A Cathedral Without A Foundation
Christianity may be compared to a grand cathedral with very little evidence for its foundation. Christians who sincerely believe their religion is true have constructed many complex arguments to justify belief. But although their intentions are good, their arguments are not. Upon scrutiny, each argument leads to little or nothing of substance. Due to the sheer quantity of arguments for Christianity, it took many years for me to recognize that none of them were solid. I hope this document will help others to more easily see Christianity for what it is: a cathedral without a foundation.
Anyone who would like to improve this document may do so, and may freely distribute their modified versions for any purpose without any requirements (...except I put a red dot in the bottom-right corner of graphics whose origins I have not yet investigated--you might want to determine who owns those images before you use them in any commercial endeavor).
Ad hominem involves attacking the character of one's opponent instead of confronting the reasoning that has been presented. It is a logical fallacy, and it does more to weaken one's position than to strengthen it.
In debate, it is common for people to erroneously suppose that the objective is to prevail over one's opponent at any cost. Thus, when they run out of high-level arguments, it is common to resort to lower levels of childish stubbornness. A much better strategy is to refuse to be baited into debating at a lower level, and if one's reasons are defeated then simply concede. Why? The proper objective in debate is to find truth, and only the person who concedes actually learns from the experience. In the long run, those who are willing to yield when they are wrong will learn how to be right more often, and will no longer need to concede as often. The most useless debates involve two dogmatic people both metaphorically plugging their ears while flinging spurns back and forth. (See dogmatism.)
Despite common assumptions, almost no one's opponent is ever converted mid-debate. But that does not mean debate is pointless. The silent audience that observes the debate is usually both more open-minded and more numerous than one's direct opponent. The silent audience will be keenly aware of the level at which the debate is proceeding, and will be much more impressed with those who are really seeking for truth than with those who are stubbornly trying to prevail. When one of the debaters sincerely acknowledges a good point that his or her opponent has made, the audience is often swayed to begin listen more favorably to the position of the person who is willing to bend.
Advance fee scam
An advance fee scam charges a small fee now in exchange for the promise of a large reward later. A classic example of advance fee scams are the notorious Nigerian Prince scam e-mails. Christianity also has some remarkable similarities with advance fee scams:
The all-or-nothing fallacy attempts to tell people they must accept everything a religion teaches or reject it all. It usually sounds something like this: "The Gospel is not a buffet. One does not just pick the doctrines he finds appealing and leave the rest."
An all-or-nothing attitude attempts to create a dillemma for atheists because there are some very good teachings found in Christianity. However, the scheme backfires when someone decides that they cannot accept the superstitious components of Christianity, and then feel pressured to distance themselves from every aspect of it. One possible resolution is to make sure that this is one of the teachings that is rejected, so that others may be evaluated based on their respective merit.
Another form of the all-or-nothing fallacy suggests that one should commit entirely to an extreme position before fully investigating it. This form of the fallacy is represented in the statement, "Those that are not with us are against us!"
A good way to model beliefs is to use a probability distribution over all plausible hypotheses. In other words, on may continue to consider all hypotheses that may yet turn out to be correct, but only give each one consideration proportional to its plausibility. For example, Bob might recognize that arbitrarily placing 100% of his confidence on just one hypothesis would make him dogmatic, and would prevent him from learning more truth. So instead, he might believe with 20% confidence that humans evolved from primates, and 80% confidence that God manually engineered human DNA, then adjust those probabilities as he becomes familiar with more evidence. By giving consideration to multiple conflicting hypotheses, Bob will be able to maintain an open mind, but will still able to converge to certainty as he compares the available evidence for both hypotheses.
An anecdotal experience is an attempt to establish the truth of some principle based on a personal story that cannot be reproduced or valided. Some common examples include miracle stories and near-death experiences. Because the conditions of an anecdotal experience cannot be deliberately reproduced, they are difficult to disprove. Consequently, they are often used in attempt to shift the burden of proof onto the skeptic. Unfortunately, people are usually subconsciously aware of the fact that their anecdotal experiences cannot be scrutinized, so there is a strong tendency to strengthen them by exaggerating aspects of certainty. This results in the telephone effect, and makes anecdotal experiences extremely unreliable. (See also Witness arguments.)
The anger argument suggests that atheists imply the existence of God with their own opposition to him. It usually sounds something like this:
The primary assumption of the anger argument is that atheists are angry at God. This is usually caused by a misunderstanding that may have originated from a miscommunication, such as follows:
In cases where anger actually is present in atheists, it is usually directed at the people who have misinterpreted their position, or the organizations that they feel have misled them or people they care about. Suggesting that atheists are angry at God often exacerbates the problem to reinforcing a misunderstanding.
A second major fallacy of the anger argument is that the conclusion does not follow from the premise. One may become angry for rational or irrational reasons, so drawing conclusions based on anger is not itself rational.
Appeal to authority
An appeal to authority attempts to establish the truth of something based on a supposedly unquestionable source. However, science does not recognize any individual, panel, group, or organization as having any authority. Galileo Galilei described it well:
As an example, suppose Charlie wants to convince Alice that God is immune to the investigations of science. He might start by noting that science only investigates matters that can be directly measured, and supernatural things cannot be measured. Then, to add credibility to his position, he might quote a 1999 statement by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, as well as a few other organizations that have made similar observations, and tell Alice that if she does not accept his position then she is not truly aligned with science! Remaining cool-headed, Alice might simply ignore his no-true-Scotsman fallacy and respond with her reasons: She might describe the statistical principle of explaining away, and point out that science does not need to directly investigate any supernatural phenomenon in order to find a more plausible explanation. Since Alice's reasons are sound, no amount of authority can dismiss her position, and because she refuses to be baited into arguing at a lower level, Charlie will be forced to confront her reasoning--the highest level of argument.
Every explanation ultimately depends on a set of axioms--simple truths that are taken for granted. Sometimes, theists argue that scientific explanations are no better than religious explanations because they all can be reduced to some set of axioms. The fallacy is that scientific axioms are simple and observable, whereas religious axioms are supernatural, immeasurable, and unfathomable. It is one thing to just accept that electrons exist and repel each other as verified by numerous experiments, and quite another to just accept that an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, supernatural being who operates in mysterious ways governs the Universe and a certain religion understands all the details without being able to explain why or provide any mechanism to objectively verify its claims. Ultimately, the simplicity and verifiability of the axioms themselves are what give credibility to an otherwise sound explanation.
Buffet analogySee All or nothing fallacy.
The choice argument attempts to blame atheists for their disbelief. It suggests that belief is a choice, and therefore atheists are responsible (or guilty or cowardly) for choosing not to believe in God.
A major assumption of the choice argument is that belief in God is the correct choice. Obviously, the atheist does not agree with this assumption, but this is often not explicitly acknowledged when confronting it. Those who continue to confront the choice argument without acknowledging the assumption are essentially attempting to defend a position that has already been assumed to be wrong.
The dominant choice involved in forming beliefs is whether to be honest or dishonest. Dishonesty with one's self involves allowing for cognitive dissonance by accepting that two or more contradicting concepts are simultaneously true. Ironically, atheism may be the product of a choice to be honest with one's self, and with respect to evidence. Often, the decision to be internally honest is so obviously the right choice that atheists will contend that there is no choice at all involved in what one believes.
Sometimes, theists suggest that atheists should engage in some form of "fake-it-till-you-make" it, where the atheist should suppress his or her disbelief until it goes away. However, this suggestion weakens the validity of the theist's own beliefs by suggesting that they may be the product of a willful choice, and therefore not likely representative of reality or truth.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two beliefs that contradict each other. For example, it may happen when a person is convinced that life evolved on this planet, but simultaneously believes in a religion that teaches God created all things. Since truth does not contradict itself, cognitive dissonance suggests at least one erroneous belief. Unfortunately, the belief that is in error is not always obvious. Many people make the false assumption that cognitive dissonance is an unbearable condition that inevitably causes people to resolve all of the things they believe. In reality, however, humans often live with varying degrees of cognitive dissonance.
When cognitive dissonance occurs, one option is to become dogmatic by arbitrarily throwing out one set of beliefs in order to place full confidence in the other. However, a more objective approach is to give both hypotheses consideration in proportion to their plausibility. Living with cognitive dissonance is certainly not a desirable end state, but it may be a preferable temporary state over arbitrarily choosing beliefs without supporting evidence.
The communists argument sounds something like this:
The fallacy of the communists argument is that atheism is just disbelief in God. It does not come with any unifying doctrines, so atheists have a wide diversity of beliefs. The absurdity of the argument becomes more apparent if it is reworded as follows:
Like atheism, eating bread does not unify people under a set of common beliefs, so it is not reasonable to assume that people who eat bread are likely to behave in the same way. By contrast, the behavior of Joseph Stalin and Mao Ze Dong could easily be attributed to their extreme idealistic fundamentalism. In many ways, their extreme idealism is much more comparable to what people find in religion than what they find in merely disbelieving in God.
The Complexity argument, or specified complexity argument, claims that life could not have evolved because it is so extremely complex. (It differs from the Improbability argument, which uses complexity to dismiss abiogenesis rather than evolution. Note that both arguments are often made together by citing complexity to dismiss both abiogenesis and evolution.) The Complexity argument is also closely related to the Teleological argument, but the complexity argument focuses on complexity whereas the teleological argument focuses on utility. The following meme attempts to make the complexity argument:
The Complexity argument is almost always the product of lacking understanding about how evolution works. Evolution is one of the most effective methods yet known for refining highly complex things. By contrast, designing complex things is relatively difficult. It follows that an intelligent designer who wanted to create complex creatures would utilize the more effective tool for the job (evolution) rather than do it the hard way (design).
A simple illustration of the effectiveness of evolution can be found in domesticated animals. Why do sheep produce more wool than they need? Because human farmers bred them to produce wool over thousands of years. Did these farmers decode the sheep genome? Did they program the sheep to be fluffy? Certainly not! They just put the fluffiest sheep together and let nature run its course. Why do cows produce more milk than they need? Why are pigs so meaty? All of these are the products of natural processes guided by human intelligence. But none of them are the products of low-level engineering. Animals are far too complex for low-level engineering, but natural processes are highly effective at refining complex things with just a little guidance. Hence, a lot of complexity really implies evolution, rather than intelligent design. Whereas intelligent design would require an extremely intelligent designer capable of manipulating profound complexity, evolution requires only the relatively small step of finding a natural substitute for the task of selective breeding, something uneducated farmers have already achieved. And natural selection fills that small gap quite easily.
