This essay entitled “Strategies for Dialoguing with Atheists” has been discussed on the forums - appropriately as an example of bad logic and sloppy debating. It is so good, in fact, that I decided to pick it apart for my blog entry this week.
First, I want to say that my point is not to defend atheism or any particular formulation of it, but rather to examine the logic of the arguments being put forth and to expose the sloppy thinking in this essay. Author, Ron Rhodes, gets off to a bad start, offering up some tired canards right off the bat:
People choose to become atheists as much as they choose to become Christians. And no matter how strenuously some may try to deny it, atheism is a belief system. It requires faith that God does not exist.
Wrong and wrong. It is probable that there is a complex set of psychological and cultural factors that determine one’s belief, but conscious choice is likely not a significant factor. I do not believe in any deity and I cannot simply will myself to have any such belief. Given that most people adopt the religion of their parents, it seems that most people do not choose to believe either – they inherit their faith. But framing the issue as a personal choice suits the ideological requirements of the proselytizers (which is the stated goal of this essay).
Neither is the absence of belief a belief system. That is logically absurd. There are potentially an infinite number of unfalsifiable propositions in which I do not believe. This does not mean that I have an infinity of belief systems. Also – this statement glosses over the very important fact that those without faith in god likely came to their lack of belief through a very different intellectual process than the one that lead many to their faith. Specifically those who lack faith will typically justify their position as being due to a lack of compelling logic or evidence supporting such a belief. While “faith”, by definition, is belief without evidence. This claim is also tied to Rhode’s first point.
(1) “There is no God.” Some atheists categorically state that there is no God, and all atheists, by definition, believe it. And yet, this assertion is logically indefensible. A person would have to be omniscient and omnipresent to be able to say from his own pool of knowledge that there is no God. Only someone who is capable of being in all places at the same time – with a perfect knowledge of all that is in the universe – can make such a statement based on the facts. To put it another way, a person would have to be God in order to say there is no God.
This point can be forcefully emphasized by asking the atheist if he has ever visited the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Mention that the library presently contains over 70 million items (books, magazines, journals, etc.). Also point out that hundreds of thousands of these were written by scholars and specialists in the various academic fields. Then ask the following question: “What percentage of the collective knowledge recorded in the volumes in this library would you say are within your own pool of knowledge and experience?” The atheist will likely respond, “I don’t know. I guess a fraction of one percent.” You can then ask: “Do you think it is logically possible that God may exist in the 99.9 percent that is outside your pool of knowledge and experience?” Even if the atheist refuses to admit the possibility, you have made your point and he knows it.
Any serious discussion of “atheism” should at least acknowledge that there is a difference between believing that god does not exist and not believing that god exists. Rhodes simply chooses the former, and then argues that the latter position is actually the same thing. He is therefore arguing against a straw man – the notion that we can know that god does not exist. Most self-described atheists I know do not make such claims. Even if “some” do it is simply wrong to equate all forms of atheism with this stance.
Also, Rhodes fails to see the inherent inconsistency in his position. It is just as “logically indefensible” to uphold belief in a being outside the laws of our universe as it is to profess the absence of such a being. Without acknowledging it, Rhodes is making a case for agnosticism – the inability to know, not for faith. He continues:
(2) “I don’t believe in God because there is so much evil in the world.” Many atheists consider the problem of evil an airtight proof that God does not exist. They often say something like: “I know there is no God because if He existed, He never would have let Hitler murder six million Jews.”
A good approach to an argument like this is to say something to this effect: “Since you brought up this issue, the burden lies on you to prove that evil actually exists in the world. So let me ask you: by what criteria do you judge some things to be evil and other things not to be evil? By what process do you distinguish evil from good?” The atheist may hedge and say: “I just know that some things are evil. It’s obvious.” Don’t accept such an evasive answer. Insist that he tell you how he knows that some things are evil. He must be forced to face the illogical foundation of his belief system.
This is another anemic straw-man argument. Rather, the argument goes something like this: It is not possible for God to be, at the same time, all-powerful and all-loving while there is tremendous human suffering in the world. Note that human suffering is the real issue, not evil. This is a contradiction because if god had infinite love and power he could take steps at least to reduce human suffering, not all of which is the result of human evil. Diseases and natural disasters, for example, are often inflicted upon humanity by random chance, not as a consequence of human evil.
Even thoughtful theologians recognize this conflict. One answer is that God is not all-powerful – he cannot, for example, suspend at will the laws of the universe he created without causes more problems. It is also possible (although this is not the preferred solution by believers) that God is not all-loving. He may be a decent guy, all things considered, but his perspective and concerns are so far above what we can conceive that in practice he is aloof. He may not care about human suffering – just like a parent might not see things from the same perspective as a young child who throws a temper tantrum because they cannot stay up late or take home a new toy from the store. The child may feel they are made to needlessly suffer at the cruel hands of their parent – who has the power to grant them what they wish, but chooses not to for reasons the child simply cannot understand.
Rhode’s argument is a simplistic straw-man version of such arguments. That there is evil in the world (rather than suffering) is not a serious argument for atheism or proof in the non-existence of God. It is also vastly simpler to deal with than Rhodes unnecessary semantic argument that just creates more problems for him. Simply put – you can just say that God does not want to interfere with human free will.
