Tag Archives: God

If You Redefine Christianity, it’s Ridiculous

redefineIn my time discussing apologetics, I’ve encountered two types of atheists:

1. Those who don’t, at the end of the day, believe religious claims, but consider theism a respectable position worthy of serious consideration.

2. Those who know almost nothing about theism outside of wild distortions and straw men.

One such distortion, that comes up semi-regularly, is the patently false claim that Christianity holds that “God sacrificed himself to himself”. Usually, it is followed with intimations that God threatens people with Hell, as well as the insistence that this is the basis of Christianity.

With all due respect to those who believe such claims, this is borne of a deep ignorance of the facts.

Personally, I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with being ignorant, so long as one is willing to learn. Its entirely possible that the second sort of atheist could become the first sort simply by availing his or her self of the writings of actual theologians.

Those that do will find that, according to Christian theology, Christ was indeed a sacrifice, but not remotely “to himself”. That is, he was not a ritual sacrifice, but rather a sacrifice in the same sense that a soldier might sacrifice his life in battle.

Such a person would not be sacrificing “to” something, but rather “for” something (such as freedom or some other cause).

Christ, according to Christians, sacrificed himself to bridge the infinite gap between a perfect God and a finite, fallible species. This wasn’t remotely because God, personally, wanted a sacrifice, it was because (among other things) the distance was so great.

Bridging such a gap, and forgiving great wrongs, is always extraordinarily painful. It is always an act of sacrifice.

It is also well within mainline Christian teachings that Christ died not merely to suffer for us, but to suffer with us. That is part of bridging the gap in any relationship, after all. I’ve even read essays from black Christians who claim that they love Christ not so much because he died for them, but because he was, in effect, lynched. He knew what it was like to suffer under an unjust socio-political system.

Much, much more could be said, but it already seems obvious enough that the common internet meme is far too glib.

It is less so, however, than the even more common claim about threats of Hell. I can’t imagine that the idea that Christianity is a religion of forgiveness is an obscure fact. Yet I run across people who confidently claim that the threat of Hell is the motivation for good behavior to be found in Christianity.

But, as I’ve already written about the actual motivator, I’ll simply respond by wondering how someone who doesn’t seem even to know that Christianity offers forgiveness can claim to know anything at all substantial about the religion, let alone seen through it.

These kinds of claims are no part of what Christian theologians have claimed. Much less are they the basis of the religion. One can believe, or disbelieve. But, what one can’t do, if one is to be rational, is claim that these silly straw men have anything to do with Christianity.

Actually, There Is Evidence that God Exists

640x392_68652_210262Many atheists are fond of saying that there is no evidence that God exists. In fact, a great many seem to have no other argument for atheism than variations on that.

Of course, when one presents evidence, one is promptly told that whatever one presented isn’t evidence. This being the case, I’ve made a point of asking such people what standard of evidence is being used to make that judgment.

After more than fifty requests across dozens of conversations, no one yet has even attempted to answer that question.

I think this is key. Really, it is a decisive failure of the argument if it turns out that no standard other than “I don’t agree that this is evidence” is being used. As such, I think it is worthwhile to point out why the “there’s no evidence” meme is nothing more than a meme.

Let’s start with dictionary.com’s understanding of evidence:

1. that which tends to prove or disprove something; ground for belief; proof.

This can’t possibly be what the atheist is thinking of when he insists that “there is no evidence for God”. This would include logical and philosophical arguments–so long as they were based in facts that the atheist accepts. After all, logical argumentation is how things are proved or disproved, perhaps most obviously in mathematics, but the method is used in every field.

But those repeating the “no evidence” meme have made it very clear to me that such things are not evidence.

2. something that makes plain or clear; an indication or sign: His flushed look was visible evidence of his fever.

I don’t see how this definition will be any better for the “no evidence” claim.

There are many indications and signs that God exists. This is precisely what the arguments for God’s existence point to. To say otherwise would require demonstrating that they all fail completely–that they have absolutely no weight at all.

And that would actually be much harder than establishing atheism–it isn’t an argument for atheism.

So, while many might be willing to claim that these arguments do completely fail, no one has come anywhere near showing that they do.

Of course, someone will almost certainly insist in the comments that, even though it is the atheist making the claim in this case, that the burden of proof is on the theist. This is false, but I’ll get to that elsewhere. One meme at a time.

