How I Answer Theistic Arguments For the Existence of a God

monotheism

Many atheists are anti-theists — those who actively oppose theism. I have friends who are anti-theists. I fully understand why they are, and as long as they are civil in their in public interactions with theists, I have no objection. Sadly, way too many anti-theists spend their waking hours on social media engaging in shit-throwing contests with Fundamentalists affiliated with the Abrahamic religions. I do understand why atheists get into such contests. Tired of being pushed and battered by religious zealots, these angry atheists push back, if for no other reason than the good feeling they get from doing so. Religious zealots do the same, thinking that their petty, shallow attacks will put godless heathens in their place.

I walked away from Christianity in November of 2008. Since that time, I have spent a considerable amount of time telling my story and critiquing Evangelical Christianity. As long-time readers know, I have been repeatedly savaged by zealots who object to my writing. One Christian man even went so far as to threaten to slit my throat. Other “loving” Christians have called on God to judge me swiftly, hoping that I die a painful death. Some Evangelicals have even attacked my wife, children, grandchildren, and daughter with Down Syndrome. I have had enemies who, using my name, set up fake social media accounts, hoping to screw with me and my friends. It is for this reason that I am very particular about who I friend on Facebook. If I don’t know the person or they aren’t already friends with someone I know, I automatically decline their request.

As a public figure —  who just so happens to be a former Evangelical pastor and an atheist — I know that public (and private) attacks come with the territory. I am willing to bear the brunt of these attacks because of the good accomplished through my writing.

One of the troubling aspects of the past eight years is having to deal with atheists who don’t think I am the right kind of atheist. I have had atheists — who are anti-theists — demand that I stop “coddling” Christians. They don’t like the fact that I tend to be an accommodationist when it comes to religion. I firmly believe that not all religions are the same; that there are some expressions of religion and spirituality that are harmless and might even be helpful to the people who practice them. Here in America, we have so many virulent forms of religion that I think my time is best spent trying to combat the belief systems that do the most harm. Anyone who can’t tell the difference between a nominal Episcopalian and a hardcore Baptist has no  business saying anything about religion. Such people should at least educate themselves about the various religions of the world so they can understand their differences.

When I am asked about the God question, I give the following answer:

I am agnostic on the God question. It is statistically possible that a God, a creator, a divine engineer, or a higher power exists and has not yet revealed itself to us. It’s possible, but highly unlikely. Perhaps, in the future, some sort of deity will make a grand entrance into our time/space continuum.

Having sufficiently studied the various major world religions, I have concluded that the Gods these religions worship are the mythical creations of human imagination. I can say, with great confidence, that the Christian narrative is a work of fiction; that Jesus, if he existed at all, was a man (not God) who lived and died, end of story. I don’t expect any new evidence to be forthcoming that will change my mind.

Practically, I live my day to day life as an atheist. I see no evidence for the existence of any of the Gods humans currently worship. I do my best to live according to the humanist ideal, doing what I can to help others and improve the living conditions of people less fortunate than me.

Recently, someone asked me how I answered those who remained theistic because of what they perceive to be order and design in universe. I am not a scientist, so I am unable to adequately answer such questions from a scientific perspective. I choose, instead, to answer these questions from a philosophical and theological viewpoint. I acknowledge that atheism has no answer for questions concerning how everything came into existence. In his debate with young earth creationist Ken Ham, Bill Nye readily admitted that this is a question science has yet to answer. The difference between science and Christianity, however, is that science says, I don’t know, whereas Christianity, built on two presuppositions — God exists and the Bible is true — says, the Christian God of the Bible created everything. Of course, Christianity has no answer for the question, where did God come from? The fact is, no one knows for certain how everything came to be. I think, thanks to science, we know more now than we ever have. This knowledge has forced the Abrahamic religions to redefine their understanding of the universe. Those who refuse to do so are rightly labeled closed-minded, ignorant Fundamentalists.

