Easter Thoughts of Culture War

I was recently reading somewhere about Christopher Hitchens’ debate with William Lane Craig at Biola and someone in the comments of whatever blog I was reading made the observation that there are tons of Christian schools like Biola and Wheaton and so forth full of smart kids who undergo training in arguing for the existence of God. It’s not like it’s treated as an open question at these places. The Christian schools and their Christian students know the result they need, and they practice in the most persuasive arguments that deliver that result. None of these arguments are any good, of course, as there is no God, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, and so on. But my sense is that there are about a gazillion works of theistic/Christian apologetics for every God Is Not Great. But write a God Is Not Great or a The End of Faith and you’re colored as some kind of obnoxious disrespectful lout out to set the lions on all those downtrodden Christian. Why is that? Even other atheists are encouraged to deplore the brazen “New Atheists'” alleged in-your-face lack of humility. I find this completely ridiculous. They’re right, after all. I also think it’s ridiculous that Christopher Hitchens represents the atheist side in approximately 75 percent of all debates about the existence of God. (Why should he hoard all the speaking fees!?) Why aren’t more philosophy professors–few of whom believe in God–standing up to fight for truth? Well, lots of them don’t like the dog and pony show of public debates, I’m sure. Lots of them don’t want to be impolite. But I’d also guess that they find the arguments so boring that it’s a drag to prepare. Nevertheless, this stuff matters and it’s important to wean the culture off superstition. Hitchens is more than pulling his weight, but I’m afraid most intellectuals who also happen to be atheists aren’t taking this culture war stuff seriously enough. So get in there faithless people! Mix it up! It’s true that pretty much only other Christians care about Alvin Plantinga or William Lane Craig, but there are hoards of bright young Christians who really do think this stuff is more than polish on their parochial cultural inheritance, and that’s really too bad.

91 thoughts on “Easter Thoughts of Culture War”

  1. I think the problem is that such debates aren't truly 'debates' in the proper sense. The people you're arguing with won't be convinced by just about anything you could possibly say, and except when your debate can enter the mass media, probably neither will your audience.The only institutions hosting such debates are either Chrisitan colleges, where your chances of persuading the students are very low, or philosophy departments, where most of the students are probably athiests anyway.Also, becoming a prominent anti-religion voice correlates with being a pariah in some circles, and at high enough (eg Hitchens) prominence, death threats.

  2. I doubt that there is a “silent majority” of atheists out there. Most of my philosophy professors in college, who I got to know quite well, were agnostics.

  3. Will – You really think Aristotle's unmoved mover is a fallacious argument? Didn't you know that infinite regresses are impossible???Geez.

  4. My pet theory is that Plantinga et al. have succeeded in creating the illusion that the existence of God turns on highly abstract issues, and that there's a legitimate debate about these issues. The upshot is that when the likes of Hitchens points out that the actual reasons most actual believers actually give for believing are patently ridiculous, they can be criticized as attacking Crude Straw Men and failing to attend to all the Subtle Arguments of the theologians. (No need to actually specify the supposedly sound, persuasive arguments being ignored, their existence being taken, naturally enough, on faith.)

  5. Also, I think there is a good chunk of atheists out there (philosophy professors included) who don't believe in God but who believe that religion/Christianity is a good thing.

  6. There is always some probability that God is lurking in the shadows of what we don't know. (If Will knows some QED falsifying God, I'd love to hear it, because he seems to put 100 percent confidence in whatever it is.) Thus, I don't care about those types of debates, and indeed, they rarely happen (Hitchens never devotes 30 seconds to it in any of the many debates I've watched). Instead the debates focus on what can be debated, which is what God could be given what we do know.

  7. I think that the criticism against Hitchens concerns more his tone than his content. His book didn't strike me as an attempt to convert with kindness (although I still enjoyed it, and appreciate Hitchens).

  8. They’re right, after all.

    … it’s important to wean the culture off superstition.

    … polish on their parochial cultural inheritance …


    … you’re colored as some kind of obnoxious disrespectful lout …

    … alleged in-your-face lack of humility. I find this completely ridiculous.

    I know you're trying to be amusing here, but of course those smart kids at Biola could easily typecast (and summarily reject) you as the kind of overconfident philosophy nerd churned out by heathen analytic-leaning philosophy departments at secular universities. The tone of your post suggests that you are not at all interested in existence-of-God debates yourself, or at least would approach one with a mildly patronising mindset. Sure, most of their arguments may be turd polish, but at least the Biola graduates are earnest about what is (or should be) a weighty existential issue.

  9. Perhaps they'd be taken more seriously if they included proper paragraph breaks. That might make it easier to read the argument… ahem…Okay, joking aside, I feel somewhat similarly. I really do wish Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens weren't always the “go to” guys on this issue. There are plenty of others, and I'd like to hear from them.

  10. I'd love to go nuts about asserting there is no god, but my family would kill me. In fact, having gone to Catholic schools my whole life, the entire ordeal would end up very alienating.

  11. Another problem with Hitchen's book is that, as witty as he is, I'm not sure if some of his arguments pass empirical muster. He spends a lot of time talking about awful events in human history, and how religion caused them. People do lots of killing without the need for religion, so the correlation of even seemingly faith-based evils with religion may just havbe because people wanted to do bad, and they decided that religion was a convenient excuse. If religion weren't there, maybe they would have invented Stalinism a few centuries early.

  12. So I'm one of the Christian guys who likes to think about the philosophy of religion and defend the faith, etc. And I'm having trouble understanding the force of this post. Is the problem that all of our arguments are bad because we're incorrect? So you say: “None of these arguments are any good, of course, as there is no God, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, and so on.” Certainly there are good (if not sound) arguments for false conclusions! And why are you accusing us of bad faith? I thought you were a Rawls guy. Don't you believe in reasonable pluralism? Can't we honestly think we're correct and be reasonable without acting in bad faith?Man, I LOVE this blog, but when you say stuff like this it makes me think your biases are showing through in a silly and disrespectful way. Why can't we get any respect from you? Why not treat us as intellectual equals? You don't accuse folks who defend moral realism, defend social democracy, or substance dualism of bad faith! Why say it about us? Why can't we just be one more reasonable group of people who just so happen to be wrong?You also say: “But I’d also guess that they find the arguments so boring that it’s a drag to prepare.”Most philosophers are largely unaware of the arguments made in the philosophy of religion. And those non-believer philosophers with phil religion credentials respect philosophers who believe. Just ask Richard Gale or William Rowe or Antony Flew. It's guys like you – who I bet don't carefully study analytic phil religion because of your biases – that don't respect us. Will, aren't you just another liberal displaying unjustified biases against people of faith? I thought as a classical liberal you would understand what it is like to have your views dismissed by people who don't understand them. I thought that you'd be fair enough to give heterodox philosophers the time of day, to be fair and even handed.

