What if I grant you that?

Atheism, Critique of Apologetics, Deconversion, Philosophy

Since my deconversion and becoming an atheist I am particularly interested in engaging Christian apologists. During my Christian faith I was always fascinated and somewhat uncomfortable with apologetics. Reading apologists I began to realize the arguments tended to have fatal flaws and I became increasingly doubtful about their efficacy. Ultimately, apologetics was one of the factors that led to my rejecting the faith.

Now as an atheist I am relieved of the need to defend apologetics and Christianity in general. Instead I am fascinated by why I ever found them convincing even in part. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about why I used to find apologetic arguments if not fully convincing at least comforting and why now they sound hollow.

Atheists are sometimes falsely accused of being willfully ignorant of the gospel. Contrary to this false narrative, I find atheists to be some of the most biblically literate people I have ever met. Likewise many atheists can express apologetic arguments (and their flaws) better than Christians can.

Instead of avoiding apologists, I have re-read or read for the first time a number of books on apologetics after becoming an atheist. I actively listen to the Unbelievable podcast which hosts theists and atheists in constructively debate (however, with a decidedly Christian bias). In fact to put my money where my mouth is, if you are a theist and have a suggestion for an apologist with a killer argument I am not familiar with, let me know on Twitter or in the comments and I will try to read or listen and respond.

The average Christian in the pew (and even the average pastor) tends to take the resurrection as a given and work backwards. Jesus was raised, therefore he is the incarnation of God. God communicates with his people, therefore the bible is his authoritative word. God is, therefore he is the creator of everything that is, etc. It is in the realm of faith alone and evidence and logic have little to nothing to do with it. I actually have no problem with this as long as it is acknowledged and not obfuscated.

Apologists, on the other hand, at least make the appearance of objectivity, rationality and logic by attempting to make the arguments for God without taking his existence as a given, a priori. In other words, they have stepped into the arena of evidence. Evidence, unlike faith, can be tested and weighed for its validity.


For more see my critiques of apologetics from an honest seeker or check out the podcast.

On the podcast I challenge believers not to an intellectual contest but to an honesty contest.

So let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s assume there is a true 50/50 probability that God does or does not exist making as few assumptions as possible and let’s examine some of the apologetic arguments. I am going to be overly generous, only making passing arguments against, and granting the apologist’s argument as we go for the sake of argument in order to progress through the complete apologetic argument for Christianity. The point of this exercise? Does this line of argument lead to a theistic God? Does it lead to Christ?

My apologies up front for the cultural and religious centrism. Since my background is Christianity that is what we will focus on.

Watch your step

Step zero is actually granting that the immaterial, non-physical or meta-physical is even possible. I discuss this in a thread about presuppositions. It is important to highlight here that we cannot even begin the discussion without granting without any evidence to support it that the immaterial exists at all.

Rather than building up to an argument for the existence of a god, tellingly, we must begin almost immediately with asserting one. We effectively have to bootstrap the existence of a god. This takes a tremendous amount of assumptions about the nature of reality. Obviously, this is the step that atheists cannot accept. There are so many bootstrapping apologetic arguments that picking just one is difficult. I will focus here on the one that used to make sense to me.

First Cause

This is often called the Cosmological argument. Aristotle called it the Unmoved Mover. Thomas Aquinas called it the First Cause or the Uncaused Cause.

The modern version of the argument is called the Kalam Cosmological Argument most prominently espoused by William Lane Craig. It starts with this syllogism:

 1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
2. The universe began to exist;
Therefore:
3. The universe has a cause.

I’ll just mention that there is not scientific consensus beyond the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe. Therefore, even premise 2 is an assumption of sorts. However, here is where we get to the point of this post.

What if I grant you that?

If I grant the universe has a cause, this leaves us with a near infinite range of possible explanations. The cause could be 4 dimensional branes from M Theory banging together. The universe could be a simulation with an “intelligent designer” that would probably not satisfy theists. It could be that universes pop into existence from the quantum mechanical nature of vacuum energy. It could be the Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy. I am skeptical of all of these because as yet there is not enough or in some cases any evidence to support them. The point is I do not know what caused the universe. Scientists do not know what caused the universe or if it is caused at all. And neither do you.

