A Zacharias follow-up

Because there was no indication Matt had done it, I thought it would be interesting to email the link to his post answering Ravi Zacharias’ “Six Questions to Ask an Atheist” to the contact address I found at the RZIM website. Monday afternoon I received this response, not from Zacharias himself, but the ministry staffer who posted the actual “Six Questions” article to the site.

Dear Martin,

Thank you for your recent email to RZIM in response to the article “Six Questions to Ask an Atheist” in our “Engaging Conversations” section of the website. I want you to know that I read the posted response in its entirety including the comments. On the whole, I found these responses to be very helpful and challenging. I am the author of this essay, and I borrowed heavily from a framework used in Brian McLaren’s book “Finding Faith.” I can completely understand how since you do not know me, the “tone” of this article seemed to be antagonistic rather than genuinely interested in either conversation or learning from your perspective. I assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. I am seeking to learn, just as I assume you are, and I have learned a great deal from this post and the responses.

If you would permit me some time to more carefully reflect on what has been written, I would like to respond to you. While I know that what I may write will likely end up as “public domain,” I would appreciate it if we could exchange emails initially that are between the two of us. If you find something useful – either to critique or to stimulate further conversation, you are welcome to post it. But, let me do some thinking first, and then respond.

Again, thank you for sending this to me and for the very thoughtful
interaction that was presented in this post.

Sincerely,

Margaret Manning

Speaking Team/Associate Writer

So there. I replied that I would be delighted to continue a dialogue (which I’ll bring Matt in on, as he wrote the original post, of course), while assuring Margaret that I wouldn’t post any of it here without securing her permission. But I thought there’d be no harm in letting you guys know there was a response, and a polite and receptive one at that. It does appear as though Margaret had not in fact field-tested Ravi’s Six Questions among any actual atheists before. So hopefully there will be an eye-opening series of exchanges to come.

A response to Ravi Zacharias’ “Six Questions to Ask an Atheist”-

Someone sent me a link to this via Facebook and after spending some time addressing it, I thought I’d post it here. It’s another long (though not insanely long) post, but it addresses the “questions” of a popular apologist that is often cited in e-mails from Christians.

Zacharias’ original text is in black and my responses are in red.


Many times, as Christian theists, we find ourselves on the defensive against the critiques and questions of atheists. Here, then are six key questions you can ask of atheists as you engage them in honest conversation about the trajectory of this worldview:

First, we need to clarify that atheism isn’t a worldview. There are no tenets, dogma or edicts because atheism isn’t an “ism”…it’s simply the label we use to identify a position on a single question; do you believe a god exists? If the answer is yes, you’re a theist, if not, you’re an atheist.

Atheism can be the result of a worldview and it is certainly consistent with a number of secular philosophical worldviews, so for the sake of this discussion I’ll address the questions without quibbling over that detail but it’s essential to point out that there’s an underlying misconception that tends to encourage theists to frame their questions in a way that doesn’t really make sense.

1. If there is no God, “the big questions” remain unanswered, so how do we answer the following questions: Where did everything come from, and why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there conscious, intelligent life on this planet, and is there any meaning to this life? Does human history lead anywhere, or is it all in vain since death is merely the end? How do you come to understand good and evil, right and wrong without a transcendent signifier? If these concepts are merely social constructions, or human opinions, where do we look to determine what is good or bad, right or wrong? If you are content within an atheistic worldview, what circumstances would serve to make you open to other answers?

The entire paragraph is an implied argument that if we haven’t yet explained the big questions (without making an appeal to the god hypothesis) that we’re then justified in accepting that a god exists. This is a thinly-veiled argument from ignorance, a classic logical fallacy.

In addition to that problem, the god hypothesis has no explanatory power. Explanations increase our understanding and we tend to explain things in terms of other things that we already understand.

Attempting to ‘answer’ the big question by appealing to the supernatural doesn’t accomplish this because it’s an attempt to solve a mystery by appealing to another mystery. That’s not an explanation; it’s a gap-filler. It doesn’t solve a mystery; it obscures it in an attempt to assuage our discomfort with the unknown.

How do we answer the big questions? The same way we’d answer any other question. First, we acknowledge that we don’t have an explanation and then we investigate until we do. The time to believe a proposed explanation is after it has been supported by argument and evidence – and not a moment before. Explanations are supported by evidence; they’re not supported by a failure to come up with a better response.

In the end, this question isn’t an implied argument for the existence of god; it’s an implied argument for belief as a means of placating curiosity and xenophobia. Accepting a pacifying non-answer retards progress toward discovering the real answer.

2. If we reject the existence of God, we are left with a crisis of meaning, so why don’t we see more atheists taking their worldview more seriously like Jean Paul Sartre, or Friedrich Nietzsche, or Michel Foucault? These three atheists recognized that in the absence of God, there was no transcendent meaning beyond one’s own self-interests, pleasures, or tastes. The experience of atheistic meaninglessness is recorded in Sartre’s book Nausea. Without God, these three thinkers, among others, show us a world of just stuff, thrown out into space and time, going nowhere, meaning nothing.

