Over on Grundy’s excellent blog, Deity Shmeity, he’s been having a debate of sorts with a theist calling himself The Apologetic Professor. Hell, with some of the things he’s said, I’d apologize too. They each wrote a post for each other’s blog, Grundy’s is here, The Apologetic Professor’s is here.
I tried to respond to the points that TAP laid out, but trying to debate in comments is typically difficult and I quickly realized that it was a bit pointless. That’s not a big deal because, while TAP tried to address people’s concerns in the comments of Deity Shmeity, he’s done nothing, at least as of this writing, to address Grundy’s post on his own blog. I suspect that he’s realized that he’s been outmatched and is now hiding under the bed until the shitstorm blows over.
Therefore, I wanted to take on his post here and because it’s quite lengthy, this detailed response will be as well. Strap in, this is going to be a bumpy ride.
Do Not Wait on God
An atheist once gave the following advice about belief in God: “Wait and see. Or wait and don’t see.” The implication is that if you wait around long enough, you will finally decide that God does not exist…because He doesn’t. You cannot see a ghost.
It may surprise you, but there is a sense in which I completely agree with our unnamed atheist. Namely: I believe that if you wait around passively about the question of God, that you will likely not ever see Him.
You see, Jesus did not say “wait and you will find.” He said “seek and you will find.” Jesus openly encouraged you to explore the truth with an open mind.
I am not impressed by faith and that’s all that’s been displayed so far. There is no evidence that Jesus, a real flesh-and-blood, living human, ever said anything of the sort because Jesus left no direct writings of his own. We have, at best, second and third hand accounts claiming that Jesus said things of this nature. I suppose it doesn’t really matter because, like Harry Potter, Jesus is mostly a fictional character. It’s likely that he’s had words put into his mouth by later apologists who have exercised blind faith in what Jesus might have actually said, were they around to hear it. Still, I suppose I can accept the premise that TAP is trying to make, that going out to find evidence is better than sitting around and waiting for the facts to come to you. Unfortunately, this is not something that Christianity does. The facts and the evidence do not support the existence of any gods, nor of any man-gods like Jesus actually existing in history. That requires blind faith, the very antithesis of exploring the truth with an open mind. Those that have gone out and looked at the actual evidence with an open mind largely have come to the conclusion that Jesus, like God, is a myth, at best an itinerant preacher upon whom the robes of divinity were posthumously draped by ancient Jews looking for a messiah to break the chains of Roman occupation.
Seeking is active; waiting is passive. If you just sit around on your hands, without ever truly exploring whether God actually exists with an open mind, you will be like someone who never sees Italy because you waited around in Montana.
Yet so many of us have actively gone out and looked at the evidence with a critical eye and concluded, based solely on the evidence, that there’s no reason to believe that God exists. Once you are willing to go out and test all things, as the Bible commands, then you no longer need faith because you’re dealing with the facts and the evidence for what actually is.
Now, if you are the thinking person that I take you to be, you may reasonably say: Well, shoot, Mr. Christian-Pants (ok, please don’t call me that), God is God, right? I mean, if there is a God, why doesn’t He come to me? It’s all well and good to talk about not seeing Italy. But I have no reason to believe that Italy would come to me. Yet, I do wonder why the omnipotent Creator of the universe would make me seek Him to find Him? Shouldn’t I see Him anyway?
Italy doesn’t make a condition of eternal salvation contingent upon my belief. God supposedly does. Thus, if we’re supposed to believe in God, as many Christians claim, then at least some of the burden must rest on this supposed omnipotent creator who is so concerned about my immortal soul that he’s willing to send me to a place of eternal torment if I don’t follow him around like an obedient puppy dog. Of course, this analogy fails again because we can, if we wish, go to Italy and verify that it exists. It is possible to do, whether or not I choose to actually do it. How can I find similar evidence for God? Note, I am specifically excluding faith. Faith is just the excuse believers give themselves for accepting something for which they have no good reason to believe is true. There is no need to have faith in the existence of Italy, I can go there. Barring that, I can find people who have actually demonstrably been there. I can look at Italy on a map. I can check out satellite images. There are all kinds of ways that I can prove Italy is real. Give me similar means for proving God is real.
