Apologetics: Not Even Speaking the Same Language

Tower of Babel
Talking to theists is like living on a modern-day Tower of Babel

I know that anyone who has spent any time whatsoever debating theists has had this feeling, that the two of you are really speaking two completely different languages.  What you say makes no sense whatsoever to the theist and what the theist says makes absolutely no sense to you.  No matter how much you clarify, no matter how much you explain, the results are never any different.

I ended up having a debate with a pair of Christians on Twitter.  Yes, I know that’s a waste of effort, even at the best of times, but I’m crazy and with the use of services like TwitLonger, it’s not so bad.  We were debating the Kalam Cosmological Argument and I was pointing out the clear and distinct problems with it.  The theists who were tag-teaming on the other end of the line were just standing there blank-faced, like they couldn’t comprehend a word coming out of my mouth.

They thought that clearly, the existence of an uncaused cause, which they simply assumed existed, automatically translated into the Biblical God in a single step and no one could possibly argue any of it.  I’m not going to get into the same things I’ve said about the unnecessary nature of an uncaused cause, that’s already been said, I will, however, address their secondary claims.

They want to think that some vague “uncaused cause” will magically transform itself into the specific version of the Christian God that they favor with a snap of the fingers.  However, there are a lot of steps that need to be taken from “there is an uncaused cause” to “it was the Christian God”.  Let’s take this step by step.

1.  There are no possible characteristics that can be meaningfully applied to an uncaused cause, no matter how hard theists try.  There is nothing that we can really tell about such a cause by just examining it’s creation because we can’t even be certain if the creation was on purpose or an accident.  There are lots of things that kick off other processes in our own universe that were not remotely planned.  Life on our planet, for example, was not started by any intelligent agent, no matter what theists want to believe.  It was a wholly natural process, moderated by natural laws, which resulted in us.  We can tell nothing about the initiating factor of biological evolution on Earth by looking only at ourselves, certainly there’s no reason to think that said initiating factor wanted us to evolve, cared about us, had any set of personal characteristics we can discern, etc.  Those first few chemicals which combined in such a way to cross the line from non-life to life are fundamentally lacking the kinds of characteristics theists demand for their uncaused cause.  I see no means to leap to the next step.

2.  Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the first step could be successfully accomplished, the next thing theists would have to do is demonstrate that the uncaused cause was somehow alive, sentient and purposeful in it’s generation of the Big Bang.  It must be demonstrated that it wanted to create something, even if it wasn’t aware that an entire universe might be the result.  Scientists have been talking for a couple of years now about generating a mini-Big-Bang and creating a pocket universe that they can study.  There have been attempts to do it virtually, but some scientists want to do it for real.  That is essentially what theists would need to do in order to demonstrate this step, we know the scientists are alive, we know they are intelligent and we know that they have a plan to generate a new universe through their experiments.  Since the last step seemingly cannot be achieved, I give no hope for them to also accomplish this one.

3.  If theists manage to get to this step, having proven that the uncaused cause both exists and intended to create our universe as a conscious effort, next we need them to demonstrate that this cause is actually a god.  First, of course, they’d need to define what they mean by “god”, an eternal problem for religion.  Would the  scientists in the previous point count?  Or does a god have to be supernatural?  What is supernatural?  How do we determine it actually exists?  There is an easy way out for theists, they could simply define anything that exists outside of the natural laws of our universe as “supernatural”.  Of course, if there are other universes out there, it means that, to them, everything in our universe is supernatural by definition and I don’t think that’s what theists had in mind.  So assuming they could come up with a cohesive explanation of what a god is, how it operates, what it can do, etc., they might have some hope.  I’m not holding my breath though.

4.  Finally, they’d need to take a leap beyond the uncaused cause just being a god to it being the specific God that they believe in.  In most cases, this would be some form of the Christian deity, but I suppose we could apply it to any religion that wants to weigh in.  So how would they do so?  To being with, there’s an inherent problem with the whole process, since the Christian God is really just a made-up character in a book.  How do we really determine what characteristics this entity really ought to have when most Christians don’t even agree?  Further, how do we know that what Christians worship as God is really God?  Maybe it’s really Vishnu and they’re getting the name wrong?  After all, it’s highly unlikely that the religion that sprung up around the worship of any particular deity was actually guided by the will and wishes of that particular deity.  Maybe Christians are horribly mistaken and the deity they’ve been calling God all these years really isn’t God, it’s someone else and it’s pissed.  How can we tell?

Let’s be honest, apologists take what are really very shallow arguments, and the Kalam Cosmological Argument might be one of the shallowest, and try to make points without understanding the actual problems inherent within their claims.  I’ve pointed out just a few serious issues, yet the theists I debated didn’t want to hear any of them.  They just weren’t interested.  It’s an unfortunate fact that faith and logic don’t play well together and one only has to talk to a theist, while thinking logically through each and every step of their arguments, to see that for yourself.

Apologetics fail, not because they’re a rational means of discovering truth about the world around us, certainly they’re anything but.  They fail because they are a means of working toward a preconceived conclusion and only looking so far as a few shallow, ill-defined markers along the road to keep the faithful on the path.  The faithful want them to be true so they don’t look too closely.  The skeptical among us, however, suffer from no such preconceived notions.  That’s why apologetics will probably never convince a skeptic, the skeptic doesn’t have any reason to skip merrily down the path to the end goal.