The implication in this question is that if there is no transcendent, ultimate, externally imposed meaning that there can be no meaning. That’s a bit of an equivocation fallacy – conflating “meaning” and “transcendent meaning” and then spinning it into “atheistic meaninglessness”.

I have no crisis of meaning. A secular worldview doesn’t result in meaninglessness. My life has whatever meaning I attribute to it, and this would be true whether a god existed or not. Value is the result of desire and while he’d like to dismiss our “selfish interests, pleasures, or tastes” as negatives, that’s not the case. Our selfish interests can result in benefit or harm, all with respect to the things we value. He dismisses the very foundations of meaning in order to claim there is no meaning… that doesn’t sound like the “honest conversation” I’m looking for.

The broader, implied argument is that one should believe in a god because it’ll prevent you from feeling as though your life has no meaning. This is not an argument for the existence of a god; it’s an argument for belief which has no dependency on the object of that belief being true. It’s like arguing that one should believe that they’re holding a winning lottery ticket if it makes them happy.

The problem, of course, is that our beliefs inform our actions and our actions have consequences for ourselves and others. The person who sincerely believes that they hold a winning lottery ticket may well take actions that prove devastating when they discover they actually don’t have a winning ticket.

3. If people don’t believe in God, the historical results are horrific, so how do we deal with the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot who saw religion as the problem and worked to eradicate it? Countless millions lost their lives under these godless regimes, regimes more influenced by Nietzsche’s concept of the ubermensch (superman) than they were by transcendent morality.

Once again, we have an implied argument that has nothing to do with the actual existence of god but rather on the purported benefits of believing that a god exists; if people stop believing in gods, bad things will happen, so don’t stop believing.

The assertion that atheism leads to horrifying atrocities is simply not true. It’s a vile, slanderous charge, rooted in ignorance and deception that isn’t the slightest bit softened by Zacharias’ stylish, questioning form.

In the case of the examples given, atheism is neither necessary nor sufficient to be identified as the cause of the actions taken. In truth, the atrocities were the result of belief systems which, while consistent with atheism, are not caused by atheism. You simply cannot draw a causal chain from “I do not believe a god exists” to “I’m going to destroy religious organizations and religious people” without an additional belief — and it is that belief that would be the cause of the atrocities.

To claim otherwise is to claim that atheism necessarily leads to horrifying acts (which is what he’s trying to do) and there are millions of secular people who testify to the false nature of that assertion every single day.

Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot took actions based on beliefs that are akin to religions. They were powerful
zealots of socio-political ideologies and a belief that the opposition must be eliminated. To claim that those beliefs were caused by atheism is as much a non sequitur as claiming that they were caused by a stomach ache.

Hitler, on the other hand, gave conflicting reports about his beliefs. He publicly and privately identified as a Catholic, yet there’s also testimony that he was anti-religious or anti-Christian at times. If he had done great work, I suspect that the Christians would claim that he was opposed to organized religion, but a devoted, personal believer. Because of the atrocities he committed, they take a different tact, labeling him an atheist.

We can no more know Hitler’s true beliefs about the existence of gods than we can know the mind of any other. What we can know, though, is that even if he was an atheist, that wasn’t the cause of the actions he took. As Zacharias points out, it was the ideology of the Übermensch (among other beliefs) that encouraged those actions.

While that ideology is consistent with atheism (everything except for a belief in a god is consistent with atheism) it is not caused by atheism nor is it necessarily connected with atheism. It is not, though, consistent with modern secular humanism.

4. If there is no God, the problems of evil and suffering are in no way solved, so where is the hope of redemption, or meaning for those who suffer? Suffering is just as tragic, if not more so, without God because there is no hope of it being rendered meaningful or transcendent, redemptive or redeemable, since no interventions in this life or reparations in an afterlife are possible. It might be true that there is no God to blame now, but neither is there a God to reach out to for strength, transcendent meaning, or comfort. There is only madness and confusion in the face of suffering and evil.

His claim is that suffering is just as tragic, if not more so, if there is no God. This is another roundabout way of saying, “Hey, you might as well believe, you’ll be no worse off” — another argument for belief with no ties to the truth of the proposition one is being asked to believe. It reminds me a bit of the people who try to claim that atheism is “just another religion” without realizing the implication of what they’ve just said.

I disagree with his assessment, though, that suffering is just as or more tragic if there is no god.

If there isn’t a god, then suffering isn’t the result of original sin or impious thoughts and it isn’t a test from God or a torment from demons and devils. If there is no god, then suffering is a natural part of reality and that means that we can equip ourselves to alleviate unnecessary suffering by learning more about reality. We can also take comfort in knowing that the unavoidable is actually unavoidable and not punishment.

If there is no god, then those who blame natural disasters on immodest women, abortionists, homosexuals and atheists are simply arrogant bigots and not the voice of a deity. That’s no small comfort and, since we’re talking about the impact of suffering, that’s a valid point.

We do not require a god for comfort, we can reach out to other people and we can reach within, to the confidence and security that is bolstered by the understanding that one is not simply a plaything of a transcendent being.

