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?)
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?
- 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.