Thursday, March 11, 2010
Atheistic Incoherency Redux
Like I said: Incoherent.
Needless to say, there are some atheists who take issue with this claim. One such objector was the blogger David B., with whom I enjoyed an intriguing exchange. I won’t reproduce the entire exchange here (if you’re interested, read the comments attached to my post “Mutual of Omaha and the Marlin Perkins Theodicy,”) but I think there are portions worth highlighting.
His first objection: “Loving fathers don’t starve their children to death if they can avoid it.” Applying this objection to God, we get: “A loving God doesn’t starve His creatures to death if He can avoid it.” Look familiar? It should. It’s the “God isn’t as nice as He should be” argument yet once again. This sort of argument pops up so frequently, you’d think this is the only weapon in the atheist’s arsenal. And, most likely, you’d be right.
What intrigues me all the more, though, is the atheist’s propensity for making unwarranted assumptions in order to support his assertions. Here there are at least three. Can you spot them? I’ll give you a moment.
[Theme from “Jeopardy” plays here.]
Finished? Good. Let’s compare notes.
The first is that when one of God’s creatures starves to death, God is the One causing the starvation. But we have to ask ourselves: Is it that He actively starves His creature to death or that He passively allows His creature to starve to death? Or is there any reason for supposing God should be involved at all? Perhaps starvation is merely a logical necessity, born from the fact that there is a practical limit to the availability of foodstuffs, and that this availability is not uniform.
And perhaps it is not God who is to blame for allowing someone to starve to death, but ourselves. As compelling as the image of a victim of starvation may be, the vast majority of us do absolutely nothing about it; we merely mutter “Oh, isn’t that a shame?” or some such platitude and go on our merry way. We see the ads on television virtually every day: Just thirty cents a day to save the life of a suffering child. Yet—and be honest—do you call the 800-number on the screen and send a donation? Do you even know anyone who does?
The second assumption is the qualifier: “If He can avoid it.” This begs the question: How do we know what God can and can’t avoid?
The answer that springs to mind is that if we define God as an omnipotent being, then there’s nothing he can’t do. But does it necessarily follow that because of God’s omnipotence that when one of His creatures starves to death this is something He could have avoided? To avoid is to take steps to eschew the results of a certain sequence of events. Inasmuch as taking the steps or not taking the steps is a matter of volition, the avoidance of the creature’s starvation is then simply a matter of God’s choice. Whatever reasons God may have to choose to avoid or not to avoid, these are not self-evident, and so are known only to Him. To know what reasons God has in mind to avoid or not to avoid the death-by-starvation of one of His creatures is therefore to know the mind of God, which—unless He actually tells us what is on His mind—is something no one can do, atheist or theist. The only way of knowing for certain what God had in mind when one of His creatures starves to death is if He descends from Heaven and says something like, “Yeah, I could have avoided the guy’s starvation, but I didn’t like him very much, so to heck with him.” This would satisfy David’s objection, but it would also kind of toss his whole “there’s no God” thing right out the window. Talk about your Pyrrhic victories!
Okay, so what’s the third assumption? That death by starvation is a bad thing (that is, an unloving one, and hence a bad one). This assumption is less obvious than the first two, but at its base it’s still an assumption because it’s a claim that is made without any effort expended to show how the claim is valid.
Is starving to death objectively bad? Unpleasant, doubtlessly, since having gone hungry a time or two myself, I have an idea what starvation is like (once, for instance, I fasted for forty days; a thoroughly unpleasant experience, I assure you); further, we need only look into the eyes of some emaciated, swollen-bellied victim of starvation to understand the experience is agonizing.
But are we to argue that what makes starvation bad is its unpleasantness? Surely not all things that are unpleasant are necessarily bad. Like pulling an abscessed tooth, or passing a kidney stone. Unpleasant, yes, but better to be rid of the tooth or the kidney stone. So if not all unpleasant things are necessarily bad, how are we so certain about starvation?
Perhaps, then, it’s the severity of the unpleasantness that makes starvation bad. As agonizing as passing a kidney stone might be, surely the agony is nothing in comparison to that of a prolonged event such as starvation. But how much severity is too much? Is there an objective standard somewhere that determines how much severity of unpleasantness is required to make a thing bad, something on a scale of death-by-sex-with-Dallas-Cowboy-cheerleaders on the “not so bad” extreme and death-by-Sarlacc (the creature from Star Wars that digests its victims over a 1000-year period) on the “really bad” one? And where, exactly, would death-by-starvation fall on such a scale? Isn’t this a matter of opinion, then, rather than fact?
