Category Archives: Existence of God

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On the Haught/Coyne Debate


I recently re-watched the debate between University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and Georgetown theologian John Haught, which Haught had famously (infamously?) not allowed to be posted online (until a great deal of ruckus had been raised over the issue, at which point Haught eventually relented) (debate here and question/answer session here). Coyne’s view is very close to my own, though I thought he has done a better job at presenting his view elsewhere when he had more time to speak. On the other hand, I think that Haught performed poorly in this debate.

In this post, I will first explain how Coyne and Haught fit into my present theoretical understanding of the science/religion debate, why Coyne and Haught were likely speaking past each other, and then I will show why I think that Haught’s central argument (concerning his layered view of reality) is weak. I’ve broken this post up into various sections so readers can skip those parts that they are not interested in.

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When Atheists Really Do Reject the Wrong God (Sort Of)


If you are an atheist who reads as much theology as I do (which is difficult, unless you are either Jerry Coyne, a religion studies scholar, or a deconvert from a Fundamentalist cult) then you’ve probably come across the claim that atheists reject the wrong god. Often, this is expressed from a sophisticated theologian conceding that they agree with the arguments made in some popular atheist book, but those are not arguments against the god they believe in. I call this the Straw Gods Argument, after the Straw Man Fallacy.

In this post, I will first explain what the Straw Gods Argument is and what forms I’ve seen it take. Afterwards, I will explain why I don’t think that it is convincing. Finally, I will deliver on the title of this blog post and present a case where an atheist really did reject a straw god (sort of). I’ve divided this article into sections so that those who have a particular interest don’t have to wade through all of my text.

I now proceed to discuss what the Straw Gods Argument is and some examples of where it has appeared.

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Reflecting back on last year’s debate with Max Andrews

Last year, I debated Max Andrews from Liberty University on whether God is likely to exist or not. I think the debate went well, could have gone better, and that my arguments were not understood (which is evidenced by how they were characterized on Max’s blog Sententias).

This Thursday, I will be debating Max again, but this time on the Liberty University campus. It’s been rather difficult to arrange the debate, but — however begrudgingly — I think everything is set to go now. Nonetheless, preparing for this year’s debate has caused me to reflect back on last year’s.

Last year’s debate was held in a 2-on-2 debate format, modelled after the Intelligence^2 debates. There was some level of miscommunication with the moderator, so the entire back-and-forth section (where the debaters addressed each other) got dropped. That was really rather regrettable, and, as I understand it, both sides were saddened that it occurred; I know that my debate partner and I were planning on using that section to address the arguments made by the opposing side. With the loss of that section, both sides were disabled from responding directly to the charges that the other side made. Hopefully, there will be better communication with the moderator at LU to ensure that the same mistake is not repeated.

The arguments presented by my debate partner and I went together; I presented an argument against the existence of an Abrahamic god while my partner presented an argument against a benevolent god. Max, apparently, misunderstood the argument that I presented; often, on his blog, he claims that I simply attacked inerrancy. Instead of attacking a more general conception of god during my opening remarks, I attacked the specific deity associated with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I also pointed out that any other conception of god would be sufficiently different that either:

1. It’s difficult to see why we should even use the English word “god” to describe it (a point that David Hume makes in Natural History of Religion);
2. Would require a different kind of argument.

But any sort of benevolent, monotheistic god was already going to be addressed by my partner.

Let’s take a look at the argument I presented last year and why I think Max never understood it. Last year’s argument had three different prongs:

3. The Abrahamic god is a social product of a particular cultural context, namely the ancient Levant. Therefore, while Max can certainly identify several mysterious features of our world, the Abrahamic god is not a very good explanation of those features.
4. Where ever it is that morality comes from, it cannot be from the Abrahamic god as depicted in various holy texts. This is both because of the things that people do because of those texts (especially when they have read them accurately) and because of what those texts say the Abrahamic god commanded.
5. Scientists do not need to posit a god to explain their data. While scientists in the past might have made use of theistic hypotheses, they have found such hypotheses to be useless and no longer appeal to religion when doing science.

My debate partner, whose argument was intended to attack the idea of an all loving, all knowing, and all powerful god produced an evolutionary problem of evil; i.e. since the process of evolution involved so much suffering and pain, it is unlikely to be the mechanism by which God brought about the existence of human beings. But human beings were brought about evolution. Ergo, the universe we live in is not likely to be the kind of universe that a personal, all-loving, omnipotent, omniscient creator god would bring about. Thus, the universe — as we see it — is evidence against the existence of such a being. I think its a rather ingenious argument and it doesn’t come into a lot of the pitfalls had by more traditional versions of the argument from evil.

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Challenging Peter William’s Challenge to Stephen Law’s Evil God Challenge

I’m listening to a podcast of Christian apologist Peter William’s response to Stephen Law’s Evil God Challenge. I haven’t finished the video, but I’m finding that the argument he presents is remarkably defeasible. First, I will explain Law’s Evil God Challenge and follow it with William’s response. Lastly, I will explain why I think it fails.

