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In which I school a poor, dumb, well-meaning believer, and buy her a ticket to the Clue Train

Apropos of nothing, a believer named Beth showed up in the previous post’s comments, and offered up a series of banal arguments of the type that no informed Christian apologist would even waste time with. They’re Jack Chick dumb, which means their persuasive content is zero and that they’ve been on the “Refuted and Inactive” list for decades, if not longer.

My guess is that Beth heard these inanities at church, Bible study, or Sunday school, or read them on one of the more feeble Christian apologetics sites (or heck, even a Chick tract), and thought she’d drop by here to stump us with them, not realizing they’re DOA. She is now, for her pains, about to be schooled. Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle; I’m all for people who want to stand up and defend their faith to us doing so. But good grief, at least make sure you know what arguments not to make in the interests of not making a complete chimp of yourself. Consider this a public service.

Beth’s first paragraph:

Have you ever stopped to think that there is really no such thing as an atheist? To be adamant that there is no God, you must know everything that there is to know. You must have 100 percent of all the knowledge of everything in the universe. Let’s assume you have 1 percent (which would be high for the average person) of all knowledge. That means that you do not know 99 percent of all the things there are to know, so you are really agnostic, because you dont know if there is a God because you cannot know everything.

Problem #1: Beth is ignorant of the distinction between atheist and agnostic. But so are a lot of people, including many unbelievers, so I’ll cut her some slack here.

Agnosticism/gnosticism has to do with epistemic claims, ie., what one claims to know, while atheism/theism has to do with what one chooses to believe or not believe. Belief and knowledge are two different things. One can admit one has no firm knowledge of the existence of a god, and yet, for whatever personal reasons, choose to believe or not believe despite that lack of knowledge. I am agnostic in that I admit to lacking definite knowledge of God’s existence (and, if they were honest, Christians would have to categorize themselves thus as well). But, as I think the evidence and arguments I’ve heard to date in favor of God’s existence have been lousy at best and incoherent at worst, I choose not to believe in such a being, making me atheist. I am thus both agnostic (I don’t know) and atheist (I don’t believe).

The claim that one “must have 100 percent of all the knowledge of everything in the universe” in order to disbelieve in God takes idiocy almost to the level of criminal negligence. Honestly, Beth, whoever sold you this one ripped you off big time. You’ve suffered some serious intellectual short-changing here. You should demand a refund forthwith.

Take this sentence you wrote:

To be adamant that there is no God, you must know everything that there is to know.

…And replace the word “God” with any one of the following:

  • Zeus
  • Thor
  • Shiva
  • Amun-Re
  • Santa Claus
  • Tooth Fairy
  • Giant teapot orbiting the sun
  • Purple telepathic flying bunny rabbits on Neptune

Now do we see the stupid? If not, consider: no one alive is omniscient. Therefore, omniscience cannot possibly be any kind of sensible prerequisite for any knowledge claim. One must make knowledge claims based on the evidence we do have, which will always be incomplete. When presented with a claim, we must first weigh its evidence. The more extraordinary the claim, the higher the standards of evidence must be. If we hear a claim, and the available evidence to support it is poor, then, while we still may not have grounds to dismiss it entirely, we can still find it completely appropriate to refrain from believing the claim, at least until such time as better evidence to support it is presented. I do not have absolute, concrete knowledge there are no purple telepathic flying bunny rabbits on Neptune. Neither do you. So…do you believe there are some?

The issue here is something called burden of proof. Claims are worthy of belief once the evidence supporting them becomes sufficiently strong that to disbelieve is no longer sensible — not the other way round. Claims do not have the privilege of automatically being considered true just because no one knows everything. To those like Beth who think lacking omniscience does not justify disbelief, I ask, why do you think it justifies belief?

Beth’s second paragraph:

Also, I find it hard to believe that you dont believe that everything has a maker. What if I showed you my home – it is made of bricks and mortar, but then I told you that no one made it – it just appeared here by accident. That’s unbelieveable – just like its unbelieveable that the earth and everything and everyone on it just appeared here by accident.

Okay, I know I said I’d be nice, but…wow. The stupid! It burns!

