Category Archives: philosophy

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Why I do debate theists

I deeply respect my fellow contributor Jaime Wise (who blogs as the Token Christian). It was certainly brave for a Christian to come blog with us here at Skeptic Freethought; I don’t actually know of any other Freethought website with a theistic contributor. I like the sense of openness and dialogue that this offers, and I like the unique voice that we can carve out in the community.

However, I take a very different approach than she does to this topic. Jaime dislikes debate, whereas I like debate and think debate can be morally obligatory.

She describes three reasons for her attitude with regards to debate:

1. She doesn’t particularly like debating; she’d rather connect with people in a “respectful” way, with “discussion and inquiry”.

2. As someone whose training is in creative writing, Jaime does not feel that she has the requisite skills to be a religious apologist.

3. Jaime wrote that, “I not only haven’t won any formal theological debates, I refuse to participate in them. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in the issue, far from it. It’s not that I got my butt kicked in a debate, I haven’t. What’s changed is that while I’m happy to discus my religious views, I now believe it is ethically wrong for me to formally defend of them.” Why? The failure of the Christian church to apologise for past misdeeds. She writes that the “church can’t defend itself until it stops defending itself.”

I should first note that I do not necessarily disagree with any of these three, though I might disagree very strongly with the details.

As for the first two, people who do not feel themselves up to the challenge of debating an issue as complex as religion can (should?) abstain from doing so. I sincerely wish that more people would take that message to heart in other complex issues — politics, for example. I do disagree with her about whether debating has to be done in a disrespectful way, but more on that in a moment.

There is much that I can relate to in Jaime’s (3) as well. As a cis-gendered, white male who cares about LGBTQ and Feminist issues, I do sometimes find myself in situations where being mindful of my privilege is extremely important.

There are times when I do not think it is right for me to engage in argument, even if my intuitions lean in other directions. I try to be mindful of the fact that my privilege produces certain epistemic barriers; I cannot really know what it is like to be female (for example). As a Christian dialoguing with the atheist community, Jaime is wise to be mindful of her own privilege.

Unlike in the LGBTQ or Feminist communities, I do not think there is any kind of widespread consensus about what an atheist-ally would be like; but those who wish to be allies should probably take their cues from the role of such a person in other communities. As such, I can understand the idea of abstaining from debate.

However, there are important reasons that I take a different approach to these issues than Jaime does.

I mentioned before that I do not think that debate is necessarily disrespectful. I think that’s just wrong; I strongly believe that debate can be done in a way which is respectful.

In fact, in the various academic disciplines I’ve been involved in, debate is part and parcel of taking an idea seriously. If an idea is not taken seriously, it is ignored (and not debated). Sometimes an idea is debated, but is still seen as absurd or silly. In those situations, there are other reasons (possibly pragmatic reasons) for taking the idea at least seriously enough to pay attention to it. For example, scientists will sometimes debate Creationists. Not because scientists take Creationism seriously as an academic view (they do not) but because there are pragmatic and political reasons for engaging with the general public (which does take Creationism seriously) for momentarily regarding Creationism with enough dignity to argue against it.

When a colleague presents a new paper at a conference, symposium, or colloquium, it is part of our professional responsibility to point out flaws and offer constructive criticism (or, if appropriate, to shred the author’s ideas).

This past year, I offered commentary on a paper at a philosophy of science conference at Virginia Tech. Commentaries are offered after an author presents their paper. My commentary was designed to point out a number of technical issues in the paper, including a couple which I viewed as crippling objections.

Of course, not every one is interested in doing this sort of thing professionally. Jaime indicates that she has no wish to be a professional theologian or religious apologist. I’d take it to be the case that she would not want to be a philosopher either.

There is another reason that debate is important. Jaime brings up her wish to do inquiry. I believe that inquiry is sometimes only possible through debate. In fact, that is why we use debate in the professional, academic context; we want to get to the truth of the matter, and sometimes the only way to do so is by argumentation.

There is also an ethical reason for doing debate.

