Reply to Stephen Feinstein, round one


Hi folks,

I’ve been asked by a third party to get involved in a discussion with a Christian named Stephen Feinstein. Stephen has created his own blog for the occasion, and his very first post is here:

In order to keep this as a one-on-one discussion, I’ll be disabling comments on my posts and so will he. Hope you enjoy the discussion, which I imagine will probably last several weeks. When we both agree that we’re finished, I’ll probably open up a big post-mortem comment thread. Until then, enjoy and be patient.

"Is this the right room for an argument?" "I told you once." "No you haven't." "Yes I have."

Post-debate update: For convenience, I am linking all 10 posts from here.


Stephen, rather than going through your message point by point in order, I want to start by focusing on a comment you made halfway through about the interview that Matt Dillahunty and I did with Ray Comfort last year. First, thanks for watching. Here’s what you said:

Russell, the bottom line is most people take for granted what they believe. Even more axiomatic, they take for granted presuppositions. Everyone has them, and everyone comes to conclusions based on them. The way evidence is interpreted is never neutral, but it is always 100% of the time bound by one’s presuppositions. When you and your partner debated Ray Comfort on your show, your partner accused Ray of having presuppositions that caused him to reach Biblical conclusions, whereas you atheists have no presuppositions but instead are led by the evidence alone and make your conclusion from there. I mean no disrespect at all by saying this, but that is a careless and philosophically absurd statement.

I checked the transcript of the show you mentioned, because that really didn’t sound like something we’d say. The closest thing I found occurred at literally the very last minute in the show.

Matt: “I really wish that we could demonstrate exactly why this is dishonest, but I think you just did, by making an appeal back to the Bible, you’ve got this presupposition, which is what I pointed out at the beginning, and you’re judging it based on that presupposition.”

Ray: “Well, we all do that.”

Matt: “Well, no we actually all don’t and that’s…”

Russell: [Interrupted, because we were out of time.]

So I checked in with Matt and asked what he meant by that. He said, “My point was that we don’t all begin with THAT presupposition.”  He would have elaborated on this, but the show ended there.

So, you’ve got no argument from me on that point. Neither of us meant to say that atheists have no presuppositions. However, this is a good launching point to talk about having standards before claiming knowledge.

Having agreed to the idea that everybody is subject to some unprovable assumptions, I think we can probably agree that if you and I hope to have a meaningful exchange with each other, arguing over which set of assumptions to accept will be a relatively useless exercise.  The first thing you said was “atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible.”  I assume that you’re going to try to demonstrate this to the satisfaction of me and the readers of our two blogs, which means that you’re going to do more than simply say “Let’s start by assuming that the Bible is true.”  Right?

That would certainly be an easy way to win every argument, after all. “Now I’m going to prove to you that Keynesian Economics is the best possible monetary system.  First, I want you to accept my presupposition that all the particulars of Keynesian Economics are true.” “I’m going to tell you what happened to me last night, but first I want you to presuppose that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and that some of that intelligent life is hovering in a cloaked ship above the atmosphere at this very moment, and also it is desperately in love with me.”

I’m pretty sure neither one of us is going to glorify our assumptions to that extent.  And that being the case, it’s really best if we both start by identifying the areas where we agree.  I’m going to make an effort to identify some of those points of agreement now; I’m not saying I’ll get them right, since I don’t know you yet, but I’m just going to float these and see what you think.

First: I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that we both probably agree that the natural world exists in the first place.  Right?  I don’t have to spend time trying to convince you that we are not being fooled by Descartes’s Demon, or being held captive in The Matrix, or acting as characters in a dream that Lewis Carroll’s Red King is having.  I think that while we might agree that those other things are possible in principle, and they might be interesting questions, neither of us is inclined to assign a high probability to this invention of unnecessary entities to explain things we already observe.

Second: The primary way we receive raw information about the world is through our senses, which are not totally reliable, but not completely unreliable either.  Without sight or hearing, you wouldn’t be able to read the Bible or be told about Jesus, and then you wouldn’t have any way of evaluating whether or not those things true.  You need to accept some sort of basic sensory input in order to know anything at all.

Third: Some kind of reasonable standards are necessary to filter out the different things we do and don’t believe in.  Without such a filter, you’re susceptible to believing in absolutely everything you’re told without question: Islam, Wicca, that Nigerian prince who emailed you a promise to wire you $20 million next week, ghosts, the tooth fairy, or worse, even atheism.

You and I are ultimately going to come up with different ways we apply those standards, but I think you’ll agree that there’s no point in an argument where we just say “This is what I believe, and it is true because I believe it.”  We’ve got reasons for what we believe.  So basically, I’ll do my best to explain why I approach things a certain way, without resorting to “because I said so,” and I assume you will as well.

With that in mind: We both recognize that we have axioms in our belief systems (i.e., the real world exists, and we’re probably not living in the matrix).  But — and here’s a point where I don’t know if we’ll agree or not — it’s not a virtue to try to rely on bald assertion more than necessary.  In other words, I wouldn’t say “Well, you have faith that you’re not going to spontaneously explode in the next five minutes, so I guess you might as well have faith that everything else I say is right.”

With that in mind, I’m now acknowledging the rest of what you said in your message. You believe the following:

  1. God exists, and is an absolute being.
  2. God is separate from the physical world.
  3. God rules the universe.
  4. God is a Trinity.

Needless to say, it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that you believe any of this; it’s all pretty standard boilerplate Christianity.  I’m just wondering whether or how you’re going to get around to justifying any of it, since I agree with none of it.  If you’re just going to say “I simply have faith that all those things are true” then this is going to be a pretty fruitless conversation, since saying that doesn’t actually help to persuade a nonbeliever like me why I should start believing any of your points.  So I look forward to hearing you affirmatively justify them.

In talking about atheism, you said: “Atheism possesses a distinct view of reality (materialism), a distinct view of epistemology (human intellectual autonomy), and a theory of ethics (whether it is evolutionary, utilitarian, etc.).”

Actually this isn’t true: Atheism doesn’t possess any of those things. There are many atheists who aren’t materialists (they believe in spirits but not God), and there are probably some atheists who are psychopaths and don’t have a coherent theory of ethics.  Lacking a scientific or ethical framework wouldn’t disqualify anyone from the very simple requirement of being in the atheist camp, which is not believing in any gods.

However, I don’t speak for all atheists; I can only speak for me.  And I personally do lean towards materialism, humanism, and a scientific approach to learning about the world.   So I’m happy to have a discussion on that territory, as long as we both understand that this is about my opinions, and not about atheism in general.

For me as an atheist humanist scientific skeptic, here’s one of my primary principles: All else being equal, it’s better not to assume that something is true without good reasons.  That means I don’t currently believe in space aliens that visit the earth and probe farmers, I don’t believe in millions of dollars waiting for me to unlock them from offshore bank accounts, and I don’t believe in an absolute being who is split in three parts and rules the universe while being separate from it.

As I said to you earlier in a private exchange: that is not a statement of absolute certainty.  I’m simply saying that for the time being, I see insufficient evidence that such a being exists.  So, since you have made the bold claim that you’re going to prove that God is necessary and atheism is impossible, as I see it you’ll have to do one of two things here:

  1. Give me some good reasons why I should view God, as you define him, as a being that exists; OR,
  2. Make me understand that it is foolish to seek reasons for anything, and it’s a good idea to just believe something like your god for no reason.

I am interested to see which direction you’re planning to take.

Russell Glasser

Continue to part 2.