So what are the big guns of modern theology? And what do atheists have to say to them?
I spend a fair amount of blogging time shooting down arguments for religion made by ordinary Joe and Jane Believers. As do other atheists. But many believers say this is unfair. They argue that we’re shooting fish in a barrel; that we’re arguing against stupid, simplistic, outdated versions of faith, and we’re not willing to take on serious, educated, advanced theologians.
I have a lot of responses to that point. (Most powerfully, “I don’t care that much about how a handful of theologians practice religion, I care about how religion is practiced by the overwhelming majority of believers.” Not to mention, “Why am I obligated to spend a decade studying your faith before rejecting it, when you reject thousands of other faiths with barely a second thought?“) But my mind has been set even more at ease on this question — by a surprising source.
Over at the Friendly Atheist blog, Hemant has been running a series of pieces by Christian apologist Lee Strobel. Yesterday’s edition addressed the question, “What questions do you want to ask atheists?” Or, “What argument is most convincing to plant the seeds of doubt (or, rather, faith) in an atheistâs mind?” Lee got some theologian friends and fellow apologists together, to collectively come up with a good- sized set of questions for atheists that they apparently feel are stumpers.
And I was shocked at how totally identical their arguments were to the ones I see every day, from ordinary Joe and Jane Believer arguing with the atheists. I was shocked at how unfamiliar many of these apologists seem to be with some of the most basic facts of current science; especially since some of that science sheds crucial light on the heart of their arguments. I was shocked — and oddly disappointed — at how familiar their questions were, how unoriginal… and how easy they were to shoot down.
Here’s what I mean.
Historian Gary Habermas: Utilizing each of the historical facts conceded by virtually all contemporary scholars, please produce a comprehensive natural explanation of Jesus’ resurrection that makes better sense than the event itself.
These historical facts are: (1) Jesus was killed by crucifixion; (2) Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them; (3) The conversion of the church persecutor Saul, who became the Apostle Paul; (4) the conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus’ half-brother; (5) The empty tomb of Jesus. These “minimal facts” are strongly evidenced and are regarded as historical by the vast majority of scholars, including skeptics, who have written about the resurrection in French, German, and English since 1975. While the fifth fact doesn’t have quite the same virtual universal consensus, it nevertheless is conceded by 75 percent of the scholars and is well supported by the historical data if assessed without preconceptions.
First: You’re assuming one of the major things you’re trying to prove — namely, that the historial Jesus lived, and that the New Testament is an accurate description of his life and the events that followed it. Contrary to your assertion, these are questions about which there are serious scholarly doubts. Given the internal contradictions within the New Testament; the lack of corroboration of the major events described in the Gospels by contemporary historians of the time; and the fact that the New Testament was written decades after the events it supposedly describes, by people were themselves convinced of Jesus’s divinity and who wrote the books with the express purpose of recruiting others into the faith… none of that adds up to the New Testament being a reliable source. I see no reason to accept your “facts” as a given.
Second: Even if I did concede the accuracy of these events… so what? Re #1-4: The followers of the Heaven’s Gate cult were convinced, too. Convinced enough to die for their beliefs. As were the followers of Jim Jones, and Charles Manson, and so on. History is littered with true believers who believed utterly wacky things, and believed them whole-heartedly — enough to devote their lives, and even sacrifice them, to their beliefs. The supposed conviction of the apostles proves exactly nothing.
As to #5: Again, so what? The “empty tomb” thing doesn’t require a paranormal explanation. Even if it happened — which again, I don’t remotely concede — there could be any number of natural explanations for it (the body was stolen, hidden, etc.)… explanations that don’t require a supernatural entity. Any competent stage magician could manage it.
Philosopher Paul Copan: Given the commonly recognized and scientifically supported belief that the universe (all matter, energy, space, time) began to exist a finite time ago and that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life, does this not (strongly) suggest that the universe is ontologically haunted and that this fact should require further exploration, given the metaphysically staggering implications?
You’re making what I call the “puddle fallacy” (an idea stolen from Douglas Adams). A mysteriously conscious puddle says to itself, “This is an amazing hole I find myself in, it fits me perfectly — it must have been designed to have me in it!” No. The hole wasn’t made for the puddle; the puddle formed to fit into the available hole. And the same is true for life in the universe. Life developed because conditions in the universe allowed it to happen. If that hadn’t happened, something else would have happened instead… something equally astronomically unlikely. We just wouldn’t be here to see it.
An analogy: The chances that I, personally, was born, out of the billions of children my parents could have had, and the billions of children their parents could have had, and so on… it’s beyond astronomical. Does that mean I was fated to exist? Of course not. I’m sitting here rolling a die ten times, and it came up with the sequence 4632236245. The odds against that sequence are over 60
billion million to one. That doesn’t mean it was designed, or fated… or even that we need to come up with a special philosophy to explain it.
