Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Atheist Christopher Hitchens’ case against the existence of God

I thought that I would go over an opening statement from a previous debate featuring Christopher Hitchens to find out what atheists are like in debates. I used his opening speech from his debate with Frank Turek. The audio from that debate is here, at Brian Auten’s Apologetics 315 site.

Now the important thing to remember about a generic debate on whether GOD EXISTS is that there should be no mention of any particular God, such as the Christian God, and no mention of the history of any particular religion. All arguments that assume specific theological or moral doctrines or specific religious history are irrelevant to a debate on generic theism.

The question being debated is: does a God who created and designed the universe, who has all the traditional properties of God, such as omniscience, omnipotence, omni-benevolence, etc. exist? That is the question being debated in a “Does God Exist?” debate.

Frank Turek’s case for theism:

Frank Turek made 4 relevant arguments for theism, each of which alone would support his conclusion, that God exists:

  • the origin of time, space, matter and energy out of nothing
  • the fine-tuning of the physical constants to support the minimum requirements for life of any kind
  • the origin of the biological information in the first self-replicating organism
  • objective, prescriptive moral rules need to be grounded by the designer of the universe

And he also listed 4 features of the universe that are more consistent with theism than atheism (= materialism).

  • non-material minds that allow rationality that would be impossible on materialism/determinism
  • the mathematical structure of the universe and its intelligibility to the scientific method
  • free will, which is required for moral responsibility and moral choices, requires a non-material mind/soul
  • our first person experience of consciousness is best explained by a non-material mind/soul

Hitchens’ case against theism

To counter, Hitchens has to argue against God using arguments in one of two forms:

  1. The concept of God is logically self-contradictory
  2. An objective feature of the world is inconsistent with the attributes of God

The claim that God does not exist is a claim to know something about God, namely, that he does not exist. This claim requires the speaker to bear a burden of proof. In a debate on “Does God Exist?”, Hitchens must deny that God exists. Let me be clear: Hitchens must defeat the arguments for the claim that God exists, and then defend the claim that God does not exist, and support that claim using arguments and evidence.

Hitchens makes 2 basic claims:

  • There are no good reasons to believe that theism is true
  • There are good reasons to believe atheism is true

So far so good. But what are his good reasons for atheism?

  1. I personally don’t like Christianity, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: I personally don’t like Catholicism getting rid of limbo
    – Premise: I personally don’t like Hell
    – Premise: I personally don’t like some episodes in church history
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  2. The plurality of religions means that no religious claims can be correct, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: There are lots of religions
    – Premise: The religions all disagree in their truth claims about the external world
    – Conclusion: No religion’s claims can be correct, therefore God doesn’t exist
  3. I believe in one less God than you, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: You disbelieve in every God I do, except one
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  4. Religious people are stupid and evil, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: Religious people are ignorant
    – Premise: Religious people are fearful
    – Premise: Religious people are servile
    – Premise: Religious people are masochistic
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  5. Evolution explains how life progressed from single cell to today’s bio-diversity, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: Modern theists like Turek believe in Paley’s argument, and argued it in this debate
    – Premise: Paley’s argument was refuted by evolution
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  6. God wouldn’t have made the universe this way, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: If God exists, then he would have made the universe my way
    – Premise: The heat death of the universe wasn’t done my way
    – Premise: The extinction of species wasn’t done my way
    – Premise: The size of the universe wasn’t done my way
    – Premise: The amount of open space wasn’t done my way
    – Premise: The large number of stars wasn’t done my way
    – Premise: The age of the universe wasn’t done my way
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  7. Religion makes people do things that I don’t like, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: Some religions do suicide bombing
    – Premise: Some religions do child abuse
    – Premise: Some religions do genital mutilation
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  8. If you speak a sentence, I can repeat the same words as you said, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: Anything that you say is good, I can say is good too
    – Premise: Anything that you say is bad, I can say is bad too
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  9. Atheists are morally superior to religious people, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: I act in a way that is consistent with my personal, arbitrary moral preferences
    – Premise: You don’t act in a way that is consistent with my personal, arbitrary moral preferences
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  10. If I believe in God, I would have to submit to an authority
    – Premise: If I believe in God, then I can’t do whatever I want
    – Premise: But I want to do whatever I want
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  11. I don’t like certain Christian doctrines, therefore arguments for God from science fail and therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: I don’t like the atonement
    – Premise: I don’t like the virgin birth
    – Premise: I don’t like the incarnation
    – Premise: I don’t like original sin
    – Premise: I don’t like the resurrection
    – Conclusion: Arguments that are built on recent discoveries from the progress of science like the big bang, fine-tuning, origin of life, etc. are incorrect, and therefore God doesn’t exist

