Stumptown

I recently discovered the blog Refuting God, and the author of the blog wrote a response to 5 ways to stump atheists. The five ways to stump an atheist is a post written for the website Therefore, God Exists by Richard Bushey. All five ways are listed as questions that should be asked of atheists. As is my wont, I will try to respond to these 5 questions without being stumped. You can find Refuting God’s responses here.

To the ways of stumping:

1. Ask how they know that God has no reasons for allowing evil.

Before I even begin to explore this question, let me say that no Christian (or theist of any stripe) should just lead with this question. Asking about this must be done in response to a category of counter-apologetic arguments related to the problem of evil. Also, to ask this question, as stated, doesn’t make a good point. It is an argument from ignorance. Let’s do some quick background.

The argument from evil (google it for more discussion) is an argument against God’s existence which argues that God’s omnibenevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence should mean that there is no evil in the world. God always does good. God always knows if evil exists. God always can prevent evil. However, there is evil in the world. Therefore, the argument concludes, God does not exist. Now, a common response to this argument is to suggest that God may have a reason for allowing some evil to exist. For example, perhaps a certain amount of evil is necessary for a greater state of affairs to be so, like free will. Perhaps, for humans to have free will, there has to be an allowance for a certain amount of evil.

Bushey’s first way to stump an atheist is basically getting at this response to the argument from evil. However, his suggested question completely misunderstands argumentation. Even if an atheist does not know that God lacks reasons for allowing evil to exists does not establish the fact that God actually does have reasons for allowing evil to exist. So, don’t ask how the atheist knows there are no reasons. Say there are reasons and defend them.

However, Bushey’s treatment of this subject is even worse. Consider his first line about this topic: “Atheists like to say that if God did not exist, there would be no evil and suffering.” This completely misunderstands the argument from evil. In fact, it gets the argument completely backwards. If atheists thought evil and suffering would disappear were God to not exist, then the presence of evil and suffering would be evidence in support of God’s existence. The argument is that, as God is defined, it seems strange that we should experience suffering. It isn’t a complete defeater, but the suggestion that God may have reasons to allow suffering in light of achieving greater goods certainly undercuts the argument from evil. However, if you’re going to make this argument, the burden falls upon you to show why this is the case. It doesn’t fall upon the atheist to show why it is not the case unless she wants to further the argument from evil. At best, Bushey needs to rewrite his suggested question.

Going further, Bushey uses examples like caring for pets and children. We may require our children to get vaccines, and this may scare the children. However, that temporary suffering is permissible, in the long run, because it facilitates a greater good. Reworking his discussion of human’s relationship to their pets, Bushey notes that “[we] may think [God is] torturing [us], from [our] limited perspective.” Again, this does not defeat the argument from evil. It simply undercuts it. However, when argued in this way, it raises another concern. One has to claim to have a reasonable ability to assess God’s motives and the nature of good and evil if one is going to claim that God has good reasons for permitting the existence of suffering. If you are going to argue that we are not smart enough to know God’s motives, you are weakening your own argument. The argument basically becomes a shot in the dark: like a pet dog that simply does not have the capacity to understand what is going on. Yes, God may be permitting suffering for a reason that we simply cannot comprehend. That may be correct. However, God may force us to suffer unnecessarily because God is malevolent or just careless. If we lack the capacity to establish that the first of these two scenarios is actually happening, then the response is pretty desperate.

2. Ask what they would accept as evidence for God’s existence.

Bushey’s treatment of this way of stumping atheists seems to suggest he is unaware that there are more atheists than David Silverman and Christopher Hitchens. He says that atheists want evidence, but then says that Silverman and Hitchens state that nothing will convince them. First, I am neither David Silverman nor Christopher Hitchens. Second, if these two gentlemen say that nothing will convince them, how are they stumped when you ask them what will convince them? They provided you an answer. Nothing.

What Bushey means to say is that atheists are hypocrites because they claim to want evidence but hold that no evidence will convince them. Calling someone is hypocrite isn’t stumping them. It’s calling them a hypocrite. Also, since it is relevant to this method of stumping atheists, the overwhelming majority of atheists are neither David Silverman nor Christopher Hitchens. This “way of stumping atheists” is nothing more than Bushey pitching a childish fit by over-generalizing these two men’s statements.

Now, I’ve discussed this question briefly when I answered the questions from Matt Slick’s CARM website. There, I gave the most honest answer I can give. Here, let me give some examples of evidence that would incline me to believe God exists: (1) God appearing before me in an unambiguous way. I’m willing to be flexible on how God “appears.” The keys are that it is God and it is unambiguous. (2) A proxy of God appearing before me in an unambiguous way (e.g., an angel). (3) I have a first-hand experience of an unambiguous miracle, especially one that genuinely benefits people (e.g., a large river suddenly parts, permitting myself and others to escape some disaster with our lives).

Arguments for and against God’s existence are not definitive because they build around gaps in our knowledge. Ultimately, there are open questions and the arguments move into the realms of probabilities – this or that is more likely on the basis of a God existing/not existing. As such, I doubt any argument will convince me. If something convinces me that a God exists, it will most likely be an experience.

