The Six Atheist Arguments That Actually Work (Part 1: Honesty)

For the vast majority of believers, this argument comes out of nowhere, and is wonderfully disarming. Better yet, it can be phrased with great simplicity and brevity, and without telling anybody what to think (I’m sure you’ve experienced how well that works).

 

Personally, I’ve used this argument with a Bishop, who ended up saying (his own words) that he believed in his God without having any reason to do so (and that he knew that wasn’t a reliable method of coming to beliefs). Not all discussants are so candid, but I’ve yet to find anyone with a good answer for this (I’m not sure I’ve ever run across anyone who’d ever even heard it before, actually).

 

The “Is It Honest?” argument:

 

“If we are persuaded that there is an omnipotent being, how can we tell if it’s honest or not?”

 

That’s it. It doesn’t always sink in the first time, and I’ll often repeat it with different phrasings so that they really ask themselves the question.

 

“So, this omnipotent being could be honest, or it could be dishonest. If it’s honest, what could it do to prove its honesty that it couldn’t fake if it was dishonest?”

“What could an honest omnipotent being do, that a dishonest omnipotent being couldn’t fake just as easily?”

 

I recommend asking yourself the question, trying to come up with an answer. If you do come up with what you think might be an answer (what an honest omnipotent being could do to show it was honest), first apply this test to your potential answer:

“Could a dishonest being also do that, if it was omnipotent?”

 

Well, the being is omnipotent, so of course it can. Indeed, once a being is found to be omnipotent, our ability to assess its honesty drops all the way down to zero. To be able to tell between two possible beings, we have to observe something that would be different between them (we can’t tell them apart if they look exactly the same). But there is nothing different between what an honest omnipotent being would show us, and what a dishonest omnipotent being would show us. Naturally, an omnipotent being can deceive perfectly, if it wants to.

 

Try this simple test on any answer you like:

 

  • Well, the being was honest all these times (could a dishonest being do that, if it was omnipotent?)
  • Well, it said it was honest (could a dishonest being do that?)
  • It hasn’t forced everyone to believe in it (could a dishonest being do that?).
  • It appeared to suffer for us (could a dishonest being also so appear?)
  • etc.

 

As such, I find we don’t even need to question people’s arguments for there being a God. Let them say that this or that book must be inspired, or that a supernatural being is talking to them. We can agree with them, and then just ask:

“Is the book-inspirer or the being talking to people honest? How do we know?”

 

Now, I have heard one answer (an ontological argument), which does add one step to the argument. Honestly, it hardly matters, as no one’s real reason for believing in an honest and omnipotent being is because of the ontological argument. Additionally, hardly anybody will use it or know it, anyway. And it’s just one step to refute.

 

Here it is:

 

  • Let’s define a “maximally great being” as a being that’s, among other things, omnipotent, exists in all possible worlds, and is perfectly honest.
  • So, we ask “Does this being exist?”
  • Well, is it even possible for this being to exist, ie, does it exist in some “possible world?”
  • Seems possible.
  • So, if it exists in one possible world, then it exists in all possible worlds, because it’s defined as “exists in all possible worlds.”

 

Behold the beauty of the ontological argument. It has a certain lovely resemblance to the Gordian knot. Lovely how we can just define things into existence, isn’t it?

 

2 Points:

  • If this argument works, it works for anything that we can just define to be “existent in all possible worlds” and which is possible to exist (a maximally existent leprechaun (is it even possible that it exists? Then it must exist!) or maximally existent cure for cancer). Case closed. An argument that can prove a “maximally existent” Darth Vader as easily as a “maximally existent” omnipotent and honest being is too strong. It’s so strong it can even prove falsehoods true!
  • “If it exists in any possible world, then it exists in all possible worlds” cuts both ways, my friend. If that’s the case, then if there’s any possible world it doesn’t exist in, then it doesn’t exist in any possible world, because it doesn’t “exist in every possible world” as defined. Is it even possible that it doesn’t exist? Then it doesn’t exist in some possible world, and thus, does not exist at all. Brilliant stuff.

 

That’s just extras. Most people are more honest about how they came to conclude that the omnipotent being they believe in must be honest (it said it was, either in their head, or in a book), and it literally never occurred to them to ask if it was honest when it said that. Seriously. Seriously seriously. How do I know?