Nothing about acknowledging the universe had a cause leads to evidence for a god. Ignorance (lack of knowledge) is a terrible argument for god, because our gaps in knowledge have a tendency to get filled. This has happened over and over since the scientific revolution.

Bootstrapping a deity

Having accepted that the universe has a cause William Lane Craig moves on to an argument for God:

 1. The universe has a cause;

2. If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful;

3. An uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.

First off re-read the above argument. Now read it again. Does that honestly give you comfort? Are you more convinced that God exists because of it?

Or like me and many many others, do you recognize that premise 2 is the definition of begging the question. That means the the desired outcome or conclusion is baked into the premise of the question. How did we get from a cause for the universe to “an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful?” I need you to feel the vastness of this logical leap.

If I tell you to stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and unassisted hop over to the other side, that starts to… No that is not enough. Stand at the East coast of the US and hop over the Atlantic Ocean … No that is not enough. Hop from the Earth to the moon? No, how about from the Earth to Alpha Centari? I am only beginning to express the vast void one needs to traverse between premise 1 and premise 2.

In the technology world when a difficult problem is overcome with a complex solution, it is said:

Now you have two problems

Asserting a deity for the cause of the universe is the ultimate complex solution to a difficult a problem. Now you have the second problem of explaining where the deity came from. Further asserting said deity is uncaused and eternal only furthers your problems as you add complexity on top of complexity. If the deity invoked to explain the existence of the universe can be eternal and uncaused so can the universe itself which is the simpler answer.

I would rather have questions that can’t be answered,
than answers that can’t be questioned. ― Richard Feynman

Before I grant you that. I actually need to insert several steps here because William Lane Craig has inserted so many unsupported assertions into premise 2 that I have to grant you more than one thing.

Rather than beat a dead horse, I need to grant you a number of things:

 2. If the universe has a cause,
2a. there is an uncaused cause,
2b. it transcends the universe,
2c. it is powerful,
2d. it is a being or beings,
2e. it is creative,
2f. it is intelligent.

This is an incomplete list of what is being asserted in premise 2. Notice that none of these things follow from premise 1. There is no logical requirement that if the universe has a cause it must be a deity like being. We have begged the question.

What if I grant you that?

I need to point out that around this point, I have granted you Intelligent Design in regards to the universe. The ID advocates may rejoice.

Hold your rejoicing for a moment. We have had to grant a huge logical leap to bootstrap a deity or deities. But what does this give us? The answer is deism. Deism is the idea that there is a creator god but that it does not interact with its creation. The analogy of a clock maker is often used to describe deism. The clock maker winds up the clock and steps away from its creation. This was actually the predominant philosophy of the founding fathers of the United States. Thomas Jefferson famously ripped out all the parts of the bible that included miracles of any kind.

What deism is not is theism or a personal god that interacts with its creation. Most Christian believers will not be satisfied with a deist deity or deities.

Theistic God

Observant readers will note that William Lane Craig’s premise 2 sneaks in personal as one of the descriptions of the cause of the universe. I have left it until now to point out that even though we have granted the huge logical leap of a deistic deity or deities, absolutely nothing we have said so far requires said deity to interact with or care about its creation. The universe could be a simulation by a pan-dimensional programmer and it would mostly still fit what has been granted. Another point is that William Lane Craig has been a bit cheeky by asserting so much in premise 2. I had to break it into multiple arguments just to highlight how much question begging was taking place.

Update: I have come to understand why Craig does this, but this does not diminish in any way the critique being leveled here.

William Lane Craig is asserting an all powerful, all knowing, eternal, interactive, transcendent, unchanging, personal creator. Also note the singular.

 3. An uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.

What if I *cough* *heave* grant you that?

Again, I need you to feel the vast logical leap from a deistic deity to a theistic one. Nothing requires this. It is being granted for the sake of argument. At this point, we have granted a theistic singular God who created the universe and interacts with his creation. Note: for the sake of the argument I will now use the capital ‘G’ and the pronoun ‘he’ just for expediency, nothing granted thus far requires this.

Thought Experiment

Try this thought experiment to see if you find this line of argumentation compelling in a different context.

One might think we have just about wrapped this up. But what we do not have is any indication if this God is a good God. He could be a malevolent sadist. Or he could be indifferent.

