The Village Atheist's Guide to Religious Debate

muddle's picture

Those crazy theists have offered a bewildering variety of reasons for thinking that God exists.

Anselm argued that the very idea of God as a “greatest conceivable being” includes his existence so that he cannot be denied without pain of contradiction.

Leibniz argued that the principle of sufficient reason points unmistakably to the existence of a necessary cause of the world.

Medieval Islamic scholars, borrowing insights from Aristotle, argued that an infinite regress is logically impossible, as the idea of an actual infinite is replete with logical paradoxes. They thought that it could be demonstrated that the universe had an absolute beginning in time and that, if it did, then it had a cause that preceded and transcended it.

Kant argued that the objectivity and normativity of morality may be taken seriously only if God is assumed as a sort of “posit,” and philosophers have argued variously that, in one way or another, morality requires the existence of God.

Numerous philosophers have argued that various features of the world are best explained on the hypothesis that they have been designed. Most recently, the deliverances of physics suggest that the fundamental constants of the universe fall within a remarkably narrow range so as to have made life possible among the debris of the Big Bang.

Theists have advanced an array of arguments designed to show that certain things that we know, or reasonably believe, to be true could not be true on the assumption of naturalism. Consciousness defies explanation or analysis in physicalist terms, they say, and is suggestive of non-physical substances. Purposive action is eliminated on naturalism, these philosophers suggest, because naturalism banishes all teleology from the world. And the very reasoning capacities that we naturalists must use to defend our view are not reasonably trusted as reliable on naturalism, some have urged.

Others have argued that the phenomenon of religious experience provides the ground for an argument to God’s existence as the object and cause of that experience.

Others have appealed to such experiences without argument, simply reporting that they find belief in God to be inescapable, and they go on to urge that such belief might well be warranted and count as knowledge of God actually does exist as the cause of that belief. This group has even offered the obviously absurd suggestion that perhaps God's existence may be known in some direct and basic way, without argument!

Some critics of these arguments have had the patience and the wherewithal to follow such arguments in their detail and root out fallacies or unproved assumptions. Kant noted that Anselm’s argument works only if existence is a property, which it is not. Hume argued that Leibniz’s argument helps itself to principles that are questionable. Various critics of moral arguments have argued either that we can have ethics without God or that we should just give up on thinking that there really is a difference between right and wrong.

But all of this is too much work, and Village Atheists have more important things to do, such as boycotting the Motel 6 for keeping Gideon’s Bibles on the nightstand or protesting Red Cross blood drives for their divisive name and emblem.

Here is an easy, two-step plan for dispensing with any and all such theistic arguments without so much as having to put any gray matter in motion. The two steps correspond to two all-inclusive assertions.

Assertion One: All Theistic Arguments Are Reducible to the “God-of-the-Gaps Appeal.

This sweeping generalization dispenses with any need to take any theistic arguments with any seriousness whatsoever. Is there a new volume of essays purporting to advance compelling arguments for theism? You needn’t open it. You know in advance that each and every such argument is simply another variant on the god-of-the-gaps: whenever people cannot explain something naturalistically, they make an unwarranted leap to supernatural explanations. But we must take metaphysical naturalism as axiomatic. As Richard Lewontin has advised, “We cannot allow a divine foot in the door.”

Oh, sure, some of these theists will say things like, “It isn’t simply that we do not yet know how X can have a naturalistic explanation. It is, rather, that we do know, by way of considerations C and argument A, that X cannot be given a naturalistic explanation. They seem to be suggesting that the arguments are not criticisms of the current state of the empirical sciences, but that there are entities whose natures essentially resist reduction to or analysis into the natural/physical.

Such philosophers may be safely ignored by on the grounds that the distinction that they are attempting here eludes the average person, including the average Village Atheist. It is easily portrayed as so much sophistry. After all, we know by way of atheistic fiat that there is no god and reality consists of nothing more or less than material entities bearing physical relations. As Dr. Sagan explained, “The Cosmos is all that is, was, or ever will be”—a deliberate rewriting of one of the creeds of the theists.

And so, we have but to observe that appeals to an alleged designer or first cause or ground of morality are one in essence with mythological explanations for everything from thunder to pestilence. We thus follow Colin McGinn who, upon confessing that physicalism is in a funk and that all reductionist programmes have failed, assured us that it is better to assert “hidden structure” than to “wallow in the supernatural.” With McGinn, we reaffirm our conviction that consciousness is a purely physical and natural phenomenon even though, in this, as with all other such topics, we walk by faith and not by sight.

Assertion Two: Theistic Belief May Be Explained Away Psychologically

Once we have swept away all theistic argument with our panaceaic first assertion, we may finish off our theist by asserting that the nearly universal belief in the supernatural may be explained away by appeal to human psychology. There is a deep desire to know the unknowable, and this is accompanied by certain emotional needs that are thought best satisfied if the universe is conceived as ultimately personal. In this assertion, we follow the lead of two of our great atheistic forbears, Hume and Freud.

