Transcript: Podcast 11- Arguments Christians Should Not Use

9 October 2007

For this episode I want to address some arguments used by Christians that I think should be avoided. I think it is important not only to give good arguments for our faith but also to avoid using bad arguments which can undermine our credibility, and so I want to address a few arguments that seem to be much more popular than they should be. For the book reviews we are taking a look at The Only Wise God by William Lane Craig and Losing Faith in Faith by Dan Barker. But first, let’s take a look at the news.

News

A brief article at breitbart.com claims that parallel universes really do exist, according to a mathematical discovery by Oxford scientists. 1 A provocative claim, but upon further analysis there is nothing to be all that excited about.

The parallel universe theory was first proposed in 1950 by the physicist Hugh Everett in order to explain the mysteries of quantum mechanics. According to Everett’s model, every time a new physical possibility is explored, the universe splits. Each option is played out in it’s own universe.

Obviously, this entails a large number of parallel universes given the infinite number of physical possibilities. If Everett’s model is true, then there are an infinite number of parallel universes, quite a few of which contain counterparts to you in them.

What is this idea based on? Well, according to one interpretation of quantum mechanics, nothing at the subatomic scale can really exist until it is observed. Up until the point of observation, particles occupy so-called “superposition” states. In such states they can appear to be in different places at the same time. Once a state is observed, however, reality is ‘locked in’ in some sense. But according to Everett’s model, we just happen to be in this particular universe rather than any of the infinite parallel universes in which particles occupy different physical states.

Anyways, according to the article, new research has shown mathematically that Everett’s model would indeed explain this strange quantum phenomenon.

This, however, hardly demonstrates the truth of Everett’s model or of parallel universes. First of all, such a conclusion requires a certain interpretation of quantum mechanics. Other interpretations are possible, and so we aren’t required to adopt Everett’s bloated metaphysical hypothesis.

Secondly, the classical theist has an even better answer to the problem of quantum indeterminacy than the one provided by the many-worlds hypothesis. God, as an omniscient being who transcends the universe, could theoretically act as the Cosmic Observer who ‘locks in’ physical states by virtue of his perfect knowledge. 2 This view strikes me as simpler than the postulation of an infinite number of parallel universes where all physical states are actualized. Moreover, since I think we have other grounds for believing that God exists and no other grounds for supposing that there are parallel universes, it makes sense to accept God as the Cosmic Observer.

Main Feature: Arguments Christians Should Not Use

This podcast and the associated website are dedicated to providing a rational case for the Christian worldview, and I have discussed in the past several different arguments which, I think, support Christianity. However, as a Christian apologist I think it is not only important that we offer good arguments for our beliefs, but it is also important that we don’t offer bad ones. Unfortunately, a transparently bad argument can ruin an entire case, and you might be tuned out. On a cultural level, I fear that this has already happened. It is commonly assumed that Christians either won’t provide any sort of reasons for belief, or, that any attempts they do make are clearly fallacious and even laughable.

Of course, some people may laugh at good arguments too, but nonetheless it is important to use sound arguments in defense of the faith. In this podcast, I want to quickly cover several common arguments made by Christians that I think are flawed for one reason or another. Insofar as I am correct that these are bad arguments, Christians need to avoid using them and tainting an otherwise compelling worldview.

You Can’t Know that God Doesn’t Exist Unless You’re Omniscient

One really common argument I hear tossed around is the claim that atheism is self-defeating, because in order to know that God doesn’t exist, you would need to be omniscient. Thus, in order to know that there is no God, you would have to be God!

This argument strikes me as very unimpressive, for several reasons. First of all, it is not necessarily true that you need to be omniscient to know for certain that something does not exist. For example, I know that round squares do not exist, even though I am not even nearly omniscient. Since the idea of a round square is inherently contradictory, I can know for a fact that no such thing exists anywhere in the universe. Along this line of thinking, many atheists have actually argued that the existence of God is impossible because some of the alleged divine attributes are mutually incompatible. If these arguments are successful, then an atheist could rightly claim that they know there is no God, even if they had very limited knowledge. Personally, I think that these sorts of arguments are quite terrible, but the point is simply that one does not need omniscience in order to know for a fact that something does not exist.

In any case, the argument is still flawed because atheists do not usually claim that ‘it is impossible for God to exist.’ Rather, they claim that ‘there is no evidence for God’s existence’ or ‘there is good evidence that God does not exist.’ These claims do not require exhaustive knowledge. If this is what the atheist claims, then they do not need to demonstrate with 100% certainty that God doesn’t exist in order to rationally hold their view.

