Saturday, March 22, 2014

Another Look at How to Argue Against God

The previous entry discussed both the inconsistencies and insufficient definitions of the article entitled, “How to Argue That God Does Not Exist.” I don’t want to focus on this too much, but I did want to continue in examining two more areas: the irrelevancies and inaccuracies. It should prove somewhat interesting!

III. The Irrelevancies.

Something is irrelevant just in the case its affirmation or denial can be accepted by either party who disputes some other claim. So, for instance, that the North Pole is north of Canada is irrelevant to whether or not the 40th president was John F. Kennedy. Its truth doesn’t have any implications for the claim under consideration. With that in mind, we turn to a couple of examples in this article of irrelevancies.

First, he claims that “morality does not require any religious belief.” That seems a bit ambiguous, but fortunately for us, he explains what he means. “The ability to distinguish right from wrong does not require any religious beliefs.” While this disambiguation is itself ambiguous (is it really the ability to distinguish right from wrong does not require God or that religious belief be true, or the ability to distinguish right from wrong does not require belief in God or belief in religious claims? It’s not 100% clear, but I lean toward the latter for his meaning.), it seems he is reacting against the perceived claim that atheists act immorally. Well, taking his meaning, I think we can agree. It seems obvious that atheists can act immorally or morally, independent of their religious beliefs.[1] However, this is just irrelevant to the truth of the Christian God’s existence (or really, any god). It doesn’t follow that God doesn’t exist from the truth of “atheists can act in such a way as to conform to moral duties and obligations.” It doesn’t even follow from that that the argument for God from morality fails! That is, one is completely consistent in affirming this claim and the claim that God grounds morality.

Second, it is claimed that religion has been used to control the masses. Again, it’s not clear what’s being claimed here: does he mean that, for every religion, there is at least one instance of it being abused to control people? Or does he mean that, for every religion, it is always and only used to control people? Or does he mean that, for every religion, it is usually used to control people? Let’s say the first definition is under consideration. What’s supposed to be the argument? There is none given, so we have to infer it. I suppose it would be something like: “If any religion X has ever been used to control the masses, it is false.” But why should we believe something like that? That claim is, essentially, that if some arena’s power structures abuse that power, that the factual content of beliefs that they do hold are false. I don’t see any reason to believe that. Without such a claim, however, it’s clear that the definition is irrelevant. Let’s look at the second definition. Not every instantiation of Christian exercises has been used for control purposes, so it would just be false (consider charities, amongst other examples). The third definition also needs some kind of argument in order to avoid irrelevancies. It occurs to me we can try to strengthen the argument thusly: “If any religion X normally abuses its power by way of its beliefs, then those beliefs have come about for irrational reasons, and are not justified in being held to be true.” This is the strongest version of an argument that I can come up with. Unfortunately, it’s just not true. This is because it’s not only possible, but even likely, that the beliefs were formed first, and then these beliefs are used to control the masses. So, for instance, depending on what we mean by control, Christian churches will insist that one accepts the deity of Christ, and may even use that rule as a control on membership. But most, if not all, of these church leaders of individual churches adopted belief in Christ’s deity before the belief that this needed to be a control on church membership.

Third, the next irrelevancy concerns the “why” of one’s holding of their faith. This is actually spread out over two points. First, he wants a reason of “why they believe so strongly in their faith besides being raised in the dogma’s environment.” It looks like we can discern two senses of “why” here: first, the sense of the origin of belief, and second, of the reasons for belief. This will be important to remember on the next point. The reason this is irrelevant is that even if the believer has absolutely no other explanation for why he believes, and no argument for why God exists (good or otherwise), it won’t follow that God does not exist. At worst, it’s a fact about the purported rationality of a given individual for believing that God does exist.[2] The second point he makes is a counterfactual one. If you were raised in another religious tradition, would you hold the religious beliefs you do hold? Presumably, the answer is supposed to be “no,” and then from there, it (presumably, since he doesn’t say) follows that one is unjustified in believing God exists. But again, the reason this is irrelevant is because one can happily concede he is unjustified in saying that God exists, but that it won’t follow that we should believe God doesn’t exist.[3]

IV. The Inaccuracies.

This next section will tackle a few inaccuracies of this article. First, there is the issue just discussed: the counterfactual “truth” that if one were raised in another environment, he would adopt other religious beliefs than what he has; therefore, one is unjustified in holding the religious beliefs he does hold. That won’t work for more than one reason. First, it’s a textbook example of the genetic fallacy: the origin of one’s belief does not indicate its truth or falsehood. Second, it’s not clear the counterfactual is true in every case (in fact, it’s not). There are people who convert to other religions than their native environment all the time (that it’s not the majority case makes no difference). So it’s “doubly fallacious,” as it were.

Next, there is a section that talks about life after death. In an amazing claim, he urges his fellow atheists to “ask them to explain near-death or death experiences that many people have related, and why they never speak of seeing any ‘heaven,’ ‘god,’ ‘angels’ or anything of the sort.” This claim is just inaccurate. In fact, Gary Habermas has contributed to a large volume arguing differently (and even arguing from “non-spiritual” NDEs to supernaturalism, which is not acceptable on naturalism, obviously). Even if Habermas is ultimately wrong, it still follows that the claim is inaccurate.

Third, there is something resembling an argument from scientism. The first premise is “if something exists, it can be scientifically quantified,” with the second premise being, “scientists have quantified millions of items.” The conclusion of the argument is, “Therefore, if something cannot be scientifically quantified, then it does not exist.” The problem is that the conclusion is simply the contrapositive of the first premise, so that the argument is circular.[4] While the inference from the first premise to the conclusion is logically valid (though circular), the second premise doesn’t serve to prove either the conclusion or the first premise. In fact, if we decide that really there’s only one premise trying to support the one conclusion, then the argument isn’t logically valid at all. So why think that if something exists, it must be scientifically quantified? Based on his description, only those already committed to physicalism should accept this. Presumably, theists are not physicalists, so while it’s an interesting fact about physicalism, it’s not compelling.

There is so much more that could be said (including the denial that atheism is a belief precisely one sentence before declaring that they have to prove God does not exist [presumably they at least believe what they’re trying to prove, don’t they?]; the naïve philosophy of science whereby they conclude that “almost everything” in science has been proven; the Who Made God? objection as decisive, etc.), but these two articles have given this how-to more attention than it deserves. Please feel free to comment or ask any questions below!



[1] I am consciously choosing to overlook the fact that, if Christian theism is true, then it is quite plausibly immoral for the atheist (at least the usual one) to reject the message of the Gospel. It would not advance the conversation, and we can give this indulgence quite easily.

[2] And I don’t think it’s nearly so problematic as the author seems to think. For it must assume a few dubious premises: first, that the origin of one’s belief counts against the truth of one’s belief; second, that if one cannot articulate an argument for a belief one holds, he is unjustified in holding it; third, that if one is unjustified in holding a belief, then he ought to believe its denial.

[3] Of course, criticisms of this sort don’t even accomplish the factual view they think they do. That will be discussed in the next section.

[4] This is because of the logical equivalence of contrapositives; acceptance of one necessitates acceptance of the other. Therefore, the first premise is the logical equivalent of the conclusion, and thus only people who already accept the conclusion should accept it.

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