Monthly Archives: November 2011

Five Common Fallacious Arguments Against Theism

In the course of my discussions with atheists, and in hearing debates on the subject, I have found that there are a number of recurring arguments wielded against theism which are either logically fallacious or irrelevant. That is not to say that all arguments against theism are formally illogical, but many people repeat illegitimate objections without thinking through them; and while this is certainly as true of theists as it is of atheists, I want to address some of the more common objections made against theism. Though some of these objections are prevalent even among scholars, these arguments are especially common at the popular level. Note that this post is not intended to show that atheism is false, but merely to point out the fallacious nature of certain arguments given in its favor.

1.) Who made God?

This is a question very commonly asked of theists, and it is often regarded as somewhat of a “trump card.” However, this question merely demonstrates a misunderstanding of the nature of explanation.

In order for an explanation to be the best explanation, one need not have an explanation of the explanation. For instance, suppose some archaeologists unearth a bunch of primitive tools, pots, jewelry, etc, and they decide that the best explanation is that they have uncovered a village of some long-lost tribe that no one ever knew existed. Does it then follow that in order for the archaeologists to say that a lost tribe is the best explanation for their findings they must be able to explain the tribe (where they came from, who they were, etc)? Certainly not. If, in order to gain knowledge, one had to explain everything, it would clearly be impossible to learn anything.

This question is often posed in the context of the Cosmological Argument, which states:

1.) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2.) The universe began to exist.

3.) Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence.

Atheists very often misconstrue the first premise to say “Everything has a cause,” subsequently asking, “what caused God?” However, aside from the apparent caricature of the argument, there are several problems with this. First, if the intent is to attack the concept of God’s eternality, then an atheist is forced to accept one of the following: that the universe either came into being, uncaused, out of nothing, or that it is eternal. The former is logically absurd, since it violates one of the most basic axioms in metaphysics, which is ex nihilo, nihil fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”); The latter espouses the very thing being attacked: namely, the concept of eternality (though it is also in conflict with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the great body of evidence in favor of the “Big Bang” theory).

Much more could be said on the nature of this argument, but a full treatment of the Cosmological Argument and its objections is outside the scope of this post.

2.) Belief in God is a result of one’s environment.

Often, theists or Christians are told that their beliefs are the result of having been brought up in a Christian home, or in an environment conducive to apprehending a certain set of beliefs (i.e. Living in the “Bible Belt”), and that if they had been born somewhere else (India, for instance) then they might be Hindu or Muslim. This is certainly true. The problem, however, is that in making this statement, the implication that theism is therefore false is guilty of the Genetic Fallacy, which is attempting to explain away a particular view by showing how the view originated. It’s true that people often come to believe certain things as a direct result of their culture or home environment, but that fact has absolutely nothing to do with whether those beliefs are true or false.

3.) There is no evidence for the existence of God.

I strongly disagree with this assertion, but let us assume that there is no evidence for God. Among forensic scientists it is virtually an axiom that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. For instance, in a court of law, the fact that there are no fingerprints of the butler on the knife is not itself evidence that the butler did not commit the murder. In order to show that the butler is not the murderer, the defense would need to provide some positive evidence that he is in fact innocent (an alibi). But the mere absence of convicting evidence is not evidence that the butler did not commit the murder.

The absence of evidence is only evidence of absence when two conditions are met:

1.) Certain evidence of a particular entity would be expected.

2.) The field in which that evidence would be found has been thoroughly surveyed and found lacking.

An example: Sitting in class, I would have good reason to suspect that because I see no elephant in the room, there is no elephant in the room. However, the fact that I see no flea in the room is not a justifiable reason for believing that there are in fact no fleas in the room. The difference is that in the first case we would expect to have evidence of the elephant, but in the second case we would not expect to have evidence of the flea. What kind of evidence would we expect to see in the case of God? No one can presume to know. This is precisely why atheism is not a justified “default” position, since even if there were no evidence for God it would not justify a belief that God does not exist.

4.) Religious belief has been the source of much violence and evil.

This is obviously true. One could also make the case that the same is true of atheistic belief, but the fact is that the implications of a belief are completely irrelevant in regards to whether that belief is true or false. I would maintain that the horrors committed by Christians in the past, as in the Crusades or the Inquisition, were committed in spite of Christianity, not because of it, but even if were true that Christianity sanctioned such things, it would not follow that Christianity is therefore false. To paraphrase Augustine, one should “never judge a philosophy by its abuse.”

5.) There are false religions, therefore all religions are false.