3. Law. data presented to a court or jury in proof of the facts in issue and which may include the testimony of witnesses, records, documents, or objects.

I certainly hope that this isn’t the definition that is being used–and I doubt that the New Atheists would approve of witnesses, records, or documents as evidence.

These really don’t support the claim that there is no evidence for God. But the New Atheist might have a better time with Merriam-Webster. Not with two of the three definitions there, they have similar problems as those above. But this really seems to help his case:

a visible sign of something

One can’t see a logical principle, so the New Atheist doesn’t have to bother disproving the arguments for God in order to insist that there is no evidence. They aren’t visible, so that’s that.

Of course, many theists point to facts about the universe which are visible as evidence for God. While the New Atheist would have to show that this is untrue in order to make the claim that there is no evidence that God exists, there is a much bigger problem here.

That is, “there is no visible evidence for God” doesn’t quite cut it, does it?

Even the New Atheist is willing to admit that not everything that exists is visible. To grab the simplest example, we can know what a thing sounds like even with our eyes closed precisely because not all evidence is visible.

But, let’s help Merriam-Webster out a bit. What about this?

an empirical sign of something

This would allow for the non-visible parts of the universe to be considered evidence. That’s getting closer. But, there are two new problems:

First, it’s getting harder to dismiss they theist who denies the claim that there is no evidence for God. There are empirical facts which have been cited as evidence for God’s existence. It is not enough for the atheist to simply dismiss them or say that they are insufficient. To support the “no evidence” meme, he would have to show (not merely claim) that they don’t offer even the slightest support.

But the second issue is much more serious.

This still isn’t a concept of evidence that’s really inclusive. Yes, if one starts from the assumption that all evidence is empirical, it isn’t too surprising that one will only find the empirical. But there is no reason to start from that assumption, and good reason not to.

For instance, it’s a well-established fact that, even if one believes the human mind were purely physical (it isn’t), there isn’t any physical evidence for it. That is, neurobiology doesn’t prove that minds exist, it starts from that assumption.

Nor is it enough to say that we don’t “yet” have such proof, but that we should give science time. That would mean that we should remain agnostic about whether or not our own thoughts exist until neurologists get back to us on that.

No, we accept that there are minds because we experience minds–we experience being minds–every day.

But what about this?:

an experienced reality or known fact that supports something

This is the definition I tend to use. It is inclusive, and is right to the point about what evidence actually is: information given in support of something.

But far too many people claim experience with God for this to be of much use to the atheist. Far too many people have shown, via logic and reason, that there are things in our daily experience which give us reason to believe that God exists.

The atheist is free to question the validity of those experiences, and debate with the arguments, but the point is that he won’t be getting any help from the “no evidence” meme if we’re using this definition.

If we take this approach, there is evidence. The only debate is over whether or not the evidence is sufficient to warrant the conclusion that God exists.

I’m still looking, and open to suggestions. But can’t seem to find any way of understanding the claim “there is no evidence that God exists” that makes it both true and anything like a reason to reject belief in God.

It’s a clever-sounding meme, but I don’t see any real content in it at all.

If Theism Were Completely Different, It would be Unsupported

6a00e398244402883300e553e54ff88833-800wiIn discussing the moral arguments for God’s existence, J.L. Mackie takes what I find to be a reasonable approach. Still, I’ve had many criticisms of him–not the least of which is the fact that (like many atheists) he doesn’t seem to understand what theistic morality is.

That is, he repeats the long-discredited view that a theistic moral system is based on a reward-punishment system, then makes the obvious objections to that view.

But, while I’m sure that such people must exist somewhere, I can’t seem to find any real-live theist who has this as a moral system. Atheists who claim that this is what we believe, however, abound. This has always struck me as odd, and, whatever the reason for it, it remains a straw-man fallacy.

At least, I try not to draw the conclusion that people are remaining willfully ignorant of this point in order to make for better anti-theist memes. I hope this isn’t the case.

Either way, it bears repeating that theists view God as the paradigm of goodness–not unlike Plato’s form of the good. It is also the reason why the Euthyphro dilemma (which Mackie also sites against the moral arguments for God) is off-base (more on that later).