 

Because that was me, some time back. The first time I asked myself how I knew that the spiritual being talking to me was honest, I realized that I didn’t know. I didn’t know. Sometimes there is dread in the heart when freedom approaches. That was the beginning of all I later came to understand. If someone had been there to explain it to me years before, it might have saved me much of my life.

 

Let us be gentle, be non-confrontational, use Street Epistemology (when we can). See “Don’t Victim-Blame Believers” for my take on how the religious are largely victims of unfortunate upbringing and should be seen as people to help, not as enemies to destroy (how many of us were once among them?). It is easy to call them deluded, but harder to remember that we should have compassion for people who err, not hatred. Remember these are people, and we have the opportunity to help them. On the other side of a little patience and a little work, we hold the power to set people free.

We Should Abandon Weak Atheist Arguments (Like “Jesus Never Existed”)

Here, “weak” means both those arguments which do not have a strong effect on theists, and also philosophically weak arguments: The arguments which don’t have much effect, and the arguments that shouldn’t have much effect.

 

The classic example, perhaps, is the “Jesus never existed” line. From Wikipedia’s  “Historicity of Jesus” entry:

“An overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars and Near East historians, applying the standard criteria of historical investigation, find that the historicity of Jesus is more probable than not[4][5][6][7][nb 1][nb 2][nb 3][nb 4] …While scholars have criticized Jesus scholarship for religious bias and lack of methodological soundness,[nb 7] with very few exceptions, such critics generally do support the historicity of Jesus, and reject the Christ myth theory that Jesus never existed.”

 

It’s just embarrassing to have this kind of argument so common in atheist circles. It is rightly sneered at and rebutted, and also gives credence to the conception of atheists as desperate and grasping at straws. It allows believers with total justification to “score a point” as they refute it.

 

Now, (it shouldn’t be this way, but it is) “winning” one argument, makes theists (and humans in general) feel like that one win sort of bleeds over into other arguments, and makes their entire position feel stronger than it is (see halo effect on how one good thing about something will make everything about that something seem better).

 

Let’s imagine how this might play out in a debate. An atheist presents 10 arguments, 5 of which are philosophically correct, and five of which are not (like “Jesus never existed”). The theist debater rebuts the five wrong arguments using proper reasoning, and then uses rhetoric and fallacy to make it seem like the other five are also wrong.

 

Now, in the absolute best scenario, an audience member will see that one side has proper reasoning about half the time, and improper reasoning the other half of the time. This person will have to work out for themselves which position is right, because the debaters haven’t helped at all.

 

Outside of a debate context, things are worse. Theists can cherry-pick and quote verbatim actual quotes from atheists presenting bad arguments (like “Jesus never existed”) and the theist can present a completely reasonable, secularly-supported, devastating take-down of these arguments. You can make a whole living out of bashing the cherry-picked bad arguments of the other side, and all who hear you with ears of reason will note that you’re using proper reasoning (more or less).

 

Of course, just because atheists are wrong doesn’t mean that atheism is wrong. And even if atheism were wrong, that wouldn’t mean that theism was correct (maybe deism, after all) or especially that any particular flavor of theism was correct. But if we think that’s going to occur to most people, we’re optimistic to the point of naivete. Most people think that if an “enemy” is shown to be wrong, that means that their own side must be correct. Yes, this is a false dichotomy, no, that won’t occur to most of them.

 

As such, a Muslim and a Christian who hear a take-down of bad atheist arguments will feel that this proves that Islam and Christianity are true, respectively.

 

This works both ways, naturally. I admire Christopher Hitchens as a communicator and as a personality, but as an argument-maker, he was hit or miss. Much of his best work as a critic of religion was based on finding the worst arguments in theism and making solid refutations of them, but not doing quite so well on the slipperier, more complicated theist arguments. Yes, because theists gave him so much bad material he could work with, he practically built a career out of attacking them (note! As long as there are enough bad arguments mixed in with the good, this kind of attack can work even against the side that’s right!).

 

Here’s the point. By mixing in philosophically bad or unconvincing arguments, we dilute the apparent strength of our position. Someone hears some arguments they can’t refute, but they hear some they can refute; so they call the match as roughly equal (we gave as good as we got, didn’t we?), and allow their biases to keep them firmly on the same side they started on (well, we certainly didn’t lose!). We are allowing theists to displace the failures of theism onto the failures of bad arguments from atheists.

