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Dec 17 2011

Gospel Disproofs #20 and #21: The undeniable fact and its inescapable consequence

[Originally posted, in slightly different form, on July 27, 2007]

Debating apologetics can be a tricky matter: Christians have 2,000 years of experience in rationalizing their beliefs, and generally know better than to allow themselves to be pinned down to anything that would settle the matter fairly and objectively. There is, however, one undeniable fact, with one inescapable consequence, which can be used to force Christians to face reality no matter how much they would like to twist away from it.

The undeniable fact is this: God does not show up in the real world, not visibly, not audibly, not tangibly, not for you, not for me, not for saint or for sinner or for seeker. Many people, of course, have already pointed out this fact, and tried to use it against Christianity, with little or no effect. For 2,000 years, believers have been rationalizing their way around that one. That’s why, for maximum effectiveness, we need to combine the undeniable fact with the inescapable consequence.

If God does not show up outside the stories, superstitions and subjective feelings of men, the inescapable consequence is that we have no alternative but to put our faith in men rather than in God. If I promise you that God will put ten solid gold coins under your pillow tomorrow morning, and you believe that this is true, whom are you believing, God or me? If those coins are not there tomorrow morning, who lied, me or God? When you believe what one person tells you about someone else, are you trusting the someone else, or the one who tells you?

When men say things on God’s behalf, and make promises that God is supposed to keep, the word they tell you is the word of men, not the word of God. That’s true even if what men say is, “This is the word of God.” They’re not giving you God’s word, they’re giving you man’s word about God’s word (or at least what they claim is God’s word). Sure, you can believe what men tell you about God if you like, but if you do, you are putting your faith in men. Before you can have faith in God, God has to show up, in person, to tell you directly the things He wants you to have faith in. Otherwise it’s just faith in men.

This is an important point, because Christians tend to believe that they are doing something noble and spiritual when they put their faith in Christian teachings. Because they believe that the Bible is the word of God and that Christian teachings in general are the teachings of God, they count their belief in these teachings as a mark of loyalty towards God. Because God does not show up in the real world, however, they are not putting their faith in God, they are putting their faith in the fallible men who brought them these teachings and told them they were from God.

Psychologically, it makes a big difference to the Christian whether he is defending faith in God, or only defending faith in men. The most effective approach to unapologetics, therefore, is to keep directing the believer’s attention to the undeniable fact that God does not show up in the real world, and the inescapable consequence that God’s universal absence means all these apologetics are merely the words of men. Believe in them and defend them if you want, but you’ll be defending men, and not God. And will your faith in men save you?

26 comments

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  1. 1
    mikespeir

    “I say the Bible says Paul says God says…” is laughably feeble. The whole teetering stack rests upon the most unreliable of blocks: ME!

  2. 2
    'Tis Himself

    They’re not giving you God’s word, they’re giving you man’s word about God’s word (or at least what they claim is God’s word).

    I’ve noticed that when someone says “God talks to me” then God has exactly the same opinions and prejudices as his mouthpiece.

    1. 2.1
      N. Nescio

      Sometimes I like to bring up the fact that for all the people who claim YHWH/Jesus/Virgin Mary/Padre Pio/whatever appeared to them/spoke to them/manifested itself in any form to communicate, not once have they been informed that what they believed was wrong!

      It’s always “pray for the conversion of Russia!”, “I am the Immaculate Conception! Eat the grass and rub mud onto your face.”, “Michelle, you should totally run for President!!” and similar nonsense; and NEVER anything like “oh, that whole transubstantiation thing? It’s ridiculous. Why would you seriously believe a priest has magic power to turn a cracker into my son’s flesh? You need to get the Pope to change that right away!” or “Oh, and you really ought to become a Hindu. It’s the One True Faith.

      You can almost hear the gears grinding when you point out that supposedly divine communique always confirms what the particular recipient believes, and never tells them the opposite.