I think that most people would agree that, for a rational person, beliefs determine what actions we take. In so far as we would like to be rational beings, we should want our beliefs to appropriately line up with the external world. Of course, our chances of having completely accurate beliefs are very slim. Nonetheless, our beliefs can approximate the world. We can construct mental models of our environments and how to best interact with those environments. In turn, those mental models can be freely modified as we acquire additional data (up to and including expunging with our current mental models and starting anew). We have the best chance of successfully interacting with the world if we use the most reliable methods for constructing and subsequently updating those models. In part, that means we have the best chance of avoiding immoral activity, harming others, and so on, provided that we reason appropriately.

Most Conservative Christians believe that gay marriage would destroy the institution of marriage and that the institution of marriage should be protected. Of course, I disagree with them about the former (I don’t see any reason legalizing gay marriage would do anything other than letting gay people get married), but if they were right, then it would be vitally important for gay marriage to be illegal. If gay marriage would really wreak the amount of destruction which some conservatives think it would do, then we would all be obliged not to see it put into effect.

But I think there are good reasons to believe that Conservatives are wrong. Therefore, I think there are good reasons to fight them on that issue.

When someone else is noticeably reasoning inappropriately, that represents a potential harm both to themselves and to others. Of course, it is often extremely difficult to determine when someone is believing or reasoning inappropriately.

This is the importance of subjecting one’s beliefs to the marketplace of ideas; through both dialogue and debate we are most likely to construct accurate models of the external world.

Alister McGrath C.S. Lewis Christianity Karl Popper philosophy science and religion

Christianity Explains Too Much

This week I’m speaking in my Philosophy of Science seminar on Karl Popper’s Falsificationism. Reading over the assigned reading, I’ve been reminded of a statement made by C.S. Lewis and I think it raises some questions about the peculiar sort of justifications given by Christians for their beliefs. Stated briefly, I think Christianity explains too much.

Karl Popper was concerned with answering the question S: “What is science and what distinguishes it from pseudoscience?” In his “Science: Conjectures and Refutations”, Popper states the problem as: “Is there a criterion for the scientific character or status of a theory?” More generally, one can ask what is sui generis (or special) about science or its methodology. He was not concerned with whether or not a scientific theory was true or false; rather, he was concerned with what properties made a given theory properly scientific. False scientific theories are still scientific. Answering S is known as the Demarcation Problem. While most present philosophers would agree that Popper’s answer is naive, I think it does capture some good intuitions.

Popper’s answer to S is that scientific hypotheses (or statements) need to be
falsifiable. He reaches that conclusion by comparing Adlerian and Freudian psychological theories on the one hand and General Relativity on the other.

He wrote:

I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appeared to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refused to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still ‘un-analysed’ and crying aloud for treatment.

The problem with Marx, Adler, and Freud (according to Popper) is that these theories do not provide conditions under which we would conclude that they are false. They are consistent with all possible situations. More importantly, Adlerian and Freudian psychoanalysis provide distinct (and sometimes contradictory) explanations for human behaviour. They cannot both be true, but they cannot be distinguished on the basis of experiment.

Furthermore, Popper writes:

I could not think of any human behavior which could not be interpreted in terms of either theory… It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness.

That these theories could not be shown to be wrong was actually reason to reject them, according to Popper. If the theory cannot be falsified (even in principle) this is a reason to think that whatever explanatory power it has is vacuous.

Now compare Popper’s idea with a famous quote from C.S. Lewis (from his “Is Theology Poetry?” and often quoted by theologian Alister McGrath):

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

The quote seems to reflect exactly the same idea which Popper expresses. Except that for Lewis this kind of explanatory power is seen as justificatory. I think this gives an interesting insight into a sort of peculiarity about the justifications commonly given by Christians.

Amongst contemporary Christians, Christianity (or their “relationship with Jesus”) is often understood as a transformative lens through which one views the world and by which one decides how to act (Popper: “The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated”). All experience is interpreted through that lens; extraordinary and noumenus experiences are explained in terms of the Divine instead of in terms of psychology.

