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.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

13 thoughts on “Five Common Fallacious Arguments Against Theism

  1. “Atheists very often misconstrue the first premise to say “Everything has a cause,””

    It’s more that we’re responding to the way the argument was originally made. It was only changed when atheists started responding with ‘who created God?’. So, rather than stopping the argument, theists instead chose to reword it in such a way to define their god into not needing an explanation.

    I’m sorry, but one cannot use semantics to insist a god must exist.

    “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.”

    Correct. But as, from an atheist’s perspective, no religion is significantly more believable than any other, we bring this up to demonstrate that a large portion of people believe something to be true for a very bad reason. And, as (at most) only one religion can be correct, that means that a huge portion of the planet is wrong. And wrong for a bad reason.

    “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 problem with your analogy is that both elephants and fleas are demonstrable using the scientific method. As of this writing, no god has been.

    “since even if there were no evidence for God it would not justify a belief that God does not exist.”

    Correct. But unless or until there is good evidence for a god’s existence, there is no good reason to believe one exists.

    “it would not follow that Christianity is therefore false.”

    Correct.

    But I would wager that if an atheist brings that up, they are not bringing it up as an evidence that Christianity (or any other religion) is false. They are bringing it up as evidence that said religion is bad.

    “it as is irresponsible to lump all religious beliefs into one undifferentiated category called “Religion””

    It depends what one is addressing.

    If my issue is religious belief, then I can ‘attack’ all religions equally.

    • mdkirby says:

      “It’s more that we’re responding to the way the argument was originally made. It was only changed when atheists started responding with ‘who created God?’. So, rather than stopping the argument, theists instead chose to reword it in such a way to define their god into not needing an explanation.”

      This is completely false. This is the way the argument was “originally made.” The Islamic philosopher al-Ghāzalī formulated the argument in almost exactly the same way in the 11th century: “Every being which begins has a cause for its beginning; now the world is a being which begins; therefore, it possesses a cause for its beginning.” (Al-Ghāzalī, Kitah al-Iqtisad fi’l-I’tiqad, cited in S. de Beaurecueil, “Gazzali et S. Thomas D’Aquin: Essai sure la prevue de’lexistence de Dieu proposée dans l’Iqtisad et sa comparison aver les ‘voids’ Thomiste,” Bulletin de l’Institut Francais d’Archaeologie Orientale 46 (1947):203.)

      “I’m sorry, but one cannot use semantics to insist a god must exist.”

      It isn’t a matter of semantics, but of philosophy. In order for anything to exist at all, there must be something eternal, a First Cause. However, as I said in my post, the intention of the post was merely to point out fallacious objections to theism, not to flesh out an exhaustive cause for the existence of God.

      “But as, from an atheist’s perspective, no religion is significantly more believable than any other…”

      No religion can be significantly more believable than any other if one accepts the religion (or philosophy, if you like) of naturalism or materialism. Are you a materialist?

      “The problem with your analogy is that both elephants and fleas are demonstrable using the scientific method. As of this writing, no god has been.”

      The method of surveying a particular field of evidence is beside the point of the analogy. The point of the analogy is merely to show that the absence of evidence is only evidence of absence in certain cases, and especially not in the case of God, given that no one can presume to know just what kind of evidence we would expect if God did exist.

      “But I would wager that if an atheist brings that up, they are not bringing it up as an evidence that Christianity (or any other religion) is false. They are bringing it up as evidence that said religion is bad.”

      Perhaps, but in most cases I do not think atheists communicate this distinction or make it even in their own thinking.

      “If my issue is religious belief, then I can ‘attack’ all religions equally.”

      Only if you are attacking something they actually all have in common, which in my experience is rare in cases where atheists have referred broadly to “religion” as a general category.

  2. thecontentchristian says:

    I just happened to stumble upon your blog and just wanted to encourage you to keep up the good work! I personally enjoy reading your posts.

  3. tobeforgiven says:

    I am engaged in a similar conversation, would you like to be a part of this conversation. If so I will let you know the blog we are having it on.

    Thank you for you acadmically integral post.