This fallacious argument is not one typically articulated in this fashion, but it is one frequently implied. Atheists often like to point to the most extreme, the most ridiculous, and the most absurd religions and its followers and imply that all religion is essentially the same. I’m thinking of Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous,” for instance. While such cases make very easy targets (and thus very appealing targets), it is as irresponsible to lump all religious beliefs into one undifferentiated category called “Religion” and attack it as one, given the diversity of religious claims, as it would be to lump all scientists into a category called “Science” and attack it. That is, unless one is a materialist, in which case he may attack all claims of the supernatural outright as a result of his own religious presuppositions.

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On Atheism and Evil

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

So writes atheist and eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his best-seller The God Delusion.

 Reveling in Mr. Dawkins’ scathing wit, and brandishing such quotes as weapons, devoted followers of the “New Atheism,” as it has been called, seek to vociferously evangelize the masses sheepishly duped by the trappings of religion. The charges against religion, and Christianity in particular, are copious in number, and if the whole were to be distilled, the remainder would be a weighty moral indictment. The gist of Dawkins’ above remarks, and indeed the bulk of the allegations leveled at Christianity, are that God, the Bible, Christianity, Christians or all four are not just false, but are in some way evil.

One could say (quite rightly, I think), that Dawkins’ affections for religiously-inclined persons are minimal at best. However, the problem does not lie in his manifest dislike for Christians or their God but in the implicit notion that if the Old Testament texts are true, God is guilty of a moral infraction. In light of this, two serious problems inevitably arise.

First, if Mr. Dawkins’ moral judgment is to carry any weight, he must first establish a legitimate basis in which to ground objective moral values. By “objective moral values” I mean moral values that are binding whether or not anyone believes in them. For if moral values are ultimately subjective or relative, then all moral allegations are reduced to mere opinion and thus become as trivial as one’s preference for, say, a particular flavor of ice cream. But Dawkins’ is not simply stating eloquently his dislike for the God of the Bible. He means that if God does exist and did in fact do the things alleged in the Old Testament, God is therefore wrong on moral grounds.

But on what basis can Mr. Dawkins make this claim if he intends to refer to something more compelling than his own personal opinion? In making the claim that God is evil, one assumes, naturally, that there is such a thing as evil. If one assumes there is such a thing as evil, then he assumes there is such a thing as good. If there is such a thing as good and evil, then there must be a Moral Law by which to differentiate between good and evil. If there is such a thing as a Moral Law, there must be a Moral Law-Giver in which such a Law is grounded.

Regarding morality’s objectivity, even many atheists acknowledge the necessity for a transcendent Authority. J.L. Mackie, a vehement anti-theist, writes:

We might well argue…that objective intrinsically prescriptive features, supervenient upon natural ones, constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the course of ordinary events, without an all-powerful God to create them” (quoted by J.P. Moreland, “Reflections on Meaning in Life Without God.” The Trinity Journal, 9 NS, 1984, p. 14).

Those wishing to dispute the notion that a Moral Law-Giver is necessary for the existence of objective moral values must justify their position. Dawkins, while obviously rejecting the existence of God, provides no such justification anywhere in his writings and therefore implicitly accepts all the premises but insists on rejecting the conclusion. In effect, he borrows from theism in an attempt to prove it false!

G.K. Chesterton summed up this contradiction in his book Orthodoxy:

“But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble.

The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”

Thus, as a matter of intellectual consistency, the atheist must provide a basis for objective moral values before he may level the barrels of morality at Christianity (or anyone else, for that matter). Yet, far from attempting such a justification, Dawkins manages to cut off the very branch upon which he sits, saying:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no other good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” (Out of Eden. New York: Basic Books, 1992, p.133)

If “there is, at the bottom…no evil,” then just what does Dawkins mean by describing God in such a way as to imply that He is evil? Dawkins’ moral outrage seems incoherent and pitifully insignificant given his view that we live in a world of “blind, pitiless indifference.” In the absence of an appeal to a Moral Law, why should anyone regard Dawkins’ indictment as having any authority whatsoever? Again, is there such a thing as an objective good and an objective evil or not? Atheism, not just Dawkins, leaves us completely devoid of a coherent answer.

Second, the view that it is even possible for God to be evil is itself rather puzzling. The Christian view is that God is an omnipresent, omniscient, all-powerful, morally perfect, self-existent, personal, necessary, being. In essence, God is the greatest conceivable Being. If, however, for the sake of argument, Dawkins assumes this view of God for his critique, what then does he mean by implying that God is evil? If God is, indeed, the greatest conceivable Being, then it is manifestly impossible for God to be subject to anything else, including, in this case, a Moral Law external to His nature. For if God were subject or subservient to some external Moral Law, then He would not be God, since He would therefore cease to be the greatest conceivable Being. Given this consideration, Dawkins is faced with the problem of explaining how his own moral judgment might have any credibility when the object of his criticism is the God of the universe.