General comments about Hitchens’ case:

  • The form of all of these arguments is logically invalid. The conclusions do not follow from the premises using the laws of logic, such as modus ponens and modus tollens.
  • Hitchens cannot complain about morality because he has no foundation for objective moral facts. What he is really expressing is that he personally does not like such-and-such a state of affairs, based on his own arbitrary personal preferences, and the arbitrary social customs that evolved in the place and time that he finds himself in. On atheism, “morality” is just describing what people do – either individually or as groups living in different times and places. There is no objective right and wrong, and no objective way we ought to be. All statements are subjective. They describe what the speaker personally likes and dislikes. Just like taste in foods or taste in dress – which varies by individually, and is influenced by time and place ARBITRARILY.

Specific comments about each argument:

  • Argument 1 tries to disprove God by arguing from Hitchens’ personal preferences about specific Christian doctrines. Christian doctrines are irrelevant to a debate about generic theism. And there is no reason why God should be bound by the personal, subjective preferences of one man. In fact, the concept of God entails that his unchanging nature is the standard of good and evil. So, this argument doesn’t disprove God, it’s just a statement of personal, subjective preference.
  • Argument 2: Just because there are different truth claims made by different groups, doesn’t mean no one is correct. Mormons believe that matter existed eternally, and Jews believe it was created out of nothing. The big bang theory shows that the Mormons are wrong and the Jews are right.
  • Argument 3: First of all, the debate is a about a generic Creator and Designer, not any particular religious conception of God. So the argument is irrelevant. Moreover, Christians reject Zeus, for example, because Zeus is supposed to exist in time and space, and therefore could not be the cause of the beginning of time and space.
  • Argument 4: This is just the ad hominem fallacy. Hitchens is attacking the character of the theist, but that doesn’t show theism is false.
  • Argument 5: This argument can be granted for the sake of argument, even though it’s debatable. The point is that it is irrelevant, since it doesn’t refute any of Turek’s actual scientific arguments like the big bang, the fine-tuning of the physical constants, the origin of information in the simplest living cell.
  • Argument 6: Again, there is no reason to think that God should be bound by Hitchens’ personal opinion of how God should operate.
  • Argument 7: This is the ad hominem fallacy again. The good behavior of religious believers is not a premise in any of Turek’s FOUR arguments for theism. Therefore, Hitchens’ point is irrelevant to the debate.
  • Argument 8: The fact that the atheist can parrot moral claims is not the issue. Being able to speak English words is not what grounds objective, prescriptive morality. The issue is the ontology of moral rules, the requirement of free will in order to have moral responsibility and moral choices, ultimate significance of moral actions, and the rationality of self-sacrificial moral actions.
  • Argument 9: This is just the ad hominem fallacy again.
  • Argument 10: This is not argument so much as it reveals that the real reason Hitchens is an atheist is emotional. One might even say infantile.
  • Argument 11: Again, these specific Christian doctrines are irrelevant to a debate about generic theism. And Hitchen’s subjective, personal preferences about Christian doctrine certainly do not undermine the objective scientific support for the premises in Turek’s 3 scientific arguments.

