Forget the Experts; What do the Most Ignorant People Think?

bad-teacher-filmI’ll continue to clarify the difference between a transcendent God and the basically physical god that many atheists think Christianity teaches (or try my best to clarify, anyway).

In the mean time, I’d like to move on to another very common misunderstanding among the New Atheists:

If you’re dismissing a more academic version of theism by claiming that “most” Christians see God the way you do, you aren’t talking about Christianity.

There are essentially three reasons for this.

First, it isn’t true.

It may be true that “most” Christians don’t see God in exactly the way I do. In fact, I expect that each of us has our own unique perspective. But I’m not sure how the atheist knows that his/her view is any better a representation of what the average theist believes.

I’ve never heard a theist affirm the idea that God is flying around in space somewhere, that he’s a complex arrangement of physical parts (as Richard Dawkins assumes without giving a reason), that he’s humanoid, or most any of the descriptors that New Atheists delight in mocking.

Really what “most Christians” seems to mean here isn’t actually most Christians. It isn’t even “Jerry Falwell” (bad as that would be), but “what Jerry Falwell’s opponents take him to be saying”.

Yes, if you ask the typical Christian “do you believe in a literal God, heaven, hell, angels, etc?”, she’s likely to answer in the affirmative. But this doesn’t contradict anything I’ve said.

To do that, you’d have to follow up with an “And by ‘literal’, I mean ‘physical’. Do you believe that God, heaven, etc. are all physical parts of the universe, made out of sub-atomic particles?”. The idea that most Christians would agree to that is highly questionable, to say the least.

And, getting to the second reason, it’s irrelevant what most Christians think.

In any field of study, most people are going to be largely ignorant, and have some strange ideas. To demand that we judge a view based on the popular idea of it is completely strange.

No one, for instance, would argue that, while some biologists might have a pretty defensible view of evolution, what’s really important is what “most evolutionists” believe. If you ask the average person who believes in evolution if people evolved from the Cro-Magnon, she’ll probably agree that we did.

That is a fairly easy view to discredit, but it doesn’t refute evolution. And it wouldn’t make any sense to simply assert that all biologists do is, in spite of denying that they believe it, come up with more elaborate excuses for believing that humans evolved from the Cro-Magnon.

The same is true for theism. Of course the average person is going to have a less well-thought-out position than an expert. This doesn’t mean that the expert view can be ignored, or is “really” just a rationale for the average view.

This is why Dawkins, who has confessed to being ignorant of theology, is forced to interact with the lay-level view. He simply doesn’t know enough to engage actual experts. And that would be fine, if he were willing to admit that it is only the crudest forms of theism that he’s refuted. It is when he starts boldly declaring that “religion”, in a much broader sense, should be dismissed that he’s making ignorant proclamations.

That being the case, demanding that theists offer proof of the God that “most Christians” believe in is no better than demanding that Dawkins, as a biologist, should prove that people evolved from the Cro-Magnon because “most evolutionists” believe it.

But for the third, and most important, reason: the New Atheist caricature is not the view being defended. The form of theism I’ve defended simply isn’t the view being attacked.

That leads to the very simple conclusion that the attacks of the New Atheists are simply talking past my actual beliefs, and are therefore irrelevant. In general, I get a lot of arguments being made against things that I’ve never actually believed, let alone said.

And, if that is what it takes in order to have one’s argument work, then it was never a good argument in the first place.


19 responses to “Forget the Experts; What do the Most Ignorant People Think?

  • john zande

    The atheist doesn’t make any claim about god. We simply say to your claims: “we don’t believe you.”

    Now, what are your beliefs?
    State them clearly and as succinctly as you can.
    Establish how your beliefs are different to those of other Christians, and provide examples and evidence to back those assertions up.

    Thank you.

    • Debilis

      I didn’t make any claims about “the atheist”. I only spoke about the New Atheists–who make quite a few claims about what God is like (nearly all of them wildly false).

      Now, if you’re willing to take back all of those claims, and cease making comments that are only true if the New Atheist idea of God is accurate, then I’ll agree that my statements here do not apply to you.