But what about deistic arguments for the existence of some sort of creator God; a deity that created the universe and then went on a long, long, long vacation; a God who is not the slight bit interested in what is happening on planet earth? I readily understand how people can look at the night sky and the wonders of our planet and conclude that some sort of deity created everything. I know that most people want to believe that their lives matter — having purpose and significance. I understand why most people hope that there is life beyond the grave. We humans have a tenacious desire to live, so it is no surprise that many of us hope that after death we will go over the rainbow with Dorothy and Toto. While I have no need for such beliefs, I do understand why others might feel differently.

When I engage in discussions with Evangelicals about the existence of God, they will often point to the universe as “proof” for the existence a God. In a move that often surprises them, I grant their premise. Okay, a God of some sort created everything. How can we know that that God was the Christian God of the Bible? Perhaps one of the other Gods humans worship created everything? Perhaps it was a team effort, with numerous Gods overseeing the work of creation. The point is, no one can conclusively prove that their God, or any God, created the universe.

Once backed into the corner, Evangelicals will always run to the Bible and faith. THE BIBLE SAYS and I BELIEVE are often the refrain of those who desperately want to believe that their version of the Christian God is the right God; that their God and only their God is the creator. Sadly, Evangelicals who appeal to faith — either in the Bible or its God — fail to realize that metaphysical claims have no objective basis and are impossible to refute. When someone invokes faith — a subjective, unverifiable experience — discussion, debate, and argument come to an end. I have yet to have a protracted discussion with an Evangelical that didn’t end with the believer backing his arguments into the garage of faith. This is why I try to attack the theological and historical foundations of their beliefs. Arguing about faith is a waste of time.

While I reject the deistic notion of a creator, I am not the least bit concerned about those who hold such beliefs. They are not the people clamoring for a theocracy or demanding that their beliefs be enshrined into law. Fundamentalism is the problem, not religious belief in general. Perhaps after Fundamentalism is destroyed and its monuments to ignorance (the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter are two) are weed-covered parking lots, there will be time to critique private, pietistic religious beliefs. For me personally, I have little interest in doing so, choosing to live and let live.

Besides, for all any of us knows, our so-called universe and existence might be some sort of alien race’s game simulation. I find arguments for this to be every bit as persuasive as those that are made for the any of deities humans currently worship. Silly? No sillier than Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Mormonism.

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8 Comments

  1. Geoff

    The argument that the universe is prima facie evidence for a creator is, to my somewhat pedantic mind, not true, even at the low evangelical level. It is actually simply an observation, and nothing more. The observation is not part of the evidence, and it is the subsequent evidence that is lacking. That is where science has moved on in leaps and bounds, whilst all religions remain bound, hand and foot, for evermore to fester in their ignorance.

    I think also I’d argue that there’s a difference between ‘passive’ accommodationism, and ‘effective’ accommodationism. I’m all for live and let live, despite being at the pretty extreme end of atheistic belief. I audit the accounts for a local church (it is next door!), and generally have no objection to people believing whatever they want, so long as they don’t harm others.

    It’s that last point that can be very difficult in real life. Obviously those who start preaching violence in the name of their religion need to be ‘unaccommodated’, but what about those who say creationism should be taught in schools, to explain the controversy? No, absolutely not (there is no controversy) and it’s for this reason that I say, especially as regards science, we need to be openly hostile, but politely as far as possible, to religion. Science and religion are not compatible at any level whatever; they cannot be accommodated. When a leading scientist attends church each Sunday he leaves his reason at the church door, because the two don’t mix.

    Most of the time these views are personal, kept private, even amongst religious friends, but if I’m asked, or feel that the opportunity requires it, they are there and very non-accommodating.

    Reply
    1. anotherami

      I am a theist, albeit of somewhat unusual flavor. I am certainly not a Fundamentalist or Evangelical and many, if not most, of those who identify as such would say I’m not Christian either. So be it. I strongly disagree with your contention that science and religion are “not compatible at any level whatever”. I was taught, in church, that when the Bible and science disagree, it is science that is correct, because the Bible is old and its authors often (usually?) ignorant. I was taught that the Bible is to be used for spiritual guidance, not scientific fact. I was furthermore taught that to leave reason and logic at the church was in error. As a result, my beliefs have changed over the years as science races forward, yet the core of my faith remains; that there is a “God” of some kind. Why wouldn’t a scientist be able to do the same?
      I am leery of any absolutes. There is always deviation, the exception that proves the rule. I find your stance of zero accommodation to be as troubling on your part as it is in those you oppose. There is much we humans do not yet know, especially in the realm of metaphysics. Therefore I think skepticism, doubt, and a certain amount of accommodation* serve us better at this time than absolutes on either side, at least in the public realm.

