An unexpected exchange resulted from a recent Facebook status I posted on the National Day of Prayer (May 7th). The response that followed led to an interesting, yet disappointingly short-lived, conversation with an old college friend (I changed his name for privacy). I’m not convinced this demonstrates the best method to “give a defense for the hope that is in us” (1 Pet 3:15) so I’m posting it more for the content than my diplomatic tact. While this conversation represents just one person, it does appear representative of what I believe many non-Christians consider to be “a lot of thinking.”
Me: Is anyone National Day of Prayer-ing?
Friend: Not me. But that's probably because I'm an atheist.
Me: Long time no speak, but leave it to Facebook, to bring old friends together. I had to ask about a comment you made this week. Did you say you're an atheist jokingly or is that your view?
Friend: No I really am an atheist. I went all the way from wanting to be a Lutheran pastor in high school to agnostic by the end of college, and now I'm a full fledged atheist. It wasn't really a choice for me. I just couldn't make religion fit with evolution and science. Sorry for the blunt comment but I'm not a fan of organized religion.
Me: For some reason, I remember talking to you about theology and philosophy back in college. You seemed to be a pretty deep thinker - more than some of the other guys anyway. Is this a sensitive issue or do you mind talking about it? I have loads of questions but don't want to be intrusive.
Friend: No I don't mind at all fire away with the questions. I've done a lot of thinking on this subject as well as reading/researching and don't mind a healthy dialogue. I'll try not to offend you but I really have no tolerance for organized religion regardless of faith. I'm way to far gone to be saved if that is your intention but otherwise I welcome the intrusion.
Me: Funny you should say that, Greg. Kelly calls me a "welcome intrusion" all the time. I figured you've done lots of thinking and that's what peaked my interest. Don't worry about offending me though. Either God exists or he doesn't so as long as we stick to the facts, evidence, and logic, I don't see what there is to be offended about. To be honest, I'm not a fan of religion myself. I'm not quite sure what you mean by "organized religion" but assume you're referring to a corporate system of scripted rituals and dogmatic guidelines for what the members of the group are told to believe and how to act. Regardless of what we think about them, we've all seen the benefits from religious institutions (hospitals, universities, orphanages, homeless shelters, AIDS outreach, feeding the poor, etc) but must also admit their failures (crusades, inquisition, war, corruption, sexual abuse, sexism, homophobia, hypocrisy, judgmentalism, intolerance, etc). But praising or condemning religion gets us nowhere and is irrelevant to a conversation on Theism vs. Atheism. Whether God exists or not has nothing to do with how religious people conduct their lives so don't worry about debating religion.
In answer to your second concern, I don't bring this up to try and convince you to believe like I do or to "save" you. I could be wrong that God exists or that Jesus rose from the dead. If I'm wrong I don't want to pretend it's true and my life would change immediately. Believing a lie would be a worthless and wasteful pursuit in my opinion and I certainly wouldn't want to try and sell the idea to others. But if God does exist, I think there's a whole lot at stake. So hopefully you and I both realize that while we may have our particular conclusions or desires regarding God's existence, the logical possibility exists that each one of us could be wrong and the truth exists independent of what anybody believes. In other words, let's just look at the evidence and see where it leads.
If you're still up for it, here's my first question: What reason(s) convinced you not only to reject the arguments for God's existence (agnosticism) but which positively show you that he must not exist (atheism)? Your turn.
Friend: The biggest thing that tells me that God does not exist is that there is no empirical evidence that he does, but for me that's just the tip of the iceberg so to speak. A lot of times people say that they felt the presence of God or that certain events have no other explanation other than God etc but I think they are searching for an easy answer or don't want to fathom that there are some events/phenomenon etc that we just haven't figured out yet or coincidence/happenstance just happens. When it's something positive a lot of people "Thank God" for taking care of them but when it's something negative there is no mention of God.