  13. A couple of unrelated thoughts;I have seen Christians called obnoxious disrespectful louts when they attempt to convert others. I suspect you follow neither the interfaith nor the ecumenical conversations, which is where such statements are made, and I doubt following those conversations would be profitable. The works of apologetics seldom, if ever, make it into those conversations and they won't exite comment until they do.Hitchens is an author, journalist, and literary critic. I'd bet he represents the athiest side because he has a greater incentive for attending debates regarding the existance of God. On top of the speaker fees he gets valuable publicity. On the other hand, philosophy professors have other paying work. Attending a debate that, in the past, has never been concluded costs them time and effort for doubtful gains.I've read some of Hitchen's arguments against and many of the religous arguments for the existance of God. None of these arguments are sound while being universal.When Hitchens uses history he tends to talk only about the cases that prove his point, while ignoring instances that could be used to prove the opposite. Basicly he does cherry picking so that he doesn't get bogged down in the many complexities in the historical record. On the philisophical level he seems to assume that Natural Realism is simply true. Unfortunately for him whether Natural Realism is true is still an open question. A case in point, there is continuing debate regarding the necessity of Platonism in Mathematics.As a rule the apologists claim to prove more then the presented evidence can actually prove, a weakness fatal to sound proofs.

  14. my own philosophy professors were split about 50-50 agnostic-atheist–but both positions are a hell of a long way from even the most liberal kinds of Christianity, and that does need to be pointed out.

  15. There is no point to such 'debates'. Really. The audience's mind is made up. Ask them 'What evidence could I suggest that would lead you to conclude, not that there is no god, but that your belief in even a christian god is misplaced?', and they have no response. A galactic alignment of stars that spelled out, in the night sky, in English, “Buddha was here! LolZ!”, would be interpreted by them as a trial of their faith. The only thing you can hope to achieve is some proseletizing of your own. No one was ever converted to faith through reason, and I doubt the reverse is true. You can only appeal to their emotional and moral compass, and do so while not getting their backs up.Tricky, that.

  16. Most de jure agnostics are de facto atheists. The difference between these two positions is trivial.

  17. “So get in there faithless people! Mix it up!” Put your money where your mouth is, sir. I read your blog daily and hold a deep respect for your thinking and share many of your views, but this post came across as smug, patronizing, and (ironically) sanctimonious. While I am not a bible-thumping graduate of “training for the argument of the existence of God,” I am nevertheless a Christian. I am also a libertarian, a lawyer, and an implacable contrarian, who after many years of skepticism finally succumbed to what I now view as solid, rational, and powerful evidence supporting both the existence of a God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Having come to this conclusion independently and without intellectual coercion, I would expect someone with your self-professed value-set to demonstrate a more reasoned opposition to my chosen position (and the position of millions of other classical liberals). I don't doubt your sincerity or your intentions, and I don't suspect a lurking animosity in your prose. Nevertheless, the tone of your post was tactless and disrespectful, especially on Easter. And while slightly off-topic…by all means…please share with us in a future post the basis for your conclusion that “none of the arguments [for the existence of God] are any good, of course.” I would love to read it, and I would love to respond.

  18. I second Tyler's request. Let's see which arguments you're familiar with. Have an online debate with some of the nice folk over at Prosblogion. I mean, if their views are so obviously false and unreasonable, won't it be a slam dunk?

  19. Sure I believe in reasonable pluralism. So that means people with false and often harmful believes shouldn't be argued out of them? I have lots of respect for people with lots of different false beliefs. I think I'm justified in believing religious beliefs to be false. (And you probably think you're justified in disbelieving all the religious beliefs you don't have.) Anyway I think its curious and victimy of you to complain about “unjustified biases against people of faith.” If there are some great arguments that you think I haven't heard, I'd be happy to hear them.

  20. I'd be happy to have an online debate. I'm obviously begging to be challenged. Anyway, I'm not going to enumerate the arguments I'm familiar with, though I'd be happy to address arguments people put forward. There is the problem of arguing with the type of guy who has invented a whole new system of modal logic expressly designed so that he can make a very special version of the ontological argument or something. It's very awkward.

  21. Fair enough…buy why the burden-shift? As I mentioned, I'm not one of those you chastised for “practicing the most persuasive arguments for delivering a result.” I'm simply a fan of your blog, who happens to be a Christian, who happens to be curious about the basis behind your blanket assertion that “none of the arguments [for God] are any good.” As someone who is quite gifted at explaining the logic behind your conclusions, you seem to punt on this. I realize the theme of your post wasn't trying to sum up the nature of the cosmos or anything, ….but I'd be interested to hear what some of these “bad arguments” are, and why you feel that way. I suppose several other of your readers would too.

  22. There might be some truth to your agnostics=atheists statement.Regardless, the fact that a lot of people out there would much rather be referred to as agnostics rather than atheists is important.

  23. Ok Wilkinson, if you don't mind I'll bite.Argument for God:1. Jesus Christ was a real person who lived and died somewhere around 4 BC – 30 AD.2. Jesus Christ claimed to be God, and was crucified and died for this claim.3. Jesus Christ rose from the dead, which verified his claim to be God.Therefore God not only exists, but existed in human history as the man Jesus Christ.I'm happy to further support any of my numbered claims, if you wish to bring specific objection against them.

  24. In prescriptive English an atheist is merely someone who does not assent to the statement “There is a God”, its complementary with theist and those two words encompass all the space there is for opinions on the question. In other words being an atheist does not mean affirming the statement that there is no god (though often atheists hold this view) it just means negating the statement that there is a god. When someone says they are an agnostic they often think they're giving some middle ground answer, but this is wrong (again, according to prescriptive English). Agnosticism addressees the answer to the question of God's existence can be known. Thus there are atheists who do not believe in God but think this belief cannot be justified in the way necessary to make in knowledge. But there are also theists who believe in God but don't think this belief can be appropriately justified (Kierkegaard thinks along these lines). Professional philosophers are rarely careless with words so I'm really quite surprised by your experience. Most of my philosophy professors are atheists and I go to a catholic university. I'd estimate most of the majors are too.

