Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Folly of Atheism

I stumbled upon this blog post titled "The Folly of Atheism" via Twitter user @Cand_Apologetix. It only took a couple of paragraphs to pique my interest, particularly this passage:

Atheism is the belief system that believes God does not exist.This attempt fails because, well, no one can prove that God doesn't exist!!

Since no comments are allowed for this post, I couldn’t thoughtlessly blurt out the first snarky thing that popped into my head, which is probably a good thing. A more careful criticism follows.

The post has no byline, but the website apparently belongs to Travis Stockelman, so I’ll refer to the author as Travis from here on out. It appears that the website and the twitter account that led me there are related.

The website has a nice appearance, and the post appears nicely laid out in a sparse, formal argument style. There is such a difference from the style to the content that I’ve developed kind of a morbid fascination with how short the post content falls from the expectation that was set by the initial visual impression.

On the off chance that the author of this post ever sees my criticism here, I hope he’ll consider it a civil and fair one, and not just a wicked hatchet job. I’ll try to craft my comments as if I were a fellow amateur writer and rhetorician providing constructive criticism. Having said this, I must still be honest and say that the arguments Travis makes in this specific post have as many errors in them as you will ever find in any apologetic.


Travis opens with this:

Atheism is a very inconsistent belief system. In this post, I will address one of those inconsistencies.

...which tells you how he feels about atheism, but he never addresses atheism's "inconsistencies" further. After his introductory remarks, he presents two arguments and a conclusion that “positive atheism is impossible to defend”. Using words directly from his post, his arguments may be restated in the form of a single more general one containing a couple of propositions and a conclusion:
P1. No one in the world can declare that God does not exist.
P2. It is not difficult to show that God does exist.
C. It is impossible to make a positive case for atheism.
Before I get into the details, let me establish some common ground. I generally agree with the intention of Travis’ first argument (P1), but not because it makes sense. I think declaring the non-existence of something that is so poorly and fluidly defined as God is just pointless. I should probably say that "No one in the world should declare that God does not exist".

Approached a different way, the term “atheist” does not even exist without the prior existence of the root term “theist”. The term “theist” does not exist without the concept of God. Atheists don’t bring the concept of God into the world, theists do. If a person makes the proposition that God exists, there's no reason to assume they are speaking of a feature of the world until they can demonstrate - with facts and/or logic - that this proposition has actual existence in the real world. Therefore it is the responsibility of the theist to make a positive case for God before the atheist can even articulate a coherent opinion on the proposition.

Although atheists and skeptics like to say “you can’t prove a negative” in response to claims such as Travis’ P1. Philosopher Stepen Hale takes issue with that by claiming that you can prove a negative as well as you can prove anything. More on this later. We’ll see in the detailed analysis of P1 that Travis asserts total knowledge is required in order to claim God doesn’t exist. By the same token, total knowledge is required to claim that unicorns don’t exist, and Romulans, and Lrrr from Omicron Perseii 8. We can hypothetically assert anything and claim objectors cannot disprove the claim because total knowledge is required. This is clearly nonsense. Travis’ first argument does nothing to advance a positive case that God exists.

We will soon see that Travis’ second argument (P2) - that it is not difficult to show that God does exist - is a poorly worded version of the argument from design , which, when well-formed, only illustrates human perception of design. It doesn’t infer a designer is actually at work in the cosmos. It doesn’t infer that the designer is a person with free will. And it certainly doesn’t lead to a conclusion that God exists and implemented the perceived design.

I’m unsure how to make a high-level comment on Travis’ conclusion (C1) - that it is impossible to make a positive case for atheism - so i’ll defer to later. His two arguments (which I restated as P1 & P2) are incoherent and unsupported, respectively. They don’t contribute to the possibility of reaching a conclusion. At best, his argument should be trimmed to:
P1. It is not difficult to show that God does exist.
C1. It is possible to make a positive case for theism.
C2. Thus atheism is not warranted.
Let’s get going...

The Details

At the very top of Travis’s post, he prints the line “Scripture: Romans 11:33-36”. No link or citation was provided - so I opened up my trusty Blue Letter Bible to view the cited verses:

33 O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable [are] his judgments, and his ways past finding out!
34 For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?
35 Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?
36 For of him, and through him, and to him, [are] all things: to whom [be] glory for ever. Amen.