Law’s Evil God Challenge presents a reason to think that traditional theodicies cannot work as defences against the Problem of Evil.

First consider the Evidential Problem of Evil (EPE); i.e. that there is suffering in the world is evidence that there is unlikely to be a supremely good being. In response, theists can provide a variety of theodicies — that bad things happen for some mysterious reason (God works in mysterious ways), or that bad things happen because people have free will, or some other response. It’s unclear whether any of these theodicies can actually deflate EPE, and the intuitions of theists often run counter to those of atheists on this question.

However, Law asks us to next consider a maximally evil god. Most of us would say that there is just too much good stuff in the world to think that a maximally evil god could exist. Nonetheless, an evil god advocate could provide us with mirror theodicies — good things happen for some mysterious reason (evil God works in mysterious ways), or good things happen because people have free will, or some other response.

Most people — theists and non-theists — think that these mirror theodicies are not particularly good defences of the evil god. There’s still too much good in the world for there to be a maximally evil god. Yet they are constructed in complete parallel with the regular theodicies (there’s more detail and argument for this point in his original paper). Thus, the regular theodicies can not work and EPE is a defeater for a maximally good being after all.

Williams’ response is that:

1. Law ignores the traditional [Christian] metaphysics of good/evil, where evil is “parasitical” on good (it’s unclear to me what Williams means here, but I assume that he means that evil was thought, by the Scholastics, to be only the absence of good);

2. Since evil is parasitical on good, it cannot exist without good existing;

3. Conclusion: Therefore, while there could be a maximally good being, there could not be a maximally evil being.

This fails in a number of ways. Here are two.

The Meta Response: Look, the evil god believer could just have their own metaphysics of good/evil. For example:

1. Williams ignores the evil god metaphysics of good/evil, where good is “parasitical” on evil (good is the absence of evil);

2. Since good is parasitical on evil, it cannot exist without evil existing;

3. Conclusion: Therefore, while there could be a maximally evil being, there could not be a maximally good being.

The Little-Bit-Of-Good Response: Williams is right that a completely evil being could not exist, but no one said anything about that. We’re discussing a maximally evil being. Since a totally evil being could not exist, a maximally evil being is one which has the smallest bit of good that a being could have. Actually, this provides us with a new evil God theodicy — there are good things in the world because the evil God has a little bit of good in Her. But, like all other evil God theodicies, this one isn’t very intuitively strong. Unlike other evil God theodicies, the good God mirror theodicy is intuitively weak to theists and non-theists alike — bad things happen in the world because good God has a little bit of evil in Her.


For Law’s original paper on the Evil God Challenge (which appeared in the journal Religious Studies), see here.

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Happy Birthday Isaac Newton! (and: So what did Newton think about God?)

Godfrey Kneller’s 1689 portrait of Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

Isaac Newton was born on December 25th, 1642; thus, many Freethinkers and science fans celebrate Newton’s birth on Christmas day. Since today is Newton’s birthday and this is an atheism blog, I’d like to ask — what were Newton’s views on God? To answer that question, I’ll first present a brief description of Newton’s context. Then, I will include, in full, a letter which Newton wrote to a clergyman in 1692 describing his religious views.

Although not a typical believer, Newton did have a belief in a god of some kind. However, he certainly should not be thought as an orthodox Christian by any stretch of the imagination. Newton was a heretic. He rejected the trinity and embraced alchemy; Isaac Kramnick described Newton as anticipating Enlightenment deism (Kramnick, 1995).

One has to understand that in Newton’s time, there was no such thing as science. Science would emerge in the 19th century; in Newton’s day (mid to late 17th century), there was natural philosophy and natural theology, both of which Newton did, and both of which, to some extent, were the precursors to modern science.

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Paley Plagiarised

William Paley plagiarized his watchmaker argument.

In 1802, William Paley published his famous Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, which was based largely on Enlightenment era theology. In the book, Paley argues for the existence of God by arguing by analogy between watches and organisms. Living things, Paley argued, are just as complex and ordered as pocket watches are. Thus, we should infer the existence of a cosmic Watchmaker (i.e. God). Of course, this is the argument which contemporary Intelligent Design advocates use.

But regardless of the contemporary political issues surrounding the argument, there are multiple intriguing questions which can be raised about the argument. One such question is how we come to recognize which objects are designed. After all, archaeologists are able to distinguish designed from non-designed objects all the time; surely, even if Paley’s argument fails on multiple levels (which it does), there should be a way to characterize what archaeologists are doing. That’s a question that I raise in a paper I’ve been working on. But another sort of question one can ask is about the historical origins of the argument.