Indeed, almost no belief can be known with absolute certainty. For example, we can’t prove that unicorns or leprechauns do not exist, though we can rationally believe that they don’t. If this is true in the case of unicorns, why cannot it be true in the case of God? Indeed, the claim can be turned around on its head against the Christian. How do we know, for example, that Zeus does not exist? It is possible that he exists, and we certainly aren’t omniscient, so how can we justify believing that he doesn’t exist?

In the case of Zeus, as well as unicorns or leprechauns or whatever, there is no evidence in favor of their existence and perhaps some good reasons to think that they don’t exist. But if this is good enough for disbelief in Zeus, then it is at least theoretically good enough for disbelief in God.

Finally, even if this argument were sound, it wouldn’t justify theism. It would, at best, justify agnosticism as opposed to atheism. But, frankly, I don’t think that there is much of a difference between atheism and agnosticism (which is the position that one does not know whether or not God exists). So the ground gained by this argument, even if successful, is rather meager. We would do better to focus on positive reasons for believing that God really does exist.

Hitler Was an Atheist

Hitler is just a possible example, but the general idea of this argument is to smear the worldview of atheism because of the evil deeds committed by atheists or caused because of the influence of an atheistic worldview.

In the last episode of this podcast, I discussed the objection that Christianity has caused a great deal of suffering and evil in the world. As I pointed out in that episode, this is a very common argument against Christianity. But, as I pointed out there, Christianity is a worldview which is either true or false, and the actions and deeds of professing Christians has nothing to do with whether or not the worldview is true. The same can be said about the worldview of atheism.

Indeed, this type of argument is not only fallacious, it is also dangerous. Once we start bringing up the evil deeds of non-Christians, we open ourselves up to attacks from the other side. Unfortunately, history has left us with some pretty bad behavior to defend, and I think it is best to avoid some sort of back and forth, ‘whose more evil than who’ type of exchange. Even if the Christian can win such an exchange, it will probably not be a very fruitful discussion and it will almost certainly not bring anyone closer to Christ.

Atheists Have No Morals

Closely linked with claims about particularly evil atheists is the claim that atheists do not have any morals. I don’t think that this argument is usually made explicitly, but it often seems to be an implicit claim. It is very important that Christians don’t make or even in any way imply this sort of argument, for several reasons.

First, as stated just previously, the actions of professing atheists have nothing to do with whether or not atheism is true. Secondly, it is not really true that atheists never behave morally. In fact, atheists sometimes live lives that put many Christians to shame. At the end of the day, this sort of claim is simply offensive.

This argument is not to be confused with the Moral Argument, which claims that atheism as a worldview does not provide a foundation for morality. However, when defending this argument, it is important to point out that the claim is not that atheists as individuals are particularly immoral. The Moral Argument attempts to show that the atheist has no rational foundation for affirming moral truths. Nonetheless, an atheist can still live in accord with the moral truths that really do exist.

To give an example, I think that it is objectively morally true that giving money to charity is good. According to the Moral Argument, atheists have no foundation for morality, and thus all morality is subjective. If this is correct, then on atheism, it is not objectively morally good to give money to charity. But this doesn’t mean that the atheist cannot or does not give money to charity. Since, on my view, giving to charity is morally good, the atheist who gives money behaves in a morally good way, even though, according to his own professed worldview, there really is no objective morality.

In any case, whether or not the Moral Argument is successful, it is very important that we do not claim or imply that atheists never live morally. This claim strikes me as both false and offensive.

Everyone Believes that God Exists

This is the old “two billion people can’t be wrong” type of argument. Christianity is by far the most popular religion currently, and belief in God is by far the majority view.

However, using this strength in numbers kind of argument simply commits the argumentum ad populum fallacy by concluding that a belief is true simply because many people believe it.

Here I want to make a distinction between this fallacious argument and a more subtle argument that may or may not be useful. Some believers have argued that the universality of belief is due to an innate sense or feeling within the human mind that compels belief in God, or simply that God persuades people in some way that He exists. It is then argued that the most sensible explanation for this innate desire for the divine is that it was implanted within us by a higher power.

I am personally very skeptical about this argument. It seems somewhat plausible but, I think, it is also easy to diffuse its strength. The argument is particularly weak because nonbelievers will likely be able to counter that the innate tendency for belief is the result of evolutionary development or some innate desire for immortality, or some such explanation. In order to support this argument, the Christian must be prepared to offer good reasons why naturalistic causes cannot plausibly explain the tendency for belief in God. For those listeners who are interested, I cover this argument in a bit more detail on the website in the article The Evolution of Belief?

In any case, it is very important that Christians avoid even appearing to appeal to numbers when arguing that God exists. Such an appeal is a transparent fallacy.

