I generally respect Atheism as a concept. When life’s difficulties hit home, they certainly bring with them doubts regarding the existence of God. And, more than this, the religions of the world including Christianity tend to be filled with nonsensical beliefs as well as deplorable actions mixed in with the good. I often say that Atheism is God’s gift to the intellectually lazy religiosity of modern times.
But I do have a problem with atheists when it comes to some of the common methods they use in debates. I don’t know if it is because they just don’t see the logical inconsistencies or if they are purposely trying to confuse their opponents but frankly it doesn’t matter why they do it. What does matter is that an enormous amount of time is wasted in debates that are rigged to be unproductive before they even start. And people of character should care more about the progress that can be achieved through a good debate than about winning the debate. I will try to address some of these issues here.
Theism vs. Atheism
The first problem I often run into is that the debates are framed wrong, i.e. Theism vs. Atheism. The issue here is that Atheism by definition is not a proposition in and of itself and therefore the entire burden of proof rests on the Theist.
To illustrate the flaw here just picture a political debate between a Democrat and an a-Democrat where the a-Democrat stands for nothing in particular except in that she disagrees with everything the Democrat stands for. At the end of such debate we might know all the reasons we shouldn’t vote for the Democrat but we would have no idea why we should vote for his opponent; what they will do when they take office, what position they hold on major issues etc. And, as much as we might dislike all the negative things we found out about the Democrat, we would likely still vote for them because at least we have some idea where they stand. No one would put up with this in the political arena but it happens in the philosophy/religion arena all the time.
To be rational, debates between theists and atheists should be set up like this:
1) We start with a blank slate.
2) The one given/known in this discussion is that we/our planet/our universe exist.
3) If we exist it means that we’ve gotten here somehow.
4) Each side must present and support a proposition for how we came to be here.
In essence, the debate should really be theism vs. naturalism (assuming the atheist is not a non-theistic supernaturalist). With such a framework each side is expected to make their own case as well as counter the other’s position and the debate is balanced. The observer could then have a clear picture of all the issues involved and how well each side is supported. The weaknesses of one side strengthen the position of the other and vice versa instead of one side bearing all the responsibility.
It happens at times that, when this is mentioned, the atheist refuses the label of “naturalist”. He prefers not to be restricted to a specific position, prefers to hide behind an “I don’t know,” and to just take blows at his opponent. In such a case it is my recommendation that the theist decline the debate altogether. If the atheist doesn’t think that theism is a good explanation for how we got here then he is welcome to present a better explanation. Otherwise there is nothing to talk about.
Naturalism as the Default
A second problem I come across quite often is somewhat similar. Although the atheist does in this case argue for Naturalism, he does so as if Naturalism is the Default position; the position that is automatically correct if the Theist is unable to make his case. The Atheist never takes the time to prove that this is so; he just conducts his debate as if it is. Needless to say this puts the theist at a disadvantage since arguments that might have carried sufficient weight in a balanced debate no longer do. The opponents end up speaking past each other and there is an obvious disconnect in the discussion but no one seems to be able to put their finger on what the problem is.
In a proper setup, unless either side has first taken the time to demonstrate that they hold the default position, it must be assumed that both positions share equal footing. In such debates, the participants should keep an eye out for this type of thing and address it immediately before moving on to the actual topic under discussion.
But are Atheists justified in assuming that Naturalism is the default?
The only reason one would consider naturalism as the default would be if that position itself posed no challenges. As it is, naturalism does have its share of problems. In our universe, in order to perform work you need energy. As it is used, energy is converted to a less usable form. The energy from our sun for example will eventually run out and, although there will be other suns, these also will eventually run out. Working backwards we can deduce that at some point in the distant past there was far more usable energy than there is today and the obvious question is, where did it all come from?
Various models have been proposed for this but they often only push the question back further. Not just this, but simply imagining a potential model is not sufficient evidence that it is in fact what happened. And, since we know so little about our visible Universe and, since the visible universe is only a tiny fraction of the expected size of the actual universe, and since we don’t know if there is anything beyond that (maybe a multiverse), making definite claims here is like polling ten/fifteen people in a little town in Arkansas and then claiming to know who is going to win the presidential election.
These are only a few examples of the potential issues with naturalism and therefore naturalism cannot just be taken for granted. The supporter is just as obligated to make a case for it as is the one supporting theism.
If the discussion between a theist and an atheist gets past the first two problems, it generally gets stuck on the third. Here the atheist demands the following:
1) Since the theist is the one making the claim, the burden is on him to prove it.
2) The only acceptable proof is Scientific Evidence.