In his book Darwin and the Divine, historical theologian Alister McGrath pretty conclusively shows* that Paley plagiarized large portions of the watchmaker argument. Consider this passage from Bernard Nieuwentyt (1750):

So many different wheels, nicely adapted by their teeth to each other… Those wheels are made of brass, in order to keep them from rust; the spring is steel, no other metal being so proper for that purpose… Over the hand there is placed a clear glass, in the place of which if there were any other than a transparent substance, he must be at the pains of opening it every time to look upon the hand.

And now consider this passage from Paley:

A series of wheels, the teeth of which catch in and apply to each other… The wheels are made of brass, in order to keep them from rust; the spring of steel, no other metal being so elastic … Over the face of the watch there is placed a glass, a material employed in no other part of the work, but in the room of which if there had been any other than a transparent substance, the hour could not have been seen without opening the case.

Comparing them line by line, they’re virtually identical. And according to McGrath, Paley didn’t think to even cite Nieuwentyt in the first edition of his book.


According to McGrath, he’s not the first person to comment on this. But this was the first time I’d ever come across allegations that Paley plagiarized.

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Review of Plantinga & Dennett’s “Science & Religion: Are They Compatible?”

When I found out that Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett co-authored a book, I was shocked. I could not think of two more diametrically opposed philosophers. It turned out that the book, entitled “Science and Religion”, resulted from a debate between the two famed philosophers at the American Philosophical Division Meeting in Chicago for 2009. The book consists of alternating short readings from each philosopher. The book contains a transcript of the original debate along with two more essays from each philosopher. Having now read the book, I think that Plantinga largely missed the point of Dennett’s arguments and that Dennett was probably more terse than he should have been.

The debate organisers had asked the two philosophers to discuss whether science and religion were compatible. However, the debate topic promptly changed when both philosophers agreed that there was no logical inconsistency between theism and science.

I’ll start by describing the arguments given by the respective parties and then offer commentary on some aspects of Plantinga’s argument I found problematic. Then I will briefly describe the response that I think Plantinga should have given to Dennett, followed by the response that I think Dennett would have given.

Plantinga argues:

1. Theism — in particular, Christian theism (Plantinga calls this “classical theism”) — is compatible with modern evolutionary theory. According to Plantinga, evolutionary theory is consistent with the idea that God guided the evolutionary process. One might object that evolution is random (and is therefore unguided). However, no part of evolutionary theory states that evolutionary events do not have causes; in fact, there are (often) causes cited for mutations. One such cause could be divine intervention.

2. The reliability of our beliefs is inconsistent with the conjunct of evolution and naturalism (where naturalism is *defined* as strong atheism — i.e. as the belief that are is no God or god-like beings). Plantinga argues that evolution cares only about adaptivity, not about truth tracking.


3. In response to (1): True, at least some forms of theism are consistent with evolution. But many things are logically consistent with evolution and that they are consistent is not evidence that theism is the case. Consider Supermanism — the thesis that Superman (son of Jor-El and an alien from the planet Krypton) caused the Cambrian explosion.

In response to (2): Dennett provides two replies:

4. Human brains evolved to track truth; that they do so is a sign that they are functioning properly. Just as the proper functioning of our hearts is to pump blood, the proper functioning of our neurophysiology is to produce correct beliefs about the world. Importantly, Dennett argues that the various parts of our bodies have functions to which they were tuned by evolution. Our hearts pump blood efficiently because that is the function they evolved to have. Brains track truth because that is what brains were evolved to do. So, evolution *is* truth tracking after all.

5. While it is true that our beliefs are, at least in part, the product of our neurophysiological states, they are also the product of our collective cultural evolution, discourse, and deliberation. So, while there might be poor beliefs that are produced by evolution, cultural evolution tends to expunge the bad and leave us with the good (this is why scientific — or, more generally, intellectual — progress is possible at all).


6. In response to (3) (in particular, to Supermanism): Plantinga characterises the Superman thought experiment as trying to show that theism is absurd (or just as absurd as supermanism). Plantinga argues that Dennett, and the other New Atheists, may think that theism is absurd (or as absurd as Supermanism), but they have not provided an argument to show this point (or so Plantinga asserts). Plantinga argues that since there are a tremendous number of religious people in the world, and they do not appear to be irrational, it’s not clear that theistic belief is irrational. Thus, it would be incumbent on the New Atheists to argue for the irrationality of theism, something which Plantinga charges they have not done.

7. In response to (4): Plantinga does not think that organisms need to have accurate belief states in order to survive. Rather, organisms only require unconscious indicators that result in “correct” actions when provided with a given stimulus.

8. Plantinga does not provide a response to (5).


I think that there are a number of problems with Plantinga’s strategy. One particularly vexing problem concerns (6). Plantinga mischaracterises Dennett’s argument. Arguing that theism is absurd (or as absurd as Supermanism) would be a rather poor rhettorical strategy; after all, Tertullian* notwithstanding, presumably no one holds beliefs which they think are absurd (again, in the Supermanism sense). However, that’s not what Dennett appears to be arguing.

