Sunday, September 11, 2016

Does One Need Evidence to Be an Atheist?

“[A]theism is just a statement of what an atheist doesn't believe rather than what he does believe” – Steve Hays
Over on Triablogue, Steve Hays posted an entry provocatively titled There’s no evidence for atheism. In it, he argues that atheists are essentially at a loss when it comes to producing a positive case for atheism, that the most they can do is raise objections to theism. One wonders if he has ever read George H. Smith’s book Atheism: The Case Against God. Of course, that raises the question of what constitutes a positive argument for a position. Then again, we should also not overlook the obvious fact that atheism is not a position to begin with; it is essentially a negation, a negation of theism. Sort of like a-Moonism: here “a-Moonist” would simply refer to someone who does not subscribe to the teachings of Sun Myung Moon. This does nothing to indicate which views to which an a-Moonist does subscribe. In fact, I’d wager that Steve Hays would consider himself an a-Moonist (in spite of Moonism’s Christian roots), just as I do given that I do not subscribe to the teachings of Sun Myung Moon.

So the question boils down to: Does one need a positive argument to support a negation of a belief system? Does one need evidence if he does not subscribe to a belief system? Do I need evidence to be an a-Moonist? If so, why?

I will make it very clear that I don't think I need evidence to be an a-Moonist. So why would I need evidence to be an atheist? I don’t think we need evidence for not believing things, especially if they are not self-evidently true. Neither Moonism nor Christianity is self-evidently true. On the contrary, at the very minimum I would need positive evidence in favor of Moonism or Christianity in order to believe either one.

When a commenter named “eric”challenged Hays’ post, pointing out that when there is an argument about the existence of something, the burden of proof rests on those who assert the positive – i.e., that the thing in question does actually exist. Hays responded to this in a comment of his own, stating:
So if someone says Abraham Lincoln didn't exist, the burden of proof is on the other side. If someone says the lunar landings never happened, the burden of proof is on the other side.
Hays referred to this sarcastically as a “dazzling command of logic.” But Hays takes much for granted here. For one, who is disputing the existence of Abraham Lincoln or the lunar landings and why? Is he saying “I’ve never heard of Abraham Lincoln” and therefore doesn’t already have the belief that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States? Is Hays worried that he could not produce sufficient evidence to prove that Abraham Lincoln actually existed?

Perhaps the dispute is murkier than this. For example, which Abraham Lincoln? Which lunar landings? Is he talking about the Abraham Lincoln who gave the Gettysburg Address, or the Abraham Lincoln who made a cameo appearance on an episode of Star Trek in 1969? Does he mean the Apollo 11 moon landing just weeks later, or does he mean the landing featured in the horror film Apollo 18? What specifically is under dispute needs to be clarified.

Moreover, the burden of proof really only enters the equation if your goal is to convince someone who disputes the conclusion in question. If someone tells me that the Abraham Lincoln who gave the Gettysburg Address at a soldier’s cemetery in Pennsylvania in November 1863 never existed, why would I bother arguing with him? Similarly with the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Indeed, the person who doubts these things may in fact be claiming that they’re merely a conspiracy hoax. Now he’s not simply lackng a belief in something (thus losing any resemblance of atheism as Hays himself has expressed it), he’s in fact asserting a positive, and that invites the burden of proof inasmuch as he wants to convince others not already convinced.

Hays takes even more for granted here. I lived in Thailand for four years, and this was an education in and of itself. There are many, many people there who have never heard of Abraham Lincoln. We take our knowledge of Abraham Lincoln very much for granted because it’s common knowledge; we’ve been taught about Abraham Lincoln since we were in grade school (well, we used to be anyway). But that’s not uniform around the world, so it’s not uniform among all thinkers. It would not be at all accurate to characterize a Thai rice farmer who’s never heard of Abraham Lincoln as a “doubter” of Lincoln’s existence. Rather, his reaction to our statements about someone named Abraham Lincoln would be more along the lines of, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” So why would the burden of proof be upon him to prove that Abraham Lincoln never existed? Blank out.

Now apply this lesson that we should be careful when taking for granted that what we believe is common knowledge to the topic of theism. Suppose in the morning I get a knock on the door by two people from a nearby church handing out tracts and telling me about their god. I listen and accept their track and thank them for their invitation, and they go their merry way. Then in the afternoon two more individuals come and knock on my door and tell me about their god. I see that the church listed on their tract is not the same as the church listed on the tract I got in the morning. So I would not presume that the two who came in the afternoon are getting the same religious indoctrination that the two who came in the morning have been swallowing. For all I know, they may be calling each other heretics behind closed doors. So why would I take it for granted that both parties are talking about the same god? I already know that believers imagine their god differently from one another. As Hays himself once put it, “an imagined Jesus is just an imaginary Jesus.” What believer does not imagine his god? Imagination plays a central role in all forms of god-belief. And how is anyone to know that any two believers imagine their respective gods the same way? I am too careful a thinker to casually presume that they do.

