Tuesday, 08 January 2008
Bad Arguments Against Christianity
Josh: Hey again. I got another question for you. It shouldn't surprise you since I am still chock full of questions. I always have been and probably always will be.
I can identify.
Josh: I believe that proving a negative is basically impossible,
Well it depends on the kind of negative claim you make. A universal negative is technically impossible to prove (other than there are no married bachelors or circular squares), but we do have probabilities to work with. Richard Carrier makes a good case for this with his essay, “Proving a Negative.”
but I think that in some cases the negative (God doesn't exist) is the more reasonable conclusion... after all, I think that to be an Atheist one must recognize that the arguments for God's existence so far have fallen under scrutiny.
Generally speaking, atheism is about showing that theists have not proven their case. That’s the root of atheism as it should be, just as it is the root of not believing in Bigfoot to show that people that believe Bigfoot exists have not proven their case. I happen to think you can go much farther than that if you are so inclined to dig deeper, but if worse came to worse, falling back on that standard is more than sufficient. Life isn’t about proving everyone else’s extraordinary claims wrong.
I'm very sure you're aware of all this though. But anyway, here's the question:
What arguments do you think are good arguments for Atheism, if any?
I think I’ll need to frame the question a little bit since as is, it’s a bit vague given that we don’t know which supposed deity we are talking about up front. There are many theisms and many mutated memes. Technically I hold positions that span from agnosticism (not having proof), to apatheism (not caring about the possibility of certain kinds of gods), to atheism (having a case against theism), to anti-theism (in the Hitchens sense of being against the evil that theism presents to the world as a rule...and having watched 14 too many seasons of Stargate, and noting the possibility that some evil deity that shows up probably needs to be destroyed). There’s not one answer to the entire scope of theism though there are some common trends of rejection and of course exceptions very few people care about. I’ll go ahead and assume that you are speaking of the classical Christian god who is the author of all reality that is not himself who supposedly embodies the most excellent of moral character, has all possible power at his disposal, and knows all that is knowable…and who was the main character of the Christian Bible .
I'm going to let this post stand for the "Bad Arguments" and then everything on the tag, "dealbreaker series" should cover the most important good arguments as I see them. I know I’m going to do too many plugs for Richard Carrier, but honestly he is the best there is that I know of and he just so happens to have all the information you could want organized well, carefully thought through, and easily on hand. He’s written what you might call “the atheist Bible”, entitled “Sense and Goodness without God” that I would highly recommend if you are looking for the best arguments for atheism in a more developed and academically established format. I’m only a proficient layperson.
Also, what arguments do you think are bad ones? (I think that the question "Can God create a rock so big he can't lift it?" sucks ass... although I'm sure there's probably other ones).
-Yeah, I’m not too thrilled with the one you mentioned. All of the little scuffles over God’s conflicting traits miss the main problem and that is that any meaningful definition of God is some arbitrary ensemble of traits. You can always generate some random recipe for a god that at least might work (like a demiurge), but what’s with this magic man that just so happens to have all these bizarre attributes for apparently no reason? Anyway I stick to the levels where I can make the more definitive claims.
-I also don’t go so much for the arguments from poor design since that is so hard to prove. As long as it works and does something, who’s to say God didn’t mean it that way? While I do think it is probable that there is inefficient design out there that couldn’t be the result of a “curse” from 6,000 years ago, it would be so hard to prove other than having a genetically engineered proof of concept, I just don’t even touch the arguments. And you can’t show that God didn’t deliberately introduce drag into the system to be a dick to the animal kingdom. You're really making some other philosophical/moral claim that has little to do with design. I read them sometimes looking for something that is so obvious and easy to stick…but I really haven’t ever found anything I like. Some people do, some people I even respect do…but people don’t listen to even the simple arguments that are easy to demonstrate. Ones where there is so much room for error are going to be even less so. However, there does seem to be some merit to concentrating on a really good positive case for an evolutionary path that intimately describes a feat of mis-engineering from a previously unmodified structure. Chimps, I think, have one more chromosome than we do and we have a fused one in the exact same spot that we’re probably genetically dependent on. That’s not a pretty genetic picture and makes perfect sense in terms of evolution. I think even this one could plausibly be more justified. Basically I’m always looking for deeper connections that are not so easy to rape with some other interpretation. And this requires a thorough knowledge of the material and the perspective of your opponents and the ability to articulate the argument really well without losing your average thinker. Good luck…haha.