So Frank Turek talked about facts in the external world, and Christopher Hitchens mistakenly thought that his opinions and preferences about what he would do if he were God were interesting to us. They might be interesting to his psychiatrist, but they are not interesting to us.

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A simple case for the pro-life position by Scott Klusendorf

Are you able to make a basic case for the pro-life view?

Here’s a short 38-lecture by Scott Klusendorf, president of the Life Training Institute.

This is a long treatment that talks about the challenge of moral relativism and the case for the pro-life view. He does show a clip of abortion in the video to the audience.

There’s also a 35-minute audio recording of Scott on the LTI web site. (H/T Apologetics 315) You can put that on your podcast player and listen to it. Listen to it a lot and soon you’ll sound like Scott.

Scott also has an article posted on the LTI web site for those who don’t have time for the video or the audio.

In the article makes three points:

  1. Clarify the issue
  2. Defend your pro-life position with science and philosophy
  3. Challenge your listeners to be intellectually honest

Here’s the second point:

Scientifically, we know that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. Leading embryology books confirm this.2 For example, Keith L. Moore & T.V.N. Persaud write, “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being. Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm … unites with a female gamete or oocyte … to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”3 Prior to his abortion advocacy, former Planned Parenthood President Dr. Alan Guttmacher was perplexed that anyone, much less a medical doctor, would question this. “This all seems so simple and evident that it is difficult to picture a time when it wasn’t part of the common knowledge,” he wrote in his book Life in the Making.4

Philosophically, we can say that embryos are less developed than newborns (or, for that matter, toddlers) but this difference is not morally significant in the way abortion advocates need it to be. Consider the claim that the immediate capacity for self-awareness bestows value on human beings. Notice that this is not an argument, but an arbitrary assertion. Why is some development needed? And why is this particular degree of development (i.e., higher brain function) decisive rather than another? These are questions that abortion advocates do not adequately address.

As Stephen Schwarz points out, there is no morally significant difference between the embryo that you once were and the adult that you are today. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not relevant such that we can say that you had no rights as an embryo but you do have rights today. Think of the acronym SLED as a helpful reminder of these non-essential differences:5

Size: True, embryos are smaller than newborns and adults, but why is that relevant? Do we really want to say that large people are more human than small ones? Men are generally larger than women, but that doesn’t mean that they deserve more rights. Size doesn’t equal value.

Level of development: True, embryos and fetuses are less developed than the adults they’ll one day become. But again, why is this relevant? Four year-old girls are less developed than 14 year-old ones. Should older children have more rights than their younger siblings? Some people say that self-awareness makes one human. But if that is true, newborns do not qualify as valuable human beings. Six-week old infants lack the immediate capacity for performing human mental functions, as do the reversibly comatose, the sleeping, and those with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Environment: Where you are has no bearing on who you are. Does your value change when you cross the street or roll over in bed? If not, how can a journey of eight inches down the birth-canal suddenly change the essential nature of the unborn from non-human to human? If the unborn are not already human, merely changing their location can’t make them valuable.

Degree of Dependency: If viability makes us human, then all those who depend on insulin or kidney medication are not valuable and we may kill them. Conjoined twins who share blood type and bodily systems also have no right to life.

In short, it’s far more reasonable to argue that although humans differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature.

That’s the core of the basic pro-life case right there. There’s also a good interview of Mr. Klusendorf that I blogged about.

Advanced Objections

You can learn more by reading basic pro-life apologetics… from Francis Beckwith. You might recognize Frank Beckwith as the author of “Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice“. He wrote that book for Cambridge University Press, a top academic press. But before Cambridge University Press, Beckwith wrote easy-to-understand essays for the Christian Research Journal.

Here are four essays that answer common arguments in favor of legalized abortion.

Here’s an excerpt from Part II:

Excerpt:

A woman who becomes pregnant due to an act of either rape or incest is the victim of a horribly violent and morally reprehensible crime. Although pregnancy as a result of either rape or incest is extremely rare, [1] there is no getting around the fact that pregnancy does occur in some instances.