5. If there is no God, we lose the very standard by which we critique religions and religious people, so whose opinion matters most? Whose voice will be heard? Whose tastes or preferences will be honored? In the long run, human tastes and opinions have no more weight than we give them, and who are we to give them meaning anyway? Who is to say that lying, or cheating or adultery or child molestation are wrong — really wrong? Where do those standards come from? Sure, our societies might make these things “illegal” and impose penalties or consequences for things that are not socially acceptable, but human cultures have at various times legally or socially disapproved of everything from believing in God to believing the world revolves around the sun; from slavery, to interracial marriage, from polygamy to monogamy. Human taste, opinion law and culture are hardly dependable arbiters of Truth.

This is simply false. The standard by which I critique religion and religious people is not contingent upon the existence of a god. This is a thinly-veiled claim of “no moral authority” and it’s a bit like saying that a room full of people can have no opinions or shared principles without someone outside the room telling them what those views should be.

Secular morality is superior to religious morality in every regard, save one; religious morality is simplistic. Secular morality requires thought and effort, religious morality is for the lazy and the thoughtless — those who would be duped into thinking that something becomes ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for them, simply because of an edict attributed to some other being.

Religious people already intuitively recognize the superiority of secular morality and they’ve been adopting the moral views of the secular societies that surround them.

The Bible, for example, clearly and explicitly endorses slavery. For those who believe that the Bible is the ultimate source of moral law from the ultimate lawgiver, there is no moral justification for opposing slavery — yet that’s exactly what some of them did and what most of them continue to do. Nowhere does the Bible denounce slavery, it’s supported in Old and New Testaments; so why do Christians generally oppose slavery?

It’s because we live in a cooperative society which helps form and shift our values. While dogmatists were blindly proclaiming their god’s endorsement of slavery, freethinking people (religious and non-religious) were actually considering the subject and evaluating its impact on the health of society.

It was the application of reason that changed the moral landscape, not the God of the Bible.

6. If there is no God, we don’t make sense, so how do we explain human longings and desire for the transcendent? How do we even explain human questions for meaning and purpose, or inner thoughts like, why I am so unfulfilled or empty? Why do I hunger for the spiritual? How do we deal with these questions if nothing can exist beyond the material world? Atheists, particularly atheistic scientists go way beyond their scientific training when they depart from the “how” questions to prognosticating about the “why” questions. Even terms like “natural selection” seems a misuse of words, since only an intelligent being can assess options and choose. How do we get laws out of luck, or predictable processes out of brute chance? If all that makes us different from animals is learning and altruism, why do the brutish still widely outnumber the wise in our world?

He’s basically arguing that his desire for the transcendent can only be explained in a case where the transcendent exists. This is an obvious fallacy. If there are no aliens, why do people long for alien encounters? Does their desire only make sense if aliens are beaming messages to their brains?

More importantly, I have no longing for the transcendent and no hunger for the spiritual. If Ravi’s desire is sufficient to support the existence of the supernatural, then is my lack of desire sufficient to refute a claim of existence?

Finally, there are no “how” questions or “why” questions
— you can form the questions either way:

Why is the sky blue? How does the sky appear blue? What makes the sky appear blue? Where does the blue in the sky come from? When…well, maybe we can’t use every interrogative.

What he means by “why” would be better labeled “for what transcendent reason…”, but if he says that, he exposes a flaw that we can expose with another “why” question: Why do you think there must be a transcendent reason?

His answer to that question is obvious. He thinks there must be a transcendent reason because he can’t imagine that there couldn’t be and wouldn’t want to live in a world where there wasn’t a transcendent reason… yet another argument for belief or against the consequences of disbelief, with no bearing on the truth of the issue.

His claim that “natural selection” misuses words is a bit obtuse when you realize that the term is a metaphoric response to unsupported claims of supernatural mechanisms. Only someone unfamiliar with evolution or willing to misrepresent it to make a point would claim that this is a misuse. Would he object to someone claiming that something was “decided by a coin toss” since only an intelligent being can “decide”?

In the end, this is really the same as the first question: if there is no God, “the big questions” remain unanswered…

I think “does some god exist” qualifies as one of the big questions. If Zacharias was as interested in examining the truth of his religious beliefs as he is in defending his belief with appeals to the fictitious consequences of disbelief, he might see that.

We’ll have a hope of answering those big questions when curious thinkers, dissatisfied with appeals to mystery, question the claims of religion and investigate with any eye toward truth, rather than comfort.

Refuting individual branches of Christianity

I got a message on Facebook, and I hope the author won’t mind if I respond publicly, without identifying him.

The relevant paragraph asked:

I was wondering if you may know where I can find some material on Eastern Orthodox Christianity (critique mainly), as I’ve lately been confronted with a lot of opposition from orthodox Christians defending their faith during debates with the “oh, we’re not like them (catholics, protestants), our teachings bring only peace and prosperity and we didn’t have any Crusades, et cetera…” argument. But I’m more than certain that there actually were executions and burning at the stake ordered by the Orthodox Church (but I can’t find ‘em!), so if you could give me a brief list (articles or sites) I’d be uber happy.