      1. N. Nescio

        After drinking my coffee (with a splash of J. Walker for Hitch) I realized that what I wrote is not entirely correct. At least in Roman Catholicism, there’s a number of apparitions that have been outright condemned by the Church, primarily for claiming revelation in direct opposition to doctrine.

        Growing up, I only heard about the ‘official’ apparitions, though at some point found myself out in the summer sun with my family at Our Lady of The Snows, praying the full-on 15 decade rosary waiting for the Virgin Mary to appear to some guy. I don’t think that one was ever approved by the Church.

        I think my point still stands, as most RC ignore claims of revelation opposing church doctrine as unauthentic by definition.

      2. alskdjfhg

        I don’t think that’s exactly the same thing. The claimed revelations were in conflict with the church’s dogma, but I’d bet they aligned perfectly with the claimant’s beliefs. They weren’t “informed” that their beliefs were wrong. It’s still not a case of someone’s imaginary friend telling them that they are wrong. They had their beliefs confirmed by the voices in their head just like everyone else. Their divinely confirmed beliefs just happen to conflict with other peoples’ divinely confirmed beliefs, and each is telling the other that they’re wrong.

      3. WMDKitty -- Survivor

        I dunno, Bast has been pretty consistent… with ignoring me.

      4. Brian M

        Bast, of course, being a cat god, is very good at ignoring mere humans.

  3. 3
    cgauthier

    Also, N. Nescio, even if the apparitions opposed church doctrines, i’d bet the original point still stands and those people were using the “visitation” to justify there own misgivings about the doctrines they spoke against.

  4. 4
    Shawn

    Is this really an effective strategy? Doesn’t seem so because, if I understand correctly, the typical believer believes god is always showing up in the real world. Everytime something good happens, it is a miracle of god, when bad things happen, it is the wrath of god (or otherwise god has a plan we can’t presently understand).
    The whole idea of prayer is that god is here (and everywhere), all the time. True, god doesn’t show up in some sort of obvious materialistic way, but the believer will just say that god is not of the materialistic world, and/or does things in his own way, and mere humans should not expect otherwise.
    So, this strategy boils down to: “Show me your god”. But if this was an effective strategy to get theists to face reality, there would be no religion right now or presumably ever.

  5. 5
    Mark

    Your approach won’t work to convince any believer. They will merely claim that god speaks to them directly…i.e. they can “feel” what the truth is. Sure, it’s all bullshit, but I’ve heard/read this rationalization many, many times.

  6. 6
    Monimonika

    I don’t think this approach is very effective, especially when it can easily be turned right back at you. I imagine the counter-argument would go like this:

    “You have the same faith in men as well! You call these men ‘scientists’ or ‘experts’. What reasons do you have to trust them, or the institutions they are part of, that are so different from mine?”

    If you can answer to the above, I think the approach would have merit.

    1. 6.1
      rapiddominance

      Good heads-up thinking on your part. Even though most of the religious community would likely fall away unscathed in a manner similar to what your peers claim, the more critical thinking members would certainly use this line of reasoning you mentioned.

      I’m not going to make an attempt at it now, but I don’t think it would be too daunting of a task to answer such an argument intelligently. I mean, human governance takes the day everywhere, regardless, right? In the end, you still wind up battling reason vs faith. You would have details to work out, but nothing really changes.

    2. 6.2
      mikespeir

      That would be a pretty lousy comeback for a number of reasons. But even those aside, why the supposition that ancient, primitive men were any more reliable than modern, scientifically learned men? It’s one of the reasons I say that when believers declare a Mexican Standoff they’ve just conceded the fight. Hey, I could live with “six of one, half-dozen of the other.” They can’t.

      1. Monimonika

        It would’ve been nice if you had mentioned what reasons there are that makes what I suggested “a pretty lousy comeback”. As it is, a fundie can declare victory against your non-answer.

        Oh well, I’ll reply to Janney instead with what I thought of as an answer to my hypothetical counter-argument.