The Problem of Evil and the Theodicy

Typically the theistic God is defined as:

  • Omniscience: All knowing
  • Omnipotent: All powerful
  • Omnipresent: Everywhere present
  • Eternal: Existing in all of time: past, present and future

This has effectively been granted thus far. But in addition to the above at least Christian theists add:

  • Loving and benevolent

Here we have to address a negative argument against the existence of God. If we accept the five definitions of God above we have a logical problem for the source of evil or suffering in the world.

This logical problem is most famously posed by Epicurus, the Greek philosopher:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

If you are a theist and you find William Lane Craig’s argument convincing as a logical argument, then you have to take seriously Epicurus’ logical problem of evil. Is God responsible for evil and suffering in the wold and if he is should one worship him?

The attempt at overcoming this logical problem is called theodicy. Theists have been making theodicy arguments for centuries for either why there is no logical problem or why God is still just to punish evil doers regardless of his own culpability in creating evil.

The most often quoted theodicy is free will. The idea that in order for creatures to love they must be capable of choosing otherwise. I’ll just note two problems with this. One, nothing about free will explains why a free willed good creature, created by a good God would choose evil. Why did Adam and Eve eat the apple? In fact, this raises more questions than it answers. Second, we run right back into a logical problem.

An omniscience, omnipotent and eternal God, one that knows the outcome of all possible choices would seem to preclude truly free will in his creatures. This God in physics speak is able to observe the space-time loaf and nothing can surprise him, so how could a creature choose anything other than what God already knows and wills? And if this is the case, how do you explain evil and suffering?

Extra credit: My favorite theodicy from a beloved systematic theology professor of mine is that evil is absurd and therefore cannot be accounted for. But again, this raises more questions than it answers.

What if I grant you that?

Let’s pause and appreciate, yet again, what a large leap is being granted. We are granting a benevolent theistic God that in some mysterious way is not responsible for evil and suffering experienced by his creations. This does not logically follow from what has been previously granted. This is granted for the sake of argument.

What has been granted is a benevolent theistic God. Should one worship him?

Pascal’s Wager

When theists talk with atheists they often eventually use some variation of this lovely argument:

If you (the atheist) are right and I (the theist) am wrong, when I die nothing happens.
But, if I am right and you are wrong, when you die you will go to hell.

This is called Pascal’s wager named after the famous mathematician who made this as a probabilistic mathematical argument.

  1. God is, or God is not. Reason cannot decide between the two alternatives.
  2. A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.
  3. You must wager (it is not optional).
  4. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
  5. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.
  6. But some cannot believe. They should then ‘at least learn your inability to believe…’ and ‘Endeavour then to convince’ themselves.

There are a number of problems with this argument. I’ll point out just one at the moment. Even if I am convinced by the probabilistic argument, can I make myself believe? Can I fake it till I make it? I understand that theist believe atheists choose not to believe but this is actually not the case. Atheists are atheists because they are unconvinced by the arguments for God. It turns out it is not actually possible to choose to believe. Think of it this way, can you choose not to believe?

What if I grant you that?

If I were convinced by Pascal’s unassailable game theory, I still have one very important question that needs to be answered before I can act on it.

Which God?

I was a bit sloppy earlier by jumping to the use of capital G god and using the pronoun he. Nothing precludes multiple gods nor likewise goddesses. But for the sake of argument let’s ignore that.

There are approximately 5000 gods worshiped in present day. If we take into account the 200000 years or so of human history, the vast majority of which was before writing was invented, that number likely balloons to something much greater. Even just within written history we have many gods to choose from. Is Zeus the one true God?

This is very important for theists to understand. The great passion, dedication and piety with which you believe in your God is equally felt and expressed by theists of other traditions. Yet each faith tradition claims unique exclusivity. How can a person possibly decide which is correct?

If you are a Christian, a Muslim feels exactly the same way about their God as you do about yours and looks at you as an outsider the same way you do them. Can you honestly say if you were raised in another part of the world under a different tradition you would still believe your current faith is the one and only?

Thought Experiment

Try this thought experiment to see if you find this line of argumentation compelling in a different context.

Even if you are of the ecumenical type who says that YHWH, The Father and Allah are one in the same that is still a tiny fraction of the gods who are or have been worshiped by humanity. Even if you are a universalist, many theists would argue you are condemned not in spite of but because of your universalism.

