What the Atheist Might Say Back

From Noel Oyango’s blog, I came across a couple posts [first, second] from the blog of Dr. Robert Gullberg suggesting what a Christian might say to an atheist to demonstrate the fact of God’s existence. The two suggestions are arguments by analogy. Noel responds to the second argument in his post. It is the classic argument from design. Responses can be found throughout the internet. Instead, I want to focus on the argument in his first post.

First, a Clarification

The post starts by attempting to show the difference between an agnostic and an atheist. Unfortunately, Gullberg simply says the same thing twice. Here are the quotes:

The agnostic says, “I don’t think there is a God.”
The atheist says, “I don’t believe that God exists.”

There has been a lot of digital ink spilled about the proper definition of an atheist versus an agnostic, and it will likely never be resolved. Gullberg appears to be referring to a difference between the weak atheistic claim (which some people call agnostic) and the strong atheistic claim. However, his two statements say the exact same thing. They are both the weak atheistic claim.

In short, the weak claim is simply a personal claim: I lack belief in a god or gods. So long as you are being truthful, this claim is irrefutable. It doesn’t rely on there being no gods. It simply relies on you truthfully not believing/not thinking that one exists.

Alternatively, one could make a strong claim, something like: I believe no gods exist. Whereas the weaker claim simply denotes a belief you do not possess, the stronger claim reflects a belief you do, actually, hold. Namely, you believe there are no gods. The truthfulness of this claim requires more than your being honest about holding it. It requires you to support it with evidence.

So, if I am understanding Gullberg correctly, the beginning of his post should read something like:

The agnostic/weak atheist says, “I lack belief in gods.”
The (strong) atheist says, “I believe no gods exist.”

With that out of the way, let’s move to the meat of his post.

What DO You Say to an Atheist?

Gullberg begins his post by suggesting that an atheist may ask a Christian (or any theist) what evidence they have for God’s existence. Gullberg’s two posts are the answer. However, he first notes that you could ask the question back to the atheist.

You might ask the atheist, “What evidence have you found that proves to you that there isn’t a God? Good question. They won’t be able to answer it. (emphasis in original)

First, I will assume he is asking this question of the strong atheist, as the weak atheist/agnostic isn’t really compelled to answer it. They can simply reply that they have not been shown evidence to believe a god exists; hence, they lack belief that one exists.

Now then, whether or not an atheist can answer the question depends on what Gullberg means by “evidence you have found.” Take a globyippy, for example. What evidence can be found that demonstrates globyippies do not exist? You cannot answer the question because you do not know what a globyippy is. If they don’t exist, you can’t find evidence of their nonexistence. ‘Find’ seems to be the wrong verb to use.

The evidence an atheist would “find” proving there isn’t a god would necessarily rely on how God is defined and conceptualized. For example, it would have to start from how God is being defined and show that (1) God’s qualities are self-refuting – e.g., can God create a burrito so hot even he cannot eat it?, or (2) that what follows from God’s qualities is incompatible with the actual world – e.g., the argument from evil or (3) argue that the definition of God is incoherent – e.g., Ignosticism. This may not exhaust all categories, but you get the idea.

It should come as no surprise that theists have offered responses to these kinds of arguments, and it is very likely that being convinced – one way or the other – depends on your prior commitments. To be completely honest, I suspect there just cannot be a slam dunk argument for/against God’s existence. Personally, I find that a strike against God, but I take my own point about prior commitments.

My point is, because of the kind of being God is (at least based on traditional definitions), any “evidence” an atheist can provide will be in the form of an argument. Although Gullberg may not be convinced by the arguments, it is quite the overstatement to suggest that an atheist would be unable to provide an argument. If you want to find some of these arguments, again, the internet is full of them.

You Should Tell Your Facts it is not Polite to Point

Gullberg moves into his discussion of what you should tell the atheist with a rather provocative statement: “All the facts point to a Supreme Being of infinite intelligence.” It is a statement that begs for further elucidation. There is none forthcoming from Gullberg. Instead, he quotes the following passage from the Bible: “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.” Per this collection of commentaries on the passage in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, the passage is conveying a call to put claims to the test, either spiritual claims or claims in general. Keep those which are true and abandon those which are false. So, I should expect Gullberg to provide true facts that truly point to a Supreme Being of infinite intelligence. If the facts don’t point there, we should, presumably, abandon it.