 

I did this, once upon a time. I would confidently research the critiques of my religion, refuting them with ease, allowing their wrongness to “prove” my rightness. But, once in a while, I’d come across an argument I couldn’t refute. I’d say to myself “Well, this one does seem to lead to this conclusion…” Cognitive dissonance would arise, I’d feel a dread come over me, I began to wonder if I would be able to admit if I was wrong, and then Hallelujah, I’d find some more weak arguments to refute, and my tensed muscles and mind would relax. I literally said to myself “It’s just hard to take this side seriously when they have such bad arguments.” By mixing their strong arguments with their weak, they let me blind myself to the light with darkness that they themselves provided.

 

What am I advocating for? We drop the just-wrong arguments, like “Jesus never existed.” We also drop the arguments that are “fuzzy,” that we don’t understand clearly and thoroughly. These are arguments like “If God was timeless, how did He decide to cause the universe?” We are not dealing with things we understand really well and which show that a timeless agent is impossible. We are dealing with something that kinda-sorta seems to make intuitive sense (ish), and acting way more confident about that than we should be. Drop the wrong arguments, and drop the fuzzy ones.

 

What are we left with? The ones that are crystal-clear, and more importantly, right. What does an audience do, when all it hears are some crystal-clear arguments that don’t have any obvious flaws in them? Well, however likely they were to be convinced by the mixed bag, they’re a lot more likely to be convinced by hearing just the good stuff. They’ll also have a lot harder time thinking that atheists grasp at straws and use ridiculous arguments. They won’t be able to use failed atheist arguments to comfort themselves over the failures of theism.

 

Most theists, coming closer to being convinced than they would have been, will still not be convinced. But I was a believer, and this is not uncommon; religion is losing its support. This way, those with the potential to see through it all will be able to do so more quickly; someone could have saved me several important years of my life. Some others who would have ended up on the edge will end up crossing over it. And even for those who are not convinced, atheists will seem a little less flawed than they would have if they argued dumb points that not even secular scholars believe in.

 

Here is an example of one of my favorite crystal-clear, effective arguments (more on this in another post).

 

Suppose we become convinced that there is an all-powerful being. How do we determine if it is honest or not? Suppose the being offered to do anything to show us it was honest. What could it do?

 

Think about this for a second before moving on, if you like.

 

There is nothing that an all-powerful honest being could do, that an all-powerful dishonest  being could not also do, if it wanted to look honest. We need one test, and one test only, to check if something is proof that a powerful being is definitely honest (not just pretending). It is: “Could a dishonest being also do that?”

 

Insert any possible test, or observation you like. The being has been observed to be honest so far? Could a dishonest being do that? The being said it was honest, perhaps in a book or a revelation? Well, could a dishonest being do that? The being appeared to suffer on our behalf? Okay, but could a dishonest being so appear?

 

There is nothing. The closest I’ve heard is “Well, a maximally great being would also be maximally honest.” Ah, then we’ll have to know that it’s maximally honest before we can conclude that it is maximally great, won’t we? So, back to it, what could an all-powerful honest being do that an all-powerful dishonest being couldn’t fake?

 

I’ll be doing a series on the six arguments I consider would be unusually likely to have an effect on a believer. A few have counters if you’re willing to abandon certain central theist beliefs, and this is itself a kind of victory.

Don’t Victim-Blame Believers

“She thinks being gay is bad? No wonder you don’t want to be with her.”

“No, you don’t understand; she’s still a good person! It’s just her religion…”

 

I realized I was right. She was the kind of person who wouldn’t have anything against being gay unless she had to. Actually, so was I, and I sounded just like her back when I was religious. Honestly, we weren’t bad people, and she’s still not.

 

Most of the terrible things that some believers say? That’s really not the kind of person they are (usually). They wouldn’t be saying them if it wasn’t for their religion. But, it’s easy to think there’s just something wrong with them, as it is to think about any group that sounds strange and wrong to us.  I sometimes get frustrated hearing the things religious people defend, and the reasons they make up to defend them (actually, atheists are famous for exactly this kind of reaction; try typing “why are atheists so” into Google). Many atheists will attribute the religious’ ideas to their being stupid, or evil, or insane. Often, all three.

