Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

The importance of Christian men setting an example of benevolent authority

I think that children are more likely to accept theism if they have a father who is able to lead them in a loving, caring way. And I also think that children who grow up with an authoritiarian or absent or defective father are more likely to reject theism. The father needs to be strong. The father needs to be good. Otherwise, it’s harder for the kids to believe in God.

Let’s start proving this with a lecture from psychologist Paul Vitz:

Here’s an article by Paul Copan (related to the lecture) which points out how father presence/absence and father quality affects belief and disbelief in God.

Excerpt:

Seventh, the attempt to psychologize believers applies more readily to the hardened atheist.It is interesting that while atheists and skeptics often psychoanalyze the religious believer, they regularly fail to psychoanalyze their own rejection of God. Why are believers subject to such scrutiny and not atheists? Remember another feature of Freud’s psychoanalysis — namely, an underlying resentment that desires to kill the father figure.

Why presume atheism is the rational, psychologically sound, and default position while theism is somehow psychologically deficient? New York University psychology professor Paul Vitz turns the tables on such thinking. He essentially says, “Let’s look into the lives of leading atheists and skeptics in the past. What do they have in common?” The result is interesting: virtually all of these leading figures lacked a positive fatherly role model — or had no father at all.11

Let’s look at some of them.

  • Voltaire(1694–1778): This biting critic of religion, though not an atheist, strongly rejected his father and rejected his birth name of Francois-Marie Arouet.
  • David Hume(1711–76): The father of this Scottish skeptic died when Hume was only 2 years old. Hume’s biographers mention no relatives or family friends who could have served as father figures.
  • Baron d’Holbach(1723–89): This French atheist became an orphan at age 13 and lived with his uncle.
  • Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72): At age 13, his father left his family and took up living with another woman in a different town.
  • Karl Marx(1818–83): Marx’s father, a Jew, converted to being a Lutheran under pressure — not out of any religious conviction. Marx, therefore, did not respect his father.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche(1844–1900): He was 4 when he lost his father.
  • Sigmund Freud(1856–1939): His father, Jacob, was a great disappointment to him; his father was passive and weak. Freud also mentioned that his father was a sexual pervert and that his children suffered for it.
  • Bertrand Russell(1872–1970): His father died when he was 4.
  • Albert Camus(1913–60): His father died when he was 1 year old, and in his autobiographical novel The First Man, his father is the central figure preoccupation of his work.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre(1905–80): The famous existentialist’s father died before he was born.12
  • Madeleine Murray-O’Hair (1919–95): She hated her father and even tried to kill him with a butcher knife.

We could throw in a few more prominent contemporary atheists not mentioned by Vitz with similar childhood challenges:

  • Daniel Dennett (1942–): His father died when he was 5 years of age and had little influence on Dennett.13
  • Christopher Hitchens (1949–): His father (“the Commander”) was a good man, according to Hitchens, but he and Hitchens “didn’t hold much converse.” Once having “a respectful distance,” their relationship took on a “definite coolness” with an “occasional thaw.” Hitchens adds: “I am rather barren of paternal recollections.”14
  • Richard Dawkins (1941–): Though encouraged by his parents to study science, he mentions being molested as a child — no insignificant event, though Dawkins dismisses it as merely embarrassing.15

Moreover, Vitz’s study notes how many prominent theists in the past — such as Blaise Pascal, G.K. Chesterton, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer — have had in common a loving, caring father in their lives.16

Not only is there that anecdotal evidence of a psychological explanation for atheism, but there is also statistical evidence.

Excerpt:

In 1994 the Swiss carried out an extra survey that the researchers for our masters in Europe (I write from England) were happy to record. The question was asked to determine whether a person’s religion carried through to the next generation, and if so, why, or if not, why not. The result is dynamite. There is one critical factor. It is overwhelming, and it is this: It is the religious practice of the father of the family that, above all, determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children.

If both father and mother attend regularly, 33 percent of their children will end up as regular churchgoers, and 41 percent will end up attending irregularly. Only a quarter of their children will end up not practicing at all. If the father is irregular and mother regular, only 3 percent of the children will subsequently become regulars themselves, while a further 59 percent will become irregulars. Thirty-eight percent will be lost.

If the father is non-practicing and mother regular, only 2 percent of children will become regular worshippers, and 37 percent will attend irregularly. Over 60 percent of their children will be lost completely to the church.