Human engineers often utilize genetic algorithms (numerical optimization methods that work by simulating evolution) for refining designs in problem spaces that are too complex for the designer to fully comprehend. Hence, significant complexity does not necessarily suggest that anyone ever comprehended the matter, and probably even suggests that it was not (at least directly) designed at all.
People are more likely to search for evidence that supports what they already believe. People are more likely to find, remember, and cite evidence that supports what they already believe (obviously). Thus, people are more likely than not to think that evidence is on their side. This is called confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias can become a fallacy when a person filters a large body of evidence and concludes that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to support his or her position (often without even realizing that there is also an overwhelming amount of evidence refuting it, or supporting conflicting ideas.) This often manifests itself in the question, "how can you reject this idea when there are so many witnesses confirming its validity?" The same reasoning could be applied to many other ideas. Many witnesses can be found supporting all sorts of conflicting ideas. Thus, any attempt to sample the pool of witnesses must be very careful not to inject bias of any sort into the sample.
The cosmological argument is an attempt to prove the existence of God based on the existence of the cosmos. It is usually presented like this:
This argument attempts to exploit the ill-defined term "exist". Something that has physical existence, such as a rock, exists because it occupies a place in space and time. By contrast, something that only has conceptual existence, such as algebra, exists because some intelligent being organized it into a concept, or at least recognized it and gave it a name.
It would obviously be a mistake to suppose that because algebra exists (as a concept) that it therefore has physical existence, occupying a place in space and time. The cosmological argument attempts to go in the opposite direction, by suggesting that because the Universe exists (physically), that it must have been organized by by some intelligent being.
If we suppose that the cosmological argument uses a consistent definition of "exist", then it quickly falls apart. To illustrate, let us consider this argument with each possible definiton:
If we assume that "exist" refers to physical existence, its two premises fall apart. The first premise depends on something that has never been observed. No one has ever witnessed anything beginning to physically exist. We don't even know if that is an event that can occur. So any assertion about how such events occur, as in the second premise, is at least equally baseless.
If we assume that "exist" refers to conceptual existence, then the first two premises make a lot more sense. Both natural and theological explanations suggest that the Universe did advance through stages of organization. From this perspective, a simpler form of the cosmological argument is invoked by simply asking, "who detonated the Big Bang?". And the implied answer, of course, is God. However, solar fusion, supernovas, and other large cosmological explosions are known to occur in response to natural conditions. Therefore, a reason is still lacking to suppose that a big bang would require something supernatural. There is something seemingly intuitive about the suggestion that organization implies intelligence, but a great many highly-organized systems can be observed to be caused by natural processes.
If we consider only two possibilities, "God always existed, and he created the Universe out of nothing", or "The Universe always existed", then the latter possibility really seems to add fewer superfluous details, especially since we can observe the Universe in existence but cannot easily observe the existence of God. It would be a special pleading fallacy to suppose that the Universe must have a cause, but God does not. Ultimately, the cosmological argument reduces to, "why is there something rather than nothing?" The only honest answers to this question will contain some form of, "we don't know", and will not contain, "the true answer is..."
The devil argument attempts to use the devil to prove the existence of God. It sounds something like this:
The "devil" is sometimes replaced with "black magic", "evil spirits", or some other supernatural entity. The devil argument falsely assumes that these other supernatural things are more obviously real than God. However, most atheists to not believe in anything supernatural, including God, the devil, spirits, magic, etc.
Difficulties of the theory
Sometimes theists like to quote from Origin of Species, Chapter VI: Difficulties of the theory, which says:
This is where theists typically stop quoting, but stopping there really changes the meaning of the full quote. The remainder of the quote says:
Dogmatism occurs when a person pridefully refuses to consider the possibility that he or she may be mistaken in matters of belief. It causes a person to place more confidence in an idea than is justified by any reasonable basis for the confidence. Dogmatism involves an excessive trust in one's self, and consequently a lack of faith in others.
Dogmatism frustrates communication because the dogmatic person will not legitimately consider any suggestions that others make. The dogmatic person assumes a role of superiority in conversations by attempting to influence others without investing any possibility for being influenced him or herself.
Dogmatism also inhibits a person's own ability to progress in the refinement of his or her beliefs. To illustrate this principle, consider a situation in which information about a particular concept is made available incrementally (that is, line upon line, precept upon precept). A non-dogmatic person will make small adjustments to his or her beliefs as the new revelations are received. Over time, this may slowly cause one idea to overtake another idea, changing which idea dominates in the recipient's set of beliefs. By contrast, a dogmatic person has a habit of shifting full confidence toward the idea that currently dominates. Thus, as new information is received, the dogmatic person dismisses its influence, and ultimately never allows any new idea to take root.
It is quite possible to be dogmatic about either belief or non-belief in any subject. Consequently, dogmatism is a problem for both believers and non-believers alike.
One significant cause of dogmatism is having a strong desire to be perceived as being right. By contrast, open minded people would rather find out that they are wrong, so they can become right. Why do people become dogmatic? Do they believe that truth needs them to defend it? Do they fear having to change their beliefs? Do they fear the shame of being discovered in the wrong? Perhaps it is a combination of all of these, but it is clear that there are few valid or good reasons to be dogmatic.
Dualism is the belief that the processing of information (function) is insufficient to explain consciousness. It stems from Descartes' mind-body problem. If dualism is true, then a simulated brain would never be able to achieve consciousness, no matter how perfect the simulation was, because it would lack the "dual" that makes consciousness work. Although dualism does not directly imply the existence of God, theists often claim that the dual is a spirit that dwells in a supernatural realm, which opens the possibility for resurrection, and an afterlife.
The argument for dualism usually sounds something like this: "I know there is a dual because I can sense that my feelings are so real, and there is no way that function alone could do that." However, the dualism argument essentially reduces to an argument from ignorance. It basically says, "I do not understand how functionalism could produce consciousness, therefore functionalism cannot produce consciousness". But claiming the existence of a dual does nothing to explain consciousness either.
Daniel Dennett is famous, among other things, for identifying that dualism makes the homunculus fallacy. That is, it attempts to explain consciousness by suggesting that there is a conscious component somewhere. The problem is that this creates an infinite regress because then the dual would have to have a dual in order to be conscious.
If a hypothetical machine were functionally equivalent to a conscious being, but lacked the dual, then it follows that the dual could not provide any functional benefit. The machine without the dual would then be indistinguishable from something that was conscious. So the role of the dual could not be to do anything, but merely to exist. Yet, if the brain even so much as had the capability to detect existence, then the dual has has crossed the interface into the functional realm, and could be replaced by something that only simulated the same function.
The dumpster argument sounds something like this: "I don't have time to explain or even summarize the reasons for my position to you, but here is a big dumpster (website, book, etc.) containing plenty of details. Please dig through it until you convince yourself that I am right and you are wrong."
The dumpster argument is an attempt to shift the burden of finding a convincing argument onto the skeptic. It is self-evidently an excuse that people make when they lack the ability to defend their positions, but want to claim that they could do so if they were not so busy. If someone actually does invest the time to dig through the metaphorical dumpster, the person making the argument is promoted to a position of power because it is much less work to find new resources than to dig through them.
Often, the less people know about a particular subject, the more confident they will be that their opinions on the matter are correct. This is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Aristotle is reported to have put it this way: "The more you know, the more you know you don't know." The Dunning-Kruger effect creates people who think they are qualified to lead in domains where they have no experience. Some example attitudes that reflect the Dunning-Kruger effect include:
The entropy argument postulates an imaginary law that forbids order from emerging from disorder. If the entropy law were valid, then it would prevent natural evolution from occurring. Because the entropy argument loosely resembles the Second Law of Thermodynamics, some people believe it is an actual physical law. However, no such law has ever actually been established in physics, and numerous natural phenomena demonstrate that it would be false.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that the entropy of a closed system cannot decrease. By contrast, the entropy argument claims that the entropy of a system cannot decrease without the application of intelligence. Significantly, the entropy argument claims to apply to all systems, while the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies only to closed systems. Also, the entropy argument implies that it can be circumvented by intelligence, wherease the Second Law of Thermodynamics is believed to always apply.
A closed system is one in which entropy cannot enter or leave. For example, standard air conditioners would not be able to cool a room if the heat-exchanger were kept indoors. However, by putting the heat exchanger outside, air conditioners can cool a room by heating the outside environment. Life is not a closed system. It consumes fuel, emits waste, and interacts with its environment in many ways. Consequently, life is able to decrease in entropy.
A certain thought experiment proposed by James Clerk Maxwell, called Maxwell's Demon, suggested the possibility of circumventing the Second Law of Thermodynamics with the application of intelligence. However, numerous attempts to demonstrate Maxwell's Demon in laboratory experiments have failed to work, and physicists almost universally agree that the Second Law of Thermodynamics cannot be bypassed by intelligence. Confusion about Maxwell's Demon, confusion about the nature of open and closed systems, and an over-zealous desire to disprove evolution are probably all responsible for influencing the formation of the entropy argument.
"Evolution is compatible" assertion
Some non-fundamentalist theists may assert that evolution can be viewed as compatible with the creation story. Specifically, they may say that God could have used evolution in to accomplish the creation. If one is willing to bend some of the finer details of the creation account, or say they are only metaphorical, then this resolution can be made to work.
However, it would be an error to assume that the evolution-creation conflict is the only conflict between religion and science. Evolution is somewhat more difficult to resolve with "the fall" than it is with "the creation". According to the Bible, the fall introduced death into the world, and Jesus was able to bring about resurrection by atoning for the effects of the fall. If, therefore, death occurred prior to Adam (which is strictly necessary for evolution), then another conflict exists with the atonement and resurrection. Another prominent conflict occurs between neuroscience's discovery that the brain is responsible for consciousness and the Biblical claims that consciousness persists after death because of supernatural spirits.
"Evolution is not science" assertion
Sometimes theists claim that evolution is not observable, testable, repeatable, or falsifiable, and is therefore not part of science.
However, evolution is observable, testable, repeatable, and falsifiable. Moreover, evolution is the product of many different disciplines of science.
Observable: The theory of evolution was the product of observations made about nature. One can make the very same observations today. For example, squirrels are easy to find, and they appear to be approximately half-way between mice and small monkeys. As our powers of observation have improved, we have observed more evidence that supports evolution inside of individual cells. Here is one of many examples of inter-species evolution being observed in modern times.