 

(Seriously? All three? Isn’t this sufficiently explained by just one? Are we sure we’re not overstating our case here…?)

 

But when they reluctantly (or even proudly) confess that, yes, they think you deserve to be set on fire for eternity, even if you’re just a child…Or, well, umm, yeah, they believe that the Earth is a few thousand years old…Or they say that they would probably kill people if they didn’t believe in God…

 

I have a better explanation, and I try to remember it whenever I get frustrated with the religious for saying things I feel like even they should know, must know, aren’t right. They are victims. These are perfectly normal people, who have had the tremendous misfortune to have had a carefully woven web of memes inserted into their brain (usually) at an early age, complete with fear-based removal-resistant antibodies. Can we really blame them for some of their resultant coping mechanisms?

 

They are not allowed to think certain thoughts. Eternal torture hangs over their heads. Social alienation and the contempt of their believing peers also. Can we deny that these people deserve pity, not contempt? Are victims, rather than enemies?

 

Then, rather than victim-blame believers for an accident of their birth or culture, let us rather say to ourselves, “There, but for the grace of God go I.” Personally, I try to see a younger version of myself when I encounter self-satisfied, self-congratulating, answer-for-everything/nothing believers. There was a time when I needed help, when I was suffering myself in the bonds of ill thought. When I remember this, my frustration relaxes, and I try to help however I can, if I can.

 

It is a delicate work, not unlike talking someone down from the edge of a building. Mental suicide is at stake here, and if we’re not careful, we’ll push a desperate victim a little too hard, and find them wrapped up all the tighter in their misfortune. Victim-blaming has the same predictable result on believers as we can imagine it would have on someone contemplating literal suicide. There’s a reason we decry victim-blaming.

 

The best tool I know for being able to help someone to think, as I once needed to be helped, is Street Epistemology. Its persuasive ability is impressive, but the absolute most important part of it as far as I’m concerned is how it allows us to discuss sensitive topics, like religious or political differences, without making it feel like a battle, without being confrontational, without eternally cutting off all potential for future conversations.

 

So, in conjunction with my recommendation to see believers as victims before fools or devils, I recommend Street Epistemology, to make yourself look more like a friend than a demon, even as you carefully talk someone down from mental suicide, an act for which they may see you as an enemy for a time, but in the end, we can hope, as a friend.

On Truth, On God, and On Faith

Let’s look at truth first, and then see how it applies to God. First, a couple of examples.

Ideas

If we each picture a dog in our head, then what we each picture will be the same in many ways, but also different in many way. If you wanted me to have a clear understanding of just what you are seeing in your mind, then it will be very hard for me to get to that understanding just from the word “dog.”

Maybe you are imagining a specific breed of dog, at a certain age and health, a certain color, in a certain position, against a certain background, and so on. Hidden within that tiny little word “dog,” there are a thousand details. That is why we say “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Again, suppose we each imagine a person walking down a street. Have you done so? Great. Now, if you were to just tell me that you imagined “a person walking down a street,” I will have a vague idea of what you imagined, but I won’t understand it well enough to picture the same thing in my head.

The image in your head, did you imagine a male or a female? Of what age? Were they walking with their face toward you or away? Or at an angle? Did you see them as though you were at eye level, or maybe from above? What side of the street were they on? What color and make was the street? What was on the sides of the street? And so on.

Just like with “dog,” when you say “a person walking down the street,” there are a thousand little details all bundled up inside that simple phrase. It is a deceptively simple phrase, really.

True Ideas

Now, when it’s just your imagination, of course you can have all the details you want. But, let’s imagine now that we’re saying that the idea in your head corresponds to something that’s not only in your head, but which is also out there somewhere, in reality. We say the idea is “true,” and by “true” we mean that the idea matches something that really exists somewhere. Well, in that case, every detail has to match the real thing. If my idea of the thing has a thousand details, then, for me to be right, for my idea to be true, then the real thing also has to have those same thousand details.

So, if I believe someone is guilty of stealing a shirt from a store (and you think I’m wrong), then for my idea to be true, this person must really have taken a shirt from the store without permission. If the person actually took a pair of pants, or if it was actually a different person who stole a shirt, or if someone took a shirt from a store but they actually had permission…

Then my belief is true in some ways, and not true in others. I should keep all the true parts, and I should allow the untrue parts to be replaced with true ones. All of us must allow reality to change our ideas, sorting out the bad parts and installing new, better parts.