YHWH

As a nod to Pascal, let’s use probability math. Granting that there is a theistic God to begin with your odds are 1/5000+ (< or = .o2%) of having been born in the culture which worships the correct God. In this case, we are assessing the probability that YHWH is the one true God.

What if I grant you that?

YHWH is the particular theistic God who has been granted for the sake of argument.

Now the burning question is how should YHWH be worshiped? Do I need to sacrifice a bull? Will eating bacon offend him? Am I to give all that I have to the poor? Must I tithe? Is the Eucharist a saving grace? Is baptism a requirement? Do I need to be born again?

For the sake of expedience even if I grant that the God of the New Testament supersedes or reveals YHWH (with apologies to my Jewish friends), we are still left with approximately 2000 different Christian sects. Which one is correct?

This is a non-trivial question. For a millennium there was almost exclusively the Catholic (universal) Church. Then came the Orthodox Church near the first millennium. Protestantism is a relative new comer in the last few hundred years. There are some dramatic differences between even just these three faith traditions.

Evangelicalism

Things are beginning to take focus. Much has been granted but we still have a handful of steps to go. We are selecting among the many sects to decide which is the correct way to worship YHWH.

We still have a number of selections to make:

Jewish or Christian?
Catholic or Protestant?
Bible believing or liberal theology?
Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness or orthodox Christianity?
Main line or Evangelical?

What if I grant you that?

Ignoring the great many other sects of Christianity, let’s grant that Evangelicalism is the correct way to worship YHWH. For the sake of expediency we are going to ignore the fact that Evangelicalism itself can be split many more ways. Baptist or Pentecostal? Calvinist or Arminian? etc, etc. Diminishing returns and all that. We will grant that one must be born again.

Besides their focus on the Great Commission to evangelize the world the other defining characteristic of Evangelicalism is their reverence for the bible.

Thought Experiment

Try this thought experiment to see if you find this line of argumentation compelling in a different context.

The current question on the table: can the bible be trusted?

Biblical Authority

Fundamentalist Evangelicals hold to a few hard line doctrines in regards to the bible.

The bible is God-breathed: Inspired by God
The bible is inerrant: It has no errors
The bible is authoritative: The buck stops here

Apologists like to point out that the bible (if one takes it as one unit) is the most attested to ancient text. Meaning there are more and older fragments of the new and old testament than any other ancient text.

What is the second most attested to ancient text, you probably did not ask? Tellingly, it is Homer’s the Odyssey and the Iliad. Should we ascribe only slightly less authority to Homer’s descriptions of Zeus as we do YHWH?

Regarding inerrancy, apologists claim there are no contradictions in the bible. I will simply ask you to read two stories in all four gospels and decide for yourself. The Christmas story and the story of the resurrection. However, when you read them in each gospel, actually compare the genealogies, try to reconcile the timelines, who was where and when. I appreciate that there are apologetic explanations. But do you find that compelling when you read it for yourself?

For a slightly more comprehensive look at biblical contradictions take a look at http://bibviz.com/.

Update: When I originally wrote this piece I was still learning. Though the above link has many real contradictions, they tend toward the trivial and easily dismissed.  For a much more scholarly and, therefore, all the more devastating look at contradictions see Steven DiMattei’s Contradictions In The Bible.

What if I grant you that?

Logical minded theists will note that around this point we should be at the end of the conversation. If I have granted you that YHWH is the one theistic God and that he has inspired the inerrant and authoritative bible and that Evangelicalism is the way to worship him, there is not much more to debate.

However, for the sake of argument I have granted many things thus far so please grant me a few more steps to discuss. We have yet to discuss Jesus. I think you will agree he is rather an important figure to bring to the front.

Jesus

It is to the person of Jesus we turn next. We have had to forcibly bend the arguments to get here by ignoring all the other religious traditions in human history. For Christians the person of Jesus is both the revelation and the veiling of YHWH. And thus the most important figure in history.

In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis put forth the argument that is often paraphrased as:

Jesus is either
a liar
a lunitic
or Lord

The argument that C. S. Lewis is making is that based on the claims of Jesus he cannot be just a good teacher. He is arguing against people who admire Jesus’ teaching but do not believe his claims as a member of the godhead. The fantastic claims made by Jesus require a  choice to be made. You are “either for him or against him.”