As much as we might wish to agree that death-by-starvation surely can’t be considered a good thing, we’re still stuck if there’s no proper rationale for determining what, if anything, makes it bad in its essence. Is it bad in an absolute sense, always bad in all times and in all places? Is it generally bad but maybe sometimes good, depending upon circumstances? Is it merely bad in a relativistic sense, that is, bad in one man’s opinion and good in another’s? Again, how do we know for certain?
Perhaps, though, it’s not the starvation that’s bad but the dying. Maybe it’s bad because death is bad. But this, too, is only an assumption—that death is the end, and when you’re gone, you’re gone. After all, the finality of death is a matter of some debate; just put an atheist and a theist into the same room and listen to them argue about it.
A fortiori, it doesn’t seem to make much difference whether the atheist is right that death is the end or the theist is right that death is only the beginning. If the atheist is right, death can only be bad if living mattered in the first place, but it’s hard to see how living matters if life is only the accidental offshoot of an accidental universe, which is the only means at our disposal for explaining our existence if there’s no Creator. A living being starves to death—so? Did he matter? Who says? And when the atheist retorts “I say he mattered!” this only begs the question: How do we know the atheist matters? He’s only an accident, too. Are we to assume that life matters, even if we can’t explain how it does? Another unwarranted assumption. Or, if the theist is right that death is only the end of our physical existence and not the end of our spiritual existence, then death might actually be a good thing, regardless of whatever horrors might enjoin to bring it about.
Mind you, I’m not arguing that death by starvation is okay. Maybe it isn’t. I’m just asking how for certain we know it’s not only not-okay, but genuinely bad. Additionally, I would ask how we know that because God is surely capable of intervening to prevent the death-by-starvation of one of His creatures, He should intervene to prevent it. Is God morally obliged to prevent the death-by-starvation, and if so, how do we know?
The logic underlying this assumption is flimsy, because, as assumptions go, it’s not particularly well-thought out, being a reaction on an emotional level rather than a rational one. There’s nothing wrong with emotion per se, but I find its presence here rather ironic, considering the argument comes from someone who thinks atheism is a rational enterprise. Perhaps it’s only an emotional one; that certainly seemed to be my state of mind in those days when I was telling myself I was an atheist.
Very possibly, there’s even a fourth assumption: Should we even concede that God is to blame for the starvation or that starvation/death is inarguably bad, there remains one further question: Does this demonstrate that God is unloving?
Consider, for instance, that in certain parts of the Muslim world, when a 14-year-old girl is attacked and raped, not only is her rapist executed for committing the rape, the 14-year-old girl is often executed as well, for the sin of fornication. Oftentimes the means of execution is death by stoning, and even sometimes one of the participants in hurling the stones at her is the girl’s own father.
Please understand that I am not defending this practice. Personally, I find it beyond outrageous—particularly from those who purport to worship a god who is wise, just, compassionate, and merciful. In my view, executing a girl whose only crime was her failure to fight off her attacker is the antithesis of wisdom and a bastardization of justice; it is neither compassionate nor merciful, and manifestly so. But I am not a Muslim. The ones hurling the stones, to say the least, see the matter differently.
But what of the father who participates in his daughter’s execution? In such a case, is he a loving father, or an unloving one? Perhaps he would argue that he indeed loves his daughter, but that he loves his religious faith more, and thus has a higher moral duty to participate in his daughter’s stoning rather than to prevent it. Perhaps, as he hurls the stone towards his child, he reassures himself that this is the right and proper thing to do; that his daughter’s death is the correct atonement for her sin of fornication; and that by participating in this way in his daughter’s death he is actually ushering her into Paradise. Does his heart, then, keen in joy for his child’s deliverance? If so, then, perhaps we should argue that loving fathers actually do allow their children to die, under certain circumstances. However visceral our reaction that this sort of thing simply does not happen, are we stating a fact, or only in our opinion?
But it’s not merely the unwarranted assumption that makes the atheistic world view untenable; there’s also the bad logic. And there’s plenty of it.
One such example comes from baptistmessenger.com, in which an atheist identifying himself as William offers up the following absurdity qua metaphysical claim: “Atheism IS the default position, my friend. Theism is the belief in a god or gods. Add the suffix ‘a’ to the root word and you’ve added ‘without’. So (a) theism means (without) belief in a god or gods. An infant doesn’t believe in a god or gods, so they are atheists.”
(And never mind that “a” is a prefix, not a suffix. Far be it from me to argue that bad grammar is bad logic.)
Honestly, though, I have to wonder: do atheists really think this sort of nonsense is reasonable, or do they just stop at the first bit of sophistry that comes their way and refuse to consider the matter any further? I suspect the latter. After all, atheism is incoherent because the arguments that support it are incoherent.