      * Please do not mistake this to mean I support creationism or intelligent design being taught as science. Science must be free from the constraints of religious dogma but I do not think that means all scientists must be atheists either.

      Reply
      1. Geoff

        Of course there are scientists who are very fervent believers, for example Francis Collins, but that doesn’t make religion and science compatible. He, of course, would argue differently but, regardless of his status, I reckon I could take him on in a direct discussion on the subject and feel I’d done myself justice. You mention metaphysics, but I’d argue that’s an empty concept, on a level with astrology or alchemy. I’m not saying that philosophy in general is dead, but certainly the philosophy of religion is at dead horse status, in my opinion.

        When people argue the compatibility of religion and science, it never seems to take long for the religious side of the argument to fall apart, but I’d be very interested to know why you think I’m wrong. I’m not trying to be confrontational, by the way, but I am interested.

        Reply
        1. anotherami

          I cannot and will not argue for religion as I see organized religion as at best unnecessary and often harmful, as so many readers of this blog can attest. I am talking about a basic belief in a Divine Element of some kind, not an all-powerful Biblical God or the doctrine and dogma of any particular church. (I agree that those can and do get in the way of science, to humanity’s loss.) Why do you feel any level of theism is completely incompatible with science?
          I also disagree that metaphysics is dead (no surprise I’m sure). I think psychiatry/psychology/neurobiology have taken up some of the work at the individual level. And more and more people are arguing that the world in general would benefit greatly from a more modern Islamic religious philosophy than is currently being promoted and practiced in much of the world. I would hope that such a philosophy is being developed as I type, though I won’t hold my breath.
          I guess my biggest difficulty with your position is your stance of complete non-accommodation in the public realm. Whether it would be your intent or not, such a stance is usually seen as confrontational, hostile or even threatening, which psychology has proven only serves to make people’s beliefs become more entrenched. This would only serve to reinforce the unwarranted strain of persecution complex infecting the religious right in the US today. I prefer the approach of compromise (since consensus is impossible) with the moderate elements where possible, though obviously this is not always the case. One dodge we have in the US is the 1st Amendment protection of religion. We can bar religion in schools, government, etc., because the debate then becomes which flavor of religion is allowed, i.e. not all American churches believe in creationism. Barring them all is the only sure way to ensure no one’s faith is discriminated against.
          Thanks for the exchange of views, btw. I always learn something from such encounters.

          Reply
          1. Geoff

            I’ll not go overboard on the detail of why I think science and religion are incompatible, but here are some of the reasons.

            The two get off to a bad start. Science starts with an observation, makes a hypothesis, collects evidence, then attempts to provide a conclusion based on that evidence (or a process very similar, according to circumstances). Religion begins with a conclusion, then looks for evidence to support it.

            Then it gets worse. For example, in the area of medicine religion messes it up all of the time. Prayer has been shown, time and again, to be ineffective. Faith healing doesn’t work, and there is no evidence whatever of a ‘miracle’ cure having ever happened, despite the claims of the catholic church. Plenty of wheelchairs get left at Lourdes every year but, so far, nobody has grown a replacement limb.

            On even the physical sciences religion has come unstuck time and again. Galileo was tortured because he refused to acknowledge that the sun revolved around the earth. It was believed that disease was caused by demons and that witches could make curses.

            When people say they don’t believe in god because of a lack of evidence the response isn’t ‘here’s the evidence’, instead it’s a statement that you must have faith. Why? Well, of course, if there were evidence then one wouldn’t need faith, but then that rather begs the question. In reality the word ‘faith’ is a sort of respectable word to cover ‘believe what I believe’ or ‘believe what there’s no evidence for’.