[…]Despite its forceful appeal to our sympathies, there are several problems with this argument. First, it is not relevant to the case for abortion on demand, the position defended by the popular pro-choice movement. This position states that a woman has a right to have an abortion for any reason she prefers during the entire nine months of pregnancy, whether it be for gender-selection, convenience, or rape. [3] To argue for abortion on demand from the hard cases of rape and incest is like trying to argue for the elimination of traffic laws from the fact that one might have to violate some of them in rare circumstances, such as when one’s spouse or child needs to be rushed to the hospital. Proving an exception does not establish a general rule.

[…]Fourth, this argument begs the question by assuming that the unborn is not fully human. For if the unborn is fully human, then we must weigh the relieving of the woman’s mental suffering against the right-to-life of an innocent human being. And homicide of another is never justified to relieve one of emotional distress. Although such a judgment is indeed anguishing, we must not forget that the same innocent unborn entity that the career-oriented woman will abort in order to avoid interference with a job promotion is biologically and morally indistinguishable from the unborn entity that results from an act of rape or incest. And since abortion for career advancement cannot be justified if the unborn entity is fully human, abortion cannot be justified in the cases of rape and incest. In both cases abortion results in the death of an innocent human life. As Dr. Bernard Nathanson has written, “The unwanted pregnancy flows biologically from the sexual act, but not morally from it.” [5]Hence, this argument, like the ones we have already covered in this series, is successful only if the unborn are not fully human.

Scott Klusendorf wrote the The Case for Life, which is the best book for beginners on the pro-life view. For those looking for advanced resources, Francis Beckwith, a professor at Baylor University, published the book Defending Life, with Cambridge University Press, 2007.

I found a very polished hour-long talk by Scott on Youtube. That talk was delivered to students and faculty at Furman University.

Finally, if you want to see Scott Klusendorf in a debate with a former ACLU executive, you can see it right here.

My friend Papa Georgio sent me a post that features THREE talks by Scott Klusendorf. (H/T Religio-Political Talk)

Learn about the pro-life case

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Ryan Bell’s year of atheism testimony shows need for apologetics

// This is being re-posted because Bell has now completed his year living as an atheist, and has come out as an atheist, surprising no one.

Are you interested in knowing how to avoid losing your Christian faith? Well, an episode of the Unbelievable show will give you some clues.

But before we go to the podcast, I want to recap some reasons why people think that God exists.

In addition to these arguments for theism, Christians should be able to make a minimal facts case for the resurrection, one that leverages the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. And some sort of case for the belief that Jesus was divine using only the earliest sources.

In addition to those positive evidences, there would be informed defenses to other questions like the problem of evilthe problem of sufferingreligious pluralismthe hiddenness of Godmaterialist conceptions of mindconsciousness and neurosciencethe justice of eternal damnation,sovereignty and free will, the doctrine of the Incarnation, the doctrine of the Trinity, and so on.

I listed these out so that you can see how many of these positive arguments and defenses that he wrestles with in his deconversion testimony.

The podcast

Details:

Ryan J Bell is a former pastor who has decided to try being an atheist for a year. He explains why and interacts with New Zealand apologist Matt Flannagan.

The MP3 file is here. (We only care about the first 45 minutes)

Matt Flanagan and Justin Brierley do a great job in this debate getting the real issues on the table, although you have to wait until about 20 minutes in. Quick note about Bell. He has a BA in Pastoral Ministry, an MDiv, and a doctorate in Missional Organization. Now I have a suspicion of people with a background like that – my view is that they are more likely to be impractical and/or insulated from real life.

I also noticed that his politics are liberal, and that he is featured on the web site of GLAAD, a gay rights organization, for supporting gay marriage. Why do people support same-sex marriage? I think the most common reason is because they care more about the needs of adults than they care about the needs of children for a mother and a father. That’s where this guy is coming from – he is a people-pleaser, not someone who promotes the needs of children over the needs of adults.

