A short description of what we’re up to can be found here. Comments are welcome but may be moderated for content and tone.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Head to Head: Theism and the Skeptics [Part 1]

In two previous posts (The Atheist’s New Clothes and What You Don’t Know Can Kill You), I pointed out that Christianity’s two skeptical critics, atheism and agnosticism, are essentially irrational and explained why they just cannot be taken seriously.

In this post and the next one, I’m answering the obvious first comebacks. These are what I get from the atheists and agnostics themselves, or from those who have been trusting in them. Theism, they say, must surely be susceptible to exactly the same criticisms I have raised against atheism and agnosticism — and perhaps, they venture, even more susceptible: for their supposition is that if their own positions are weak, then surely anything “religious” must be even less well thought out.

Sorry. Not so.

I can show them, but they usually don’t like it much when I do.

Atheism’s Response

Let’s start with atheism. Atheism, I showed, is possible in two forms: wish atheism and knowledge-claim atheism. The first one is empty of threat, because it’s only a personal taste, not one premised on facts or evidence. The second one tries to threaten theism based on evidence, but cannot do so rationally, as I showed in that earlier post.

But the atheist has a comeback there. He says, “Okay, you’ve shown I cannot rationally defend my atheism; but you, as a theist, are in no better position than me. I cannot conclusively prove God does not exist, but you cannot conclusively prove he does. So it’s all a wash — I may be behaving irrationally, but theism is no less irrational”.

However, the atheist is simply wrong. He does not take into account that he makes two claims that the theist does not. These two claims, inherent to atheism itself, allow theism to be rational, but leave atheism as irrational.

What are these two claims? Firstly, there’s the claim the atheist makes that he does not go beyond the material evidence available. Secondly, there’s the atheist’s assertion of a negative-knowledge claim, whereas the theist gets to make a positive knowledge-claim in return.

Weighing the Evidence

Let’s take each of the basic atheist claims in turn. We’ll begin with its so-called superiority of evidence.

Knowledge-atheism’s own claim is that is it based on facts, evidence and knowledge, not on guesswork, wishes, hopes or suppositions. Often, atheists mock theists as though they have no evidence, and thus are willfully working contrary to all evidence — which is how they understand the word “faith”.

But “faith” is not at all what they imagine it is. The thinking theist is not the least bit reluctant to concede to the atheist critic that he does not stand possessed of total evidence, but rather only of partial or personal experiential indicators of the existence of God. The theist also freely admits that the evidence for God can be viewed as equivocal — it would be quite possible for a person living here to see all the evil, injustice and destruction that goes on here, and to have limited contrary experiences upon which to draw, and so to doubt the existence of God; but it would also remain quite possible for someone who had different experiences, a different set of data in mind, and a different view of divine revelation to hold a view that God does exist.

Faith, the Wild Card

But vive la diff√©rence. Theism believes that faith is a reasonable route — indeed, the correct route — to the knowledge of God. Theism does not expect that a lone person, in the absence of experience or available evidence, and in the absence of willingness to believe, can find God. “Without faith it is impossible to please God”, says the Bible, “for he who comes to Him must believe that He is, and that He is the rewarder of them who seek Him”. He also says to His people, “You shall find me when you seek me with all your heart”.

The theist says, “God tells us quite frankly He is not prepared to be known by those who seek him cynically. He expects us to exercise a vote of confidence in His existence first, and then in His character — that He is one who rewards those who really want to know Him — because He wants to know people in precisely that way and no other. Faith is the prerequisite for knowing God; we freely and unapologetically admit that”.

The heart, not just the head, must get into the game. Whether or not you can know God, whether He will let Himself be known by you, depends on what attitude you take when you come to Him. And why would that be a surprise? If God is a God of relationship and love, why would it surprise us if He is very concerned about the kinds of people we are willing to be in coming to Him? Apparently, He is uninterested in meeting us on our own terms, and even less on cynical terms. Apparently He loves those who are open to loving Him.

Surprise? No. Every human being has that attitude too. We don’t want cynics; we want friends. We want people who trust us, seek us, desire our company and think well of us. So can it strike us as odd if God wants no less than we do?

Atheism and Faith

So the willingness — indeed the necessity — of the theist to accept faith as an essential part of “knowing” means that he or she can rationalize belief on the basis of sound partial empirical evidence, plus induction from that evidence, plus willingness to remain open to the possibility of God’s self-revelation, plus the person of Jesus Christ, plus personal experience of the reality of God. For the theist, that is plenty to warrant belief.

But the atheist is stuck. Since all he or she will accept is total empirical evidence — a thing unavailable except in mathematics and formal logic, and not even available in empirical science itself — the atheist can never have evidence sufficient to warrant the skeptical decision upon which atheism depends.

Ironically, to remain an atheist, he or she will have to exercise some faith.

Atheism and Negatives

Now to the second reason the atheist’s response against theism doesn’t work, its attempted defence of a universal negative.

The fundamental statement of the atheist is “There is NO God”. None. Nowhere. No kind. The fundamental claim of theism is “There IS a God”. Note that the first is a negative statement, whereas the second only has to prove a positive.

What difference does that make? Quite a big one, actually. And a little illustration will make this perfectly clear.

Let us suppose that instead of God we are talking about an elusive animal of some kind … let’s call this creature a tenrec. You are an atenrecist: you believe no tenrecs exist. I, on the other hand, am a tenrecist: I believe there is such a thing as a tenrec. Now ask yourself, what has each of us got to do to win our case?