No, I don’t know of any specific works regarding Orthodox Christianity, although I’m sure you can find some. As I have recently grown fond of pointing out, there are 38,000 sects of Christianity. Debunking every one of them individually would be a pretty time consuming task. If I wanted to see the history of a particular church, I would probably start at Wikipedia and search outward from there.

Rather than reject the whole thing as a package deal, in your situation I would fall back on Matt’s favorite question: “Tell me what you believe, why you believe it, and why I should believe it?” It’s one thing to speak in generalities about how Christian offshoot X is “not like those other Christians”; it’s another thing entirely to identify the individual beliefs and try to defend them.

Personally, I couldn’t care less how many atrocities this or that group committed, as opposed to some other group. It’s not as interesting to me as finding out whether they make claims that are true, and how they think they know that the claims are true. What you’ll probably find on further investigation is that they believe many of the same unsupportable things all religions believe: That you can’t explain the complexity of life without a god, that somebody had to start it all, that it feels nicer to believe in a higher power, etc., etc.

If you can get them to bring these up, you are on much more solid ground. Instead of having to denounce an entire group based on the actions of some representative — which always makes you look mean! — you can go after the arguments on their merits. At that point, I’d refer to something like Iron Chariots, or Guy Harrison’s book, for ideas to respond to those claims.

We get email: the resurrection yet again

Not all the email we get from theists is totally marinated in crazysauce. Often we get a good letter from someone who doesn’t understand a few basic concepts, and is asking sincere questions. Here’s a recent email from a fellow trying to make the case that the contradictory Gospel accounts of the resurrection — which I dissected in this post from last year — help to support, rather than discredit, the story.

Whenever I hear atheists talking about contradictions in the Bible (The New Testament specifically) I just don’t understand why they think that this is evidence against the veracity of the main message in the Bible. For example, the story of the empty tomb and the contradictions that surround it, is often cited as reason to doubt the stories of the gospel. However contradictions are to be expected! Take the case of a car accident. You could have many different eye witnesses there, and it is almost guaranteed that they will all have some variation in their account of the accident. The same goes for the tomb account. Contradictions due to memory lapses, additions deletions, incidental changes, etc. are to be expected, but ultimately the main message is still there. This in my mind points not to an undermining of the Bible, but rather to the authenticity of it.

Another example that provides evidence for the authenticity of the story is the fact that a woman/women were first on the scene. If the empty tomb was a fictional story then why would they have a women first, when in those days women were not seen as first class citizens or trusted to be reliable.

Anyways I’m just curious as to why these contradictions are used as evidence to doubt the truth of the bible as I have seen done on your show before. (If I remember correctly it was around the time of Easter and Jeff Dee was either the host or co-host)

Okay, fair enough, but our correspondent is missing some basic points. First off, he’s not the first fellow to have thought of this. The Rashomon scenario is a common one: different eyewitness accounts, different versions, who do you trust? But there’s a little more going on here than that.

When you are faced with different versions of the same basic story, then the question you ask is: how can I verify any of these stories? What evidence can I examine independently, to determine whose version is closest to the truth? The problem with the resurrection story is the same problem faced by all other Biblical accounts of miracles. There is no evidence to examine either way. So you are left with conflicting accounts.

Fine, you say. But that’s true of all historical accounts of the ancient world. There’s no way to confirm what any of the Egyptian pharoahs did either. So how can you trust all those temple engravings? The thing is, historians aren’t dumb, and they know you can’t, completely. In the past, just like today, people wrote through the filter of their own biases. Accounts of ancient pharoahs are full of events that enhance their deeds to make them seem godlike. So you basically have to take these things with a grain of salt and see where you’re led by what little evidence you can actually dig up.

But getting back to the resurrection, there are problems with the story that emerge even before you talk about the contradictions, and the big one is this: what is being claimed is that a man came back from the dead. Right there, the story moves out of the realm of ordinary historical accounts (like “Caesar led his armies against the Gauls”), and into the realm of extraordinary claims. And extraordinary claims, as the saying goes, require extraordinary evidence. Most historians wouldn’t have a problem accepting accounts of Caesar’s military campaigns based on routine scholarship. But if someone started claiming that Caesar could teleport and frequently visited his Galactic Overlords at their secret base on Neptune to discuss battle plans, then you’ve got some red flags going up.

So the problem with the resurrection account is bigger than the problem faced by other, more conventional historical claims. Basically, it’s this: You have a book claiming a dead man who was actually a god returned to life after his execution, and the book itself is claimed to the be divinely inspired word of an infallible perfect deity, yet it contains confused and contradictory accounts despite this. For anyone not already so immersed in the faith that they’re beyond questioning its claims, you’re already into that “Caesar on Neptune” red flag zone even before you start talking about the specific contradictions.

What we’re being asked to accept is that, at one point in history, one dead body behaved in a manner no dead body has behaved before or since. And we’re not only asked to accept this without hard evidence, but all we’re given as a scholarly account is a holy book written by numerous hands, who can’t even get their accounts straight.