  4. Oscar Rivera says:

    Regarding Point 1:

    I’ve heard WLC use this assertion of, “In order for an explanation to be the best explanation, one need not have an explanation of the explanation,” quite often, and I don’t agree with him at all, nor, for that matter, do most philosophers. While the Cosmological Argument may be employed for the purpose of explaining the cosmogony, why are we forbidden to take it one step further? For example, say a man, who is known to go into fits of rage at the beginning of every month, kills another man during a period of said rage. Now, we could certainly merely say that the proximate cause was that the victim spilled the killer’s beer, but is it inappropriate to ask what the essential cause is? By exploring the essential cause, we can learn that the man suffers from a disease which caused a tumor to form on his adrenal gland, thus causing excess testosterone to be secreted at the same time every month. This new information would certainly be pertinent in say the sentencing proceedings. So, yes, while an explanation does not need to be explained for the purposes of a specific argument, atheists are well within their right to press the theist further on this matter. I would have so much more respect for WLC if he would just say that he doesn’t know, or even if we can’t know.

    Regarding Point 3:

    Your analogy fails for the simple reason that the defendant does not need positive proof of his innocence. This is where the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” comes from. If there is doubt whether or not the defendant is in fact guilty, then a responsible jury should acquit.

    Now, I do agree that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. However, I would say that there should be evidence of the personal God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, as Jesus is God manifest in human-form. Compound this with the purported miracles of the Bible, there should be evidence of God. But perhaps this is a discussion for another time.

    • mdkirby says:

      “While the Cosmological Argument may be employed for the purpose of explaining the cosmogony, why are we forbidden to take it one step further?”

      The plausibility of God being the best explanation for the existence of the universe is not made less so merely by taking the question a step further. Moreover, if one is seeking an “explanation” of God, with the implication that God is not eternal and therefore began to exist, then one has ceased to talk about God at all; For a “god” who is not eternal is not God. Besides, positing a non-eternal being will not solve the problem of the origin of the universe, given that space and time came into being at the Big Bang, and though there are no formal logical problems with the concept of an eternal Being, there are significant problems with the concept of an infinite regress of causes. Therefore, if it is necessary that an Uncaused Cause exist, it does not even make sense to ask, “What made God?”

      “Now, we could certainly merely say that the proximate cause was that the victim spilled the killer’s beer, but is it inappropriate to ask what the essential cause is?”

      One could push such a line of inquiry back forever, and it is the job of science to do so, but again, if it is true that an Uncaused Cause is necessary, the question must at some point also necessarily become meaningless.

      “I would have so much more respect for WLC if he would just say that he doesn’t know, or even if we can’t know.”

      As I said, it doesn’t even make sense to ask the question, “What made God?,” if indeed we are speaking of an Uncaused Cause. Of course we can’t know what made God; An answer to that question cannot exist because it is meaningless. It is like asking why something cannot be both A and -A in the same time and in the same sense. There is no “why;” It just is. (Though such metaphysical laws are implausible apart from being rooted in the nature of God, but that is another discussion.)

      “Your analogy fails for the simple reason that the defendant does not need positive proof of his innocence. This is where the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” comes from. If there is doubt whether or not the defendant is in fact guilty, then a responsible jury should acquit.”

      The point of the analogy has nothing to do with the American principle of “innocent until proven guilty;” Rather, it has to do with whether the butler is actually guilty (truth vs. adequate proof). The law might be forced, on principle, to consider the butler innocent until he is proven guilty, but this certainly does not mean that the butler is actually innocent.

      “However, I would say that there should be evidence of the personal God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, as Jesus is God manifest in human-form. Compound this with the purported miracles of the Bible, there should be evidence of God. But perhaps this is a discussion for another time.”

      Naturally, I think there are very good reasons to believe in not only a God, but the God of the Bible, and while there are certain evidences one would expect given the historical claims of Christianity, my point was that, considered in the abstract, one cannot presume the manifestation of any particular kind of evidence in the case of mere theism.

  5. Oscar Rivera says:

    “The plausibility of God being the best explanation for the existence of the universe is not made less so merely by taking the question a step further.

    I didn’t say that it was.