7 thoughts on “Apologetics: Not Even Speaking the Same Language

  1. I've seen you say a number of times that debating with theists is a waste of time, and I like to challenge this idea. I think that there is always a chance that you are at least shoving a small piece of an idea into their brain. For example, perhaps this is the first time those people have really noticed the difference between their God and just some abstract uncaused cause. If it is the first time they are seeing it they are unprepared so they were just stubborn jackasses, but perhaps that little bit of an idea got through and they will think about it later. And of course since twitter is inherently public, perhaps it is not the brain of the person you are talking to, but someone who sees the conversation.

    So anyway, my question is this: do you really think that these conversations are a waste of time, and if so, why do you do it? What keeps you going?

    My recent post Revelation 20: Satan Tricks More People

    1. If I were to be debating a liberal theist, or even a moderate theist, then the chance that I've given them one piece of the puzzle to escape religion is at least possible, but I tend to debate the hardcore, ultra-fundamentalist Christians, the ones who cannot, under any circumstances, imagine that anything they believe could ever be the slightest bit wrong. I really find it difficult to believe that anyone who is willing to examine their beliefs critically in the age of the Internet, especially people who are very active online like the people I debate, wouldn't have come across that information already.

      Now yes, someone else can see it and perhaps they can be more receptive, but that's not really the goal in a debate, the goal in a debate is to take a position and demonstrate that it is true, to win over another position, etc. Ultimately, it is to get the other person to admit that they were wrong. It should be a battle of ideas, not a battle of wills. To put it in Mad Max terms, two ideas enter, one idea leaves. Unfortunately, it is virtually never like that. No matter how pathetic their arguments, no matter how unsupported their beliefs, the theist enters with a set of beliefs and leaves with the same set of beliefs. The number of times I have seen a theist of any kind actually become convinced of the irrationality of any religious belief in the 30+ years I've been debating them online, I could count on one hand and have a couple of fingers left over. It usually ends up being an exercise in frustration because your typical theist isn't even willing, or perhaps able, to debate fairly and honestly. You can't really debate with fanatics and fundamentally, that's what all theists, whether they're liberal or evangelical, are.

      So why do I do it? For those bystanders and because it gives me something to do. I just don't fool myself into thinking that some theist is going to read what I write here or on a forum somewhere, slap their forehead and say "how could I have been so wrong?" The will to change comes from within. Most of these people simply lack that will entirely.

      1. "I just don't fool myself into thinking that some theist is going to read what I write here or on a forum somewhere, slap their forehead and say "how could I have been so wrong?""

        That's definitely true, I would doubt that has ever happened. However, I do believe that someone could read something and it could be a small piece in a much larger tapestry of ideas that eventually leads them to change their mind. I know that is how it worked for me, and the people who helped change my mind never knew it because by the time I had worked everything out in my mind I had lost contact with most of them.

        I do agree with you about the ultra-fundamentalist people who argue like you are describing though. They seem too invested in it to ever really change their minds. I'd like to think they are fighting back so hard because some part of them realizes you are right and it is upsetting them, but I honestly don't think that is generally true. I also think that some of them know what they are saying is bullshit, but they think it will be effective to spread their message and don't care if it is a lie. I generally avoid getting into long discussions with those types, it does get frustrating pretty quick.
        My recent post Have You Been Harmed by the Church?

        1. For me, I always thought that whatever I believed ought to be true and demonstrable, even when I was a Christian. I was under the assumption that everything in the Bible had undergone close scientific scrutiny and was verified, right up until I decided to go out and do the legwork myself and I found that none of it actually stood up to critical evaluation. In that, you're right, someone who is likewise under the impression that everything in the Bible is already verified, can be convinced by simply showing it's not true. However, in my experience at least, those people are few and far between. At least when I did it, it was in the pre-Internet days, where I had to spend hundreds of hours in musty university libraries, digging through the microfiche archives to find the scientific journals that I needed. I figure I was at least somewhat justified in my ignorance because the information wasn't so easily and immediately available. Today, however, when anyone can do a quick Google search and find out how ridiculous their religious beliefs are, the idea that they're just waiting for me to come along and show them seems a bit absurd. This is especially true when it's the same theists you see on forums or Twitter making the same ridiculous claims over and over and over, even thought they've been corrected time and time again. To be honest, any debating I do online these days, with very few exceptions, I only do for the entertainment of the largely atheist crowd, I figure they deserve a laugh.

          1. That's a really good point too. I also did all of this in pre-internet days (well, young internet I suppose). I spent a lot of time just thinking about these ideas on my own. I wonder how things would have been different if I could have just googled some of these things.

            And yeah, the people who get certain arguments destroyed and then come back with the same arguments the next day are just outright dishonest. I'll often just unfollow those people as I find arguing with such dishonesty frustrating. although I will sometimes jump in when I see other people arguing with them, or I might just sit back and watch. I guess the hope would be that someone like my younger self would see the interaction and the dishonesty of the apologist would be apparent.

            My recent post Revelation 21: The Streets are Paved with Gold

  2. Their arguments work, but only if you accept the definitions they made up for existing words. I've tried to have apologists give me a straight definition of morality before debating the "argument from moral truth" and they can't do it without using "God" as part of the definition. If I accepted their definitions, then I wouldn't need their arguments because I'd already be drinking the Kool-aid.
    My recent post An Interview with Bruce Gerencser

    1. Do you notice that lots of these groups want to redefine the language so that they win "by definition"? When you can't win honestly, change the language.

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