Another valid argument (I can't claim this for my own idea) is geography. The number one determinant of what religion/God someone follows is geography therefore in my opinion it is a culturally taught thing. Almost all monotheistic religions claim that their God is the one and only, he is omnipresent and all powerful so borders/geography should mean nothing. If I'm born in Pakistan the odds of me being Baptist are almost zero and if I'm born in Texas the odds of me being Zoroastrian are almost zero. Defies their own logic in my mind but wasn't much of an issue in times when people rarely got very far from their birthplace let alone left the continent they were from but almost all religious groups claim that if you're not submitting/following their god your destined to their version of hell. They can't all be right, that's a lot of people going to hell. You said that you are not a fan of religion yourself, please elaborate if you will.
Me: Cool, Greg. Nice quick response. I'll address your question first, and then comment on your thoughts.
I assumed your definition of religion as a corporate system of dogmatic rules and rituals because that's how I define it myself. As such, I don't think Christianity fits that definition very well - at least not when it's compared to the many religions of the world. Most religions rely on the kind of subjective "spiritual" experience you described earlier. They also are commonly based on texts that date hundreds of years after the proposed events took place beyond the lives of eye-witnesses. And finally, most religions have you suspend rationality to make the beliefs work. Christianity has none of these three characteristics.
While I think lots of churches have people who fall into that "religious" category of blindly going through the motions, I don't think that's how Jesus of Nazareth taught his followers to live. And it's certainly not in line with the Bible. So for me, it's not about religion as it is about what really happened in history. If the Bible is consistent with that reality, then Christianity is at least possible and atheism is proven false. Now, back to your comments on empiricism, subjectivism, and geography:
You're certainly not alone with your concern over empirical evidence. In this case, it actually works against both sides. If empiricism is required criteria, then atheism fails too since there is no empirical evidence to support God's non-existence either. Since you claim to be an atheist, empirical evidence shouldn't be a problem. The second thing is that empirical knowledge is just one among many ways we come to know things. That Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, George Washington was our first president, whether you're adopted or not, and that you had cereal for breakfast this morning are all things we can have knowledge about without having Shakespeare’s fingerprints, Washington's inauguration photos, parental DNA testing, or the contents of your stomach pumped. If we needed empirical evidence for every decision as we get through the day, we wouldn't get very far. Also, human consciousness, abstract principles like 2 + 2 = 4, laws of logic and science, language, and the color blue are immaterial and empirically undetectable. Yet we can know they exist. The Judeo-Christian God is infinitely non-complex and immaterial so trying to empirically prove something that's not empirical is sort of like trying to weigh a chicken with a yard stick. However, there are plenty of miracles to point to that would fit empirical data criteria, but they won't be convincing to anyone who presupposes miracles are impossible so I won't mention them here. But perhaps the biggest problem with the claim that you need empirical evidence to prove something is that you can't prove that statement empirically either. In other words, the statement "I can't believe anything that's not empirically verifiable" refutes itself because it cannot survive its own standard.
Here I sympathize with you with about the annoying way people claim God exists because of spiritual experiences they've had. If that's the extent of their evidence, that would not be very satisfying. However, someone can have no good reasons and still be right about something. So this objection has nothing to do with whether or not God exists so we can set it aside for now.
I see what you mean here. If you and I were raised in a remote region of Turjekistan we might not be having this conversation and simply be convinced by the culture around us. Also, the people living in ancient China may have never heard of Christ before they died. And other religions claim to be correct as well so why do we think ours is the only right answer while everyone else burns in hell? These are interesting thoughts, but again, they don't help us with the existence of God question. I'm tempted to answer them now, but I want to get back to your reasons for atheism first. Conversations on theology can get sidetracked very easily so I've learned to try and stay on topic to keep things focused on the issue at hand. Besides, this email is getting long as it is so I'll wrap up now.
I certainly don't doubt your sincerity, Greg, but it doesn't seem like you can be atheist if those things you mentioned are really your reasons for your belief in the nonexistence of God. Did I misrepresent your views somewhere?
Me: (couple days go bye) Hello?...Greg?...Did you get my email
Friend: Yeah I got your email, but needed some time to think of an appropriate response rather than to just react. It's obvious to me that we both KNOW we're right and no amount of dialogue is going to change either one of our positions. I know that you believe what you profess with all your heart. To be candid I don't think either one of us is very open to the others point of view, but if you'd like to share why you're convinced of theism, I'll entertain you. I'll have to brush up on my atheist reading (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.) to help me poke holes in your theories. Maybe if I'm persistent enough I'll bring you to the dark side of logic, science and reason (yeah that was a jab).