  25. Well Plantinga really does have arguments for the existence of God that aren't as ridiculous as “The Bible says so” or “Ever seen a car that didn't have a manufacturer?” A quick google will pull it up. They don't work of course but its not like he doesn't have anything written down. God's existence could turn on these arguments- just as God's existence turns on any argument that purports to prove his existence. But (1) the arguments that I've seen aren't actually that complicated. You don't have to be a trained Metaphysician to understand them. And (2) Plantinga actually doesn't believe the usual arguments work and its worth making him repeat that fact in front of his followers.

  26. But they're NOT earnest. Thats the point. if they were earnest they'd be trying to answer the question not trying to win a debate. Very few atheists have never actually wrestled with the issue of God's existence. We're a minority and often we weren't raised with these beliefs. At some point almost all of us have considered the various arguments. It just happens that the arguments are really one sided and so, boring for us philosophy types who actually like to try and answer difficult questions.The students at these Christian schools are just collecting ammo.

  27. I guess you wanted to argue with Will but I'll respond. Feel free to reply if you like.1. Christ is a Greek title given to the Messiah. There was no such person who went by that name. Jesus of Nazareth was likely a real person though there are those who dispute his existence. I'm not familiar enough with the issue and its not important enough to me to investigate. Still, if you're a believer you ought to consider this view http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_Myth2. I'd like to see the claim that Jesus claimed to be God confirmed from a non-Biblical source. I'm not convinced of this.3. Jesus of Nazareth did not rise from the dead. This is the most likely probability because, as a rule, people do not rise from the dead. To convince anyone that some person has risen from the dead you need to provide very reliable evidence. No such evidence exists for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. 3B. Even if Jesus of Nazareth did rise from the dead that does not verify his claim to be God. How does that follow at all?

  28. sorry to butt in;I have a number of problems with this; but lets begin with definitions–what do you mean by God? if you mean a being that stands in a creative relationship to the universe, who possesses the traditional triple omni attributes (omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omniscience) and has lists of rules that we must follow or else, then number three is plainly invalid (that is to say it simply does not follow from the premises given). Even if I were to grant that a person named jesus did in fact rise from the dead after three (or two) days, it does not follow that he is omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent–and it certainly is not even close to suggesting that this person created the universe. That seems like a non-sequitur on the level of 'it rained today, therefore I am a cloud' incidentally I think you are going about it backwards, since without a background belief in the existence of a specifically abrahamic deity, the probability of jesus actually having been resurrected is so vanishingly small as to be laughable. I think number 2 is potentially problematic, considering that the gospels are essentially theological treatises written years after the fact by unknown persons from different countries who may have had theological axes to grind. even number one is questionable, more or less on the same grounds, there are no contemporary sources, what sources there are come late, and have an agenda. There are of course some independent sources, but those too are working with secondhand information (probably from the Christians themselves) but they have so little detail as to be almost useless. There is also almost no corroborating evidence for ancillary events which should be well substantiated; to wit(1) no mention of herods slaughter of the first born in bethlehem outside of the gospels(2) no empirical support whatsoever for the story of the star leading the wisemen (and in fact almost no possibility of empirical support, after all how on earth could a star point out an individual house? that doesn't make a lick of sense.) (3) no mention of the dead rising in Jerusalem outside of the gospels (you'd think somebody might have written something down)etc. etc.When your only source material is chock full of things that are almost certainly lies, on top of improbable and poorly substantiated supernatural claims, it is in my opinion too unreliable to consider history, and far too unreliable to base your life on.

  29. Number “3” seems odd, given all the other people who were raised from the dead before Jesus, not to mention all those saints whose tombs were opened and their bodies brought back to life after the crucifixion (Matt. 27:52).

  30. Thanks for your responses guys. GBM if you don't mind I'll have a go at Jack's concerns first, as you have raised more issues than I can effectively address at the moment. One overall response I will make to your post, GBM, is that I'd prefer to restrict discussion to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (ignoring questions of the philosophical concept of “God”, wider biblical reliability, etc) since my understanding of God and the Bible is mediated foremost through my understanding of the person of Jesus.So on to Jack's wonderfully enumerated objections.1. You are right that there are those who dispute Jesus' existence. However, these people are far outside the mainstream (in fact, as far as I am aware no academic historian of any note is of this view). The vast weight of historical scholarly opinion is behind the existence of the man Jesus of whom the gospels give account.2. Why the insistence on a non-biblical source? It is very difficult to get independent sources for any aspect of history as old as the life of Jesus, so throwing out the gospels in their entirety as partisan is really a problem. Rather, read them understanding who they were written by and for (generally, eyewitnesses of Jesus' life to early Christians). Jesus was crucified for blasphemy – for claiming to be God. All the gospels attest to this. An alternative explanation requires a vast conspiracy of early Christians to fabricate a deity-claim. There is no historical evidence for such a conspiracy.3. I think you are right to require “very reliable evidence” that Jesus rose from the dead. I put this question to you: what would constitute “very reliable evidence”, say, of the events described in Luke 24?3b. The key thing here is that Jesus actually predicted his resurrection. When someone can raise themselves from the dead (and not only that, but call it beforehand), that makes us consider their other claims a lot more carefully.One other point for GBM – as far as “working backwards” goes, I believe it is the most consistent way to argue, as a Christian. The Bible is clear that while we can know a bit about God just by looking around (see Romans 1), the actual nature of God is most visible in Jesus (see Hebrews 1).Thanks for your honest responses, guys.