God As An Idea

So, I have two points now about God. First, “God” is a deceptively simple phrase. What is the idea of God you have in your head? Is it of a being who created the universe? If yes, then great! But, is that all there is to the idea of God you have in your head? Or is there more?

Is this creator also supposed to still be alive today? That’s another detail. Is the creator also responsible for many good things happening in your life? Those are more details. Is it an honest being, a loving being, a male being? More details. Will it judge people, reward or punish them, and provide an afterlife? And so, we go on and on, until we have really heard the thousand details all bundled up in this deceptively simple word “God.”

And now, the second part. Some people say they know that this idea of God is true, that is, they know that the idea in their head matches some real being that exists somewhere. Each detail is claimed to match a detail that the being really has.

If you ask someone how they know this idea is true (and this is the crucial part), people will tend to provide a collection of arguments, some philosophical, some scientific, and some from their own personal experiences. You, or another person might think these arguments are flawed, and might not be convinced that this God idea matches anything that really exists.

(Note, by “arguments,” I’m including personal spiritual experiences, too, along with scientific or philosophical reasoning arguments. Some people think all 3 of these things are flawed)

Well, I want you to bear with me here. Let us suppose all these arguments are true. Now, where will that get us? I mean, what will that really get us?

I know arguments that prove (or claim to prove) that there is an intelligent creator. That’s wonderful. That works for one of the details in the God idea. Other arguments claim to prove that the being is timeless, spaceless, and massless. That the being resurrected Jesus Christ or inspired Mohammed to write the Quran. That the being talks to people today and helps them in their lives.

And there are many more arguments.

But, I admit, we do have to ask how many of the details of the God idea have arguments for them. Out of 1000 details, how many can be proven this way? I confess, maybe only 20 or so.

For example, I’ve never heard, an argument that says it can prove that this creator is honest, rather than pretending to be honest (indeed, it would be difficult to have such an argument, since such a powerful being could easily make itself look honest. It could look honest if it really was honest, but also if it was only pretending).

But, many of us are just as sure of this detail in our God idea as we are of the details that do have arguments.

Isn’t that a little unusual, when you think about it? One detail has a very convincing argument, and a second detail has no argument at all. You would expect someone to be more sure of the first detail, and less sure of the second, right? Instead, we tend to be equally sure that there is a creator, and that the creator is honest.

Faith

I think this reveals something very interesting about how our minds work. Maybe the reason we’re sure there is a creator isn’t really because of the argument that says there is one. After all, we don’t have arguments for some other details of the belief, but that doesn’t keep us from being sure they’re true. Maybe we’re sure for a different reason.

If you asked someone why they were sure that God was honest, not just pretending to be honest, they might have already noticed on their own that God could pretend to be honest if it wanted. Many of them would be sure God was really honest, anyway, though. If asked, I think they would say they believed it was true because they had faith.

Faith. Maybe this is the real key to why we are equally sure of the details we have arguments for as we are of the details we don’t have arguments for. Maybe it’s all faith, and the arguments aren’t that important.

This is how it looks to me — at least, so far. What do you think? Is it all about faith? I want to look more at how faith works and how well it leads to the truth later. For now, I just want to ask, how much of our certainty is really based on arguments, and how much is based on faith? How many of the details in our God idea do we think are true because we have arguments or experiences that make us think they’re true, and how many of those details do we think are true even without any arguments?

The Rights and Wrongs of Reppert on Defeasibility

Victor Reppert has criticized Peter Bogghosian’s use of the defeasibility test (where you ask someone what it would take to change their mind. If they can’t come up with anything, they’re being irrational).

 

He gives four criticisms. I make an effort to be charitable in my interpretation of people I disagree with (it helps that I used to be a believer) and I feel pretty sure that not all of his points are entirely wrong.

 

1 – Reppert says that an atheist should be willing to argue with a theist even if the theist says in advance that disproving all of their arguments wouldn’t change their mind, anyway. Most importantly, I want to note, to emphasize, that Reppert’s point here has no bearing on whether or not the defeasibility test is correct, that is, that it really does reveal irrationality. His criticism is about whether it’s useful to debate people; it has nothing to do with assessing if theists are being irrational or not.

 

And then, I want to agree with Reppert. It may indeed be useful to argue with someone who says having all their arguments refuted won’t change their mind.