Travis doesn’t tell us how these verses contribute to his post. I’ll defer further comment about them unless and until I see a connection, except to say that it looks like a boilerplate “nobody knows the mind of God” disclaimer - which is frequently useful in apologetic texts.

Paragraph 1

He introduces the core of his thesis:

Atheism is perhaps the most difficult worldview to defend.

...which I’ll presume is an unfortunate rhetorical flourish, and not a straw man. Atheism is not a worldview, it is a claim about one thing in the world. Our pals at Merriam-Webster help us out:
1 archaic :  ungodliness, wickedness
2 a : a disbelief in the existence of deity
b : the doctrine that there is no deity
Ignoring the archaic usage of the word (because we’re modern), we can trivially reimagine these definitions as propositions that Travis could have addressed to make a more effective criticism. Thus reimagined, definition 2a makes a claim about a person having a belief about a single topic, while 2b makes a claim about a doctrine about a single topic in the real world. Arguing 2a) is pointless, just as it would be pointless to argue about whether Travis believes in a deity. I’ll accept without question that Travis believes theism. It’s an internal attitude or disposition whose existence alone is inscrutable to everyone but him. It doesn’t lend itself to arguing over. We can argue about whether the belief is rationally or evidentially supported, but that’s where definition 2b is more suitable - the doctrine that there is no deity. It makes a positive claim.

Still, Travis chooses to declare atheism as a “worldview” without telling us how he arrived at that definition, or what characteristics pertain. Since the features of this imagined worldview don’t appear to contribute in any way to the rest of his argument, I’ll reject his usage of worldview except for the following friendly note: Attempts to lump atheists into a single worldview are generally fruitless. One can believe that there is no deity and still believe that there are all sorts of things for which no present explanation exists. More specifically, I can imagine having any one of at least four attitudes about any single proposition in the world: pro, con, undecided, irrelevant. Multiply this times the number of features of the universe, and the number of possible non-believing worldviews is pretty large.

He further declares:

This is because atheism is full of contradictions.

We already indicated that Travis has overridden the term “atheism” with a definition of his own, so we can be reasonably sure that he is reading a lot more into it than is warranted. Without any way to know what his concept of atheism entails, we could simply declare this apologetic incoherent - we don’t know whether his conceptions match anything found in the real world. That wouldn’t be any fun though, so I think we can accept the dictionary definition 2b and try to salvage some of Travis’ work.

His claim of “contradictions” requires that two or more aspects of a belief system be in contradiction to each other. Since the doctrine “there is no deity“ contains only one proposition about the world, there is no possibility that it is in contradiction to itself. It adheres to the property of identity - it is equal to itself. It is not equal to something that it is not. If Travis were to say something like “the atheist worldview consists of propositions A, B and C. Propositions A & C are contradictory”, then he’d have a valid contradiction, but he never does that. Let’s dismiss this criticism that contradictions exist on the grounds that the possibility of contradiction cannot exist when dealing with an identity. He could have dispensed with that claim altogether without damaging the rest of his case.

Let me remind you that we’re still in the first introductory paragraph ... but wait, there’s more!

Wait, there’s more!

We’re up to the third sentence:

In their effort to avoid admitting the existence of God, atheists often put themselves in place of God

We mentioned previously that there’s no good reason to believe God exists, although if I convert to belief before the end of Travis’ essay, I’ll apologize for this apostasy profusely. Since there’s no good reason to admit the existence of god, avoiding admitting so makes perfect sense. It’s the second phrase in that sentence that deserves further examination. Grant his first premise for the sake of argument - “In their effort to avoid admitting the existence of God“ - how does he know “atheists often put themselves in place of God“? What does this mean? He doesn’t explain. No, atheists don’t put themselves in place of God because, as far as anyone can tell (you too, Travis) God has no material existence. We atheists, on the other hand, definitely exist. We don’t care to swap places just yet. Now, I suspect that what he means is that atheists somehow elevate or value themselves over this conjectural deity, the implication being that we, as a category, are flawed. But I won’t assume that just yet. We’ll see that he never elaborates on this either.

Paragraph 2

I’ll repeat the passage from the top of my post just to maintain literary flow:

Atheism is the belief system that believes God does not exist.This attempt fails because, well, no one can prove that God doesn't exist!!