What Does Gullberg Tell Me, the Atheist?

Gullberg suggests the Christian should tell the atheist two things. He may suggest other things can be told, but these are the two he has listed. I assume he considers them important or convincing.

The first thing he wants to say to the atheist is a sort of argument from artistry:

“Similarly, when you look around at a sunrise, or some incredible part of nature, what do you see? You see amazing art and imagery. Tell me, if art and beautiful photographs are created by mere human artists and photographers, would you not think that there is a Magnificent Designer or Grand Intelligent Artist of the universe around us who is behind the production of Nature? Of course!” (emphasis in original)

First, let me try to attack some of the intuitive pull this argument might have for a believer. Let’s start with the intuitive desire to consider beauty as evidence of God. Ask yourself, if the world wasn’t beautiful, would you consider that evidence against God’s existence? I don’t know why you would.

You might also suggest that a beautiful thing cannot arise by accident. However, I think that is quite easily falsified. Consider this exploration of flight paths as an example. The flight paths were not designed to be beautiful, but they turned out to have a beauty to them by chance. So, my first point is that God does not have to create a beautiful universe to maintain a reason to believe in God. Two, a beautiful thing can arise by accident.

Why do I make these points? Gullberg asks if an artistic but natural landscape should cause us to suggest a Supreme Being of infinite intelligence, and his answer is “Of course!” My two points don’t demonstrate he is wrong, but they should demonstrate that the answer is not that obvious. God is not required to make things beautiful, and beautiful things could arise without intending them to arise.

Finally, before I directly address Gullberg’s argument, I want to mention something that could be brought up here. Gullberg could suggest that beauty is a sort of thing that requires God to exist. But he hasn’t. His argument isn’t that beauty requires God. His argument is that natural beauty is akin to art, and art requires an artist. As such, trying to suddenly bring in some argument about whether or not beauty can exist without a God would be changing the argument completely. He can write another blog post and make the argument, but he can’t slide it in here.

Two Responses to Gullberg

I want to provide two responses to Gullberg. The first will be pedantic but further undercut Gullberg’s claim. The second, I think, is more defeating.

To begin, I want to summarize Gullberg’s argument from artistry.

P1. Natural beauty inspires art.
P2. Natural beauty inspires art because art is copying the art of natural beauty.
P3. Art requires an artist.
P4. The only artist capable of creating the art of natural beauty is God.

Conclusion: God exists.

I said my first point is pedantic, and it truly is. However, it serves a purpose. Remember, Gullberg suggests the facts point to the existence of a Supreme Being of infinite intelligence. However, nothing about Gullberg’s argument suggests the existence of a Supreme Being of infinite intelligence. For example, if I grant the first three premises, we only need a being capable of creating natural beauty. This doesn’t seem to require being supreme nor infinite intelligence. These “facts” merely point to a good enough being with some artistic prowess. Per 1 Thessalonians, we are called to only hold the good. His argument isn’t good. At least, it is not good yet. He needs more facts. If they aren’t forthcoming, we can safely abandon his claims.

Now, I want to offer a more substantive response to his argument. At bottom, his argument makes a false analogy. I would even suggest it makes a category error. The issue arises in Premise 2. Gullberg argues that natural beauty is like pedestrian art, and art requires an artist. However, beauty is not art.

I don’t think it radical to suggest that the definition of art is contentious, but I feel safe in suggesting that art may be characterized in terms of …its representation of reality…, expression, communication of emotion, or other qualities.” At bottom, art attempts to do something. It is a creative activity in which humans engage toward some end. It attempts to represent reality. It attempts to communicate an emotion or retell an experience. It attempts to make a political or moral statement.

A beach, no matter how beautiful it my be, does not do these things. It was not made beautiful toward some end. At the very least, this end is far from self-evident. You might want to suggest the beach communicates emotion, but it would be more accurate to say it elicits emotion. You may feel emotions when you see the beach; however, child abuse likely makes you feel emotion too, and I suspect you don’t think child abuse is art. It isn’t enough for something to make you feel emotion for something to qualify as art.

