Thursday, November 7, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapter 10

Chapter 10: How to Show that “God Loves Me” is False
Sheridan wants to know how Christianity can be “eminently” falsifiable. Randal gives the example:

Start with the resurrection of Jesus. The way to falsify that belief is straightforward: just produce the body.

Before you do yourself a disservice by giving yourself a bloody-nose inducing face-palm, you’ll be glad to know that Randal actually anticipates the common objections. Sheridan raises the fact that Jesus’ body would have decayed long ago and is lost to the sands of time, assuming there was a body to begin with, as Jesus may simply be a legendary figure.

Randal admits there could be other evidences to disprove the resurrection, but doesn’t list anything of note. I for one think the past three hundred years of erudite Bible scholarship has practically ruled out the resurrection as such, but Christians are generally unaware of the libraries upon libraries filled with volumes written by invested scholars who have dedicated their lives to the study of Christian history and the Bible. The reason we don’t hear of it now is because Randal is both a theologian and an apologist, and his goal isn’t to inform, it’s to convince—or at least persuade.

In fact, it would not be entirely inaccurate to say that within the Christian sphere there seems to be a lot of distortion of history and a lot of revisionism with regard to God. I recommend reading Thom Stark’s book The Human Faces of God. Stark informs us in the introduction that

Conservative Christians often affirm that the Bible is historically accurate, internally consistent, and morally edifying. Anyone who has had a good introductory course on the Bible at college level knows that it is not necessarily any of the above.

When Randal raises the point that the Resurrection could have defeaters, he is taking for granted his view that the Resurrection of Christ was a real historical event. I would argue it wasn’t, and it’s not, and that the Bible is nowhere near historically reliable in that area. The point is, once again we find Randal sticking to his faith based convictions in the verity of his beliefs.

Sheridan asks what Randal supposes are some arguments for God’s non-existence. Randal informs us that:

Atheists have been developing them for hundreds of years: the problem of evil, the impossibility of a perfect being, the problem of religious diversity and so on.

One slight correction I’d make is that atheists have been developing their arguments for thousands of years, not hundreds. As long as religion has been around, atheists have been around. Even more shocking, probably more so to Christians, is that atheists existed before Christianity ever came onto the scene.

  • The Greek philosopher and playwright Euripides (480-406 BCE) once wrote, “Doth someone say that there be gods above? There are not; no, there are not. Let no fool, led by the old false fable, thus deceive you.”
  • The satirical and witty Aristophanes (ca. 448-380 BCE) once wrote, “Shrines! Shrines! Surely you don’t believe in the gods. What’s your argument? Where’s your proof?”

Perhaps the most famous of the early Greek skeptical thinkers was Epicurus (c. 300 BCE). Epicurus was a radical thinker, and espoused a materialistic philosophy, denied the existence of an afterlife, and argued that religious fear was the chief cause of human unhappiness. Although Epicurus paid lip service to the existence of the Gods, he didn’t believe they concerned themselves with human affairs, and was not concerned with them. Epicurus was a skeptic however, and offered the very first atheistic philosophical argument against the existence of God however, in what has come to be known as the Epicurean paradox. It goes like this:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

As we can see, atheism, or at least atheistic thought, is far older and well established than most Christians realize. Hundreds of years, indeed.

Sheridan then laments that its unfair of theists to expect atheists to disprove God, since one cannot prove a negative. Randal answers his complaint by informing:

I hear that claim from atheists a lot these days, but it’s just not true. You certainly can prove that something doesn’t exist. The strongest way would be by showing that the concept of the entity in question is incoherent, because if something is incoherent then it cant exist.

I’m glad Randal acknowledges as much since, in my book Ignosticism: A Philosophical Justification for Atheism, I make the case that “God” is an incoherent concept, for numerous reasons.

Randal then makes the claim that

[T]he skeptic cannot plausibly dismiss these beliefs as being unfalsifiable. But then if these beliefs are in principle falsifiable, then the skeptic has an evidential burden to show that they are, in fact, false. He can’t simply dismiss the task as a fool’s errand. Atheists don’t get to dismiss their cake and eat it, too.

I can imagine Christians nodding along with this reasoning, not realizing how faulty it is. You see, this comes down to the “I has a magic Baseball™” argument. If I told you I had a magic Baseball™ that could grant you three wishes, would the burden really be on you to disprove my magic baseball? No. Of course not! Because you’re not the one making the claim. The burden is on the person who makes the claim, or rather the astonishing hypothesis, that something so incredibly unbelievable exists that it will simply blow your mind.

This is the disreputable sleight of hand of the apologist. Those atheists, you see, they don’t automatically accept our magic Baseball™ as a fact, so we’re gonna trick them into trying to disprove it! Bwah-Hahahaha!

This is what is called shifting the burden of the proof. It’s a cheap trick, and probably the most popular in the apologist’s bag of tricks. Be on the lookout for it.

