The short-comings of every theist argument that I have ever heard, and the one type of case that gives me some pause
I am an agnostic atheist. An agnostic atheist is one who does not make the assertive statement “There is no God”, but simply lacks a belief in any God. I do not know for certain that there is no God, so I won’t claim such knowledge. In my experience, though, I have had no experiences and have heard no arguments that seem to justify an intellectually honest and rational belief in God. So not only do I lack a belief in God, I also tend to view such belief as being untenable. In this post I will go through a list of pitfalls that every theistic argument that I have ever heard have fallen into. Most if not all the arguments that I have heard have managed to avoid some of them, but none have ever made it through the rational gauntlet without falling at least once. At the end of this post I will discuss one type of argument that gives me some pause: the profound personal religious experience which invokes a highly improbable event.
In my experience arguments for God tend to fall into one or more of the following categories of fallacious reasoning. In order for me personally to give a theistic argument the time of day, it has to stand outside of these pitfalls.
1. Arguments from ignorance (“I don’t know how this could have happened without someone deliberately designing it”, or claims that “this could not have happened without a designer”—just because it appears impossible doesn’t necessarily mean that it is and moreover, on what grounds would we say that the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient being that exists outside of time and space is more possible, or is the best alternative explanation?; This reasoning error is often intertwined with misunderstandings of evolutionary biology, cosmology, or other sciences)
2. Arguments from consensus (if all these people believe in it, it has got to be a good idea).
3. Arguments from authority (e.g., The Bible/Priest/Pope/Imam says; Scientist X is a Christian and she’s a scientist!…; This often overlaps with arguments from consensus; popularity and authority are not substitutes for good argumentation)
4. Arguments from the need for morality (“we need an objective morality”, or “where else would morals come from?”; There is no evidence for there being an objective morality that transcends humanity; there have been perfectly reasonable accounts for moral cognition from the cognitive sciences and evolutionary biology; a big set of factors include mirror neurons, kin selection, and the finding of apparent moral cognition in a variety of species ranging from mice to primates)
5. Arguments from cherry-picked scripture (Religious texts contain hundreds of densely packed pages with many statements that are sufficiently vague to be interpreted in terms of things we know happened. Further, if they were not divinely inspired, then they were written by humans—humans who probably had a fairly good understanding of how humans and tribes interact. Humans also have a confirmation bias—they recognize and remember things that confirm their beliefs far more readily than things that are neutral or contrary to their beliefs. It is hardly surprising, then, that one will detect a modest collection of statements in their religious text that seem to map onto the world. But how many lines of scripture do they have to wiz by in order to find these gems? And how often are these gems quite vague and multiply interpretable? And how many of the supposed predictions could have reasonably been put forth given what people at the time knew? And, importantly, were the supposed prophecies even intended as prophecies, versus cautionary tales of what sorts of things could/would happen if something else were to happen?)
6. Arguments from personal religious experience (Problems with this include: People of all religious traditions have these experiences; they can’t all be correct. Now one may say that there could very well be a God, and each religion presents a path to that God. And what about the numerous tribes around the world that have and continue to believe that the success of their crops, their personal good and bad luck, and so on is guided by benevolent and demonic local spirits? Not all supernatural belief systems invoke gods. And then there are the cases of users of psychedelic drugs reporting religious experiences, and subjects of Laurentian University professor Michael Persinger’s research using the “God Helmet”, which have been led to feel a sort of external agentive presence as a function of having their brain waves altered. Moreover, secular meditators have also experienced significantly altered states of consciousness which have many of the qualities often described in religious experiences–e.g., decreased sense of separation of self from other people and from the universe, decreased self-consciousness, insight, etc.. Humans *do* have profound experiences. I myself have been experiencing qualitatively different states of consciousness of late through meditation. But humans also tend to anthropomorphize (e.g., imparting human-like mindedness onto animals, insects, organizations and countries, etc), to anthropomorphize on a grand scale in the form of attributing major things like weather, luck, the universe, etc. to Gods and spirits that are remarkably different from one group to the next, to be very receptive to information presented to them by their parents, peers and societies, and to attach great personal and social importance to their religious beliefs which can make it very difficult to truly challenge these beliefs)
7. Misunderstandings of evolutionary biology or other sciences
8. Mischaracterization of atheism as a religion in and of itself, containing its own dogmatism. (Firstly, while it would be dogmatic and intellectually unjustified for one to refuse the possibility that there could be a God (any God), the position of agnostic atheism (my position) involves no dogmatism or faith. It’s simply a lack of belief in a God until presented with compelling evidence. There is no claim that a God doesn’t exist, just that at present it seems unreasonable to believe that one does exist. I should also say that even if atheism were just another dogmatism, it wouldn’t make any other religion any more true)
The one type of religious argument that gives me some pause is when someone tells me of a religious experience that invokes a highly improbable event. A few weeks ago while attending a very slanted set of religious debates in Whitby, Ontario, I encountered one of these arguments. I spoke to a gentleman who told me of an experience he had while attending a Benny Hinn “faith healing” event. This man told me that he personally had no interest in attending a Benny Hinn event as he personally viewed the man as a quack. However, he had a sick friend who wanted to go and requested his company. The man, as it happened, had long suffered from significant shoulder pain. While at the event all of a sudden his shoulder felt fine. I think he might have told me that just before and as this was happening he was thinking of and perhaps attempting to communicate with Jesus. Very shortly after this, Hinn pointed over to his direction and declared that someone in this vicinity just began to feel relief–I think the man may have said that Benny referred to the shoulder in particular, but am not sure of this. The man stayed quiet. Then a very brief period later Hinn referred again to his area of the audience and made the same claim. At this point the man stood up and declared that it was he who was experiencing relief in his shoulder. What is more is that he claims that since that day, his shoulder has continued to feel fine despite having been in pain consistently for years.
Now clearly this is a very improbable event. However, the existence of the Christian God has been poorly argued for and thus, does not exactly seem at all probable in and of itself. So how to consider this situation? Well, firstly, there is the possibility that the man was simply lying to me. This is a possibility. He presented as very genuine, but nevertheless the lie is a possibility. Indeed, I have met a few people in my life who made it a semi-regular practice of telling lies with an appearance of sincerity. Moreover, this possibility seems no less improbable than the man’s omniscient omnipotent omnibenevolent God of choice being true. Perhaps the story was not completely made up, but there was some embellishment. In this case though, even with a bit of embellishment here and there, the true facets of the story would likely still be mindboggling. Then there is the possibility of this having just been a random chance encounter. There are over 6 billion people on the planet, and many billions more have lived throughout time. The average life span across human history have probably been something like 30-40 years. If I very loosely *estimate* that 20 billion people have ever lived for an average of 35 years, and that this particular instance took 1 minute to occur, then there have been 3,681,772,000,000,000,000 chances for an event of these (or analogous) qualities to have occurred. Nevertheless, the coincidence of Benny Hinn calling on his section of the audience twice and him suddenly feeling lasting relief from an ailment that had plagued him for years is still very stunning to me.
But if we take this man’s story seriously, some questions pop up. Firstly, why has God given him this type of evidence and not the majority of the rest of us? Does God like him more than most of the rest of us? And what if people of other religions (especially from outside of the three big monotheisms) come forward with similar stories? This would presumably mean that each of the religions is probably wrong about a lot of things. Which things? The story of Jesus, Mohammed, and/or Moses? Various moral prescriptions? Creation stories?
The assertion of a God – and a particular God in particular – is an extraordinary assertion. It is a claim of knowledge regarding the origins and nature of the universe, morality, justice, what happens after death, the meaning of life, and how individuals and societies should conduct themselves. Assertions of God are also not uncontested. Each religionist is challenged by a host of religionists of different faiths, by nonreligious people, and by contradictions offered by science and armchair reasoning. Given the magnitude of the claims and the opposition, religious apologetics has quite the mountain to climb. In order for the summit to be reached, it seems that God might have to do something very dramatic. Perhaps showing himself to the world by appearing in the sky and producing lasting changes on the nature of the world – e.g., saying he’s going to cause a mild earthquake and then doing it right then and there, with the mild damages still available for observation the next day; or offering to replace the missing body parts of the world’s amputees and then doing it; or appearing in the dreams of all of the world’s people on a given Saturday night. Of course, this is exactly the sort of thing that the religious scriptures conveniently excuse God of, often under the cover of claims of testing our faith or preserving our freewill. Be that as it may. But until argumentation or events suggestive of God are able to escape the pitfalls outlined in this post as these dramatic examples would accomplish, I will most probably continue to be uncharitable to religious apologetics.