I suspect that this is an honest mistake on Mackie’s part. Still, it is a mistake, and I’d expect a better understanding than this from anyone offering a refutation of theism.

At least, it will take a stronger understanding to have any hope of a successful refutation. Since Mackie understands theistic morality this incorrectly, he is completely unable to construct a case against it. All the theist need do is say “that misses the point” to counter everything he’s said.

Plug: “Why There is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist”

I ran across this today, which, in spite of the implication of the title, is clear that atheists can be morally good.

Rather, it may well be the most direct and clear summary of the moral argument I’ve ever seen. If you have five minutes, it’s more than worth a look.

Miscellaneous Arguments

reality-check-1Continuing on with Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, we get to a couple of the few actual arguments against God’s existence. I rather enjoyed this one, both for the content, and for the novelty of seeing any attempt to offer a reason to reject belief in God.

Unfortunately, these were single points rather than developed arguments, and not terribly strong in any case.

Mackie begins with the suggestion that theists need to offer a reason why God made just this universe, rather than some other one. And the first thing to be said here is that this assumes that God made only one universe. Many theists have suggested otherwise.

Second is the fact that theists have given reasons. If the creation of life is an important consideration for God, then there is a very limited number of universes that would be made. Of course, this doesn’t answer the question of why, precisely, this universe over other life-supporting universes, but this isn’t much of an objection.

Really, I can think of no theory that explains its content within such an astronomically high degree of accuracy as Mackie seems to be demanding (once one understands the limits life puts on a universe). And, if this were a reason to dismiss theism, it is certainly a reason to dismiss the far more vague answer given by non-theists.

His second reason is more popular, but I find it less persuasive. He claims that a mind without a physical body (i.e. God) is intrinsically very improbable on the grounds that we have no experience with such a thing. I see two major flaws with this.

First is the fact that this confuses absence of evidence for evidence of absence. I don’t know of anyone who argues that the multiverse is intrinsically improbable, for instance, on the grounds that we have no experience with it.

And I’m not convinced that we have no experience with minds as separate from bodies in the first place. Not only do the overwhelming majority of people in the world claim to have had such experiences (that is, most people are theists), but this seems to presume a materialist view of the human mind (which is fraught with problems–we can’t even say that our minds are purely physical). Certainly, it assumes that all the other arguments for God fail, rather than simply being inconclusive (or, as I would claim, good arguments).

Mackie even argues against some of them by suggesting that we remain neutral on them. As such, he can’t base an argument on the idea that they all fail.

So, as an atheist, Mackie is free to assume these things, but to base an argument for atheism on the idea that minds are always physical is simply circular reasoning.

What are the Odds?

probability-diceI’ve found Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism” to be much more reasonable than the more popular atheist books. In discussing what he calls “the inductive cosmological argument”, he points out a real difficulty in claiming that the existence of the universe is, by itself, evidence for God.

That is, it is very difficult to calculate the background probability of the universe existing (which would be necessary for an inductive argument). Of course, this doesn’t apply to the previous arguments mentioned (as they were deductive). Still, I agree with him insofar as that point goes.

But that isn’t terribly far, because the argument isn’t simply that the universe is evidence for God’s existence. Rather, like most inductive arguments, it is an inference to the best explanation. Swineburne’s claim in making the argument is that God is a better explanation of the existence of the universe than the secular alternatives.

Given the fact that, by Mackie’s own admission, the atheistic explanation of the universe is that it exists for literally no reason whatsoever, this seems a rather obvious point. It is hard for me to imagine how anyone could disagree with it.

But Mackie does disagree.

He sees nothing strange at all about a “just because” answer to the question (which I find astonishing), and argues that divine creation is very unlikely. But this seems another shifting of his position to fit the momentary need. After all, he’s just finished arguing that we have no way of knowing the background probability for things like the origin of the universe. One is left wondering how he can know the background probability of a creation event–particularly before deciding whether or not God exists.

This being the case, he seems to have undermined his own argument.

Of course, he does raise a similar concern of the theist’s position. He claims that the omni-attributes of God are themselves infinities, which would contradict other arguments for God’s existence.

But this is very strange–unless one believes that all such arguments must work in order to accept that God exists. Rather, if even one of them is sound, then we must accept the conclusion. As such, this is no attack on the inductive argument; he should have mentioned this when discussing the Kalam.