(Of course, we’re only pretending that the “arguments” are really the believers reason for believing. I call this “pretending to argue,” and it dominates most of political and religious debate, since most people intend to maintain their stance even if you refute their point)

 

After all, it may be useful for you to practice perceiving the flaws in a twisted argument, or you might help any observers make up their mind about an issue. Reppert’s right in that. That’s Reppert Right: 1 – Wrong: 0.

 

2 – Reppert suggests that spiritual experiences are outside the realm of debate. He implies that you could refute a believer’s arguments, the believer would believe anyway, and then the believer would still be rational. This point does actually suggest that the defeasibility test is mistaken.

 

 

But, personally, I think spiritual experiences are fair game for a debate. There’s a meme that says “Atheists are so dumb that if Jesus appeared to them, they still wouldn’t believe, thinking it might be an alien.”

If I were to make an atheist version, I might say “Theists err such that if an alien were to appear to them looking like a glowing human and claiming to be Jesus, that would be enough to convince them.”

 

What possible spiritual experience could actually justify believing that you are definitely being talked to to by a perfect being who created the universe? We can even suppose that it is something supernatural. All we know is that it can look like a glowing human (or whatever it looks/feels like) and can make you feel certain things, and, at best, has access to some knowledge that humanity doesn’t have. That leaves open a lot of possible causes. I invite anyone who can to submit a spiritual experience which could only be explained by a perfect universe-creator, which cannot also be explained by a million other possibilities. You can even make something up, as incredible as you like.

(Reppert Right: 1 – Wrong – 1)

 

3 – Reppert’s third point is that there might be something that would convince a theist that they were mistaken, but that they might not be able to think of it right on the spot, so we shouldn’t conclude they are necessarily irrational.

 

Ah. Marvelous. If I’m not mistaken, Reppert and I agree that if there is nothing that would change a theist’s mind, they would be irrational. Another point to him.

 

Of course, he’s right. You’ve thought of snappy comeback too late to be snappy, right? It’s conceivable that someone could think of evidence that would convince them just a little too late to be able to tell it to you. Very reasonable (of course, it’s still suggestive that they are irrational. It’s evidence. Observing them not be able to think of anything at least makes it more likely that they are irrational).

(Reppert Right: 2 – Wrong: 1)

 

4 – Reppert says some atheists also cannot think of anything that would change their mind. Are they irrational, too?

 

Of course, atheism is not a sports team or a political party. There’s no reason to deny that some atheists are irrational people, and their existence is no argument against the defeasibility test. This is more what I call a Halo Attack.

 

The Halo Effect is where something seems better in every way, just because it’s good in some way, ie, pretty people are perceived as smarter, more honest, kinder, etcetera.

 

Most arguments are just Halo Attacks in that, rather than arguing that something is false, you argue that it fails in some other way, instinctively feeling that if it is weak in any way, it must be weak in every way, including whether it’s true or not.

 

Yeah…they are many, the flaws in the human brain.

 

So, getting in a solid, satisfying hit on “enemy group Atheists” may feel like scoring points to the human brain, but more careful reasoning reveals that to be an irrational method of determining if something is true or not.

 

At the same time, I feel like there is a difference between looking at a vast space of possible explanations for things, and then saying you think the right one is one little point in that great space, and you cannot be persuaded otherwise (theists), and being someone who looks at that space and says “Here and there, there are a few points that I could not be persuaded are true. I don’t know the answer for sure, but I’m sure it is in that vast space somewhere, excluding a few possibilities” (atheists).

 

Personally, I could be persuaded to think it more likely that there was indeed a creator, or a very powerful being, or that faith healing worked, or any number of things, but I can’t think of anything that would persuade me of the full set of ideas in any mainstream religion.

 

You see, if I were somehow convinced that an all-powerful being existed, my ability to assess that being’s honesty would drop to 0. No matter what its other qualities were, it could effortlessly appear to be absolutely anything it wanted, with perfectly persuasive evidence on any possible scale. Upon seeing such evidence, I would greatly increase my probability that the being was very powerful, also increase the probability of it being all-powerful (not sure I could tell the difference, though), but remain totally agnostic as to whether or not it was an honest being.