There are some flaws in the logic and there are other possible answers. But ultimately, Lewis’ argument is that Jesus claimed deity and one must grapple with that claim.

Did Jesus claim deity?

What if I grant you that?

Because my background was Evangelicalism this one is not difficult to grant. Unlike a few sects of Christianity and many of the other world religions who deny Jesus claimed deity I have no problem granting that he made these claims, with a couple of fairly large caveats.

I’ll first have to grant the historicity of Jesus though this is not a given and requires granting. I’ll also have to grant that the words and claims made in the gospels attributed to Jesus were claimed by this granted historical figure. But please keep in mind the longstanding historical tendency to put words into a historical figure’s mouth long after the fact.

To be clear, what I am granting is that based on the New Testament texts that we have today the figure of Jesus in those texts claimed deity.

How do we evaluate those claims to deity?

Paul and the Gospels

If you have been paying attention over the last 20 years or so of apologetics, you will have noticed a curious thing. Apologists have stopped using the four canonical gospels as evidence and focused almost entirely on Paul and an early catechism of the Christian faith:

3 For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. — NET 1 Corinthians 15:3-8

Rather than attempting to hide or downplay their lack of faith in the gospels many modern apologists in debates with atheists will make a point of it with a bold statement like:

I am going to make my arguments without reference to the gospels

What a curious thing. And the reason they are doing this is the dating of the gospels. Even conservative theologians are starting to recognize that the gospels were likely written much much later than previously thought. I’ll not go into depth on this argument but to say that some of the prophetic statements attributed to Jesus are not as impressive if they happened after the fact.

Regardless of the academic debates of the exact dating of the gospels, apologists have in fact moved away from using them as evidence. They now focus on Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 catechism because it is dated much earlier. The average Christian is unaware that many of Paul’s writings preceded the gospels. It would not be unfair to say that Christianity is of Paul’s making.

Was the catechism in 1 Corinthians from an early date and an accurate expression of the Christian faith at the time?

What if I grant you that?

Accepting an early date of the Pauline catechism in 1 Corinthians proves beyond a shadow of a doubt one thing and one thing only. It proves that Paul believed that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead and was the Christ.

I’ll just point out there is a huge difference between accepting that Paul believed Jesus was risen and Jesus having in fact been resurrected. An honest apologist will acknowledge this. When we read of other religious claims of people raising from the dead we dismiss them out of hand. There is as much reason to believe these stories as there is the Jesus story.

If you are an Evangelical you probably do not believe Joseph Smith discovered golden glasses that allowed him to translate the angel Moroni. Why not? Were you aware that there are signed affidavits to the authenticity of Smith’s translations?  Clearly I am not trying to convert you to Mormonism. The point is you rightly dismiss this story as unreliable even though it has more and more recent “evidence” than the 500 unnamed sources who are claimed to have witnessed the resurrected Christ. Did they sign affidavits?

Resurrection

Apologists rightly focus on the resurrection. It is the crux of Christianity. C.S Lewis’ argument hinges on the resurrection to prove Jesus’ claims to the godhead. This is the starting point that most theists take as a given. But here we are trying to look at the evidence.

Believe it or not I agree with Paul:

12 Now if Christ is being preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty. 15 Also, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified against God that he raised Christ from the dead, when in reality he did not raise him, if indeed the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless; you are still in your sins. 18 Furthermore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. 19 For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone. – NET 1 Corinthians 15:12-19

A few years before my deconversion I had this conversation with my atheist friend. I acknowledged that it really is binary. Either Jesus was resurrected from the dead or this is all useless. At the time I was confident in my faith that Jesus was raised from the dead.

I would still be a Christian and I would return to Christianity today if there were strong objective evidence for the resurrection. Alas, I am sad to say there is not.

Either this super-natural, unprecedented and never repeated event is true or in Paul’s words “our preaching is futile and your faith is empty.”

What if I …

There is a fourth option to C.S. Lewis’ argument even granting that Jesus was a historical person: Jesus may have been acting on faith in what he believed and simply been mistaken.

