Is it true that there are no real atheists? Does everyone really believe in God but then some choose to reject that belief as an act of rebellion?
This is idea is held by many. It is a foundational part of presuppositional apologetics. There is no need to give evidence for God since they already know he exists. Presuppositionalism seeks to reveal that the person already believes in God and that they are choosing to reject him because of their own sinfulness.
I struggle with this idea as a former atheist. I didn’t want to be an atheist. I wanted to have reasons to believe but the faith just was not there. I know it was not a matter of rejecting God so I could sin.
The idea that everyone believes in God is found in Romans:
For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. (Romans 1:18-19, CSB)
I think it is helpful to put Romans in context. Paul is writing to a mixed church. Gentile and Jewish Christians are in conflict, each thinking they have an advantage over the other. Paul argues that they are in the same boat. The Jews have not been faithful to their special revelation and the Gentiles have not been faithful to their general revelation. No one has an excuse.
But is Paul trying to make a general statement that all people believe in God but choose to suppress it in unrighteousness?
In describing the nature of people without Christ, in the same chapter he describes people who worship the images of animals and who commit certain specific forms of sexual immorality. But do all people do these things? Not at all.
Are there people who deep down believe that God exists but choose to reject so they can sin? Absolutely. But I’m not convinced that is the case for everyone.
I do believe that Paul is teaching that there is more than enough evidence for the existence of God, even without special revelation. But that doesn’t mean everyone will believe.
I think there is more than enough evidence for a round earth, moon landings, holocaust and so on but there are people who disbelieve all these things.
My point is that if people say that they don’t believe in God, I don’t think we should consider them liars. There really are atheists in the world.