 

And if it told me it created the universe, and was going to give me an afterlife, I would raise my probability of that being true somewhat, but not even nearly to total certainty, since it could just be lying, and it would be the greatest liar possible if it wanted to be.

(Reppert Right: 2 – Wrong: 2)

 

I may have misunderstood Reppert in some minor respects; I recognize that possibility. But the points I feel quite sure about (and invite criticism of) are:

 

1 – No possible spiritual experience can only be explained by any mainstream religion’s concept of God, and so, cannot be decisive evidence for that God.

2 – No possible evidence of any kind could only be explained by any mainstream religion’s concept of God, and so, cannot be decisive evidence for that God.

 

Best of luck. If you reveal to me some error in this reasoning, I will consider it a great gift.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Levels of Knowledge: Faith Vs Reason

I think of three levels of…knowledge, perhaps? Three levels where we can ask ourselves “How do we know this is true? How could we tell if it was false?”

 

1 – The lowest level, logic itself. How do we know that logical thinking is correct? If A, then B. A, therefore, B seems pretty solid to me. But what if the part of my mind that finds this persuasive, and gives me a feeling of certainty is mistaken? Logic works according to logic, but if it were mistaken, then the proofs for it would be mistaken, too, so that’s circular, that doesn’t prove anything. On this level, I say “I don’t know.” Faith and reason both are unable to assess this question. On the deepest level, I can’t be sure of anything

 

2 – But, suppose logic works. Now can I be sure of things? Well, no, now we have the next level, our senses. What if we’re all in a Matrix, brains in a jar? How can we know that our senses are reliable reports of reality? Well, we can’t, as far as I can tell. Faith and reason perform equally well on this area. Of course, you could always just say you knew, I guess that would be faith. But just saying doesn’t make it so.

 

3 – Okay, well, what if logic and our senses are reliable. Now can we know things? Yes (with different degrees of probability). It is on level 3 that reason really starts to shine, easily outstripping faith. On the deeper levels of 1 and 2, we may not know anything for sure, but if we put aside 1 and 2, and focus on 3, then reason is the magic of the world. In fantasy worlds, people gain power by magic and spells. In our world, the power comes from reason. Reason has unlocked the mysteries of the universe, and granted us power to shape the world according to our will. We can fly, through air or space, send messages around the world in an instant, and live a lifestyle far beyond that of kings of ancient times.

 

Faith users claim to be able to heal people, to access knowledge not known to humanity and so on. They always have so claimed. At some point in history, reason started producing more healings than faith users even claimed to, and reason could do so in front of people, at any time, at the drop of a hat. Faith users have sometimes claimed the ability to fly, but reason has now made this power cheap and available to all, and you can see it for yourself; we’re not afraid to have this claim tested any way you can imagine to test it.

 

It is a very peculiar kind of confidence I once had, that I could answer any attack on my faith, and be totally unperturbed by any argument, safe in my absolute certainty that I was on the right path. And yet…I wasn’t confident that people watching would be equally persuaded. If you asked me to explain why God would kill the firstborn of Egypt, I was perfectly secure in my answer. I told myself that this confidence was a sign of how right I was. But, on some level, I knew that others wouldn’t be persuaded; I wouldn’t have wanted those “weaker in the faith” to hear both the attack and my defense, I must have known how it would sound.

 

Now, I have a different confidence. I don’t tell myself how confident I am, I’m just willing to have anything I believe be scrutinized and tested. I’m willing to have it done in front of others. I invite it, confident in most of it, and completely willing to change my mind about any of it that I find to be mistaken.

 

In this world, reason provides true power, true miracles, and true confidence. Where reason is not able to perform, neither is faith, and where reason is able to perform, faith still cannot. Is this proof? Perhaps not. But it’s quite a clue.

If Atheists Had Faith

Atheist: I have faith, but I don’t believe in religion.

 

Believer: You mean like you’re spiritual instead of religious? Yeah, me too. It’s all about a personal relationship with God.

 

 

Atheist: No, I mean, I don’t believe in anything spiritual. Physical stuff is all there is, that’s my belief.

 

Believer: What? But how could everything have got here without a God? There must have been a Creator.

 

Atheist: Yeah, I’ve heard about that, I just don’t really believe in it, y’know? It’s just my belief that we came from nothing.

 

Believer: How could something come from nothing? I don’t understand how you could even think that.

