Rachel Maddow and the Flying Spaghetti Monster »« Dream diary, 2/13/09: The NAACP symbol

Good Arguments for God?

Creation_of_the_Sun_and_Moon_face_detailWhat — if any — are the good arguments for God?

And what do we mean by a good argument?

I recently got an email from Andy Blood, commenting on my recent 10 Myths and Truths About Atheists piece for AlterNet. And one of the things he asked me was:

I would like to know what you think the BEST anti-atheist arguments are. By that I mean, not the ones that persuade the most people (those are often based on lies, or purely emotional), but the very best ones, the ones you would have the most trouble refuting. I think the “trend” argument, for instance, suggests that many new atheists might be phonies. That doesn’t address real atheism, of course, but it’s something. There’s this Oxford prof. who wrote a book about The Twilight of Atheism or something, and he had one point — atheism is effective and liked because it’s freeing. As soon as religion (non-traditional, I guess) becomes freeing, atheism will lose it’s relevance. Again, this is refutable, but at least not the regular thing that we hear all the time.

I wrote back and said that, honestly, I didn’t think any theistic or anti- atheist arguments were good. I not only don’t find any of them persuasive; I find all of them seriously weak. Andy wrote back with what I think is an interesting notion:

I don’t think there are any WINNING arguments, but the better ones can at least make you pause and think. It’s a good brain-storming technique any way. Like: Why have humans been religious for so long — before churches and all that, many, many years ago? Isn’t it at least possible that this means that humans are innately religious? I don’t agree, but it is at least something to think about. (I was asked this question, and didn’t have a super fast answer).

So here’s my question:

ThinkerWhich arguments for religion — or arguments against atheism — do you think are good? I don’t mean “good” in the sense of “irrefutable” or even “persuasive” (although if you’re a believer and think there are some of these, I’d be interested to see those too). I mean: Which arguments for religion or against atheism made you think harder? Which arguments made you clarify your thinking, or even modify it?

A couple of mine:

“Maybe atheism is just a form of color- blindness. Maybe religious believers are perceiving something real, and atheists just don’t have the capacity to perceive it.”

Not a persuasive argument, I think; mostly because believers can’t come to any sort of agreement on what it is they’re supposedly perceiving. But thinking about this question made me think harder about perception, and how it is that we know what we know. It made me think harder about standards of evidence, and what kinds of things can be “known” intuitively and what kinds of things can’t. And it made me more rigorous in my thinking, not just about religion but about lots of things.

Brain question markAnd then there’s, “If there’s no soul or immaterial spirit, then what is consciousness?”

Again, not a convincing argument. Mostly because, even though we don’t really understand consciousness, the one thing we’re pretty sure of is that it, whatever it is, it seems to be a product of the brain.

But for me, when I was letting go of my spiritual beliefs, this was the last argument to go. (I never believed in what Ingrid calls the Omnimax God — omnipotent, omniscient, and omni- benevolent — and the “god” I believed in could scarcely be called a god: it was more like the World-Soul, an aggregate of all the souls of all the living things that I thought had souls.) My personal experience of consciousness as what seems to be a vaguely immaterial substance floating around in the vicinity of my head… it’s not intellectually convincing, but it’s very hard to shake.

Phantoms-in-the-BrainAnd the process of shaking it is largely what’s sparked my interest in the study of how the mind works. I don’t think I understand consciousness — I don’t think any of us do — but I think I understand it better for my attempts to answer the question, “If consciousness isn’t the immaterial soul, then what the hell is it?”

So what about the rest of you? Are there any arguments for religion, or against atheism, not that you find persuasive (although I’d like to hear about those too), but that have made you stop and think? Any that have made you shift the way you think — about atheism, about religion, or about the world in general?

Breaking_the_spell(Oh, and BTW, Andy: If you want a good counter to the “if religions isn’t true, why have so many people believed it for so long?” argument, I strongly suggest you read “Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennett. That’s the whole topic of the book. Fascinating and important. Quick answer: Religion is a by-product of ways that people are wired by evolution to think, including the tendency to see intention even where none exists, the tendency to see patterns even where none exists, the tendency in children to believe what their parents tell them, the tendency in adults to trust authority figures, and the tendency to rationalize beliefs that we already have and decisions that we’ve already made.)