Perhaps an easier way to reveal the trick is to simply ask them to produce what they claim is extant. Unable to produce their magic Baseball™ then they will have technically falsified their own claim to be in possession of a magic baseball, and since they’re the ones making the claim, should be no problem. Right?

So, when a theist asks you to disprove God, just remind them as a skeptic and an atheist you don’t believe in any God, and would like them to simply produce what they say exists so you can see it for yourself. Should be easy for them, if God exists.

If they resort to apologetic maneuvers, such as playing semantics games of redefining God to something not quite extant but something intangible, transcendent, existing outside of space and time… well, then they have made their own definition of God incoherent. God cannot both be some tangibly extant and exist transcendent to that very same reality. It’s a contradiction in terms.

If they drop their first definition, and simply say there is no evidential proof of God, then they have effectively made God impossible to verify scientifically, and so on the empirical basis we would have no reason to believe in God. Of course, they would switch to theological demonstrations and arguments to try and convince us that we can know God through reason, or some such similar argumentation, but this is all after the fact. The only realization we need to make here is that they failed to demonstrate the existence of what they claimed was real. Systems which fail to demonstrate their claims are most certainly always false.

Randal and Sheridan discuss Antony Flew’s invisible gardener for a few minutes. When Sheridan says that seems like God belief to him, Randal objects, affirming:

If you assume a set of definitional claims about God, like his triune identity and a particular set of attributes, then your belief is not a mere cipher. It has real content and can be falsified.

This is very true. And many of these beliefs can be easily falsified. Triune god concepts can be shown incoherent. Many other attributes can be proved ostensible, which is why in my book Ignosticism I have a chapter devoted to discussing ostensible attributes. In my book I raise the point that attributes are ascribed, not derived.

Having an already established definition for what God means, according to one’s cultural experiences, sounds perfectly fine when everyone shares a like-minded belief. Many Catholics preach God is love, because that’s what Catholics believe. But asking the question “Is God love?” forces us to come to a realization that the term “love” has merely been ascribed to God, not derived from God. Christian theology supplies the definition, not from the study of God, but from what the Holy Bible says about God. So already we have a cultural and religious worldview providing the believer with a specific definition of God, in this case, that God is love.

The problem as I see it is that naming God a “Loving God” isn’t the same as describing that entity as loving. Naming and describing are two very different things. Now, all it seems the religious are able to do are provide names, i.e. ascribe attributes, to God. Contrary to what Randal may espouse, this isn’t exactly content and we cannot always falsify it because we often do not have any way to examine the actual thing itself, which we’d need to in order to derive a matching description.

If the attribute and the description matched, and we witnessed the thing itself being loving, then naming it a “loving” thing would be correct. But if the thing itself is nowhere to be found, how can we deduce that it has a loving nature or acts in accordance to what we call love? We can’t falsify that claim, because it’s mainly a claim about nothing until we can examine the thing itself and see for ourselves.

At any rate, that’s the problem which believers need to overcome with regard to ostensible attributes.

Continuing on, Sheridan complains that

The fact is that the Christianity of today shares no substantial identity with the Christianity of medieval Europe or the Roman Empire, not to mention the Jewish religion of the Old Testament.

Randal disagrees, however, and informs, “I think you’re focusing on non-essential changes.”

But not really. Christianity has changed quite substantially over the course of history. I don’t even know why Randal would feel compelled to deny this, but he does. He goes on to say Christians share a underlying unity in the conviction that God sent his Son to offer a fallen world the way to reconciliation.

Well, yes, this is the conviction of most modern Christians. But I am less interested in proclamations of faith than simple, down to earth, demonstrations, and it seems Randal has none.

Before this chapter comes to a close, Randal espouses:

Whatever Christian theologians may do in their theories is, in principle, nothing different from what scientists do in their theories.

As no sound but for the noise of crickets overcame the entire fucking planet, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. This is one of the most ridiculously absurd quotes I’ve ever read. Almost to the point of being offensive—at least to scientists. Needless to say I shouldn’t have to explain why—but I will. Theology is the study of, you guessed it, nothing! Thomas Jefferson didn’t want it taught in universities, John Adams called it a sham, and Thomas Paine said it was the profession of fools. I couldn’t agree more. And let’s not pretend theology is philosophy, because it’s not even on the same playing field. That’s not to say serious philosophers cannot dabble in theology, but theology is really a dried, shriveled up field of study that hasn’t ever yielded any fruit—none—whatever.

Most thinking people will give themselves an atomic level face-palm after having read that quote, and I’m sorry to have subjected it to you, but really, that’s the type of thinking we’re dealing with here. If we all survive the nuclear winter though, we might just have enough life left in us to go onto the next chapter.

In chapter 11 we come to The Swedish Atheist and the Scuba Diver.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist