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Arguing about the existence of God (1)

February 26th, 2016

Arguing about the existence of God seems to be a major part of the internet. But I wonder how much it achieves.

The two meanings of “argument”

  1. In philosophy, an argument is a series of statements that start with premises and progress towards a conclusion in logical steps.
  2. In more colloquial usage, and argument occurs when two or more people disagree strongly, often vehemently and heatedly.

Let’s consider how valuable each one of these is.

Sometimes logical arguments change people’s minds

It isn’t common in my own experience, but I have read of many people who have converted to theism because of philosophical arguments.

  • Famed atheist Antony Flew embraced theistic belief near the end of his life through philosophical considerations.
  • Many thoughtful people – academics, journalists, teachers, etc – find themselves convinced by one or more arguments, and convert. I have documented some of their stories. For example:
    • English professor Holly Ordway converted after reading CS Lewis, christian philosophers WL Craig and JP Moreland, and New Testament scholar NT Wright.
    • Journalist Kirsten Powers was impressed by the arguments of Tim Keller, while IT professional Jennifer Fulwiler was influenced by CS Lewis, Aquinas and Augustine.
    • Teacher Richard Morgan read the arguments of atheist Richard Dawkins and then the response by Scottish Minister David Robertson, and found Robertson’s answers the more convincing.
    • Muslim intellectual Nabeel Qureshi examined the historical evidence for Jesus and found it convincing enough to become a christian.
  • I recall an atheist discussion forum where one of their strongest arguers announced he was converting. He had been a christian way back, spent 18 years as an atheist, but it was one of the philosophical arguments about the universe that changed his mind.
  • I have also seen many people choose christianity mainly because of their experience of God, but the logical arguments were important to reassure them that their choice was intellectually respectable.

But not everyone’s convinced

A philosophical argument aims to convince people because its logic is irrefutable. It isn’t hard to construct an argument which is logically valid (i.e. its conclusions follow from its premises). The difficulty is getting people to agree with the premises.

So it is common to find that reasonable christians and reasonable atheists simply see things totally differently, and it must be true that their disagreements are based on more than evidence and logic.

There are many who think philosophical arguments are a waste of time. I have heard of atheist philosophers who say that they are finished with such arguments, they are worse than unconvincing, and are not worth discussing. Many christians, too, think that reason will never lead a person to God.

But the fact some people do change their mind because of philosophical arguments backed by scientific and historical facts shows that they can be effective.

Why are the same arguments seen so differently?

This is a real mystery. I can feel an argument such as Why is there something rather than nothing? is very convincing, yet my atheist friend, with pretty much the same information, is unimpressed.

  • Psychologically, we all may feel threatened by arguments that challenge our worldview.
  • Christians may say that an atheist’s mind is set against God, and they cannot, or won’t allow themselves to see things differently. But while that may be true for some or many people, I can’t see that it is helpful, or that we can actually know.
  • Likewise, atheists may say that a christian’s mind is deluded, and they cannot, or won’t allow themselves to see things differently. But while that may be true for some or many people, I can’t see that it is helpful, or that we can actually know.

I can only conclude that:

  1. All, or most, of us are more subjective in our thinking than we’d care to admit (see more below).
  2. We each bring individual, and sometimes unexamined or implicit, assumptions to these arguments, that change how we assess the premises.
  3. Sometimes it is simply a matter of making different judgments. When considering the origin of the universe, I find most atheists agree they have no natural explanation. But whereas my judgment is that this makes a strong case for there being a supernatural explanation, atheists generally judge that not knowing has no such implications.

So arguments seem to convince only a minority of people, which leads to the next question ….

So why do people argue?

Who’s the top dog?

For some people, the argument seems to be about proving themselves cleverer than their opponent.

I was once a member of a forum where a strong atheist and I discussed a number of matters over maybe a year. Eventually I disengaged, realising all the discussion hadn’t changed either of us, and tried to discuss in a less adversarial manner with other members of the forum. But he wanted to keep arguing, and got quite offended, and even abusive, when I said I’d had enough of arguing.

Most of us like to think we are highly rational and our beliefs are better based than the opposite view. We can find the presentation of the opposite view somehow offensive. And so we argue all the more to show how foolish the other person is, and how logical we are. But our opponents simply don’t accept our evidence, or our premises, or our logic.

The weight of words

Sometimes it doesn’t appear to be about the logic so much as the weight of words.

I have been discussing on internet forums and blogs for more than a decade, and I can’t recall a time when someone proposed an atheistic argument I felt was stronger than the counter. But I can recall the first time I came across vehement and scornful atheism, I felt more emotionally attacked than logically challenged.

It is quite clear that many christian conversions are based more on emotion than logic, but it seems to me that it is similar with atheist ‘deconversions’, with the deconverts responding more to the feeling that their former belief is laughable and not respectable.

Rationalising our convictions

Psychologist Jonathon Haidt and others say that when dealing with complex matters such as the existence of God, our analytical minds find it difficult to assess all the evidence and arguments, and so we make a more intuitive decision, and then try to rationalise it.

Our first reaction may be to reject this insight, but I think it may well be true, and not unreasonable if our rationalising is honest. Reviewing arguments for and against the existence of God can be a very useful part of this process.

This has certainly been the case in my life. I was not raised in a christian family but I chose to be a christian in my middle teens. Since that time, I have reviewed most of my beliefs many times, and have tested them against the various theistic and anti-theistic arguments. This has been an enormously important process for me.

A catalyst for new understandings

Considering someone’s argument, or developing one’s own, can be a catalyst to read and learn more. If we are honest about knowing the truth based on the best information, we will welcome the opportunity to consider ideas we haven’t pursued before. And we can hope our opponents respond in the same way.

My early christian faith was based on a christian understanding of the truth of the gospels. When I later found that secular scholarship didn’t always accept some of these conclusions, I felt challenged to reconsider my beliefs in a new light. I embraced that challenge, reading literally dozens of books by expert historians. I found my faith and understanding enhanced by this reading.

And so …. ?

Philosophical arguments can be misused or be totally unconvincing, but they can also provide the impetus for a change of mind. It is probably obvious that they are most likely to be useful when a person is honestly reviewing their beliefs, and is willing to approach them without too many preconceptions, and frustratingly useless when someone is determined not to change their mind.

Although I think I am, after 50+ years as a christian, unlikely to change my mind about the basic truth of the universe, I still think the arguments are important for me as I respond to life and to questions. And I still believe there are others who think the same

For those interested, I have just re-formatted my summary of the main arguments, which are some of the most read pages here.

Next post

unkleE’s 10 guidelines on adversarial argument.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons..

One Comment

  1. There are two arguments for God’s existence. Both are based on the observation that human beings have free will. It is perfectly reasonable to say the arguments are unpersuasive. But this is not what atheists and agnostics say. They say, “We don’t know whether or not God exists.” or “God does not exist.” Anxiety inhibits them from thinking rationally and intelligently and behaving honestly.

    The scientific arguments (first cause, big bang, fine-tuning) are irrational. People think they are persuasive because the believe the fallacy that a human being has a soul and do not understand the provable truth that the human souls is soul is spiritual. I explain all this on my website: Rational Arguments for God’s Existence: Evangelizing is Good, Proselytizing is Bad.

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