Comments

  1. penn says

    I think my path to atheism from my Catholic upbringing and belief in the Omnimax god was so long and tortuous, that I no longer find any of the arguments thought-provoking. I saw them all when I still believed, so they were implicitly refuted on my way out. Since that time (~2 years ago), I haven’t found any fundamentally new arguments, so I haven’t been moved.

  2. says

    Why would the existence of consciousness act as proof of a god?
    Free will seems more vexing. In a deterministic world, how do we achieve free will? Are we really just biological computers of such complexity that it looks like we have free will? Or do we somehow tap into quantum indeterminability? (Yeah, I’m making this up as I go.)
    Or, does some extra-reality actor provide it.

  3. underscore says

    I think the most prominent argument I’ve heard has been, “If we are all connected in some way, wouldn’t that mean there is a god, or a soul of some sort?” Essentially it’s the idea of connectedness. I’m not saying it’s a particularly good argument, but at the time I was questioning my faith, it was something I had to contend with. The easy answer is: what the hell does “we’re all connected” even mean? and if you can pin that down, then the second easy answer is: I don’t really think we’re all “connected”. Or more to the point, “that’s dumb”. But when I was first thinking about this question, I had to do a lot of thinking and reading to figure out what the phenomenon of “connectedness” was (in all the bazillions of ways that concept can be interpreted).

  4. says

    The best arguments all have the same form. “Here’s a really tangly philosophical problem – it’ll make your head spin. And here’s some self-referential twister, just to up the RPM on your head. Confused? Well, God!”
    In particular, the absolute best argument is the fine-tuning argument. This hangs on the difficulty of answering the question of what we should expect the laws of physics to be like – what happens at the boundaries of what is knowable. And there’s plenty of confusion at that edge to which you can pose God as a solution – God is the ultimate rug under which to shove philosophical problems, shrouding them in an impenetrable weave of unknowability.
    The upshot is that I still don’t have a refutation of the fine-tuning argument that takes less than about fifteen seconds, which is by far long enough to think that there might actually be some merit to what the other guy is saying, since they sure are using a lot of long words and talking about Deep Things!

  5. skepticscott says

    The argument that “Maybe religious believers are perceiving something real, and atheists just don’t have the capacity to perceive it” is also unpersuasive because there is no clear and unbreachable boundary between the two. Many atheists (this one included) were once religious believers, so if there really is something there, they clearly DO have the capacity to perceive it. Unlike color blindness and color vision, atheism and belief are not conditions that a person is born with and that are essentially unchangeable. People move back and forth between them all the time.

  6. says

    The “why are there believers” argument has another answer, one that doesn’t depend on the specifics of human psychology: surely, whatever biases we had, beliefs would arise that became popular solely because they were a perfect fit for those biases. The less evidential support a popular belief has, the more it has to rely on such biases, and there’s going to be something that marks the extreme end of that scale.

  7. says

    The upshot is that I still don’t have a refutation of the fine-tuning argument that takes less than about fifteen seconds

    Here’s one: The universe isn’t finely- tuned. Not for life, anyway. The overwhelming majority of space in the universe is inhospitable to life; and in the vast timeline of the universe, the window of opportunity for life on Earth is quite puny. It just happened that, on one planet circling one star, circumstances were such that, for a few billion years, life could happen. Given the immense size and lifetime of the universe, it’s not that freaky.
    And here’s another: The odds against you, personally, being born are beyond astronomical. (All the different sperm, which could have fertilized all the different eggs, which could have resulted in millions of different babies being born to your parents instead of you… multiplied by the odds of your parents being born, and their parents, and so on.) Does that mean the universe was deliberately fine-tuned for you to be born? No. And the same is true for the universe. If life on Earth hadn’t happened, something else would have. We just wouldn’t be here to winder about it.

    Why would the existence of consciousness act as proof of a god?

    It doesn’t act as proof of God. But it does act for many people as evidence for a soul. And for many of those people, one implies the other.

  8. says

    I think the argument that makes me think the most, even though it’s not a persuasive argument for me, is this:
    The world is natural, and God/a god is supernatural, separate from reality as we know it and yet able to maneuver its way through that natural reality. God/a god is unprovable and undisprovable because its not bound by natural laws.
    My usual answer to this is that natural laws are all that I have to work with, all that we have in our perception.