My answer to that perfectly reasonable question: I don’t know either. I could speculate (and indeed I have speculated about this question a bit on my blog). But the truth is: I did not design the universe. I certainly would not have allowed mosquitoes (or Michael Bolton or the Dallas Cowboys or 98 degree weather on Christmas day) if I had. I am not trying to claim I fully understand why the universe is what it is, exactly – though, as you’ll see, I think Christianity offers the best explanation that I know of. I am only trying to tell you that, until you have actively sought the truth about God with an open mind – and have not given up the pursuit until the day you die – you have not really followed the advice of Christ, and therefore should be cautious in claiming that it is invalid. I myself spent 4 years in a fuzzy state of half-Christian agnosticism – sometimes believing, always wondering – with apparent silence from Heaven before I became convinced of God’s existence. But during that time, I actively sought God. Granted, I sought God sporadically, imperfectly, stupidly…but I sought Him nonetheless.
But neither can you prove that God designed the universe either, it’s simply an emotionally comforting belief that you have. You’d like it to be so because it makes you feel good, not because you have any evidence that it’s so. Here again, we see that TAP thinks he knows his audience but really does not. There are many people out there, myself included, who have actively sought the truth about God with an open mind, and whom continue to maintain an open mind pending any actual evidence that God is real. Yet, I’d argue that it’s likely, and certainly if I’m wrong, correct me, that TAP is not applying the same kind of critical evaluation to the idea that God isn’t real, or that any other deity man has ever invented for himself to worship, is real. Does he actively seek the truth about Vishnu with an open mind? How about Zeus? How about Quetzalcoatl? Does he take his own advice or is this something that everyone else ought to do while he’s curiously exempt?
So all I am asking of you is what I believe God is asking of you at this moment – I mean, this very
moment, the moment you are reading this, right now – and that is to honestly consider, with an open
mind, the legitimate possibility that He exists. With an open mind, I said. Not with the prejudice that
many of you have no doubt acquired. Maybe you’ve met religious hypocrites; well, I’ve met them, too. Many days, I no doubt am one of them. But stop thinking about them. They are irrelevant. Only the truth matters. If I’m right, then one day you will be standing, you alone, naked before the Creator of the universe…and you will have to answer for your life. The many dumb and mean hypocrites you and I have encountered will not be an excuse, in that moment, for our own choices. And deciding to simply close your mind to the possibility of the miraculous is a choice.
No, what you are asking is that we accept an unjustified claim that you are making for an entity that you cannot even demonstrate is real. It is no different than asking that you accept that the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists. Would you do that? Not without evidence, I suspect and now you know why we reject your claims as well. That said, I would guess that he wouldn’t acknowledge the above truism
Now, it is in the spirit of open inquiry that I present three things for you to think about below. I do not present these as arguments designed to convince you of God’s existence. (If you read my blog, you will know that I do not believe there is such an argument). That would be ridiculous. Rather, I present these as things for you to ponder, openly and honestly, in the beginning or middle of an intellectual pursuit. Being in academia as I am, I have met many atheists, and indeed many of them I count among my best friends (ok, did I really just say that? Well, it’s true anyway). And many of them are open-minded, wonderful folk – and I have more in common with a seeking atheist than with some of the people that go to my church. I respect that kind of atheist. I am quite sure that many of my atheist friends will get into Heaven before I will. But I suspect that some of you have simply closed your mind to the issue because you have believed a lot of essentially myth-like statements about Christianity, or have never honestly challenged yourself to think hard about why people might actually reasonably believe in God. Maybe you are saying to God: OK, I’ll wait around and see, if you do something incredible, sure, I’ll believe then. But you aren’t seeking God like you mean it.
How exactly do you know that we’re not “seeking God like you mean it”? Certainly, I understand why people believe in God, I used to be one of those people who did. I know why I did it and I know why I rejected it and I can assure you that my beliefs were never reasonable, they were never rational and they were never critically evaluated. I’ll jump out in a limb here and suggest that TAP’s beliefs aren’t rational either, certainly there’s nothing in this article that would suggest that he’s willing to start at square one and follow the evidence, and only the evidence, wherever it might lead. If you do that, you simply cannot ever come to the belief in any god because there is no evidence of any kind that suggests any god at all exists.