  31. As a religious Jain, I think I'll make a go at providing an argument for religion. I don't think any of the ontological arguments are solid enough to be absolute proof. However, one makes assumptions about life all the time. For instance, I might be held in a vat by Descarte's demon but I assume this isn't the case. More seriously, I believe (ultimately as a matter of faith) that the results of science are generally true, without needing verification. Similarly, I choose to believe that Lord Mahavir was omniscient, and his teachings are the road to liberation.Furthermore, many people that I have talked to claim absolute free will for themselves. I define absolute free will as the ability to take action not determined by genes, experience, random chance, or the will of another being with free will. Acting in such a manner almost by definition requires some part of you to make decisions not subject to the laws of physics, and is therefore immaterial. According to wikipedia, “the soul is the immaterial part of a person,” and therefore to have free will implies one has a soul. The existence of a soul is a pretty clear step in the direction towards theism. If you assume that one has a soul, and occam's razor that “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity,” and making as few assumptions as possible, I came to the conclusion that many of the tenets of Jainism are correct. The thought process is pretty long and complicated, and I don't want to bore people with three or four pages if rambling (though I can if anyone is curious) I'm pretty sure much of my reasoning about the consequences of having a soul are influenced by prior beliefs about my religion, but I'm pretty sure they have at least some merit. Since my rather shaky speculative metaphysics leads me to the conclusion that many of the beliefs of my religion are true, I choose to believe the elements that have no basis in even faulty logic such as the belief that eating animal products, or products that grow underground are false. I don't think its impossible to change my beliefs. Someone would either have to convince me that I do not have free will, or would have to convince me that the conclusion I reach based upon my belief make an excessive number of baseless assumptions. So the question becomes why I assume that I have free will. I assume free will because it gives me meaning and purpose. I think libertarianism loses a lot of its force if one doesn't assume free will (why is government coercion any better or worse than coercion by the laws of physics?). I was wondering if anyone could point me to any works of philosophy that specifically deal with free will, and its implications by any philosophers.

  32. greg – thanks for bringing that verse to my attention, I hadn't noticed it before (shame!)Just off the top of my head, in the context of Matthew there is a clear distinction between whatever is going on in verse 52 (I'm not sure about what that is – I'll look up some reference material )and the resurrection of Jesus.In the context of the narrative of Matthew, Jesus' resurrection can be taken to be the final and most convincing of all his proofs of deity.

  33. I think you are right to require “very reliable evidence” that Jesus rose from the dead.It is very difficult to get independent sources for any aspect of history as old as the life of Jesus… Is anyone else seeing a problem here?

  34. You are not justified in believing religious beliefs to be false, since religion is inherently non-falsifiable. However, the religious are also not justified in believing religious beliefs to be true, since they are non-falsifiable. Both sides need to come to agreement on this point for any more philosophical progress to be made.What gets lost in the fray when the debate about theism rages on is that religion – at least the Catholocism that I know – is (should be) a faith in revelation. A revelation that occured some 2,000 years ago that you, nor I, nor the students at Biola have the ability to prove or disprove. The practice of argument development at Biola that you discuss is indeed distasteful and in my view unethical, specifically on scientific grounds, for this very reason.Maybe the empirical revelations in biology and astrophysics of the following 2 millenia has convinced you and others, significantly, that this spiritual revelation was a big scam. Mabye this is the grand falsifiability experiment. Fine, and as an empiricist I would mostly agree with how you developed such a conclusion. But the issue at hand is still whether or not you can disprove the religious tenet, and you can't.Due to this frustration (let's not even get into multi-verse theory), Hitchens, et al. extrapolate the rules and regulations of particular religions and pinpoint the selective disagreement with some, or all, of the rules as sufficient evidence that even the devoutly religious are discretionary thinkers (those silly humans, who knew?), picking and choosing faith a la carte. It follows then that those who accept revelation in true faith then disregard the requirements of that faith are hypocrites. There is some truth to that, but again, does this disprove revelation? No. So where does that leave us? Where Ockham was 700 years ago. For us religious folk, faith must remain as simple faith, nothing more. There can be no experimentalism, no rationalizing doctrine and emipirical findings (i.e. no natural law or creationism or Intelligent Design.) There can be no thoroughly crafted argument to prepare against the philosophy and science of non-believers or those of another belief system. We should accept – with open arms – all of the facts divulged by rigorous empiricism. We should welcome the thoughts of Hitchens and Dawkins as challenging and explanatory, not counterproductve and critical. Each new empirical revelation opens up our world and universe to more questioning and more exploration; this can only be seen as a wonderous achievement of man. The only response a believer can have when challenged on theism is “I believe.” You must accept that response, and accept the fact that you can't (yet)disprove their belief.

  35. From wikipedia:”Weak and strong atheism:Strong atheism is a term generally used to describe atheists who accept as true the proposition, “gods do not exist”. Weak atheism refers to any other type of non-theism. Historically, the terms positive and negative atheism have been used for this distinction, where “positive” atheism refers to the specific belief that gods do not exist, and “negative” atheism refers merely to an absence of belief in gods.””Dawkins describes people for whom the probability of the existence of God is between “very high” and “very low” as “agnostic” and reserves the term “strong atheist” for “I know there is no god”. He categorises himself as a “de facto atheist” but not a “strong atheist” under this definition.”Are you a strong atheist? And if so why?Happy easter (if americans say that)

  36. I know this is for jack, but being a selfish jerk, I'll respond anyway: 🙂 (though I will keep it brief)”3b. The key thing here is that Jesus actually predicted his resurrection. When someone can raise themselves from the dead (and not only that, but call it beforehand), that makes us consider their other claims a lot more carefully.”First and foremost, from this it still does not actually follow that Jesus was God. he could have been a prophet whose saying were corrupted by later generations, he could have been a guy who got really lucky, he could have been a magician to rival Houdini, he could have been a space alien, he could have been an evil demon sent by Buddha to test our faith. the point is that he could have been any number of things that were not actually God. Now you could say that what you are doing is making a reference to the best explanation argument, but that turns on us having already accepted that your version of God exists.Second where is your proof that these books were written by eyewitnesses? I'm rather surprised to hear you make that claim since conventional dates seem to suggest that Mark (the earliest) was written some 40 years after these events purportedly took place? Incidentally perhaps you are right that the gospels stand on all fours with other histories of a similar age (I do not think this is true for a number of reasons but I'll grant it to you for a moment) why is this not a good reason to treat statements purported to be made by historical figures of that age as probably inaccurate, rather than saying that the gospels must be 100% accurate recordings of the saying of jesus? Especially given some apparent inconsistencies in those same statements, especially;”JOH 10:30 I and my Father are one.JOH 14:28 Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I.”It seems to me much more plausible to accept that things probably happened in a manner somewhat similar to the manner described in those ancient sources; Julius Ceasar probably won the battle of Alesia, although perhaps not quite in the manner described in his book; but I would absolutely not be willing to bet my life on his having actually uttered the words “Et tu, Brute?” Similarly, there may have been a guy named Jesus who ran around performing magic tricks, but I think that it is foolish to bet your life on his actually having said “I am God.”Anyway curious for your response.

