuppositionalist. For example, their moral argument basically comes from C.S. Lewis, not van Til. They also do a good job showing how a purely "evolutionary" or "naturalistic" origin of humanity (or a "naturalistic worldview") makes it difficult to explain free will, love, the mind/soul, consciousness, truth, knowledge, ethics, etc while a "theistic Christian worldview" makes better sense of these phenomena. It doesn't "prove" Christian theism in my opinion, but does make atheism implausible (or much less plausible).

What exactly is presuppositionalism, according to the presuppositionalists themselves? Here are some choice quotes from The Portable Presuppositionalist, which summarizes leading presuppositional apologists as Cornelius van Til, Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, and others:

"...Van Til said that the Christian God and the truth of Scripture is the only possible explanation for anything at order to argue against Christianity, you have to first assume that it is true....the Christian must...assume Christianity is true before and while arguing that it is true...." (The Portable Presuppositionalist, page 32, 33); "If Jesus Christ is really Lord over all, Van Til argued, then the human mind (or consciousness) is not the ultimate and permanent starting point in reasoning; God is....Notice the sheer weight of Van Til's thought at this point. If his correct, then the entire method of Thomas Aquinas, the evidentialism of Warfield, and the majority of their modern day followers...are defective. They are fundamentally flawed." (TPP, page 37-38); "....the transcendental argument is in fact, the most powerful argument ever known -- for it reveals the necessary basis for any and all arguments, human predication, and intelligible human experience....Van Til's argument is not irrational or contrary to logic -- it is the very foundation for rationality, logic, and in fact, everything else that can be interpreted and experienced by the human being." (TPP, page 64, 65); "God as the Creator is Himself and His Word the ultimate starting point." (TPP, page 68); "...the presuppositionalist insists that God first be called the 'universal presupposition necessary for life and for the ordering of knowledge,' and that God be called 'the foundation upon which all rationality is established,' and the 'necessary precondition for any and all science.' Why? Because logic is not the self-existent Creator of all things, God is!" (TPP, page 77, emphasis in original); "The traditionalist wants to assert that the laws of logic are the superior starting point for knowledge, science, and apologetic discourse...We cannot have knowledge of God without logic. However, we can have God without the laws of logic, or at least our formal understanding of those laws....God is inherently more ultimate than logic." (TPP, page 77, emphasis in original); "The presuppositionalist maintains that we should presuppose the authority and divinity of Christ and His Word just like Paul does in Colossians 2. God is self-existent and self-validating because of who He is (his nature). God's Word is self-attesting and self-verifying because of what It is (the nature of God's Word); there is no higher standard by which to make truth claims. That is what is meant by a presuppositionalist, 'circular argument.' The beginning and end of the presuppositionalist argument is the same. It starts where it ends." (TPP, page 85-86); "To simply believe in God's Word because it is God's Word is to reason presuppositionally....The presupposition that the Bible is the Word of God is not arbitrary; it is A.) morally demanded by God, and B.) the only assumption that is philosophically sufficient to provide a worldview that can explain logic, ethics, science, human predication and the possibility of any and all knowledge." (TPP, page 94, 95)

Let's summarize the supposed "case for God" based on the "presuppositional" method outlined above:

  • God is assumed or presupposed to exist; the Christian God and the truth of Scripture is the "only possible explanation for anything at all";
  • To argue FOR or AGAINST "Christianity" you must assume it is true;
  • We don't start with the self, the mind, logic or reason; we start with God as the "ultimate and permanent starting point";
  • All evidential and classical argumentation, the entire method of Thomas Aquinas, the majority of modern proponents and their reasoning is defective, it is fundamentally flawed;
  • The "transcendental argument for God" (TAG) is the most powerful argument ever known; it is the basis for any and all arguments and intelligible human experience;
  • We can't begin with logic since logic is not the Creator of all things, God is; in fact, we can have God without any laws of logic;
  • We should presuppose the authority and divinity of Christ and His Word; God and God's Word (the Bible) is self-validating, self-attesting, self-verifying;
  • The presuppositional argument is indeed a "circular argument" since the beginning and end of the argument is the same;
  • Believe in God's Word because it is God's Word is to "reason presuppositionally";
  • this is not arbitrary since this is "morally demanded by God" (where? in the Bible, of course);
  • the presuppositional approach is philosophically sufficient to provide a worldview that explains logic, ethics, science, human predication, and all knowledge;