However, if Dawkins does not assume for the sake of his argument that the God of the Bible exists, then at whom, and by what authority, is he directing his diatribe? For if God does not exist (as it is clear Dawkins believes), then one is again faced with the irksome difficulty of objective moral justification. It seems Dawkins is at an impasse: If God exists, moral values must necessarily be grounded in His nature, and attempts to criticize his nature fall resolutely flat. If God does not exist, moral values are merely subjective and any moral judgments are reduced to utter trivialities. Many atheists correctly seem willing to admit the latter.

Though in conversation the admission of morality’s relativity is often readily made for the sake of its apparent consistency with an atheistic framework, one may rightly wonder at the expeditious nature of the outcry the moment that same person has experienced some perceived injustice. A man who has just been beaten and robbed does not simply shrug his shoulders, dust himself off, and proceed to go about his business in the knowledge that we live according to forces that may ultimately be characterized as blind, pitiless, and indifferent. No, there is instead an instant appeal to a sense of moral ought-ness which has just been violated. The argument is wholly inconsistent with the action. This is precisely the contradiction identified by Chesterton. That the action (or reaction), the sense of having been wronged, is always involuntary is a fact that should be regarded with a great deal of suspicion by materialists (I say “materialists” because there exist atheists who nonetheless believe in the supernatural). Whence came such an innate moral conscience? What do the irrational forces to which materialists claim everything can be reduced have anything to do with a sense of moral ought-ness, whether perceived or real? While such a sense may certainly be affected by social pressures, the fact that it exists at all cannot reasonably be attributed to social cultivation. Young children who have not yet had exposure to the greater social sphere, nor possess the faculties enabling them to receive moral indoctrination, nonetheless exhibit the same basic sense of moral ought-ness as their parents. A child who has been taught nothing of stealing knows precisely when he has been stolen from.

Atheists bothered by both the prospect of accountability to a transcendent Moral Authority and by the alternative, a universe consistent with Nietzche’s nihilism, wholly void of any objective moral standard, have attempted the singular argument for morality’s objectivity without the postulation of a divine Authority. The attempt proves upon inspection to be rather unsubstantial, though its underlying motivation, the attempt to have the Good without the nuisance of accountability, should not inspire surprise. To suggest, for instance, that qualities universally regarded as “good” (justice, love, mercy, generosity, etc) simply exist of their own accord is but to beg the question. Without any situational context, what does it even mean to say that the abstract quality of “Justice” simply exists as a positive entity? How is this even possible? If materialism were true, a particular moral value would not be objective even if every person that had ever lived affirmed the goodness of it. For if there remains even the logical possibility of a single dissenter that particular moral value is inescapably subject to relativity. Therefore, in order for moral values to be objective, they must necessarily be grounded in something greater than human perception or understanding.

One must consider, then, just what kinds of things could even possibly serve as a ground for objective moral values. It seems obvious that the category of possibilities will inevitably be exceedingly limited. Human opinion has already been eliminated. As has been mentioned, and J.L. Mackie affirmed, objective moral values are at least reasonably grounded in the nature of God. If this is so, then objective moral values must necessarily be grounded in something very much like God, if not God himself. If, however, the materialists are correct, and all the goings-on in the universe can ultimately be attributed, at bottom, to irrational, material forces, we seem to be out of options, given that anything remotely identifiable with the concept of a Divine Being cannot possibly exist. If there is one thing of which we may be certain, it is that objective moral values are not reasonably the product of material forces. If somehow they were, why should anyone feel compelled to adhere to them? And if they are not, then materialism is false. But if materialism is false, and objective moral values are in some way transcendent of the material world, is it not but a reasonable step to conclude that they are grounded in the nature of God?

The moral indictments frequently wielded against Christianity are therefore without a legitimate starting point. If the atheist wishes to be able to use morality as a point of argument in his critique, he must first establish the objectivity of his claims or else abandon them to the realm of the inconsequential.

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“Good” Christians

What does it mean to be a “good Christian?” This is a phrase I occasionally hear in the south, and every time it makes me cringe just a little because it isn’t really clear to me just what it actually means. It seems most often used when someone is publicly declaring why they aren’t going to take part in a particular bad action (“…because I’m a good Christian”). But this seems silly. Why declare that you’re not going to do something you know to be wrong? Why not just silently refrain from doing it? Why distinguish yourself as a “good Christian” as opposed to….the other kind? I suppose the reason this irritates me so much is that it seems to be part of a culture that makes a special effort to project a certain image: that of a “good” person. But the irony of that endeavor is that if one does what they know to be right, their actions will speak for them and they need not bother trying to project an embellished facade.