Testable: Numerous dating techniques have been developed. They are tested against radioactive decay, which is know to be so reliable that it powers the atomic clocks on GPS satellites. They have been tested against stalagmite accumulation. They have been tested with continental drift with magnentic pole switching. They have been tested against each other, against tree rings and known climate events, cosmic events, etc. There are entire fields of science dedicated to testing dating techniques. Fossils have been dated and those dates confirmed with alternate dating techniques.
Repeatable: Evolution is so reliable that the similar laboratory experiments can reliable anticipate that bacteria will evolve reistance to certain chemicals. Here is a video of such an experiment. Of course, we cannot repeat something that takes millions of years, but we can repeat the same principles in laboratory settings and confirm that they behave as expected. As a simple example, genetic algorithms are an effective optimization technique in the domain of artificial intelligence. They reliably improve with successive generations of simulated evolution.
Falsifiable: The theory of evolution was formed before we had the capability to sequence genomes. If it had been a false theory, that would have been apparent when we started looking at the nucleotide sequences in DNA and found no statistically significant similarity between species that had previously been hypothesized to evolve into each other. To the contrary, the field of phylogenetics was formed, and provides some of the strongest evidence yet available to support the theory of evolution. Moreover, other markers such as mitochondrial DNA have also been found to reliably tell the same story. Indeed, evolution has not been successfully falsified, but it has been subjected to many falsification attempts. In particular, evolution has been a constant target by a large number of theist scientists with significant interest in debunking it. The failure of many attempts to falsify the theory of evolution has been a tremendous boon toward validating it.
Existence demands an explanation
Dissatisfaction with science's inability to explain the origin of space, time, matter, energy, and some of the fundamental laws of nature lead to the following argument:
The fallacy of this reasoning is two-fold: First, it suggests that a made-up-lie is better than no explanation at all, which is self-evidently wrong. Second, the explanation that religion offers is worse than the original problem. If God is even greater and more complex than the Universe he created, then his existence is even more demanding of an explanation. Moreover, his existence is not even as apparent or verifiable as that of the Universe, which further makes the religious explanation incredible. Thus, the least offensive answer currently available to the explanation that existence demands is the dissatisfying but honest one: "We do not yet know".
When a more plausible explanation for something is found, confidence in previous explanations is naturally diminished. This phenomenon is called "explaining away". For example, suppose a violent crime has been committed, and there are only two suspects: Alice and Bob. Based on apparent motives, somewhat more suspicion is initially cast upon Alice than upon Bob. Later, however, DNA evidence strongly suggests that Bob had been at the scene of the crime when it was perpetrated. Since a plausible explanation for the crime has been found, the amount of reasonable suspicion against Alice is greatly diminished, even though no evidence has been found to suggest that Alice was not involved.
Similarly, science does not produce any evidence that directly suggests there is no God. It simply finds natural explanations for various phenomena, and these make supernatural explanations for the same phenomena look silly by comparison. The primary defenses against explaining away are to remain wilfully ignorant of scientific explanations, or to misrepresent them in order to try to make them seem as implausible as the supernatural ones. Here are some examples of supernatural phenomena that science has explained away:
The explosion analogy is an attempt to illustrate the statistical improbability of complex things spontaneously forming. It can take many forms, including:
The "explosion" is usually intended to represent the Big Bang, and the complex product represents life. Thus, the explosion analogy suggests that life would not be expected to occur following the Big Bang without an intelligent designer.
The implied connection between the Big Bang and abiogenesis reflects ignorance of the fact that the Big Bang is not a theory for explaining the origins of life. The Big Bang is a theory for explaining the observable expansion of the visible Universe, and is believed to have occurred more than 13.7B years ago. By contrast, abiogenesis is an unrelated theory for explaining the origins of life on this planet, and is believed to have occurred less than 4.6B years ago. The two theorized events are separated by a gap of more than 9.1B years, spanning about 2/3 of the time since the Big Bang.
If the bad explosion analogy is omitted, the remainder is the Improbability argument.
The faith argument sounds like this: "Jesus loved you so much that he was willing to suffer for you. He suffered more than you can imagine, and ultimately laid down his life for your sins. And all that he requires from you in exchange for his tremendous and loving gift of mercy that will enable you to attain incomprehensible glory for all eternity is that you have faith in him."
The first thing that should be immediately obvious when the faith argument is made is that someone really really really wants you to have faith. The deal has been sweetened as far as any deal can possibly be sweetened: If you just give them what they want, you will receive an eternal and unending reward of unimaginable bliss! And if appealing to your sense of greed doesn't sway you, they resort to an emotional plea: You would be a horrible ungrateful person for rejecting the most sincere act of sacrifice ever offered if you don't accept the deal! And if that doesn't move you, they will try to appeal to your need for personal acceptance and sense of belonging: Someone understands you, cares about you personally, accepts you, and loves you almost unconditionally, as long as you just have faith!
But who exactly wants you to have faith? And why do they want you to have faith so badly? Let us consider both the believers' and unbelievers' answers to these questions:
Believers' version: God is the one who wants you to have faith. The reason he wants you to have faith is for your own good. Because God respects your free will, he will not force you to believe. (See also the free will argument.) But if you believe, then he can take care of every other deficiency in your character and make you into a glorious being. And when Christian religious denominations plead with you to have faith, they are only supporting God's will for your personal well-being.
Unbelievers' version: Religion is the entity that wants you to have faith. The reason it wants you to have faith is because faith is what sustains the religion. If a religion were to lose all of its believers, it would be a dead religion. Just as corporations work to maximize profit, politicians work to improve their popularity, and universities work to establish credibility, so religions work to promote faith.
Perhaps, one of the best ways to discern which of these two explanations is more plausible is to simply try to understand them both. It is very difficult to comprehend why God is interested so particularly in faith, and not so much in other attributes that help a person to learn, such as interest in learning, humility, willingness to work hard, resiliency to defeat, or curiosity. It is also very difficult to comprehend the supposed relationship between free will and having faith. See also choice argument.
Faith in science
Sometimes theists point out that science requires faith. The legitimacy of this claim depends entirely on how one defines "faith". There are some definitions of faith for which this statement is true, and many for which it is not.
Sometimes faith is defined simply as "trust". No scientist has time to repeat all of the experiments that all other scientists have performed. Consequently, scientists operate with trust that other scientists actually performed the experiements they report to have performed, and actually obtained the results they report to have obtained. This trust has been violated in several notable cases, such as:
Because faith has many conflicting definitions, it can be dangerous to admit that scientists have "faith", because someone will inevitably interpret the statement using a different definition of the word. Another common definition of faith is, the choice to accept or believe in something without having any verifiable evidence. By this definition, faith is directly opposed to the scientific method. The following thought experiment illustrates some of the issues with this definition of faith:
Suppose Alice asks Bob to consider a new idea. Bob might choose to trust in Alice by evaluating her new idea. His choice to tentatively accept her idea without proof, so that he might give the idea due consideration, might be called a type of faith. Alternatively, Bob might tell Alice that he that he has faith in his existing beliefs, and is therefore unwilling to consider her new idea. This is also a type of faith, even though the attitudes are almost completely opposite! The primary difference is the object of the faith. In the first case, Bob put his faith in Alice. In the second case, he put his faith in himself, or perhaps in the original source of his beliefs.
It would be completely ambiguous to refer to one of Bob's two potential choices as "faith" and the other as "doubt". If Bob exhibits "faith" in Alice, that implies a degree of uncertainty about his existing beliefs, and if he exhibits faith in his existing beliefs, that implies a degree of distrust toward Alice. Thus, one cannot just choose to "have more faith". One can only choose to exercise faith in something, and in that act chooses to exercise doubt in the opposing direction.
One might ask, would it be good for Bob to exercise faith in Alice? Ultimately, the answer depends on whether or not Alice's new idea is right. However, proof of the correctness of Alice's idea is probably not available, or else there would be no call for Bob to exercise faith in it at all. Therefore, Bob must make his choice without knowing the answer. In general, tentative trust leads to greater productivity. Thus, good faith tends to be that which is motivated by humility, open-mindedness, optimism, curiosity, and temporary trust. bad faith tends to be that which is motivated by pride, closed-mindedness, pessimism, superstition, and permanent dogmatism.
Many people assume that "faith" implies "faith in God", and therefore lazily omit specifying the object when they talk about faith. Such sloppy communication has a negative effect for those who do not believe in God because it implies that they are unable to extend trust. It is even more exclusionary to refer to one's set of beliefs as one's "faith". Other definitions of faith, such as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen", tend to be more confusing than helpful.
Mark 16:17-18 records that Jesus identified several signs that will follow those who believe:
Due to the often-surprising power of the placebo effect, some minor medical conditions actually seem to benefit from faith healings, and due to the prevalence of confirmation bias, those who witness faith healings are often prone to become convinced that the performance exhibits genuine power from God. However, despite the widespread practice of faith healings, they continue to elude empirical statistical validation. Many faith healings have been exposed as pious frauds. Atheists often note that no amputee has ever been healed by faith, because that would be something that could be documented and verified, and if the intentions of faith healers were really to help people, rather than just to promote their religion, then they would perform service-healings at hospitals instead of in religious meetings.
In the context of theism versus atheism, a false dichotomy usually takes the following form:
If the absurd condition does not obviously follow from the non-existence of God, then additional argumentation is needed to show that no other condition would be possible. Some commonly leveraged conditions that do not follow from the non-existence of God include:
The fine-tuning argument is an attempt to prove the existence of God. It is usually presented as follows:
The fine-tuning argument is a type of God-of-the-gaps argument. That is, there is something science cannot explain, so the correct explanation must be God. However, there are many reasons why one might be justifiably skeptical that God is, in fact, the correct explanation for such specific physical constants:
Founding fathers arguments
Many Christians in the United States revere the founding fathers of the United States (with some very good reasons). However, sometimes they use the founding fathers to make such claims as: "The founding fathers were all Christians", or "the founding fathers intended for the United States to be a Christian nation."
It is certainly true that most of the founding fathers were Christians. However, given the time period, a surprising many of them were actually deists. (Deism is the position that God created the Earth and life, but it rejects the idea of a personal God who intervenes in the affairs of humans.) In the 1700's, science had not yet discovered any complete natural explanations for the organization of the Earth or the existence of complex life on it. Consequently, deism represented what was the most intellectual and rational explanation that was then available.
