13 February 2011
If there is anything that is obvious, it is that the existence of God is not obvious. There would be no “Does God Exist?” debates if the question were one of evidence.
By now someone would have won the Nobel Prize for demonstrating the existence of a hitherto unknown force in the cosmos. Any scientist in the world would jump at the chance to be the one who finally proved that God is real.
Of course, some philosophers and theologians feel that this can never happen because a supernatural being, by definition, is beyond the reach of science, which can only examine the natural world.
Nevertheless, most non-philosophers do feel that there is a wealth of evidence for a god. Miracles, changed lives, fulfilled prophecies, biblical revelation, the resurrection of Jesus, unsolved scientific questions (which they mistake for evidence), coincidences they say could not have happened by chance, inner experience, selfless acts of kindness and so on all prove to the believer that God exists.
Some offer attempts at rational arguments. Since many of these believers cannot imagine themselves as nonbelievers, they try to detect some ulterior motive for atheism. Rather than accept the straightforward statement that there is no evidence for a god, which allows the implication that their worldview might be wrong, many Christians have claimed to guess the “true” cause of unbelief.
Here are some of the ad hominem arguments I have heard:
“You resent moral guidelines and want to be free to live a life of sin and selfishness.”
“You dislike authority.”
“You want to be different and stir up trouble.”
“You are arrogant and hate God and want to be higher than God, like Lucifer (Satan).”
“Your heart is in the wrong place.”
“You have been hurt by Christians, or offended by certain nonrepresentative immoralities and crimes in the Church.”
“You are impatient and disappointed that not all your prayers are answered.”
“You feel let down by God, who didn’t answer your prayers the way you wanted.”
“You are cold, empty and pessimistic.”
“You are an angry person.”
“You are too stupid, blind, limited or afraid to see what is obvious to everyone else.”
“You have been seduced by scientists into refusing to accept the possibility of miracles.”
“You are an atheist because you don’t know the true meaning of love.”
None of these accusations is true. None is relevant. A strong clue that a person is arguing from a position of weakness is when they attack character rather than arguments and facts.
Bertrand Russell pointed out that ad hominem is a last-ditch defense of the losing side. My atheism has nothing to do with any of this. Even if it did, how would it add to the evidence for a god?
By the way, an ad hominem argument is not the same as a character attack. Ad hominem is when you use the character of your opponent to dismiss his or her argument. It would not be ad hominem to say that “My opponent is a thief,” but it would be to say that “My opponent’s conclusion is wrong because my opponent is a thief.” My opponent might be a horrible person with ulterior motives, but that would not make his or her reasoning or conclusion wrong.
The only times the opponent’s character is relevant in a debate are when the specific topic is morality, when it is fair to examine possible hypocrisy, or when eye-witness evidence is being offered and a history of dishonesty might weaken credibility. In those cases attacking character is not ad hominem.
If the Catholic Church, for example, claims that believing in Christ makes you a better person, then it is not unfair to point to the clergy sexual abuse scandal as evidence against that claim. (Who should be more representative of the religion than the priests?) It would be ad hominem and inappropriate, however, if I were to say, “Don’t believe anything the Church teaches because their leaders are pedophiles.”
When Peter (if the story is true) told his friends that he saw the resurrected Jesus, the fact that he had recently lied by denying that he knew Jesus lowers the credibility of his testimony. It is not ad hominem to point this out because it is not part of a logical argument; it is an assessment of the reliability of a witness.
The claim that I am an atheist because I don’t understand “love” is particularly ironic. I do understand what love is, and that is one of the reasons I can never again be a Christian.
Love is not self-denial. Love is not blood and suffering. Love is not murdering your son to appease your own vanity. Love is not hatred or wrath, consigning billions of people to eternal torture because they have offended your fragile ego or disobeyed your rules. Love is not obedience, conformity or submission.
It is a counterfeit love that is contingent upon authority, punishment or reward. True love is respect and admiration, compassion and kindness, freely given by a healthy, unafraid human being.
The argument about “anger” is equally intriguing. There is nothing wrong with anger if it is not expressed destructively. Paul said believers should get angry (Ephesians 4:26). Jesus got angry (Mark 3:5).
Christians get angry often. I am rarely angry, certainly never when I am discussing atheism with believers, but many Christians project their own feelings back toward me and claim that I am angry when I quote horrible bible verses or level criticisms of Christianity that make them angry.
What if I were to say, “The reason you are a Christian is because you are an angry person”? Many atheists, as well as believers, are often justifiably angry at the way religion clouds judgment and leads to dangerous behavior, but that is a result of reason and ethics, not a cause of it.
The word “atheist” is not a label; it is merely a description. (Although, of course, any word can be made into a label for PR reasons.) Since I do not believe in a god, I am by default described as an atheist. If there is evidence for a hypothesis, then I will gladly look at the data. If the claim itself is illogical, however, or if it is based on something other than honest investigation, it can be dismissed as wishful thinking, misunderstanding or a lie.