  37. I was raised a Catholic. I lost the faith at about 15.Why did all the miracles end 2000 years ago?Why did God ask folks to sacrifice their sons and farm animals in the Old Testament?Don't you get a whiff of barbaric ritual from this?I know, I know..the Bible is full of parables.I hold out hope of the existence of God.Of all living creatures on this planet, only one clearly does not belong. And in who's image are we “made”? I can't say that I have read everything about evolution. I can say that I do not believe that we “evolved” from apes. Why are there still apes? We could be some extra-terrestrial kid's science project. I have no idea. I can only conclude that we are all much more primitive in our thinking (relative to our existence and origins) than we want to think. All of our theories are just that and no more.

  38. The gospels are a usable source, but they alone don't provide sufficient evidence for an extraordinary claim. (Ordinary claim: something we've observed in other instances, extraordinary claim: something unobserved in other instances)Claim 1 (Jesus of Nazareth existed somewhere between 4BC and 30 AD) is an ordinary claim, as we know people existed in this time, and the gospels are sufficient evidence to prove it.Claim 2 (Jesus claimed to be God and was killed for this) is also an ordinary claim. People have claimed to be God, people have been killed, and people have been killed for claiming to be God.Claim 3 (Jesus was resurrected, verifying the claim to divinity) has two distinctly extrordinary claims. Resurrection has not elsewhere been observed, and nor has divinity. To prove claims 1 and 2, I am happy to accept the Bible. For Claim 3 I want highly reliable secondary sourcing. Absent such sourcing, I don't grant that you've come close to meeting the burden of proof required to ask people to radically re-think the nature of the universe.

  39. Paul,Is your post in jest? Asking why there are still apes is like asking why there are still bacteria.

  40. “Nevertheless, this stuff matters and it’s important to wean the culture off superstition.”Then why attack religion and not all superstition and irrationality? Many atheists believe in ghosts, ufos, astrology, marxism, racism, 9/11 conspiracies etc. If religion would die tomorrow, people would just substitute it with other superstitions, cults and silly behaviours. We would still be left with our basic cognitive biases. On a collective level, moderate religion may be a good way to concentrate and manage our superstitions. We don't want competition in the production of bads.

  41. Really the question is a matter of why you think that Christian philosophers somehow are acting from bad faith when people with other false views presumably aren't. Accusing us of bad faith is to suggest that we don't believe justifiably and is to suggest that reasonable pluralists shouldn't be reasonable pluralists with respect to Christians – again because they believe out of bad faith, make up arguments for the sole purpose of justifying their beliefs, etc.It might sound 'victimy' but when religion comes up, you pretty regularly express a lack of respect for the position that simply doesn't arise when you discuss other views you disagree with. Perhaps I'm missing some good counterexample but I'm a pretty faithful reader of your blog.I mean, the Society of Christian Philosophers is the largest sub-group in the APA – we have over eleven hundred members. It includes dozens of metaphysicians, epistemologists, ethicists, etc. of the highest quality that have spilled a lot of ink defending their positions. You're undoubtedly familiar with some of their work in other areas. Does Alvin Plantinga suddenly become a bad philosopher when he's talking about God rather than epistemology? Does Linda Zagzebski become a bad philosopher when she defends the compatibility of God's foreknowledge and free will rather than virtue ethics? Does Peter Van Inwagen become a bad philosopher when he defends belief in God rather than libertarian free will? I just don't get it. What about us makes us different and not worthy of being taken seriously by enlightened reasonable pluralists like yourself?

  42. Here's the problem, Will. Religious belief is deeply irrational. There isn't any undefeated evidence for the existence of supernatural beings, and the a priori arguments all suck. The people who advance these arguments are disingenuous. They don't actually believe on the basis of the arguments or on their supposed evidence. Rather, they are just rationalizing stuff they believe on faith, i.e., without evidence and despite counter-evidence. So, when you argue against a religious believer on religion, you're arguing with an intellectually dishonest person about the very issues she's dishonest about. You'll have to sit through her conflating possiblity and probability, lying about standards of evidence, lying about burdens of proofs, etc. At the end, you won't convince her, and you'll feel foolish for bothering.The only reason to argue with such people is to help honest third parties. (For what it's worth, I do accept that maybe 1 out of 50,000 or so theists might not be irrational in light of her theism. Also, I realize this post is smug and dismissive, but theism is ridiculous and deserves that.)

  43. The principle I use as important in discussing metaphysical claims of this type is the burden of proof principle. That is, whenever a metaphysical claim is made, the burden of proof falls to the positive claimant (the one claiming X exists).So the burden of proof falls to the positive claimant for God, and for free will.I would base a positive claim for free will on two distinct pieces of evidence. First, introspection. On introspection I have the distinct experience of making free choices. This experience leads me to believe I am capable of such choices. Also, others report similar choices. Second, humans do not react to things in predictable manners. If human action were predetermined, we ought to be able to predict reactions; so far we cannot, and this inductively implies that we have free will.I don't believe there is much of any convincing positive evidence for a God in general, and definitely not for the Christian view of God as omniscient/omnipotent/omnibenefecent. Feel free to take up the burden of the positive claimant though.

  44. I'm not sure introspection or predictability is a good enough positive argument. Humans might just be incredibly complex self aware machines. Also, many complex phenomena, such as the weather three years from now, are extremely unpredictable, so I don't think that unpredictability necessitates free will.That said, if one is willing to accept free will, one also wonders why one doesn't have the ability to do whatever one wants. Why doesn't the soul transcend the body, or why are we unable to make certain decisions. The only answer I can think of is that the soul is somehow mistaken about its identity and thinks that it and the body (including the mind) are one and the same. I think.