The assertion that the founding fathers intended for the United States to be a Christian nation is easily refuted. The Constitution of the United States makes only two references to religion, and only for the purpose of clarifying that it should be separated from politics. Sometimes Christians refer to the Declaration of Independence, which does include statements that offer deference to a Creator, but the Declaration of Independence was not established for the purpose of setting precedent for the establishment of the nation, as the Constitution was. The other writings of the founding fathers explicitly describe that they were deliberate in creating a wall of separation between church and state, so it was obviously not merely an oversight that they failed to mention Christianity in the Constitution. Moreover, history indicates that the founding fathers were deliberately trying to avoid some of the problems that occur when politics and religion were mixed, such as the debacle in which Henry the Eighth established the Church of England.
Sometimes, the motto "in God we trust" as printed on U.S. money, or the "under God" clause from the Pledge of Allegiance, are cited to suggest that the United States is a Christian nation. However, both of those were added in the 1950's, and do not represent the diversity of views that exist within the United States.
Since the Founding Fathers of the United States were a diverse group with many differing opinions, it is certainly possible that some of them actually did intend for the United States to be a Christian nation. However, the wishes of some of the Founding Fathers neither establish the direction for the nation nor even necessarily represent what is good or right.
Free will argument
The free will argument is a standard Christian response to question like, "Why does God allow evil to exist?" The free will argument responds by saying, "God will not interfere with free will." In this exchange, the atheist is implying that there is something negligent about God having unlimited power and operating in a position of authority over the world while doing little to interfere with the problems around us. By invoking "free will", the theist is essentially responding that God has a higher purpose in refraining from taking any action. It is closely related to the mysterious ways justification and the postmortem compensation justification.
The problem with the free will argument is that it implies evil is necessarily the consequence of sinful choices. Many horrific crimes are committed by people who sincerely believe they are supporting the will of God. Even when the perpetrators are only negligently guilty of failing to discern the evil behind their actions, there are cases when large numbers of innocent victims must suffer against their own wills for the choices of a few misguided individuals. Thus, the inaction of God is not maximizing free will, as is claimed, but is ensuring jungle rule.
Fruits, knowing them by
Matthew 7:16 records that Jesus described a method for discerning false prophets, "Ye shall know them by their fruits". This line is sometimes flung at atheists to suggest that the fruits of religion are sufficient basis to believe, and that religion teaches people to be moral, while atheism deprives people of a basis for morality.
This argument reduces to a form of the morality argument, and makes the same fallacy of assuming that belief in God is required for morality. Moreover, upon closer inspection, the "fruits" of religion are not quite the fresh produce that is often assumed: While religious denominations teach their individual members to love their neighbors, the high-level reputation of religion is still one of intolerance and hypocrisy. And while religious denominations certainly teach their individual members to repent of all their sins, the high-level reputation of religion is one of never acknowledging any wrong-doing, and stubbornly refusing to acknowledge new evidence or make any meaningful changes in its teachings or practices.
Further, religion is not the only entity capable of bearing fruit. Science is made of scientists who dedicate tremenous time and effort toward making positive impacts in the world. The fruits of science include real advances in the domain of knowledge. Religion may claim to receive revelations from God about supernatural concepts, but its supposed contributions to knowledge cannot be verified. By contrast, science is responsible for every advancement in technology, and can claim such fruits as modern sanitation, electricity, computers, the Internet, smart phones, and modern medical procedures. Religious apologists often make the religious scientists argument in attempt to take credit for these fruits, but it is ultimately the methods of science and not religion that produced the fruit, and the scientific method works just as effectively for both believers and unbelievers.
The chart below shows the distribution of charitable giving in the United States in 2017 according to http://givingusa.org:
More than twice as much money was donated to religion than to any of the other categories, and religions in the United States tend to focus much more on producing faith than on producing works. Religion also has a strong effect for making people skeptical toward science, and thus tends to discourage giving for fundamental research, which tends to have the greatest long-term benefit. Notably, donations toward fundamental research were not even significant enough to warrant their own category. A pessimistic perspective might observe that because of religion far more money is invested in attempt to interfere with the advancement of verifiable knowledge than to promote it.
Gaps in the fossil record
Gaps in the fossil record are often cited as evidence that evolution is not true. Here is an example meme used to make this point:
This claim falsely assumes that evolution predicts there would not be gaps in the fossil record. Counter to popular intuition, most dead creatures do not form into fossils, and evolution does not progress at a constant or even steady rate. The combination of these two factors naturally results in fossils that are clustered around certain species with very few intermediate remnants.
Why do very few dead creatures actually become fossils? Because highly specific conditions are necessary for the fossilization process to even begin. The vast majority of creatures either decompose or are eaten by other creatures before leaving any permanent trace.
Why does evolution happen in unsteady spurts? When the mutation of only one particular nucleotide in a sequence of DNA leads to a selective advantage, nature can find it very rapidly. However, this typically leads to local optima where a large population of a particular specie may form. In order to break out of a local optimum, an unlikely combination of mutations may be required, which can take orders of magnitude longer to occur in nature. When that finally happens, evolution proceeds rapidly again until it finds the next local optimum. This sporadic behavior can be easily confirmed by plotting fitness with respect to generations in a genetic algorithm.
Moreover, even if evolution did predict that there would be a continuous fossil record, the claim that there are big gaps is debatable. Even among creatures that are still living, enough intermediate stages are represented to form an apparent spectrum of continuity. If scientists were to divide the size of every gap in half by finding an intermediate fossil, opponents of evolution would likely still be dissatisfied with the span of the remaining gaps because subjective evaluations are not very effective for convincing someone who is already determined to arrive at a particular conclusion. So, are the gaps really unreasonably large? It depends who you ask. In general, those with more knowledge on the subject are also more likely to agree that the existing amount of evidence is already very convincing.
(It should also be noted that the meme shown above also makes several factual errors in addition to its claim about gaps in the fossil record: For example, the number of chimpanzees has already declined to fewer than 300K, the number of humans has grown to more than 7B, and humans did not evolve directly from chimpanzees, but from a common ancestor that they both share.)
A God-of-the-gaps argument is one that claims God must be responsible for something that science cannot yet explain. One of many possible examples includes:
Such arguments can be difficult to refute because the correct explanation for the phenomenon is not yet known. Many God-of-the-gaps arguments have been made for various unexplained phenomena in the past, but as science has found explanations, the correct one has never yet turned out to require something supernatural. For example, God was once believed to live on the tops of mountains. After those regions were explored, he was believed to live in the clouds. When the sky was explored, he was believed to live in some supernaturally unreachable place. Diseases were once believed to be caused by evil demons. Now, we almost universally accept that they are caused mostly by germs.
Neil deGrasse Tyson famously pointed out that God-of-the-gaps arguments imply that "God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that's getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time goes on".
Good effects of religion
Some studies have correlated belief in God with positive effects, such as reporting greater satisfaction in life, lower incidence of gambling and drug use, and slightly longer average life span.
Religion has much in common with a habit-forming drug. It causes the brain to release dopamine and makes people feel a false sense of security. It makes people think they need it. If you take it away, they go through withdrawal, often become depressed, and may do some very bad things. Many people have lost the ability to find their own sense of purpose and morality without it. When people are found to be in that situation, the solution is rehab, not to glut on more drugs.
It is certainly true that religion promises that people will live forever, and this enables people to find purpose in life without having to learn to stop being self-centered. By contrast, it is more difficult to find purpose serving others and living as part of something greater that will continue to live after we die. (See also purpose of life.) Perhaps some shallow individuals are actually better off being taught lies that keep them from engaging in irresponsible behaviors. However, the effects that these people have in raising children and influencing others should not be ignored in the assessment. Others also exist who hunger for real truth, and will only find morality in explanations that can be supported with evidence. Perhaps, people have grown complacent by evolving with religion for too long, but the time has come to move toward finding real purpose founded upon an accurate representation of reality.
Ignorance, argument from
An argument from ignorance sounds something like this:
Arguments from ignorance attempt to get the opponent to jump on the "bandwagon" of dismissing science. But usually they just expose ignorance.
The Improbability argument suggests that it is statistically improbable for even primitive life to have spontaneously formed. (It differs from the Complexity argument, which uses complexity to dismiss evolution rather than abiogenesis. Note that the two arguments are often made together by using complexity to dismiss both abiogenesis and evolution.) The improbability argument is typically presented with the following supporting details:
The primary error of the improbability argument is its assumption that the simplest modern biological life is representative of early pre-life. By modern definitions, "life" requires a number of complex features, such as cellular walls. Consequently, simple chemical reaction, such as fire, are not regarded as being "alive". However, nature is not constrained by modern definitions of life. Whatever spontaneously formed more than 4 billion years ago probably met only a small subset of modern reqirements for life, and important features like cellular encapsulation, photosynthesis, or the Krebbs cycle probably evolved later.
The plausibility that pre-life may have been little more than a simple chemical reaction can be seen by noting how many properties of "life" are satisfied by fire, a simple chemical reaction that most people are familar with:
Although fire is not technically alive, it exhibits several of the properties of life, and it spontaneously occurs in nature. The fact that no simple chemical reaction has been continuously reacting for 4 billion years indicates there is a significant survival advantage for reactions with cellular encapsulation, so natural selection would apply just as well with pre-life as it does with modern life.
Another possible resolution for the improbability argument is massive parallelism. The oceans are very big, especially relative to a microscopic organism, and abiogenesis only needed to occur once in order for the Earth to now be covered with life. Moreover, the number of planets estimated to be in the Milky Way galaxy is estimated to be at least in the hundreds of billions, and the number of galaxies in the Observable Universe is estimated to be at least in the trillions, and the portion of the whole Universe occupied by the Observable Universe is entirely unknown. It may be that much of the Universe is actually mostly lacking in life, and Earth just happens to have been a place where a highly improbable event occurred. After all, if abiogenesis happened to occur anywhere at all, those places would be the only places where life would exist to wonder why it happened there.
Incredulity, argument from
An argument from incredulity basically says, "God must exist because nothing else makes sense." Generally, it is used as a lazy summary of some other argument. For example, instead of making the complexity argument, one might simply express, "You think intelligent humans evolved from unintelligent primates? Really? That's stupid." However, arguments from incredulity generally say more about what a person doesn't understand and only serve to weaken their position.