The argument which Dennett presents concerns the burden of proof.

When Plantinga argues that theism is compatible with modern evolutionary theory, Dennett is right to respond with agreement. There are many things which are logically consistent with our best scientific theories, but the more interesting question is which of those things is the case. Supermanism is one idea which is logically consistent with our best scientific theories, but we do not think Supermanism is something that anyone should believe. Thus, Dennett presses Plantinga to do more than just argue for the logical consistency of theism with evolution. Dennett asks, can Plantinga provide us with a positive argument for theism? Dennett’s argument was categorically not to assert that theism is an absurd claim (though, no doubt, Dennett does think that).

In this book, Plantinga does not provide us with a positive argument for theism; instead, all he can offer is an argument against what he calls naturalism (really, a strong form of atheism). However, to be consistent with the rest of his work, there is a response that Plantinga should have given to Dennett instead of the one that he gave.

Plantinga should have responded that he does not need to give a positive argument for classical theism. Plantinga thinks that there is an additional sense — the sensis devinitatis — which provides human beings with non-propositional information concerning the existence of God. On Plantinga’s account of religious justification, theists are justified in their beliefs because belief in God is properly basic in virtue of having been caused by the sensus divinitatis. On Plantinga’s account, theists are people who have the proper sort of sensory experience to justify god-beliefs. Just as we do not ask people to justify that they are having the experience of the color purple when they see a purple object, Plantinga thinks people do not have to justify their having theistic beliefs.

In turn, Dennett could have responded with at least two arguments:

–that the best explanation of religious belief is not that it is caused by the sensus divinitatis. Rather, the best explanation would be in terms of standard evolutionary psychology, cultural evolution, sociology, anthrology, etc (that is, the sort of thing Dennett details in “Breaking the Spell”). Naturalistic (though not in Plantinga’s sense!) explanations of religious belief and  experiences are capable of explaining much more than classical theism (for example, they can give good explanations of the global diversity of religion. They can also explain why we see the sort of religions that we do and not others, etc).

–even if the best explanation of religious belief was the sensus divinitatis, if non-theists are truthful about their belief states, then they apparently lack the sensus divinitatis (or atheists have an inactive sensus divinitatis, etc). If theists would like to convince non-theists then it is incumbent on them to provide other lines of argument/evidence than to appeal to non-propositional sensory experiences which are closed off to the rest of us (or so they would claim). Theists certainly do not have to convince non-theists, but one would think that the point of debate is to convince those who disagree with oneself. Thus, while some theists might claim that they do not want to convince others, they should refrain from asserting arguments for their position. Furthermore, given Plantinga’s account of religious beliefs, theists might think that convincing an atheist that God exists would be rather like trying to convince a blind person that you are experiencing purple. Since such an endeavour would be utterly futile, debate would be pointless. However, Plantinga both participated in a debate with Dennett and writes books arguing for theism. Thus, Plantinga presumably thinks that there is a point to the debate.


*Tertullian famously stated: “Credo quia absurdum” — “I believe because it is absurd.”

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Virginia Tech/Liberty U Debate on the Existence of God

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Playing with Aquinas

In Philosophy of Religion, we’ve been discussing Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God. After class today, I showed the professor a few objections that I had arrived at which he confessed to not having heard of or even thought about before. I thought that I’d share them here.

Aquinas thought there were only a finite number of events in the past and that, since there are only a finite number of events in the past, there must have been a first event. Of course, from the existence of a first event, he wants to claim that there must have been an uncaused cause — something non-physical which causally determines the existence of the universe (non-physical because he commits himself to the view that all physical things require causes. Thus, by Aquinas’ lights, anything that is non-caused must be non-physical.) He identifies this non-physical thing as God.

This has me asking the following.

Do all events have a finite amount of time between them? If they do, then the universe can have some finite age. If they do not, it’s possible to have a set of past events between which there is, at best, an infinitesimal amount of time. If this latter situation occurs, then adding together all past time intervals over a finite amount of events gives us a set of measure zero. In other words, no time would have past at all. There is a pretty good reason to think that the latter is the case. Under a certain view about what causation is, we can imagine Aquinas to be talking about each space-time slice causing the next space-time slice. That is to say, the conditions at t_n are responsible for causing those at t_n+1. Furthermore, that events are just the temporal slices. Objections pertaining to relativity are just complications; we can imagine constructing something like this from the vantage point of any inertial frame that you wish. Thus, if Aquinas commits himself to the view that there are a finite number of events in the past and to a certain view about what an event is, then we can construct a pretty strong reductio against him.

But Aquinas is really trying to argue that there must have been a first cause, not that there must have been a finite number of events in the past. If we take some closed subset of the real line, there will be a first element on the line. Thus, even with an uncountably infinite number of past events, we do not have to commit ourselves to the non-existence of a first cause.