-I don’t bother with harping on Christian hypocrisy in general. Christians just disown those Christians so it’s a meaningless point. Granted you can refute pop-culturalisms like “only religion makes you a good person,” but that’s surface skimming so bad I just avoid it. You could even turn it into a personal argument where what’s the deal with not having a decent presentation of God’s favored religion but then you have to chase the rabbit down the hole of your current situation where other Christians can step in and say, “Hey I’m not so bad” or “Hey, we’re all sinners, right?” and then you have to point out a grander statistical legacy of misrepresentation….and it just gets so watered down under this heading that I’d stick to the overall argument of botched saint cultivation from the get go. Normally it is more prudent from your standpoint instead of harping on their hypocrisy to appeal to their good nature and compare it to what is embedded in their religion and ask, "Is this really what you signed up for?"
-I don’t make fun of the creationist imagery of people riding dinosaurs since any creationist hearing the claim will be thinking to themselves that there are many dragon legends in human history. It makes a great uninformed atheist joke (comparing the Creation Museum to the Flintstones cartoon), but what really needs to be addressed is the validity of the dragon myths themselves. Most of the dragons don’t seem to correspond very well to dinosaur anatomy (they look like giant snakes instead), that possibly exposed long rib cages of dinosaurs could possibly have inspired some ancient imaginations, and that there were possibly species of komodo dragons of various sizes unknown to us today out and about (or just other similar species)…and even if a species of dinosaur or two managed to survive until modern times that really wouldn’t be that big of a deal since other “living fossils” have turned up from those periods and left no remains since. Basically unless someone is willing to do all the footwork and build a really good cryptozoological case or whatever, its kind of an agnostic issue as far as I can tell. The generality of the evidence would still hold up since Noah’s Flood would have been more about Noah’s radioactive oven if all of that radioactive decay from billions of years was condensed into a year. Creationists still admit they have no explanation for this and are perpetually “working on it.”
-I don’t hit up the starlight distances traveled since modern YEC creationists have basically abandoned a young *universe.* They think God rapidly aged the far reaches of the universe, while still leaving the earth bran spanking new as they have always maintained. So instead I would use this as a concession vector, that over time creationists have given up claims a, b, c, d, e, and f that already correspond to the naturalistic position and they still haven’t proven the heart of their case, and of course they aren’t exactly zen with all the primary evidence that the mainstream scientific explanations are already built on as a rule. However you may be able to make a case that the further galaxies are younger than the closer ones, while Humphries model would say the opposite, I think. So its really a matter of getting a level or two deeper.
-And you’ll find many arguments I would only make in context such as this because any individual claim doesn’t have enough weight in and of itself to do the job. For instance, I would never hit up a single Bible contradiction. I would always do a number of them. I would always avoid the ones that are difficult to prove and I wouldn’t inflate my list just to have a big shot gun list. I would always focus on the contradictions that can be justified as contradictions in context (like it actually makes more sense that these two authors meant to contradict each other like Paul vs. James on salvation). One wishes to avoid the “anomaly hunting” where any superficial disjunction of rhetoric proves anything other than your interpretative scroogery. And also I would further constrain my list of contradictions in terms of what is meaningful. Superfluous contradictions while perhaps justified, don’t affect the grand scheme of salvation or God’s love or whatever, so people will be more inclined to “accommodate.” The inerrantists may get antsy but even they will find a way to shrug that kind of thing off if it doesn’t significantly interrupt what they see as the main continuity of the Bible and they have of course the unfalsifiable method of always claiming we can't know there's a contradiction if we don't have the original documents, so you have to watch out for that. Also what should be noted is that the books of the Bible have been selected already for general continuity and so this can be somewhat tricky to pull off. But they didn’t do that good a job, so I do have a post in the works on it.
