This is the third installment of my conversation with atheist Ralph Jones. For part two click here.
Ralph: I’m afraid that I don’t consider those valid objections to my points in any serious sense; or at least they do nothing to demonstrate that my contention – God does not exist – is weaker than yours – God does exist. Did you have anything to say about my other 11 objections? I’ll try to address each argument as you made it.
You claim that you don’t know what I mean by “religion itself” and that neither do I. Once again we could have just progressed on the basis that everyone will be clear as to what is meant by the word ‘religion’ but we have to pull over and make another unnecessary stop. I’m happy to take ‘religion’ to mean ‘The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods’. If I had to identify three important characteristics I might choose: (i) the proposing of a supernatural deity; (ii) the distinction in the afterlife between members and non-members of the belief system; and (iii) the contention that God intervenes in the natural world. For my purposes it is sufficient to regard Christianity as a religion because it claims that God has revealed himself to humankind; I also work on the assumption that everyone agrees with me in thinking that Christianity (and Islam, Judaism etc.) is a religion. If at any point you think that what I describe isn’t religion, just tell me. I’d add that you never once asked me for a definition of religion so I can’t be condemned for not listing a glossary of terms before my every response. But anyway, you were responding briefly there to my anti-theistic statements, not my reasons for disbelieving in God, which I’ll get to now.
First of all you seem to imply that a “long” list is essentially a feeble one. I have numerous, constantly replenished reasons for disbelieving in God and I think it significant that I was able to list 17 of them; I don’t know why on Earth you think that someone providing a huge list of complaints can be almost dismissed on the grounds that the complaints are too numerous. They all feed into one another and bolster my confidence in there not being a God; I don’t have one knock-out argument, just as theists don’t. Each gives weight to the others.
Rather than addressing my first four points you simply assert that they have “nothing at all to do with the question of whether God exists”. In what kind of God am I supposed to be disbelieving? Surely for our purposes the Christian one is the biggy? I think it significant that a) I am addressing a Christian theologian, and b) Christianity is the religion with which I have been surrounded for my entire life. If you think that it’s a waste of time listing reasons to believe the Christian God to be fictional, that’s tantamount to saying that it’s a waste of time providing proofs of his existence. One moment you tell me that you’re interested in defending Christian theism and the next you dismiss four of my attacks on Christian theism; please make up your mind. (Your Chrysler analogy falls flat on its face because, were you to ask me why nobody should drive cars, I’d be hard pressed to ignore all of the painfully obvious evidence supporting the idea that cars are generally reliable. This obviously isn’t the case with religions; they are all guilty of making ridiculous claims and then demanding that disbelievers provide bullet-proof evidence that these claims are false.) You cannot separate ‘God’ and on the one hand and religion’s vision of God on the other; without religion we have no vision of God. And, given that the most relevant factor to discuss here is my refutation of the kind of God that you would wish to propose (as opposed to the God of Islam), that is what I am doing. I am treating the Bible in the way that Christians do: as the supposed word of God.
I think my wish fulfillment objection stands just as solidly as it did before, and I cannot believe that you don’t address this more directly. I am far more inclined to agree with Freud as opposed to Vitz. If you really believe that the desire for there to be a loving God and an eternal afterlife is on level wishful terms with the desire for there to be no loving God and no afterlife, then you are welcome to that interpretation. You’re ignoring the legions of people who claim that it is faith that gives them life, hope, motivation, love, courage, etc. Atheists obviously do not place such extraordinary emphasis on their lack of faith. I am explaining to you why, in the face of chaos and suffering, people would have invented the religions and the gods that they have. You can’t on the one hand support the idea of a loving God and then on the other claim that the invention of gods has nothing to do with the wish for there to be a loving God. The contradiction between wishful thinking and cold hard evidence is most apparent in the proposing of an afterlife: are you really happy to say that an atheist’s “wish” for there to be no afterlife is on equal terms with a theist’s wish for there to be an afterlife in which he is rewarded for his deeds on Earth? Besides, my apparent desire for there to be no God would come crashing to the ground if God simply provided evidence of his existence (which he is apparently capable of doing); until I see this evidence, why on Earth should I believe the ridiculous claims of the religious?