Where this fellow sees these differing accounts as somehow confirming the truth of the event, I see mythmaking in action. The Gospels were not written until at least a generation after Jesus’s death, by which time Paul was already actively engaged in promoting the Christian faith as an act of political rebellion against Rome. It’s easy to see how a mythology surrounding an otherwise unexceptional Jewish rabbi (who, as most rabble rousers living in dictatorships often do, got himself executed for being a pain in the ass) would have captured some momentum. It also helps to remember that there are far more manuscripts claiming to be eyewitness gospels that didn’t make it into the NT than those that did, and the NT we have didn’t really take shape until the beginning of 4th century.

So yeah, there are far more reasons to be skeptical of the resurrection account than there are to accept it. The contradictions are an interesting detail to discuss (mostly in the context of replying to claims about the Bible’s infallibility), but they’re just a bonus.

“Unknowable” basically means “who cares?”

Occasionally we’ll hear a believer define his god as an “unknowable” being. Bizarrely, these folks tend to think that’s a real gotcha! moment, because obviously, that means we cannot disprove its existence, and so unless we want to be “closed-minded,” then we must admit there is at least the tiniest possibility that it might exist, because we don’t know everything, now do we.

This is pretty much the most desperate form any apologetics can take. For one thing, it reduces “god” to the smallest and most insignificant thing it could possibly be: a thing that cannot be known or comprehended at all by our “feeble” human minds. (Yes, I know, why would a god waste his time creating us at all if he just wanted to give us “feeble” minds?) God could not be any more useless than to be indistinguishable from something that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t even exist. Moreover, when an apologist starts arguing like this, you’d do well to point out he’s pretty much at variance with Christianity and every other major world religion, as they emphatically are run on the premise that their deities can be comprehended just fine, thank you.

Here’s part of a recent exchange with a theist emailer I’ve been having, which illustrates how wrong this line of thinking is.


The fellow starts:

I am composing this letter in an attempt to prove god exists. I believe god is an electron orbiting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom in the brain you are using to analyze this letter, as well as every other thing in existence or has existed or will exist in this universe or the others if there are others. According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principal, and because we feeble minded humans could not possibly conceive of how everything was created in the first place, I also believe that god is inherently unknowable.

Have I just described something that does not exist? How did I do that? If you could tell me that my god does not exist how could you do that? Better yet how could you even think that? I understand this is an agnostic theist point of view however I cannot see how it is in error.

My first reply went like this:

All you’ve done in this argument is come up with a new name for the electron: God. It’s like new-age people who call “the Universe” God. All they’ve done is come up with a new word for universe.

If someone were a sun worshiper, and told me in all seriousness the sun was his god, then yes, I suppose I’d have to concede his “god” exists, though I would disagree that the sun possesses any sort of divine powers. And if he agreed with me the sun had no supernatural powers, he’s just happy worshiping it as God, then he’s simply come up with another word for “sun.” What you’re demonstrating by your argument is that theists really do create gods as an exercise in trying to understand things they don’t otherwise understand, and making the universe more superficially comprehensible by anthropomorphizing it. Conceptually, “God” is a placeholder for ignorance. (And yes, gods typically are defined in ways that defy direct examination, allowing them to retain their divine mystique because “you can’t prove it DOESN’T exist!”)

He replied today, and here is his letter with my responses in bold.

Hello Martin,

Thank you very much for responding . I am not sure you understand what I have stated in my letter. I have offered an explanation for and thereby proof god exists in that god is the totality of everything. I believe it fits quite nicely the definition of god.

Well, like the new-ager I described in my previous response, it looks to me like you’ve simply come up with a new word for “the totality of everything.” My question would be, how is this helpful? What is the utility of doing this? Does calling “the totality of everything” a “god” increase your understanding of this totality? Does it help you comprehend plasma physics, dark energy, the way in which the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating rather than slowing down? What does this label “god” contribute to any of this? What do I gain in insight or knowledge by thinking that the atoms in the lettuce in the salad I’m eating right now are somehow “god”? Or is it a label you like for emotional reasons?

At this point I find myself wondering if your only definition of god is “something that simply does not exist”. If this is the case then it seems to me this is a closed minded point of view. Is atheism a closed minded point of view? If so, I find it less likely that it is an intelligent view, thou it still may be the correct point of view.

If you admit it might be a correct view, why would be it be less intelligent? Usually one’s intelligence can be measured by how correct one’s views are. A person who thinks 2+2=4 is more intelligent, in my estimation, than a person who thinks 2+2 might equal 4, but might also equal, for arcane reasons, 728.

As an atheist, I do not define god. All I can do is respond to the definitions (and there are many) of god that are presented to me by believers. I examine those to see if 1) there is evidence to support them and 2) if they provide anything in the way of practical understanding of the world, that could not be achieved through the time tested means of the scientific method. I have to confess that I’ve not yet heard a definition of god that passes those tests.

But that hardly means I’m ‘closed-minded’. Terms like ‘closed-minded’ and ‘open-minded’ are thrown about very loosely by believers who want to rebut skeptics, but I don’t think they understand the terms. It is not ‘open-minded’ to believe claims that lack evidence simply because those claims are emotionally appealing; it is simply gullible. It is not ‘closed-minded’ to demand strong evidence for claims before choosing to believe them; it is simply rational. Skeptics are indeed open-minded, but note that it’s the ‘mind’ in that term that counts. What we are open to is evidence.