I addressed the main problems with these two statements in reviewing the first paragraph, but let me slice this at a different angle. First, remember that atheism is not a “belief system” or worldview or what ever straw construction the apologist wants to make. It refers to a single proposition about the world.

The second sentence is worth closer examination. Assume someone comes up to you and claims they have a baseball in their pocket. You, being the savvy skeptic, reply that you doubt this, and ask for some reason to believe that your interlocutor has a baseball. They produce the baseball for your inspection. You’re convinced. The world is at peace. That is how claims are made and supported with evidence. In practice, a well reasoned and supported argument detailing that your interlocutor has a baseball would also suffice, but this example is so trivial that producing the baseball is easily done. The point is that rational humans don’t make claims about conjectural things not existing. There are - as I implied previously - an uncountable number of conjectural concepts that could be claimed, but for which no concrete existence can be rationally supported, let alone demonstrated. The burden of proof is on the claimant - the apologist. The non-believer bears no responsibility to disprove any conjecture offered by anyone, no matter how commonly people claim it. If the apologist offers evidence or reasons that a deity exists, then we have something to discuss, but not until then.


They can only hope (which is another inconsistency) and make excuses.

I’ll make a huge assumption here, and guess that this polemic line is directed at believers in order to paint atheists as inconsistent excuse-makers. Obviously this won’t impress an atheist. It may be that the point of this whole essay is to bolster the faith of believers, and not to convince non-believers that what he says is worth considering. If that’s the case, it’s not useful in the broader apologetic enterprise.

Still more:

In the end, the atheist ends up in a contradiction between the way he or she lives and what he or she says. This is one of the biggest problems for atheists.

I’ve read through the entire post several times, and haven’t seen anywhere that these two sentences are elaborated on or supported. This leads me to believe further that Travis is just casting atheists in a bad light for the benefit of believers. He doesn’t explain how “the atheist ends up in a contradiction between the way he or she lives and what he or she says“ - so claiming it is a problem at all is vacuous.

Paragraph 3

We finally get to the last paragraph in his introduction. It just tells you what arguments he’ll be presenting, and that he feels that they’re sound. I won’t belabor this, because I’ll have a closer look in the next post.


This critique is a lot longer than I expected it would be, because treating Travis’ post as a formal argument inclines me to treat every sentence as potentially crucial to his overall case. As I do so, I’ve found a lot to criticize, and I believe the criticisms are fair and deserved.

I’ll break here, and continue with his first argument in my next post.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On having faith

I don’t believe in God because there is no good reason to, but I **am** interested in the terms “faith” and “belief”, so I’d like to discuss them from an a-religious point of view.

I’ve personally never been approached with the claim that “even atheists have faith in something” - or whatever vague criticism is sometimes leveled at non-believers. Before I declare the common definitions that I’ll be working from, let me say that 1) non-believers are probably wrong to claim that faith and/or belief are stupid, illogical or otherwise untenable as epistemological frameworks; 2) some faith-like or belief-like approaches to living have to be used by everyone, so it’s stupid for a non-believer to claim otherwise.


Some definitions:


“Belief is a state of the mind, treated in various academic disciplines, especially philosophy and psychology, as well as traditional culture, in which a subject roughly regards a thing to be true.“


“Faith is confidence or trust in a person, thing, deity, view, or in the doctrines or teachings of a religion. It can also be defined as belief that is not based on proof,[1] as well as confidence based on some degree of warrant.[2][3] The word faith is often used as a synonym for hope,[4] trust,[5] or belief.[6]”

In both cases, the definition “regarding a thing to be true, possibly not based on proof“ seems to match how a non-believer (as I am) applies the terms.

Let me make my case: every time I need to drive somewhere, I have a reasonable expectation that my car will start, and that I’ll be able to drive wherever I need to go. This is based on 1) a general trust that auto manufacturers want cars to be reliable, thus encouraging repeat sales; 2) experience - it’s been several hundred times in a row since my belief in a functional car has failed me; 3) I generally try not to worry that I won’t be able to do what I plan to do. Otherwise, I’d be an emotional wreck. So - I use what might be termed “faith” as an attitude towards my car.

Shiny new car

What would undermine my faith in my car? Well, I bought it used, and for the first several months I owned it, it was a piece of shit. The idiot lights came on, the power steering failed, and eventually the entire electric system shut down. It took several months for the dealer to correct this, during which time I had - with good justification - no faith in this car. It took many months and hundreds of starts to get over the feeling that this piece of shit needed to be junked.