However, this is problematic for the following reason. We could have just as well taken an open interval on the real line and mapped it to events. Explicitly:

Construct some finite open sub-set of the real line. Call this L. Now, map the points along L to points along the time line T representing the continuum of all past events. The successor relation on L corresponds to the causal relation along T. Since each member of L has a successor and there is no first member (by construction), all events on T have causes and there is no first cause.

The Hume-Edwards principle states:

If the existence of every member of a set is explained, the existence of that set is thereby explained. (From Pruss’ “The Hume-Edwards Principle and the Cosmological Argument”)

Now, if Hume-Edwards is correct — and I think it is — then an adequate explanation for the universe can be given by citing the causes for each member of T in terms of some other member of T. Since there is no first cause on T, but each member of T has both a successor and a preceding element on T, an adequate explanation of the universe can be given without citing supernatural causes (provided that the universe envisioned in this thought experiment corresponds to our actual universe.)

Of course, we have no reason to think that there is no actual first event, but what this does adequately show is that a large space of possible defences of Aquinas are insufficient to establish the existence of a first cause.

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A Basic Guide To Converting Me

Edit: Here’s precisely how to be unsuccessful at converting me (note: the messages at the bottom of the video were not created by me):

It has been an interesting intellectual exercise for me to try to posit what would convince me that God exists. That is to say, is there a hypothetical situation in which I would be compelled to believe that there is, in fact, a god or gods? Of course, I am not presently a religious person, so, as one would surmise, all attempts to provide reasons why one should believe have failed to convince me (if they had succeeded, I would be religious.)

What I would like to address here is two-fold: first, why do religious conversion attempts (specifically those made by Evangelical Christians) fail to convince me of anything and, second, what would convince me that a god (or gods) exist.

First, what does present religious conversion look like, especially in the Christian context? Here, I will talk about why I do not find these methods convincing. In other words, this is how not to convert me. I’ll be presenting a case study on the Roman Roads conversion method (the only empirical data I could find with regards to conversion I did not find satisfactory for a variety of reasons. Therefore, we’ll have to stick to this case study.) I chose the Roman Roads conversion method because, from those Christians I spoke to, it appears to be quite common. However, I suspect that much of what I have to say is applicable to other methods as well.

Before proceeding, I should state that many Christians to whom I have spoken feel the word “conversion” is inappropriate (I did have one non-Christian person communicate with me who felt that, with regards to his beliefs, the word was inappropriate as well. However, not all religious people are interested in whether or not other people accept what they believe as true. Therefore conversion is not an active part of the religious experiences of all peoples.) For the Christians that I spoke to, the point is to introduce someone to Jesus so that they can have their own personal relationship with God (who is also Jesus, since the ones I spoke to were Trinitarians.) To me, that sounds completely indistinguishable from simply converting to their religion, but I want to make pains not to force my own personal biases onto them. Rather, I will simply state that, for the purposes of this article, “converting” to any given religion x means coming to accept whatever ontological precepts one needs to have in order to be a good x-ist. Thus, as an example, in the context of modern American Protestant Christianity, one might often speak of a spiritual re-birth experience (e.g., being “born again”.) That sort of experience involves a few different factors — first and foremost of which is accepting that God exists and that Jesus Christ is your personal savior. These are ontological commitments, and taking them on is what I would term religious conversion.

One popular method for religious conversion is what is termed the Roman Roads to Salvation. My friend J is an ex-Christian from an extremely conservative background. She was the one who initially told me about the Roman Roads. She had this to say as a description of how she would have tried to convert someone when she was a Christian:

Start with some 10 commandments based questions (ie: Have you ever lied? Have you ever taken the Lord’s name in vain? Have you ever disrespected your parents? Have you ever been jealous? Well, that makes you a jealous, lying, etc, person… so if you’ve broken God’s law in so many ways, can you expect to go to heaven based on your works?)

1. So begins the Roman Road. They have acknowledged that they are a sinner, so we repeat that verse saying that God expected that of them anyway. Romans 3:23 ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’

2. We’ve hinted at heaven vs. hell, so here comes Romans 6:23a ‘…The wages of sin is death…’ which means eternal separation from the glory of God, in hell, a place of torment, crying, and gnashing of teeth.

3. But you don’t have to go to hell! God loves you and made a way for you to spend eternity with him… you just have to accept this gift. Romans 6:23b ‘…But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

4. Explanation of said gift: Romans 5:8, ‘God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us!’

5. To accept this gift, this is all you have to do: Romans 10:13 ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved!’