Why do you pick holes in my claim that ‘religion’ claimed that the universe was created in six days, rather than acknowledging that it is what was claimed by Christianity – a type of religion? Your point about Christians no longer really believing the Earth is the centre of universe just bolsters my point – if Christians don’t believe it any more, why don’t they? Because science has disproved it – not because of any religious revelation. But for a long time the belief did of course lend wonderful support to the self-centred claims of the religious and thus any attempts to disprove it were stifled by the religious. Approximately 20% of Americans currently believe that the Sun orbits the Earth – would you like to place a bet on how religious this 20% is? These phenomena don’t prove that there is no God, of course, I am simply citing evidence for the proposition that religious claims are regularly disproved by science. Religion and ignorance get on very well with one another. A similar phenomenon is apparent even in contemporary discourse – theists cling desperately to the idea that ‘something’ must have created the universe, and therefore that God must exist. If this claim is disproved, and the universe is demonstrated to have a perfectly explicable origin, where will the religious turn? Or, as has happened throughout history, will the goalposts shift and theists insist that actually this development doesn’t prove anything at all? If we’d been discussing this problem before Darwin you would have told me that the splendour of the natural world could only make sense if a designer had designed it; now we know there to be a natural explanation, this move isn’t open to the theist. On and on it goes.
Even if science is unable to comprehensively ‘explain’ concepts like objective moral value, teleology, etc. (a claim to which I don’t want to commit, given how far and how quickly science has advanced), why on Earth would that lend weight to the claims of religion? Why would the lack of a concrete explanation of mathematical abstract objects mean that God existed? This is worse than any non-sequitur you claim me to have made. I think it very possible that we will never have sufficient answers to all of life’s philosophical questions – in part because I don’t believe there to be an answer to the question ‘Why are we here?’ – but it is illogical to contend that the absence of definite answers means that religion is given automatic credit. One does not follow from the other.
If you want me to provide one argument for my not believing in God – when in fact originally you asked for ‘reasons’, so I provided 17 to which I would like answers – I’ll choose my 9th point, the existence of horrific suffering/evil. I’m happy to use Epicurus’ phraseology: “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 God took so much care to create the universe and all of us in it, why would he allow atrocious, terrifying events like tsunamis to occur? Why would he allow babies to be born with defects that make their lives a constant agony? Why would he allow cancer? I have never once heard an even vaguely convincing answer to this question, because I can’t see that there is one; as soon as you propose that there is a designer in all of this – not only a designer, but one who cares about our little lives – then you cannot run away from the difficult questions; in my opinion you have to level the charge of evil at the designer (as opposed to just claiming that he has “a plan” for all of us) or concede that this is sufficiently serious reason to doubt his existence. What possible reason could there be for an omnipotent deity to allow someone to suffer with a crippling illness for their entire life – or to lose their child in an earthquake – when he could apparently have prevented it?
I like your William Craig style of rhetoric – “I’ve dealt with the first third of your rag-tag collection of ‘objections’ by showing that the first four are (among other things) utterly irrelevant…” – so, if this is what we’re going for, I’ll just make use of it myself: I’ve demonstrated that your points don’t hold up to any scrutiny at all, and that my 17 objections stand just as solidly as they did before.
Randal: For starters, I’m glad that you’ve finally offered a definition for “religion”, viz. ‘The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods’. Unfortunately this isn’t an adequate definition since there are many religions that do not include belief in a personal deity. So it looks in fact like your real target is not religion per se but rather monotheistic religion.
Next, you missed the point of my response to your underdeveloped yet long list of objections to the existence of God. As you put it, you suggest that I object in principle to long lists of arguments as being “feeble”. You then add: “I don’t know why on Earth you think that someone providing a huge list of complaints can be almost dismissed on the grounds that the complaints are too numerous.” But Ralph, I never objected to expansive lists of arguments per se. And it is quite ridiculous for you to attribute such an objection to me. Indeed, the more arguments you have for a particular conclusion the better just so long as they have a logically valid form and plausible premises. The problem with your list wasn’t the quantity of entries but rather their quality (or lack thereof). Rather than read like a series of clearly articulated arguments, your list reads like a protean stream of consciousness.
I already illustrated the problem with the first five arguments (though I’ll return to them below). But for now let me hammer it home by engaging a few more. For example, your sixteenth objection against the existence of God was that “Religion very often corrupts rather than purifies people.” Assuming this is the case, so what? Hospitals very often give people infections rather than curing their illnesses. Are you going to advise now that cancer patients stay home and treat their own illness? And anyway, the point is a complete non sequitur where the existence of God is concerned. Even if it were true that religion corrupted people it wouldn’t follow that God doesn’t exist.
In your twelfth objection you state “If Hell were to exist, which I certainly don’t believe, a God that allowed it would be unspeakably evil, not in any sense good.” Again, the doctrine of hell is not an objection to the existence of God per se. As for the Christian definition of God, I pointed out to you in our “Unbelievable” exchange that Christians hold various different views on the nature of hell, including some that include a posthumous period of reformational suffering followed by universal reconciliation. Surely you don’t have an objection to that do you? Finally, this is not an argument for anything. It is, rather, the expression of an opinion. You can’t just declare by fiat that if hell exists then God is unspeakably evil. That completely begs the question at issue. Your obligation in rational exchange is to present reasons to think that if hell (defined in a certain way) should exist then God would be evil. Of course as I noted even if you had argued this successfully, it would only mean that a particular kind of hell doesn’t exist if God does.
Now back to your opening five arguments. You take issue with my rebuttal of your first four points which consisted in pointing out that at best they were objections to the truth of Christianity rather than the existence of God. You write:
“Rather than addressing my first four points you simply assert that they have “nothing at all to do with the question of whether God exists”. In what kind of God am I supposed to be disbelieving? Surely for our purposes the Christian one is the biggy?”
“One moment you tell me that you’re interested in defending Christian theism and the next you dismiss four of my attacks on Christian theism; please make up your mind.”
It is ironic that you charge me with needing to “make up [my] mind” when it is you who is conflating the question I asked (Why do you think God doesn’t exist?) with another completely different question (Why think Christianity is false?). Where I come from we call this “failing to keep your eye on the ball.” Consequently, as I explained to you, to think that those objections are relevant to the question I posed is tantamount to thinking the statement “Because all Chryslers are unreliable” is relevant to the question “Why should I not buy a car?” Given that there are many types of car other than Chrysler, the answer misses the point. And given that there are many conceptions of God other than the Christian one, these four objections likewise miss the point
And now I turn to your response to my rebuttal of your “wish fulfillment” argument. Again, this isn’t an argument at all. Rather it is merely the claim that belief in God arises from wish fulfillment. That, of course, is a conclusion which must be argued for. And even if it were true it still wouldn’t follow that God didn’t exist. Rather, it would only follow that our belief in God was unreliable. In other words, even if you did establish that all belief in God results from wish fulfillment, this would provide only an undercutting defeater to belief in God (i.e. a reason not to accept the proposition “God exists”). It wouldn’t provide a rebutting defeater to belief in God (i.e. a reason to accept the proposition “God does not exist”). So you only have an assertion here. And even if you did have an argument it would only support agnosticism, not the atheism you’re supposedly defending.
In my original quick response I passed over most of that to highlight another delightful fact about your appeal to wish fulfillment, namely that the atheist who appeals to it is effectively hoist with his own petard. I did this by pointing out that a person can argue (as psychologist Paul Vitz has) that atheism can be explained psychologically on parallel grounds. You were unpersuaded and so you retorted:
“If you really believe that the desire for there to be a loving God and an eternal afterlife is on level wishful terms with the desire for there to be no loving God and no afterlife, then you are welcome to that interpretation.”
This is a really ironic objection coming from somebody who has explicitly aligned himself with that L’enfant terrible of antitheism Christopher Hitchens. Ralph, as you surely know, Mr. Hitchens repeatedly endorsed atheism based on the claim that living in a universe with God would be equivalent to living in a celestial North Korea. I take it that Mr. Hitchens was meaning to say he wouldn’t want to live in North Korea. Thus, he wouldn’t want there to be a God. So how do you know Hitchens’ own conviction about God’s non-existence does not arise at least in part from a desire that God not exist which does indeed parallel precisely the kind of psychological process you are predicating of the theist?
In the fourth and final installment of this conversation Randal will respond to Ralph’s main objection, the problem of evil. After that Ralph will round things out with the last word.