 

Atheist: No, I mean, I know, I get it. It’s not about proof or logic or anything, it’s about faith. You could even say that it’s not rational, I don’t deny that. It’s just what I believe.

 

Believer: …

 

But – That’s…umm. I don’t think that makes sense. I guess?

 

Atheist: Hey, everyone has what makes sense to them. People have a right to believe whatever is true for them. I can’t prove atheism to you, but that’s okay; it’s just my personal belief.

 

Believer: What about miracles, though? God has saved me so many times. I wouldn’t be here without Him.

 

Atheist: I think you were probably either hallucinating, or fooling yourself, or maybe just getting lucky about things.

 

Believer: What?! No way! I was in a car crash and came out without a scratch, not a single scratch. How could that happen without God?

 

Atheist: Yeah, I see what you mean. I see how that seems to point to God. It’s just my personal faith that things like that are just coincidences.

 

Believer: Well, what about evolution? You don’t really believe we all came from a bacteria, do you? Is that really logical?

 

Atheist: My friend, I think maybe the difference between us is I am willing to believe things on faith. I know these aren’t logical beliefs, but faith isn’t about that. Evolution just makes sense to me, personally. I don’t have to prove it to anyone else.

 

Believer: But you can’t just answer everything with “faith.” You’re really not even going to defend these ideas? I’ve asked about how something could come from nothing, how miracles could happen all around us, every day, how evolution could really be true, and you admit that none of it makes sense. Isn’t it time to recognize the true God?

 

Atheist: What’s wrong with faith? My faith is everything to me! I’m not trying to push what I believe on you, why are you trying to push your beliefs on me?

 

Believer: It’s for your own benefit! You need to know the true God so that He can save you and bless you in your life.

 

Atheist: Maybe this God is true for you, but atheism is true for me.

 

Believer: What does that even mean? God is out there. He exists! It doesn’t matter whether you believe in Him or not, He’s not going to stop existing. He’s there for everyone to see; you can see how nothing makes sense without God as an explanation, so why don’t you believe in Him?

 

Atheist: Is all that really why you believe in God? Because it makes sense? Don’t you believe in anything just because of faith, even if it doesn’t make sense?

 

Believer: Well…no, not really. God makes sense. I just use the reason he has given me to acknowledge that He is there. Faith is about trusting in God, you can’t just use it to deny common sense.

 

Atheist: So, if these things could be explained without God, you would stop believing in God?

 

Believer: What? No, I – I know God is there.

 

Atheist: How?

 

Believer: Like, I said, all of this, the beauty of the world, and the majesty of God’s creation had to come from somewhere.

 

Atheist: I don’t know how to disprove that; I see why it might compel some people who don’t have as much faith as I do to abandon atheism. But if that could be disproven somehow, in a way you could understand, would you then accept atheism?

 

Believer: Well, no. Even if that were disproven (not that it could be), I still know that God has saved me in my own life, both spiritually and physically.

 

Atheist: And if those things were also explained somehow, to your satisfaction, would you then have no reason to believe in God and accept atheism?

 

Believer: No, I would still believe. My faith is…umm…strong.

 

Atheist:

 

Believer:

 

Atheist: I think my faith is stronger, though. It takes more faith to believe in all of these things that don’t make sense than to believe in something that seems to have evidence for it.

 

Believer: Wait, doesn’t that mean I’m right? Are you sure you didn’t just admit that we should believe in God and not atheism?

 

Atheist: You think the belief that takes less faith is the true one?

 

Believer: …

 

Atheist: You seem to have a low opinion of faith, my friend. Why should it be a bad thing that a belief takes more faith? Faith is a virtue, and my belief in atheism can only help me develop more faith.

 

Believer: But…my belief takes less faith because it has reasons! You can’t say that reasons are a bad thing.

 

Atheist: Well, it takes more faith to believe in atheism than in God, because it makes less sense, right? So more reasons equals less faith. QED

 

Believer: Look…I guess…we both have our beliefs, and…I don’t know…Praise Allah.

 

Atheist: Well, just to be clear, are you saying that we can’t just use “faith” to answer everything, that we can’t believe in things that don’t make sense, that something can’t be true for someone and false for somebody else, and that a belief should have reasons for it?

 

Believer: Yes! That’s all common sense!

 

Richard Dawkins: Hmm…this shouldn’t take long. Excuse me, sir…