How do you dismiss my geography and empirical evidence arguments so readily? I think this is a bias inherent in almost all religions that requires you to take a leap of faith for lack of a better term. This is probably the biggest disconnect between science and religion that I can think of. How do I prove something that doesn't exist really doesn't exist?
We know they [abstract principles like math, science, logic, science] exist because they are verifiable. If you get hit with a switch 2+2 times you can count 4 welts and if you can't there is a plausible explanation, maybe there was a overlap of 2 strikes so we only see 3 welts.
(responding to my claim that geography is irrelevant to whether God exists) I think that geography is the clearest illustration that God was created by man and not the other way around and is of substantial importance with the existence of God question. Why would there be different God's/religions dominating different regions of the world when most religions claim their God as infinite and omnipresent. The Christian God that is so merciful and compassionate is going to allow the majority of souls to go to eternal hell? Judaism teaches Jews that they are Gods chosen and they make up a remarkably small percentage of the worlds population.
Me: Hey Greg. I thought I scared you off, but am glad to see you wanted to be thoughtful about it rather than just a spontaneous reply.
I didn't mean to brush off your statements but wanted to get at the core issue about the existence question before exploring your complaints about Theism. Besides, I have a tendency of talking beyond the point people want to listen so have tried to scale back my emails. You bring up a couple new points so let me address the old ones first.
In the end, we may not convince each other, but why shut out that possibility at the very start? If we sincerely want to know the truth, and can admit our fallible humanity, there should be no reason to start off with a prejudiced refusal to honestly assess the evidence no matter what. Refusing to change beliefs regardless of the evidence smells like religious dogmatism. If someone really believes something, there should be reasons for it - not just a previously held commitment.
We can't choose our beliefs any more than we can change reality itself. Philosophers say we believe (I mean really believe) things only because we're convinced beyond a 50/50 probability they are a certain way. I wish I really had a million bucks in savings, but I can't simply choose to believe it no matter how hard I try. I don't have any justifiable reasons to believe it (certainly not even close to a 50.1% likelihood!). I'm not totally unbiased though, because I do hope God exists. I want there to be ultimate meaning, purpose, and morality in the world. But a psychological bias is different than an intellectual bias. I think everyone, regardless of their current belief, needs to maintain intellectual honesty if they want to learn the truth. But our desires have no bearing on whether God exists or not. Like my savings, I can't believe in him if there are no good reasons for it any more than I can believe anything that's unsupported. I can claim to believe in God (as many people do), but I wouldn't REALLY believe he exists unless I have good reasons for it. So if you're not interested in examining the reasons each of us have for our beliefs, I don't think it's worth going down that road. I've met plenty of dogmatic Atheists. Some good friends in fact. I appreciate your honesty, but if you are closed off about this, I'm not interested in being entertained by someone who has to remember what scholars wrote to find out what they believe. I haven't even given you an argument yet. So if you're serious, wait to hear one before you reject it. I think you'll understand my beliefs a little better if you do. Fair enough?
Regarding geography issue, I dismissed this as irrelevant because it is logically fallacious to refute an idea (existence of God) based solely on how a person came to know that idea (cultural conditioning). It's what logicians call the "genetic fallacy." You just can't refute someone solely based on how they came to know it. For instance, if we were raised in 7th century Europe, we might think the world was flat. Are you saying that the Earth is a sphere only because we are raised in 20th century America?
Consider this: What makes you think anyone can remain unaffected by their own geography. In other words, why doesn't your own theory apply to yourself? If you’re immune, I would suspect this might be another logical fallacy of "special pleading." If geography determines your religious view, perhaps we could say you are an atheist just because you were living in an area where you have freedom to analyze religions (USA), the ability to read (most western nations), and have availability of books written by atheist scholars (20th century). Why are you exempt from your argument about geographical influence?