  45. I really do think that Plantinga's arguments are just about as ridiculous as that. It's just that they're much more complex, and so their patent absurdity (patent, that is, assuming transparency) requires a lot of preliminary translation for those who don't speak the lingo. It's a little like comparing the claim that the Fountain of Youth is on Sunset and Vine in Hollywood and the claim that the Fountain of Youth is somewhere deep in the Andes; the one is far easier to check than the other, but one who takes the trouble will find the results are the same in either case.I like your point (2), though, except that I find that atheist philosophers of religion whom Plantinga debates (e.g., Quentin Smith) want to focus their efforts and limited time on pressing arguments that are formally in issue.

  46. JB,I have no answers. My admittedly weak point is that if we “evolved” from apes, what was the purpose of the evolution? Certainly not survival, as there are still apes. I know that we share most of our biological makeup with apes. No one can convincingly explain to me how some apes suddenly got (technically, like inventing weapons, communications, transportation, etc.) intelligence.

  47. Paul,We didn't evolve from any of the other species of apes you see alive today. Rather, we share common ancestors with them. Also, though the disparity between our intelligence and theirs is significant, remember that we involved from other homonid species, some of which were more intelligent than the other currently living apes.

  48. “Certainly not survival, as there are still apes.”We had a common ancestor. It split up and these new branches had different evolutionary pressures, which pushed them further in different directions. Some needed to become more human in order to survive, some didn't.If there is an evolutionary reason for white skin color, why are there still people with black skin? Because there was no reason to (re)develop white skin in Africa.

  49. I didn't say anything about anyone not being worth taken seriously. Look, most arguments are bad. Most of my arguments are bad. And Nietzsche was right that most arguments are motivated by some need other than the need to get at the truth of things. Most of us are arguing in bad faith most of the time. I don't understand why you think reasonable pluralism rules out liberal tolerance for bad faith. That would defeat the point of it. Now, I do think the EVIDENCE points very strongly to the idea that most religious belief is strongly motivated by considerations that ought to be epistemically irrelevant, and I don't, as a matter of fact, have very much respect for most religious beliefs, which strike me as obviously fantastic myths beneath serious people. (I imagine you agree when the subject is other peoples' religions.) But for all I know, my own view is motivated by bad faith, and I might be missing something. The point, for me, is to try harder and do better. Plantinga says a lot of wrong things, IMO, about epistemology, and van Inwagen says lots of wrong things, IMO about metaphysics and Zagzebski says a lot of wrong things, IMO, about ethics.This makes neither of them “bad philosophers.” I am perfectly willing to take any of them seriously and argue with them or their arguments. I understand that you're disgruntled that I put the probability of “God exists” at something like .000002, but I am more than willing to debate it. What I don't get is why you continue to come off as whiny, making meta points about attitude, when we could just be arguing about whether some argument of Peter van Inwagen's makes any sense or not. Let's argue substance, not squabble about whether or not I'm giving you and the Society of Christian Philosophers the respect to which you think you're entitled.

  50. Hey Will,Some of us atheists/agnostics aren't out there mixing it up because we don't buy the antiquated modernist versions of truth, certainty, and science on which the new atheists base their claims.Evolution is just a way of seeing the world. It's a very helpful one; it's useful to us in achieving our aims. But the idea that it is “true” in the sense of “representing the world the way it really is” just seems outdated.Stanley Fish put it well in a column back in 07. On the new atheists' reasons:They are good Darwinian reasons; remove the natural selection hypothesis from the structure of thought and they will be seen not as reasons, but as absurdities. I “believe in evolution,” Dawkins declares, “because the evidence supports it”; but the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it.http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/06/17/atheis…Will, I'd love to see you talk with someone about this oh BhTV. But rather than watch you debate a believer, I'd like to see you test your views on science and certainty against a postmodernist, a pragmatist, someone who would challenge you on those fronts.

  51. No burden shift. I just don't think it makes sense to enumerate all the arguments for the existence of God of which I am aware, all at once, which would take a lot of time. Let's just take arguments as they come up, shall we?

  52. But, amazingly, only this common ancestor of apes and humans evolved into something as “sophisticated” (I use this term cautiously) as humans. Why are there no skyscraper-building, hybrid-car-developing, contemporary housing developers in the lion or walrus families. Oh, of course, no need arose.

  53. Trying to convince the average Christianist there is no God is about as useful as trying to get my rural MN farmer grandparents that veganism is the ideal diet they need to follow. It may be the best for them heathwise and the most earth friendly (I don't buy that, but for the sake of the analogy, play along…), but it's a ridiculous premise for them and its a waste of time.The real battle is to just get them to stop eating so much red meat, which is going to kill them. Likewise, the real battle is to get the Christianists to stop reading the Bible so literally that they think two dudes kissing or doing a little science in a lab is going to bring the apocalypse. You don't need to disprove God exists to make the world a better place. I thought you were a incrementalist?

  54. Ok, cool. As long as everyone sucks real bad, I'm happy and I don't think you're biased. I just didn't realize that you held everyone in such low regard! I guess you just believe in the naturalistic version of the Fall! That's good enough for me.

  55. Paul, please go study evolutionary biology. All of your criticisms and doubts have been dealt with at length.Will, I like Walter's suggestion that you debate Stanley Fish, even though he is a joke and an intellectual fraud. Before doing so, take a look at this paper (“The Vacuity of Postmodern Methodology”) in Metaphilosophy. http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/1186…I've seen Fish present his thoughts before, and he actually makes the bullshit moves that Shackel complains about. In particular, Fish did “the postmodern shuffle”. He said that there's no objective reality. When someone pointed out this is self-refuting (if true, then Fish's claims are not true, etc.), he retreated to saying trivial things like, “Our understanding of the world is mediate by concepts.”

  56. You need to explain to me how the infinitely hot and dense point that began the Big Bang came into existence. There are just as many theories for this as there are major religions, and nearly all of them (particularly the most popular one) is just as unfalsifiable as the existence of God.In fact…to support multi-verse theory, one seems to need a whole lot of…faith.

  57. Why do I need to explain that? If all the theories of the beginning of the universe are badly supported, you should believe that all of them are more likely to be false than not. Surely some are better supported than others, though. Assign those higher low probabilities. That's what you do.

