Apologetics, epistemology and moving on

Atheism, Critique of Apologetics, Naturalism, Philosophy

I am done

I am done with apologetics. I am done listening to debates between naturalists and theists. I am done giving apologetics the benefit of the doubt as a valid point of debate. Over the past few years, right before and since my deconversion, I have spent a significant amount of time listening to debates, reading articles and generally trying to understand the theists’ arguments for the existence of god. This includes attempting to remember what used to convince me. But now I am done.

What disappoints me about apologists is not that they are making arguments for Christianity.
I expect and encourage that.
What disappoints me is that the arguments are weak.

In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, one story describes some characters using a fictional algorithm that filters diplomatic speak and reduces it to concrete information. It removes the flowery double speak and outputs the actual useful content, information that can be acted upon. In the story one ambassador’s lengthy comments reduced to no content whatsoever, many many words but no information.

While reading this fictional story it dawned on me that this is what has been bothering me about apologetics for years. Apologetic arguments reduce to nothingness. It is a shell game. There is no actual content, it is all assertions.

Here I have to acknowledge something. Let’s call it a confession. Even today when I read a new article or hear a new argument there is some part of me that hopes the argument will make sense, that it will be valid and that my metaphysics will be, if not overturned, at least challenged. My emotional reaction is one of deep disappointment. I do not mean to say that I want to be wrong, but maybe there is some lingering shame at having been gullible enough to believe the apologist arguments in the past. If their arguments were at least sound, then I might have an excuse for having stayed as long as I did.

Me reading a new apologist:
Interesting …
Maybe …
Maybe …
Maybe …
Nope same old argument.

Apologetic arguments no matter how sophisticated tend to reduce to a few well understood fallacies:

1) Begging the question

This is when the conclusion is baked into the question. My favorite(?) world class example of this is William Lane Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument. From my post What if I grant you that:

 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.

… 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.

2) Semantic games:

The simplest example of this is the deliberate misrepresentation of terms. Such as abusing the term theory; suggesting that the theory of evolution is “just a theory.” I need you to see how post-modern this is. The post-modern relativism the Church has decried for decades is the bastion of the apologist. I acknowledge here that this simplistic version tends to be deployed by the less sophisticated average theist.

However, a more sophisticated version is deployed when apologists are challenged on logical inconsistencies. For example the problem of evil as expressed by Epicurus:

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?

Here the sophisticated apologist will assert God’s intentions:

God wants us to be free
God wants us to experience the consequences of our actions
God’s ways are above our ways

Or on divine on hidenness:

God loves us enough to withhold his power
God will not force us to believe
Miracles ended in the first century because the bible

How do you know what God intends if his ways are above yours? Rather than acknowledging the obvious inconsistencies semantic games are played to warp the common sense meaning and obfuscate the truth: there is no substance to the apologist’s arguments.

Assertion of my own:
All “known” attributes of god are themselves assertions.
Including, but not limited to, existence.

3) God of the gaps:

This is the beginning and the end for the apologist. Anything we do not yet understand is attributed to god.  This is the big bucket into which most of apologetic arguments fall into.

In the beginning:

There was a time when humanity did not understand lightning. There was a time when we did not understand disease. There was a time when we did not understand evolution. During those times humanity credited these things to the gods.

Where we are now:

The god of the gaps argument is the rapidly shrinking space where science has yet to find answers. Don’t get me wrong, there are vast areas where we do not yet know. Some of them are hugely significant.

An incomplete list of things we do not know:

  • What happened “before” the big bang
  • The origin of life
  • How consciousnesses arises

But there are many many areas of knowledge that have been revealed by science. Areas that were once all assigned to god whether of the theist or of the deist kind. But now there is no reason to believe that our ignorance in a particular area will last forever.

The apologist uses our ignorance to insert a god to fill the gap. Those gaps have gotten smaller and smaller over time at an accelerated pace. At what point do they admit, there is no need of god?

Naturalist: The sum total of scientific, rational and empirical evidence suggests the natural world is all there is.
Theist: Yes, but people really feel like there is a god.

Moving on

To sum up: I am disappointed, bored and I am done. I am not mad at a non-existent god, I am mad at the apologists.

I acknowledge, this is not very intellectual of me. I am, in effect, dismissing arguments, out of hand, without considering them first. But this is the point. Apologetics, at least all of it that I have consumed, reduces to a few already refuted points. Until apologists have new information or evidence to present, the existing arguments can be safely dismissed.

One other complaint that could be leveled at me is that I am creating straw man arguments to knock down. Again, this is the point, the much more qualified scientists, philosophers and ethicists have exhausted themselves since the Enlightenment “steel manning” theists’ arguments and yet still refuting them. What more do I have to add to the argument? The burden is upon the apologist to bring new evidence.

This is sometimes called post-theism. The idea is that theism has had its time to make its arguments. Those arguments have been shown lacking. Therefore, it is time to move on.