Let us look at the figures the other way round. What happens if the father is regular but the mother irregular or non-practicing? Extraordinarily, the percentage of children becoming regular goesupfrom 33 percent to 38 percent with the irregular mother and to 44 percent with the non-practicing, as if loyalty to father’s commitment grows in proportion to mother’s laxity, indifference, or hostility.

[…]In short, if a father does not go to church, no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions, only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular). If a father goes but irregularly to church, regardless of his wife’s devotion, between a half and two-thirds of their offspring will find themselves coming to church regularly or occasionally.

A non-practicing mother with a regular father will see a minimum of two-thirds of her children ending up at church. In contrast, a non-practicing father with a regular mother will see two-thirds of his children never darken the church door. If his wife is similarly negligent that figure rises to 80 percent!

The results are shocking, but they should not be surprising. They are about as politically incorrect as it is possible to be; but they simply confirm what psychologists, criminologists, educationalists, and traditional Christians know. You cannot buck the biology of the created order. Father’s influence, from the determination of a child’s sex by the implantation of his seed to the funerary rites surrounding his passing, is out of all proportion to his allotted, and severely diminished role, in Western liberal society.

So, I think we can make a case that anyone who doesn’t have a benevolent, involved father is going to have a more difficult time believing that moral boundaries set by an authority are for the benefit of the person who is being bounded. They may not see the value of a relationship with someone who uses their power for to grow them and guide them. They may view the leadership of a powerful person skeptically, because they have been disappointed by father figures in their own lives.

I think the best way for a Christian man to to lead someone who is less powerful, is to explain why they want the person to grow in a particular dimension. Why are the moral boundaries there? Why is one course of action more practical than another? Why is it worth it to give up pleasure and do hard things? The experience of trusting male leadership as a child, and seeing it work out, helps a person keep their belief in God. In my own case, I trusted my Dad on things like saving and investing, studying computer science instead of English, living at home instead of going away to college, and many other things, and because I have seen that leadership produce dividends, it’s much easier for me to accept that I can be a disciple of Jesus and trust him when things don’t go my way. I am used to not getting my way right now, but having it work out well later. I have experienced it with my Dad.

I also think, however, that we need to be cautious about letting children roll over us – because then they will get the idea that God is their cosmic butler, and that’s not going to stand up to the rigors of life. We can’t let them take advantage of us, they have to understand that being led means that they are going somewhere – that life isn’t all about them and their feelings.

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Does the church do a good job of equipping Christians to talk to non-Christians?

Most churches these days are not doing a good job of helping Christians to understand how to explain and defend Christianity to non-Christians. They tend to be focused on providing comfort and entertainment, which is why so much of the focus is on compassion, singing and being “nice”. Logical arguments are out. Scientific evidence is out. Historical evidence is out. There is a terrible fear of disagreeing with anyone. Everyone is focused on being “nice” and being “liked” by non-Christians. Instead of teaching people what Christians think is true, we teach people how to recycle cans and how to color pictures of Jesus.

Church is typically a mishmash of mysticism, piety and emotivism. Pastors in particular are often opposed to connecting anything the Bible says to evidence outside the Bible, whether it be research or experiments or philosophical arguments. Even the very best preaching pastors just assert things and then expect people to accept it because “the Bible says so”. It’s almost as if it dirties up Christianity to test it against what we know from other disciplines like cosmology and ancient history. People who are regarded as Christian leaders seem to never get around to explaining why anyone should accept the Bible as true.Accepting the Bible is just left up to your feelings, or maybe whether you think the pastor is “nice”. That’s it.

Now how well does this simple, blind-faith be-nice approach work on a real non-Christian?

Mary sent me this article from the New Statesman that explains how it works.

Excerpt:

It’s 7.30pm on a Tuesday evening and I’m at a small church in East London. A man called Adam* hands me a name label, pours me a plastic cup of squash and says dinner won’t be long. I pull up a seat and introduce myself to ten strangers. It’s all rather awkward.

The reason I’m at church isn’t because I’m religious (I’m not) or because my fridge is empty (it is). It’s because I’ve signed up to Alpha, a weekly course run by churches all over the world in order to spread the Christian message. Although I’m an atheist, I don’t have a problem with people who subscribe to religion. I am, however, wary of brainwashing, I think most religious beliefs are kind of stupid and I strongly suspect that organised religion is a horrible thing.