The point, of course, is to assert that the best explanation for the belief in question is one that need not appeal to the truth of that belief.

Once again, our theist is likely to attempt sophistry. He may suggest that these features of human psychology are, in fact, anticipated on theism. He may even quote Augustine as saying “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.”

Or he may attempt to suggest that we beg the question here, as we can know that our psychological explanation is the best one only if we already know that there is no God.

And then he might observe that Hume offered the same psychological account in order to undermine most of our common sense beliefs, from the belief that some events cause others, to the belief in the self as an enduring thing. What justifies using this strategy to eliminate the one kind of belief but not the others that we wish to retain?

Here, we must hold our ground and, if need be, resort to an additional sort of psychological explanation: theistic belief is dysfunctional—-the product of brains incapable of comprehending the obvious fact that naturalism is true. Religious believers are, on average, of inferior intelligence. If asked to produce the evidence for this assertion, we have but to observe that they all have in common the absurd belief in a god, which is worthy only of hayseeds, coal miners and bagboys.

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PhillyChief's picture
Submitted by PhillyChief on Sun, 02/22/2009 - 2:16pm.

"You always dismiss everything as god of the gaps"

What better way to dismiss legitimate god of the gaps objections than to paint atheists as always knee-jerkingly objecting to them as being god of the gaps objections? "But wait, this doesn't prove my argument isn't merely a g-o-t-g fallacy" you might say, and you'd be right, and that's the beauty of it. You see instead, you paint the atheist as a non-thinking, reactionary person who casually dismisses claims as g-o-t-g and once you establish this characterization, then the atheist appears no longer credible, thus opening the door wide enough to drive a freight train full of fallacious arguments and unwarranted claims through without scrutiny. Never underestimate the value of character assassination.

"Takes one to know one"

This charming schoolyard retort, with a little sprucing up, can be made quite effective for the adult Village Theist. This is especially good for countering atheist objections based on psychology. Certainly we humans are driven to acquire knowledge to explain the as of yet unexplainable. The Village Theists have their god for this, for he is the answer for everything. Unfortunately, atheists can counter such claims to knowledge of god as mere wishing or "imagineering" to easily appease the thirst for answers with a creation of their imaginations.

To thwart this, accuse them of doing the same thing with naturalism. Now worry not,Village Theists, about how effective naturalism is at explaining the world, it's successful track record at doing so, including erasing again and again countless supernatural explanations for the workings of the universe such as spontaneous generation, its discoveries making possible new discoveries and new fields of study, or even that there is no rival to it and that the fact that you yourselves rely on and benefit from it by way of advances in science and medicine everyday sorta sinks your battleship. No worries, for all you need to do is assert their reliance on naturalism is faith based.

Assert that their reliance on naturalism has nothing to do with the multitudes of warrants for relying on it (in fact, it's probably best not to bring them up at all). Assert that even when evidence suggests otherwise (like how the odds against things being the way they are clearly point to the existence of god), they insist on naturalistic explanations. Assert that they think Village Theists are stupid for not choosing their faith instead and finally, assert as proof their reliance on naturalism is faith based by showing how they believe naturalism will one day answer everything which so far hasn't been answered with naturalism. Oh, and if they object to the last assertion by saying you're guilty of g-o-t-g, well, you already have a counter for that one now, don't you? Eye-wink


Submitted by dollaradayandno... on Sun, 02/22/2009 - 7:45am.

I have started making a few notes while reading you above comments but had to stop when I got to the two explanations of all:

Notes--Village atheist--just one or just one worst one?
Greatest conceivable being--who said?
Principle of sufficient reason-infinite regress--Who said?
Actual infinite replete with logical paradoxes--WOW
Universe had an infinite beginning therefore a plan--If
Permittivity of morality, God is a "Posit" and required for morality therefore he exists! OK, if a posit!
Purposive action--naturalism banishes all teleology--belief makes God true---It is obvious from gurus observation that all was pre-planned and will end with a plan--OK.

Lot of scientific facts in all that!

Faith is all that explains everything, why all this gobbledygook?

mapleleaf's picture
Submitted by mapleleaf on Sat, 02/21/2009 - 11:37am.

It is interesting to think that some people get paid big bucks, in universities and theological seminaries, to come up with writing like this.

In practical terms, does this discussion make any sense? Or is it not simply intellectual entertainment, on the same level as baseball strategy?

muddle's picture
Submitted by muddle on Sat, 02/21/2009 - 4:51pm.

How could God be dead if he never existed?

Ask Nietzsche. He's the one what said it.

Oh, wait. He's dead, too.


"Puddleglum" by Weatherwax (one of the Muddlings).

Jeeves to the Rescue

PhillyChief's picture
Submitted by PhillyChief on Mon, 02/23/2009 - 10:18am.

Nietzsche was referring to the concept of god, not an actual god. He foresaw the waning of god belief and, understanding human nature, tried to address the vacuum that would be left after that crutch was gone.


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