And very importantly, as I’ve written elsewhere: The universe isn’t actually all that finely-tuned for life. What with the length of time it took for Earth to come into being after the Big Bang, and the eventual explosion of the sun, and the ultimate heat-death of the universe, and all that, the window for life on Earth is, in cosmic terms, actually pretty darned short.
Paul Copan again: And, second, granted that the major objection to belief in God is the problem of evil, does the concept of evil itself not suggest a standard of goodness or a design plan from which things deviate, so that if things ought to be a certain way (rather than just happening to be the way they are in nature), don’t such “injustices” or “evils” seem to suggest a moral/design plan independent of nature?
A growing body of evidence suggests that good and evil are concepts that are hard-wired into our brains by evolution. Humans are a social species, and humans that behaved morally were more likely to be socially successful and thus survive and reproduce; humans that didn’t were less likely to win the Darwinian Sweepstakes. (This also explains why evil continues, something Christianity utterly fails to do: most people succeed evolutionarily by being more or less good, but some people will always flourish by being bad and getting away with it.) The existence of morality doesn’t require a supernatural explanation. Evolution and neuropsychology explain it quite nicely.
(BTW: The problem of evil isn’t “the major objection to belief in God.” It’s one major objection to belief in one particular god [albeit a common one]: the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good god of Christian theology. Your god isn’t the only one we don’t believe in.)
Talk show host Frank Pastore: Please explain how something can come from nothing, how life can come from non-life, how mind can come from brain, and how our moral senses developed from an amoral source.
Ah, yes. The God of the gaps.
Let’s take these one as a time before we get to the big picture. Something from nothing: We don’t know that yet. That’s one of the great scientific questions of our time. (Many scientists who are working on it suspect that the answer may make us radically re-think how we conceive of time and cause/effect: the way Darwin made us radically rethink life, and Einstein made us radically rethink space and time.)
But the God hypothesis doesn’t answer that question, either. The God hypothesis merely begs it. How could God either have always existed or have come into being out of nothingness? If you’re going to hypothesize that something had to have either always existed or come into being from nothingness, why does that something have to be God? Why can’t it be the universe? (And don’t say “Because God is magic.” That’s a terrible answer.)
Life from non-life: This one’s easy. Life is a bio- chemical process. It came into being from a proto- bio- chemical process, which came into being from a regular chemical process. There’s nothing all that mysterious about the concept; it’s just physical cause and effect. Scientists think they’ll be able to replicate that process within a few years.
Mind from brain: Another one we don’t know yet. The science of neuropsychology is in its infancy, and the question of what exactly consciousness is and how it works is, IMO, one of the other great scientific questions of our time.
But again, this is a question that religion merely begs rather than answering. If there is a non-corporeal soul, how does it interact with the brain and make it do its bidding? How does a non- material entity affect the material world? And if the self is essentially not physical, how and why do changes in the brain affect the soul?
And much more to the point: No, we don’t know yet how exactly the brain produces the mind. But the overwhelming body of evidence is that it does. Changes to the brain, from injury or surgery or illness or medication, produce changes in the mind, in fairly predictable ways. (As Bertrand Russell argued: Given that damage to any part of the brain will destroy that part of the mind and self — destroying the vision center makes you blind, destroying the language center makes you unable to speak or comprehend language, etc. — it logically follows that destroying the entire brain destroys the entire mind and self.) And using magnetic resonance imaging and other new technology, we can now see thoughts appearing in the brain as they happen. As far as we can tell by all the available evidence, whatever the mind is, it seems to be a product of the brain.
How our moral senses developed from an amoral source: See above, re: the evolution of human morality.
Your arguments are what we atheists call the God of the Gaps. Whatever phenomena are currently unexplained by science, whatever gaps there are in our understanding of the universe, those get to be explained by God. And when the science fills in a gap, religion finds another gap.
But as the gaps in our understanding shrink, God shrinks along with it.
Author Greg Koukl: Why is something here rather than nothing here? Clearly, the physical universe is not eternal (Second Law of Thermodynamics, Big Bang cosmology). Either everything came from something outside the material universe, or everything came from nothing (Law of Excluded Middle). Which of those two is the most reasonable alternative? As an atheist, you seem to have opted for the latter. Why?
See above. It’s currently an unanswered question… but the God hypothesis doesn’t answer the question, either. It merely begs it.
As to why I think a physical answer is more likely to be correct than a metaphysical one (and all my regular readers are now cringing, because I’m about to make an argument I’ve made approximately 712,522 times before in this blog — I’ll be done with it here soon, I promise):
Because it always has been. Because in all of human history, unanswered questions have turned out to have natural answers thousands upon thousands upon thousands of times… and have turned out to have supernatural answers exactly never. None. Nada. Zilch. The history of human knowledge about the universe is the history of natural explanations replacing supernatual ones: consistently, relentlessly, like a steamroller.
Given that history, why on earth would I think that these two particular currently unexplained phenomena will eventually be explained by God? Why would that be the reasonable bet?