[…]Adam, the course leader, is wearing a Superdry shirt. After dinner, he explains that it’s customary to sing. Rebecca plays the acoustic guitar and Adam mans the PowerPoint presentation, which would have got an A* if it was a piece of ICT GCSE coursework because the lyrics make noises when they appear on the screen.

Now, why on Earth would you make a non-Christian sing?? That makes no sense. If they don’t accept Christianity, why would they sing about it?

More:

After singing comes talking. Specifically, Adam talking. Over the next six weeks, his talks will cover: “Is there more to life than this?”; “Who is Jesus and why did he die?”; “How can we have faith?”; “How can we read the Bible?”; “Why and how do I pray”; and “What about the Church?”. After each talk, we’ll break off into groups and discuss what we’ve learnt.

The first couple of sessions are similar. They involve Adam handing out copies of the Bible and saying things like, “So let’s assume Jesus does exist and came to Earth to save us…” I’m genuinely the only person who is annoyed that Adam makes no attempt to prove Jesus’s existence.

The first questions to address are thing like “Does God Exist?” and “Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?” and “Why Should People Think the Bible is Historically Reliable?”. But those questions cannot be asked by Christians, because they are totally unaware, thanks to years and years of avoiding apologetics, that those questions come before praise hymns and Bible study and prayer. Christians are so unaware that they don’t even realize how to discuss Christianity with a non-Christian, using authorities like logic, science and history, which non-Christians accept.

More:

Adam’s big points in the first two weeks are that we should love Jesus because he loves us in spite of our tendency to sin and that we should try to emulate his behaviour, because it’s nice to have a role model.

Discussion time isn’t fruitful. Natalie asks me how I’m able to distinguish between moral and immoral behaviour if I don’t base my actions on Jesus’ example. I explain that I work out what makes my peers happy and try to do those things. Everyone laughs, which I find confusing because I’m not joking. I agree that having a role model can be helpful, but ask how they know Jesus is the best one. Anna and Will, who are married, tell me that it’s because the Bible said so. But how do they know the Bible is right? “No offence, Tabatha,” replies Louise, “but the Bible is quite far-fetched. I don’t get why someone would have made that stuff up if it weren’t true.” It sounds like I’m lying, but I’m not.

[…]This week, Adam’s main point is that Christianity isn’t about rules. Fine, but there’s still no attempt to prove God’s existence.

What is going on here? It’s that Christians are basically no different than cultists. We think that it’s our jobs to just tell people things without ever proving anything with science or history. We don’t know how to construct logical arguments. All we do is say what we believe and then hope that the person listening will accept it because “the Bible says so” or maybe because it makes the person feel like a nice person to accept it.

More:

Then we talk about which bits of the Bible we should take literally. Louise tells me I’ll work it out if I read the Bible. I tell her I’ve read it. She says I will never develop a full understanding because I’m not God so I can’t understand everything. This is becoming a recurring theme. These people have answers to some problems, but as soon as they hit a brick wall they settle for not understanding God and refuse to think through alternatives.

Wow, how do Christians handle questions that they don’t know the answer to? By going and finding the answer? NO! We think that it’s not our job to find answers to this skeptic’s questions, it’s the skeptic’s job to find answers. We hand the work to the skeptic to do, instead of doing the work for them. Finding answers is work, and if Christianity is about anything, it’s apparently about avoiding work. That’s what we learn in church, anyway.

More:

This week, Leslie, a priest from the church, speaks about evolution, which has to be our most interesting topic to date. “How do I know evolution isn’t true?” he begins, continuing: “Because God revealed himself to me through scripture.” This annoys me: these people keep saying really obscure things and not explaining them. Leslie explains that scripture is “God-breathed,” so when you read the Bible, God is speaking directly to you. I’m not an idiot but I have absolutely no conception of what that means.

This is pretty much the answer you’re going to get from most pastors and church people, even in a time where we have amazing arguments coming out of the intelligent design community about the origin of life and the Cambrian explosion. And even without talking about evolution, we could be talking about the Big Bang cosmology and the cosmic fine-tuning. But those things can’t be talked about because they are just too “real” and we want to keep religion in the realm of try-it-and-see-if-you-like-it bromides.

More:

Leslie goes on to offer practical Bible-reading advice: you should read it for 15 minutes a day and ask God questions by verbalising your thoughts. By this stage, I’m annoyed. I want to know why we should read the Bible, how they know it’s true, what God sounds like and how He chooses which prayers to listen to. Instead, Leslie says things like, “If we pray, we become trees. Trees grow fruit, so we will live fruitful lives.” This kind of obscure, metaphorical chat is driving me mad.