            Ultimately I can see no area in which science and religion are compatible; the best I can see is that they can vaguely co-exist if you don’t concentrate. Taking communion, for example, is fine and seems pretty harmless. However it is nothing more than a superstitious ritual, with no basis in reality; I think it is in this sense that people will, somewhat glibly, say that the two areas are compatible when what they mean is that one, religion, doesn’t, at that point, encroach on science. Well perhaps not, but science can regard it as irrelevant, meaningless, nonsense and be none the worse for it.

            Ami, good to have a little bit of sensible debate! I hope I don’t come over as too pedantic.

  2. Ami

    I’ve never really verbalized my feelings about this, I guess. Hm.

    I think religious beliefs that bring comfort to people like my mom are fine. She should believe whatever she wants, pray to whoever she wants. She lives by the Bible for the most part, and although she’s not perfect, she tries to be kind to everyone and ‘live by the Word’.

    If they all just kept their religion to themselves… or shared it only with other religious people (haha… put the word homosexuality in place of religion and you’ll have the argument I’ve heard most often from them) I wouldn’t have a problem with it.

    It’s when it’s in my face that I am deeply offended.

    And stop teaching it to your kids. That’s where the harm begins.

    Reply
  3. Linda

    Just some loose thoughts on your post:

    How you answer those who remain theistic because of what they perceive to be order and design
    is simply that the universe is NOT fine tuned for human life—our planet is barely suitable:
    [1] Most of outer space is uninhabitable.
    [2] A radiation belt surrounds us (we could easily be fried by a solar flare).
    [3] An asteroid belt surrounds us (we could easily be mashed by a stray meteorite).
    [4] Now and again, floods or earthquakes kill many of us—super calderas sound terrifying.
    [5] Numerous other life forms regularly kill many of us (viruses, bacteria, worms, poisonous plants and animals).
    How is any of that “fine tuning”?

    Some Christians argue that physical constants need to be within a very narrow range of values to permit life, and that a slight change would result in a universe inhospitable to life. One such canard is that if the Earth were 10′ closer to the Sun, we’d all burn, and if it were 10′ further away, we’d all freeze. However the orbit of Earth is an ellipse, and it’s distance from the sun varies between 91-94 million miles—way more than 10′.

    But yes, if conditions on Earth were different, then conditions might not have allowed life to arise and evolve, and we wouldn’t be here to talk about it—humans are not the ‘end game’ of evolution. The universe was not fine tuned for us, though you could say that we were fined tuned by natural selection for this planet, such as it is.

    Fine tuned or not, the universe is not “proof” for the existence of God;
    the universe is proof for the existence of a universe.

    No one has even a shred of evidence to suggest that any god exists, let alone that the Christian God created everything.
    To pull God out of thin air as the uncaused cause of the universe is simply Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae argument:
    [1] everything must have a cause,
    [2] there must have been a first cause, therefore
    [3] God is the first cause.

    How everything really did come into existence is a separate question that many scientists are working hard to figure out.
    So far, they’ve not stumbled across any evidence to suggest that any sort of god might be involved.

    Metaphysical claims are impossible to refute. Fortunately, by the rules of logic, the burden of proof rests firmly in the theists’ camp and it is completely unnecessary to refute an unsupported claim. Unfortunately, if you’re arguing with someone who doesn’t value logic, you lose anyhow.

    By definition, beliefs are held true or real in the absence of supporting evidence or contrary to evidence—if a belief is validated with evidence, it ceases to be a belief and becomes knowledge. Beliefs are held tenaciously because they fill an emotional need, so no, you can’t argue with beliefs.

    Reply
    1. Geoff

      Linda, that sums up the whole issue rather neatly, if I may say. The Aquinas ontological argument is still held by some in great esteem, for example Edward Feser (I always need a sick bag near when I read his arrogant rubbish), but amounts to nothing more than a special pleading for a creator, and not even the Christian God. Personally I simplify it in my head by saying that there’s no evidence for the existence of ‘nothing’, in effect that something actually, or equating to the universe, has always existed and cannot not exist.

      You’ve also triggered a new way of me responding to the fine tuning argument. The universe (though, as you say, more properly the earth) wasn’t fine tuned in such a way as to enable human, and other life to exist, rather life fine tuned itself to the existing conditions.

      Reply

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