So I present these as food for thought – things to ponder as you decide the plausibility of God’s
existence or what Christianity is actually like. Many of these are issues I have elaborated upon in my own blog.
1. Religion is built into us. Let’s start with one of the few things that atheists and theists seem to agree on: People have religious instincts. Indeed, modern research (by atheists) in my own field suggests that people are, without higher-order thinking, by nature religious. Some other neuropsychology work with FMRIs suggests that religion is literally built into our brain. Other work in developmental psychology suggests that children, even children from secular homes, have something like an intuitive theism. Yet more work studying atheists suggests that most of them go through a kind of “religious” phase.
This is simply untrue, there is no specifically religious instinct inbred in humanity. Theists have unfortunately gotten this idea into their heads because science has, regrettably, referred to the concept as “the god gene”. It is a genetic predisposition that may draw many people to a religious belief, but it does not necessarily do so. However, because it’s been named a particular thing, there are some theists, apparently TAP among them, who think anything you stick the “God” label on must refer to their religious beliefs. I’ve even seen some people claim that the Higgs boson must have some religious significance because scientists have declared it “the god particle”.
Now, I really don’t care about this research, because I find it unnecessary – it is obvious to me that people are primed in some form to believe in the supernatural. That’s kind of our unthinking default. We wanted Santa Claus to be real as children, whether we believed in him or not. The real question is: Is this some kind of primitive system that evolved by chance and does not correspond to anything real, or does it reflect some reality of religious truth? Does this intuitive system need to be overridden (as some claim) by higher-order processes, as when we cease to believe in Santa, or does it simply need to be understood by them and integrated into them? Is our religious instinct like our hunger instinct – does it exist because there is a real food to satisfy it? Or is it like our instinct that the sun moves around the earth – when in fact the opposite is true?
Unfortunately, he makes a false declaration, then stumbles into the truth before immediately falling over into insanity again. Let’s look at Santa Claus because it is an excellent non-religious example of what we’re talking about here. Humanity is genetically programmed to seek out answers to questions, we are naturally uncomfortable being in a state of ignorance. We will often, irrationally, simply invent a solution as a place-holder until we discover the real truth. Santa Claus is an excellent example of this. Many children are unaware of where Christmas gifts come from and may adopt a temporary answer of Santa Claus. This is encouraged socially in many circles and in general, I find it to be a harmless practice. After all, instilling a sense of awe and wonder in a child at a time that they are generally innocent. Eventually, either on their own or through social pressure, children will realize that Santa Claus isn’t real after all and their gifts actually come from their parents. I feel this is an important step in the maturation process, where children learn to evaluate the evidence and reject false ideas in favor of real ones. Any child whose Santa belief survives past adolescence will be strongly encouraged by their friends, family members and social contacts to give up such an absurd belief. Unfortunately, many western societies do not follow the same pattern when it comes to religious beliefs. What could be a useful and comforting fable for children isn’t being encouraged to reject the idea when they get older.
The idea that religious belief is somehow programmed into our genes is easily disprovable, I suspect the people who make these claims never look outside of the United States, where religiosity is high, to other countries where it is very, very low. There are a huge number of nations where religious adherence is quite low. Estonia, for instance, has a religiosity level of 16%. 78% of Estonians report that religion is totally unimportant in their lives. Sweden is only slightly higher, with a religiosity level of 16.5%, but there, 83% report that religion is useless to them. We can look at Denmark (80.5% unimportant), Norway (78% unimportant) or Hong Kong (75.5% unimportant). In fact, you have to go through 35 countries to find a nation where even half of the population reports that religion is important to them. Even in highly religious nations like the United States, the number of people who value religion is falling dramatically as the education level of the population rises. If you look at the studies, you find that the countries with the highest religiosity are ones with the lowest levels of education and, at the moment, are solely nations with a Muslim majority. Christianity is failing miserably. Religion inborn in humans? Not by the evidence it’s not.