    “Moreover, if one is seeking an “explanation” of God, with the implication that God is not eternal and therefore began to exist, then one has ceased to talk about God at all…”

    You must understand the somewhat hypocritical stance that theists take on this point. An infinite God is purported by theology, yet an infinite universe, a universe which is in a constant state of collapse and expansion, is off-handedly dismissed as an impossibility. For the very same reason that theists are not comfortable with the idea of an infinite universe, atheists are not comfortable with the idea of an infinite deity. Concurrently, in the same way Christians are comfortable with an infinite being, atheists are comfortable with an infinite universe. Therefore, if it is appropriate for theists to press the atheist on the cosmogony (which we could merely say that your question is similarly nonsensical), the question, “From whence cometh God?” seems sufficiently worthy of meditation.

    Moreover, if I may ask, why is there no logical difficulties with an eternal Being? I would like to press this issue further, but I’m unsure as to your stance on this, so I’ll await your reply.

    Regarding the analogy:

    Your analogy’s purpose was to say that, aside from the two exceptions, the atheist will need some sort of positive proof in order to assert the absence of a God. However, and perhaps I was not clear on this point (or I simply just misspoke), I do think evidence of God is expected. Perhaps I was too rash to assume you are of the Christian faith (though, I don’t think I was given your past posts and the fact that this post is filed under Christianity), but if you are a Christian, physical evidence is expected.

    Now, the analogy still does fail. Your thesis was that atheists need a positive assertion in order to assert that there is no God in its abstraction (it should be noted that I am agnostic for this conception of god). You then employed the analogy that the defendant must provide positive proof to secure his acquittal. My only point was that, in reality, the defendant is not required to provide positive proof for acquittal, which is not analogous to the fact that the atheist does have to provide positive proof for the non-existence of an abstract being.

    • mdkirby says:

      “An infinite God is purported by theology, yet an infinite universe, a universe which is in a constant state of collapse and expansion, is off-handedly dismissed as an impossibility. For the very same reason that theists are not comfortable with the idea of an infinite universe, atheists are not comfortable with the idea of an infinite deity.”

      The notion of an eternal universe is not dismissed “off-handedly” and it is not a philosophically or intellectually equal concept to that of an eternal Being. An explanation of this will have to wait until tomorrow, since it will inevitably be impractically long to post as a comment. I’ll make a separate post about it.

      “Moreover, if I may ask, why is there no logical difficulties with an eternal Being?”

      In short, no. There are no formal problems (violations of formal logical laws) inherent in the concept of an eternal Being.

      “Your analogy’s purpose was to say that, aside from the two exceptions, the atheist will need some sort of positive proof in order to assert the absence of a God.”

      No, the purpose of the analogy was to demonstrate that a complete absence of evidence is only a sufficient justification for agnosticism, not atheism.

      “However, and perhaps I was not clear on this point (or I simply just misspoke), I do think evidence of God is expected. Perhaps I was too rash to assume you are of the Christian faith (though, I don’t think I was given your past posts and the fact that this post is filed under Christianity), but if you are a Christian, physical evidence is expected.”

      I am a Christian, yes. And, yes, certain evidence is expected given Christian claims. I believe there is good evidence to support these claims. However, in my post I am not arguing from Christianity but from theism. Again, given mere theism, one cannot presume to know at all what kind of evidence should be manifested if God existed, therefore even a complete absence of evidence can, at most, justify agnosticism.

      “You then employed the analogy that the defendant must provide positive proof to secure his acquittal. My only point was that, in reality, the defendant is not required to provide positive proof for acquittal, which is not analogous to the fact that the atheist does have to provide positive proof for the non-existence of an abstract being.”

      The defendant is not required to provide positive proof for acquittal only because that is how our judicial system works, but it has absolutely nothing to do with whether the defendant is actually guilty. Again, the issue is the truth, not whether the truth can be accurately demonstrated, and my whole point was that, just as an absence of evidence that the butler committed the murder does not necessarily make him innocent, so an absence of evidence for God does not entail that he does not exist.

  6. An impressive share, I simply given this onto a colleague who was doing a bit evaluation on this. And he the truth is purchased me breakfast as a result of I found it for him.. smile. So let me reword that: Thnx for the deal with! However yeah Thnkx for spending the time to debate this, I really feel strongly about it and love reading more on this topic. If doable, as you change into experience, would you mind updating your blog with extra particulars? It’s highly useful for me. Big thumb up for this weblog publish!

  7. vernon smith says:

    kirby clearly defeated any rebuttle, his logic is sound and impressive.

Post a Comment:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: