“I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one less god than you do.” —Stephen F Roberts
The above quote is an argument I’ve heard several times from atheists attempting to discredit Christianity. “You don’t believe in Odin, Zeus, Thor, Ahura Mazda, or the thousands of other deities that man has worshiped. I agree with you; I simply take it the final step and reject belief in any god at all.” It’s a clever thing to say; certainly there is poetic satisfaction in claiming that the Christian you’re arguing with is actually an atheist like yourself. However I feel that as an argument it misses the point entirely.
As a Christian I do believe that God is the only, well, “god” that exists. So it is true that I do not believe in Odin, Zeus, Thor, etc. However as a Christian I do believe that most other religions have many things right. I am not a Hindu, but the Hindus and I agree that there is more to the world than the material, that humans have souls, and that there is objective right and wrong. There are many aspects of Brahmin that I recognize as aspects of my own God. I simply believe that Hindus are wrong on most of the details. Though I don’t believe in Brahmin, and the Hindu doesn’t believe in Yahweh, we both believe in the existence of a supreme supernatural mind that created everything. We have much to agree about.
Similarly though I don’t believe in Odin and Thor I do see much truth in the old Nordic “religion.” The pagan Norseman and myself agree that a man’s spirit survives his death, that our deeds on this Earth have a great effect on our final destination, that courage and valor is to be valued, and that someday this world will be destroyed in fire and be created anew. I don’t believe in Baldur, but I see much of Jesus in his story. And again, we both recognize the existence of the supernatural.
The same is true of every religion. Though as a Christian I reject many ideas and concepts from other religions there is also always something I can find that is true. This is as it should be. After all, I believe we are all created in the image of God and that we all long for him. It is only natural that God can be found, imperfectly, in all religions. Some, like Judaism or Islam, I believe are only wrong on certain important details. Others, like Shintoism, I believe are wrong on many very important aspects. But I agree with them all in the existence of the soul, or of a coming judgment, or that there is more to this world than the material. It’s true I don’t believe in Odin, or Brahmin, or Zeus, and their followers don’t believe in Yahweh. But we all agree that there is a god, or gods.
The atheist on the other hand is in a very different position. The atheist believes that all religions are completely wrong in their most important aspects: that there are no gods, no souls, no spirits, no supernatural. The atheist must reject all these religions outright. This puts him in an extraordinary position: he must believe that the vast majority of all humans who currently exist or who have ever existed were wrong about the most basic beliefs and experiences that they held in common. Now that’s fine if you can believe that. However don’t try to lump me in there with you.
Lets imagine for a moment that I believed in unicorns, and that I believed I had seen one once (though it was very far away and deeply shrouded in mist). Lets say that I found others who believed they had seen it as well. However this person calls it a “Lorecks” instead of a unicorn, and he believes it’s much taller and thinner that what I saw; and this one calls it a “Poojim” and believes it is more like a great horned cat; and this one over here calls it a unicorn like I do, but believes it is a terrible ravaging meat eater, while yet another claims it is a peaceful herbivore. Hearing all this different accounts might make me doubt my own conception of the unicorn: but the last thing it would do is make me doubt that a unicorn exists. Instead my faith would be strengthened by that fact that all these other people did see something. There is a magical creature out there; it is only my own conception of it that is in doubt. In just the same way pointing out that mankind has believed in thousands of other gods and worshipped in other ways may be a decent argument against my own conception of God, but it is a terrible argument to try and make me believe that there are no gods at all. Indeed it only strengthens my faith in the supernatural.
It’s true that I believe in one God, and the atheist believes in none. But the fact is that the atheist doesn’t believe in a whole lot more than that. As a Christian I can rest assured that my belief in the supernatural is shared by, statistically, almost every human who ever existed. It is the atheist who must live with the fact that he believes that he is correct in the face of almost all of humanity.
In any case I think we can agree that the quote in question doesn’t make a very compelling argument for atheism.
I was wandering around when I came across a sentiment that I had heard before. Someone pointed out the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal from the Old Testament. The story, for those not familiar with it, is roughly as follows: Elijah was the last prophet of God in Israel during his time, with the rest of the country worshiping the god Baal instead. One day God tells Elijah to go and challenge the priests of Baal to a competition of sorts. They’ll make an alter with a sacrifice, and Elijah will make an altar with a sacrifice. Then they will each pray to their god to light the sacrifice on fire, without human intervention. This would prove which god was real and worthy of being worshipped. Long story short, Baal could not deliver and God sent a fireball down moments after Elijah asked for one.
Having recounted the tale the person in question brought up a challenge to the world in general. If God is real, and has performed such acts in the past, then why doesn’t he prove himself now? The Bible sets a precedent here for testing the legitimacy of various gods. If God is real then he should be able to prove his existence to the skeptics through a miracle. Since he hasn’t we can dismiss him as another Baal.