[…]In discussion time, it becomes clear that although these people are interested in religion, they’re uncritical of it. It’s really starting to bother me that this institution encourages blind faith at the expense of scientific enquiry.

Again, Christians are incapable of understanding that they have to prove claims using arguments and evidence. They just want to state their beliefs, like cultists do when they knock on your door. What exactly is the difference between us and the cults if it’s not that we are able to make a case for our views based on evidence, not feelings?

More:

Adam tells a story about his wedding ring. It’s a more elaborate version of this: Adam went to Costa. He left his wedding ring behind. He realised what he’d done. He said a quick prayer. He went back to Costa. He found his ring. He reckons God answered his prayer.

[…]Louise claims that God once answered her prayer to get her to the airport on time. Alasdair thinks God stopped a wave breaking on him when he went surfing as a teenager. Robin tells us that God warned him to wear a helmet when he snowboards.

[…]“Anyone feel unconvinced by the power of prayer?” Natalie asks. “YES,” I feel like shouting. “YOU’RE IDIOTS. ALL OF THOSE THINGS WERE PROBABLY COINCIDENCES THAT YOU’RE READING TOO MUCH INTO.”

Sigh. Well I hope that this is helpful so that everyone understands what non-Christians really need from us. I think we need to focus on studying apologetics, so that we can answer questions. Instead of focusing on telling people weird things, we should just focus on the basics: God’s existence, the minimal facts case for the resurrection, intelligent design in nature, the moral argument, the problems of evil and suffering. The basics. And stop trying to talk about our own lives or our own weird experiences, because you can’t prove anything by telling stories or mystical experiences or pious feelings. We really need to stop treating religion as something different from practical things. We don’t hire employees or pick stocks or buy medicine on the basis of how we feel about them. We study things carefully, we look at evidence, we use reason. Truth is the point of religion, not feelings, and when we focus on feelings when talking to non-Christians, we look like idiots. And rightly so.

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If you find a discrepancy in the Bible, does that mean Jesus didn’t exist?

Even if we don’t know whether there was one angel or two angels at Jesus’ tomb, we can still know things about whether God exists and whether Jesus rose from the dead.

First, we can know that the universe was created and designed because of reliable, experimental evidence that the universe came into being and is finely-tuned for life. And second, we can know that Jesus was buried, that his tomb was found empty, that a variety of people had experiences of him appearing to them after his death, and that the Christian movement had an early belief that he was resurrected from the dead. We know those core things like we know anything – because we have good evidence. Other things that are more peripheral may not be as supported by evidence. We can remain agnostic about those peripheral things, but that agnosticism about peripheral things doesn’t undermine the things that we know.

William Lane Craig answered a question related to this problem for a person who accepted the minimal facts case for the resurrection but then though that someone this case couldn’t work unless he accepted inerrancy as well.

Here’s the question:

After re-evaluating my Christian faith and pruning it for two years, I can’t shake what seem like two disparate conclusions. One is that the evidence for Jesus resurrection is impecable. But the other is that there seem to be some very awkward realities about the composition of scripture (like errors or authors claiming to write by another name). Yet, the authors of the New Testament, including Jesus, seem to use Scripture in a way that assumes it is word for word from God.

While inductive logic is used to arrive at a strong historical case for the resurrection of Jesus, inductive logic can also be used to arrive at a strong case for many of the peculiaraties about Scripture previously mentioned.

It seems that the approach which many apologists take at this point is that, having established the authority of Jesus by the resurrection, if the argument being raised against scripture contradicts an opinion expressed by Jesus in the Gospels, then the argument for a contradiction must have no possible harmonizations for it to really stick. But I don’t see how this is fair to say, since (1) it seems unfair to use inductive logic to evidence Jesus’ resurrection but then not use it for criticisms against the Bible and (2) an inductive argument can be strong despite what Jesus as recorded in the Gospels says, especially since we cannot assume the precision with which many of the saying were recorded. And (3), anybody can cook up a harmonization of some verse that is possible but not plausible, which I am sure you have seen first hand many times.

Yet, holding these two positions in tension tends to be corrosive to my faith and ultimately leads to a certain bitterness against God for allowing the biblical writers to play fast-and-loose with his words and for not providing a clarity that brings more certainty about what is from him and what isn’t. Any help you can give to relieve this tension would be greatly appreciated.