I maintain there cannot be such a "Catholic presuppositionalist" given the statements above. It is inherently a Reformed and anti-Catholic method (Van Til spoke often of the "Romanists" and Arminians) of "Christian apologetics." It is subjective; it is circular; it is based on mere assertions; it is not an argument; it denigrates and confuses logic and reason with God; it rejects Thomas Aquinas; and it rejects the First Vatican Council which says that "God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason." The traditional Catholic approach is to start with logic, common sense, and reason, and end with God. These are linear arguments (not circular). God has indeed given us our reason since God is the God of truth and reason (Isaiah 1:18; 65:16), but we don't start with "God" as that would be circular and invalidate any argument for God.

Most Reformed don't even use the traditional arguments since they believe they fail to establish evidence or make a successful case for the Christian God. (Or they say these arguments only make God "possible" or "probable." But the Catholic position as defined in Vatican Council I is that God "can be known with the natural power of human reason..."). Surprisingly, this book seems to follow these Reformed apologists in not using the traditional arguments. The authors go straight to Scripture as "God's Word" (p. 40ff) to establish (or assume) the "Christian worldview" vs. the "naturalist worldview." This seems to me is a Protestant fundamentalist approach to apologetics, not a traditional Catholic one. For traditional Catholic apologetics, see books like the following:

  • Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine by Most Rev. M. Sheehan (1960, orig 1926)
  • Catholic Evidence Training Outlines: A Classic Guide to Understanding & Explaining the Truths of the Catholic Church by Sheed / Ward (1993, orig 1928)
  • Apologetics: A Philosophic Defense and Explanation of the Catholic Religion by Rev. Msgr. Paul J. Glenn (TAN 1980, orig 1931)
  • Catholic Apologetics: God, Christianity, and the Church by Fr. John Laux (TAN 1990, orig 1934)
  • Catholic Apologetics Today by Fr. William G. Most (TAN, 1986)
  • Controversies: High-Level Catholic Apologetics by Karl Keating (Ignatius Press, 2001)
  • Reasons to Believe: How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith by Scott Hahn (Doubleday, 2007)
  • A History of Apologetics by Avery Cardinal Dulles (Ignatius Press, 2005, orig 1971)
  • Handbook of Catholic Apologetics: Reasoned Answers to Questions of Faith by Kreeft / Tacelli (Ignatius Press, 2009, 1994)

The book could have provided more standard arguments for God and against atheism, and could have directly dealt with the statements of the "new atheists" without appealing to Scripture. Although appealing to Scripture itself isn't circular, if we are just using the Bible to define the "Christian worldview." It only becomes circular when we use inspired Scripture as an argument to (somehow) establish or present the Bible as "God's Word" (which fallacy the full "presuppositionalist" apologist commits, as seen above: "To simply believe in God's Word because it is God's Word is to reason presuppositionally....").

Now I am not saying that Madrid / Hensley necessarily follow this fully defined "Reformed" version of "presuppositionalism." And there is a "presuppositionalist" type argument in Catholic apologetics that does come up all the time: when the Catholic challenges the "Bible-only" Christian to prove their "presupposition" (or assumption) of "sola scriptura" (Scripture alone) -- prove that by the Bible alone. In that sense, a "Catholic presuppositional" argument against "Scripture alone" is valid. The Catholic is merely asking the Protestant where the Bible teaches sola scriptura (their primary "presupposition").