An excellent point, and a powerful indictment against the existence of God. But something about his argument gnawed at me. It wasn’t until later, after reflection, that I realized what it was. The problem with his argument is that none of what occurred in the story was Elijah’s idea. God told Elijah exactly what to do. He commanded Elijah to challenge the priests, laid out exactly how to build the altar (which was thoroughly doused with water until the wood was soaked, as an insurance against false positives), and promised Elijah that when he prayed the fire would come.
Now when a skeptic tells me that if God exists I should be able to replicate such a miracle the situation is entirely different. God has given me no such assurance that He will choose to answer my request. It would be one thing if I claimed to have heard from God and was assured that a miracle would occur. Then we could test my claim by observing whether the miracle in question actually happens. But if a skeptic comes and asks me out of a blue for an example of God’s power, what is a Christian to do? God is not my pet. He is not some genie who must answer my commands. He is the Lord.
Now of course I can pray and ask that God perform a miracle. But if I do and no such miracle occurs than that cannot be taken as proof that God does not exist. Imagine some faraway land that is ruled by a mighty emperor. This emperor is powerful indeed, but chooses to remain hidden in his palace most days, ruling from afar. One day a loyal subject of the emperor is confronted by a skeptic who believes the whole emperor story is a myth, and that there is no king in the castle. When the loyal subject objects, the skeptic challenges him, saying “If he exists then show him to me. Have him come before me with a grand parade of courtiers, generals, advisors, and horsemen. Show me his gilded coach and his ranks of servants. If he exists and is as grand and powerful as you claim than it would be a simple thing indeed for him to do this.” Now the loyal subject wants very much indeed to prove that the emperor is real. But could anyone blame him for being hesitant to demand that his liege drop whatever he’s doing and have a parade for his sake? Such a servant could go to the palace and ask, politely and humbly, for the emperor to hold such a procession. But if the emperor chooses not to can the loyal subject really be blamed? The argument of the skeptic fails because if such an emperor did exist we have no reason to expect him to do everything (or anything, really) we ask of him. To be sure such a grand procession would prove without a doubt (at least to that one skeptic) that the emperor exists. But the lack of one does not provide a proof that the emperor does not exist.
I’ve been off here and there on the internet, as I’m wont to do. Lately I ran across a little mess that I had to poke my nose into. I ended up getting into a discussion with a certain atheist (I almost hesitate to call him that: not that he isn’t an atheist, but that his behavior is so regrettable that I don’t want to insult the many articulate, thoughtful, and reasonable atheists I know by putting him and them in the same category). To make a long story short the discussion came down to me asking him for evidence that naturalism is true. He responded with something along the lines of “300 years of scientific progress.” I kindly asked him to explain what he meant by that, and what exactly scientific progress had to do with philosophical naturalism, and he merely rattled off as many scientific fields as he could think of. “Biology, geology, chemistry, physics” etc. When I asked him, again, for a specific argument he merely replied with “e=mc2”.
I never did get a straight answer out of him, but it reminded me of a passage from C.S. Lewis’s first published novel The Pilgrim’s Regress. The book is purely allegorical, following after the example of The Pilgrim’s Progress by describing the journey of a man named John from his home in the land of Puritania to the wild lands of various human philosophies, customs, and fads before finally returning home again. The particular passage I’m thinking of came soon after John left Puritania when he was picked up by a nice old fat man on a cart by the name of Mr. Enlightenment. John left Puritania in search of a beautiful island that he experienced visions of back home. All his life he’s been taught about the Landlord (who represents God) by Stewards (who are essentially pastors and priests). Mr. Enlightenment soon strikes up a conversation with John.
“‘And where might you come from, my fine lad?’ said Mr. Enlightenment
‘From Puritania, sir,’ said John.
‘A good place to leave, eh?’
‘I am so glad you think that,’ cried John. ‘I was afraid—‘
‘I hope I am a man of the world,’ said Mr. Enlightenment. ‘Any young fellow who is anxious to better himself may depend on finding sympathy and support in me. Puritania! Why, I suppose you have been brought up to be afraid of the Landlord.’
‘Well, I must admit I sometimes do feel rather nervous.’
‘You may make your mind easy, my boy. There is no such person.’
‘There is no Landlord?’
‘There is absolutely no such thing–I might even say no such entity–in existence. There never has been and never will be.’
‘And this is absolutely certain?’ cried John; for a great hope was rising in his heart.
‘Absolutely certain. Look at me, young man. I ask you–do I look as if I was easily taken in?’
‘Oh, no,’ said John hastily. ‘I was just wondering, though. I mean–how did they all come to think there was such a person?’
‘The Landlord is an invention of those Stewards. All made up to keep the rest of us under their thumb: and of course the Stewards are hand in glove with the police. They are a shrewd lot, those Stewards. They know which side their bread is buttered on, all right. Clever fellows. Damn me, I can’t help admiring them.’
‘But do you mean that the Stewards don’t believe it themselves?’