Irreducible complexity arguments suggest that certain complex features of advanced life forms could not have evolved due to natural selection because there are no intermediate steps that would offer the creature any advantage. For example, why would birds evolve wings if shorter wings would not be sufficient to enable them to fly?
This fallacy of this argument is more apparent if it is reasted as follows:
Although the person making the argument may be very intelligent, evolution has the significant advantages of utilizing a large population that effectively explores the complex space of possible mutations in parallel and of operating over counter-intuitively long durations of time. Historically, many supposed instances of irreducible complexity have later turned out to have incrementally progressive pathways that were followed by evolution. For example, flightless birds are known to exist, and they use their wings for a variety of alternate purposes including limiting the impact of falls, sheltering offspring, and regulating their body temperatures.
The joystick hypothesis suggests that the brain is a sort of joystick or complex control paddle that a spirit uses to control human bodies. It gives a role for the brain while simultaneously claiming that supernatural spirits are actually responsible for thinking and consciousness.
If the joystick hypothesis were true, then the brain would be an interface between the physical realm and the spiritual realm. However, neurscientists can measure and stimulate the activation responses at the level of individual neurons. Their spiking patterns have been shown to respond deterministically to the stimulus they receive from their dendritic connections. Hence, any influence from a supernatural spirit would have to be so small as to avoid detection. And if the influence from the spirit is so subtle and small, then its role in directing consciousness is diminished and the brain is again responsible for our consciousness.
One cannot make a car move faster by cracking open the dashboard and forcing the speedometer to indicate a higher speed. Similarly, if the brain played only a passive role in consciousness, then doping it with chemicals would not be expected to have lasting influences on consciousness. Yet, people who are put under anesthesia do not wake up with memories of being unable to reach their bodies. They wake up with no memories at all, because the organ responsible for consciousness has been chemically inhibited.
A question many theists seem to enjoy asing is, "How will you feel on the day of judgment when you have to face God and admit that you didn't believe?"
Implicit in this question is the assumption that there is something fundamentally wrong with not believing in God. However, the primary choice involved in belief is whether or not to be honest about the evidence one has observed. So the simplest answer that a typical atheist might give is, "Honest". Surely, the God of truth would not be more pleased with people who engage in self-deceit in some kind of attempt to secure an eternal reward.
Some atheists might even sincerely hope for an opportunity to face God again, if he actually turns out to be real. As one atheist put it, "It would be nice to finally be judged by someone who actually understood me, and who might know what I went through to remain true to what I believed."
See also Pascal's wager.
The laminin argument says:
It has been similarly noted by Pastafarians that the double-helix shape of DNA resembles rotini noodles, and that the planets in our Solar System have a shape similar to that of meatballs. Suggesting that Laminin is the signature of Jesus is approximately as absurd as suggesting that DNA and the planets bear the signature of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Laundry list of arguments
A poor debate tactic involves presenting a long list of arguments for a position. The person providing the "laundry list" hopes that the opponent will be so overwhelmed by the length of the list that he or she will yield. A common example of a laundry list argument is as follows:
"Evolution is ridiculous theory because it is statistically impossible for even the simplest life to form spontaneously (the improbability argument), and even if that could happen mutations never improve a creature (the entropy argument), and even if mutations did improve creatures they still couldn't cross specie boundaries (the micro-evolution claim), and even if they could there is no way that sophisticated features like the human eye would ever form (the complexity argument) because a half-functioning eye would serve no purpose (irreducible complexity), and the usefulness of the eye clearly indicates it was designed (the teleological argument), and atheists only refuse to acknowledge this because they are angry at God (the anger argument) and they are really just trying to justify their sins (the pants on fire argument)."
The fallacy of laundry lists is simple: Many bad arguments do not make a good argument.
Traditionally, "life" is assumed to be a binary (on or off) property that only biological organisms can possess. However, nature is not really constrained by the way humans perceive the concept of life. Most attempts to actually isolate the specific processes necessary for life typically end up describing something that non-biological entities also exhibit to varying degrees. For example, corporations also seek to survive, to grow, to expand, and to secure more power and wealth. As another example, the cumulative society of life in the ocean seems to adapt to challenges, and takes actions in order to maintain homeostasis. The inevitable conclusion is that life is not anything peculiar to biological organisms, nor is it a binary concept. Rather, life is a spectrum concept that starts to occur whenever a complex entity has autonomy and begins to pursue objectives that are also its own.
Advanced forms of life consistently seem to be composed of many lesser entities that possess a lesser degree of life. For example, humans are made up of organs. Organs are made of cells. And, cells are made of organelles. The life of a human spans many generations of cellular births and deaths. The same pattern also continues in the opposite direction. Society is made up of people. Just as there are many types of cells, each specializing in a different role, people generally tend to specialize in careers. Just as the cells in the human body are organized into "systems", the life of society is likewise sustained by many analogous systems. Let us consider some of the systems in human society that parallel those in individual human bodies:
Clearly, society itself is very much "alive". In fact, in almost every aspect the life of society is much greater than that of any individual that supports it. It has many more parallel "thoughts" than any human mind is even capable of supporting at once. Yet, like all lesser forms of life, it seeks to survive, to grow, to propagate, and to advance. This is significant to the human condition because it means that we are part of something much greater than our own lives. The things we do with our own lives ultimately affect the life of society, which will not only live longer than we will, but will ultimately accomplish more good, achieve greater purpose, and facilitate prosperity for future generations. This gives purpose to our own mortal lives, even if we will not personally live again after death. It also dictates morality by showing us that the things we do are good, only to the extent that they positively assist the life of society.
There are, unfortunately, forms of life that pursue their own objectives by parasitically leeching from the lives of other entities. Biological examples include cancers, mosquitos, virusses, and ticks. Non-biological examples also exist, including fraudulent organizations that steal from others in order to sustain their own operations. In light of the detrimental effects that such life forms have on the goals of other lives, it is clear that parasitic behavior is unethical. Sadly, it is better that some lives are destroyed than that the lives of humans or society be limited by life forms that take such easy and selfish paths.
Just like many other organizations, organized religions also have life. They survive by convincing people that they represent God, but they have such conflicting doctrines that it is clear that most of them are ultimately frauds. Like other forms of life, these frauds exhibit such a strong will to survive that they will do whatever it takes to sustain themselves, including the teaching of lies, the taking of donations under false pretenses of representing God, and the redirecting of human lives for their own support. It should also be admitted that organized religions often also do much good, both for the lives of their adherents, and also for society. Nevertheless, as society advances, and as more of truth begins to be accurately modeled by science, the fabrications of false religions will increasingly prevent their adherents from being able to participate in the progress of society. Truth is too important to sacrifice. We cannot fail to model a large section of truth just to allow well-intentioned but fraudulent organizations to survive. Simply put, the advancement of society matters much more than the lives of these religions.
Literal places argument
The literal places argument points to evidence that King David was a real person, that Israel was a real place, or that Jesus really lived, and says, "See? The Bible is true!".
The literal places argument usually occurs when theists make the all-or-nothing fallacy, and therefore suppose that atheists reject everything in the Bible. As an example of the silliness of this argument, one might point out that Harry Potter still a work of fiction, even though England is a real place.
The micro-evolution claim admits that evolution occurs within species, but claims that it cannot occur between species.
The problem with the micro-evolution claim is that species are a human invention for the purpose creating a taxonomy. Nature has no reason to be aware of or bound by the lines that humans draw between clusters of creatures. For creatures that reproduce sexually, humans define specie boundaries based on whether creatures are able to reproduce together. However, this definition does not work with creatures that reproduce in other ways, and there is no such clear boundary between some creatures.
As an example, lions and tigers share a common ancestral line. However, because they evolved while separated by a large distance, they evolved in separate directions. Now, when lions and tigers mate, they can produce a partially-viable liger. Real ligers have been observed, and stuffed ligers can be found in certain museums. Yet, many other cat species have evolved too far from each other to produce offspring. For example, a lion and a house-cat would not be able to reproduce together.
Descartes proposed that the mind and body were distinct entities, and could exist without each other. This is known as mind-body dualism, and naturally leads to the dualism argument.
Certainly, bodies are known to exist without minds (in dead people), but little progress has been made toward validating that minds can exist without bodies. Hence, a more plausible explanation is simply that spirits are more of a by-product of what people want to be true than what the Universe has shown with evidence to be true.
Miracles are a class of Anecdotal experiences. They claim that some event that defies the laws of nature has occurred. They suggest that supernatural phenomena are not strictly prevented from influencing the natural realm, and thus call attention to the "failure" of science to find any reliable evidence of a supernatural phenomena. Because miracles cannot be reproduced and leave no verifiable evidence, they are usually established by the testimony of witnesses, which are notoriously unreliable.
Miracle stories are often used in attempt to shift the burden of proof onto the skeptic. One does not need to know how to explain something in order to believe that some natural explanation exists. Moreover, the correct explanation often involves components of confirmation bias, exaggeration, and sometimes even withholding of relevant details, so asking the skeptic to explain the miracle puts her in the awkward situation of being asked to make an unkind accusation.
The absurdity of attempts to impose beliefs based on miracle stories can be illustrated by an analogy with a magician: Suppose a performing magician claims to have obtained magical powers from a pink unicorn that he encountered while vacationing on the moon. Then, the magician proceeds to shuffle a deck of cards and asks you to pick one. After you select a card, the magician identifies precisely the card you chose. Impressed, you ask him to explain how he did the trick. He replies, "Magic, of course!" When you press for more details, he asks if you can explain how he knew which card you had picked. When you cannot explain his trick, he responds that you must therefore accept his story about the pink unicorn on the moon. And if you ask him why he uses his magic exclusively to prove the reality of his magic, and not to advance knowledge, to help suffering people, or for any other productive purpose, he responds that magic comes with mysterious limitations that cannot be comprehended by non-magical individuals.
The morality argument makes the implicit suggestion that atheists are immoral. It is usually posed as follows:
This argument relies on confusion about the definition of "objective morality". When specific definitions are made, the argument falls apart. To illustrate, consider the following specific definitions:
The precise differences between divine sanctioned morality and objective morality can be subtle, but are critical for the morality argument. Objective morality suggests that if there is a God, he would conform to what is moral. His role with respect to morality would be to show people what is objectively moral, but not to define it. And, hypothetically, if God were to fall then what is moral would not be affected. By contrast, divine sanctioned morality suggests that God defines what is moral. In this context, it would be meaningless to call God "moral" because he would still be moral even if he were a big jerk. And, hypothetically, if God were to fall then what is moral would fall with him.