Now Dr. Craig has a long response on his Reasonable Faith web site, but I just want to quote you this:

But secondly, suppose you’ve done all that and are still convinced that Scripture is not inerrant.  Does that mean that the deity and resurrection of Christ go down the drain?  No, not all.  […]As you recognize, we have a very strong case for the resurrection of Jesus.  That case in no way depends on the Bible’s being inerrant.  This became very clear to me during my doctoral studies in Munich with Wolfhart Pannenberg.  Pannenberg had rocked German theology by maintaining that a sound historical case can be made for the resurrection of Jesus.  Yet he also believed that the Gospel resurrection appearances stories are so legendary that they have scarcely a historical kernel in them!  He did not even trust the Markan account of the discovery of the empty tomb.  Rather his argument was founded on the early pre-Pauline tradition about the appearances in I Corinthians 15.3-5 and on the consideration that a movement based on the resurrection of dead man would have been impossible in Jerusalem in the face of a tomb containing his corpse.

Evangelicals sometimes give lip service to the claim that the Gospels are historically reliable, even when examined by the canons of ordinary historical research; but I wonder if they really believe this.  It really is true that a solid, persuasive case for Jesus’ resurrection can be made without any assumption of the Gospels’ inerrancy.

By contrast, the case for Jesus’ belief that the Old Testament Scriptures are inerrant is much weaker.  I think there’s no doubt that (5) is the premiss that would have to go if biblical inerrancy were to be abandoned.  We should have to re-think our doctrine of inspiration in that case, but we needn’t give up belief in God or in Jesus, as Bart Ehrman did.  Ehrman had, it seems to me, a flawed theological system of beliefs as a Christian.  It seems that at the center of his web of theological beliefs was biblical inerrancy, and everything else, like the beliefs in the deity of Christ and in his resurrection, depended on that. Once the center was gone, the whole web soon collapsed.  But when you think about it, such a structure is deeply flawed.  At the center of our web of beliefs ought to be some core belief like the belief that God exists, with the deity and resurrection of Christ somewhere near the center.  The doctrine of inspiration of Scripture will be somewhere further out and inerrancy even farther toward the periphery as a corollary of inspiration.  If inerrancy goes, the web will feel the reverberations of that loss, as we adjust our doctrine of inspiration accordingly, but the web will not collapse because belief in God and Christ and his resurrection and so on don’t depend upon the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

We have mainstream scientific evidence for God’s existence, and a mainstream historical evidence for a minimal facts case for the resurrection. None of that evidence depends on inerrancy being true.

So can we please just accept what can be known from experimental science and standard historical methods, and work our lives around that, and not nitpick about peripheral issues so much? I am inerrantist, and so is Dr. Craig. But you don’t have to be in order to accept that the mainstream evidence that shows that universe was created and fine-tuned, and that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. Don’t let “one angel vs two angels “stop you from accepting things we can know. You can just stay agnostic about the things you think we don’t know.

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Blake Giunta and Justin Schieber debate Christian theism vs naturalism

Here is the video of the debate:

And Blake’s summary of the debate from his TreeSearch.org web site.

In Justin’s opening statement, he made four arguments:

  1. The existence of rational unbelief is more consistent with naturalism
  2. Darwinian evolution is more consistent with naturalism
  3. The hostility to life in most of the universe is is more consistent with naturalism
  4. The existence of suffering among sentient beings is more consistent with naturalism

These are all good arguments for naturalism. That’s what atheists argue if they are willing to bear the burden of proof – those are quality arguments.

In Blake’s opening statement, he made three arguments:

  1. The existence of “the moral arena” is more consistent with theism
  2. The intelligibility and discoverability of the universe is more consistent with theism
  3. The historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is more consistent with theism

These arguments are also good arguments for theism and the last one is good for Christian theism. Again, quality arguments.

Here’s part of his summary of his first argument, which I think is different from anyone else:

The Moral Arena is very unexpected if Naturalism is true

By contrast, on naturalism, a Moral Arena could not be more unexpected.

Getting brains

(a) A Universe is entirely unexpected,
(b) and even if there were one, the naturalist has no reason to expect that the Universe would be life-permitting (because of our “fine-tuning of physics for life” discoveries),
(c) and even if it were life-permitting, the naturalist has no reason to expected that there would be an origin of life event in it.
(d) and even if one (or more happened), the naturalist has no reason to expect that it would culminate in the existence of brains or anything that functions like a brain.