  9. says

    But it does act for many people as evidence for a soul. And for many of those people, one implies the other.

    Oh, yeah, I get why it appeals to believers. But it doesn’t make me think hard and long. The existence of free will does. Although I’m quite content to be a biological computer.

  10. baka says

    I am on the same boat as Tommy. Free will is definitely the most difficult question. If laws of nature are deterministic, where do you find free will? I know only one answer that makes any sense to me — the one formulated by Kant. Consciousness on the other hand i find easy — if animals are biological machines, then it makes sense that at some level you have to take into account your own actions, eg. you need to have some representation of yourself.
    Fine-tuning of universe is also no deal – it is fully explained by Anthropic principle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle) – if there were no observers, there would be nobody who would know about the universe. In fact this is just a fancy name for common misunderstanding of probability in this special case, once the event happened it does not matter how probable it was.

  11. says

    skepticscott, they’d just tell you that if you were once a believer but became an atheist, then you were never a true believer.

  12. says

    This is an argument for religion, rather than god, but my father once said to me –
    “if I’m wrong, if there is no God, if Christianity is just an ill-founded myth, then I’m still glad I believe it because it’s made my life immeasurably better.”
    Though we’ll always disagree on the bigger picture, that moment of knowing what belief has done for one man’s life, that his religion has made things better is the only argument that has ever come close to convincing me.
    The fact that religion has made my own life worse undermines it somewhat, though.

  13. says

    Another short, though philosophically bad, answer to the fine-tuning argument is to mock. “The arrogance of believers! To think that this vast Universe, a hundred billion galaxies, fourteen billion years old, was all created so that you and I could exist.”

  14. J. J. Ramsey says

    One argument that I can think of is the argument that dismissing miracle stories as implausible is simply begging the question on the matter. That did lead me to think harder to make sure that I really did understand what Hume was really saying about them.

  15. says

    I think that the answer to this question is going to be highly subjective. What makes a person stop and think will depend on their own pool of knowledge and modes of thought.
    For example, I am an anthropological archaeologist – when people aks me “if there is no god, why have people been religious for so long” I can immediately start explaining a wide variety of reasons why religious behaviors would have evolved in our ancestors.
    On the other hand, I am occasionally bothered by the intricacies of life at the molecular level, and sometimes have to wonder about that. BUT I have known biologists and chemists and they have had no problem at all addressing this particular subject sans religion.
    Likewise, we have the classic “logical proofs” of god’s existence – many people honestly find these very pursuasive, but even when I was a believer I couldn’t help but think them through logically and almost instantly find their flaws.

  16. says

    As the subject of free will has been brought up as a factor in considering arguments about god, I think that this is really a different matter altogether. It is very much open to debate whether or not free will actually exists or is simply an illusion created by our biology and perspective – until that can be resolved (if it can), there is no reason to assume its existence a priori and therefore no reason to see its existence or lack thereof as evidence for or against a god.
    And even if it does exist, why would that imply a god?

  17. DSimon says

    So, is the Omnimax like the Betamax? Have they, perhaps, both been unfairly forced by marketing and biased perception into a losing position relative to atheism and VHS, respectively?
    I’m only kinda joking here. The best argument against atheism, for me, was the fact that I was so resistant to accept evidence against my prior spiritual beliefs, yet all the while thought I was being objective. How can I trust my new viewpoint to truly be any more rational, when the last time I thought I was making sense I was actually pulling it from my netherlands?
    I hope that this time, I really would be as willing as I think to change my viewpoint in the face of contrary evidence. And, heck, I guess I did exactly that when I became an atheist and gave up my credulity.