So how many gods am I supposed to disprove? If I finish disproving one god, am I then obliged to move on to disproving the next? And then the next? And so on and so on? I do not accept such a burden, regardless of who disapproves. Believers are going to have to just get over the fact that I have more important things to do. Moreover, I’ve already presented a summary case which knocks down all forms of god-belief in one fell swoop (see below). So if believers insist that the burden of proof is on me, I’ve more than met it.

Then again, how do I prove that I did not have lasagna for dinner last night? Suppose the theist has it in his mind that I did eat lasagna for dinner last night (perhaps he got this from some visions and dreams - he certainly did not discover this by means of reason), how am I going to prove to him that I didn't have lasagna for dinner last night? Why would the burden fall on my shoulders to prove the negative here? In a court of law, we are innocent until proven guilty. By the same token, if the theist cannot prove that I in fact have lasagna for dinner last night, then the doubt is entirely in my favor.

Even more fundamentally, as I argue in my blog entry Natural Born Atheists, each human being, given that he is born without any beliefs whatsoever, begins his life as an atheist, whether he realizes it or not. Each of us begins as an atheist just as each of us begins as an a-Moonist.

Of course, at birth, one does not realize that he is an atheist. He doesn’t realize anything. Not yet anyway. In fact, as he begins his long, arduous journey towards maturation, he will not realize that he is an atheist unless and until he discovers this explicitly (which is probably extremely rare), or unless and until it is in some way (often distorted for religious purposes) brought to his attention (at which point he may be urged to “convert” to some religious confession).

To counter this view, the theist essentially has no choice but to accept the burden to prove that people, at least those who are now theists, are born with beliefs, specifically theistic beliefs, already canned inside their otherwise utterly ignorant minds. Such a view would entail that, at birth (or even prior to birth), one’s mind would have no content (he hasn’t even learned how to form the most basic concepts yet) other than some form of theism, whatever shape that might take at this point in one’s life (for he certainly hasn’t yet learned that two plus two equals four or that scalding hot water can burn). What form of theism would that take? What specifically would that form of theism entail? How could one validate such a claim, given whatever answers may be assumed to these questions? Blank out.

So does a-Zeusism need evidence? Does a-Ahura Mazdaism need evidence? Does a-Geushism need evidence? Do I need evidence for not accepting Mormonism or Hinduism? Do I need evidence for rejecting Islam or Buddhism? Why does Christianity get a pass to special plead its case? Blank out.

Then again, I don't think apologists for Christianity really think atheists need evidence to be atheists, for they won’t accept any evidence atheists offer in justifying their rejection of theism in general or Christianity in particular. Rather, apologists treat the matter as though the atheist needs “an excuse” for not believing in the god they imagine, and they claim that there is no excuse for not believing in their god (cf. Rom. 1). But this ignores the fact that the very principle they assume in making such pronouncements is itself the only evidence one needs to confirm that atheism is the proper alternative to any mystical beliefs, including theism.

And that evidence is the primacy of existence: the recognition that the objects of consciousness exist independent of conscious activity, a recognition implicit in every act of awareness, which can only imply that the realm of existence is not a product of consciousness. In other words, the primacy of existence, a principle which must be assumed even in the act of denying it (see here), means (among other things) that the universe is not a product of conscious activity and therefore could not have been created by an act of will. That means the believer’s god is out of a job.

Indeed, no theist can produce any objective evidence supporting the notion that the universe was created by an act of will. The implications of the very concept of objectivity – i.e., the application of the primacy of existence to all spheres of knowledge – can only lead to a negation of theism. A theistic world is one which springs from an act of will, which essentially presumes that wishing makes it so. But one can’t get more subjective than this. As Christian apologist Paul Manata once confessed, "in theism, there’s a sense in which reality is subjective - based on the divine mind."

Of course, we can each imagine that the universe is the product of conscious activity, but the primacy of existence highlights the fundamental distinction between reality and imagination; a person can imagine or wish that the universe was created by an act of will, but the primacy of existence underscores the fact that wishing doesn’t make it so. So that's another dead end for the theistic cause.

Since theism assumes the metaphysics of wishing makes it so (cf. the cartoon universe premise of theism), theism in any variant, whether Christian, Muslim, Hebraic, animistic, Roman, Norse, etc., constitutes a fundamental contradiction to the primacy of existence. Anton Thorn has made the point that just to assert that theism is true, is to contradict oneself (see here). I have never seen a good refutation of this; I’ve seen some really bad attempts to refute it, but all too typically theists who seek to challenge Thorn’s argument do so without taking the time to grasp his argument’s basic premises. And once their faults are exposed, they run for the tall grass.