      2. mikespeir

        Why must I deal with it exhaustively? I was only trying to point out that our sources are at least the equal of theirs, and even that’s fudging in their favor an awful lot. The ball remains in their court to demonstrate why we should see it any other way. Nuff said, as far as I’m concerned.

    3. 6.3
      typecaster

      If you can answer to the above, I think the approach would have merit.

      But the answer is obvious. First, I admit to (provisional) faith in men – when that faith is repeatedly justified by evidence and correct results. Do I have faith in scientists? Yes, because when they explain their work (and their conclusions are always in terms of how they arrived at them), there is a chain of evidence that others can follow, and can, at least in principle, be replicated by others. My faith in men is provisional, conditional on evidence, and continually justified (or not) on those criteria. Their faith in the men telling them about Godly things is absolute and unconnected to anything verifiable or repeatable. Seems clear to me. Why would anyone consider that response unanswerable?

  7. 7
    Janney

    Monimonika,

    “You have the same faith in men as well! You call these men ‘scientists’ or ‘experts’. What reasons do you have to trust them, or the institutions they are part of, that are so different from mine?”

    This is the “atheism is just like religion” schtickela, also known as “I’m rubber, you’re glue.” It would be a complete concession to Deacon’s point if anyone ever meant it, but of course they never do.

    There are proper answers to it, e.g. “the scientific method is mostly just a concerted effort to overcome the various cognitive biases we are all heir to,” but what’s the point of giving such a sophomoric, bad-faith, pretend-argument a proper answer?

    1. 7.1
      Monimonika

      I like your answer, although I would try to reword it to be a bit kinder if I were facing an actual person (at least until I’m pushed too far) with more words to clarify.

      Here’s what I came up with so far (this was before I read your comment, but it’s based on the same basic premise):

      People, being social animals, tend to want others to respect them, and one important aspect of this is credibility (people trust what you say). In this sense, scientific and religious institutions (as well as the people within them) are quite similar in their aims. The difference comes in how credibility is maintained.

      In a scientific institution, even if a scientist manages to distinguish themselves with conclusions derived from their research, their work leaves a paper trail of data and information of what was supposedly done during the research. This trail allows others to look into and test whether the scientist actually did the research correctly, whether the data collected is real, if the same conclusions can be derived, etc.

      So, let’s say a scientist, let’s call him Andrew Wakefield, fudged a couple of data sets (and more) and managed to trick the rest of the world into thinking that he discovered the hidden dangers of the MMR vaccine. Based on his credibility as a scientist he became a hero.

      Unfortunately for him, the paper trail left from his research led those investigating him to the data he falsified and to the eventual loss of his credibility as a scientist (as well as a decent human being). Not only was the paper trail helpful in discrediting Andrew Wakefield, but subsequent research that tested the claims of his research also showed that his conclusions were false. Even if he had not intended to deceive and had just been a bit clumsy with the data, the paper trail and research by others would still have resulted in a loss of some credibility.

      In this way, scientific institutions and scientists that want to gain (and keep) respectability/credibility must try their best to be honest and vigilant in their actions since falsehoods/mistakes cannot be hidden indefinitely from the sufficiently inquisitive.

      Religious institutions on the other hand, don’t necessarily have such a paper trail nor a way of testing any conclusions that are made. Most miracle claims are either mere hearsay, a subjective experience, or debunked by natural explanations.

      Religious institutions also tend to not allow any questioning of the very premises of their tenets, even if they are self-contradictory. Followers are encouraged to accept the “Truth” of the religion on faith, and any contradictions are blamed on either “lack of faith”, “God’s mysterious ways”, or “the Devil’s trickery”, etc.

      In this way, even if a religion is based on total lies, there are many ways to keep the institution looking credible to their followers because the followers would rarely have any means to actually investigate and test the claims made by the institution or religious person.

      Investigating the history of a holy book or text a religion is based off of either leads to finding the events described to be contradictory to evidence (sometimes even within the text), are obviously meant to be fictional, or that the most independently corroborated historical events are not of the miraculous type.