"Our argument is that God's existence alone provides the very preconditions of intelligible human experience. We contend that the denial of God's existence leads to the complete disintegration of not only morality, meaning, and human value and dignity, but the possibility of knowledge itself. The atheist worldview leads to foolishness." (p. 39)

Chapters 3 to 8 flesh out the author's "presuppositional" argument applying it to morality, ethics, consciousness (mind/body/soul), values, rights, love, free will, and knowledge. The book does make good arguments in favor of objective morality (from C.S. Lewis), free will, love, consciousness, etc which indeed make better sense if God exists. Also how can we know our reason or "cognitive faculties" are reliable if they are the result of a purely natural process? (Note especially Plantinga's "Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism" from his Warranted Christian Belief). These are parts of the "presuppositional" approach that may work.

A problem I can see is we all assume the laws of logic/reason are indeed sound. The law of non-contradiction stands, it cannot be "contradicted" (even if God doesn't exist). You cannot use logic/reason to argue against logic/reason. That would be circular, it wouldn't make sense. Cornelius van Til apparently agreed and believed (given our "presuppositions") that "all reasoning is...circular reasoning" -- some quotes from the father of presuppositionalism:

"To admit one's own presuppositions and to point out the presuppositions of others is therefore to maintain that all reasoning is, in the nature of the case, circular reasoning. The starting-point, the method, and the conclusion are always involved in one another." (Cornelius van Til, The Defense of the Faith [1955, 1967 third edition], page 101, emphasis original)

"Is everything that man proves contradictory ipso facto contradictory for God also?"; "That which appears contradictory to man because of his finitude is not really contradictory to God." "To talk about what can or cannot exist according to logic is but to swing a sword in the sky unless it is first determined at what point logic meets reality. According to the Christian story, logic, and reality meet first of all in the mind and being of God."; "Christian faith does not discount reason and logic. Rather it requires the use of logical reasoning, because in God's mind there is perfect coherence and rationality whereby He upholds (Col 1:17; Heb 1:3) and governs (Is 46:10-11; Eph 1:11) all things." (from The Portable Presuppositionalist, page 211, 212)

This argument of presuppositionalism, also called "the Transcendental Argument for God" (or TAG), might have the problem of the "Euthyphro dilemma" at least in terms of the "laws of logic" -- substituting "goodness" for "logic": Does God think in a certain way because it is logical to do so, or is thinking in a certain way logical because God does it? And, are the laws of logic (or morality, ethics, values, etc) based on God's thinking, or on his nature?

To argue that God's nature must be the way it is because God is necessarily rational seems to appeal to a standard of rationality that is separate from God, otherwise it is clearly circular. If one states that the Christian God forms the basis of rationality and logical principles and thereby in effect cannot be anything other than what they are, they must be appealing to a standard of logic that is separate from God's nature, since to appeal solely to God's nature does not sufficiently answer the question. Further, the dependent relationship between "God exists" and "logical principles exist" seems problematic: it can be shown, in fact, that God depends on logical principles for his existence. Since it is the case that the principles of logic hold in every world, and the set of all worlds is not a proper subset of any other set of worlds, the laws of logic cannot depend on anything, including God (summarized from Mitchell LeBlanc, UrbanPhilosophy on TAG).

I am simply noting a possible rebuttal to the TAG (transcendental argument that the "laws of logic" depend on God) that is used in the book. This has been debated back and forth between Michael Martin (atheist philosopher, Boston Univ) and John Frame/Greg Bahnsen and other Reformed apologists at the largest atheist site, (The Secular Web). Martin even has a transcendental argument for the non-existence of God (TANG).