This might seem like a reasonable expectation but in fact it is an impossible one, by definition. It’s sort of like the following:
1) Only boys are allowed to play in this basketball competition.
2) The only acceptable proof that girls are good at basketball is evidence that an all-girls’ team has ever won this competition.
The scientific method functions under certain presuppositions, mainly that the laws of physics are consistent and universal. In essence, the scientific method assumes that the supernatural does not exist. And, because it works under this assumption, it will lead to conclusions that are always consistent with this assumption.
For example, suppose that an actual supernatural event occurred. If we were to study this event using the scientific method we would start by trying to come up with a naturalistic/non-supernatural model for how the event might have taken place. If we exhausted every naturalistic model that we could think of without adequately explaining the event, we would not then conclude the event was supernatural. We would assume instead that we are not advanced enough to discover the correct explanation and would need to wait for science to progress further. The only way theoretically that the scientific method would ever lead to a supernatural conclusion would be if we first exhausted every single naturalistic explanation possible, which, in practical life, would be impossible.
Now there is nothing wrong with the demand that only scientific evidence be acceptable. However, if that is the expectation, the only way to approach the question would be to flip things around and ask the naturalist to demonstrate that a naturalistically derived universe is entirely possible without the need for the supernatural. This would not prove that god didn’t exist but it would show that He was unnecessary. And that’s about as far as we would be able to go using the scientific method alone.
So in summary, either the restriction for only scientific evidence is removed or the naturalist must make the case for a naturalistically derived universe and the burden of proof is no longer on the theist.
But someone will say right about now that the problem with supernatural claims is not that the scientific method cannot accept these claims. The problem is that these claims don’t pan out, period. In other words, it’s not that supernatural events happen but the scientific method forces us to assume they were natural. Rather, whenever there are claims of the supernatural, the claims themselves prove untrue; like say a psychic who, under controlled experimental conditions, performs statistically no different than the general population.
Obviously, I cannot take responsibility for everyone’s dubious claims. But let’s address a claim that theists often do make, mainly that God answers prayer.
How would we evaluate this claim scientifically?
Say there was a person who was really sick but several people came to visit, offered a prayer and the person soon got better. This actually happens from time to time.
To approach this question scientifically you would examine the nature of the sickness and the progress the person made once they started improving and then come up with a naturalistic explanation for the recovery. After all, of all the people suffering with that particular sickness, there is always a percentage that get better regardless of whether prayer is offered or not.
Of course, that wouldn’t really prove that it wasn’t a miracle, either. Just because we can conceive of a natural explanation for something does not mean it is in fact what happened or that God might not have been behind the natural workings which would not have happened without Him. But then again, why doesn’t God do something out of the ordinary like heal an amputee so we can be sure?
So then you might think to set up an experiment where you take 2000 sick people and you have someone pray for half of them (without telling them they are being prayed for.) If God really answered prayer then you should expect that the half being prayed for will show a statistically higher rate of improvement, right?
Let’s think about this a little bit:
1) When we talk about God we can probably safely assume that we are talking about an entity that is smarter than us and more technologically advanced than us. After all He created the universe.
2) We can also assume that God does have intentions. God is the one that initiated the creation process not us.
3) So if in creating us it was God’s intention to make it such that we would be absolutely certain of His existence, He would have found a way to make us certain of it without your help or mine.
4) And, if it isn’t his intention that human beings have absolute evidence of His existence, why would we assume that we should still be able to devise an experiment that would either force God or trick God into making His own existence undeniable?
If there is anything we can be fairly certain of, it is that if God exists, He definitely does not intend to remove all doubt of His existence or He would have done it long ago and we would not today be having this conversation. There’s probably very little chance that any of us will ever get to go on Oprah and tell the world that we have proven God’s existence once and for all, regardless of whether God actually exists or not. And this is a pretty obvious conclusion; it’s quite silly that people actually do try to put together this type of scientific experiments.
In conclusion, when atheists state that they lack belief in God because they have never been offered convincing evidence for God, and if by evidence they actually mean only scientific evidence, they are being irrational on two counts:
– First, because the scientific method discards supernatural claims by definition and
– Second, because it is obvious that it is not God’s intention to dispel all doubt of His existence, something which scientific evidence will inevitably do.
And, as much as we might not like this state of things, it is what we have to work with. The sooner we realize this, the sooner our discussions will start to have a chance at actually being profitable for a change.
There are other similar issues that could be mentioned but these three, in my opinion, are fundamental and affect the majority of debates on the topic. I do not recommend that anyone engage in a debate without settling these three points first.Share