-In the same vein, I wouldn’t over-focus on one silly messianic prophecy. I would seek to build a case for the overall ubiquitousness and wishy washyness of the prophetic network as a whole. Apologetics is all about missing the forest through the trees and so you really have to look to justify the forest so that no one can walk away thinking they haven’t taken a nature hike. I would be sure to hit up all the little games the NT authors played with the OT and point out the fact that overall, even if there are perfectly legitimate cultural excuses for each and every usage…there is still no evidential potency to the entire prophetic scheme. They freely lift things out of context, they piggy back on other prophecies, they cut and paste unrelated OT verses together, they fulfill prophecies not in the Bible, don't fulfill prophecies that are in the Bible, they get the interpretation of certain OT passages wrong, and have basically every opportunity to make shit up every step of the way. The cultural standards of mysticism at the time simply will not do as they double for obsessive free association. And you only get a macro argument like this by using all the prophecies. If you focus on one…the excuses will let your opponent look “passable.” If you only use a few…perhaps you are cherry picking. And thus I have a post planned that will dig up them all and lay them all out.
-Another skeptical theme that can easily get lost in over-focusing on the line items would be the beliefs based on appearances. Is the blood pump where we think and feel? Is the sky really a hard dome? Are falling stars ordinary stars that have been dislodged from the hard dome? Is the earth flat? Is breathing really the definitive element of a living soul? In order to avoid the wiggle room for each one, making an overall case for a theme of appearance based beliefs would be more appropriate…in addition to showing examples where the authors obviously were insisting on more than the mere “language of appearances” as apologists like to claim. The Bible isn’t a cosmology book, but it does occasionally demonstrate their “understanding” of these concepts in context to its own peril and in addition doesn't provide us any positive reason to think it really knows better secretly about anything. Some theists will make much about a beginning of time (even though if multiverse theories turn out to be true, time has a life outside of our universe)...but that's just one bit of spaghetti that stuck to the wall. What about the rest of the Bible?
-I wouldn’t harp too much on the “telephone game” criticism of the transmission of the Bible too much. While it may apply in some instances, ultimately things can be made up overnight. Seductive myths can spread despite the persistence of evidence to the contrary. Biblical history is convoluted and complicated and it takes time to sort out its genesis (which is ultimately really no better than the telephone game in the end…but still). People that make the telephone game argument are simply talking too generally and basically to themselves. You just need to do better than that or not bring it up, in my opinion.
-Here’s another one that’s always bothered me. “Miracles violate the laws of physics.” Now if you didn’t know which side this came from, it may very well be an assertion from a theist as a matter of fact, as in “Duh, of course miracles violate the laws of physics. They’re miracles!” It seems Batman and I (my former creationist self) were in agreement:
Poor Batman. At the mercy of “comic book facts.” Lol.
But to return to the point, you visit the atheistic world and they say the same thing: “Miracles violate the laws of physics,” like someone needs to file sexual harassment charges. Its like, um, excuse me? How in the hell do you know that the laws of physics can’t be adjusted/suspended/broken etc. by some force you know nothing of? It’d be like a “blue pill” in the Matrix claiming that the Agents can’t “change something” like they happen to know all about the base code themselves that makes anything the way it is in the first place. Especially in theism, a deity that assigns the properties to the universe could potentially make any adjustments it wants whenever it wants and we would witness this as a miracle.
Apparently I didn’t get in on that atheistic “properly basic belief” and I don’t plan on it any time soon. It may turn out to be true our universe is immutable to change from the “outside” (though if it were true I have no idea how you would prove it other than failing a whole lot to “get out” of the universe), but it’s a mere assertion at this current juncture and not an argument against supernaturalism. Granted, incidentally it is a mere assertion as well that miracles have happened. And so both parties are equally guilty of merely asserting their conclusion locally. But just because the other team is stupid doesn’t mean you have to be. I can only find lots of bad reasons to bring it up…and there are supportable claims that basically do the same job in the end (argument number 3 above). "Maybe a miracle happened in the past when we couldn't check on it," can be met with, "Maybe it didn't," since "Maybe therefore probably," is not a valid argument.