Summary:

At the start of the podcast, we learn that Bell was in the Seventh Day Adventist church, which is strongly invested in young-Earth creationism. Depending on how strict his young Earth view was, this closes off many of the best arguments for theism from science, such as the cosmological argument, the cosmic fine-tuning argument, the stellar habitability argument, the galactic habitability argument, the Cambrian explosion argument, and even the origin of life argument (to a degree). These are the arguments that make theism non-negotiable.

When he started his journey to atheism, he says that he was reading a book called “Religion Without God” by Ronald Dworkin.I was curious to see what view of faith was embraced by this book. Would it be the Biblical view of faith, trust based on evidence? Or the atheist view of faith, belief without evidence? I found an excerpt from the book in the New York Times, which said this:

In the special case of value, however, faith means something more, because our convictions about value are emotional commitments as well and, whatever tests of coherence and internal support they survive, they must feel right in an emotional way as well. They must have a grip on one’s whole personality. Theologians often say that religious faith is a sui generis experience of conviction. Rudolf Otto, in his markedly influential book, The Idea of the Holy, called the experience “numinous” and said it was a kind of “faith-knowledge.” I mean to suggest that convictions of value are also complex, sui generis, emotional experiences. As we will see… when scientists confront the unimaginable vastness of space and the astounding complexity of atomic particles they have an emotional reaction that matches Otto’s description surprisingly well. Indeed many of them use the very term “numinous” to describe what they feel. They find the universe awe-inspiring and deserving of a kind of emotional response that at least borders on trembling.

The excerpt quotes William James, who reduces religion to non-rational emotional experiences. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that view of faith is Biblical at all. Biblical faith is rooted in evidence. So clearly, what is important to this Dworkin is not objective evidence, it’s feelings. And this is what Bell was reading. He was not reading academic books like “Debating Christian Theism” to get the best arguments pro-and-con. He was looking for something that “resonated” with his feelings.

His journey was prompted by a female Episcopal priest friend who was asked by an atheist “what difference does religion make in my life?”. So, the framework of his investigation is set by a question that is not focused on truth, but is instead focused on emotions and life enhancement. Now Christianity might be a real stinker of a worldview for life enhancement, and the Bible warns us not to expect a bed of roses in this life. Christianity is not engineered to make you feel good or to make people like you, especially people like female Episcopal priests and GLAAD.

When talking about atheism, he is not concerned with whether atheism is logically consistent or consistent with objective evidence. He is concerned by whether atheists can have the experience of being moral without God. He sees an atheist who has moral preferences and seems like a good person by our arbitrary social standards, and he finds that as “valid” as religion. He is judging worldviews by whether people have their needs met, not by truth.

He says that as a pastor, his method of evangelizing atheists was to encourage them to “try on faith” “go through the motions” “participate in social justice outreach events”, etc. His goal was that they would “step into the stream of the Christian narrative and discover that it held value and meaning to them, and find that they actually believed it”. So his method of recommending Christianity to others has nothing to do with logic, evidence or truth. He is offering Christianity as life enhancement – not knowledge but a “narrative” – a story. If it makes you feel good, and it makes people like you, then you can “believe” it. He says that he was “a Christian by practice, a Christian by tradition”. Not a Christian by truth. Not a Christian by knowledge. He just picked a flavor of ice cream that tasted right to him, one that pleased his parents, friends and community. And now he has new friends and a new community, and he wants to please them and feel good about himself in this new situation.

He says that the Christian worldview is “a way of approaching reality” and “creating meaning” and “identifying meaning in the experiences we have”. And he says that there are “other ways of experiencing meaning”. He talks a lot about his correspondence with people and reading atheists, but nothing about reading Christian scholars who deal with evidence, like William Lane Craig, Stephen C. Meyer or Mike Licona.