      1. Monimonika

        (o_0;) That’s waaaay too much text up there.

        I clearly went overboard on using “more words to clarify” bit. Please don’t feel obligated to read all that stuff.

  8. 8
    Nathan

    What evidence do you have that God does not show up? According to the Bible, Jesus was God, in which case God most definitely has shown up. Obviously this can be discounted if you believe that the Bible is wrong on that account, but it is no less substantiated than your own claim.

    God does not necessarily become materially present just because we ask him to, but if the Bible accurately represents God in this regard, that should be of no surprise. God did not show up to the Israelites when they were in the desert. Neither did he show up when he allowed them to be conquered by the Babylonians.

    Does it achieve God’s purpose to appear to anyone on cue? If not then it is invalid to argue that a lack of evidence for the material presence of God is evidence in itself of his non-existence.

    1. 8.1
      Deacon Duncan

      Hi Nathan,

      See today’s post for the answer to your questions.

      The point of this post is to highlight the fact that God’s failure to show up in real life leaves us no choice but to put our faith in men—for example, the men who wrote the Bible. If they lied, or if they were mistaken, or if they were merely misunderstood, our faith may not be justified. But in God’s absence from the real world, faith in men is all that’s possible.

      1. Shawn

        Not surprisingly, Nathan gives the expected response that I (post 4) and others predicted. But furthermore, I imagine that most theists dont care about the words of men or especially have faith in these words in any absolute sense. They believe because they feel god’s presence in their hearts and minds…they know on their very own that he exists and is present. Of course, this is entirely the result of the words of men (indoctrination writ large and small), but no theist will recognize this. To them, every holy word and evangelist could disappear or never exist in the first place, and they think they would still possess a personal relationship with god in their heart because god is permanent. The central problem with getting theists to face reality is that the notion ‘god does not exist’ is an absolute non-starter. Pick away however you want on the margins of doctrinal faith but you are unlikely to dent the core conviction. This is why religion comes in so many flavors I think: knock down the bells and whistles using logic and new or slightly altered religious notions arise like mutant tendrils from that unalterable core conviction that god is real.

  9. 9
    Janney

    Two plus two equals five, for sufficiently large values of two.

    God shows up, for sufficiently large definitions of “showing up.”

    Monimonika,

    I also try to be nice when I’m talking to people, but when they say “atheism [or science] is just like religion” I try to nicely point out that they almost certainly don’t mean that. After all, meaning it means believing that the one is no better or worse than the other. And, whether they mean to elevate both or denigrate both, they’ll end up judging both on their common real-world merits—at which point they’ll start claiming special exemptions again.

    What they almost certainly really mean is, “I know you are, but what am I?”

  10. 10
    Anri

    I don’t think this approach is very effective, especially when it can easily be turned right back at you. I imagine the counter-argument would go like this:

    “You have the same faith in men as well! You call these men ‘scientists’ or ‘experts’. What reasons do you have to trust them, or the institutions they are part of, that are so different from mine?”

    If you can answer to the above, I think the approach would have merit.

    You walk over to a light switch and flip it, saying “Demonstrate that your god is as reliable as this, and I’ll listen. Otherwise, I’ll listen to the people who tell me stuff that actually works.”

    1. 10.1
      Shawn

      Heh heh…and hope like hell this isnt the time that the light bulb burns out. That would be way too impressive to the religious mind.

    2. 10.2
      peterwhite

      There is no faith required in science or scientists. Science is based entirely on physical evidence and theories that explain that evidence. Theories can be tested to determine if they accurately reflect the universe we inhabit.

      Scientists are never taken at their word but must wait for independent verification of their results before their explanations are accepted. Once a theory gains general acceptance by other scientists it is provisionally accepted as true – pending contrary evidence. If contrary evidence is discovered then the theory must either be modified or rejected.

      Faith is not required at any stage of the process. Anyone who thinks science and religion work the same way has no understanding of either one. Science based on faith would be no different from religion and would produce equally unreliable results.

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