One can also consider the sort of theodicies that are often given in response to the Problem of Evil to see that such a view directly contradicts what Popper thought were good scientific virtues. To many theists, there is simply no such thing as a disproof of their beliefs (Popper: “Whatever happened always confirmed it”).

I remember sitting in a Philosophy of Religion class and having the following sort of conversation (these quotes are fictional, but they accurately capture my memory of what was expressed):

Person 1: I think religion helps people live better lives. If you look at religious people, you see people who are better off than non-religious people.

: Actually, studies show that the Scandinavian countries rank the highest on all of the indices of personal prosperity — life expectancy, health, happiness, educational attainment, etc. The Scandinavian countries are also the least religious countries in the world. By contrast, the most religious countries in the world rank the lowest on these indices.

Person 1: I think that actually supports what I’m saying. People turn to religion when they are living in horrible conditions because they have nothing else to turn to.

Interestingly, this might also help to explain the large number of theists who claim that atheists secretly believe in God or really just hate God (Popper: “unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth”). Because theistic belief forms such a strong paradigm under which such believers operate, one might think that it becomes almost inconceivable for the believer that there exist those who have radically different ideas about the nature of reality. It can also explain the difficulty that some believers (who I have met) have in understanding what it’s like to be a non-theist. How many times are we asked so you really don’t believe in God? Or but how can you do/think about x, y, or z?

philosophy science and religion sociology of religion

Science & Religion Talk Slides & Notes

Last week, I spoke twice on the relationship between science and religion (one time was to the undergraduate philosophy club at Virginia Tech and the other was to a sociology class.) This is the topic that I am currently planning on writing my graduate thesis in.

Both talks were meant to be broad overviews of several different perspectives on the relationship that one finds in the literature, without actually endorsing any particular perspective (with a pro/con provided for each view.) I’ve been asked by multiple people to make the lecture materials (slides & notes) available. I’m uploading them here so that everyone can enjoy them.

Talk for the Undergraduate Philosophy Students
Lecture Slides

Talk for the Sociology Class
Lecture Slides

epistemology philosophy science and religion

"Do you think seeing is required for believing?"

I recently came across a thread where, in response to someone asking for empirical evidence for the existence of God, a theist responded:

So are you saying seeing is required to believe in something?

I am really tired of seeing people equivocating between seeing and empirical evidence.

Empirical evidence is not, and never has been, the same thing as “seeing”. I can see something without having empirical evidence for it. For example, people have visual hallucinations and dreams. With the use of drugs, we can artificially induce all kinds of visual stimuli without something (other than the drug and it’s interaction with one’s brain) actually being there. In fact, even viewing a movie involves seeing things which, in some sense, have never actually existed*.

Additionally, we can have empirical evidence for something without seeing it. I’ve never seen what a sunrise looks like from the surface of the planet Mars, but we have good empirical evidence that it occurs. Likewise, I’ve never seen a capybara, but I have strong empirical evidence that capybaras really are rodents indigenous to South America. Giant squid have never been directly observed while alive, but that we have giant squid carcasses is good evidence that there are also living giant squid. For an even stronger example, I’ve never directly seen an electron, but we have good empirical evidence for their existence.

It’s certainly not required that we see something to believe in it, at least not in the sense of logical necessity. It’s also not necessary that we have empirical evidence for it.

But there is something else which is true. For the proper epistemic grounding of a wide range of claims**, empirical evidence may be required. And if we are cognisant of this detail, we may find ourselves unable to wilfully change our minds on a given issue without proper evidence. Otherwise, we’re just being gullible.

*Note that in both hallucinations and in the case of cinema, you are actually seeing something that exists. With the hallucination, you are seeing a real hallucination. And in the case of cinema, you are seeing a real movie. But Darth Vader presumably does not really exist, even though you can view a representation of him in Star Wars. In that sense, in which you could be mistaken about what you think you are seeing, you can see something that does not really exist.