Literal, literal quote: (23:35) “Well I think the only access we have to  the question of God’s existence or not is how we feel. I mean there’s no falsifiable data that says God either exists or doesn’t exist. It’s all within the realm of our personal experience”. “If living as though God exists makes you happy and comforts you, then by all means, go for it”. This attitude is so popular in our churches today, and where does it end? In atheism. I had a fundamentalist woman telling me just last night how this feelings mysticism approach was the right approach to faith, and that the head knowledge approach was bad and offensive.

I’m going to cut off my summary there, but the podcast goes on for 45 minutes. Matt Flannagan is brilliant, and went far beyond what I wanted to say to this guy, but in such a winsome way. I recommend listening to the whole thing, and be clear where this fideistic nonsense ends – in atheism.

My thoughts

This podcast is a great warning against two views: 1) faith is belief without evidence and 2) religion not about truth, but about life enhancement. Three other related stories might also help: the story of Dan Barker, the story of Nathan Pratt and the story of Katy Perry. I think the Christian life requires a commitment to truth above all. If you think that you can get by as a Christian relying on hymn singing, church attending, mysticism and emotional experiences, you have another thing coming. This is a different time and a different place than 50 years ago, when that sort of naivete and emotionalism might have been safe. Now we have many challenges – some intellectual and some not. To stand in this environment, it’s going to take a little more than piety and emotions. 

People today are very much looking for religion to meet their needs. And this is not just in terms of internal feelings, but also peer approval and mystical coincidences. They expect God to give them happy feelings. They expect God to give them peer approval. They expect God to make every crazy unBiblical, unwise selfish plan they invent “work out” by miracle. They feel very constrained by planning and moral boundaries, believing in a “God of love” who is primarily concerned with their desires and feelings, not with rules and duties. Nothing in the Bible supports the idea that a relationship with God is for the purpose of making us feel happy and comfortable. When people realize that they will be happier in this life without having to care what God thinks, they will drop their faith, and there are plenty of non-Christians to cheer them on when they do it.

I would say to all of you reading that if the opinions of others causes you to stumble then meditate on the following passage: 1 Cor 4:1-4 too. There is only one person’s opinion that matters, ultimately.

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Is the definition of atheism “a lack of belief in God”?

First, let’s see check with the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Excerpt:

‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.

Stanford University is one of the top 5 universities in the United States, so that’s a solid definition. To be an atheist is to be a person who makes the claim that, as a matter of FACT, there is no intelligent agent who created the universe. Atheists think that there is no God, and theists think that there is a God. Both claims are objective claims about the way the world is out there, and so both sides must furnish forth arguments and evidence as to how they are able to know what they are each claiming.

Philosopher William Lane Craig has some thoughts on atheism, atheists and lacking belief in God in this reply to a questioner.

Question:

In my discussions with atheists, they  are using the term that they “lack belief in God”. They claim that this is different from not believing in God or from saying that God does not exist. I’m not sure how to respond to this. It seems to me that its a silly word-play and is logically the same as saying that you do not believe in God.
What would be a good response to this?
Thank you for your time,

Steven

And here is Dr. Craig’s full response:

Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God.  Compare my saying, “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.”   If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars.  There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).”   Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.

But where your atheist friends err is in claiming that atheism involves only not believing that there is a God rather than believing that there is no God.

There’s a history behind this.  Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist.  Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists.

So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken.  For the assertion that “There is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “There is a God.”  Therefore, the former assertion requires justification just as the latter does.  It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence.  He confesses that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or whether there is no God.

But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.”  So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists).  As Antony Flew confesses,

the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way.  Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist. (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford:  Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew)

Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view.  It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all.  On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists!  In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.

One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.

So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position?  Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists.  If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view.  But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof.  So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions.  They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.

This is disingenuous and still leaves us asking, “So is there a God or not?”

So there you have it. We are interested in what both sides know and what reasons and evidence they have to justify their claim to know. We are interested in talking to people who make claims about objective reality, not about themselves, and who then go on to give reasons and evidence to support their claims about objective reality. There are atheists out there that do make an objective claim that God does not exist, and then support that claim with arguments and evidence. Those are good atheists, and we should engage in rational conversations with them. But clearly there are some atheists who are not like that. How should we deal with these “subjective atheists”?