Now, looking at your definition of god, it’s problematic for a few reasons, and hardly the “proof” you think. First, you simply slap the label “god” on everything that exists, down to the subatomic level, rendering the word basically meaningless. If every molecule, every atom, every gluon, every cigarette butt on the pavement is “god,” then it means nothing to be god, and every religion in the world might as well pack it in.

Then you make your big mistake: after offering that definition, you promptly do an about face and declare god “inherently unknowable,” something “we feeble minded humans could not possibly conceive of.” Setting aside my disagreement with your low opinion of human intellect, if god were really “inherently unknowable,” then nothing whatsoever can be said about god. You haven’t even got any justification to say god is “an electron orbiting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom in the brain you are using to analyze this letter, as well as every other thing in existence or has existed or will exist in this universe or the others if there are others.” Because to say that means you’re claiming to know something about god, which you could NOT do if god were unknowable. “Inherently unknowable” means exactly that. There is nothing at all that can be said about an inherently unknowable concept, because it is inherently unknowable.

And this brings us to yet another problem: what exactly is the difference between an “inherently unknowable” thing, and something that does not exist at all? Practically there is none. Now, that isn’t proof that something unknowable couldn’t ever exist. But as we could not study it, evaluate it, observe it, or say anything about it whatsoever, then for all intents and purposes, it’s as good as nonexistent anyway. So why care?

“God” is either something, or it is nothing. If it is something, either it is something we can know (and all the world’s religions pretty much run on that premise) or cannot know. If the latter, its existence is of no relevance, as it cannot be distinguished from a nonexistent thing in the first place.

You state that “god is a
placeholder for ignorance”. Is there something wrong with that? We have finite minds and therefore could not possibly understand completely this concept that humans have called god.

Read what you wrote here again and see if you cannot answer your own question. What exactly is the sense in embracing a concept that you admit “we cannot possibly understand” as if it were some kind of valid explanation for things? (I think you’ve seen, to a small degree, the problem with your position, which is why you’ve slipped the qualifier “completely” into the sentence above.)

You’re basically saying this: “There are things about the universe I am ignorant of, and so to explain them, I will conceive of a thing called ‘god’ that itself cannot be explained, let alone understood.”

How is that a better way of grasping reality than A) finding out the real answers to those questions, and B) if there are no answers yet, simply accepting that. If you don’t know the answer to a question, the honest thing to say is “I don’t know,” and then making that a springboard for continuing to study. It is not honest simply to place your ignorance on an altar and call it “god.”

I believe that we can however take some comfort in the fact that so long as our mind are open that we can live better lives through the small amount of understanding that we have of god.

We’re still talking about this “god” you say is “inherently unknowable,” right? Sorry, but you’ve singly failed to explain how we can “live better lives” by choosing belief in some “unknowable” concept in lieu of increasing our actual store of knowledge. I think history will show that we humans are much better off with the greater knowledge of the world we have today through science than otherwise. People in medieval Europe didn’t exactly take much “comfort” in their unknowable god while they were dying in their millions from plague and famine. How does ignorance and reliance on belief in the “unknowable” offer a “better” life than one where your worldview actually conforms to reality?

We Can’t Please Everyone

It’s pretty obvious that Jen and Russell received mixed reviews on the theist guest experiment. I will let the viewers continue to figure out their feelings about it.

But the event also triggered some e-mail responses, and one in particular was from “a fan of the show” who also notes he is “a Christian…currently in school studying Apologetics and Philosophy.”

The gist of the letter was that a pastor really is not a good representative to interview about Christian doctrine and belief. Just to clarify, “if you guys are going to put Christians on the show to represent Theism I would really like to see a trained apologist or philosopher…the Pastor has degrees in councilling and phsycology, which is fine but would not represent Christian Theism nearly as good as those who are actually trained in philosophy and apologetics.” [sic]

I replied to him on the list, and was asked if I would share the response on the blog. So, here it is:

First, thanks for writing, and sorry for the delay in a response to your letter. Since I wasn’t a co-host on this particular program, I didn’t want to jump in too quickly to speak for Jen and Russell. But they have spoken for themselves at our blog if you would like to see those discussions:

http://atheistexperience.blogspot.com/2010/01/post-show-thoughts-for-110.html

Having some history with the program, and the benefit of an insider’s view, I can share a few thoughts on how I perceived your note initially. I was surprised by it.

Our show is available to educate the population about atheism, foremost. We welcome callers to contact us with questions or differing view points so we can talk about what an atheist is, or talk about what they believe and why. This would seem like a fair format—however we take pretty constant criticism for this each week. One criticism we often receive is that it is wrong and cruel to talk to Christian laymen live on the air, because they come across as stupid and uneducated. Believe it or not, we get this criticism from both atheists and theists, pretty equally, and both are just as blunt in calling our callers “uneducated” and “stupid.” We generally respond that our callers are just regular believers who call us, and even we don’t insult our own callers on that level—except on the rarest of occasions. I can’t say “never”; but I can say I, personally, never have referred to any caller as “stupid” or “uneducated.” But this is what people claim to think of Christian laymen—who are generally the theists who contact the program.