It’s hard, but not impossible, for the atenrecist to make his case solid. All he has to do is travel all over the earth and eliminate all possible places capable of holding a tenrec. If he can cover them all, then he can conclusively declare, “There is no tenrec — I have proved it”. But now, contrast that to what I, the tenrec-believer have to do: do I have to go everywhere? Do I have to check every possibility? No.

How many tenrecs do I have to produce to destroy completely any possibility of atenrecism?

That’s right: just one.

One tenrec will show quite conclusively that I was right and the atenrecist was completely wrong, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.

Now taking this back to the present case, if there is but one genuine manifestation of God in the entire universe, if there is but one appearance, even one miracle, one genuine case of revelation, one authentic prophetic bestowment, one genuine intervention by divine action, or anything in any religious tradition on the face of the entire planet … any one of these destroys the possibility of atheism utterly. So no, the tasks facing atheism and theism are vastly different, and far less demanding on the theist.

So then the only question is this: Is there or has there ever been, in any place or at any time in history, any such genuine manifestation of the existence of God? Only if there has been absolutely none is the atheist secure.

Theism has a much more doable task to prove its case, you can see.

Why Theism is Rational

All of this means that atheism is badly behind the eight ball compared to theism when it comes to the issue of proving its case. Theism can legitimately defend its own claims about God using both evidence and faith. In incorporating faith, it is being duly modest about how all human beings know things; for we know practically nothing absolutely, and most things by their greater or lesser probability in light of evidence. Logicians call this “inductive knowing”, and it is so common that practically everything we humans know is of this type — especially science.

But atheism by definition cannot refer to faith in its explanation of knowledge. If it does, it collapses into agnosticism. Atheism is forced, by its own claim to be evidentiary rather than wish-based, to ante up the evidence. It must prove beyond any possibility of doubt that God does not exist. And it cannot.

Not only that, but should even a single genuine piece of evidence for theism ever appear, that would be sufficient to blow atheism to pieces forever, rationally speaking. One genuine miracle, one genuine prophecy, one genuine divine visitation, even a single word of genuine revelation from God would destroy the value all the contrary evidence atheism could ever muster. If one modicum of genuine evidence for God exists — in any religious tradition or anywhere else in the universe — then the conclusion is inescapable: atheism is simply untrue. God exists.

So again we see that theism can be rational, but atheism never can. It’s not just horribly vulnerable to disproof, but as we saw earlier, is completely incapable of producing adequate proof for its own claims.

Escape Clause

“Okay”, says the atheist, “you’ve got me. But so what? Let me call in my cousin, agnosticism; he’s really big, and he’ll mop the floor with you!”

Should the theist be more afraid of agnosticism than atheism? We’ll see next post.

3 comments :

  1. Very nice. You have hit the second nail right on the head. I am venturing the guess that with all that hammering you are in the process of building a coffin for atheism/agnosticism :-).

    More seriously though, but that discussion has been going on (futilely) forever and you should consider having had an impact even if you are just able to reach one or two persons. It remains true that, ultimately, God needs to draw people to himself and that your presentation is only one aspect of that. I call those things life events that are introduced in a person's life to make them consider or reconsider to give God a try. Those who have had them know so and have no doubts about that. In addition, there is, of course, the much more mundane way to acknowledge and recognize God simply by having been part of a loving family life and environment where you grew up that way. The ultimate proof of God is then where you are in, or are able to create, an environment that exemplifies Christ's (supreme) teaching of sacrifice, forbearance, love and compassion, like "love your enemy", which is not available anywhere else. None of this comes free, of course, and takes a lot of work, mostly in yourself, which is, in my opinion, the main reason why people stay away from making it part of their lifes. It's the inconvenience thing again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Too true, Qman. If IC's posts on the subject are helpful to atheists or agnostics, that would be a terrific bonus. Our main concern is to encourage believers who might worry that atheism and agnosticism have more intellectual and philosophical substance than they actually do. But like you say, even "one or two persons" are of great concern to the Lord.

      Delete
    2. Tom's got my purpose right.

      Atheism is not curable except by open-mindedness plus the relevant evidence. Absent either of those, there is no way to change it -- because it's a heart choice, not a head choice.

      However, Christians are often anxious that a great many eloquent or academically-inclined folks declare themselves atheists. We must admit there are a disproportionately high number of educated persons who choose that label -- at least in the West. Some even insist that no intelligent person could possibly believe anything else.

      Dawkins et al. call themselves "The Brights."...presumably to shame theists as "dullards" of some kind. That's stupid talk, of course, but enough of it can become discouraging. And it is the case that a great many people in the higher realms of academe call themselves atheists.

      In any case, tthere are a lot of purported atheists around, and a lot of brave words associated with that posture. Atheism is a sort of de facto position in a lot of public life and politics as well.

      We can forgive Christians, therefore, if they sometimes feel a little intimidated and put down by all that. But the real marvel here is not the number of people who claim atheism, nor its pervasiveness in our media and society, but the fact that the belief system itself is so clearly absurd. It is a bombastic posture, one that intimidates more through the extremity of its rhetoric than anything, and which has no good reasons to commend it, as you can see.

      It is liberating for Christians to realize the enemy in this case is so shallow and rationally implausible. It's clicking on an empty chamber. So I'd like Christians to see the truth of that for themselves. And that's my audience here.

      Delete