Dealing with subjective atheists

How should theists respond to people who just want to talk about their psychological state? Well, my advice is to avoid them. They are approaching religion irrationally and non-cognitively – like the person who enters a physics class and says “I lack a belief in the gravitational force!”.  When you engage in serious discussions with people about God’s existence, you only care about what people know and what they can show to be true. We don’t care about a person’s psychology.

Dealing with persistent subjective atheists

What happens when you explain all of that to a subjective atheist who continues to insist that you listen to them repeat over and over “I lack a belief in God, I lack a belief in God”? What if you tell them to make the claim that God does not exist, and then support it with arguments and evidence, but instead they keep leaving comments on your blog telling you again and again about their subjective state of mind: “I lack a belief in cupcakes! I lack a belief in icebergs!” What if they keep e-mailing you and threatening to expose you on Twitter for refusing to listen to them, or denounce you via skywriting: “Wintery Knight won’t listen to me! I lack a belief in crickets!”. I think at this point you have to give up and stop talking to such a person.

And that’s why I moderate and filter comments on this blog. There are uneducated people out there with access to the Internet who want attention, but I am not obligated to give it to them. And neither are you. We are not obligated to listen to abusive people who don’t know what they are talking about. I do post comments from objective atheists who make factual claims about the objective world, and who support those claims with arguments and evidence. I am not obligated to post comments from people who refuse to make objective claims or who refuse to support objective claims with arguments and evidence. And I’m not obligated to engage in discussions with them, either.

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Is the Bible’s definition of faith opposed to logic and evidence?

Probably the biggest misconception that I encounter when defending the faith is the mistaken notion of what faith is. Today we are going to get to the bottom of what the Bible says faith is, once and for all. This post will be useful to Christians and atheists, alike.

What is faith according to the Bible?

I am going to reference this article from apologist Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason in my explanation.

Koukl cites three Biblical examples to support the idea that faith is not blind leap-of-faith wishing, but is based on evidence.

  1. Moses went out into the wilderness and he had that first encounter with the burning bush, and God gave him the directive to go back to Egypt and let his people go. Moses said, Yeah, right. What’s going to happen when they say, why should we believe you, Moses?God said, See that staff? Throw it down.Moses threw it down and it turned into a serpent.God said, See that serpent? Pick it up.And he picked it up and it turned back into a staff.God said, Now you take that and do that before the Jewish people and you do that before Pharaoh. And you do this number with the hail, and the frogs, and turning the Nile River into blood. You put the sun out. You do a bunch of other tricks to get their attention.And then comes this phrase: “So that they might know that there is a God in Israel.”
  2. [I]n Mark 2 you see Jesus preaching in a house, and you know the story where they take the roof off and let the paralytic down through the roof. Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven.” And people get bugged because how can anyone forgive sins but God alone?Jesus understood what they were thinking and He said this: What’s harder to say, your sins are forgiven, or to rise, take up your pallet and go home?Now, I’ll tell you what would be harder for me to say : Arise, take up your pallet and go home. I can walk into any Bible study and say your sins are forgiven and nobody is going to know if I know what I am talking about or not. But if I lay hands on somebody in a wheelchair and I say, Take up your wheelchair and go home, and they sit there, I look pretty dumb because everyone knows nothing happened.But Jesus adds this. He says, “In order that you may know that the Son of Man has the power and authority to forgive sins, I say to you, arise, take up your pallet and go home.” And he got up and he got out. Notice the phrase “In order that you may know”. Same message, right?
  3. Move over to the Book of Acts. First sermon after Pentecost. Peter was up in front of this massive crowd. He was talking about the resurrection to which he was an eyewitness. He talked about fulfilled prophecy. He talked about the miraculous tongues and the miraculous manifestation of being able to speak in a language you don’t know. Do you think this is physical evidence to those people? I think so. Pretty powerful.Peter tells them, These men are not drunk as it seems, but rather this is a fulfillment of prophecy. David spoke of this. Jesus got out of the grave, and we saw him, and we proclaim this to you.Do you know how he ends his sermon? It’s really great. Acts 2:36. I’ve been a Christian 20 years and I didn’t see this until about a year ago. This is for all of those who think that if you can know it for sure, you can’t exercise faith in it. Here is what Peter said. Acts 2:36, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” There it is again. “Know for certain.”