R.C. Sproul, a Reformed classical apologist, along with John Gerstner and Arthur Lindsley, has written a book Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics (1984). So this presuppositional approach has strong opponents even within the Reformed camp. Nevertheless, it is a popular argument among "Reformed" apologists (see Bahnsen's use of presuppositionalism vs. atheist Gordon Stein, and vs. atheist George Smith) which is why I find it surprising Madrid / Hensley use this. The whole "presuppositional" approach seems to be circular (quotes above). I much prefer the traditional (Catholic) arguments (First Cause/Kalam, Fine Tuning/Design, Moral Argument which is indeed covered well in the book, and the Resurrection argument as outlined by Craig, etc). I guess since these are well-known arguments, the authors wanted to try something "new" and use a "Catholic" version of the presuppositional approach. However, I never liked that argument. It is well critiqued and hammered by evangelical apologists in the book Five Views on Apologetics (Zondervan, 2000).

"...presuppositionalism is guilty of a logical howler: it commits the informal fallacy of petitio principii, or begging the question, for it advocates presupposing the truth of Christian theism in order to prove Christian theism....It is difficult to imagine how anyone could with a straight face think to show theism to be true by reasoning, 'God exists. Therefore, God exists.' Nor is this said from the standpoint of unbelief. A Christian theist himself will deny that question-begging arguments prove anything....Van Til, for all his insights, was not a philosopher...." (Five Views, Craig, page 232, 233, 235)

"...presuppositionalism is only an incomplete apologetic system. I would even say that it fails in the most important aspect -- providing positive reasons to believe. We want to do far more than show that our critics are wrong, We want to show that Christian theism is true! .... Frame commits the informal logical fallacy of false analogy. He argues that rationalists must accept reason as an ultimate starting point, just as empiricists assume sense experience, and so on. So the Christian may begin with Scripture as a legitimate starting point. But these are not analogous bases. While the rationalist uses reason and the empiricist uses sense experience as tools from which to construct their systems, Frame assumes both the tool of special revelation and the system of Scripture, from which he develops his Christian theism....the Bible is not the Word of God because it says so. As an argument, this is a viciously circular statement." (Five Views, Habermas, page 241, 242, 243)

"...rationality is not entirely different for the believer and the unbeliever. For instance, both believers and unbelievers think using the law of non-contradiction. It is not as if the believer has one set of logical rules and the unbeliever has another entirely different set of logical rules. These rules of thought are a common ground between believers and unbelievers....we do not simply have to presuppose the truth of Christianity. We can present evidence and debate its meaning....I do not have to presuppose that [the Bible] is true in order to show that it is true. Evidence supports its truth. That evidence includes what the Bible has to say about itself, as well as a variety of other lines of argument. At least some important part of that evidence is open to empirical testing so that the argument is not circular. It is not necessary to presuppose the Bible's truth." (Five Views, Feinberg, page 253)

As an Catholic reviewer said, "My one disappointment with the book was the lack of any presuppositional apologetics that were specifically Catholic." This is basically my critique, since presuppositionalism is not a Catholic thing. It was an invention of the Reformed in the 1920s, 30s (Cornelius van Til, later Gordon Clark, Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, etc). It assumes "Christian theism" is true (God exists, the Bible is God's Word) without arguing for it (e.g. page 40ff in the book). A fully Catholic presuppositionalism should bring the CHURCH into the argument as well: the Bible is God's Word because the Catholic Church is God's Church, etc. However, I don't think you can get there without arguing for God first (the classical approach). Cardinal Avery Dulles writes in A History of Apologetics:

"Presuppositionalism, in its typical Evangelical form, tends to be tenaciously bound to the sola scriptura doctrine and to a rather narrow understanding of biblical inerrancy as prerequisites for apologetics. In that form the method is scarcely open to Catholics. But something analogous to this method may be found among Catholics who, following Augustine and Anselm, speak of  'faith seeking understanding.' (Dulles, page 362)

The Cardinal goes on to suggest some contemporary Catholic theologians (Rousselot, and Monden, who seek the credibility of the Christian religion from within the posture of faith) and even Vatican Council II "seems to endorse this style of argument" (see Documents of Vatican II, GS or "Church in the Modern World" 22).