‘I dare say they do. It is just the sort of cock and bull story they would believe. They are simple old souls most of them–just like children. They have no knowledge of modern science and they would believe anything they were told.’
John was silent for a few minutes. Then he began again:
‘But how do you know there is no Landlord?’
‘Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of printing, gunpowder!’ exclaimed Mr. Enlightenment in such a loud voice that the pony shied.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said John.
‘Eh?’ said Mr. Enlightenment.
‘I didn’t quite understand,’ said John.”
Mr. Enlightenment’s “answer” to John’s question was something so ridiculous I’d never imagined I’d find an actual human being making it. Rattling off a series of unrelated scientific achievements tells us nothing about the existence of God, or the veracity of philosophical naturalism. Yet here I found it thrown at me in an actual discussion.
As I’ve said before, science and Christianity (theism in general, actually) get along perfectly well philosophically. I will never understand why science is used as an argument against it. It brings to my mind Mr. Enlightenment’s closing words to John on the subject:
“When you have had a scientific training you will find that you can be quite certain about all sorts of things which now seem to you only probable.”
Can you prove that I have a liver?
I mean yes, obviously, if we wanted to we could see whether I have a liver or not. You could cut me open and take a look (or, less barbarously, put me through an MRI). That would tell us pretty reliably whether I do indeed have a liver. But nobody has ever cut me open, and I’ve never had a full body MRI. Can you find evidence that I have a liver?
Well that depends on what you will accept as evidence.
Fide Dubitandum (the blog I highlighted on Monday) dealt with this issue a few days ago. That post, and the discussion that followed in the comments, got me thinking about evidence. What kind of evidence do we find acceptable when talking about God? For many the only kind of evidence they will accept is empirical evidence. Empirical means that something can be observed and tested. A fish is empirical because I can touch it, weigh it, see it, smell it, and experiment on it. If anyone asked me to prove that fish existed then I could show them a fish. They could touch it, weight it, see it, etc., for themselves. It would be empirical evidence for the existence of fish (or at least for that fish, anyway). For many people this is the kind of evidence they want when asking “Is there a God?” They want something they can see and smell and experiment on. When theists are unable to produce empirical evidence they proclaim that God must not exist. They often imply that if you still believe in God despite of the lack of empirical evidence then you must be an anti-intellectual who merely takes it on faith that God exists. And it’s true, I do take it on faith that God exists. I don’t have empirical evidence for God. I also don’t have empirical evidence for the existence of my liver.
Nobody has ever seen, smelled, weighed, or experimented on my liver. It has never been directly observed by anyone. Yet I believe it exists all the same. I have faith that my liver exists. Why? Because every (healthy) dead person we have cut open has had a liver. Doctors have seen, smelled, touched, weighed, etc., livers inside of every normal person they’ve cut open. What’s more, everyone who has had their liver removed (or whose liver has ceased to function due to disease) soon dies. These two observations are empirical.
From these two observations I make a crude logical proof:
1. All dead human beings that are cut open are found to have a liver within them.
2. All human beings who have been found to have no functioning liver have fallen sick and died.
3. I am a healthy, living human being. Therefore, I must have a liver.
For that reason I have faith that if you cut me open tomorrow you would find a liver inside of me. What is important to realize, however, is that I don’t know empirically that I have a liver. I have faith that I have a liver due to deductive reasoning. I have never seen my liver, but nobody would call me unreasonable believing that it exists. Similarly, I have never seen God but I have good reason to believe that he exists as well. To use one example (out of many) here is one bit of deductive reasoning that leads me to believe in God. It is self evident from our observations and experiences that some things are contingent in their existence on other things. “Contingent” in this context means that we can imagine such a thing not necessarily existing. The computer you are reading this blog on is contingent because it could conceivable have not existed. The computer has not always existed; once it was merely a collection of parts scattered around a factory, and before that it was raw elements taken from the Earth. The computer had to have been created by something. But then that leads to a problem; what created the computer’s creator? And who created the creator of the computer? So on and so on, in an infinite regression. But an infinite line of creators in logically impossible. From this, we can make another (crude) proof:
1. All things that come into existence have a creator.
2. Things exist.
3. Therefore, something must exist that has always existed.
Now this does not prove the existence of God. But it does show that somewhere there must be an eternal and uncreated Something that everything else is based off of. For naturalists this Something is Nature. For theists this Something is God. Now I have other good reasons for believing that the Something is God and not Nature, and I’ve talked briefly about some of them in previous posts. But my overall point remains. Nobody has ever observed, weighed, measured, or tested something that by necessity has always existed. It would be impossible to observe something to have always existed unless the observer has also always existed as well. In this way there is no empirical evidence that such an entity to exist. However we still can reasonably believe in it’s existence despite the impossibility of ever finding empirical evidence for it. I have faith in God’s existence the same way I have faith in my liver’s existence: confidently and reasonably without need of empirical evidence.