What is faith according to Bible-based theologians?

I am going to reference this article from theologian C. Michael Patton of Parchment and Pen in my explanation.

Patton explains that according to Reformation (conservative, Bible-based) theologians, faith has 3 parts:

  1. notitia - This is the basic informational foundation of our faith. It is best expressed by the word content. Faith, according to the Reformers must have content. You cannot have faith in nothing. There must be some referential propositional truth to which the faith points. The proposition “Christ rose from the grave,” for example, is a necessary information base that Christians must have.
  2. assensus - This is the assent or confidence that we have that the notitia is correct… This involves evidence which leads to the conviction of the truthfulness of the proposition… This involves intellectual assent and persuasion based upon critical thought… assensus… says, “I am persuaded to believe that Christ rose from the grave.”
  3. fiducia - This is the “resting” in the information based upon a conviction of its truthfulness. Fiducia is best expressed by the English word “trust.”… Fiducia is the personal subjective act of the will to take the final step. It is important to note that while fiducia goes beyond or transcends the intellect, it is built upon its foundation.

So, Biblical faith is really trust. Trust(3) can only occur after intellectual assent(2), based on evidence and thought. Intellectual assent(2) can only occur after the propositional information(1) is known.

The church today accepts 1 and 3, but denies 2. I call this “fideism” or “blind faith”. Ironically, activist atheists, (the New Atheists), also believe that faith is blind. The postmodern “emergent church” denies 1 and 2. A person could accept 1 and 2 but deny 3 by not re-prioritizing their life based on what they know to be true.

How do beliefs form, according to Christian philosophers?

I am going to reference a portion of chapter 3 of J.P. Moreland’s “Love Your God With All Your Mind” (i.e. – LYGWYM).

J.P. Moreland explains how beliefs form and how you can change them.

  1. Today, people are inclined to think that the sincerity and fervency of one’s beliefs are more important than the content… Nothing could be further from the truth… As far as reality is concerned, what matters is not whether I like a belief or how sincere I am in believing it but whether or not the belief is true. I am responsible for what I believe and, I might add, for what I refuse to believe because the content of what I do or do not believe makes a tremendous difference to what I become and how I act.
  2. A belief’s strength is the degree to which you are convinced the belief is true. As you gain ,evidence and support for a belief, its strength grows for you… The more certain you are of a belief… the more you rely on it as a basis for action.

But the most important point of the article is that your beliefs are not under the control of your will.

…Scripture holds us responsible for our beliefs since it commands us to embrace certain beliefs and warns us of the consequences of accepting other beliefs. On the other hand, experience teaches us that we cannot choose or change our beliefs by direct effort.

For example, if someone offered you $10,000 to believe right now that a pink elephant was sitting next to you, you could not really choose to believe this… If I want to change my beliefs about something, I can embark on a course of study in which I choose to think regularly about certain things, read certain pieces of evidence and argument, and try to find problems with evidence raised against the belief in question.

…by choosing to undertake a course of study… I can put myself in a position to undergo a change in… my beliefs… And… my character and behavior… will be transformed by these belief changes.

I think definition of faith is important, because atheists seemed to want to substitute their own definition of faith as blind belief for this Biblical definition, but there is no evidence for their view that faith is belief without evidence. I think this might be another case of projection by atheists. Blind faith is how they arrive at their views, so they are trying to push it onto us. But the Bible is clearly opposed to it.

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