Apologists tend to ignore or minimize information that is difficult to explain. Mathew describes some unbelievable phenomena at the time of Jesus’ death:

51 Just then the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks were split apart. 52 And tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised.53 (They came out of the tombs after his resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.) — NET Mathew 27:51-53

No one bothered to comment about dead people coming back to life and walking around town like some kind of zombie movie!? Not only do we not have a mention of this extraordinary phenomenon in secular recorded history but no other gospel writers felt the need to mention it. It is not that apologists do not have explanations, it is that the explanations make the apologists case less tenable. You might argue that this is poetic or metaphorical but if you do then you must give a reason why the resurrection itself is literal and not metaphorical.

Apologists often make the argument that the disciples were willing to die and therefore they must have seen the resurrected Christ. But to make this argument is to willfully ignore the history of martyrdom among all faith traditions. People have been willing to die for their particular faith throughout human history. Unfortunately, this is not unique to Christianity.

I’ll make the same point I did with Paul. The New Testament proves only that the disciples believed Jesus had been raised. And even here we have to grant the historicity of the disciples as the gospels were written years after the fact.

The difference between proving the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead and Jesus actually having been raised is similar to our earlier analogy of hopping from the Earth to Alpha Centauri. This extraordinary claim would require extraordinary evidence. Hearsay is not enough for me.

Was Jesus resurrected? I am afraid, based on the evidence, I cannot grant you that. And if the resurrection is not literally true, believers “should be pitied more than anyone.”

Thought Experiment

Try this thought experiment to see if you find this line of argumentation compelling in a different context.

Conclusion

The purpose of this exercise was to see if using apologetic arguments from the general to the specific would lead to theism and ultimately Jesus and the resurrection. An honest apologist will acknowledge that at each step we had to grant the argument in order to proceed.

The arguments do not follow from each other logically and inexorably toward the resurrection. In fact the opposite is true, we had to make very large logical leaps at almost every step. The three largest leaps requiring the most faith without evidence are the following:

  • The non-physical exists at all
  • Asserting a deity as the first cause of the universe
  • The resurrection of Jesus

Without granting each of these there would be no discussion at all. There is no evidence for a non-physical reality. The apologetic theist needs to begin by providing evidence for meta-physics of any kind before asserting anything about deities.

It takes a massive complex leap to go from acknowledging a cause for the universe to asserting that the cause is a deity. “Now you have two problems.”

Having documents that show that early followers believed Jesus rose from the dead is much much different than having evidence for the resurrection itself. It takes more than an empty tomb to be considered evidence for such an extraordinary claim.

It is possible to quibble over a point here or there in the above arguments. I have purposefully avoided an in depth argument over any one given point. You may think, “Aha!, I have got you on this one or that one.” However, the thrust of my argument here is that the long list of assertions made by apologists is cumulative. If just one of the assertions is incorrect the whole of the apologetic argument crashes like a house of cards. I argue that none of the assertions has enough evidence to overcome reasonable doubt.

1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see. — NET Hebrews 11:1

Ironically, I am actually OK with a person saying that they believe by faith alone. If you find the above apologetic arguments comforting based purely on faith, more power to you. All I ask is that you acknowledge this. There are, however, some implications to this position. If it is faith alone, then the believer must acknowledge their faith has no bearing on anyone besides themselves and possibly their faith community. It has no claim to reality in the physics sense. It is not OK, therefore, to impose your faith on others in the public forum.

If, however, you enter into the arena of apologetics and evidence you must acknowledge the dearth and weakness of the evidence. Evidence is not that which convinces the faithful. Evidence is that which convinces the skeptic. Based on the evidence available to me I find the claims of Christianity un-believable.

Is it just that I had the wrong image of god?

Atheism, Deconversion, Philosophy

Tripp Fuller, a progressive theologian, recently put into words on the God Debacle an evasive tactic I used to be guilty of and something I have heard over and over again now that I am an atheist.

When talking to non-believers you spend a lot of time distancing yourself from other Christians. “You don’t understand, I am not like the other 99% of Christians. I am different.” * Paraphrased quote

I think Tripp was mocking this position not espousing it. It was a communally self-aware statement so I will not disparage him. But what I used to mean when I said it is “Don’t judge me by all the horrible things other Christians have said. I am different, I know about grace.” I did not want to own the baggage that came with associating with the “cultural” Christianity one sees on TV. I certainly wasn’t a legalistic, moralistic, hell fire and brimstone Christian and I didn’t want to have to defend those who were. “Don’t you want to hear about my version of Christianity?”