      I make all atheists this deal. Many (who have as much distaste for Dawkins, Hitchens, and company as I do) are happy to take me up on that.

      Nor do I accept that “other Christians” understand Christianity the way the New Atheists do. Perhaps there are a couple, but I’ve never met any.

      But, let’s do get to my beliefs, because your comment here definitely shows a deep misunderstanding of them.

      Most obviously, because the kind of evidence you’ve been insisting I provide would disprove my beliefs, not prove them. It’s hard to overstate how confused these demands are.

      One way of putting it would be this: the ideas I’m discussing are more like math than science (though that isn’t a perfect analogy). We’re focusing on the logic of what follows from things–not making inductive predictions based on some example measured in a laboratory.

      I’ve been discussing God as a transcendent being. (Which, in spite of your implication, is pretty standard among Christians.) That is, God is not a tangible object or an efficient, scientific cause of events in the universe. Rather God is the explanation as to why the universe has patterns in the first place–or can exist in the first place.

      I mentioned this in my last post in this series. These points need to be understood.

      Until one knows what sort of entity I’m actually proposing–one can’t have any idea whether there is evidence for it or not.

      • john zande

        “I didn’t make any claims about “the atheist”. I only spoke about the New Atheists–who make quite a few claims about what God is like (nearly all of them wildly false).”

        -Bollocks! If the atheist talks about any god they are simply responding to the claims (and definitions) made by the theist. Those claims are pretty standard: omni-everything.

        “I’ve been discussing God as a transcendent being. That is, God is not a tangible object or an efficient, scientific cause of events in the universe. Rather God is the explanation as to why the universe has patterns in the first place–or can exist in the first place.”

        -In other words: your god is a wish… Nothing more, nothing less. You “want” it to be real (without the slightest bit of evidence) because it satisfies an emotional requirement of yours, not a physical one, because we have natural explanations for pretty much everything, including how universes are made.

        Now, the god you are attempting to identify (as an emotional response to your own needs) is NOT the Middle Eastern god of the Pentateuch. That god is somewhat hands-on as it interferes in earthly affairs. It also cannot be that particular god as we now know with certainty that the Pentateuch is myth, as the majority of Jewish Rabbis today openly concede. Therefore, let me ask you: which god are you talking about?

        • dpatrickcollins

          “If the atheist talks about any god they are simply responding to the claims (and definitions) made by the theist.”

          — I did not know the atheist — and by that one must mean all atheists everywhere at all times, or at least in this time — was so well organized and flawless in the execution of their position. I am more inclined to believe that “the atheist” is simply one who does not believe in God, in which case, he/she may have a myriad of reasons for holding to such a belief, some good, some not so good, all depending on the person.

          In any case, “Bollocks!” hardly addresses whether the New Atheists have in fact made claims as those mentioned. A+ for zeal, however.

          In other words: your god is a wish… Nothing more, nothing less.

          When I look up the word transcendent, I do not find “make believe” as its definition. In the context of this article, it means non-physical. Are you saying that God has to be physical to exist? That is a very intriguing position. Would the wood carver also be made of wood, or the software designer also be code? There may be many reasons for believing God does not exist, but I would not think one of them would be we cannot find him existing in and as part of his own creation.

        • john zande

          Hi Patrick.

          Happy to chat, but I must first know which god you’re talking about, and how you know this god to be real.

          Start there and we can continue

        • dpatrickcollins

          Hi John:

          Understood. If by “God” you think I mean “space alien”, then that will serve neither of us.

          I will start with Meriam Webster’s definition: “The Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshiped as creator and ruler of the universe.”

          However, for the purpose of our discussion, that definition of God is excessive. By God, we can limit the meaning to Creator of all things. This should be amply sufficient for the purpose of our discussion.

          For example, if I were to say i believe God is transcendent, and by that I meant beyond the physical, but you thought I meant “space aliens”, your criticism that I was engaging in pure make-believe would be well-founded.

          But if I meant “Creator of all that is seen and unseen,” then it would not, for the reasons I mentioned above. If we are to entertain the possibility and concept of God as the Being responsible for all that exists, and all that exists as created, it becomes ludicrous to presuppose God would be part of the created order, and equally ludicrous to assume his transcendence would be equal to make-believe. On the contrary, it is demanded.