Well, I think both theories are plausible – both can account for the way we are. But that means that the theist theory is in fact plausible. That’s my point. I find many of the atheist arguments against what I believe intellectually as strange as you no doubt find many Christian arguments. Not because they are always bad, but because they are obviously false when stated as absolute proofs. I think probabilistically. Probabilistically speaking, I see no reason up front to choose between these two theories, if we are trying to explain why we have a religious instinct. Thus, contrary to what a lot of high-brow academics seem to think, theism certainly is a plausible theory of why our religious instinct exists. Indeed, it is clearly the straightforward, front-door answer to the question; much like a straightforward answer to the question of why we have hunger is because there is such a thing as food. That doesn’t make it true; but it ought to at least make blithe, unthinking dismissals of it the intellectually vapid things that they actually are.
Whether you find it plausible or not is irrelevant, it only matters what the evidence shows. You are asserting that there is a religious instinct, yet clearly, judging by the evidence, this is not the case. Had TAP actually gone out and looked up the evidence instead of just taking his claims from apologetic websites, he would never have made such a foolish claim to begin with.
2. Theism provides a more coherent view of morality than atheism. If you are an atheist, you are faced with the following intellectual problem that I, as a theist, do not have: Namely, you believe in a universe that has absolutely no moral will. Materialist atheism assumes that we are all atoms…and nothing but atoms. That universe cannot have a moral will. A chance physical process cannot, by definition, exist in order to produce morality. The materialist must assume that I have a moral will for the same set of reasons that I have blue eyes or a love of the Indigo Girls, or that the sky appears blue or rocks are solid substances – they are the result of a long chain of purely physical events guided by physical laws or chance or what-have-you. I presume none of you believe that, at the Big Bang (or whatever), the atoms there assembled in the way they did so that someday they could produce the thought I should not kill my neighbor for fun inside my head. Such a thought exists because of chance physical processes. And if those chance physical processes had happened to produce the thought killing for fun is cool in all our heads, then that’s what we’d believe, and that’s what morality would be…because there is no actual morality.
First, let’s get something straight, neither theism nor atheism provide any view of morality. Theism is a generic term, it has no creed, no teachings, no beliefs in and of itself. However, TAP goes straight downhill from here. He says that the universe has no moral will according to atheism. No, the universe has no moral will according to reality. Morality does not spring from nature, it springs from people. Of course the universe has no moral will, any more than a rock has a moral will if it falls on someone’s head. It’s an absurd idea to begin with. People do not have a moral will because it is forced upon them by some imaginary friend, humans are social animals, we operate first and foremost from a sense of enlightened self interest. We realize that if we want to be treated well, we must therefore treat those around us well and others will likely reciprocate. From this very basic starting point, human societies will develop and enshrine morals, laws and rights, based upon the cultural beliefs of those within the society. This is the very reason why rational people reject objective morals, they simply cannot be seen in the world around us. If there were objective morals that were programmed into all of us, we wouldn’t see such a wide range of moral values around the planet and across history. We don’t see the same morals everywhere, which we would expect if there was an objective morality, we see extremely varied morals that change over time and distance. The theist who believes in an objective morality cannot demonstrate it with evidence or reason, only with blind faith.
Indeed, that much is elementary – and certain. The atheist universe isn’t an immoral universe, as some have claimed. It’s an amoral universe. Morality isn’t bad in the atheist universe; morality doesn’t exist in the atheist universe. (Philosophically speaking, I mean – atheists themselves are typically highly moral people – indeed, that’s the reason for the dilemma. More on that in a second). Morality has no meaning in that world.
He is correct, the universe is, by definition, amoral. So what? A black hole isn’t acting morally when it sucks in and destroys a passing star. A star isn’t being immoral when it goes supernova and obliterates it’s swarm of planets. Gravity has no moral sense whatsoever when things that go up come back down. The very concept of any of these things having anything to do with morality is absurd.