So, if one believes in divine sanctioned morality, then the morality argument becomes:
This view of the argument is trivial to dismiss because the second premise is not at all obvious. And, if one believes in objective morality, then the morality argument becomes:
Again, the argument falls apart because the second premise is no more obvious than the conclusion.
The morality argument is closely related to the transcendental argument, and may be considered a subset of it.
Mysterious ways justification
The mysterious ways justification is a standard response to the question, "Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?" It essentially says that humans do not understand the ways of God, but his ways are still the best.
The problem with the mysterious ways justification is that Christian teachings require people to love and trust this being who cannot be understood. The first commandment is to love God, and the first principle of the gospel upon which access to the atonement hinges is to have faith in him. Yet, whenever God appears to behave in a manner that seems cruel, unjust, negligent, shallow, or unrighteous, believers are expected to look the other way, accept that his ways are ultimately good in every respect, and emulate the perfect behavior that cannot be understood. In this situation, it is not reasonable for a truly benevolent God to be displeased with those who abandon belief in him altogether so they can pursue moral choices in purity, rather than encumber their philosophies with incomprehensible teachings that lack correspondingly pure actions. This has led many atheists to exclaim, "God does not seem moral enough for me to worship."
Near-death experiences are a class of Anecdotal experiences. Sometimes, the individual claims that her experience validates beliefs that she rejected prior to the experience. Another common theme involves being greeted by an unfamiliar person who is later discovered in a photo album to have been a dead relative. Such details that attempt to make the near-death experience difficult to explain away probably reveal that the person relating the experience is more interested in being accepted than in establishing truth. Like miracles, near-death experiences suggest that the separation betwen natural and supernatural realms is not absolutely enforced, and thus call attention to the "failure" of science to find any reliable indication of a supernatural realm.
Upon analysis, however, near-death experiences do not seem to be compatible with any consistent interpretation of God. If he is real and wants us to have evidence of an afterlife, then near-death experiences represent a rather weak effort to provide us with evidence. If he is real and does not want us to have evidence of an afterlife, then near-death experiences represent a failure on his part to prevent us from detecting supernatural things. Perhaps he is real and only wants to prevent empiricists from knowing details about the afterlife, but a motivation for this prejudice against intellectuals is needed. Yet another possibility is that common near-death experiences are not really representative of what happens after death. Although people who want to have evidence of an afterlife will quite likely accept one of the other explanations, this one seems to raise the fewest questions.
Neuro-plasticity refers the brain's ability to break and form new synaptic connections. Children typically have high brain plasticity, enabling them to learn new things quickly. The cost of this increased plasticity, however, is that they also lose things quickly. This is believed to be a primary cause for people not being able to remember experiences from their early youth.
Changes in plasticity are not a frailty associated with mortality, but are actually important for the ways humans think. Due to the finite number of neurons in the brain, and the large amount of information that they must retain, balancing plasticity is necessary. When we are young, we have much to learn, so high plasticity is necessary. As we gain experience, excessive plasticity would cause us to lose that experience, and so more rigidity favors our abilities to operate effectively.
This concept has significant ramifications for the concept of immortality. If humans could live forever, then balancing the plasticity of their brains would become an impossible task. A complete lack of plasticity would cause them to have no memory and thus be unable to experience their lives at all. Yet any plasticity at all would create a sliding window beyond which all knowledge, memory, and experience would be lost. Eternity is simply not something that the human mind is capable of experiencing, because our brains simply lack the number of connections necessary for longer life. Another possibility, of course, is that immortals are granted much larger brains, or some supernatural processing mechanism that leverages a connection with a spirit world to transact information. However, such drastic changes to our thinking mechanism would then render us entirely different beings altogether. This humans, as they currently think and understand themselves, are simply not capable of experiencing eternity.
New God Argument
The "New God Argument" sounds something like this:
The New God Argument is one of the more intellectual arguments for the existence of God. However, the God that it imagines would be a natural being who would be subject to the laws of this Universe. In many ways, such a being would be more comprehensible, more relatable, and thus more relevant to human beings as a parental figure. However the limitations of being subject to natural laws complicate such ideas as knowing our thoughts, hearing all prayers, making perfect decisions, etc. To even have the mental capacity for such feats within a natural universe, God would have to have an outrageously enormous head.
Another difficult limitations of a natural universe is the speed of light. If the speed of light really cannot be circumvented, then a natural God would necessarily have to dwell within a small number of light-years from the Earth in order to maintain the interactions claimed in scriptural accounts. Ultimately, the natural universe is a realm in which science is very comfortable, so significant mental gymnastics are necessary in order to claim that God dwells in this very realm while simultaneously eluding discovery by science. And even more troubling is the lack of clear motive for a God going to all that trouble in the first place.
Non-overlapping magisteria refers to the idea put forward by Stephen Jay Gould in 1997 that science and religion operate in two separate domains. It further suggests that it is not really possible for science and religion to contradict each other because their respective domains share no overlapping regions. The idea of non-overlapping magisteria is often invoked to claim that God, miracles, and other supernatural phenomena are immune to the scrutiny of science.
In 1999, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences adopted a position that seems to support the idea of non-overlapping magisteria. It stated:
However, this position is not representative of science in general, and may have been made by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in an attempt to promote peace with religion, which has disproportionately more influence in the United States. Notably, the statistical principle of explain away works even when two explanations are conditionally independent. Hence, science is able to effectively diminish the plausibility of supernatural phenomena even without ever directly investigating supernatural phenomena.
It should be acknowledged that science generally focuses on investigating matters of factual knowledge, and tends to avoid taking subjective positions on matters of priorities or decision-making. Hence, one could potentially suggest that the magisterium of science is knowledge and the magisterium of religion is wisdom or values. However, such topics as the existence (or non-existence) of God, the origins of life, and the nature of consciousness are factual matters that fall clearly within the domain of knowledge. Hence, it follows that one should listen to science on these matters. Until religion is content to relinquish its positions on those topics, or science stops investigating the available evidence, conflicting overlaps will continue between science and religion.
The ontological argument is an attempt to define God into existence as follows:
A minor problem with the ontological argument is that greatness is multi-dimensional. For example, feather dusters are better than apples for brushing dust off of furniture, therefore for the purpose of dusting, feather dusters are better than apples. However, apples are more nutritious than feather dusters, so for the purpose of feeding humans, apples are better than feather dusters. Hence, greatness can only be ranked if a specific way to evaluate it is agreed upon.
Now, suppose some specific mechanism for evaluating greatness is selected and agreed upon. For example, perhaps we will decide to evaluate greatness by administering a particular standardized test. Then, will one individuals score be at least as high as all others? Certainly, but that achievement will not implicitly endow the winner with any particularly godly attributes. For example, suppose some human named Bob turns out to be the winner. What is accomplished by calling Bob "God"? All that does is cheapen the definition of "God" to fit whatever happens to rank the highest on the standardized test. Hence, the ontological argument just attempts to define God into existence, rather than show that he actually exists, and the same game can be played with any other concept just as well.
The pants-on-fire argument claims that atheists really do believe in God, but they lie about their beliefs for some reason, perhaps to justify their sins. This argument abandons the good-faith about an opponent's intentions that is generally assumed to prevail in a respectable debate, and essentially resorts to calling him or her a liar. It may be classified as an ad hominem fallacy since it attacks the character of one's opponent, and does not address the issue.
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) pointed out in his writings that the possibility of an infinite reward would overwhelm any finite cost associated with potentially believing in something foolish. It follows, therefore, that people should choose to believe in religion, even if it is probably not true, because the potential reward is so much bigger if it does turn out to be right. This has come to be known as Pascal's Wager or Pascal's Gamble. It is usually presented in a form somewhat like this:
An implicit assumption of Pascal's wager is that God cares only about who believes in him. Moreover, it also assumes that he either cannot tell the difference, or does not care about the difference, between those who are sincerely convinced of his existence and those who are merely pretending because they are obsessed with maximizing their own personal reward. However, all of these attributes are uncharacteristic of an omni-benevolent all-knowing God.
The absurdity of Pascal's wager is more apparent when framed in the context of an advance fee scam: Suppose a "Nigerian Prince" offers to send you $ONE MILLION DOLLARS if you pay and advance fee of $50. Would a benevolent God be pleased with those who participate in such an obvious scam? Obviously not! Participating in a scam only strengthens the organization that operates it, and enables it to be more effective at defrauding other people. But what if the the "Nigerian Prince" raised his reward to $INFINITY DOLLARS!!! Then, according to Pascal's wager, the deal has become far too good to pass up because it is now worth any cost even if there is only a small chance of it turning out to be legitimate. Practically, however, such a ridiculous delayed reward only emphasizes the shady nature of the operation.
Theists may contend that their religious denomination is unlike an advance fee scam because it does not profit from the faith that people place in God. However, most crimes can be committed through negligence, and fraud is certainly one is perpetrated in this manner. Even if no individual directly profits from faith, it is still what sustains the life of the organization. And even if the teachings of one religion happen to be true, the majority of them still obtain it with false teachings. Hence, there is significant risk of doing damage to society in accepting a religion that one does not genuinely believe to be true, and it is not reasonable to suppose that God would be pleased with those who are only gambling because they prioritize their own personal reward over their impact on society.
The perspective argument observes that sometimes reality appears different only because it is observed from different perspectives.
This is a valid point, but it is possible to draw many invalid conclusions from it. For example, it is still possible to be wrong. No perspective of the shape depicted in the figure above would result in a shadow shaped like the Statue of Liberty.
The placebo effect causes people to feel the things that they believe they will feel. The placebo effect is known to work even when patients are aware of it. It is not limited to medical treatments. The placebo effect is also a powerful force for reinforcing the religious exuberance that people feel when they act in faith. In other words, when people pray, believing that they will be answered, and do not doubt that they will receive a specific answer, the placebo effect then causes their minds to fabricate that very answer.
How can one explain the existence of so many different religions, each filled with people who exuberantly defend that they personally know their religion to teach the truth, and all others to be false? The placebo effect is responsible for the witnesses that people of many Christian persuasions believe come from the Holy Ghost. Demonstrating this requires significant dedication to pursuing genuine truth, because the placebo effect will not cause one to feel a confirming witness until after one sincerely accepts something in his or her subconscious mind to be true. Depending on the person, this may happen before or not until after he or she already accepts the thing consciously.