          Equally, if you call yourself an atheist, which means you do not believe in God, but by God you mean “space aliens,” that will confuse the whole lot of us. The concept of God then is required equally by the atheist as well as the theist for meaningful discussion.

          The above then should serve us more than adequately.

          As far as your need to know “how I know this God to be real”, who said I do? And how is that relevant to the discussion? I might be an atheist like yourself for all you know. But as a thoughtful atheist, I would think even I should know that God as historically and traditionally defined as Creator of the seen and unseen would not Himself be a physical entity.


        • john zande

          Hi Patrick.

          Thanks for the thoughtful reply. We don’t need to go down the space alien path. Aliens, after all, are highly probable. In fact, I’d be tremendously surprised if this universe is not teaming with life at varying levels of sophistication and intelligence.

          Now, you can say “transcendent,” but it ultimately means nothing. You’re just defining something for which there is no evidence whatsoever. That’s all well and good, but you can insert any word you like instead of “god,” pipe smoking rabbit for example, and get the exact same result. That said, I do understand where you’re coming from. Essentially you’re saying this god is a 4th dimensional creature, much like the author of a book whose characters can never know him/her. I can appreciate this position as it’s not logically absurd, yet it is fundamentally flawed as no biological, geological, cosmological or anthropological investigation has even remotely indicated some supernatural agent at work. No question has ever been answered with a supernatural explanation, and the universe simply doesn’t require a god.

          Now, by saying “demanded” you’re opening the book to “necessary existence,” which is, in the end, just your opinion: a wish, really. Concluding your god doesn’t in any way equal demonstrating your god. Christian philosophers have been defining their god into existence for nearly 1,500 years, yet never have they actually ever taken a single step toward demonstrating it, let alone revealing it. Presenting the case for something that doesn’t exist is a relatively easy trick; storytellers have been inventing and directing impossibly fantastic creatures since time immemorial. Demonstrating something that doesn’t exist is outrageously more difficult; a problematic swim through an unaccommodating ocean filled with a million and one dream-wrecking snapping turtles that are not easily navigated by even the most skilful of tale-spinners. Proving something that doesn’t exist is, however, manifestly impossible, and this unshakable truism has, I’m afraid to say, wreaked havoc with even the most reckless (and well-funded) of Christian apologists determined to find something (anything) with which to validate their entirely unjustified belief in an exclusively undetectable being.

          The “how you know” is a frightfully important question as it’ll establish where you’ve heard of this god and gathered your ideas on it. As I pointed out to Debilis, it can’t be the god of the Pentateuch as we know with a great deal of certainty that that is a myth. The majority of Jewish Rabbi’s today admit this. Now, as the Pentateuch is the only source for the Middle Eastern Christian god, we can say the Middle Eastern Christian god, Yhwh, doesn’t exist. This, of course, leaves us with a dangling question: which god are we talking about here, and how do you know it?

        • Debilis

          “If the atheist talks about any god they are simply responding to the claims (and definitions) made by the theist. Those claims are pretty standard: omni-everything.”

          Now you’re claiming things about God. And, frankly, these things are untrue. I’ve given definitions–ones used by the overwhelming majority of monotheist thinkers throughout history–and I’m being told by the New Atheists that my definitions are “wrong”.

          More importantly, God (as defined by classical theism) isn’t addressed by the New Atheists. As such, they’ve completely failed to address my beliefs.

          I suppose that you can declare that something is a “wish” simply because it is not an efficient cause of something. But, are you aware that this is a metaphysical position? I take it that you are unaware that it has been shown to be self-refuting, and has been abandoned by logicians.

          Really, to say that everything which isn’t an efficient cause is a “wish” is simply to assume scientism. And it hardly needs to be said that “Scientism is true (because I assume it), therefore theism is false” is hardly a good argument.

          But I find it both strange and frustrating that you close by telling me that my understanding (and Aquinas’, Luther’s, Anselm’s, Maimonides’, etc) is wrong.

          I had thought that “the atheist” only responds to what has been claimed–and the definitions that have been given. This is trying to dictate to theists the definitive way that books like the Pentateuch should be read.

          Thank you for sharing your interpretation, but I’ll not bother getting into the reasons why I find this quick and dirty reasoning fallacious. I’ll simply point out that it isn’t my view.

          But you’ve gone through some trouble to avoid actually considering my view (demanding that I must take your view of causation and your view of the Pentateuch). As such, I’m not sure how it is that you’re ever going to understand my actual view.

        • john zande

          “Now you’re claiming things about God.”

          -Read, Debilis, read. These are the claims made by the theist.

          “I’ve given definitions–ones used by the overwhelming majority of monotheist thinkers throughout history–and I’m being told by the New Atheists that my definitions are “wrong”.”

          -As far as I can see you haven’t defined anything. If I’m wrong, I apologise and ask you to restate you definition.

          Now, you still haven’t named the god you’re talking about. Could we please satisfy that request?

        • Debilis

          I have read. And, whether or not these claims have been made by “the theist”, they haven’t been made by me.

          So, if you have no response to theism as I’ve described it, but only to some other form of theism (which I agree is false), then it seems that my version of theism has gone without refutation.

          That seems a good reason to be a theist of my sort, then.

          As far as definitions, you could start with these.

          But why do you want a name so much? A name is useless to anyone who doesn’t understand what the word means. Better to read the explanations I’ve actually given.

        • dpatrickcollins

          Thanks, John. Very comprehensive response. I will try to do the impossible and response to each point succinctly but will probably fail 🙂

          Space Aliens: Agreed, possible and probable. But they would be physical, unlike a Creator would, which would be transcendent.

          Transcendent: Means nothing = not true. A transcendent being does not exist? Maybe. But the word itself means nothing? No. In our context, it means that which exists beyond the physical universe.

          Demanded: Not referring to whether a transcendent being is necessary but rather whether transcendence is demanded by a Creator.

          And lastly . . . a transcendent Being, God,

          “is not logically absurd, yet it is fundamentally flawed as no biological, geological, cosmological or anthropological investigation has even remotely indicated some supernatural agent at work.”

          Well, this is the closest we have come to agreeing 🙂 But by fundamentally flawed you mean there is scant evidence for God, in your opinion. What is interesting to me is the litmus test you use for evidence: That if God did exist, we would invariably find a “supernatural agent at work” in scientific investigation. Which prompts me to ask: What would that look like? Let’s pick biology. Tell me what a “supernatural agent at work” would look like in biological life.


        • john zande

          Hi Patrick

          “it means that which exists beyond the physical universe”

          -Yep, got it. I find it terribly unsatisfactory, though. It doesn’t answer any question, and is, in the end, no more real than my Pipe Smoking Creator Rabbit. I can posit anything I like and then “say” it exists in a non-space (and is therefore undetectable) but it gets no one anywhere. I think, though, you already appreciate this so there’s no real point in laboring the subject.

          “Not referring to whether a transcendent being is necessary but rather whether transcendence is demanded by a Creator.”

          -Here I’m afraid to say we have the same problem. I can say it’s demanded for my Pipe Smoking Creator Rabbit to fart rainbows, for without that quality quantum gravity doesn’t work. As quantum gravity is present it is therefore proof my rainbow farting Pipe Smoking Creator Rabbit exists! Voilà! We are both, essentially, prescribing attributes to nothing.

          “what a “supernatural agent at work” would look like in biological life?”

          -Great question. Evidently It’d be something that functions without a natural explanation, like a limb growing back, for example, or unassisted levitation. On a matter of design, I would suggest an organism that doesn’t have to re-learn absolutely everything its forebears already bothered discovering and learning. Now, I’m going to cheat a little. I did a two-part tongue-in-cheek post on this very matter ages ago. Enjoy for what it is 🙂

        • dpatrickcollins

          Hi John:

          My you sure know a lot about God for not believing in him!

          On the topic of transcendence, I will try one last time: It has meaning, and your response supports this (otherwise you would not be able to object to the concept of transcendence). And transcendence would be demanded even for your pipe-smoking rabbit, if he were Creator of all that is. No other quality or action would necessarily be demanded. Pointing us back to the article at hand, it follows then that it is folly to assume God would be a physical entity.