Now that would all be well and good, except for the other fact: Pretty much every atheist I know actually believes in morality (including all of the “new” atheists, e.g., Dawkins, Harris, etc.). And they don’t just believe in it in a “well, that’s nice” kind of way; they don’t believe that it’s wrong to kill people for fun is just a chance-y neuronal deal and they’d be fine if it had turned out the other way around. No; they really believe in it – like it matters that it turned out this way. In fact, they believe in it so much that they often use moral arguments against theism, as a reason to get rid of it.
Of course there’s morality, man invents it. It is not something inherent in nature. Do we really have to explain this?
But the atheist philosophy is not at all a comfortable fit with this practical atheistic moralism. Atheism actually provides no real reason to suppose morality has any meaning. It’s like trying to build a science without believing in the scientific method.
Who says morality has any meaning? It is a method of maintaining social order, nothing more. I’ll never understand why so many theists insist that everything that happens must have some deeper philosophical meaning. A cheetah eats a gazelle. What’s the deeper meaning to that? There is none.
Well, my philosophy does not have this intellectual incoherence. My philosophy says that God built morality into the fabric of the universe; that the moral law that exists in my head to avoid killing my neighbor for fun exists because, well, it really is actually bad to kill my neighbor for fun. This intellectual coherence does not make my beliefs true – and Christianity has its own intellectual difficulties, to be sure – but I am not trying to provide a proof, only to open a door for sound thinking. Atheism may digest some facts about the universe more easily than Christianity; but this is not one of them. And the thinking person should consider all sides of the facts when deciding on the possibility of a theory being true or not.
Except that your philosophy is completely unjustifiable and not supportable by evidence. Again, TAP just makes empty claims about entities which he cannot demonstrate, he demands that this unproven force wants things which cannot be justified and does things that cannot be proven. You could just as easily replace God with “ice cream bunny” and have the statement make as much sense. We continue to go down this path of irrationality, empty, unsupported arguments and eyes clenched tightly shut to avoid having to deal with the actual evidence.
3. Christianity is a highly intellectual enterprise. One of the most curious things about much of the modern atheist attack on Christianity is its bold assertions of how stupid and unintellectual we all are. These sorts of things make me laugh, not just because I am an academic whose research has been featured in USA Today and the Washington Post…and who has been interviewed on BBC Radio and NPR…but also because they are so historically and comically indefensible. I gave a whole talk on this topic which the curious can access on my blog, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it in this already-too-long blog post. I will limit myself here to saying that (a) even secular historians credit Christianity with creating the very icon of intellectualism, the modern university system, (b) a large number of intellectual disciplines (e.g., chemistry, a lot of mathematics, genetics, existential philosophy) were founded (and understood by everyone to be founded) by Christians, (c) Christianity has spread literacy and education pretty much everywhere it has ever taken root, and (d) contrary to the idea that “faith” is unintellectual, all thinking people recognize that some elements of their most cherished beliefs require faith in something unseen that cannot be directly proven. (The primary difference between thinking and unthinking people is the thinking person recognizes their untestable assumptions and can defend them; the unthinking person is simply unaware of them).
This is so absurd, I don’t know where to start. Let’s just count down all of the problems with this paragraph:
(a) While it is true that the very basis for the modern university system did come from Christianity, their purpose was not to educate the populace, it was to train scribes to transcribe the Bible. After the invention of the printing press, there was a system in place for educating, yet no real purpose for providing an education and therefore, it was for more secular purposes that the modern university system came about. This claim is just wrong.
(b) Yes, a large number of scientific disciplines were founded by Christians and a large number of those disciplines were likewise gutted by Christianity when scholars working in those fields found that the reality touted by Christianity was wrong. The Catholic Church punished, tortured and murdered early scientists who discovered that the Church had no clue what it was talking about. Copernicus, for instance, insisted that his book on a heliocentric solar system not be published until after his death, for fear of retribution by the Church. The Catholics branded Galileo a heretic and placed him under house arrest for the rest of his life because his scientific inquiry showed that the Church was wrong. Let’s not even go into what they did to Giordano Bruno who was burned alive for holding heretical views. Christians really have nothing to be proud of here.