Postmortem compensation is when God makes everything right after we die. This principle is used to justify the injustices that God allows to occur in this life. It is closely related to the mysterious ways justification.
Postmortem compensation operates on the same principle as an advance fee scam. That is, the participant must deliver now, but the compensation will not come until later, when it is too late to implicate the scammer. While this level of justification may be sufficient to appease the mind of someone who is already determined to believe in God, it is certainly not sufficient to persuade someone who is honestly uncertain about the existence of God. Consequently, questions that are answered with postmortem compensation seriously call into question how a benevolent God could honestly expect people to believe in him while offering such poor basis for that belief.
The pride argument basically says, "Atheists are prideful, and their pride is the cause of their unbelief."
Certainly, there do exist prideful atheists, so this accusation cannot be categorically dismissed. However, it is also an ad hominem fallacy if the person making the argument cannot defend the purported relationship between pride and unbelief. In general, an objective assessment of the situation often suggests that it may be more of a projection than an observation. For example:
Theists sometimes refer to fulfilled prophesies as evidence that God must be real.
This claim fails the test that Jesus is reported to have proposed, "Ye shall know them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:16). While science, which claims to possess no magical powers at all, actively labors to cure diseases (not merely individuals with faith), improve quality of living, protect agains numerous threats, and deliver new capabilities through advancements in technology, religion uses its supposed powers of prophesy exclusively for the relatively worthless task of proving to people that it has real mystical powers. So far, the power of prophesy has never been used to cure any diseases, to make any technological breakthroughs, or to do anything that would be generally useful for humanity. Hence, Biblical prophesies have more in common with soothsayers and performing magicians than with the noble efforts of professionals who labor for the good of humankind.
In many cases where prophesies have been fulfilled, they were worded so ambiguously that they were never recognized until after their fulfillment. This calls into question both the legitimacy of the prophesies as well as their general utility. Moreover, many of the prophesies that have purportedly been fulfilled are buried among many others that have not (yet?) been fulfilled. Further, many claimed fulfillments have later been understood to have been misinterpreted. As an example, Isaiah 7:14 is commonly interpreted as referring to Jesus, but just two verses later the clarification is made that it is actually referring to Isaiah's time. Subsequent verses in the same chapter are often interpreted as referring to the destruction of Armageddon, but they are then tied to the destruction of the Ten Tribes. Christians will then claim that the events in Isaiah's time were partially metaphorical for things that would occur later in history, which effectively renders such "prophesies" useless for prediction and only something that people can dig through to reinforce their existing beliefs. Numerous "fulfilled" prophesies about Jesus have actually been determined to refer to Cyrus the Great, and may have been largely self fulfilling in nature since the early Christians were anxious to find correlations with their own ancient scriptures.
Purpose of life
Theists often think they have the only answer to the question, "What is the purpose of life?" In fact, answers to that question do not even need to depend on supersition! At a personal level, one's purpose is whatever he or she chooses for it to be. This is true even if there is a God who wants us to choose to live for a specific purpose, such as having faith in him. (See the faith argument.) God's purpose does not automatically become our purpose until we exercise our free will by choosing to live for his will. Thus, the purpose of life is whatever we choose for it to be, whether or not God exists.
At a higher level, the purpose of life is really quite obvious, especially if one examines the nature of life itself. Evidence suggests that life began on this Earth about 4 billion years ago. Since that time, it has progressed slowly from pre-cellular life to the extremely complex creatures that we are today. Hence, the purpose that life has followed in general since its inception has consistenly been the same: to progress. When people choose a purpose for their individual lives, they are specializing within a society that works toward its higher-level purpose of progression.
Consider the following analogy: Suppose a small child becomes lost in the mountains. The community quickly organizes in a unified effort to find the child. Suppose 50 volunteers offer to help find the child. They divide the area into 50 regions, and assign one region for each person to search. After everyone does their part, the child is found and everyone rejoices. Perhaps, one of the volunteers might lament, "I wanted to be the one to find the child. All of my effort was for nothing!" But then a wise friend might counsel him, "Stop thinking about yourself! It's not all about you, and your personal glory. We all did our best to help, and the overall objective of the community was achieved! You need to learn to find joy in being part of something bigger than yourself."
Somewhat like the self-centered volunteer in that analogy, many theists suppose that life can have no purpose unless they personally get to live forever and obtain great personal glory. But in focussing on themselves, they withdraw from their role in society. If every lived for the "purpose" of having faith in God, society itself would make little progress. But by pursuing whatever purpose we have individually chosen, we can find great meaning in sustaining and being part of something bigger than ourselves. Significantly, even after we die, the life of society will live on. Thus, living only for ourselves is really the path to having no purpose in life. As William Shakespeare put it, "What e'er thou art, act well thy part."
Reason, argument from
The argument from reason was proposed by C.S. Lewis in his 1947 book, Miracles: A Preliminary Study. It contends that metaphysical naturalism refutes itself. The argument basically says:
The problem with this argument is that it assumes intelligence is the only force capable of producing things that behave in a consistent or rational manner. This is a false assumption. Many consistent systems are known to form naturally in response to natural forces. As one example, a river of water is made of many tiny drops of water. How can so many drops be trusted to stay together? Why do they tend to flow in a consistent direction? Natural forces are sufficient to explain this behavior. By contrast, a hypothesis suggesting that an intelligent being deliberately endowed each individual drop of water with a consistent sense of purpose would be ridiculously superfluous. Because reason is so useful, it can be reasonably expected to evolve under conditions where natural selection occurs.
Ultimately, the argument from reason is just a sophisticated form of the argument from ignorance.
An important step in the scientific method is seeking to validate a hypothesis. Many religions teach that people should ask God if its teachings are true. This has led to some people claiming that their religion follows the scientific method for identifying truth.
The scientific method can be summarized as follows:
The differences between these two methods may be subtle, but they have very significant consequences for the effectiveness of the methods. Specifically, the scientific method is driven by empirical measurements. By contrast, the religious method is driven by confirmation bias. Note that religion directs a person to ask God whether or not it is true only after he or she has already chosen to exercise faith in it. Thus, the resulting confirmation is likely to be induced by the person's subconscious mind in order to appease the prior faith. Moreover, the religious method does not accept what the data says, but continues to challenge it until it agrees with the authoritative version. (See also appeal to authority and faith in science.)
Religious scientists argument
The religious scientists argument points out that certain renowned scientists were religious. As one example, Sir Isaac Newton was highly religious and made several statements about his belief in God. Certain quotes by Albert Einsten are also often cited to claim that science supports belief in God.
The fallacy of the religious scientists argument is that it is an appeal to authority that does not exist. There is no hierarchy of leadership in science, and no one individual represents its views. Moreover, it is not expected that any individual, no matter how renowned, is necessarily an expert outside his or her primary area of expertise.
It is not surprising that scientists from centuries ago, such as Newton, would have believed in God. Societal pressures for accepting God at that time were different than in modern times. Moreover at that time, science had not yet explained a great many important natural phenomena, such as the origin of life or the nature of consciousness. The use of quotes involving Albert Einstein's views of God are almost always a reflection of ignorance of the fact that Einstein was a pantheist, and his view of God differed significantly from the personal being that most theists promote.
A 2009 Pew survey reported that 33% of scientists said they believed in God, compared to 83% of the general public. Although familiarity with science clearly has a tendency to reduce belief in God, there are still plenty of scientists who maintain their belief. It would not be at all surprising to find a modern scientist who believes in God. But truth is not established through a democratic voting process. In order to determine what is right, we must consider the reasons they give for believing or not believing. Most of the quotes from scientists who express reasons for belief in God usually turn out to be variants of the complexity argument or Teleological argument.
The sacrifice argument basically says, "Christianity must be true because a lot of people have sacrificed everything for it. Why would people do that if it wasn't true?"
Indeed, the sacrifice argument probably does show that Christian martyrs actually believed Christianity was true. However, it is an ad populum fallacy to jump from "people believed it was true" to "it really is true". Christians might argue that the martyrs would have been in a position to really know whether or not it was true, but that position is not defensible. People have been willing to sacrifice for all manner of causes throughout the history of the world, and those most involved were usually the most converted. It seems that some people just have an innate need to take a stand or sacrifice for something, and that same tendency may be part of what causes people to become so convinced with so little reliable evidence that whatever religion they were born into just happens to uniquely represent truth.
Science changes fallacy
The Science changes fallacy makes the following reasoning:
Indeed, science does not deliver "pure truth". Neither does religion. Both offer only models that attempt to help a person understand what is true. One significant difference is that only science continues to refine its model.
The Earth was once believed to be flat. Later, the model was refined to be a sphere. Later still, it was updated to be an oblate spheroid. Then, we started adding topographical maps of mountain ranges to the model. At what point did the model perfectly describe the shape of the Earth? Never! Until the model is the Earth itself, it still doesn't perfectly describe the Earth. Does that mean science was wrong to move from a sphere to an oblate sphereoid? No. Each refinement to the model made it more representative of truth. Religion fails to describe truth precisely because it claims to have known all the details before many of the details were yet known. Hence, the changing models offered by science are the best representations of truth yet available. (For a more complete break-down, see Asimov's "A Cult of Ignorance".)
Shifting the burden of proof
When a person asks others to change their positions, the person requesting the change has an implicit responsibility to justify it. This is sometimes called the onus or burden of proof. Attempts to shift the burden of proof sound something like this: "If you cannot prove I am wrong, then you must accept my position."
Notably, the burden of proof is not related to the nature of the position. It is not created by theism (belief in God), weak atheism (disbelief in God), or string atheism (belief that there is no God). It is created when someone asks another to adopt any of these positions.
A common attempt to shift the burden of proof occurs when a theist asks an atheist to explain a specific miracle. The atheist may believe some natural explanation is possible without knowing what the correct natural explanation is, so asking the atheist to explain it unfairly places a responsibility on him that he did not voluntarily accept.
The simulation argument sounds something like this:
Indeed, if this Universe is simulated, then the operator of the simulation would inherently have God-like powers. For example, he would be effectively omniscient because he could pause the simulation and investigate any detail on a whim. He could presumably also change the laws of the simulation or undo any memories or details that he didn't like, thus making himself undetectable and effectively omnipotent even if he were a bumbling idiot in his own universe.