          But to the question of a supernatural agent at work, it sounds like you are describing a miracle. So if you saw a miracle, that would be sufficient evidence for you that there is a God?

          But I am not sure even I would be convinced there was a God by a better organism. All things being equal, I would chalk it up to better evolution. It would not be enough.


        • john zande

          Hehehe… I parrot only what theists say 🙂

          Now, I can understand transcendence, but despite your pleas (which I do appreciate you’re making in good faith) it is simply describing nothing. We do not have a single example of anything transcendent. It is, therefore, fiction; a human concept dreamed up to satisfy an emotional need felt by some. As I sort of implied earlier, I can simply invent a word, Ulumpti, and assign to it any meaning I like, let’s say all the characteristics you assign to transcendence, and we are the exact same point. Ulumpti is nothing but a mental imagining, something fashioned in the mind while sitting in a comfortable chair. Mathematics is in some ways similar to this, but we can actually use mathematics to derive axioms which are real.

          Essentially, what your argument boils down to is this: “I can think of god, therefore god exists.” This logic gets no one anywhere, yet it’s the crux of the most astute argument for god ever devised: existence is greater than non-existence. Everything else the Christian philosopher says is little more than rainbow coloured fluff; a sideshow of superficial verbiage masking a string of defined imaginings that ignore the rather obvious fact that describing something into existence (synthetic truth) does not equal definitional (analytic) truth. Synthetic propositions cannot be proved, but they can be concluded, and for the Christian philosopher burdened with nothing but extravagant pieces of embarrassingly empty luggage this is all that seems to matter. With that in mind, no one in all of Christianity has put a single dent in Thomas Paine’s deeply accurate 1794 observation that “The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on nothing; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing.”

          Those posts I linked to were simple tongue-in-cheek. An observational study in ID/Creationist nonsense. Of course, if I were to witness anything that even hints at a supernatural event I’d have to look at it seriously. I’m not adverse to the supernatural, it’d certainly be the easier and more comforting (perhaps even meaningful) thing from an emotional perspective to believe in, but I’m just honest that not a single supernatural event has been recorded in all of human history. That’s just a fact, and I’m not going to jump through irrational mental hoops to deny reality simply because denying reality makes me feel good. I feel good by rescuing abandoned animals and nursing them back to health. That’s real.

          Thanks for being intelligent and civil. You sound like a fine man… almost a Humanist! 🙂


        • dpatrickcollins

          LOL! Theres much more to be said here, there always is. But this is a good place to finish our coffee and go on with our day. Cheers.

  • paarsurrey

    @ Debilis

    I agree with your worlds:

    “This is why Dawkins, who has confessed to being ignorant of theology, is forced to interact with the lay-level view.”

    This is also correct about Christopher Hitchens; with his shallow knowledge of Religion and especially about Islam/Quran/Muhammad; he only dealt with the ignorant or illiterate lay-level view and was applauded by the same level of atheists.

    The One-True-God is not a physical or material being; He has created the Universe/s and everything in it; hence He is Omnipresent only by His attributes. He needs not to be present everywhere materially or physically. This has been very clearly mentioned in Quran:

    [39:68] And they do not esteem Allah, with the esteem that is due to Him. And the whole earth will be but His handful on the Day of Resurrection, and the heavens will be rolled up in His right hand. Glory to Him and exalted is He above that which they associate with Him.

    All material, physical and spiritual things and beings have been created by Him, therefore, to imagine or search for Him in these realms is not reasonable and is counterproductive.

    I know that the literate Christians have the same concept; only the ignorant and lay-level Christians would disagree with it. Jesus was not a Christian-god or son-of-god literally as that would make (I take refuge in the One-True-God) Jesus the husband of Mary; and that no Christian believes.

    In symbolic terms as explained in the Bible itself; yes Jesus was the loved one of God and one- with-God; in the sense that Jesus fulfilled the purpose for which he was sent by the One-True-God.

    Atheists don’t understand this; may Allah open their hearts, mind and soul to understand it.

    Even if they don’t understand, we can co-exist in this world peacefully.

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