Now – it is worth pointing out that what is happening here is that believers are defending the absence of evidence for God with special pleading. God does not manifest his existence by ameliorating human suffering or dealing with the problem of evil because he has good and plausible reasons not to. But in the end – this still leaves us with no evidence for God, and for those who base their conclusions on such things as evidence this is a valid reason to withhold belief in God.
I should also point out that believers often offer as evidence for a benevolent deity random or seemingly unlikely good things that happen to people. Remember the baby that luckily survived the tsunami a few years ago by floating on a piece of debris? This was offered as “miraculous” and therefore evidence of God’s love. It is legitimate to point out that if you give God credit for saving this one life, then you have to also blame him for all the deaths, and wonder why so many others were not saved. This is not offered as evidence for the non-existence of God – but rather as a way of showing the inherent illogic in the “miracle” argument.
Rhodes, however, discusses none of this. Rather he takes this question entirely in a nonsensical direction, creating an even bigger problem for himself. He writes:
After he struggles with this a few moments, point out to him that it is impossible to distinguish evil from good unless one has an infinite reference point which is absolutely good. Otherwise one is like a boat at sea on a cloudy night without a compass (i.e., there would be no way to distinguish north from south without the absolute reference point of the compass needle).
The infinite reference point for distinguishing good from evil can only be found in the person of God, for God alone can exhaust the definition of “absolutely good.” If God does not exist, then there are no moral absolutes by which one has the right to judge something (or someone) as being evil. More specifically, if God does not exist, there is no ultimate basis to judge the crimes of Hitler. Seen in this light, the reality of evil actually requires the existence of God, rather than disproving it.
What a semantic and logical mess. But we have seen this before. The premise – that good and evil only have meaning when compared to an absolute standard, is false. There are many objective and legitimate standards by which we can judge (notice the use of the word “judge”, which implies a value judgment, not an absolute objective metric) the ethics of an action or a person. Ethical systems based upon sound first principles – like justice and liberty – are perfectly legitimate. There are human universals that we can also use as a standard, and such systems can be judged on their logical validity and consistency. Without this false premise, Rhode’s entire argument fails.
Notice also that Rhodes has set a trap for himself and then fallen into it. The entire point of the argument (even though it is a weak straw man) is that if God does exist why does he tolerate evil. The argument that the existence of evil requires God to exist is therefore a non-sequitur – the question is how can both exist at the same time. To deal with that question Rhodes digs himself a deeper hole:
At this point, the atheist may raise the objection that if God does in fact exist, then why hasn’t He dealt with the problem of evil in the world. You can disarm this objection by pointing out that God is dealing with the problem of evil, but in a progressive way. The false assumption on the part of the atheist is that God’s only choice is to deal with evil all at once in a single act. God, however, is dealing with the problem of evil throughout all human history. One day in the future, Christ will return, strip power away from the wicked, and hold all men and women accountable for the things they did during their time on earth. Justice will ultimately prevail. Those who enter eternity without having trusted in Christ for salvation will understand just how effectively God has dealt with the problem of evil.
By now this should easily be recognizable and just more special pleading – God is dealing with evil, but in a way that is completely invisible, and besides he will do it in the future. I see. This is the logical equivalent of a psychic, having made a completely false statement about her mark, declaring that perhaps this is true but the subject does not know it, or perhaps this is not true now but it will become true in the future. Right.
I must also point out that Rhodes is saying that God – the “definition of ‘absolutely good’,” will condemn the imperfect people he created to an eternity of infinite suffering if they were basically good people but chose to find salvation by some path other than Christ. OK. Best I don’t go further down this road of illogic or this blog entry will never end.
Rhodes then writes:
If the atheist persists and says there must be a better solution to the problem of evil, suggest a simple test. Give him about five minutes to formulate a solution to the problem of evil that (1) does not destroy human freedom, or (2) cause God to violate His nature (e.g., His attributes of absolute holiness, justice, and mercy) in some way. After five minutes, ask him what he came up with. Don’t expect much of an answer.
Let me get this straight – if I can’t think of a solution in 5 minutes then it is reasonable to conclude that an omniscient omnipotent and immortal being can never come up with a solution. Got it. As I stated above, this is not a serious argument against God in any case. But since Rhodes is throwing the challenge out there, I can think of some ways to drastically reduce human evil that should not violate anything. Human nature can be tweaked without violating any notion of free will (whatever that means, but that’s a different post). Perhaps humans can become a bit less tribal and blood thirsty, for example. Also, much crime and evil comes from desperate situations. How about a moratorium on natural disasters for awhile, and stop throwing new diseases at us. Anyway, that’s a good start. I’m sure given eternity an omniscient being might just have a few more ideas at their disposal.
Your goal, of course, is not simply to tear down the atheist’s belief system. After demonstrating some of the logical impossibilities of his claims, share with him some of the logical evidence for redemption in Jesus Christ, and the infinite benefits that it brings. Perhaps through your witness and prayers his faith in atheism will be overturned by a newfound faith in Christ.
Wow, this guy needs to get out more. I may suggest that it is a flawed strategy for the faithful to confront non-believers with logic. That is not a field of combat they wish to take – as evidenced by Rhode’s effort. Talk about bringing a pea-shooter to a gun fight.
To be clear, I have nothing against people of faith – as long as they keep their faith, faith. But “logical evidence for faith” is an oxymoron. Once you enter the arena of evidence or logic – prepare for a smackdown.