Evidence and excuses are not the same thing. Rational philosophy has evidence supporting it while theists continually look for excuses to evade that evidence and distort it to suit their theological agenda. In fact, that is the very purpose of religious apologetics: to supply the believer with an unending series of excuses for evading reason.

Sometimes apologists will play the numbers game: since so many people around the world adhere to some form of mysticism, my rejection of mysticism needs to be explained. Here they're essentially saying "How dare you think with your own mind!" Now, it is certainly true that mysticism of one sort or another has held wide currency throughout human history; reason and rational philosophy have been precious rare commodities in the marketplace of worldviews. But in fact I have explained my rejection of mysticism, and I have been explaining it for well over a decade right here on this blog. And yet, apologists still say that I am “without excuse,” even though they ignore both my explanation as well as the fact that I don’t need an excuse. Would one need an “excuse” for not believing in Zoroastrianism or for not declaring allegiance to Almighty Blarko? I don’t think so. Do I need an “excuse” to breathe? Christians apparently think I do.

Hays writes:
The debate between atheism and Christian theism has such a stereotypical form that it's easy to overlook the radical disparity: when you think about it, there is no positive evidence for atheism. The case for atheism boils down to an argument from silence.
For one thing, there doesn’t seem to be much of a debate here. Pitting Christianity against “atheism” is simply a pointless distraction. It overlooks the fact that atheism is not a worldview. Hays has admitted this very point, and yet he continues to run with this false equivalency.

How about a debate between Objectivism and Christianity? How about a debate between the primacy of existence and the primacy of consciousness? How about a debate between truth and fantasy? How about a debate between reason and faith? How about a debate between objective morality and theistic ethics? How about a debate between authentic virtue and pious pretense? Let’s match positive against positive.

But typically theistic apologists don’t seek to engage such debates because it would be obvious from the very beginning that they’re on the losing side. They prefer to debate against “atheism” because that allows them to speak for their opponent’s side, to fill in all sorts of blanks that they can skewer with their premeditated jabs. It’s like spending one’s time digging holes and filling them back up again. It accomplishes nothing.

What Christian out there is willing to pit his Christianity against rational philosophy? By its nature, rational philosophy is atheistic in that not only does it not adhere to any form of theism, it in fact rules out theism as necessarily irrational given theism’s inherent assumption of the primacy of consciousness metaphysics. So a debate between Christianity and rational philosophy, albeit not an even match by any means, is certainly more appropriate than a debate between Christianity and atheism, given that it would be a debate between one position against another (as opposed to a position versus a negation). Unlike atheism, both Christianity and rational philosophy are affirmatively informed worldviews. To pit Christianity against atheism is like pitting foul language to a deaf man, while to pit Christianity against rational philosophy is like pitting a child’s belief in imaginary friends against the maturity of a full-grown adult. Hence we don’t see Christians engaging such debate very often.

But I suspect there are some deeper reasons for theistic apologists preferring to spar with atheism rather than with developed philosophical positions. Many significant matters are obscured by pitting Christianity against atheism as such, matters which are definitely worth exploring but which Christianity will never be able to challenge. For instance, the antithesis between reason and mysticism (cf. “faith”), the epistemological implications of the fundamental distinction between reality and imagination, the incompatibility between objectivity and subjectivism, etc. But all of this can be reduced to an antithesis between two opposed approaches to one’s fundamental starting point.

In any debate with a Christian, both sides need to discuss their respective starting points. What is their starting point? To what does it refer? By what means are they aware of it? How does it serve to anchor their worldview? Is their worldview entirely consistent with what their starting point identifies and the implications it has for thought? How does either position address the relationship between consciousness and its objects? Or does it? Etc. Etc. These questions are just the beginning of a long journey.

But it needs to be emphasized that atheism as such is not a primary. Atheism is not a starting point. We do not begin by negating. Rather, we begin by perceiving and identifying in positive terms what we perceive. Moreover, the very concept of atheism is not relevant unless and until the question of theism is raised, and such a question is not fundamental, even though Christians like to pretend that it is fundamental. It cannot be fundamental because even if one wants to believe that there’s a supernatural consciousness, it is not something one directly perceives; at best, it is something that one must infer from other things one is aware of. All theistic arguments work precisely this way – to trace a chain of inference from some known or alleged set of circumstances to a conclusion declaring “Therefore, God exists.” For example, the cosmological argument – it does not begin by declaring “God exists” in premise 1; rather, it seeks to infer the existence of a god by first making the case that the universe is “contingent” in some way, that the universe needs to be explained by positing something outside it which is allegedly responsible for “creating” it (cf. here). Of course, what’s typically left unexplained in such arguments is any detailed discussion (let alone presentation of actual evidence) of how consciousness can create matter. Sounds like a nifty trick. But we should all admit that we have no alternative but to look inward, into the pliant putty of our imagination, to find such things.