Gullberg is already on weak ground in suggesting that natural beauty is like art. However, this false analogy can be made more striking. The real meat of Gullberg’s argument is found in this passage:

“You look at a Renoir, and you’d think you were there in the picture. Amazing. Looking at a painting, you’d know that there was a brilliant creator of the painting. We humans elevate the level of a famous painter to incredible levels. And really all the painter is doing is copying the nature around them. …[B]ut let’s be honest, pictures and paintings don’t do being there any justice. Ansel Adams did phenomenal black and white pictures in his day, but sorry, no comparison to the actual nature, right?” (emphasis in original)

Gullberg wants to emphasize that art is simply a copy of nature, and nature is better to look at. Nature is the true source of art, according to Gullberg. However, since art requires an artist, nature similarly requires an artist. The issue in Gullberg’s argument is that he is confusing beauty with art.

In the quote above, Gullberg references Ansel Adams. His post includes Adams’s famous photograph of Half Dome. When Gullberg suggests that Adams’s photograph of Half Dome cannot compare to seeing Half Dome in person, he may be correct about the beauty of Half Dome, but he is not obviously correct about Half Dome as art.

Consider the following two pictures. The first is Adams’s photograph, the second is a satellite photograph of Half Dome.

Ansel Adams’s Moon and Half Dome

GE Half Dome

Satellite photo from Google Earth. Half Dome at marker.

The latter picture is a more accurate representation of Half Dome. It provides a more complete picture of the rock structure; it situates it in more of its setting; it uses the correct colors. In short, the latter is a more accurate copy of the reality. Truthfully, even from such a high vantage point, the beauty of the region is clear. However, we would not call the satellite photo more artistic than Adams’s photograph. Quite the opposite.

What makes Adams’s photo ‘art’ is the ways in which he has deviated from the natural beauty. He has taken reality and composed it into art. Adams de-saturated the color to black and white. He cut out most of the context of the rock structure. He processed the photograph such that it would emphasize the contrast of hues. None of this would be present to the naked eye.

Yes, Adams captures the beauty of Half Dome. However, he makes no attempt to accurately recreate that natural beauty. He deviates from it and adjusts that natural beauty to compose a piece of art. This is the fundamental difference between beauty and art. Beauty is a quality something possesses. Art is an activity and the product of that activity. Art may be beautiful, but it is not a requirement of art.

Gullberg’s analogy doesn’t follow. A naturally beautiful scene is not analogous to a piece of art, even a piece of art recreating that naturally beautiful scene. There is an intention to art that is not present in natural beauty. As I noted above, beauty can arise without intention. As such, whereas a work of art requires an artist, a naturally beautiful scene does not. The “facts” just don’t point to that Supreme Being of infinite intelligence.

Taking Off the Gloves for a Moment

Thus far, I have tried to treat this argument with respect. Having responded to it, I want to be a little more blunt about my feelings toward it. Frankly, it is infantile and borderline demeaning.  I’ve tried to construct a credible argument from his post, but Gullberg does little more then assert his point and use exclamation points as evidence.

In his second post, Gullberg recaps his argument from artistry as follows:

“The painter paints a landscape. The observer “oohs and aahs” about the beauty of the painting, complimenting the painter on his or her creativity. The landscape itself should be the center of the adulation. After all, an incredibly intelligent and inventive Creator allows the painter to be able to copy His work.  A fool would say that there is no Creator of the actual landscape (nature or human) that the gifted painter paints!” (emphasis in original)

This is obviously false. We can “ooh and aah” about the craft of painting without having to praise the source of what was painted. Consider fruit in a bowl. An artist could paint that fruit in the bowl, and we could praise the artist for their work. However, Gullberg’s argument would suggest that the fruit in the bowl truly deserves the praise because it is the source of the art. Really? Am I supposed to believe that? Furthermore, if someone else set up the fruit in the bowl, would we suggest that the person doing the setting up is the person who actually deserves the praise? This would be the conclusion of Gullberg’s argument. Personally, I find that silly, but remember, according to Gullberg, I am the fool.