**This surely cannot be true of all claims. If it were true that all claims required empirical evidence, we’d find ourselves in an infinite regress. Why? Because every proposition a would need to be justified by another proposition b, itself justified by a third c, and so on. By having certain kinds of reasonably basic assumptions that can be agreed upon by all relevant parties, we can cut off this infinite regress. That may not be a satisfying solution, but the only alternative is strong philosophical scepticism; i.e. the position that we cannot know — or even infer — anything at all. It may be additionally argued that some propositions are best justified in non-empirical ways. For example, mathematical propositions are, arguably, best justified in virtue of a mathematical proof. Our internal emotional states are perhaps best inferred by internal reflection rather than empirical investigation of the world external to ourselves. Additionally, David Hume’s famous “is-ought” dichotomy gives us strong reason to think that empirical investigation is incapable of fully answering moral questions; empirical investigation can allow us to infer what is, but not what we ought to do.

a fortiori arguments Atheism bible Christianity Judaism midrash philosophy talmud

Arguing for God?

At one of the Freethinkers meetings last year, we spent the meeting discussing the arguments presented for Christianity on an apologetics website. After having carefully refuted much of the website, a Christian, who happened to be present, agreed with the rest of us that the site did not provide very good arguments for believing in his religion. He went on to say that he felt the best arguments for his religion were contained in the Bible.

Almost immediately, I responded that, independent of whether or not the Bible is true or factual, it does not contain any arguments for Christianity (or for any other position for that matter.) As I pointed out, the Hellenistic tradition of codified argumentation was developed after the appearance of much of the Old Testament and, at any rate, did not make any serious contact with the Christian tradition until the Medieval Period (most notably within Catholic scholastic circles.) It stands to reason that this piece of intellectual technology would not have made an appearance in the Bible because the Biblical authors were not yet aware of such things. If the events in the Bible are true as presented, then the book would simply be a recounting of various historical events alongside some flowery poetic language (as in Proverbs or Psalms). Still, not an argument or a set of arguments.

Recently, I began wondering whether or not this was the case. Is there any kind of attempted justification for any position presented in the Bible and, if so, did people feel the need to justify their belief in Yahweh?

It turns out that the answer to the former question is yes (they did present arguments) and the answer to the latter question is almost no, they did not feel that they needed to justify belief in a deity (or any other supernatural claims.) First, I will explore what kind of arguments that they did present in the Bible and then I will present the single argument for God’s existence I was able to explicitely identify in the Biblical text. Unfortunately for most Christians and Jews, it’s in an extra-canonical book whose divine origins are contested by most churches.

Before doing anything else, I want to make brief mention of the origins of the idea of faith. To some modern religious readers, it might seem silly that one should have to provide justification for the existence of a deity. After all, didn’t the Biblical writers simply have faith and wasn’t this the reason they didn’t think they needed justification?

It turns out that the word “faith”, in the English language, appears rather late in the game, originally appearing sometime in the mid-13th century  and originally referring to the “duty of fulfilling one’s trust”. It was from the Old French word feid, which referred to something like confidence or trust.

Originally, the word “belief” referred to trust specifically in God and “faith” was reserved for a certain kind of promissory relationship between two people. It wasn’t until the 14th century CE that faith took on religious implications, and it was still further, in the 16th century, that the word “belief” came to have its modern secular meaning.

Regardless, the idea of faith as non-rationally justified belief in God or some other divine presence seems to have only originated in the high middle ages, when there was competition between rationalist epistemic systems and those based in divine revelation. Since faith, as a concept in its most modern sense, is a relative late comer to the game, I find it inappropriate to use that concept as a basis to understand why people in the first millennium BCE (as in the Tanakh and the Talmud) and people in the first century CE (as in the New Testament) essentially chose not to provide arguments for their various supernatural beliefs.

Edit: While the concept of faith was articulated in Tertullian in the second century CE, and a word that is often translated as “faith” appears in the New Testament, I stick by the statement that what we call faith today, the concept in its modern incarnation, is a later invention. But even if it really did first appear with Tertullian (in his essay on Athens and Jerusalem) most of this article concerns the Hebrew Bible. Those arguments would still stand.