Moreover, Christianity as such, with its endless doctrines, qualifications, creeds, synods, confessionals, interpretative schemes, etc., is not a primary. If it were, there would be no such thing as seminaries, let alone denominational splits. So even the believer cannot outrun the need to identify and explain his starting point.

This is not to say that the proper starting point is in some way "neutral" to either. On the contrary, since the proper starting point will always be on the side of reality, it will never allow a thinker to blur the distinction between reality and imagination and incline him to retreating into fantasy as a substitute for facts. So indeed, the proper starting point – namely the axioms of existence, consciousness and identity and the primacy of existence – are very much pro-fact. That’s not neutral by any means. Unfortunately for believers, this means that the proper starting point can only imply atheism. But as this is apparently lost on most thinkers, I am happy to explain and defend this point.

Hays writes:
Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with an argument from silence, but that's a very vulnerable argument.
It is certainly not vulnerable when pitted against theism. An argument from silence in this case, i.e., one which draws attention consistently to the absence of evidence for theism, is so rock-solid that it’s essentially boring.

Hays writes:
Atheists don't really present any positive evidence for atheism; rather, they argue against theism.
Hays is clearly operating on the assumption that atheism needs some kind of justification. But where is his argument for this assumption? If, as Hays himself has conceded, “atheism is just a statement of what an atheist doesn't believe rather than what he does believe,” there is no positive assertion informing atheism that needs to be supported with positive evidence. Again, what positive evidence does one need for a-Moonism? Is Hays going around saying “A-Moonists don’t really present any positive evidence for a-Moonism; rather, they just argue against Moonism”? Not that I’ve seen. Why does a-Moonism get a special pass in Hays’ apologetic calculus?

Again, what kind of evidence does one need to produce in order to justify his lack of belief in some claim or set of claims? And, what kind of evidence would Hays accept?

I must emphasize here: Hays’ judgment on these matters is, well, hazy. Consider another example: If I don’t believe in “global warming” or “climate change,” why do I need to “justify” this? And to whose satisfaction am I expected to try justifying it? The climate alarmists, like Christian apologists, can try their best to ridicule and intimidate me, but it won’t work. Not on me anyway. They need an argument. And the more they try to use intimidation tactics, the more they confirm that they have no tenable arguments for their hysteria. Go ahead, call me stupid and make fun of my nose. I’ve heard it all already.

What atheists can do is argue positively for their philosophical position (as I have done) and also show how theism is irrational (as I have also done). If theism is irrational, the rational thing to do is to reject theism. Hence, atheism is philosophically vindicated. This is best done at the fundamental level, by demonstrating how theism negates itself by performatively assuming the primacy of existence (which occurs in the very act of asserting theism is true – the believer is not saying that theism is true because he wants it to be true or because it makes him feel warm and fuzzy inside, but that it accurately reflects what is actually the case) while asserting the primacy of consciousness (i.e., divine creation, wishing makes it so, miracles, prayer, faith, dreams and visions, positing things that we can only imagine, etc.). The theist makes unwitting use of the very principle his theism in principle denies. It’s a self-contradiction at the very starting point of knowledge, short-circuiting everything that is built atop it.

Of course, Hays’ own complaint can be turned against his position: What argument types does theism have in its favor which do not in the final analysis reduce to an argument from ignorance? How about the cosmological argument? It essentially states: “I don’t know where the universe came from, so it must have come from an act of supernatural consciousness!” It seeks to infer the existence of a god from a vacuum of ignorance. Or consider the design argument: “I don’t know how the universe could be so orderly, so it must have been designed by a supernatural consciousness!” Or the argument from first cause: “I don’t know how reality could have gotten started without a first cause, so things must have been started by a supernatural consciousness!” Or the argument from morality: “I haven’t the foggiest idea where moral norms could have come, so they must have come from a supernatural consciousness!”

William Lane Craig is supposed to be one of the best Christian apologists out there. But I’ve already run through his arguments and found them sorely wanting, let alone convincing. See the following:
Got anything better?

Bring it on.

Hays asserts:
The case for atheism boils down to the alleged lack of evidence for an interventionist God.
This statement only suggests that Hays is satisfied to keep matters as superficial as possible, or that he’s satisfied with exposing himself only to the lowest-hanging fruit. He apparently does not grasp the fact that thinkers can probe these matters from an understanding informed by the primacy of existence, the awareness of the fundamental distinction between reality and imagination, the recognition that the task of consciousness is not to create its own objects (cf. metaphysical subjectivism, e.g., a supernatural being wished the universe into being), but to perceive and identify the objects to which it is exposed.

Pointing out the facts that the very notion of a god is as self-contradictory as the notion of square circles, that theism requires us to blur the fundamental distinction between reality and imagination, and that one performatively contradicts himself just in asserting that theism is true, is not the same thing as simply saying “Gee, I see no evidence for an interventionist God!” To say “I see no evidence for an interventionist God,” while true, does not explain why theism is false and irrational. But these approaches that I have identified and defended, do.