Christians tend to slice up the world into smaller and smaller slices. Theists and atheists. Christians and followers of other religions. Protestants and Catholics. Bible believers and liberal theologians. Baptists and Pentecostals. My specific denomination. My specific church. My specific beliefs. I am the 1% remnant who really understands the gospel.

If you ask 100 Christians what Christianity is all about, you will get 100 different answers. There is no arbiter of truth between faith positions. One might say, “the bible is the arbiter.” But Christians are using the same bible and coming up with conflicting belief systems.

Here is a subtler version of the evasion expressed by Andy Stanley while on the Life After God Podcast with Ryan Bell describing having listened to deconversion stories:

I am so glad that you let go of that view of god …

The thing that drove this person away from faith wasn’t even an actual part of the Christian faith.

What he means is the version of god or Christianity someone believed in was incorrect: god as authoritarian, capricious and vindictive. Of course a person would choose not to believe in that god. The implication: “If only they believed in the version of god that I do, they would be spiritually satisfied.”

I am ashamed to say I used to use this tack. A lot. Here is the problem with that argument. I believed in the version of god Andy does. I was a “Grace Junkie.” I wasn’t interested in scaring the hell out of people I wanted to share god’s loving grace. I have read Andy’s books! I could have written similar books with as much passion and conviction. But for one problem. When one takes in the whole bible, not just cherry picking the “good” grace filled parts, the inescapable truth is that the god of the bible is authoritarian, capricious and vindictive. The version of god in the bible when read without grace colored glasses is a monster.

I became an atheist not because I had a terrible image of god and not because of some tragic hurt against me. I became an atheist because as soon as I began to use the same level of scrutiny on my faith (which included reading the bible as whole) as I did with others it did not hold up.

What I have come to understand is that followers of religions do need to own the baggage of their chosen faith. If one’s religious ancient text leads some people to do terrible things to other people one does not get to ignore those parts of the ancient text. There is no arbiter of truth between faith positions because faith positions are not based on evidence. If one’s own sense of ethics prohibits one from accepting the whole of one’s ancient text, then the ancient text and the god(s) it purports should be abandoned.

* I am paraphrasing from memory. My apologies to Tripp. Please correct me if I got this wrong or misrepresented the idea.

The Beginning of Religion is Death

Atheism, Deconversion, Humanism, Philosophy, Secular Grace

Philosophy of religion has much to say about the origins of religion. Under no compunction to accept religious claims as fact, philosophy of religion can look at the root causes. In vernacular terms, the explanation tends to be that religion evolved due to early humanity’s attempt to explain that which they did not understand. The list of confusing phenomenon included everything from the weather to death itself. The idea of an unseen agent observing one’s actions helped keep group mores enforced. The priests, shaman and spiritual leaders likely enjoyed the recognition and power it brought and began to use said power to overtly control others by enforcing orthodoxy (right thought) and orthopraxy (right action).

While the above explanation is a good one it does not capture the pathos of why religion is so tempting to humans. I will argue the driving force for the evolution of religion is death itself. The soul (if you will permit me the term) of the continuing appeal of religion today is the fear of one’s own death and the need to understand the death of our loved ones.

Lest you think this discussion is in the abstract, I would like to make this personal. I am writing this within arms reach of my mother’s ashes. Eight months after my loss of faith my mother somewhat unexpectedly succumbed to the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction. I had to face the stark reality of her death without the comfort of my previous faith. She is gone. She will not one day be resurrected with a body impervious to addiction. I will not be seeing her again.

It is from this perspective that I would like to discuss how powerful a motivator the need to explain death can be. In my early not-a-Christian state I will admit it was tempting to fall back to the comforting self-delusion that I would get to see her again some day. Worse than that was dealing with the rest of my believing family showering me with similar platitudes that rang profoundly shallow to my ears. Not to mention, the misplaced attention on me by the family pastor who knew I was an atheist during my mother’s funeral.

We humans have a number of psychological defense mechanisms regarding death. We have the amazing capacity to ignore its inevitability until it is thrust in front of us. When we are young we are invincible. The understanding of our mortality slowly grows on us as we age. Some handle this gracefully, others rail against it until the end.