And, in defense of the Kalam, it rejects the idea of collections containing infinite numbers of discrete parts, which is something altogether different than God’s attributes, which are one. That being the case, I don’t find it persuasive, even then. But the bigger point is that it is irrelevant to the argument he’s actually discussing.

No inductive argument is, in the end, certain. But it does seem that theism is a better fit to the data we have than the complete lack of an explanation offered by proponents of atheism.

But, Mackie has something of an inductive argument of his own–against the existence of God. I’ll get to that next.

Rational Inquiry vs “Just Because”

jock_nerdMoving on with Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, we get to some real clash. In Mackie’s view, the Leibnitzian Cosmological argument is an utter failure. In mine, it is a powerful argument for God’s existence.

For those that aren’t familiar with the argument, I’ve outlined it in the past.

For those that know it, I think Mackie’s first response is both very interesting and very wrong-headed. He claims that, if Leibnitz has proved that a necessary being exists, then there needs to be some kind of explanation as to why that being is necessary.

First, I’m not sure that this is true. Leibnitz’s argument establishes that there must be a necessary object. The question of why a particular object is necessary is another matter. Demanding that a conclusion can’t be accepted until we can further explain that conclusion would be to insist that we need an explanation of the explanation before we accept it.

And it should be clear that this would result in an infinite regress that, if accepted, would halt all inquiry. After all, this would leave us demanding that we can’t accept General Relativity until we can explain why matter causes space to bend, and that we can’t accept that explanation until we further explain it, and so on.

And, even if it were true that we need to explain the “why” of necessity before we can recognize the fact of necessity, Mackie isn’t on terribly strong ground here.

After all, the explanation of “why” would be one or more of the ontological arguments he’s discussed earlier in the book (or some other one not mentioned). Essentially, he’s saying that, if Leibnitz is right, then some ontological argument would have to be true.

I’m inclined to agree with him; that does seem to follow. Where I disagree with him is in following that with an “since the ontological arguments all fail, Leibnitz must be wrong”.

Most obviously, this is an argument from ignorance. It assumes that there is no valid ontological argument outside of what has already been suggested by theists. Even more damning is the fact that Mackie, in criticizing Plantinga’s ontological argument, suggested that we “remain neutral” with respect to the argument. But, if he’d really meant that, he shouldn’t now base an objection on confidently asserting that no one has presented a sound ontological argument.

And this is a problem I see fairly often: shifting one’s position to that which is strongest with respect to the current point. This may be a good means to win arguments, or persuade the casual reader, but it is not an avenue to truth.

So far, this doesn’t seem to have affected Leibnitz’s argument at all. But this is not Mackie’s only objection. He also rejects the principle of sufficient reason (“whatever exists has an explanation of its existence”).

As this principle is the heart of all inquiry, I am very suspicious of anyone arguing that it should be abandoned.

I’m doubly suspicious of anyone who doesn’t actually offer a reason that it is false, but simply demands that believers in sufficient reason should defend the idea that “there must be an explanation for this” is always more reasonable than “this exists for literally no reason whatsoever”.

And this is what Mackie does. He never presents a reason to believe that some things just exist inexplicably–or addresses the thought that this seems like a halt to all inquiry. Rather, all he does is insist that one needn’t believe in sufficient reason to do science.

How so? He claims that science only requires that like effects have like causes, but this is suspicious at best. Personally, I’m more inclined to call it completely false. Surely, science requires the belief that things have explanations in the first place.

To Mackie’s credit, he also attempts something like a demonstration that sufficient reason is false by pointing out that humans don’t always have rational reasons for the way we behave. But, if this is the best example he can produce, I think it is clear that the objection is a very weak one. That humans don’t always act rationally does nothing whatsoever to disprove the idea that things have explanations. The explanation needn’t be that the cause was itself rational, after all. That should be obvious enough, and one is left wondering why Mackie thinks otherwise. He does not tell us.

But Mackie isn’t done questioning the validity of sufficient reason. I’ll discuss his other reasons next time. For now, the important point is that this is his only real objection to Leibnitz. He, like the overwhelming majority of atheist philosophers, agrees that the only valid explanations of the universe are theistic–and defends his atheism by insisting that the universe simply has no explanation.

That seems to set a very low bar for theism to rise above.