However, J wasn’t the only person with whom I communicated on the subject. Asking only an ex-Christian turned atheist about this might bias the presentation in some way; I therefore turn to T who is presently a Christian. He states:

“yeah man, i mean [J]’s roman road comment is pretty standard, the only thing i would add is that the goal isn’t bringing people into a religion, its bringing people into a relationship with Christ. Christianity isn’t the emphasis, Christ is. When im sharing the gospel with someone, my aim isn’t to try to convert them to my religion, my goal is to introduce them to Christ. Doing ‘religious’ things and ‘being a good christian’ doesn’t save you, faith in Christ does. Prayer is at the heart of that as well. petitioning Christ on the behalf of others and praying that others would come to salvation. Ephesians 3:14-19… Simply giving convincing arguments isn’t the goal either. 1 Corinthians 1:21. yes we are to provide a defense for our faith, 1 peter 3:15, but salvation doesn’t come from head knowledge but from the power of God 1 Corinthians 2:1-5″

I talked to a few other ex-Christians who said essentially the same things. If you’re one of my Christian readers, the Roman Roads method might seem to you to be a wonderful reason to believe in a God. After all, you think, we’re all sinners and deserve to be damned. God loves us, but in his pure goodness is morally outraged with us humans. Nonetheless, he loves us so much that your deity was kind enough to provide an escape hatch to get out of being plunged into eternal torment. How arrogant might one have to be, you might wonder, to defy God? To defy the very creator of the Universe? And, besides, it likely fills you with religious ecstasy to know that God loves you so much that it can all be forgiven.

In fact, the beginning of the routine is probably true. None of us are perfect, and, by virtue of having one fault or another, we probably have all done bad things in our lives. I wouldn’t couch my description of the inherent imperfection of all people in terms of sin, but in so far as sin is indistinguishable from wrongdoing, I think there is something close to an apt description of the natural condition of people.

I remember something that was once pointed out to me in the context of Buddhism. In that religion, it is also believed that people have some inherent fault. In Buddhism, instead of having a sinful nature, the inherent fault is the suffering we all have from the impermanence of life and our endless thirst for the cessation thereof. To Buddhists, the first thing one needs to do to get on the path to Enlightenment, which represents the true cessation of suffering, is to accept that life is suffering.

However, this concept of suffering isn’t necessarily a good translation of what was originally meant in the Dharma. The actual word which is used to describe this suffering is Dukkha. Dukkha can also be translated loosely as “discontent” or “unsatisfactoriness”. It was once explained to me as being something like finding a wheelbarrow whose two handles are slightly, although nearly imperceptibly, different in length (I think this is actually in Huston Smith’s “World Religions”, but I couldn’t find my copy.) When one uses the wheelbarrow, one senses that there is something which is inherently wrong about the whole thing; it just doesn’t feel right. There’s something missing (in this case, a few fractions of an inch) from one’s experience of using the wheelbarrow. A Christian or a Buddhist would say that some similar feeling of unease or discomfort is felt by someone before they take on whatever particular ontological stance; in the case of a Christian, this would be accepting some set of propositions about Jesus and God (which particular set depends on the particular form of Christianity.) C.S. Lewis talks about something like this early on in Mere Christianity, and I remember being distinctly reminded of Buddhism when I read it.

Well, this is precisely where all of this fails. If you really want to introduce me to Christ, to having my own personal relationship with your deity, then you can’t start by assuming that I already know that he exists. I don’t know that he exists; if I did, I would already be a member of your religion. Even if my experience were somehow imperfect — either by way of Dukkha or because of some inherently sinful nature or something else — it doesn’t stand to reason that your religious convictions are automatically true. There is no principle that I know of which says that our experiences need to be perfect. In point of fact, quite often, our experiences are imperfect regardless of religious belief. I don’t have any empirical data on how often religious or non-religious people have bad days (or the ratio between the two), but I do know that simply being religious does not make one immune from negative experiences (something for which I only need a single example.) In fact, some of the happiest societies on Earth are non-religious. According to a major study by sociologist Phil Zuckerman (Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns):

High levels of organic atheism are strongly correlated with high levels of societal health, such as low homicide rates, low poverty rates, low infant mortality rates, and low illiteracy rates, as well as high levels of educational attainment, per capita income, and gender equality. Most nations characterized by high degrees of individual and societal security have the highest rates of organic atheism, and conversely, nations characterized by low degrees of individual and societal security have the lowest rates of organic atheism. In some societies, particularly Europe, atheism is growing. However, throughout much of the world – particularly nations with high birth rates – atheism is barely discernible.

In fact, nearly all indices of societal health and of happiness are strongly anti-correlated with indices of religiosity in societies. According to another study, this one by Gregory S Paul (“Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”):

In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies… The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a ‘shining city on the hill’ to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health. Youth suicide is an exception to the general trend because there is not a significant relationship between it and religious or secular factors. No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional. None of the strongly secularized, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction. In some cases the highly religious U.S. is an outlier in terms of societal dysfunction from less theistic but otherwise socially comparable secular developed democracies. In other cases, the correlations are strongly graded, sometimes outstandingly so.