Hays gives an example:
Claiming that we can explain the origin of the universe naturalistically.
Actually, my view is that the notion of “the origin of the universe” as such is conceptually misguided. I do not claim to be able to “explain the origin of the universe naturalistically” because I don’t think the universe originated in something else to begin with. The universe is the sum totality of all that exists. Existence exists. I begin with existence, not with non-existence, and certainly not with a consciousness which wishes existence into existence. The existence of one thing implies the existence of a totality, whether that totality consists only of that one thing, or of countless other things in addition to it. Hence, the existence of one thing implies the universe in all perpetuity. Moreover, since time presuppose existence, there is no such thing as a time when nothing existed. Similarly with causation: since causation presupposes existence, existence as such cannot be the product or effect of some prior cause. Such notions commit the fallacy of the stolen concept.

And another example:
We can explain the origin of life naturalistically.
This is actually not a philosophical issue, but a scientific issue. Exploring the question of how life came into being requires specialized knowledge that is only available through science (i.e., the systematic application of reason to some specialized area of study). I wouldn’t even say it’s a given that life did “come into existence” – that would assume that at one time, there was no life at all. But how would one go about proving that? Isn’t that essentially an attempt to prove a negative? It may be the case that at some point in the distant past, there was no life. If this is something that we can in fact discover, it would have to be through reason, not through the mysticism dreams, visions and magic spells.

And yet another:
We can explain every illness and recovery naturalistically.
If the witch doctor can provide objective evidence that some or all illnesses and recoveries are caused by an invisible magic being, then let’s get it on the table and examine it. Let’s begin with a cure of my ailing vision (see below). But the witch doctor should be prepared for those occasions when thinkers are simply not persuaded by hearsay or claims which do not reliably take into account the fundamental distinction between what’s real and what’s merely imaginary. I for one will not be intimidated into abandoning reason.

Hays writes:
Or take the claim that answers to prayer are random.
Prayer is by its nature multipurpose. Its primary purpose is to provide religionists with yet another means of staying confessionally invested in their religious program. In this respect, it is similar to a child holding conversations with an imaginary friend. Part of this is due to the fact that prayer serves to bring about certain psychological dispositions required of religious devotion, and also to the fact that it fortifies the adherent’s emotional commitment to his religious confession. The more he prays, the less likely he will be inclined to admit that prayer has no practical use; rather, his impressions of the world, enhanced as they are by his practice of praying, make the world seem different, when in fact it’s the same world it’s always been. In this way prayer is a powerful means of self-illusion. (For an instructive example, see here.)

But the very notion of “answers to prayer” implies the type of supplication consisting of requests for divine favor. There are many instances in the New Testament of Jesus making the promise of effectual prayer (see here). The resemblance to leftist politicians offering free goodies for votes is indeed poignant. But like college dropouts with massive student debt, believers are in for a big letdown when it comes to delivery: believers can pray for all kinds of things, but what they pray for and what they get are two different things. This of course can be tested, but believers are very creative at coming up with ways to explain away prayer’s abysmal failure rate. This is what Hays has called “the problem of unanswered prayer.” When a visitor to Hays’ blog entry compared Hay’s explanation for the failure rate of prayer to explanations for the failure rate of “rubbing a rabbit’s foot to magically influence a future event,” noting that the latter “leaves behind the same amount of evidence that the asked for event and petitioned entity are causally connected,” Hays threatens the visitor with deletion. “Off with you, ye wicked!”

Must have hit a sore spot.

It might be fruitful to compare the strike ratio of the efficacy of Christian prayer with that of prayer in other religions. Consider the efficacy of Mormon prayer, the efficacy of Islamic prayer, the efficacy of Sikh prayer, the efficacy of animistic prayer. Or, how about different methods of praying – e.g., praying while kneeling vs. praying while standing; praying while fondling prayer beads vs. praying while massaging someone’s feet; prayer while sitting cross-legged on a rug vs. praying while sitting on a horse; prayer while hang-gliding vs. prayer while showering. How about comparing the efficacy of prayers made by Islamist jihadis before a suicide mission vs. the efficacy of prayers before a Presbyterian congregation as church service is coming to a close. The possibilities seem endless, but I don’t think I’d be surprised if the outcomes of such studies were fairly uniform.

Then again, believers have told me that prayer is always answered, only that sometimes the answer is “No.” But according to Hays (see here), this regularity only serves to trivialize prayer.

Some years ago, believers were challenged to pray for my ailing eyesight (see here). But each year my vision seems to get worse and my prescription for corrective lenses needs to be strengthened. Can it be that either believers are hesitant to take up this challenge (and thus invite yet another opportunity for prayer failure), or they have prayed and the opposite of what they’ve prayed for has been the result? Neither option bodes well for the reputation of prayer.