I would next like to discuss the existence of rhetoric, more generally, in Jewish and Christian scripture. In several places in the Hebrew Bible, there are arguments which are presented for various positions. Being largely culturally independent from the Hellenistic logic tradition originally codified by Aristotle, the arguments have a distinctly different flavor from those found in ancient Greek philosophical texts. David Frank (Frank, 2004) states that:

“…unlike the arguments in many Western texts [i.e. those in the Classical tradition], those in the Hebrew Bible are often indeterminate, confused, and can yield a host of reasonable but incompatible interpretations.”

He goes on to state that:

“Auerbach argues that Greek reasoning is characterized by hypotactic logic (in which the elements of an argument are subordinated under a major or controlling premise) while Hebraic reasoning is characterized by paratactic rationality (in which the elements of an argument are juxtaposed rather than subordinated). Classical argument has a definitive end, a conclusion that captures the truth through apodictic reasoning, designed to end disagreement and speech.”

What were the ancient Jews arguing about? Largely, they were arguing about law or justice (Frank, 2004 and Goltzberg, 2010). The Hebrew concept of commitment to justice, what is known as Tsedek (Frank, 2004), was first and foremost in many of these arguments. Frank details how, in the Tanakh, these arguments are often between Yahweh and people and how, at times, Yahweh changes his mind due to the arguments provided by persons set before Him in some divine court (Frank, 2004). Often, these arguments involve people asking God to be consistent with his own dedication to justice and good will (Frank, 2004).

In Frank’s paper, he provides three examples of arguments between men and the deity. The first involving Abraham (found in the book of Genesis), the next involving Moses (from Exodus), and the last involving Job (from the Book of Job.) Theologically, that mere men can argue with Yahweh is something which does not survive into the Christian tradition and often the relevant passages are altered upon translation to remove this theological quandary (Frank, 2004). Nonetheless, that such things are present in the original Hebrew is not something which is debated by Jewish scholars (Frank, 2004).

There is a Judaic rhetorical tradition which is made use of in many of these circumstances and which is used more broadly in the Talmud. The species of rhetorical argument known as argumentum a fortiori was apparently used heavily by Jewish scholars in antiquity, especially in legal situations (Goltzberg, 2010).

In Hebrew, a fortiori arguments are termed val chomer arguments (Goltzberg, 2010). Part of Orthodox Jewish tradition states that they appear explicitly at particular points in the Torah and these are enumerated in the Talmud (in the midrash Bereshit Rabbah 92:7) as Genesis 44:8, Exodus 6:12, Numbers 12:14, Deuteronomy 31:27, I Samuel 23:3, Jeremiah 12:5 (actually, 2 arguments), Ezekiel 15:5, Proverbs 11:31, and in Esther 9:12.

What precisely is an a fortiori argument? Suppose that I’m a parent and I decide that if my child gets a B-, I’m not going to give the child a candy bar. The child comes to me with her grades and I see that the child has earned a C. I therefore do not give the child a candy bar. Formally, the argument proceeds as follows:

If the child earns a B-, they do not get a candy bar. If they earn below a B-, even more so they do not get a candy bar.

What’s important here, is that a situation is presented which is less extreme than another situation. If some condition applies in the former situation, it applies even more so in the latter situation.

In the Talmud, there are laid down precise rules for the use of this argument and in what legal contexts it may be employed (Goltzberg, 2010). There is a principle introduced — called Dayyo — which states that in the more extreme situation the same verdict needs to be applied as in the less extreme situation (i.e. for any grade below a B-, the child does not receive a candy bar and I do not give out additional punishment over and above not giving out the candy bar.) Additionally, it is stated that court verdicts cannot be decided on the basis of val chomer arguments alone (Golztberg, 2010). In Jewish law, some additional kind of argument needs to be introduced in order to find a suspect guilty.

In the New Testament, there are several argumentative works. For instance, in Galatians and in Romans, Paul argues vehemently about the application of Jewish law to Gentile churches. These letters often appear rather harsh in tone (especially Galatians) and represent what was probably a difficult political situation.