Thus, it would appear that the degree of religiosity does not influence either the health of a society or the happiness of people. So far as any one can tell, in the sense being advocated by the Roman Roads, there is simply no indication that people are better off with religion than without it (at least before death. It’s possible that everyone in, say, Sweden is going to hell.) Some sociologists and anthropologists have advanced the claim that religions are advantageous adaptations to the groups which develop them, promoting things like group unity. Similar statements can be made about sports fandom and nationalism (and probably lie behind certain forms of ethnocentrism as well.) However, group selection in human populations is a contentious issue and, even if true, would not give more credence to this Roman Roads business.

A religious person might object that this contradicts both Romans and certain interpretations, namely Anselm’s, of the 14th Psalm. They’d say that everyone does inherently know that God exists, and to deny this is simply to delude oneself. Citing the 14th Psalm, they’d say that only the immoral or the fool (depending on translation) deny that God exists. Nonetheless, before I can take either of those objections seriously, I need to first be convinced that the Bible is a reliable source of information not just generally but with regards to those two points. And, as far the 14th Psalm is concerned, I’d need to be convinced that this is an accurate reading of that text as well (which I presently doubt, though I also disagree with what I think the writer intended.) Arguing that we inherently know that God exists not only is a mismatch with my own experience, but is a mismatch with the available scientific data. According to several studies (for instance, see this one and this one), young children tend to make naturalistic and non-supernatural explanations and have to be taught to make supernatural explanations (although the onset of supernatural or magical beliefs occurs around the age of 5, so that there might well be psychological factors which predispose people to beliefs in various kinds of supernatural or magical beings.)

If belief in God were inherent, it would not have to be taught; if anything, one would need to do work to actively displace these sort of innate beliefs by non-belief. Instead, we find that there are plenty of cultures around the world which lack belief in a god. Some cultures lack anything even resembling what anthropologists usually identify as religion, the Piraha in Brazil being the most heavily publicised example. This is one reason that only 32% of the world’s population are Christians (as of 2005; see here).

In order to cause me to believe a given thing, you have to compel me — one way or another — that the proposition is more likely to be true than not true. By starting off by saying that I am a sinner and that Jesus is the true path of personal salvation in the afterlife, and not showing that any of the various things assumed to exist by this set of propositions actually in fact exist, you’ve actually given me reason to simply shrug off what you’re trying to communicate. Anyone could come up to me and tell me any story about some particular thing being the true path of salvation after death. What you need to do is to show me why I should accept your view on this subject.

Some, especially those participating in Western Abrahamic monotheisms, might say that one simply needs to have faith. This fails on several levels. First, there are those who say that we all have faith in something. Rubbish. I have trust in many people who have earned it based on prior experience. Likewise, there are various statements I believe to be true of the world, but those have all passed certain kinds of tests to compel me to believe them to be the case. I would not say that I have anything like faith, or, at least, the usual conception of faith. Nor do I see having faith — believing in a given proposition for no rational reason — as a virtue. I see it as horrendously dangerous and probably unintelligible. It’s certainly possible that I am wrong, but if you want to convince me that I am wrong, you have to show me why I should want to have faith. But there’s an even deeper problem here, and I would very much like to drive this home. If you find yourself having to prove to me that faith is a pathway to knowledge prior to proving to me that God exists, then you have placed yourself in the position of having to prove two things instead of just one. That’s a rather poor argumentative technique, and I would recommend that any person who is arguing for any position at all, not unduly burden themselves by arguing for more than they have to. Therefore, unless you want to multiply your own difficulty for some perverse reason, stick to arguing for the existence of God more directly.

What are some things that I might be more receptive to?

First, understand that I see this as an intellectual debate. You’re trying to convince me that some set of  propositions are true, and I’m skeptical; I remain unconvinced that any of them are true. Again, you might not see this as being anything like an intellectual debate, but if you try arguing that point, we’ll be sidetracked off into arguing about what should be going on here. Again, you’ve unduly burdened yourself with arguing for many more things than you absolutely had to. You’re less likely to convince me if you do that. Instead, a wiser move for you would be to simply accept the framework of a debate and present solid arguments or evidence for your position as you would for any other position.

Second, understand my position. I am an agnostic atheist. I would categorically deny that I actively believe in the non-existence of any gods or that agnosticism and atheism are necessarily separate. I would also deny that atheism is a religion. Rather, I disbelieve and remain skeptical about those gods. Don’t like that definition of my own position? That’s unfortunate; if you argue with me about how I describe my own position, you’re again unduly burdening yourself. That takes us down a side-path that we don’t need to go down. Even if you suddenly convinced me that I was using language incorrectly, I still would be no where near to accepting your position. Similarly, when speaking about my position, don’t mischaracterise it; that’s what’s called a straw-man. Realize that I am the expert about the things that I do and don’t believe, and the various positions I take on all manner of propositions (in fact, that’s a trivial observation of all humans; each individual is the expert on themselves. That’s not an arrogant statement; I expect that you’re an expert on your own beliefs as well.)