Suppose fifty believers pray each day for a whole year for my vision to improve to 20/20. That’s 18,250 prayers for my vision to improve. But instead at the end of that year, my vision actually got worse. For the second year, those same fifty believers continue to pray once per day, but also decide to fast once a week as well. At the end of the second year, my vision has gotten even worse. What should they do? Perhaps for the third year they should continue to pray every day, fast every week, and slaughter a goat every month.

If after all this effort, my vision continues to get worse, let alone improve even slightly, should we not question the efficacy of prayer? The believer, of course, having invested his hopes in prayer as a type of magic spell which supposedly has the power to alter reality, is likely going to insist that his god is real, that prayer does work, etc.

Hays continues:
Likewise, the argument from evil is an appeal to randomness. The distribution of weal and woe seems to be random. By the same token, mass extinction seems to be random. What species survive or perish seems to be random.
If we had to attribute evil to supernatural forces, then epistemologically speaking, we would have no alternative to thinking of evil as random, given that the will of supernatural beings would, as Alvin Plantinga might put it, “inscrutable.”

But I don't hold the view that evil should be attributed to supernatural forces. Reality is not a Hollywood thriller.

Hays writes:
Some atheists allege that biological organisms exhibit design flaws. Suboptimal adaptations. That allegation is refutable on different grounds, but in any event, it's not a positive argument for atheism.
I strongly doubt that citing “design flaws” is intended to stand as “a positive argument for atheism” in the first place. Where has anyone argued “biological organisms exhibit design flaws, therefore atheism”? Rather, I’d think – and I’m just guessing here – that such points are raised in objection to the notion that biological organisms were designed by a perfect designer. A designer that designs things with imperfections could not rightly be considered a perfect designer; he might be very good at times, but we shan’t distort the meaning of “perfect” to include obvious blunders and oversights.

If theists are going to champion certain theistic arguments, such as the design argument, they should have the intelligence to recognize when those arguments have been summarily undermined. Otherwise they reduce argumentation to a mere act of faith.

Hays writes:
Some ambitious atheists say the existence of God is not merely improbable but impossible: the very idea of God is incoherent (e.g. "paradoxes of omnipotence"). That generally depends on arbitrary, stimulative definitions of the divine attributes, or dubious postulates about a best possible world. And in any event, that's not a positive argument for atheism.
Do arguments for the conclusion that “the very idea of God is incoherent” or that “the existence of God is… impossible” in fact “depend… on arbitrary, stimulative [?] definitions of the divine attributes, or dubious postulates about a best possible world”? There may be some which do, but none that I’d enthusiastically endorse. Rather, I think there are some rather straightforward ways to explore this.

For one thing, one can quite easily argue the point that the very notion of “divine attributes” is itself arbitrary and without factual basis. Consider what “the very idea of God” typically entails. It is supposed to entail the notion of a bodiless consciousness – a consciousness without biology, without physical structures, without a brain or nervous system, without sense organs, without inherent purpose, etc. It can see, but it has no eyes; it can hear, but it has no ears; it can speak, but it has no mouth, etc. Of course, right off the bat such a notion denies the biological nature of consciousness as such. But what evidence could possibly support such an overt, arbitrary denial? Of course, lacking any evidence whatsoever of such a phenomenon does not prevent anyone from imagining a bodiless consciousness and attributing to it all kinds of spectacular powers, powers that are just as imaginary. The problem is that reality and imagination are not one and the same. And unfortunately, theists fail miserably when it comes to demonstrating a reliable means of distinguishing between what they call “God” and what they have merely been imagining all along.

Hays writes:
Many atheists find the Bible is morally repugnant. Of course, many atheists reject moral realism. In any event, that's not a positive argument for atheism.
The sad part about the bible and morality is that the bible presents no consistent, systematic analysis of morality (one cannot even find the word ‘morality’ in any of its pages), leaves much to interpretation (which invites apologists to borrow from non-biblical sources to inform what they take biblical teachings to mean), and frequently undercuts morality given its deterministic portrayal of man as a mere puppet imbued with moral qualities he never chose (e.g., born into sin, unearned guilt, innate depravity, etc.) and pushed to and fro by supernatural forces against his will. Where there is no choice involved, there is no place for morality. But the primitives who wrote the bible never seem to grasp this fact, because their vague, unsystematic and two-dimensional conception of morality, premised as it is on the metaphysics of wishing makes it so, cannot consistently take into account the volitional nature of man’s consciousness. Hence it not only fails to inform its moral prescriptions with rational principles, it makes reason essentially impossible for man.

Hays writes:
If you go down the list, atheists don't offer any evidence for atheism except in the roundabout sense that if there's no evidence for God, then atheism wins by default.
I guess I just don’t see what the problem with this is supposed to be. If someone claims that he has an invisible dragon living in his garage, and yet can produce no evidence whatsoever for it, should utter gullibility be the default? How much value is one allowed to put on the integrity of his own mind and its content in Hays’ worldview?

