Arguing with Theists

Received this interesting email from one of my best students in response to Jerry Coyne’s article: “The ‘Best Arguments for God’s Existence Are Actually Terrible.”

Thanks for the rad article. The idea of god not existing is cohesive and succinct, whereas an existing god means different things to different people … To argue against these gods is exhausting. To many, god is ineffable and it doesn’t matter that it’s existence is unable to be falsified. It is THAT important to them; they’re ensconced in their belief. I’ll engage believers if they are looking for (an intellectual) fight, but it is draining. And as far as reading more theology and “good” arguments for the existence of god, well, I don’t have any more time to entertain that mess. God knows I’ve spent enough time on that in catholic school. What do you think?” DG

I must be cautious commenting on a topic over which millions of words have been spilled. But I have taught philosophy of religion at the college level multiple times, and like about 85% of professional philosophers, I am not a theist.

I agree with DG that non-belief is easy to specify while religious belief is multifarious. We easily understand what it is like NOT to believe in the objective existence of Apollo, Zeus, Thor, Yahweh, Allah, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, assuming we agree on an orthodox definition of those terms. That’s one reason why there aren’t 40,000 kinds of atheism but there are 40,000 different kinds of Christianity.

And DG is right. It’s exhausting to argue against theistic beliefs because they’re amorphous and changing. For example, if believers define god as “creator of the universe” and science provides a better explanation, then believers may reconceptualize god as, for instance, “a designer.” If science provides a better explanation of design, then the notion of god may change to god as a “fine tuner.” If the idea of a multiverse renders the idea of a fine tuner irrelevant—there are an infinite number of universes so the one in which we exist is fine-tuned for life—then believers will modify their beliefs again.

This evolution also plays out in the social struggle over teaching evolution in America. (Virtually the only first-world country where this is an issue.) First, there was creationism, and after that was struck down by the courts it evolved into “creation science.” When this oxymoron was struck down by the courts, “intelligent design” appeared. Now that teaching ID in science classes has been struck down by American courts (because it’s not science), I won’t be surprised to see the argument morph into “fine-tuning.” And when that gets struck down the creationist argument might evolve into, “grounder of being.”

Refuting these amorphous ideas is exhausting. But, as Antony Flew taught me long ago in “Theology and Falsification, if a belief is not in principle falsifiable, it’s essentially empty.
Basil Mitchell, in reply to Flew, argued that belief in a god is not an assertion about the world, but an attitude of a partisan who trusts that “the stranger is on our side.” Of course, it is not possible to falsify such an attitude and some do adopt it. It’s like adopting an attitude of optimism even though the situation may not call for it. If someone has such an attitude, then you probably aren’t going to convince them to change.

So save your life’s energy for other battles. Others’ deep-seated beliefs and attitudes often are immovable. If someone believes an angel actually led Joseph Smith to uncover some gold plates, or that when eating bread and drinking wine they are actually eating the body and blood of a 2000-year-old dead man, then they probably aren’t going to be open to reasoning. Life is just too short to explain to them why such beliefs are self-evidently delusional. Similarly, it may be silly to be an optimist in a certain situation, but you aren’t likely to change another’s attitude so you might as well save your breath. 

On the other hand, if someone believes that their god is the ground of being, or in some other esoteric theology, then it is hard to show them their beliefs are silly because those beliefs are cryptic. Again you must decide whether you want to spend your time in the byzantine labyrinth of theology or in the light of reason and science. I prefer the latter.

So if you’re really interested in truth, as opposed to believing what’s comforting or in adopting whatever attitude strikes your fancy, then it’s probably best to avoid the theological labyrinth. Theologians play their own game, with their own cryptic language, but I prefer to let them play alone. I generally avoid arguing with obscurantists—life is too short.

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