It is not that there is no evidence for theism. Read any serious philosophical article on the subject and you will find some evidence for theism. However, the evidence is not compelling. The evidence is not strong enough to convince the skeptic.  The evidence for theism is insufficient to sustain belief. At this point it is a waste of everyone’s, including the apologitst’s, time to continue to beat a dead horse.  It is time to move on.

Built upon the sand

One reason for this insufficiency is the epistemology of faith has no objective basis. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. What is our basis for what is true and what is false. Faith is based purely on tautological assertions.

The god theists assert, asserts that he exists in the asserted divinely inspired scriptures that assert god exists.

It is a bit like a time travel movie where our hero travels to the distant past with an invention she created in the recent past. Say a time machine. She uses the invention to change something in the past. When she returns to the present everything has been changed. The past in which she created the time machine no longer exits. So where did the knowledge for the time machine come from?

I have written about this before. If you ask 100 believers about some point of doctrine or another, you will likely get 100 different answers despite the fact that they read the same scriptures. This is an order of magnitude worse with believers of different faiths. There is no epistemic basis to decide between competing faith positions. There is no way to know which is true and which is false. Because it all is based on subjective experience and assertion.

Solid Ground

I don’t know how to explain to you that evidence is important

Much more compelling is the epistemology in science. Science acknowledges as step zero, that human beings are capable of fooling themselves. Therefore, the scientific method takes great pains to prove a hypothesis wrong, to falsify. Even a well established scientific theory which has withstood this onslaught can be overturned given new evidence. The scientific method actually encourages peer reviewers to be skeptical, to work at disproving a given hypothesis.

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have.
— Carl Sagan

The difference between science and faith, is that rigorously obtained, peer reviewed and replicable data can change the mind of a skeptical scientist, but has no effect on the believer.

I am very open to being proven wrong. I am open to evidence. That would not be boring!

We are all scientists

Lest you think that only a few can be scientists, remember, that humans are natural Bayesians. Few of us understand orbital dynamics and Einstein’s General Relativity, and yet few of us doubt the sun will come up in the morning. We have seen it day after day for all of our lives. We have replicable evidence that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. We can observe it just by looking up.

We don’t have to understand the warping of spacetime in order to know that objects fall to the ground. We have experienced it since childhood. Long before we could say the word gravity we had a visceral understanding of it.

This is Beysian thinking. We come up with an explanation for a phenomenon. We then we gather data. We experience. If the experiences reinforce the explanation we put more trust in it. If it contradicts it we throw it out. The trouble comes when things are inconsistent. Then we tend to fall prey to selection bias and motivated reasoning.

Take prayer as an example. We pray for something, usually something very likely to occur. When it happens, we attribute it to god. When it doesn’t we either forget the prayer all together or we come up with reasons why the answer was a “no.” That is motivated reasoning. When we think back about answers to prayer, we remember when we got what we asked for and forget when we didn’t. That is selection bias.

I want to make one last point clear. I am not saying that people’s experiences of god are not real. There are perfectly good natural explanations for people’s religious experiences. The experience is real the cause is misidentified. I have experienced this personally.


Being rigorous about what we accept as true is critical. A rigorous epistemology is quite possibly the most important resource of our times.

I am done with apologists and moving on. I’ll continue to seek knowledge and truth as rigorously as I can. Join me?


2 thoughts on “Apologetics, epistemology and moving on

  1. Excellent writing – I’d also recommend that you leave the nonsense to others- apologetics goes nowhere, is nowhere, and wastes good time and effort. It has absolutely nothing to contribute to our attempts to fashion what you term “knowledge and truth.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “It is not that there is no evidence for theism. Read any serious philosophical article on the subject and you will find some evidence for theism. However, the evidence is not compelling. The evidence is not strong enough to convince the skeptic. The evidence for theism is insufficient to sustain belief. At this point it is a waste of everyone’s, including the apologitst’s, time to continue to beat a dead horse. It is time to move on.”

    Actually the evidence is enough for billions to believe in God and about a billion to believe in the Christian God. That you do not think the evidence is sufficient is your own issue. It is not my or anyone else’s burden to convince you otherwise. Places like China where atheism is very high, relied on censorship and government oppression to prevent people from freely discussing religion. In places where people are free to discuss religion Christianity is doing fine compared to atheism.

    You keep thinking someone else has “the burden of proof.” That is not the case. The problem with thinking other people owe you the burden of proof is that you tend to forget you are an adult and *you* are responsible for your own intellectual development.

    You can ignore arguments that don’t support your view or try to simplify them into strawmen. But that is your own doing.

    And by the way I would say the same for a Christian that refuses to consider the atheist side of the argument. I am not saying anyone has to be interested in apologetics. But if you decide you are no longer going to actually listen to the arguments of the other side because you are done – don’t claim to be objective.


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