I am sympathetic to those who still believe and even more so to the early humans living in a hostile world they did not understand. The idea of our loved ones living on after death is a powerful one. Our minds take evasive action in order to protect ourselves from the grim reality that not only will we not see our loved ones again, but one day we too will cease to be. It is so much easier to tell ourselves a beautiful story about heaven, and easier still to ignore the evidence to the contrary.

Our cognitive goal is not one of truth but of validation. Opposition results in cognitive dissonance, a psychological conflict that is seldom resolved by the abandonment of belief. Consonance is restored through refutation, support, and proselytism. — Neil Brown

Accepting the truth that there is no life after death and the inevitability of one’s mortality has benefits beyond just being true. For one, I was able to truly grieve my mother’s loss without the pressure to “Buck up, because you’ll see her again someday,” I could allow myself to feel the pain of her loss, to weep with all of my being and to be inconsolable without the guilt of not having enough faith piled on top of my grief. This allows the eventual and even inevitable acceptance to feel freer and more complete. She is gone but the love that we had for each other continues on in me for a time.

Understanding at a deep level that this is the only life I get to live makes each moment more poignant. My time with my wife and children is invaluable to me precisely because it is finite. To be a mortal human is a glorious and terrifying thing.

As we as atheists* interact with and debate theists we must keep in mind the many powerful motivators pushing people toward faith. Our logic may come up short against the visceral need to believe life continues after this one. We need a bit of Secular Grace for them in our interactions.

Have you lost a loved one? Are you worried about facing death as an atheist? Need a bit of Secular Grace yourself? Tell me about it in the comments or on Twitter.

You keep using that word I do not think it means what you think it means

Atheism, Philosophy

Recently I have noticed in the twitterverse a number of theists arguing some variation of the following:

Atheism takes as much faith as theism

This is an interesting argument for me because even when I was a believer it would have never occurred to me to think this way. I spend a great deal of time trying to understand the process I went through from faith to lack of faith. I try to remember how I felt and how I thought when I was a believer. But I never would have made this argument.

Words have meaning

The definitions of words matter. Atheism is by definition Not-theism or the lack of belief in a deity or deities. End of conversation. Saying one is an atheist makes the very simple statement that one does not believe in god(s). Nothing more and nothing less. Atheism is by definition the absence faith. So to make the claim that atheism requires faith is a bit of a non-starter.

I am not trying to be obtuse or pedantic. If I am being extremely generous in an attempt to facilitate communication, I can almost understand the thinking of the theist. To the theist all things have their being in god and therefore, the concept of a universe that does not require god does not compute. To the believer god is self evident and therefor the atheist must be deliberately willfully rejecting god. They might call that a type of “faith.”

Bad argument

There are a number of problems with this perspective. Not the least of which is “Which god is self evident?” My believer friend, let me do you a favor.  Stop using this argument. It is a bad one for anyone who owns a dictionary. Atheism is a statement about what one does not believe. We do not say it takes faith to not believe in other things. The number of things one does not believe in is infinite.

  • It takes no faith to not believe that the titans were birthed by Gaia and Uranus.
  • It takes no faith to not believe Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are the creator, maintainer and destroyer of the world.
  • It takes no faith to not believe the world sits upon an elephant which sits upon a turtle.
  • It takes no faith to not believe Joseph Smith found magical golden glasses that allowed him to translate the angel Moroni.
  • It takes no faith to not believe in pan-dimensional super intelligent beings who happen to be green.
  • It takes no faith to not believe in an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient god.

There is no evidence for any of the above statements.

Burden of proof

The problem arises when the believer assumes the atheist needs to disprove god. This begs the question. The burden of proof is on the believer to provide evidence that god exists. Most atheists are skeptics, meaning they require evidence before they will accept a claim. Atheists like myself have examined the arguments and the evidence and found it wanting. A rejection of the claim that a theistic god exists is based on lack of evidence or poor arguments for the claim and not on “faith.”

In a future blog post I will address some of the things that some atheists may be said to “believe.” Some of us are humanists, some of us are naturalists, some of us are materialists. But it is important to distinguish these positive philosophies from atheism. Each of them stands or falls on its own merits. If one or more were to be disproved, that would not constitute evidence for a theistic god.