  18. says

    I find that the people I have talked to about their belief in God use a sort of tripod which is hard to move because each leg supports the other two. The legs are (1) an immaterial consciousness (2) free will (3) need for significance in their and other human lives. I investigate these questions, especially consciousness, at http://charbonniers.org

  19. says

    DETERMINISM IRRELEVANT
    Years ago I decided that the issue of “free will vs. determinism” is irrelevant to questions of ethics, and untestable with respect to matters of science. Since then I have tried to avoid wasting time on it. But it comes up every now and then in Freethinker circles, and many people are lured into arguing at length over it.
    Our ordinary practice is to ascribe “free will” to beings which are conscious and intelligent. “Conscious” meaning that they have an internal (“mental”) model of the external world, which they use to anticipate the consequences of different “imagined” courses of action. “Intelligent” meaning that their model is complex and sophisticated, and their imagination likewise, so they can find courses of action that will serve their purposes even in novel situations. “Free will” in such cases means that the great bulk of the IMMEDIATE causes of their actions lie inside their “skin” rather than outside, AND that their actions are not easily or reliably predictable by an outside observer.
    This use of the term “free will” does not require denying the
    hypothesis of “universal causation”, nor does it depend in any way on whether “causation” is always a single-valued function (i.e. whether the same inputs always produce the same output, or whether instead the output may be any of several values with some statistical probability for each.) In other words, this use of the term “free will” is fully compatible with “determinism”. Beings with “minds” sufficiently sophisticated to have “free will” may operate their “minds” deterministically.
    We assign “moral responsibility” to beings with “free will”, we
    assign praise and blame, rewards and punishments, to such beings, because that is the easiest (often the only) way we know to intervene in the causal chain. We want them to behave in one way rather than another, so we initiate some causes that we hope will have the effect of modifying their behavior. We hope they will include in their “mental” model that we will respond to their actions with praise/blame, reward/penalty, and that they will therefore “choose” a different course of action. The hypothesis of “universal causation” is irrelevant to this.
    If we gain some ACTUAL KNOWLEDGE of the causal chain affecting their actions, then we may intervene at a different place. For example, if we find that childhood exposure to high levels of lead in the environment leads to neurological damage that results in a lack of ability to control impulses, i.e. their ability to control their own behavior by “rationality” is impaired, then we may seek to reduce crime by banning leaded gasoline, lead-based paint, lead solder in water pipes, and so forth. But this is not the same as “determinism”, considered as a philosophical hypothesis.
    “Determinism”, the hypothesis of Universal Causation, says that “all events have causes; there are no uncaused events”. This is a universal claim. The critic may offer as a counterexample some event with no apparent cause. The believer in Determinism will reply “the cause may be unknown at present, but there must be one”. This is not something that can ever be proved or disproved, by any amount of evidence, short of complete examination of the entire Universe throughout all of Time. It is a starting assumption, a working hypothesis. Some have claimed that it is a NECESSARY assumption for the practice of science, but I don’t think so. Science can be practiced perfectly well under the assumption that many/most events have causes.
    So: I see no reason to spend one more second debating the question of “free will versus determinism”.

  20. skepticscott says

    Jen R-
    I thought of that one, but it’s really just a reversion to the debunked “No True Scotsman” fallacy, and underscores the fact that there really are no non-arbitrary criteria by which one can judge whether a believer is true or false.

  21. says

    The real problem with “Maybe religious believers are perceiving something real, and atheists just don’t have the capacity to perceive it” is that you could make the same argument for scitzophrenia, or hallucinations, or miswiring like kinesthesia (assuming I spelled that right). Its nonsense. Its even “bigger” nonsense if the only thing that can “percieve” this is the person making the claim, unlike colors you can’t see, sounds you can’t hear, or other “tangible” things that can be indirectly measured with, oh, I don’t know… other things in the universe other than the human body/brain. Which just puts you right back in the, “Well, where is the evidence that their is anything ‘to’ percieve, since you can’t measure gods, spirits, angels, etc.?”, category.