Meanwhile, those of us who aren’t grasping at straws to hold onto our belief systems can easily see what’s wrong with William’s argument: While it is certainly true that babies are born without the belief that God exists, they are also born without the belief that two and two make four, without the belief that wolverines make good house pets, and without the belief that Parkay has the taste of real butter. Babies don’t believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Yahweh, Zeus, Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers, you, me, William, or that natural selection operating in tandem with random genetic mutation is all you need to change a cow into a whale. The reason why babies don’t believe in these things is because babies are born without any beliefs at all.
The problem for the all-babies-are-atheists argument, however, is that atheism is itself a belief, and so is one of the things babies don’t believe in. To say that one particular belief that babies don’t have should be our default position—over all the other beliefs that babies also don’t have—is an arbitrarily selective argument, and is thus absurd; there is simply no conceivable reason for choosing the one sort of belief over all the others. There is only the good excuse: William wants to claim that atheism should be our default position, and it doesn’t really matter to him what argument he chooses to warrant the claim. Perhaps God doesn’t exist because Parkay doesn’t have the taste of real butter, and if God were real, it would, and since babies don’t believe in the great buttery flavor of Parkay, maybe that is why all babies are atheists.
What is at fault here is a poor definition: atheism is not the lack of belief in the existence of God; it is the belief in the lack of a God. The atheist does not simply lack the belief that God is; he believes that God isn’t.
This, in turn, leads us back to my discussion with David, who apparently takes some issue with my definition of atheism. “We atheists,” he says at one point, “are almost never absolutist in our nonbelief in God. I do not claim certain knowledge that there's no God. Nor do most atheists.”
University of Texas philosopher J. Budziszewski comments in his essay “The Second Tablet Project” that the reason it is so difficult to argue with an atheist is that he won’t even be honest with himself, let alone be honest in the philosophical underpinnings of his world view. David’s comment is a case in point: William’s definition of atheism notwithstanding, or David’s, any atheist who is not absolutist in his belief is not an atheist. Anyone who only thinks that God may not exist is not an atheist, and is only kidding himself by saying otherwise.
Our discussion on this point is worth repeating in some detail:
Yours Truly: And all atheists are absolutists, as are all theists. To the question: Is there a God? There are three possible answers: Yes, absolutely (the theist's position); No, absolutely not (the atheist's position); and I don't know (the agnostic's position). Any atheist who is not an absolutist is not an atheist, but an agnostic who only thinks he's an atheist.
David: Maybe that how YOU define atheism. But it’s certainly not how people who call themselves atheists generally use the term. But I'm not interested in arguing semantics with you. Feel free to think of me as an atheist-leaning agnostic or simply a non-theist if you like.
Yours Truly: I agree. By and large (and this seems to have been the case in my own flirtation with atheism), atheists do not generally use the word 'atheist' to mean someone who says unequivocally that there's no God, but only that there's probably no God. But that's agnosticism, not atheism. I suspect that most people who call themselves atheists are really only agnostics. There's nothing particularly wrong in doubting that God exists (other than that He does), but I do think there's something altogether wrong with calling oneself an atheist when the word does not apply.
This is one of the many reasons I finally decided atheism is wrong. It is a not particularly well-thought-out philosophy. So when guys like Richard Dawkins tell us that Darwin allowed him to become “an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” they're only kidding themselves—and us as well.
This is a crucial point, so it’s worth repeating. An atheist does not say that God probably doesn’t exist, any more than a theist says that God probably does. The theist says “God is”; the atheist replies “No, he isn’t.” These are absolutist positions. The probably-does/probably-doesn’t positions fall under the domain of agnosticism. To borrow William’s strategy of pointing out the meanings of words one root at a time, “agnostic” is derived from the Greek a “without” and gnosis “knowledge.” Therefore, an agnostic is someone who lacks the knowledge to answer the question definitively, hence his use of words like “probably.”
To repeat, atheism’s principle weakness is that its philosophical underpinnings are incoherent. I’ll end this post with a lengthier quote from the Budziszewski essay:
[Both theist and atheist assume] that the universe is causally and rationally patterned: this causes that, that explains this, such-and-such is a reasonable explanation of so-and-so. But what right has the atheist to this assumption? Why should there be any patterns whatsoever? If the universe just is, then why shouldn’t the things in it just happen? There is no reason to expect them to yield to reasoning, no explanation of why they should even have an explanation. Moreover, we are not out of the woods even if we do find patterns in the universe, for if these patterns too just are, then there is no warrant for assuming that they are more than local, accidental, superficial, inconsistent, and ephemeral. The sun may not rise tomorrow morning. Fire may not burn this afternoon. Two plus two may equal now four, now six, now one. For me, conception may not be caused by sexual intercourse (that seems to be how some teenagers think). Even if today I am myself, next week I may be someone else (that is how postmodernists think). So why should the natural law have even the force of prudence, much less oughtness? Why should there even be logic? Why should I “watch out” for anything? How could I?