  58. ..what was the purpose of the evolution?Simple answer: There was none. Asking that question is like asking “What is the purpose to salt dissolving in water?”, or “What is the purpose to fire?”, or “What is the purpose to orbital mechanics?”. They are all nothing more than natural processes which appear to be the consequence of certain basic physical properties of the universe. If you say to a rational, curious empiricist, “But isn't that a remarkable co-incidence? Doesn't it seem obvious that there had to be a governing first cause to calibrate a universe so suitable for us?”, they will respond by replying “If the universe wasn't configured that way, you wouldn't be here to ask that question, and I wouldn't be here to respond to your question by asking what you believe were the meta-conditions which allowed for the creation of your agent of first cause?” The evidence before our eyes is that human beings have devised a vast number of intricate belief systems; gods, spirits, guides, trees-that-breathe-butterflies. They're all mutually exclusive. None of them is a useful predictor of anything. If you're going to find reasons to reject the overwhelming number of these belief systems, why not discard the last one also?

  59. JBYour link didn't work for me. I usually enjoy Fish's columns (though I often disagree with them) but I want to clarify that I wasn't suggesting that Will debate him.What I was suggesting was something much broader: that the interesting debate, to me, would not be over the existence of god, but over the verifiability of the claims made in such a debate.

  60. Paul – There is more complexity in a single cell of the most primitive bacteria than there is in all human contrivance. There are more surprising innovations, more solutions to hard problems. Move to other cells, other species, and the the splendor multiplies. By contrast, our human beings' bodies are badly “designed” (our guts hang from our ribs, our eyes are inside out, our liver chemistry is woeful). Our engineered solutions to our gross biological problems are primitive, fragile, and terribly inefficient. Our over sized brains make us vulnerable to parasitic organisms–species like Zea mays, Cannabis sativa–and parasitic thoughts–fear of the dark, illusions of memory. We are barely beginning to understand, still less to appreciate, the grandeur that resides in the tangled bank of our universe.

  61. You know, I really don't think this culture war stuff is important. We live in a pluralistic country, so why are other peoples beliefs relevant to me? If they are trying to coerce me, that is one thing. But its easier to win the warm and fuzzy argument for tolerance than it is the mean sounding “There is no God, when you die you just rot in the ground lol.” argument.

  62. and saying 'god did it' requires more when you actually cash out all the things that are going on. You need plausible explanations for non-physical causation, non-physical minds, causation without time, and change without time (to name a few off the top of my head) in order to even tell a story about what happened 'before' the universe was created. Then, even if you are successful at that, you still haven't gotten within light years of theism, let alone Christianity, since the first cause argument tells us nothing about the identity of this thing, how powerful it was, how complex it was, whether it still exists, whether it is capable of 'knowing,' 'whether it knows about us, or whether it would care if it did, or even if this is a singular entity or a multiplicity entities.

  63. Even if he does need to explain this, there's still a difference between this view and theistic ones. Namely, there is no undefeated evidence of theism, but there's lots of evidence that the universe was once condensed into an infinitely hot and dense point.Note, also, that you should not assume that this point “came into existence”. Logically speaking, there's no grounds for assuming that if something exists, it came into existence, i.e., that there must have been a time in which it didn't exist prior to when it did.

  64. “There is no God, when you die you just rot in the ground lol.”We can make it sound more positive than that. For example, we can build a beautiful story from the big bang through evolution to us and note how incredibly lucky we are to exist, and why we must make the most of our lives because this is all we have, etc, etc.

  65. I'm not sure that you aren't being a bit too restrictive in how you define God if you're coming up with such a low p-value. I think people often fail to notice how much broader the concept can be because those making the God arguments the loudest are the adherents of revealed religions. I agree the the p-value of all the revealed religions is really, really, low, but I wouldn't say that about something as broad as “God exists.” For instance, Nick Bostrom's arguments to the effect that we are sims seems to me to be effectively an argument for a kind of deism.

  66. GBM did a decent job. Sorry for double teaming you like this.2/3. I'm not in any way suggesting throwing the gospels out as evidence. When I ask for a non-biblical source I do so because facts are best proved by giving multiple sources. Claiming that the biblical account was wrong does not commit me to any kind of conspiracy theory since the gospels, as GBM mentioned, WERE NOT eyewitness accounts. They were written 40-80 years after Jesus had died. The gospels did not begin early Christianity they likely sprung from the oral tradition of the early Christians- at least according to the consensus view among mainstream historians. Further, given that it was written partisans would it be at all surprising to you if they exaggerated some events to make their savior look better?And the thing is, I don't think you disagree with this. There are thousands and thousands of religious texts and there is no way you take them at face value. If you did you'd be a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Pagan in addition to being a Christian. You need to provide a standard that will lead me to accept the gospel claim of resurrection but doesn't at the same time require us to accept the evidence for other miracles. You wanted to know what I think would constitute “very reliable evidence” for the resurrection. Frankly, I don't think Jesus's disciples even if they saw and talked to someone who said he was Jesus had very reliable evidence that their leader had really rose from the dead. Its not surprising that they believed he had since these were superstitious times. But if some friend of mine died and then someone appeared to me looking just like my friend and claiming to be him I'd ask him a lot of questions to ensure he knew things no one else could know. And then my conclusion would be that he had never really died- not that he had been resurrected. That might change if I saw him floating up into the sky… but the point is even if the disciples really saw everything they claimed to have seen they still barely have enough evidence to justify a belief in the resurrection. Mass hallucination is actually way more likely in retrospect given that such events don't violate known laws of nature.As it stands I imagine some disciples really did think they saw Jesus. Their beloved leader had just been murdered and claiming to have seen him would have brought any disciple extra respect in the movement. Over time I think those stories were exaggerated and merged until we were left with the resurrection myth which was then written down. I guess to answer the question very reliable evidence of Jesus's resurrection would be the same kind of evidence it would take to convince you that someone rose from the dead today. And frankly that kind of reliability didn't exist back then. So its probably true that even if the resurrection did occur we still wouldn't have enough reasons to believe it really happened (though certainly one can imagine MORE evidence then exists now). But then this is true with just about every supernatural myth of the ancient world.3b. Sure, if I believe that someone rose from the dead it makes sense to consider his claims a lot more carefully. It might even shift the probability toward God existing. But a guy dying and coming alive again does not make it the case that that guy is also a omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator who answers prayers and sentences people to eternal punishment for finite crimes and awards people eternal happiness so long as they believe he's the guy responsible for it. (Apologies if I included something you don't believe, I'm merely pointing out that theres a whole lot more to the God thing that coming back from the dead). I wonder, without considering the evidence you think you have for his existence, what probability would you assign God's existence independent of anything else. What is the probability that a being so incredibly complex comes to exist? My answer is somewhere on an asymptote approaching zero. I mean its really a staggeringly unlikely event even if it really did happen- far more unlikely than a 747 being put together by a tornado for example. Given an initial probability anywhere in this range however, it seems strange that a guy claiming to be God dying and coming back to life is sufficient evidence to reverse the probability.