Theists do not have a god: they have a belief. Atheism is the lack of theism, the lack of belief in god(s). I am an atheist because there is no reason to believe.
Some theists say this is absurd. Just because a few atheists are unconvinced is no reason to discard the wealth of evidence accepted by the rest of the world, they insist. These believers would ask me to say: “I am an atheist because there is no evidence that I accept for the existence of God.”
Well, of course that’s true. I am the one being asked to judge and I have to use my reason. But if they are suggesting that I must agree that it is okay for them to accept the so-called evidences, I can’t do that. None of the “evidences” proves a supernatural being, so those who continue to believe are acting irrationally. If they want me to believe, too, they have to convince me, not just themselves.
To play the same game, I could argue that even though few adults believe in Santa Claus, there is plenty of evidence for his existence. A real Santa cannot be completely ignored, I might say, because he is revealed somewhere in the millions of youthful testimonials, song lyrics, stories and holiday displays, and is a time-tested cultural tradition. (My children actually heard reindeer hooves on the roof and sleigh bells ringing. It was years later when I told them that it was just me, their dad, playing with their imaginations.)
Does all the evidence for Santa disappear just because you are skeptical? I am free to believe in Santa Claus if I want. The evidence for Santa remains, I might say, regardless of your doubt.
Actually, the facts remain—but they are not evidence for a real Santa Claus. They are evidence for something else: culture, history and the charming imaginations of children. They are evidence for consumerism and goodwill, tale spinning and song writing, game playing, community stories and children’s literature. But they are not evidence for an actual Santa Claus.
We know this because each of the so-called proofs for Santa can be explained in natural terms and understood as part of a myth-making process. The fact that most adults believe in God is no more reason for me or anyone else to believe than the fact that most children believe in Santa.
The possibility that the belief in God is useful is no reason to believe, either. Many claim that their behavior is improved by their belief in God, but so is the behavior of millions of children during the middle weeks of December. Most of us have matured into “A-Santa-ists,” and some of us have matured into “A-theists.” We have grown up and we are satisfied with natural explanations for the myth.
Of course, even the staunchest skeptic admits that one natural explanation does not completely rule out other possibilities. Perhaps there is a higher level of understanding that allows Santa to exist even though we are unable to prove it yet. The fact that kids have creative imaginations does not necessarily indicate that everything they imagine must be false.
Even so, I can still claim that if there are adequate natural explanations that account for all the facts, then there is no driving need to search for supernatural explanations. This is just common sense.
Without such a rational limit there would be no end to the fanciful layers that could be added to any hypothesis. (This is usually referred to as Occam’s Razor, the principle that suggests we should normally accept the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions.)
The skeptic, slavishly honoring all the possibilities, could be forced to spend a lifetime running around trying to disprove an infinite number of fantastic theories.
For example, maybe Santa is an ambassador from a distant planetary outpost populated with red-and-white creatures who monitor the activities of specially chosen short people (elves and children?), seeking “conducive” humans as psychic vehicles for messages to holy reindeer that levitate when children dream during the winter solstice, with most adults being too hardened to believe. Can anyone prove that this scenario is untrue? (You read it here first.)
Since I don’t have the means or the inclination to disprove such an idea, is this paragraph now allowed to count as evidence for such a theory?
A rational person would give the preceding paragraph an exceedingly low probability (virtually zero). However, if some natural explanation arises for the existence of the paragraph (such as an admission that I just made it up), then the probability can be safely dropped to zero point zero and the discussion shifts from the reaches of outer space to the reaches of my inner brain.
Perhaps in a court of law it is more relaxed. In a trial any object or testimony that might have a relevance to the case may be considered “evidence” before there is a verdict. In science it is the other way around: a fact is admitted as evidence only after the connection has been made. I may insist something is evidence, but that does not make it so. There must be a connection and it must be clear.
Theists think the connection is clear. They have traditionally presented a large number of evidences for their faith, and at first glance those evidences appear overwhelming. For a skeptic to attack this plethora of widely accepted “proofs” might look like David confronting Goliath!
After all, atheists are a minority. How can so many good believers be so wrong? How can all of these facts be ignored?
They are not ignored. Remember that David defeated Goliath (in the story, not in history). Many have closely examined these “proofs” for a deity and have found them wanting.
The main reason I am an atheist is because these claims can be shown to have perfectly natural explanations and, as with Santa Claus, the probability for the existence of a supernatural being can be safely dropped to zero.
In the name of honesty, it must be dropped to zero.
This is an edited extract from Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists by Dan Barker (foreword by Richard Dawkins). Published by Ulysses Press. Distributed in Australia by Scribo. Reproduced here with publisher’s permission.