The alleged problem with this is that, it means that the likelihood of brains existing, on naturalism, are unfathomably low. Blake noted that the improbabilities of (a)-(d) could be multiplied together, and the likelihood of this chain of events assuming the truth of naturalism was well below .0000000001, just for the fine-tuning problem alone.

From there, getting consciousness

But getting such brains is not enough to get a Moral Arena. The next improbability was the brains being conscious. Once again, this could not be more unexpected on naturalism. Blake argued that consciousness is not adaptive on naturalism, because the brain is basically the machine, and consciousness was like smoke–the machine would evolve and operate the same with or without the smoke. Moreover, as a naturalist looks at the object of a brain, nothing “in it” would lead him to expect it has conscious experience, any more than looking at a star or electron would. Finally, Blake noted that many of the most prestigious naturalists argue that consciousness is not only entirely unexpected, but actually incompatible with naturalism–it has to be an illusion.

From there, getting beliefs

Blake then said, “Ok, but lets say you do get conscious brains. What is the likelihood, on naturalism, that they would also have these very particular things called beliefs?” He made the same moves: it could not be more unexpected on naturalism, and moreover some of the most prominent naturalists argue that beliefs are incompatible with naturalism. The reason is because beliefs are “about” things, but material objects (like rocks and brains) can’t be “about” anything. So beliefs are non-physical, which naturalism cannot accommodate.

From there, getting moral beliefs (for a Moral Arena)

Finally, Blake noted one more requirement: “Ok, so lets say you evolve conscious brains with beliefs, what is the likelihood that they would have moral beliefs in particular.” There is no reason to think moral beliefs, beliefs about good and evil, or right and wrong, would ever evolve twice in the entire Universe. But then why anticipate that they would have evolved even once? Again, Naturalism has no such reason. In each of these cases, all I can do is helplessly look at what has occurred, and say “oh, interesting.”

All together now

Calculating the final improbability involves multiplying the unlikelihood of brains evolving (.0000000001) with the unlikelihood of evolved brains being conscious (e.g. .01), with the unlikelihood of evolved conscious brains having beliefs (e.g. 01) with the unlikelihood of such brains having moral beliefs in particular (e.g. .5). The final probability is extraordinarily low, and insofar as moral beliefs are required for a moral arena, the likelihood of a moral arena existing on naturalism is unfathomably low (e.g. it seems like on naturalism, the likelihood of a moral arena would be far less than  .000001%), while on theism it is not nearly so low (e.g. well over a 1% likelihood, and certainly no less). By definition then, the Moral Arena is evidence for theism, and it turns out to be phenomenally strong evidence given the difference in expectations. Originally, the plan was to give Justin a sheet of paper to fill these in, so we could talk specifically about any particularly unreasonable values he assigned to these probabilities.

If you are looking for a classy, civil debate, this is the debate you are looking for. Justin is a great speaker and presented four real arguments, but I think Blake had him beat on on substance, because Justin did not respond adequately to Blake’s arguments.

One point that came up in the debate was the distinction between coarse-tuning and fine-tuning, and whether the range of possible values for the numbers in question could be infinite. Allen Hainline saw the debate live, and he wrote this blog post on that topic.

TreeSearch.org is a web site for training Christians on how to map the flow of debates. If you haven’t already done so, check it out. Use the tree menu on the left to navigate the site by expanding topics that interest you.

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Are atheists right to say that you can’t prove a universal negative like “God does not exist”?

I hear a lot of atheists complaining that they shouldn’t have any burden of proof because it is impossible to prove a universal negative, i.e. – “there is no God”.

Here’s a post from William Lane Craig about it.

Excerpt:

The first claim is, ironically, usually found on the lips of atheists, who thereby seek to excuse themselves from bearing any share of the burden of proof in the discussion. Usually, the claim is that a universal negative cannot be proved, and therefore the claim that “There is no God” is unprovable. The second claim is typically given as the reason why a universal negative cannot be proved: no matter how much knowledge you have acquired, there will always be more facts that you do not yet know, and perhaps the exception is among them. So one can never prove that there is no God. Perversely, this is somehow interpreted, not as an admission that atheism is indefensible, but as a demonstration that it is in no need of defense!

Unfortunately, the argument is misconceived on a couple of counts.