As one philosopher I know once put it, belief takes up space in the mind. We are not born with these beliefs in our minds. We form beliefs as we go through life. But a wise individual will discriminate between what is acceptable content (e.g., it is rationally supported, it is consistent with itself, it does not contradict previously validated content, etc.) from what is not acceptable. If a thinker finds that certain claims cannot be qualified as belonging to the acceptable category, the default is not to accept it as legitimate knowledge.

Given this, if an individual considers theistic claims, examines arguments presented in support of those claims, and finds in spite of those arguments that those claims still cannot qualify as acceptable content, then apologists like Hays should just get over this. Not everyone is going to buy into what Steve Hays has enshrined in his imagination. But if the theist wants evidence for atheism, we’ve got more than one could wish for: The evidence for atheism is that theism is irrational and consequently not acceptable as legitimate knowledge of reality. The only rational response to theistic claims, then, must include atheism.

Hays writes:
In some respects, the argument for atheism is decidedly odd.
This is like saying “In some respects, the argument for non-belief in square circles is decidedly odd.” That would just raise the question, “Who decided that this is odd?” Of course, we are human beings – we adapt to odd things quickly. Consider how odd the internet was when it was first coming onto the scene – it seemed quite odd to me at least. But I quickly adapted.

Again, Hays uses modifiers (“odd”) when he needs an argument.

Hays asks:
Once again, take the argument from evil. How does evil undercut Christian theism? After all, Christian theism is predicated on the existence of evil, so how can evil be inconsistent with Christian theism? It's not the presence of evil, but the absence of evil, that would falsify Christian theism. At best, the argument from evil might undercut "mere theism" or philosophical theism.
But not the anti-philosophical theism of Christianity. Got it.

I have, more and more, come to view the argument from evil a kind of watershed issue in terms of one’s moral character. Believers defend their theism against the argument from evil by demonstrating that their worldview has no problem with evil. Hays’ statement that “Christian theism is predicated on the existence of evil” only confirms this. One certainly does not need to press the argument from evil to vindicate his rejection of theism; the argument from existence is more than sufficient for this purpose. But when believers defend the existence of evil as such, as Hays’ remarks here clearly exemplify, they reveal the character of their worldview, of the god they enshrine in their imaginations, and of their own souls: they are essentially championing excuses for the existence of evil. Of course! Their god is pleased to use evil as a means to further its own ends, whatever they might happen to be. And the believer is encouraged, not to question the immoral implications of such a doctrine, but to insist that his god is all-good and consign the matter to “mystery.” As John Frame writes:
Is there an answer to the problem [of evil]? That depends on what you mean by an answer. If you are seeking an explanation that will vindicate God’s providence in every instance of evil, I certainly cannot supply that, and I doubt if anyone else can, either. Nor, I think, can we supply a totally satisfying theoretical reconciliation between divine sovereignty, goodness, and evil. The mystery of God’s relation to evil is one that will, I am convinced, never be completely dissolved in this life, and I am not sure whether it will be in the next. (Apologetics to the Glory of God, pp. 150-151)
Hays complains:
By the same token, how can the argument from evil disprove or even undercut biblical theism when biblical theism grants the existence of evil? It's not as if the Bible depicts a utopian world. The Bible is a chronicle of evil.
It takes a religiously induced, confessionally invested mindset to posit an all-good, perfect creator whose creation is full of evil and imperfections, and see no problem with it, only then to assert that a perfectly moral being “has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists” (Bahnsen, Always Ready, p. 172). It’s on the same level as a highly placed government official skirting laws and codes, creating her own private email server, claiming she has turned over “everything,” and yet when confronted with the fact that thousands of items had in fact not been turned over, she goes on as if nothing were amiss.

Hays believes:
So there really is no direct evidence for atheism.
Similarly, the square-circlist could just as easily claim that there’s no direct evidence for a-square-circlism. So what?

Let us ask: What evidence is there for the primacy of consciousness metaphysics? What evidence is there that wishing makes it so? What evidence is there that the universe is a product of conscious activity? What evidence is there that consciousness can exist apart from biological structures? What evidence is there that conscious activity such as wishing and commanding can alter reality, revise the nature of objects, or bend facts? Without evidence that such things are possible, and in fact the consistent, absolute and exceptionless evidence is that consciousness cannot create matter or alter the identity of its objects (cf. objectivity), what is there to debate here?

Hays continues:
By contrast, Christian scholars and philosophers marshall reams of evidence for Christianity.
Where do these scholars and philosophers square their god-beliefs with the primacy of existence, a principle which they cannot help but assume, even if only implicitly, but which cannot support the notion of a supernatural consciousness that creates its own objects by sheer wishing and “controls whatsoever comes to pass” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 160)? Of course, they cannot. Neither can Muslim scholars on behalf of Islam. Neither can Mormon scholars on behalf of Mormonism. But this impasse does not serve as a barrier to imagining these things.

