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Sep 20 2010

…and therefore God

I was watching a debate between Christopher Hitchens and four (really 5) Christian theologists the other day. I really like Mr. Hitchens’ writing, but his debate style often leaves much to be desired. Many times he’ll be so enamored about what he thinks the point or the question is that he’ll completely talk past the actual conversation. Watching this video, I saw a number of times when a particularly meaningless argument could easily be smacked down, but was left alone or acquiesced to either due to inattention or diplomacy. To be fair, the number of easily and oft-refuted arguments thrown at him were in such number that he might simply have missed some.

However, at one point during the discussion, Mr. Hitchens is asked if Christian theology adequately explains the problem of evil by explaining that suffering is a necessary component of free will, but that ultimate justice would eventually arrive after death. Mr. Hitchens ably skewered the argument, illustrating that a god who watches immense suffering, has the power to intervene, and does absolutely nothing, cannot possibly be anything other than malevolent and evil. However, another commenter points out, using an argument that Mr. Hitchens had used himself earlier, that just because you don’t like something doesn’t make it untrue. Mr. Hitchens then concedes that the explanation of evil is at least internally consistent, though abhorrent.

Unfortunately, the final speaker at the event seizes upon this admission and claims that there are several arguments that were not addressed that give serious credence to the idea that there is a God, and furthermore that he is Christian:

  1. The argument from contingency (first cause of the universe)
  2. The argument from fine-tuning of the universe (existence is set up perfectly for intelligent life to exist)
  3. The argument from morality (why are people good if there is no God as the author of morality?)
  4. The argument from biological complexity (life is so complex that it could not have happened by naturalistic forces)
  5. The argument from consciousness (the fact that we are self-aware means that there is a God)
  6. The argument from rationality (the rules of logic are impossible to happen naturalistically)
  7. The argument from self-validating experience (we have subjective experience of God, why would we unless He exists?)

The speaker somehow seemed to think that these were compelling arguments that necessitate the existence of YahwAlladdha. He then went on to say that since there were logcial reasons to believe in God, and since Christianity explained the problem of evil, it followed logically that God was Christian.

Every skeptic atheist reading the above list has probably rolled their eyes clear out of their sockets by now. These are incredibly tired (I like the term shop-worn) arguments that have been refuted countless times, yet they keep popping up again and again. I like to imagine that at least some of my readers are either non-skeptic atheists (don’t believe in a god, but haven’t really thought about why), or moderate theists (people who believe in some god, but not the literal truth of the Bible). Apparently these arguments are occasionally strong enough to sway people in these two camps closer to theism. The testimonial of every “converted” atheist I’ve ever read or heard contains at least one of these arguments.

Here’s the problem – none of them necessitate any kind of God. They’re all just appeals to a common form of fallacious reasoning, the argument from ignorance. Basically, the argument from ignorance operates as follows:

A. X event occurs
B. I cannot explain X, or; nobody knows how X happens
C. Therefore, Y is the cause

The problem, of course, is the step between B and C – it does not logically follow that Y must be the cause. Sure, Y might explain (in a limited sense of the word) how X happens, but so does any other number of things. For example, I might not know how Aspirin works to dull pain, and a cartoonish idea of Aspirin molecules being little soldiers that march around my bloodstream and fight my hangover might “explain” my miraculous recovery, but it’s completely untrue.

Similarly, the above 7 arguments are appeals to that exact same illogic:

  1. The universe was created by the Big Bang; We don’t know what happened before that; Therefore, God
  2. Intelligent life exists; The existence of intelligent life seems very improbable; Therefore, God
  3. People have an innate moral sense; It is possible that there is an evolutionary advantage to being immoral; Therefore, God
  4. People are self-aware; It strains credulity that this could happen by simple materialistic processes; Therefore, God
  5. Things in the body are really complicated; It seems too complicated to have happened through evolution; Therefore, God
  6. Logic exists and seems to work to describe the world; It strains credulity that there should be rules to govern the universe; Therefore, God
  7. Some people feel like there is a God; …; Therefore, God (I really don’t get this last one)

When it’s spelled out like this, it’s pretty obvious that these arguments are far from compelling. They’re the whine of a frightened child who refuses to deal with reality, preferring instead to hold onto the fantasies he has created for himself. The mature, adult thing to do is admit “I don’t know,” and then go out and look for real answers. It is simply not convincing or sufficient to say “nobody knows the answer, therefore this is the answer.” And despite how much you might believe it to be true, it doesn’t obligate the rest of the world to adhere to your refusal to address the answers head-on.

However, even if it were true that these arguments somehow demonstrated that some kind of God exists, it doesn’t matter at all. There’s an additional step that is missing from the Christian argument. Maybe you already caught it.

A. God exists
B. Therefore, Christianity

There is an argument being made here that the existence of some kind of creative force means that Christianity is true. Even if we were generous and bundled all the Abrahamic religions together and said that Judaism, Islam and Christianity are the same thing, it gets us no further to a coherent argument. The Bible/Qu’ran make very specific claims about the nature and characteristics of Yahweh/Allah, not a single one of which is either borne out by evidence, or follow from the above arguments. In no way must a god that started the Big Bang and authored the rules of physics and logic be opposed to blasphemy, or require rest on the Sabbath, or care about how you honour your parents. It’s a complete non-sequitur to insist that the complexity of the universe lends particular credence to your back-filled, post-hoc rationalization of what you’d like God to be (not even touching on the fact that if you ask 100 different people to describe God, you’ll get 200 different answers).

Sadly, perhaps because he was innundated by a wave of illogical assertions and fallacies, or perhaps distracted with concern over his increasingly-bad cough (which turned out to be esophagoeal cancer), Christopher Hitchens didn’t bother to point out the central glaring flaw in the argument. These are not isolated arguments that are specific to this particular debate either – they are common canards that turn up again and again in any discussion of the “evidence” for the existence of God. Pointing out this flaw is not merely a nit-pick against these men, but a major hole in the argument for belief in a deity of any kind. Any rational discussion of theology (a contradiction in terms, I know) must somehow address this issue. Preferably without saying “you need to have faith to see it” (perhaps a discussion for another post).

TL/DR: The so-called “compelling” arguments for the existence of God are merely different incarnations of the fallacy of the argument from ignorance. Even if they did somehow show that God must exist, they don’t say anything about His characteristics.

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2 comments

  1. 1
    Brian Lynchehaun

    What makes me especially sad? All these arguments (or minor variations thereof) are hundreds of years old, and they were refuted on the freaking spot at the time.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    And I’m sure that Shakespeare wasn’t the first one to pronounce that “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

    Apparently these old arguments do need to be re-debunked. Many of those who hear them the first time aren’t aware how old and useless they are. Either that, or their very antiquity increases their credibility. I had a conversation with my father who said something along the lines that the argument was old, which was somehow proof that neither side was right. I pointed out that one was right and the other was stubbornly recycling its arguments for naive ears.

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