  67. Actually miracles didn't end 2000 years ago. The Vatican continues to certify events as miracles. A biography of a Russian priest that was sent to the Gulag, which I saw in my father's house, also mentioned miracles happening to the priest. I've even seen descriptions of angels appearing and doing things in Reader's Digest.Maybe all of these events have naturalistic explanations, but they are the same sort of events that were called miracles 2000 years ago.

  68. Using the Bible as evidence of the Christian God is as reasonable as using the Iliad as evidence of Zeus, Ares, and Athena.

  69. Your post equivocates between arguing for atheism out of concern for truth and arguing for atheism for purpose of scoring propaganda victories in the culture war. The former motive is likely to appeal to philosophy professors, but precisely for that reason they are probably less interested in writing polemics and more interested in debating Plantinga and his ilk.Those interested primarily in fighting culture wars may find that advocating a watered-down Christianity is more effective than marginalizing themselves with a frontal assault on theism.

  70. Another way you could say it is that I imply that falsehood has corrosive cultural consequences. But I agree that this oversells it, and that neutered and civilized religions are probably good enough.

  71. You should read Douthat today. You won't be surprised to discover that he disagrees with you on the utility of neutered religion. He seems to think that fighting falsehood with falsehood is the way to go.

  72. “None of these arguments are any good, of course, as there is no God, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, and so on.”LOL! Will, I didn't realize you were so ignorant. To claim 100% certainty on these points belies your ignorance.Can you prove there isn't a god? Until then, maybe you might get more respect for your beliefs (that there is no god) if you show some for the beliefs of others (that there is a god).

  73. It's not trivial. Generally, atheists claim 100% certainty (or close to it) that god does not exist.Agnostics say they don't know, it's not possible to know, or they don't know with enough certainty.Claiming 100% certainty is a bit ridiculous. Just look at quantum mechanics…those physicists who claimed 100% certainty about their scientific world-view probably felt a bit silly once quantum mechanics started getting fleshed out.

  74. Will, you definitely come across as quite rude in posts like this. I thought TheOctagon was quite right in calling you out on it.

  75. “No one was ever converted to faith through reason…”I don't know about that. There are all sorts of reasonable arguments. Pascal's wager, humans needing a god, etc.

  76. Heather Mac Donald did a blogginghead.tv with Ross Douthat recently that focused a good deal on the problem of evil (especially natural evil). Perhaps you could use your sway with Bob Wright to arrange another such bloggingheads encounter involving you and a theist?

  77. Have you done a survey? Folks love to claim that atheism somehow entails some kind of apodictic certainty, whereas the attitude of most nonbelievers I know (which is most people I know) seems a lot closer to: “There's no good reason to think this is true, and it seems pretty improbable.”Which is to say, I agree that in practice there's no significant difference between atheists and agnostics. The latter are functional atheists who are trying to sound polite.

  78. Many atheists that I know, have read, or otherwise make this claim.Those who say I really don't know shouldn't label themselves atheists. They should label themselves agnostics. Because there are those who do claim certainty or near certainty and they identify themselves as atheists. When I hear 'atheist' (and this is from a wide variety of experience), I take that to mean 'I believe god does not exist'.

  79. “I believe god does not exist” doesn't entail “I believe with 100% certainty that god does not exist.”I don't think I've ever met an atheist who claims the latter, and I've known a lot of atheists.

  80. I've known at least a few who claim that. Even Will claimed something like 99.98% certainty.It's generally an article of faith for atheists just like it's an article of faith for theists. Neither side has proof.The argument that the word 'agnostic' is meaningless is ridiculous. People use it all the time and not just to be polite. They use it to describes themselves as someone who doesn't know, doesn't have faith in either atheism or theism, etc.

  81. I make the claim (“There is no god.”) with the same degree of certainty that I make a number of negative claims, such as “There is no Santa Claus.”, and “There are no unicorns.”, and “There is no juju-zombie lurking beneath the lilly-pads.”I make the claim with considerably more certainty than I make claims like “Aliens are not amongst us.” and “9/11 was not an inside job.”Perhaps the better way to characterize the difference is to say that athiests have a model of the world utterly lacking in such supernaturalism. It isn't simply that we 'do not believe'. Rather, I think athiests would claim to have a reasonably coherent mental model for how the world works, and a set of tools and processes for learning more about it. We're sorry, but your 'god talk' is superflous to that model. Except as childish conversations along the lines of Santa Claus, unicorns, and juju-zombies. Rather than say 'do you believe?, it might be more helpful to ask 'do you accept as reasonable?'.

  82. I've known at least a few who claim that. Even Will claimed something like 99.98% certainty.It's generally an article of faith for atheists just like it's an article of faith for theists. Neither side has proof.The argument that the word 'agnostic' is meaningless is ridiculous. People use it all the time and not just to be polite. They use it to describes themselves as someone who doesn't know, doesn't have faith in either atheism or theism, etc.

  83. I make the claim (“There is no god.”) with the same degree of certainty that I make a number of negative claims, such as “There is no Santa Claus.”, and “There are no unicorns.”, and “There is no juju-zombie lurking beneath the lilly-pads.”I make the claim with considerably more certainty than I make claims like “Aliens are not amongst us.” and “9/11 was not an inside job.”Perhaps the better way to characterize the difference is to say that athiests have a model of the world utterly lacking in such supernaturalism. It isn't simply that we 'do not believe'. Rather, I think athiests would claim to have a reasonably coherent mental model for how the world works, and a set of tools and processes for learning more about it. We're sorry, but your 'god talk' is superflous to that model. Except as childish conversations along the lines of Santa Claus, unicorns, and juju-zombies. Rather than say 'do you believe?, it might be more helpful to ask 'do you accept as reasonable?'.

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