Hays adds:
And it's important to keep our eye on the burden of proof.
Agreed. If, for example, someone claims that the universe is a product of conscious activity (cf. wishing makes it so), the burden of proof is all his. Where’s the proof? Blank out.

Hays argues:
If the case for atheism is an argument from silence, then it takes next to nothing to overthrow it.
The argument from existence is not an argument from silence. Rather, it is an argument from fundamental principles which thinkers must implicitly assume just in denying them. And yet the argument from existence constitutes incontrovertible evidence for atheism.

Hays concludes:
Suppose 99% of the ostensible evidence for an interventionist God is naturally explicable. If just 1% (indeed, even less than 1%) gets through, then atheism is false. Atheism can't permit a single counterexample to slip through its sieve.
Here’s the problem that Hays fails to address: Suppose the theist says there’s X amount of evidence for the existence and activity of his god. Can he explain how a rational thinker can reliably distinguish between what he calls “God” and what he may merely be imagining? How does the believer himself do this? Or, does he?

Also, what is the basic ontological nature of what is being proposed as evidence for the god in question? For example, is that evidence material, natural, finite and corruptible? If so, how could this serve as evidence of something that is supposedly immaterial, supernatural, infinite and incorruptible? How does X serve as evidence of something that is explicitly non-X?

We can explore this from another angle, given the claim that there’s all this evidence for the Christian god. Since the Christian god is supposed to have created the universe by an act of consciousness, everything we find in the universe must have been created by an act of consciousness. But how can we discover and verify this by looking outward - i.e., by using rational methods? If I go into my backyard and pick up a pebble and look at it, what about that pebble tells me that it was created by an act of consciousness? What tells me that it is a product of conscious activity? Of course, I readily admit that I can imagine that the pebble was created by an act of consciousness. But I already know that what I imagine and what is actually the case are not one and the same; reality does not conform itself to what I imagine, what I wish, what I prefer, what I feel, what I dream, etc. So imagining is no substitute for rational inquiry.

Unfortunately, whenever I’ve posed this kind of question to religious apologists, I usually get more heat than light in response, often in the form of indignant anger: “How dare you ask such questions!” I realize that being confronted with facts may be quite upsetting for a person who’s confessionally invested in a false narrative or “noble lie,” but that’s just a sign that it’s well past the time for the believer to grow up.

by Dawson Bethrick


Jason mc said...

Great stuff. This is a really comprehensive treatment.

To briefly respond to the challenge that a negation needs to be supported by evidence, I'd note that non-existent entities don't leave evidence.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Or, as I've noted before, one does not have an onus to prove that the non-existent does not exist.

If anyone objects to this, let him take on the challenge to prove that a brolufizanc does not exist.


Unknown said...


I've read where you've stated that Communism (which is atheistic) is rooted in the primacy of consciousness. Can you explain?

Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

Just checking in to let you know that even though I'm still behind in my reading, I'm catching up slowly but surely. Thanks for the latest entry!


Anonymous said...
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ActionJackson864 said...

Ahoy Mateys!!!

Good to see this blog is still alive and kickn' serious irrational ass en masse!

Dawson, I have recently become active in a discussion on free will vs. determinism.

I should probably add that this is determinism ACCORDING TO PHYSICS.

It's an interesting discussion to say the least, well, at least to me it is. ; ]

I have sent you an email with a copy of the dialogue within this discussion.

I'd be delighted to hear any thoughts you have on this topic in general, as well as any feedback, thoughts, gripes, curse words, demonic spells, cathartic supernatural tantrums etc. on the copy of the discussion which is linked in the email I sent you.

Hope all is well with everyone.

Dawson, thank you for your continued blog marvels. : ]

ActionJackson864 said...

I suppose I should've warned you guys that my previous comment was off topic, but I'm sure you figured that out by now.

If anyone else is interested in reading or weighing in on the dialogue I'll be happy to send you a link.

I would also appreciate any effort to discuss it.

Later fellas...later ladies too if there are any in here.

Jason mc said...

Ahoy ahoy ActionJackson,

I'd be interested in this free will vs. determinism discussion. My own view has long been some sort of compatibilism or another.

I recall in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, he defines the distinction between voluntary and involuntary action in terms of whether the action is worthy of praise or blame, or if those sorts of evaluative judgements would be inappropriate. Does this sidestep the essential question, as it doesn't tackle the issue in terms of physics/metaphysics? It's entirely an ethical (or meta-ethical) consideration. I thought this could be an interesting way to dissolve the dilemma.

I think elsewhere in his works, he examines the metaphysical considerations...


Jason (my email's in my profile!)