3. Ask if they would believe in miracles if they saw one.

In discussing this subject, Bushey basically claims that atheists deny miracles to a fault. In support of this, he shares a story of a friend who claims that he would still “not believe it” (not sure if ‘it’ is the truth of Christianity or the truth that miracles happen) even if the clouds suddenly rearranged themselves to read ‘The Bible is God’s word.’ I’ve encountered atheists who say similar things. If the clouds really did rearrange themselves in such a manner, and I was there to witness it without any ambiguities, I’d find it pretty darn convincing. Also, I would wager most atheists would find it convincing if they experienced such an event first hand. Even the one’s who claim they would not.

The thing is, when we hear stories about miracles from relatively modern times, they’re not of things like clouds spontaneously rearranging to proclaim God’s existence. They’re claims to weeping statues or being the sole survivor in a disaster. In other words, they have natural explanations as well. Furthermore, they’re other people’s stories. Humans are notoriously bad at remembering things, and we’re happy to fill in gaps to create narratives, even subconsciously. As such, stories about miracles are hard to trust. Skepticism is very much warranted in the face of proclaimed miracles. Frankly, if one believes God is performing miracles, such a person should embrace a strong skepticism. What makes a miracle miraculous is how utterly special and impossible it is.

In my previous answer, I said that experiencing a miracle first hand would be pretty convincing evidence that God exists. As such, this question doesn’t stump me. I’d be happy to believe in miracles, especially if I saw one. However, I am highly skeptical of claims of miracles, and I have not been convinced of one, nor have I experienced one. This is not because I refuse to believe in them. It is because my reasonably high threshold for belief in miracles has not been met. This is why I make it a point to say there are no ambiguities. If the clouds suddenly rearranged themselves to read ‘The Bible is God’s work,’ my initial reaction would be that it was a neat trick, and I would be very curious as to how it was accomplished. If, after rigorous investigation, it was determined that no human could pull it off and there was no natural method that could be discovered, I’d be happy to call that a miracle. The fact that I wouldn’t immediately drop to my knees and proclaim my faith in the Christian God does not make me unreasonably resistant. It just means I think a miracle should be an actual miracle.

4. Ask them if the cause of nature could be natural.

Yes. Yes it could.

In all honesty, this is a very confused section because Bushey makes no effort to define his terms. This is his entire discussion in his post:

“The atheist will usually want to say that everything in the universe can be explained in natural terms. But what about nature itself? A man cannot be his own father. Nature cannot cause itself. It did not exist prior to its’ existence. Before nature existed, it had no causal properties. Therefore, there must have been cause beyond nature to bring it into existence. The cause of nature, therefore, must be supernatural. Nature could not have caused itself to exist any more than a man could be his own father. So ask the atheist if the cause of nature could be natural. STUMPED.”

Statements like “Nature cannot cause itself” and “The cause of nature, therefore, must be supernatural” are meaningless without explanation and definition. Bushey is basically referencing cosmological arguments without laying any definitional groundwork. For example, consider pantheism. If pantheism is true, everything is god. God and God-ness are natural. Obviously, this isn’t a strictly atheistic response. My point is simply that flinging about unsupported and undefined statements doesn’t achieve anything.

The most egregious omission from Bushey’s discussion is an explanation for why the supernatural does not require a cause. Because he constructs the argument in terms of the natural and the supernatural, the whole thing basically turns into Bushey making bare assertions. I understand why people argue that God doesn’t need to be caused. God is said to be eternal. But the supernatural? Why does the supernatural not need a cause? Maybe Bushey has an answer. We just don’t know. He only makes assertions like they’re supposed to be obviously true.

I mentioned that Bushey is referencing cosmological arguments. In particular, I take him to be referencing the argument from contingency. Yes, the things in the universe certainly are contingent. Interestingly, we’ve devised some pretty amazing cosmological models that account for all the stuff in the universe, and none of them make an appeal to the supernatural. They come in forms that are time eternal and with beginnings to the universe. The argument from contingency says that the correct model, assuming it exists, is still contingent. This is debatable. Certainly, our explanatory chain has to end somewhere; however, I see no reason why that non-contingent thing has to be special in any way. A self-contained, natural system can just exist. You can ask why it should exist at all, but “it just does” is a perfectly sufficient answer.

5. Ask them if they believe people who do bad things deserve to be punished.

Should we punish people who do bad things? Yes, and we’ve devised an entire criminal system to do so.

But that’s the rationale for why Hell exists. Checkmate, atheist.

This is my summary of Bushey’s discussion of this topic. He doesn’t argue that morals can’t be grounded without God. He doesn’t suggest that moral laws require a law giver. Instead, he argues that the rationale of punishing people who do bad things is the rationale for the existence of Hell. I’ll be honest. I am stumped. I’m stumped as to how Bushey thinks this is a relevant point.

Here’s his concluding sentence: “In answering this question in the affirmative, they [atheists] are conceding the rationale for the doctrine of Hell.” Sure. I also believe triangles have three sides, so I’m conceding the shape of the Holy Trinity. Eureka! God exists!

Bushey’s discussion of this “way to stump an atheist” is utterly pointless. He must have forgotten to cut-and-paste in a paragraph where he explains how, to truly ‘deserve’ punishment, one must be judged by a perfect being. Otherwise, this whole argument is mindbogglingly dumb.

Leaving Stumptown

Bushey concludes his article with the following line (bold and italics in original):

Atheists are afraid to comment on this article because they are stumped by all of these questions.

Appropriately, there are two sets of responses in the comments to that article.