Pascal’s Wager

I hesitate to include Pascal’s Wager in this list of arguments to avoid, because it seems to me that it is possible to mount a reasonable case for this argument. However, my current thinking on this issue is that Pascal’s Wager, even if possible to defend, is nevertheless offensive and bound to turn people off to the Christianity rather than persuade them to believe.

To explain the argument, I am going to quote William Lane Craig at length from his book Reasonable Faith,

“The founder of probability theory, Pascal argues that when the odds that God exists are even, then the prudent man will gamble that God exists. This is a wager that all men must make- the game is in progress and a bet must be laid. There is no option: you have already joined the game. Which then will you choose- that God exists or that he does not? Pascal argues that since the odds are even reason is not violated in making either choice; therefore, reasons cannot determine which bet to make. Therefore, the choice should be made pragmatically in terms of maximizing one’s happiness. If one wagers that God exists and he does, one has gained eternal life and infinite happiness. If he does not exist,one has lost nothing. On the other hand, if one wagers that God does not exist and he does, then one has suffered infinite loss. If he does not in fact exist, then one has gained nothing. Hence the only prudent choice is to believe that God exists.” 3

I feel that the Wager should not be used very often even if it is a sound argument. This is because many people are offended at the concept of being threatened to compel belief. Using Pascal’s Wager is akin to holding a gun to someone’s head and telling them to believe. But even if you can get them to say they do, in actuality they probably won’t. It is almost impossible to compel belief by means of violence and threats. (I do think that Pascal’s Wager can at least be construed in a much more positive way. Yet, it is almost inevitable that nonbelievers will interpret the argument in the way I have described.)

As I have argued elsewhere, however, Pascal’s Wager can be fairly used to demonstrate that the issue of religious belief is important and worth considering. Pascal’s Wager should at least wake us up from our indifferent slumber and cause us to seriously pursue the issue of religion. Beyond this, however, I think that use of the wager should be rare.

You Just Have to Have Faith

Christians will very often claim that you must simply have faith to believe in God. We have to be very careful here though, because the word ‘faith’ has taken on a number of interpretations and I think that the prevailing cultural conception of faith is mistaken. In the first episode of this podcast I discussed the meaning of faith, and I concluded that the Biblical conception of faith is more akin to trust and loyalty to God than to blind belief. 4 However, when most people hear someone say ‘you have to have faith in God,’ they are apt to interpret the statement as ‘you have to have blind belief in God.’

If faith really is blind acceptance, then it seems ludicrous to suggest that nonbelievers should ‘just have faith.’ Why, exactly, should they? It doesn’t make any sense to just blindly accept something, and even if it did, then why should they blindly accept Christianity as opposed to Islam, Hinduism, or even atheism? Faith defined as blind belief is an empty notion.

But if we don’t believe by faith in God, then what do most Christians base their beliefs on? After all, the vast majority of Christians are mostly unfamiliar with arguments for God’s existence and many haven’t even thought about the historical evidence for the resurrection. Well, as I argued in episode 9, most Christians base their belief in God on the basis of personal experience. The witness of the Holy Spirit is what causes Christians to believe. As I argued there, this is entirely rational to do and does not involve a blind leap at all. 5

However, this personal experience is necessarily subjective and the nonbeliever has no access to another individual’s experience. That is why arguments for the truth of Christianity can help to break down barriers and demonstrate that the Christian worldview is rationally compelling. Once these intellectual barriers are broken down, the hope is that the nonbeliever will be more attuned to recognize the witness of the Holy Spirit and will therefore accept Christ as Lord and Savior.

Conclusion

I think it is very important that Christians as a whole use reliable arguments to offer others as the reason for the hope that is within them. Thankfully, there are plenty of good arguments for the Christian faith, and so there is no need to resort to sloppy thinking.

Book Reviews

The Only Wise God

The first book we’ll take a look at is The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom written by William Lane Craig in January 2000. In this relatively concise work, Craig attempts to reconcile the concepts of God’s foreknowledge and human free will. Although this book is actually a less technical and less detailed version of a more scholarly work Craig has written on this issue, it is still a challenging and thought-provoking book.

Before getting into the meat of the book, it is important for us to define the concept of human freedom that Craig is addressing. Philosophers commonly distinguish between libertarian free will and compatibilist free will. According to compatibilism, free will is compatible with determinism. Thus my actions may be completely determined by other factors (heredity, environment, upbringing, physical circumstance, mental states and desires, etc.), yet my decision to, say, eat a piece of pumpkin pie, is free as long as there are no highly obtrusive external factors (for example, being held at gunpoint and forced to eat the pie) which are unduly compelling me to act.

Libertarian freedom, however, contends that genuine freedom requires alternative possibilities. On this account, I freely eat the pie only if, when I decide whether or not to eat the pie, it is genuinely possible for me to either eat it or not. Causal factors alone do not determine the decision.