  22. JimG says

    There is a question I don’t have a good answer for involving epistemology. Atheists, myself included, tend to hold that rationality, empiricism, is the only valid way of approaching Truth. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that we stipulate that there exists some god or deity or deities. Suppose further that it is a property of this deity that it cannot be “discovered” by rational investigation. It’s not so hard to understand why that might be. If the deity were infinite and we are finite and are contained within it, our rational brains may simply lack the capacity to discern the deity. If it were further true that we possessed a facility, separate and distinct from our rational minds that could “sense” the deity – analogous to our other senses – and that this was the only means by which we may “know” the deity, then dismissing this way of knowing because it isn’t rational sets up a tautology. In other words, what is he justification of privileging rationality as the only valid way of knowing?
    My sense of the contours of an answer to this objection has to do with the radically inconsistent manifestations of this god-sense. If we were able to take 200 people each from different cultural and/or historical contexts and expose them to the scent of a rotten egg – that sense perception and their reaction to it would probably be remarkably consistent. But those same 200 people, even if all believers, seem to experience and express their god-sense in distinct and culturally determined ways. Indeed, provide these 200 people with a specific common stimulus – say a cloth with a stain that appears to have a person’s face on it – and whether or not they sense the presence of a god appears to be entirely determined by their culture and experience. But all that this tells us for certain is that once people attempt to move this core god-sense experience into their rational thought, that culture shapes their experience of it.

  23. skepticscott says

    JIm G-
    The problem is that a deity with the property that it cannot be discovered by rational investigation is pretty much just a human invention, dreamed up by those who desperately need to call something “god” and to appear rational while doing so. Accordingly, they are continually morphing their version of “god” into whatever form they think will render its existence immune to rational investigation. Unfortunately, this makes “god” completely unrecognizable to mainstream religionists, whose attempts to cast doubt on atheism are the only really interesting ones.
    A god that is claimed to influence and be influenced by events in the physical world (which covers the deity of most religious believers) is, in principle, subject to rational inquiry and much more difficult to argue for, based on what we know. Justifying the existence of any other kind of god tends to be trivial and uninteresting.

  24. says

    Abiogenesis is one that interests me. Where does non-life become life? It’s more of a mental exercise in semantics when you think about it but some theists like to argue that chemically, electrically and physically there is no significant difference betweena corpse and a living human. That spark of life must therefore be divine. I disagree but it is very difficult to get across the full complexity of even one living cell let alone a vast collection of complementary cells working together to provide animation and life.

  25. says

    So: I see no reason to spend one more second debating the question of “free will versus determinism”.

    I don’t blame you. That comment alone must have taken a while.
    But, not being personally bound by your personal views, I’ll personally continue to ponder the issue.

  26. usxp says

    Here are nine good reasons for being godless:
    * We created God, not the other way round. Religion was part of humanity’s childhood. We understood nothing about the natural world and how it operated, so we created myths. Religion has also played a political role by legitimating authority and keeping the lower orders in their place. And when life isn’t much fun because of poverty, miserable toil, war and disease, religion and the afterlife can be quite a consolation.
    * There is something wrong and irrational about faith. You should only believe things on the basis of evidence. We don’t substitute faith for evidence in other areas of our lives, so why with a belief in God. We would all be outraged if people could be convicted for murder on the basis of gut feelings rather than evidence.
    * If God exists, he wants us to be irrational, because he insists on being believed in on the basis of faith rather than providing indisputable evidence of his existence.
    * We don’t have to worry about God sending us to hell, because there is no afterlife. We know we don’t have a soul because when you subtract the physiological aspects of being a human being there is nothing left. The soul would not see, hear, smell or feel because these are the attributes of physical sense organs. The soul would not have thoughts, attitudes, memories or a personality because these require brain cells. The soul would not have emotions either, because they require, among other things, a cerebral cortex, a churned-up stomach, a palpitating heart and sweaty palms. The nothingness of death is already familiar to us. Just think of all those years before we were born.
    * Simply by detailing some of God’s attributes is enough to make the idea obviously silly. Being all hearing and all seeing, God is receiving an infinite amount of information at any moment of time. He hears every word uttered and sees every action performed. He would understand you regardless of the language you speak. Even if you spoke in uncrackable code he would know what you were saying. And there is nowhere you can hide from him. God is also omnipresent and can intervene everywhere and at any time, although there is no evidence of him actually doing so. Best of all God knows the future. This may be because he plans everything that happens (contrary to everything we have learnt about natural causes over the last few centuries). Or it may be because he has the ability to not only perfectly understand all the causal relationships between an infinite number of different events but also to predict an infinite number of random events for an infinite number of years into the future on billions of stars and planets.
    * There is no verifiable evidence of God’s intervention in the world. Everything can be explained through natural causes.
    * God is a tyrant. He tells us how to live rather than letting us work it out for ourselves. He is Lord and he wants people to submit to him and mindlessly accept his ideas.
    * If God exists, then life is meaningless. We are just puppets on a string and this life is just a pre-cursor to the far more important after-life.
    * God is simply the god of the ancient Hebrews with no more right to be believed in than the god or gods of other societies and cultures. Religions were always culturally specific because each religion is actually created by a particular culture. So God would be more credible if he had ‘revealed’ himself separately to more than one people, particularly to people on different continents who had no contact with, or knowledge of, each other. But as we know, that is not what the European missionaries found when they headed off to unknown lands in the sixteenth century.
    from: http://home.vicnet.net.au/~dmcm/Articles/god2.htm