Lee Strobel summarizing philosopher Alvin Plantinga: If our cognitive faculties were selected for survival, not for truth, then how can we have any confidence, for example, that our beliefs about the reality of physical objects are true or that naturalism itself is true? (By contrast, theism says God has designed our cognitive faculties in such a way that, when functioning properly in an appropriate environment, they deliver true beliefs about the world.)
Well, for one thing: I don’t see how the God hypothesis answers that problem at all. If our senses and cognitive faculties can deceive us, then why should we trust that God isn’t deceiving us? In fact, it seems much more plausible that an all-powerful magical God could fool us than the physical senses that evolved in response to the physical world.
I mean: If God were real and created our minds to “deliver true beliefs about the world”… why would we even be having this conversation? Wouldn’t we all perceive him, in exactly the same way? Why would anybody disagree about religion? In fact, why would anybody disagree about anything? Either God created us with perfect minds — which is patently untrue — or God is deceiving us… which undercuts your whole argument.
And if our cognitive faculties are flawed by the shaping of evolution… then what makes you think a belief in God isn’t one of those cognitive flaws?
In any case: Science and naturalism don’t, in fact, assume that our perceptions and cognitive faculties are always correct.
In fact, we know that they aren’t. We know, for instance, that our minds tend to: see patterns and intentions even when they don’t exist; amplify evidence that supports what we believe, and reject evidence that undercuts it; rationalize decisions we’ve made, even when they’re clearly mistaken or harmful; etc. (All of which atheists consider very strong arguments against religion, not for it. See above, re: religion itself being one of our biggest cognitive flaws.)
Yes, our cognitive faculties are flawed. That’s why, when we’re trying to understand the universe, we don’t just rely on our intuition and perception and personal thought processes. That’s why we rigorously use the scientific method. We do it to filter out errors and biases in our perception and our judgment, as much as is humanly possible. It’s imperfect, to be sure; but over time, it’s proven astonishingly powerful.
In a naturalist worldview, we know that our perceptions and cognitive faculties are flawed. But we also have every reason to assume that they bear some connection to reality. It makes no evolutionary sense for our perceptions to be entirely disconnected from reality. We wouldn’t have survived and evolved if we hunted for rabbits that didn’t exist, or failed to run from tigers that really were there but that we didn’t see. And we wouldn’t be able to predict and shape the world, to the mind- boggling degree that the scientific method has allowed us to do, if our senses and cognitive faculties didn’t reflect reality at all.
Historian Mike Licona: Irrespective of one’s worldview, many experience periods of doubt. Do you ever doubt your atheism and, if so, what is it about theism or Christianity that is most troubling to your atheism?
Yes. Sometimes. Whenever I see a theist making an argument for God, I always have a brief moment of wondering, “Will this be the good argument? The solid evidence? Will this be the thing that finally convinces me?”
But this happens a lot less than it used to. Those brief moments are getting briefer. And frankly — this is going to sound snarky, and I’m sorry for that — it happens less because I see the same bad arguments again and again.
Every single one of these arguments in this post is an argument I’ve seen before. Evidence from the Bible. The supposed conviction of the apostles, and the empty tomb. The first cause argument. The supposed fine-tuning of the world and the universe for life. The god of the gaps. What is reality, and how can you trust your perceptions. I’ve seen them all. Dozens of times. I can rebut them in my sleep. (None of these apologists cited personal intuition and experience, and good on them for not doing that… but I bet dollars to donuts that if this debate were pursued, that argument would eventually get rolled out as well. It always does.)
And frankly, when I have doubts, they are rarely about whether religion is correct. The fact that I’ve seen so many theistic arguments, and they’ve always been the same few bad arguments over and over again, has done more to bolster my opinion that religion is mistaken than anything any atheist has ever said.
My doubts are not about whether religion is correct, but whether it would be pleasant. There are times when I feel small and trivial on the cosmic scale, or get scared about death, or frustrated at injustice (I hate that Ken Lay died of a heart attack before we could dump him in prison), and wish for an eternal afterlife where I could be with my loved ones forever and where prosperous jerks could finally suffer. (Not Hell. Hell is one of the most evil concepts humanity has come up with. But something like Purgatory… that I’d be okay with.)
But most of the time, I don’t wish for a God. Most of the time, I’m happy about the world just being the natural, physical world, and I have no trouble accepting it. The God hypothesis provides some comforts… but it also provides horrors. (Among other things: Yes, I have to live in a world with no loving fatherly creator to care if I live or die… but I also don’t have to wonder why our loving fatherly creator is torturing children.) And the naturalist worldview provides many comforts and hopes that theism utterly fails to provide.
And even if I did sincerely wish for there to be a God… wishful thinking isn’t an argument. I wish I had a million- dollar book contract, too. And a pony. But I’m not going to live my life as if those things were true.
Sorry, theologians. I remain unconvinced. I am more than a little shocked at how unfamiliar these apologists seem to be with some of the most basic pieces of current scientific knowledge. And frankly, I’m a bit disappointed in how weak and unoriginal these arguments are. I’d expected this to be more of a challenge.