Third, understand your own beliefs and the history of your own religion. It’s quite likely that I’m already well versed in the precepts and the history of your religion. If I detect that something is amiss in your own understanding of your own tradition, I’m going to be very rapidly losing patience with you. Especially if I need to actually teach you about the actual history of your own religion. This includes being well versed on your holy texts (if your religion has them) and the various scholarly positions (from literary theory, archeology, etc) that have been formed around that text. For Christians and Jews, amongst other things, this means knowing the Documentary Hypothesis and modern critical/source analysis.

Fourth, don’t egregiously abuse language either by misunderstanding or by purposeful obfuscation. Often, when I talk to lay religious people, they say to me, “you think that facts are really important” or “you’re all about facts, aren’t you?” They don’t mean the word “facts” at all, and this is a terrible confusion of language. We’re both all about facts; I’d say that just about every one is. It’s simply that there is a different set of facts we believe to be true, and we accept different ways of accessing facts. After all, if you think that it is not a fact that your god exists, then what exactly are you trying to convince me of? To believe false things? No, you’re trying to convince me that it is a fact that God exists. And you likely think that there are certain facts that we can access only through feelings or through faith or some such, and that I am relying too heavily on other kinds of faculties (perhaps you think I’m being too scientific.) Be honest about that. Don’t obfuscate either; that is to say, don’t use confusing aphorisms that you don’t really understand yourself. Don’t tell me that “god is just an energy” or some other such nonsense; depending on what you say, you’re likely to either get a lecture from me on semantic content or on what scientific terms (like “energy”) actually mean. So be damn sure that you know what you’re saying and how to properly say it.

Fifth, I already know the most famous arguments for the existence of God or for belief therein — the teleological argument, the transcendent argument, the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, Pascal’s Wager, and Paley’s watchmaker argument. I have read many of those arguments from their original sources, know many of their different incarnations, and I’m extremely well versed in the historical objections to those arguments. For many of them, I’ve even formulated my own counter-arguments. If you think that one of those arguments is going to convince me, then you should be able, and be prepared, to provide a strong counter to all of my objections. That means, at the very least, knowing what objections were made historically. Otherwise, I’d say that you should try to come up with a new argument. Get creative! Read widely in the philosophy literature, know what formal and informal fallacies exist, and know how to avoid them. Don’t just slip back to whatever C.S. Lewis (or your favorite theologian) has to say; it’s likely I’ve read them and know what fallacies they commit and where. It should go without saying, but I won’t let it, that you should know deductive logic if you are going to present deductive arguments. Know how deduction fits with induction and abduction as well; this is freshman level philosophy.

Sixth, understand that I am extremely open to scientific evidence, probably even above deductive arguments. But if you are going to try to provide scientific evidence for the existence of your god, understand the science you are presenting. I am a scientist, so the moment you go there, you’re stepping foot on to my turf. Be prepared to defend your supposed evidence against an onslaught of attacks. This is how scientists are with our colleagues; we routinely tear each other’s ideas apart (or try to) and it’s precisely what we want from our colleagues. Most scientific work is relatively mundane compared to the proposition that there is a god; it should take a tremendous bit of work to prove something as Earth shattering as that. If your argument can’t even withstand the sort of attacks that we put normal scientific work through, how am I supposed to be able to take it seriously?

Lastly, I’ll give an example of something that would make me inclined to believe that it was more likely that an intelligent being (of some kind) created the Universe than that one did not. Not all of my friends agree that this would compel them to believe in something like a god, but it would certainly push me in that direction.

In the early universe, there was a hot dense plasma in which light was strongly coupled to matter. As soon as light was emitted, it was re-absorbed. For this reason, light could not propagate widely in the universe. However, as the universe cooled and expanded, the gas spread out. Eventually, light became de-coupled from the plasma. At that moment, the first light to be emitted was sent out into the universe at 299792458 meters per second.

Today, we can still detect that cosmic afterglow of the Big Bang. It’s called the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR.) My astrophysics colleagues are continuing to retrieve ever higher resolution images of the CMBR, and it gives them information for what the universe looked like just moments after the Big Bang. It’s one of our best clues about what the infant universe would have looked like.

Imagine that one day in the future, a number of astrophysicists retrieve a super high resolution image of the CMBR and it’s shown to contain an intelligible message visible only with a sufficiently high resolution. Maybe it’s the Ten Commandments written in Hebrew. Or some message traditionally attributed to Ahura Mazda. Or perhaps a message written in some non-human language, but still easily identifiable as something said by an intelligent being. Regardless, finding something like that would be very likely to compel me to a state of belief. As yet, my colleagues have not found such a thing.