Besides, one whose motivation for doing good is rooted in a concern for their own image is really no good at all, “for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).” The matter of importance is not the condition of our reputation but that of our heart, and attempts to manufacture our reputation without addressing the condition of our heart is like treating the symptoms before the actual disease. If one’s heart is in Christ, he will, by God’s grace, be compelled to do the good works it is impossible for him to do otherwise. “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead (James 2:26).” Why? Because a true faith in Jesus manifests good works as a result. In this sense, the sense in which the Holy Spirit is at work in us, all Christians are “good,” not by anything wrought of our own hands, but we are made good by the Perfection of the One whom we serve, and the use of the term is, at best, an unnecessary redundancy.

I suppose, however, one must first ask what it means to be a Christian. After all, we’ve seen those with blatantly partitioned lives, who seem to have worked switching between their “good Christian” act and their “bad” act into a science; And if Christianity is based on adhering to a set of rules, then it seems to me that the term “good Christian” is perfectly acceptable, given that some people are better rule-followers than others.

But adhering to a set of rules isn’t Christianity at all: it is Islam (“To those who believe and do deeds of righteousness hath Allah promised forgiveness and a great reward,” Surah 5:9). By contrast, Paul writes to the church in Galatia: “…nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified (Galatians 2:16).” It seems very much the case that many people touting the Christian label, or even the coveted “good Christian” label, are in the practical outworking of their faith much more suitable followers of Allah than of Jesus, trying to check all the appropriate boxes on an exam for entry into heaven we’ve all already failed. The term “good Christian” reeks pungently of legalism, and it comes across to me as an attempt to let others know: “I do bad things, but I’m still a good person (whatever that means); And good people go to heaven.” If good people go to heaven, if good people even exist (Psalm 14:3), then I’ve got the wrong Bible.

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The Road to Progress?

While skimming the local newspaper this morning, my attention was arrested by a list of local public schools and their corresponding School Performance Scores (SPS). For anyone who values education, the scores were abysmal. While in most cases there were slight increases in SPS from 2010 to 2011, the letter grades representing the schools’ final score were enough to make one cringe. The list was rather objectively titled “The Road to Progress,” but I wondered whether it was as a result of an acknowledgement of the pitiful state of Louisiana’s education system that the author had not, in a spirit of greater positivity, titled the article “On the Road to Progress;” Perhaps it was merely for lack of space.

Louisiana is embarrassingly and unquestionably in the lowest tiers of public education in the United States and has been for quite some time. The question is not, then, where Louisiana falls in the ranks or how to find ways to justify moving it up a few notches on the scale, but, rather, what to do about the problem. Is the fact that Louisiana’s school system is failing to adequately educate its students a result of lack of funding? (I am certain there are areas in which more funds would be beneficial.) Is it a result of a lack of state or federal programs? (This is doubtful.) Is it the result of unqualified teachers? (In some cases, perhaps.) But I would maintain that the source of the problem is found in none of these things. Instead, it is the result of a state of affairs far more terrible, infinitely more daunting, than even the combination of these other issues. That is, the dreadful reality that students are largely part of a culture that is, at worst, antagonistic to learning and, at best, apathetic about it; And it is not the students who are to blame, but the parents.

In speaking with a woman who teaches at one of the local high schools, she indicated that while her direct frustration is dealing with apathetic and unruly students in the classroom, the greater disappointment lay in the fact that the parents are, almost without exception, just as indifferent in regards to their children’s education as the children are to their own. Recently, a parent-teacher conference was held at her high school. Not a single parent arrived on behalf of any of her students. For teachers whose true motivation is to see their students learn, this is a seemingly insurmountable problem, one that is understandably de-motivating in the most profound way: teaching students, often with great difficulty in the process, to actually value learning, only to have them taught the reverse at home.

As is quite obvious, parents apathetic about their child’s education tend to be apathetic in other areas as well, such as discipline, and teachers who would otherwise prefer to spend time helping students learn the material instead find themselves performing a role more akin to that of riot police. Ideally, teachers should rarely have to take disciplinary measures, since any actions in that vein should merely be reinforcements of that with which the children are already being inculcated at home. But the world of the ideal is not the one in which we live, and teachers are being forced to perform the dual role of parent and teacher at the great expense of the child’s education. The sentiments I would like to express to these parents, at least in the way I feel like framing them, are not fit for print.

Motivating students to learn has enough difficulties of its own, but how does one encourage parents to reject a dispassionate attitude? Is it even possible on a large scale? Throwing money at the problem, creating new initiatives, new programs, seem like far too simplistic solutions to a deeply-rooted and complex issue that has far more to do with philosophy than it does financial and bureaucratic deficits. I wish that I could here begin my neatly-outlined Three-Point-Solution plan, but I have none; the problem is immense, and I have only just considered it. But a clear understanding of the problem is at least the first step to true progress, and in Louisiana there is much room for it.

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