Next, we get criticized pretty consistently, and in line with the above criticism, for not having good Xian representatives on, even though we’re an atheist program and have no requirement to represent the broad majority religious view (which is represented in pretty much most aspects of media/society without our assistance). Why don’t we put on a preacher or someone who understands these things better than the stupid “regular” Christians who call—is normally along the lines of how this is expressed.

So, for reasons expressed at the blog, Russell decided to bring on a professional, educated man who also works as a leader in the local Christian community. He hosted an actual pastor. And what do we get almost immediately? A letter saying a pastor with an education, an actual Christian leader, doesn’t “count” because he doesn’t have the “right” education to be up there with amateur counter-apologetic hobbyists. Remember, please, that nobody on our show is a “professional” counter-apologist with any sort of counter-apologetics degree. So, the pastor was not in the company of anyone on that set who could even begin to claim his own level of professional credentials to talk about his religion. In fact, of the hosts, Jen and Russell may have the least background with Christianity. Just being a professional leader in the Christian community should have put the pastor at a decided advantage over either Jen or Russell in talking about god or Christianity.

Next, what struck me was that you say you are a student of apologetics, but nothing [in your e-mail] offers us any thoughts on what this Pastor said that was wrong or could have been better stated. You don’t “correct” any errors he made about your beliefs. And you don’t counter Jen and Russell’s questions yourself—even though you say this is your personal area of education. The reason this strikes me as something that stands out, is that whenever any of the co-hosts on our program makes a misstatement about some fact in science, we are immediately barraged with letters from science students and amateur science hobbyists offering not only criticism but, more importantly, correction of the error. If the pastor did a poor job of explaining how your doctrine works—please feel free to represent, and explain what he might have presented differently or better.

Finally, I was surprised by your note, because it begged an important question to me: If regular Christians aren’t able to understand or explain Christian beliefs correctly, and a paid, educated Christian in a position of leadership within the religion isn’t able to understand or explain Christian beliefs correctly, and a student of theology and apologetics in these beliefs can’t offer constructive critique of someone else’s flawed responses about his own doctrine and beliefs as a Christian, who, then, has any justification to believe this doctrine—since it’s obviously outside most people’s capacity to even understand it correctly?

And that’s basically all I had to say about that.

Should we believe what we can’t disprove?

We received a letter from a viewer asking about how some theists interpret evidence. In his view, it appeared some people don’t care about evidence, and I agree. I also note that this is nothing limited to theists. But in my reply, I noted that it’s important to know whether someone cares about evidence before you expend too much time correcting factual or informational errors presented to you by the other party. In his last reply, he added this:

“The question to ask the faithful is, how would you distinguish the difference between faith in something true and faith in something false without evidence?”

This reminded me of the question I have often asked, “How does a theist know the god he believes in is moral, if he asserts that humans are not able to judge his god’s actions when they appear to be wrong?”

But it also put me in mind of a recent conversation I had over the holiday. A theist asserted that it’s not reasonable for people to assert there is/is no god, since there’s no way to prove or disprove it. It’s an old, tired, and well-rebutted refrain, but, somehow, it never seems to lose steam. The interesting thing about this particular exchange is that the theist rebutted herself in short order.

I replied, “Of course we can prove if a thing exists. It’s like Big Foot. First we have to have a clear definition of what it is we are claiming exists: a great ape. Then we define how it manifests—in this case, where this thing can be discovered: North American woodlands. Then we go looking for a great ape in the North American woodlands. If it’s there, eventually the evidence to demonstrate it exists should become available—and when it does, we can say it exists.”

To this she replied, “But what if you don’t find any evidence?”

To which I replied, “Well, then I would wonder why these people were asserting that a great ape lives in the North American woodlands.”

And here is where it got interesting. AE viewers will understand, probably, my take on Big Foot. You will grasp that my question was along the lines of the Dragon in my Garage: Without any manifestation—there is no rational reason for someone to assert something is there.

However, this theist took it as a statement of my own assertion that I accept something must be there, otherwise, people wouldn’t have asserted there was something there. She thought I was presenting the theist fallacy, the argument from popularity. “If lots of people assert it is true, it must be true.”

But her reply was priceless: “Well, in ancient Greece, there were lots of things people claimed lived in the world that I’m pretty sure don’t exist.” And “pretty sure” was put forward with a chuckle—in the same way we might assert we’re pretty sure that W.C. Fields wouldn’t turn down a drink. It was a positive statement that “people assert all sorts of nonexistent things exist—like satyrs, winged-horses, and wood nymphs of the ancient Greeks.”

Of course, the beauty of this is that she just asserted that she accepts these things don’t exist—despite the fact that nobody has ever “proved” they don’t exist. And wasn’t her initial statement that this was an ignorant position for someone to hold?