I suppose that if there were any atheists promoting the idea that the earth and everything and everyone on it just appeared by accident, well, yeah, that would be a pretty unbelievable claim. Good thing no one’s making that claim, then. Beth is here essentially revealing her scientific illiteracy to us all, which, right now, looks like it’s clocking in at a solid 100%. There are, of course, no theories in any scientific discipline — physics; cosmology; biology — that take the form of, “And then suddenly, there was all this stuff, in precisely the form you see it today!” (In fact, the only place you’ll find that idea for sale is Genesis 1:1.) I know that, to the uninformed, the Big Bang theory might sound like just such a creation ex nihilo claim. But it isn’t. All the Big Bang theory describes is the event that caused our universe to expand into its current form; there had to be something to go bang in the Big Bang, after all. But what existed before…that, we just don’t know. We’re still working on it. Still, that lack of knowledge does not justify bringing in the old “God of the Gaps”.

The big irony here is that even as a metaphor, Beth’s argument is pigswill. Yeah, people built her house. But that would be people, not a person. So at best, the metaphor would be one favoring polytheism, not monotheism. And then there’s the little matter of her house-builders having come from somewhere themselves. So, if Beth wants her metaphor to be consistent, she has to recognize that the creator she proposes to be responsible for “the earth and everything and everyone on it” must have had a creator too! If, as she writes, everything has a maker, then so does the maker. And so does that maker. And so on. And so on. And…

The reality of the universe that science reveals to us is something vastly more glorious, intricate, fascinating, and awe-inspiring than the simplistic caricature presented by Beth here. It’s a shame that so many people like Beth have their sense of wonder in reality itself stifled and, in fact, suffocated by the gross misrepresentations and caricatures of science they are given by their religions. It’s a double shame that what sense of wonder they are permitted to have is yoked to inane superstitions about gods and angels and whatever else, none of which is a tiny fraction as magnificent as what the sciences actually teach us, and continue to teach us.

Last but not least, the problem with both of Beth’s paragraphs is that each one is a boilerplate logical fallacy. Paragraph one is the old argument from ignorance. Paragraph two is the previous fallacy’s red-headed stepchild, the argument from incredulity. One piece of advice that I would give believers like Beth, who wish to post here and show us the error of our ways, is that you’ll be dealing with experienced arguers h
ere. And if one thing reveals that you’re a deeply inexperienced arguer, it’s the clueless regurgitation of well-catalogued logical fallacies.

I’d suggest boning up on logical fallacies, and learning what they are, so that they don’t taint your arguments the next time you comment here. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself having your ass handed to you over and over again until you get it down. When Beth feels like she knows what she’s doing a little bit better, I invite her back here to try again.


  1. Anonymous says

    This is a good post and you argue your case well. What bothers me about it is the amount of condescension and mockery of the “poor, dumb, well-meaning believer” you intersperse throughout it. Amongst some eminently sensible and persuasive arguments is some pretty staggering arrogance: “She is now, for her pains, about to be schooled. Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle …”, “… you’ll find yourself having your ass handed to you over and over again until you get it down …” etc. My question is: why can’t you make your case in a logical, well-thought out way (which you are obviously capable of doing), without recourse to cheap theatrics, abuse, showboating, and self-congratulation? It really doesn’t add anything to your post, and to my mind takes quite a bit away from it.You mention boning up on logical fallacies at the end. Could I suggest that you take a glance at the entry for ad hominem just to refresh your memory? Cheers,Chris.PhilosophicalMisadventures.com

  2. Martin says

    Chris, I understand what you mean about sounding condescending, though that kind of talk is, contrary to what you’re claiming, not ad hominem. Ad hominem has to do with bringing up irrelevant facts about your opponent in the hopes of discrediting them that way. (“Well, you can’t trust what he says about global warming, after all, he drives a Chevy.”) Ad hominem does not refer to snarky name calling.But your point that it makes me sound like a smug asshole is understood. You must understand, though, that I felt her original post contained some “pretty staggering arrogance” itself…and not only that, dishonesty, since it was really just a cut and paste job from another apologetics text and not even her own thoughts. So the lesson here is: You get what you give.

  3. anti-nonsense says

    That’s some gooood stuff.If you want some really WTF arguments, get a gander at this one “God must exist because atheists exist”, I mean, that’s a seriously WTF argument. I saw some guy using that argument somewhere, and my response was “by that logic, there must be a monster under my bed, because I don’t believe that there is a monster under my bed”

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