One final point: proving atheism isn't true or is implausible / improbable doesn't mean the Christian God exists. If we have claims A and B, arguing claim B is NOT true, doesn't make claim A true. You still need an argument FOR claim A. Although the book does make a decent argument against claim B, more could be said in support of claim A:

  • Claim A: Christian theism makes the most sense of the human experience.
  • Claim B: Atheism (naturalism) makes the most sense of the human experience.

There also may be claims C, D, E we are not considering. "Catholic Christian theism" is what the authors need to argue for. This is the same mistake creationists make in arguing AGAINST evolution. Even IF evolution were NOT true, or had poor scientific evidence, doesn't mean creationism IS true. Creationism needs scientific evidence of its own. Dawkins has pointed this out (along with Kenneth R. Miller), and I fully agree with him there.

There is the Kreeft / Tacelli Handbook of Christian (now Catholic) Apologetics which covers the 20+ arguments for God admirably, including all the main traditional ones, so perhaps Madrid / Hensley felt they should defend against atheism differently. Overall, The Godless Delusion is a decent book but might come down too hard on atheists, calling them foolish, deluded, absurd, "walking, talking contradictions," many of the same terms Dawkins calls religious believers.


text here expand, examples of name calling here


In answering Dawkins and the new atheists specifically, a few better (and more polite) books are:

  • God is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins by Fr. Thomas Crean
  • Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins by Keith Ward
  • anything by Alister McGrath and William Lane Craig (e.g. Reasonable Faith) on atheism/skepticism.

Much of the language in the Madrid / Hensley book is simply not nice, they could have been more polite. That's why I prefer the calm, cool, collected critiques of Craig, Fr. Crean, and Ward contra Dawkins and the "new atheists."

*Note: "The God Who Isn't There" is a take off on the Reformed Francis Schaeffer's book The God Who Is There (some say Schaeffer was a "presuppositionalist") or could be a play on the title of an anti-Christian "Jesus Myth" DVD "The God Who Wasn't There." The Godless Delusion once mistakenly refers to Dawkin's book (The God Delusion) as "The God Who Isn't There" : "...according to the atheist-naturalist view of the cosmos, there simply is no creator-God out there to be known. This assertion is perfectly exemplified in the title of Richard Dawkins' recent book The God Who Isn't There" [sic]  (page 26).

Further Reading

Five Views on Apologetics edited by Steven B. Cowan, Stanley N. Gundry, contributors:
   Gary Habermas (Evidential), William Lane Craig (Classical), Paul D. Feinberg (Cumulative), Kelly James Clark (Reformed epistemology), John M. Frame (presuppositionalism)

The Defense of the Faith by Cornelius Van Til (defines "presuppositional" apologetics)
Christian Apologetics by Cornelius Van Til (more of Van Til's method)
Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith by Greg L. Bahnsen (modern defender of Van Til)
Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics by R.C. Sproul and John Gerstner 
The Portable Presuppositionalist: Biblical Apologetics in the 21st Century by Jamin Hubner (summarizes the presuppositionalist case)

Atheism: A Philosophical Justification by Michael Martin (professional atheism)
Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists by Dan Barker (popular atheism)
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins ("new atheism" by the infamous biologist)

Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics by William Lane Craig
God, Are You There? also by Craig (compact version of Craig's five arguments for God)
The Son Rises also by Craig (Craig's famous "four facts" argument for the bodily resurrection)
Is There a God? by Richard Swinburne (summary of his larger case for God)
Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science by Michael Licona / William A. Dembski (new book with various arguments)
Handbook of Catholic Apologetics: Reasoned Answers to Questions of Faith by Peter Kreeft / Ronald Tacelli (classical Catholic apologetics)


Back to Apologetics Articles

Back to Home Page

About | Apologetics | Philosophy | Spirituality | Books | Audio | Links