In several places, the Biblical writers attempt to establish that Jesus is the messiah and is the fulfillment of the prophecies found in the Septuagint (the form of the Hebrew Bible that would have been available to New Testament authors.) In Hebrews, the entire book is devoted to trying to assert this claim, but it does not actually try to justify the claim using deductive-style argumentation. Perhaps the best examples (though these are by no means convincing to modern scholars) of attempted justifications for the divinity of Jesus would be two-fold: (1) the miracles that Jesus is purported to have performed (particularly in the central doctrine of the resurrection) and (2) in the details of Jesus’ purported heredity (i.e. that his blood line meant he could be tied to the house of David as prophesied.) However, neither of these two claims has any independent evidence (historical or otherwise) in their favor and neither are forms of deductive argumentation (which is the present topic of this piece.)

Thus, while the ancient Jews felt it necessary to develop some kind of codifications of legal argumentation and the ancient Christians felt it necessary to provide some sort of justification for identifying Jesus as the messiah, they did not see it necessary to provide arguments for the existence of a Deity.

That is, for the most part. There are a few scattered references to arguments for the existence of a God. The best that exists is buried in a non-canonical book used by the Roman-Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Slavonic churches. This argument is in the pseudepigraphical Wisdom of Solomon, and I will refer to it as the Argument from Beauty.

Before getting to the Argument from Beauty, I want to mention that there is an assertion in Romans 1:18-23, that first God can be known from considering nature (some early form of the Cosmological Argument) and that all people know God to exist whether they want to admit it or not (thus, there are no true atheists). The Cosmological Argument alluded to in Romans 1:20 is probably the only other example of a Biblical argument for a Deity. Thus, perhaps the Biblical writers did not argue for God because they thought it to be knowledge known by all people (i.e. of course God exists; only the morally bankrupt think otherwise, as Psalm 14 seems to indicate.) I will not state here why this point can be dismissed (perhaps I will embark on that in a future post). Nonetheless, suffice it to say, that, as an atheist, I do not find it to be convincing to be told that I do not exist!

As for the Argument from Beauty, the relevant passage is Wisdom of Solomon verse 13:5:

“For from the greatness and beauty of created things
comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.”

Casting this into syllogistic logic, we have:

1. Nature is beautiful.
2. If (1) then God exists.
3. Therefore, God exists (by modus ponens from (1) and (2)).

This is the interpretation of Wisdom 13:5 favoured by the Harper-Collins Study Bible.

I won’t bother refuting this argument since the main focus here is to answer what arguments, if any, for God’s existence are in the Bible. This is the only one I can identify, albeit from an extra-canonical text that, unlike most other Biblical texts, was very heavily influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy.

I will end by noting that, for these ancient writers, Christianity and Judaism were likely still closely tied to folk religion. In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennet provides an explanation as to why members of folk religions might not be so concerned about proving that their god or gods actually exist (Dennet, 2007):

“…those who practice a folk religion don’t think of themselves as practicing a religion at all. Their ‘religious’ practices are a seamless part of their practical lives, alongside their hunting and gathering or tilling and harvesting. And one way to tell that they really believe in the deities to which they make their sacrifices is that they aren’t forever talking about how much they believe in their deities — any more than you and I go around assuring each other that we believe in germs and atoms. Where there is no ambient doubt to speak of, there is no need to speak of faith.”

It speaks volumes that, in ancient Hebrew, there was no word for religion.


Dennet, Daniel. (2007). Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon. London, England: Penguin Books.

Frank, D. (2004). Arguing with god, Talmudic discourse, and the Jewish countermodel: implications for the study of argumentation. Argumentation and Advocacy, 41, 71-86.

Goltzberg, S. (2010). The a fortiori argument in the Talmud. In A. Schumann (Ed.), Judaic logic (pp. 177-188). Gorgias Press.


Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural PhenomenonScience & Religion Books)

Judaic logic: A formal analysis of Biblical, Talmudic and rabbinic logic

Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle AgesMedieval History Books)

Logic: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)Philosophical Logic & Language Books)

HarperCollins Study Bible – Student Edition: Fully Revised & UpdatedNew Revised Standard Bibles)