To frame it in terms of the initial query from the viewer mail: “How does this theist distinguish between the thing that doesn’t exist and the thing that exists but manifests in exactly the same way as the thing that doesn’t exist?” Obviously, she feels confident she has reasonable basis upon which to reject some of these claims of existence of supernatural beings, while she accepts other such claims—but, without being able to “disprove” either, how does she differentiate? And further, why would she criticize the atheist for a more consistent application of a standard she clearly uses herself: In the absence of a conclusive demonstration of existence, it’s reasonable to dismiss inconclusive evidence and unsupported claims, and assert your disbelief (of Greek supernatural beings)—even if you can’t or haven’t “disproved” the claim.

I wish I would have thought more quickly. This particular theist doesn’t believe in the existence of ghosts. Ghosts would have been far more appropriate to the dialogue in this case, as it is something far more people believe in than Big Foot, and for which much “evidence” and “testimony” is, and has been, presented from eye-witnesses and “researchers” in paranormal fields. And yet, she has asserted to me on numerous occasions that she understands such things do not exist.

I still don’t know how she differentiates.

A Pretty Good Resource

I’m working on some research for the psychology of childhood indoctrination, and had some trouble finding actual data on this topic. I finally found a very good article, but was actually wowed by a number of essays presented at this site:

http://www.askwhy.co.uk/truth/index.php

I wanted to share it because it deals with a variety of topics with which counter-apologists are often presented, and it handles them in a very clear, readable and reasoned fashion that I think just about anyone can appreciate, or at least comprehend. The really surprisingly helpful aspect of the several articles I perused was that they include many quotes from Christian writers and preachers to help make their points more clear by contrasting explanations with apologetics.

I won’t go long on this, but just thought it might be a helpful resource to some, and so wanted to provide the link for the record.

We get creationist email #2

This is a follow-up to this dialogue. Martin has politely asked me if I would increase my blogging activity over the next few weeks, so that we can make up for the lack of new shows. Since I enjoy writing posts that react to something else, I’ll probably carry on with this sort of thing as long as I can. Besides, it’s good to stay in practice.

This email will be abridged so you don’t have to see increasingly wide quote boxes.


From: thelambstruth

Hola :)

[Regarding Kazim's statement that "neo-Darwinian evolution is the most widely accepted explanation for how the diversity of life came into existence"]

Majority is correct? That’s extremely flawed. I’m sure you perhaps meant something differently?

Nope. This is not an argument from popularity, although you might regard it as an argument from authority. In brief, I am not a scientist, but I understand the scientific method and recognize that it relies on results that are repeatable and can be independently verified. I also recognize that among the people who devote themselves to the serious study of biology, i.e. published biologists, only a vanishingly small number of them have any beef with the claim that biological evolution occurred.

Science is based on converging consensus based on common repeatable observations. If you’d like me to explain the scientific method in more depth then I will.

[Responding to Kazim's statement that fossilization is a rare event]

However that was not my question. I was stating that in order for fossilization to occur, some pretty drastic things had to happen. So, what was this (these) process (processes) basically?

I’m sure you’re fully capable of doing your own research. But here, let me google that for you.

[Regarding Kazim's remarks about the temporal proximity of pyramid building to the flood]

Well there is: ” The building of the first temple can be dated to 950 B.C. +/- some small delta, placing the Flood around 2250 B.C. Unfortunately, the Egyptians (among others) have written records dating well back before 2250 B.C. (the Great Pyramid, for example dates to the 26th century B.C., 300 years before the Biblical date for the Flood). No sign in Egyptian inscriptions of this global flood around 2250 B.C.” However the Flood occurred 4400.

Reference, please? Where are you getting these numbers? As I understand it, there are two perspectives. The young earth creationist view is based on numbers cooked up by Bishop Ussher, who concluded that the flood occurred in 2348 BC.

The position of the scientific community, on the other hand, is that there is no indication whatsoever that a global flood ever occurred.


[When called out for posting long lists of objections to science from web sites, without providing detail]

Haha, my bad. I admit, I was in a bit of a hurry, which caused me to get some points from book/site. I’ll elaborate in a future message.

Okay. I’ve got time to wait.


[Further pressing for a reaction to the web site ostensibly showing ancient pictures of dinosaurs]

Yes it is subjective, however if you want to deny how amazingly (try to think objectively) accurate the paintings/carvings/etc looked, then whatever. How can someone do so with such accuracy? Has there been any other examples such as these? If it would’ve been a drawing of some random monster, then yea, so what? This is significant because they didn’t know anything about the dinosaurs (supposedly), so how can they just so happen to draw such pictures?

As I already said, I don’t think that they are amazingly close to dinosaurs. Although I will also note a couple of other points:

1. There is actually good reason to believe that people found dinosaur bones in ancient times…
http://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/dinosaurs/dinofossils/First.shtml
http://www.amazon.com/First-Fossil-Hunters-Paleontology-Times/dp/0691058636

2. There is nothing inherent in evolution that says that the dinosaurs could not have survived past the presumed extinction event. It’s unlikely, but wouldn’t fundamentally change the scientific understanding of how evolution works.