(c) Not so much. It’s goals in spreading literacy were solely to allow people to read the Bible, they have never spread education for the sake of educating people.
(d) This is a clear misuse of the word “faith”. I have no faith, which is defined as “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.” That simply does not fit anything that I believe. I give provisional assent to a proposition, based on evidence, until additional findings either confirm or deny the reality of the idea. Blind faith is pointless. Not only pointless but idiotic.
All of this to say: Some of you may have the idea that you are smarter than Christians because you are atheists…as if that is enough. But that’s just a stereotype (one of the things I’ve studied in my career) – a stereotype with little basis in reality. Christians are a highly intellectual group as a whole, historically-speaking. It’s tough to argue that Christians are opposed to intellectualism when we created so many intellectual disciplines, and indeed created many of the very mechanisms by which intellectualism itself grows and advances (the university and the scientific method, to name a couple).
Well, it’s really evidence that says that non-theists are, on average, smarter than theists. There have been dozens of studies done, starting in the 1920s with people like Howells and Sinclair, that reported finding a negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence. Further, it has been shown that the more educated and intelligent you are, the less likely you are to be religious and even if you are religious, you are much less likely to be fundamentalist or evangelical in nature. I find it funny how many theists claim that their religious brethren have founded so many scientific disciplines when it’s equally likely, such as the case of Blaise Pascal, where we can demonstrate that their religious conversion and fanatical beliefs absolutely ruined their scientific career.
Now, I partially blame this rather bizarre view of Christianity on Pat Robertson and some truly anti-intellectual elements of the modern North American church…so don’t think I’m blaming you. There’s plenty of blame to go around here. Nor am I saying that I’m smarter than you because I’m a Christian. That would be ridiculous. Atheists as a group also have much to be proud of in terms of their intellectual contribution to the world’s body of knowledge – for example, a disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners are atheists. This isn’t in any way intended to denigrate atheists…only to remove what I believe is a completely indefensible view – a view that in my experience, many atheists hide behind without facing the real intellectual issues head-on – a view that suggests Christians are just stupid, so why bother with them? Well, we aren’t stupid at all; having faith is not stupid; and there’s an end to that.
No one has said that all Christians are stupid, only that Christianity, by it’s very nature, tends to appeal to a lower intellect and lower educated individual. Of course, we’re faced with another common apologetic tactic, the idea that “if a person is shown to be intelligent and rational in one area of their life, that must carry over and be true of all areas of their life.” This is simply untrue. Humans have the ability to compartmentalize, just because a person is intelligent and rational in one aspect doesn’t mean they are intelligent and rational in another. This goes beyond religion, we can find people who are excellent surgeons, for example, yet they believe in alien abductions or Bigfoot. Rational in one place doesn’t mean rational everyplace. TAP does make a correct assessment that most Nobel Prize winners are atheists, but that doesn’t go nearly far enough. The overwhelming majority of top scientists, Nobel Prize winners or not, are atheists. In a study, 79% of physical scientists belonging to the National Academy of Sciences said they have no belief in gods. This is in a country where approximately 85% of respondents say they believe in a god. Clearly, as people understand more about the world around us, there is less need to make up imaginary answers to unanswered questions.
I would argue that faith, the kind of blind faith practiced by many theists, is indeed stupid. It’s not a rational position to claim an indemonstrable deity exists without a shred of evidence, solely because it provides an emotional security blanket. Intelligent people don’t operate that way, they follow the evidence where it leads, they do not make up a solution and selectively look for evidence that will take them there and that’s exactly what Christian apologists do. They are caught so often in these evidential misadventures, yet they’re not at all concerned about being wrong, they have faith and faith gets them out of every corner they paint themselves into.
It’s pretty obvious why atheists do not respect apologists, especially when apologists can be shown to be ridiculously wrong so easily. My question here, although I suspect I already know the answer, is will The Apologetic Professor actually acknowledge his false beliefs, or will he continue to cling to them even after being shown how absurd they are? Will he continue to make the same unjustified statements that we’ve seen in this first post? Anyone want to place bets?