-Any complicated historical/linguistic issue that rests on the authority of this or that scholar I would simply avoid since people will simply pick their favorite authority. Unless you personally understand the argument, or can at least distill a weaker but more powerful case* from pooling both sides from a layperson perspective…just back away and pretend you were never there. Lol
*For instance if the interpretation rests on the definition of a word, and there are scholars on both sides, rather than arguing for one interpretation or the other, you can point out the conflict and possibly how the theistic side needed a definitive answer, whereas the skeptical side really didn’t. Obviously this depends on the context, so argue with care.
-Ultimately hell really is just an eternal barbeque, and that is the most defensible Biblical claim to make about the damned, however I would be prepared to reformat your criticism in terms of the more eastern concepts of damnation where God’s uncreated energies while “trying to love you” incidentally scald your evil heart for all eternity. Bizarrely these Christians think the version of God the other Christians worship is evil, but that their version of a perpetual state of induced suffering is okay and makes their God a great guy. The original criticism isn’t a straw man (how else would the metaphors have meaning?) even though many will claim that it is, as the basic theme is exactly the same and is about as different ultimately as one mob boss’s use of a crow bar over another’s use of a baseball bat. There’s never a reason for anyone no matter how evil to be kept in this state of suffering forever and God could change a number of variables to rectify the situation. If we don’t have to be directly exposed to his love beams now…why latter? Why forever? In any other context in the Christian moral paradigm sins of commission or omission are treated with equal weight and I would be sure to point this out. There is some limited merit to the eastern interpretation so I would be careful with how you approach it from a completely western mindset. Granted they should have been intellectually honest and done this job for you, but they likely won’t be, and they will use just about anything to pin the problem on your ignorance and close-mindedness to protect Jigsaw Jesus. Why in the world are they striving so hard to argue for the most sick and twisted doctrine to stay afloat, we may never know. So having the heads up on this very common side-step is a good thing. This line item wasn’t so much a “don’t use this argument” but more “be prepared to use an alternate one.”
-I don’t touch the documentary hypothesis. While it does have some general inferential value it seems, it is very difficult to pin a particular down with a great deal of confidence. I haven’t looked into this for a while, so there may be some way to use the general claim in conjunction with other arguments to articulate a common theme and argument to the better explanation… I don’t know. I’m still trying to find corroboration on the claim that satellite imagery has proved the 40 year Exodus didn’t happen. And there are some books on the formation of Israel that I have yet to read. Christopher Hitchens seems to think there is a good case to be made. So there may well be more than I am currently aware. I don’t know.
-I’m very careful with the “Jesus Myth” hypothesis. Regardless it’s not such an extraordinary claim as the “Jesus is God” hypothesis but at the same time, it doesn’t have a consensus of critical scholars backing it and isn’t necessary even if it turns out to be a better explanation for the origins of Christianity. There are still half a dozen other naturalistic possibilities that work well enough. We may see a change in the tide as proponents make the appropriate scholarly inroads, but we will have to exercise the patience we expect of the theistic community in terms of letting the scientific method work out abiogenesis and multiverse theories.
Trying to think of some other things. I’ll post this, so as I think of some others I’ll add them.
I’m always a little weary, since I don’t know exactly what someone else’s level is and I’m sure I’m bombarding you with too many considerations. If there is an argument that you need to be taken down a notch or two of appropriation (since not every theist you meet will actually take it there), I can reformat a response that works on that level and is still (nakedly) consistent with deeper levels of offense and defense. Some things are very very simple at their core and the only reason they get ultra complicated is because of the obscene lengths theists will go to salvage some dead position that they simply can’t do without. It is 2,000 years later and the jury is too far in on too many issues. Sorry guys. Hopefully we can work together to find a balance for you and you can keep some perspective on the generalities of how things work out overall at least so you know where to look when things do get more complicated. I don't mind handing out fish, but at some point I need to make sure you're learning to fish for yourself.
P.S.: Do you prefer communicating over Facebook or Xanga?
I don't really have a preference, but since it sounds like you want an answer, I’ll say facebook for questions and xanga for comments.