What am I saying?

I started out with faith that this car would work, it let me down and I lost faith, I got it fixed and my faith in it was slowly restored. It was a process, a human, physical process that took about a year.

Now, believers might say “that’s preposterous - faith in God is not like faith in a mere automobile - it's much more transcendent, sublime, meaningful - and the payoff is better!”. To this I say “no, it’s not”. Faith in some unseen entity deserves the same respect as a car does. It has to work. It has to have the properties and behaviors that I expect of it, and when it doesn’t, I need to adjust my expectations of it. And I have done so. God never appears in the universe. Theologians can’t give a clear, unambiguous reason why God would, could or should exist. The world looks exactly like it would if no intervening force were at work, and in the absence of good evidence or good reason to believe otherwise, it makes perfectly good sense to treat God like an automobile that has never and will never work.

It needs to be junked.


Creator God is Illogical

My Tuesday morning interwebzing spun me off into this brief reverie on the possibility of the existence of God. For this post, I’ll assume God is the “creator god” of the Cosmological Argument.

I’ve always assumed that I’m justified in stating that there is a non-zero probability that creator god exists. I assume this justification due to the limits of my knowledge, although I imagine the probability to be approaching zero - say 1 * 10-googolplex on any average partly cloudy Tuesday.

Here’s where creator god becomes untenable: in order to put him (her, it, etc) in a position capable of creating the universe, it's usually claimed to be (quoting Dr. Wm. Lane Craig) “beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful and intelligent“ - thus creator god must be understood to have an existence separate from this universe. That’s the key: creator god must first exist. So creator god does not create existence. Therefore creator god is not the greatest imaginable being - only a being capable of creating “creator god world” is. But then who created the creator of “creator god world” ... and so on? This has always been the criticism of assertions like “God created the universe” - they reduce to infinite regress, and require defending via special pleading or bare assertion. Illogical!


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Doesn’t it make you feel important?

H/T Deacon Duncan” - from 2007:

Doesn’t it make you feel important to know that the true meaning of life is that Almighty God is doing everything in His power to make sure that you ultimately end up happy for all eternity, and that everyone who opposes you ends up unhappy? Can atheists claim to have that kind of significant relationship with that kind of significant Other? You rule, Christian dude.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Attributes of God

Tracie Harris writes:

The attributes of my concept of X are only attributes of X if my concept of X aligns with X. Without the ability to compare my concept of X with X, I cannot call attributes of my concept of X “attributes of X.”

She was talking about the “attributes and effects of God” when she included that concise statement of the problem we all face when trying to argue about God: we can’t describe it so that everyone agrees about it. That leaves any discourse about it incomplete, or even counterproductive.

Jesus Camp

Of course, she’s also pointing out how the concept of universal God is impossible, given that we can’t describe it so that it can be verified as being God.

Commenter CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain (Great name!) suggests that most people don’t really believe - but believe that they believe.

What a convoluted way to be!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Free Will

Sam Harris appears in a video discussing his thoughts on Free Will. He believes we don’t have it, and gives calm reasonable arguments why we don’t.

Although I can’t argue against his thesis, most of us instinctively assume that we *do* have free will, that we can consciously choose to jump off the sofa and shout Jennifer Lawrence, be my queen“Jennifer Lawrence, be my queen” at any moment, and that this demonstrates our possession of free will. Having said this, but not having acted on it, kinda implies that I will jump off the sofa and shout “Jennifer Lawrence, be my queen” at some later time - which is probably true. So have I predetermined that I should do so?

What does this mean for the free will vs. determinism debate?

A Fundamental Problem with Arguments for God

Many arguments for the existence of God lack the warrant authorizing you to proceed from the premises to the conclusion that God exists. Take the Cosmological Argument, for example. You can assume that the premises are true (although this is frequently disputed, let's assume truth, for brevity's sake). You can then conclude that a First Cause exists.

That's all.

How an individual maps that First Cause to God is an entirely separate exercise that the assumption of a First Cause doesn't undertake at all.

You see this pattern over and over again - the leap of logic from First Cause (or a Designer, or a Greatest Possible Being, etc.) to the desired conclusion that "therefore God exists".

You and I see this pattern over and over.

Don't be afraid to point it out!