First, negative, universally quantified statements can be proved. We do this all the time. When we make statements about “all” or “none,” we are speaking about what is the case with respect to a certain domain. We are saying that all or none of the members of that domain have or has a certain property. If the domain is not too large, I can confidently make universally quantified affirmative and negative statements. For example, I am quite confident that “No U.S. Senator is a Muslim.” Or again, if I have a typical sample of the domain, I can make inductive inferences on the basis of the evidence from the sample to the whole, even if the whole domain is too large for me to canvass; for example, taking as my domain all the microbes on Earth, I can confidently assert, “No microbes have brains.”

Now someone might say that while it is admittedly true that negative, universal statements can sometimes be proven, still the point remains that in the case of God, the domain is too large and our sample too small to come to any negative conclusion. But those who propound this argument seem to think that the way one determines whether God exists is by taking a sort of universal survey to see if anything answering to the description of God exists somewhere out there. There are, however, other ways of coming to a knowledge of negative, universally quantified statements than doing an inductive survey.

For example, we can have knowledge of negative, universally quantified statements on the basis of things’ essential properties; for example, “No water molecules are composed of CO2.” (Even if something looked and behaved just like water but was made of CO2 , it still would not be water but just a look-alike substance.) Or if we could show that a notion is logically impossible, we would know that it does not exist; for example, “There are no married bachelors.” Significantly, many atheists have tried just this route to proving that God does not exist, arguing that the idea of a being which is all-powerful or all-knowing is logically incoherent.

[…]Second, the statement that “God does not exist” is not a universally quantified statement. When the theist asserts that “God exists,” the word “God” is being used as a proper name, not as a common noun. It is not a statement like “Dogs exist” but rather like “Lassie exists.” In order to prove that God does not exist, one need not prove that there are no gods whatsoever. Our interest is in one specific being, not in all the other beings which may have been imagined or worshipped throughout the world. So the claim that “God does not exist” is really a singular claim, like “Sherlock Holmes does not exist” or “Harry Potter does not exist.” No one thinks that negative, singular claims cannot be proven.

So there are two ways to disprove a universal negative. Look where you expect the thing to be evident, and show that the evidence is not there. For example, show evidence that the universe is eternal. You can’t have a Creator if you can show evidence that the universe is eternal. The second way is to show that the concept of God is logically contradictory, e.g. – that the concept of a “timeless person” is self-contradictory. Scholarly atheists try to do this, but this has not filtered down to the rank and file, which is why they still hold to these atheist slogans like “you can’t prove a universal negative”. Of course you can.

And finally, Craig concludes with some good advice:

The bottom line is that we have no choice but to go on the basis of the knowledge and evidence that we do have—just we do in all other affairs of life.

Rank and file atheists seem to be very keen on holding out for today’s scientific and historical data to be overturned by Star Trek theories of the future. But the more we study the good, scientific arguments for God’s existence, the harder it is for naturalism to account for it. I am talking about the origin of the universe, the cosmic fine-tuning, the habitability argument, the origin of life, the origin of phyla, scientific evidence for consciousness and free will (e.g. – mental effort) and so on. Not to mention other arguments like the moral argument and the minimal facts case for the resurrection of Jesus.

We have to decide on the data we have now. And the data we have now fits better with a theistic worldview than an atheistic worldview. I can imagine all kinds of data that would argue against Christian theism. Finding the bones of Jesus. The universe being eternal. Experimental evidence for the multiverse. A probable naturalistic scenario for the origin of life. Etc. Arguing against Christian theism is not hard, it just takes work. That’s why intelligent and informed atheists like Peter Millican and Austin Dacey can do it, but rank and file atheists want to talk about “I lack a belief in God” and “I can’t prove a universal negative”.

No one is asking atheists to prove anything, just as theists don’t prove anything. We are asking them to give logical arguments with premises that are supported by the evidence. And that’s what we expect theists to do, too. Once we have all the arguments and evidence on both sides, then people can decide for themselves. You don’t have to “prove” anything in a debate, you just have to state your case as persuasively as possible and the other side does the same, then people decide. Simple.

UPDATE: My favorite atheist Jeff Lowder mentioned this post from Internet Infidels which is on the same topic. His perspective is always worth reading.

UPDATE: And my friend John Fraser has some thoughts on evidence for and against God.

UPDATE: My FB friend Bruce sent me this video:

It’s William Lane Craig answering the question in a debate situation.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , ,

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