This is a very controversial issue, among both philosophers and theologians. The theological debate on this issue is also heavily tied to Calvinism and Arminianism. Most Calvinists argue that we have compatibilist free will, while most Arminians vie for libertarian free will. Compatibilists frequently argue that libertarian freedom is actually incoherent, and libertarians usually argue that compatibilist freedom isn’t really freedom at all. In my opinion, libertarian free will is essential both for a coherent Christian worldview and for our lives to have meaning and worth. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that Craig is defending libertarian free will in this book.

One of the most common objections to classical theism is that it leaves no room for genuine human freedom. To answer this problem, Craig first points out that this theological fatalism is simply a dressed-up version of Greek logical fatalism. Logical fatalism argues in the following form,

1.) Necessarily, if Jones is a bachelor, Jones is unmarried.
2.) Jones is a bachelor.
3.) Therefore, Jones is necessarily unmarried.

Craig points out that this argument is simply invalid, since the conclusion does not follow from the premises. All that follows from (1) and (2) is that Jones is unmarried, not that he is necessarily unmarried.

Craig further argues that mere knowledge cannot cause something to occur, and it makes no sense to say that God’s mere knowledge of what I will choose to do could eradicate the freedom of the act. It is our free choice that determines God’s foreknowledge of what we will freely do.

In addition to addressing the problem of foreknowledge and free will, Craig defends a Molinist view of divine foreknowledge, which is often known as the ‘middle knowledge’ view. In this view, God’s knowledge can be grouped into 3 conceptual categories. The first is natural knowledge, which is God’s knowledge of all possible worlds. The third is free knowledge, which is God’s knowledge of all things in the actual world. The second category is appropriately called ‘middle knowledge,’ and it consists of God’s knowledge of what every free creature would do in any possible set of circumstances. This would include, for example, knowledge of what I would do if my computer crashed right now. This is known as a counterfactual of creaturely freedom. According to Craig, God can use His middle knowledge to create a world in which His ends are met through human free choices.

This middle knowledge view has received a great deal of attention in recent times, and it strikes me as a powerful and plausible view. If nothing else, you should read this book so that you can get a brief overview of the Molinist account of divine foreknowledge.

In addition to covering some fascinating topics, The Only Wise God is well written and engaging. Due to the complex issues covered, this book is not the easiest to read, but it is extremely rewarding. I recommend this book for anyone who has struggled with the issue of divine foreknowledge and human freedom.

My rating for this book, 4.5 stars out of 5.

Losing Faith in Faith

The second book we’ll review is Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, written by Dan Barker. Barker is an influential atheist who founded the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and this book contains a recounting of his conversion to atheism and also a collection of short articles of Barker’s writings on a variety of issues, most of which were originally published in the magazine “Freethought Today.”

Unfortunately, this short article format does not allow for an adequate treatment of the issues addressed. Indeed, the book comes off as a random collection of poorly argued mini-tirades. At times the treatment is so shallow as to be humorous. For example, Barker claims multiple times throughout the book that his only reason for rejecting the existence of God is that there is no evidence for His existence. Yet, Barker’s chapter dealing with the evidences for God is only 10 pages long. Barker pretends to deal with the Cosmological argument in less than half a page! Anyone who feels such issues deserve such a minuscule space is severely mistaken, and if Barker expects to challenge the truth of Christian theism, these issues will have to be dealt with more adequately.

Another chapter involves alleged Biblical contradictions, but nowhere does Barker even come close to examining the social and literary context in order to truly show that there is a problem- he merely lists some passages and throws his hands up in the air. In fact, he doesn’t even make much of an attempt to explain exactly why a contradiction or two should be so devastating to the Christian faith. I, for one, accept Biblical innerancy, but my Christian faith isn’t going to come crashing down if there are in fact some contradictions. Barker seems to assume that the whole Christian worldview will fall apart if there are contradictions in the Bible.

Losing Faith in Faith seems to be really popular amongst the atheist crowd, but to be honest there is very little to commend here. If you are looking for a good book defending atheism, you will have to look elsewhere.

My rating for this book, 1 star out of 5.

NOTES:

1. Parallel universes exist – study. (2007, September 23) Retrieved October 2, 2007, from http://www.breitbart.com/article.php?id=paUniverse_sun14_parallel_universes&show_article=1&cat=0

2. See Craig, W. (1996, November 14) . Retrieved October 2, 2007, from http://www.arn.org/docs/odesign/od172/cosmos172.htm

3. Craig, W. (1994). Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. p 54.

4. See Holding, J. (2004, January 1) . Retrieved October 2, 2007, from http://www.tektonics.org/whatis/whatfaith.html

5. See also my article on personal experiences here on this site.

Commenting is closed for this article.