You responded to my claim that math is non-empirical by using the example of welts to say that the number 3 can be physically seen on the skin of an injured arm. However, I was talking about the actual number, not objects of what that number describes. You may be able to see the objects (welts), but you can't see the number which is invisible. The number "3" exists outside of and before the welts occurred. Further, this is just an illustration, not an argument. Painting a picture of what you believe doesn't give any reasoning behind your belief. Lastly, the examples I gave of numbers, human consciousness, language, laws of logic and science are empirically unverifiable because you need to assume them before you even start your case. I believe you used every one of these things in your response so the obvious question is: how can you prove something exists by assuming that they already do? My point was simple, many things we have knowledge about are empirically unverifiable. Heck, even in when human life is on the line, we don't use empirical evidence. There is no such evidence for determining if abortion kills a person, whether or not someone should be executed, or whether a passenger should fly in a plane. I don't know about your field, but my entire profession (law enforcement) would be out of business if it used that line of thinking. In five years, I've never convicted anyone with empirical evidence. As you can see, the claim that knowledge requires empirical evidence is logically fallacious. That's why atheist scholars abandoned the idea in the 1950's.
You asked, "How do I prove something that doesn't exist really doesn't exist?"
Yeah, that is tough. In fact, this difficulty is why atheism is so rare and why I made the distinction in my original question to you. Agnostics are skeptics, whereas Atheists claim there are good reasons to believe no god exists. You don't need to prove there is no god just like I don't need to prove there is a god. All either of us has to do is show that it's more likely than not that our position is more reasonable. I assume you'll still go for a drive today without empirical proof you won't die in a crash. Empirical evidence is just not how we base most of our decisions so why rely on it here. All we can do is look to what is more probable based on the evidence.
You may be surprised to learn that God’s effects actually can be shown to exist empirically as you can find in the arguments of first-cause cosmology (Big Bang Theory and 2nd law of thermodynamics), design (irreducible and specific biological complexity), fine tuning (cosmological constants), and human consciousness (the mind). Just like quarks and other properties of quantum physics, we can empirically verify various known effects even though we can’t detect the cause. That doesn’t mean we assume the cause doesn’t exist. If empiricism is still your stopping point, maybe we should start there. I agree that this can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Scholars use this objection in terms of proving a “universal negative.” It may be hard, but it’s not impossible. In fact, earlier today a friend asked if I left a $20 bill in his car. After looking “everywhere” (the only place I keep cash is in my wallet), I reasonably concluded that I was missing a $20 bill. So even if I never had the $20 bill (it never existed), I was still able to show it wasn’t there. Therefore, the claim that it’s impossible to prove (beyond a reasonable probability) that a universal negative is false.
By the way, I noticed you didn't respond to the other problems with empirical evidence as the basis of all knowledge including that this view can't even support itself.
You also asked "Why would there be different God's/religions dominating different regions of the world when most religions claim their God as infinite and omnipresent." But I'm confused why this poses a problem for you. Don't you think all those people in regions dominated by various gods/religions are wrong? If so, I could ask you the same thing. If atheism is true, why are so many people believing false religions? As you can see what I said about beliefs abov, I don't think subjective beliefs correspond to or change reality. If I understand your objection here, I'm not sure where that takes us.
I understand your concern about hell. The doctrine of hell is a tough one both intellectually and emotionally. After all, how could anyone not have a problem with people suffering? But it actually backfires by it's reliance on percentages. The number of humans who walked the earth before Christ was exponentially small compared to those who have heard his name since then. Look on any world population chart and this becomes clear. Personally, hell is troubling not because of percentages but because it would still be horrific if just one person went to such a place. So the objection looses traction fast.
Additionally, the Bible makes it clear that God wishes for no one to be damned. Unfortunately, it's logically impossible for him to create truly free beings who are forced to accept him. This is part of why we have evil and suffering in the world here and now, not to mention the afterlife.
If you're really sincere about this issue think about it this way. If God didn't send anyone to hell would you believe in him then? I hope not. If there is a religion, and I'm sure there is, where a god sends everyone to paradise, would that be more believable?
You bring up a lot of questions but not many reasons for atheism. I think the questions promote a healthy discussion but there were so many I had to write a long reply. Sorry about that. In any event, I hope it helped clarify things a little.
Friend: …(no response after 2 weeks)