  27. absent sway says

    One of my main issues with the multi-omni God was the problem of evil, and I was backing out of religion via some version of Deism because I can handle a god who has set up the universe in such a way that he can’t intervene for everyone all the time…
    Then my husband, playing devil’s advocate, made a case for a malevolent, might-makes-right god. I viscerally rejected it but also had to admit that it jived more with reality than what I had previously believed. For an argument to be arresting, at least one of the omnis has to go.

  28. Julanar says

    “If God exists, then life is meaningless.”
    Along with the “God is a tyrant” idea (which is definitely the idea I got from reading the Bible) this was the basis for my conversion. It’s also why I have so much trouble understanding the “without God, life is meaningless” argument that so many religious people use.

  29. says

    When it comes to ‘good’ arguments for God, I would probably cite the cosmological argument – that God is the first cause which explains the origins of the universe.
    I’m not saying this is a correct or convincing argument. But one virtue it does have is that, unlike others such as the design argument, it’s not obviously wrong. It doesn’t do violence to known facts or otherwise blatantly deny something we know to be true.

  30. skepticscott says

    Ebonmuse-
    Even if the cosmological argument is not “obviously wrong”, it still doesn’t even make it past the first hurdle of critical thinking, which is to ask, “So what caused god, then?” If god could come into being on its own, then why couldn’t a universe which, if god is supposed to have created it, must be less complex than its alleged maker? Even the design argument takes a bit more thought to refute than that.

  31. jo says

    this isn’t really an argument, but the thing which held me back from atheism for so long is that feeling of transcendence in certain moments of life. like moments when you feel that everything comes together, or really connected to everyone, or like nature is telling you something, or like you have a destiny; these would be not only unmeaningful but silly.
    I had to see how certain atheists encompass these experiences in what it means to be human, and that looking straight at them with both eyes open doesn’t diminish them, to realize that spirituality is not solely the domain of the irrational.
    But I still have a weak spot when people start talking about that sense of spiritual communion, because I can’t always totally explain how those feelings are real and significant without resorting to being patronizing. And patronizing is not at all how I feel about it (unlike many atheists, it seems, to be honest)

  32. Jules says

    The one argument for religion that still niggles for me is the practical/pragmatic one. A number of studies seem to show that religion improves medical outcomes and reduces hospital stays. (Just one example: http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=15688407 ).
    This definitely goes in the “Not Convincing but Persuasive” basket. There’s no argument for God here, only religion.

  33. David Ellis says

    The best arguments for theism are, in my opinion, empirical arguments like the argument from miracles.
    True, the evidence for miracles is extraordinarily weak. But its a variety of argument which could, in principle, one day, work due to compelling new evidence.

    The one argument for religion that still niggles for me is the practical/pragmatic one. A number of studies seem to show that religion improves medical outcomes and reduces hospital stays.

    Less an argument for belief in religion than an explanation for why religion persists and why humans are prone to it.
    If, for example, religion evolved as a coping mechanism for the awareness of death and other “existential” anxieties that come with self-awareness and intelligence then its little surprise that such correlations would exist—that’s exactly what you’d expect on such a hypothesis.
    None of which, of course, supports the rationality of belief. It only indicates that atheists may, perhaps, need to pay attention to ways of dealing with such anxieties too.
    I’d be curious, for example, to know how atheists who meditate regularly do in comparison to regular church goers on such scales.
    And we should also not forget the negative correlations with religion. For example a quick google search turns up references to studies finding correlations between religiosity and racial prejudice, sex crime and other social ills.

Leave a Reply