The problem with the simulation argument is that if there is a God running this Universe as a simulation, he has obviously taken pains to make us believe our Universe is real and natural. It seems a bit arrogant to suppose we could out-think a supernatural God or circumvent his will. Therefore, until God informs us otherwise, it is apparently his unassailable will for intelligent people to disbelieve in him.
A spirit is a mythological embodiment of our conscious selves that resides in a supernatural realm and supposedly carries our consciousnesses after death. A huge number of attempts have been made to measure or contact the realm of spirits using scientific processes, but all have failed. Of course, the failure to detect something does not prove its non-existence ...unless there is a specific place where it the spirit is known to manifest itself in a measurable way.
That specific place is the operations of the conscious mind. (See also the joystick hypothesis.) If spirits are responsible for consciousness, and consciousness is manifested in the actions that living creatures make, then the interface between the spiritual and mortal realms must be active when a conscious creature exercises its agency. However, science has progressed to the point where we can trace the activations of specific neurons in the brain. The activations of individual neurons can be measured, and so far every neuron that has ever been measured has responded according to physical principles. Science has even succeeded at simulating a small organism. This simulation behaves like the physical creatures, even though no interface to a spiritual realm exists in the computer program.
Of course, science cannot yet claim that all neurons have been simultaneously measured. It is certainly still possible that spirits simply avoid measurement by shifting their activities to neurons that were not being measured. It is also reasonable to assume that spirit itself is some kind of metaphor, or its nature is so poorly-defined as to somewhow avoid detection while still fulfilling some other essential role. Nevertheless, the space in which spirit operates is shrinking as the understanding of science grows. (See also God of the gaps.) If past experiences are any indication, the need for a magical component will continue to flee beyond the reach of understanding until people finally admit that it was superstition all along.
Supernatural immunity to science
Sometimes theists claim that God is immune from science. The argument usually sounds like this:
The problem with this argument becomes more apparent if something even more absurd is substituded for God. For example:
Technically, the argument is correct in that science cannot "disprove" supernatural phenomena. But the reason it cannot disprove supernatural phenomena is because they are not well-defined mathematical concepts, so there are not any known axioms suitable for forming the basis of a formal proof on the topic. (See the Theory/proof fallacy.) Science most certainly can (and does) explain away supernatural phenomena into an oblivion of improbability. And that is precisely what science does with any matter that is not formally defined. Thus, any supposed barrier that keeps the domains of science and religion separated is effectively breached by Bayesian statistics.
See also non-overlapping magisteria.
The teleological argument was developed by Greek philosophers, including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. It observes that many things in this world and the Cosmos appear to exist for some purpose. As some examples, the sun provides warmth and light, animals serve as food, the atmosphere contains oxygen that humans need, etc. It then suggests that God must be responsible for things with a purpose. The teleological argument basically states:
The first point of the teleological argument is countered effectively by Douglas Adams in the Salmon of Doubt, where he satirizes the observation of apparent purpose where none was actually designed:
The second point of the teleological argument is countered by natural selection, the directing force that makes evolution effective. Natural selection demonstrates that things serving specific purposes can, and often do, form without an intelligent designer.
The Teleological argument is closely related to the Complexity argument, so further rebuttal can be found there.
Test of faith
When someone asks the question, "Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?", a standard response is that he may be testing your faith. Of course, since God knows everything, a test of faith is not intended to fill gaps in his knowledge, but must be for the benefit of the person whose faith is tested. This can have powerful long-term effects on people because people tend to live of to the characters they believe they have established.
A typical assumption with tests of faith is that the correct behavior is for the person to continue to have faith in God. However, the very act of testing faith makes God somewhat less worthy of someone's faith. If a person is determined to always make good choices, but cannot determine when God is testing their faith, it follows that the most moral behavior is to ignore God and make the best choices one can regardless of what he says. And if God is truly benevolent, then presumably this is precisely the behavior that would pass all of his tests. Hence, faith itself is not at all the obvious correct behavior. As faith makes one vulnerable to being abused by fraudsters, and since God clearly doesn't want to micro-manage anyone's life anyway (as evidenced by his absence), it follows that a God who is really interested in the well-being of his children would more likely be interested in cultivating attributes that actually do promote progress, such as general skepticism, intellectual humility, a hard-working attitude, curiosity, a tendency to bounce back from failure, etc.
The Theory/proof fallacy identifies that evolution and the Big Bang are just "theories", and therefore need not be taken seriously. The fallacy revolves around confusion about the definitions of two words: theory and proof. Scientists and the general population tend to use these two words very differently, as described in the following table:
The person making the Theory/proof fallacy typically assumes the colloquial definitions. He or she may have heard that a theory is something that has not been proven. Technically, using the scientific definitions this is correct because theories are not mathematical assertions, so there are no accepted axioms suitable for forming the basis of proofs on such matters. But the Big Bang Theory and the Theory of Evolution have been thoroughly validated with an overwhelming abundance of empirical evidence. There is no longer any significant remaining possibility that either theory will ever be proven false, and that is what makes them "theories" in the scientific sense.
However, theories are still only models for reality, not reality itself. Neither the Big Bang Theory nor the Theory of Evolution is yet perfectly understood, and both will continue to be refined with time. Hence many theists will springboard off of this detail to make the Science changes fallacy.
The transcendental argument says:
The problem with the transcendental argument is that the first premise is not obviously true. Therefore, in the absence of further reasoning, the trancendental argument is no more reliable than:
Often, morality is substituted for logic to become the morality argument, or they may be combined together.
Timeline of history
Evidence suggests that a large explosion occurred about 13.8 billion years ago, hurling matter in all directions. This "Big Bang" was probably not the beginning of everything, but it is where all evidence we have yet found begins. As gravity pulled matter together, swirls and eddys formed within the currents of expanding matter. Within these swirls, smaller and faster-spinning swirls formed. One of these contains the observable Universe--everything we can hope to ever observe. Within this, smaller swirls of matter pulled together into black holes, each surrounded by an accretion disk of matter we call a galaxy. Within galaxies, yet smaller and faster-spinning clumps of matter agglomerated into stars surrounded by protoplanetary disks. In time, these protoplanetary disks clumped into planets, surrounded by their own rings of matter that soon accreted into moons and satellites.
A simple pattern can be observed: The behavior at both small and large scales often exhibits similary. At the smaller-scale things happen more quickly, so we can examine the outcome at smaller scales to obtain a hint about where things might be going at the larger scale.
Our solar system coalesced about 4.56 billion years ago, and planet Earth a short 50 million years later. Initially, the Earth was a hot and inhospitable planet, but its surface cooled and formed a crust. This crust buffered its surface from the heat beneath, and allowed oceans of liquid water to pool on its surface. Carbon dioxide, water vapor, nitrogen, and other chemicals degassed from volcanos, forming oceans and an early atmosphere.
No one knows for sure exactly how life first formed on Earth (See abiogenesis), but we do know that when certain chemicals come together, reactions occur. What we now call "life" may have originally been little more than a continuous chemical reaction. (Instead of animals, think of a slowly burning fire or the foam that emerges when baking soda meets something acidic.) Like life, chemical reactions consume fuel and produce some byproduct. Most reactions die when the fuel runs out. But if the byproduct of some reaction were a bubble, and that bubble contained all the chemicals necessary to do it again, then it would be a primitive cell. It could wait for more food to become available, then would generate more cells. That is all it would take to set the wheels of evolution in motion.
Single-celled organisms propagated, and diversity began to occur within their numbers. The earliest evidence of life on earth dates to approximately 3.5 billion years ago. About 3 billion years ago, cyanobacteria performed an important chemical reaction called Photosynthesis. This reaction consumed carbon dioxide and emitted oxygen as a waste product. Over the subsequent billion years, cyanobacteria terraformed our planet's atmosphere. The introduction of oxygen into the atmosphere opened the way for many new forms of life to evolve.
While some forms of life sat around waiting for food to come to them, others evolved to be more proactive. Some of these even invaded other cells and stole the stored energy that they had prepared for fuel. Being a parasite was not good for the host, but it was certainly good for the parasite, so the behavior became prevalent. Then, approximately 2 billion years ago, something very significant happened: A parasitic cell--perhaps while engaged in the very act of committing cellular burglary--changed. It switched from being parasitic to being symbiotic. Cells that were once energy thieves became mitochondria, the energy factories of the cell. The other organelles in eukaryotic cells may have evolved in a similar matter, as they found that working together was more effective than competing individually. In other words, that which is altruism at the level of an organelle is self-interestedness at the level of the Eukaryotic cell.
Because of this primitive altruism, eukaryotes were generally more effective than simpler forms of life. Approximately 1 billion years ago, Eukaryotes found that it was also better to be altruistic at the cellular level, instead of self-interested at this level, and they began to band together as multicellular life. Instead of pursuing their own immediate interests, cells began to pursue what was best for the group as a whole. That which is altruism at the level of the cell is self-interestedness at the level of the multi-cellular organism.
Following similar patterns at a higher level, specialization eventually began to occur within multicellular life forms. Organs formed to facilitate digestive systems, circulatory systems, and nervous systems. Simple animals emerged in the oceans about 600 million years ago. By 500 million years ago, there were fish. In the following 100 million years, both plants and animals emerged from the oceans and spread over the land. It wasn't until 300 million years ago that reptiles began to roam the Earth.
We often think of dinosaurs as being ancient, but relative to the life of the Universe, this was the very recent past, spanning only 2% of its history. How did we manage to get from such primitive creatures to modern society in such a relatively short period of time? The answer is that we stopped serving only ourselves. When altruism finally evolved at the next layer, that layer began to make rapid progress. That which is is altruism at the level of organs is self-interesteddness for the life of the animal.
Reptillian brains are well-known for seeking the well-being of the individual animal. For example, it is believed that dinosaurs layed their eggs, then abandoned their children to fend for themselves as the parent went off to serve itself. About 200 million years ago, mammals emerged with a better way of thinking. Mammals have an additional layer in their brains called the mamillian complex. Unlike the reptillian complex, which only seeks the well-being of the individual, the mamillian complex give animals a desire to seek for the well-being of their social groups.
Once again, we see the next level of altruism. It may be characterized by a pack of wolves. Individual members may sacrifice themselves for the good of the pack. And that which is altruism at the level of a wolf is self-interestedness at the level of the pack.
66 million years ago, the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event occurred. A large meteor impacted the Yucatan peninsula near the city of Chixulub in southern Mexico, triggering a lingering impact winter. This made life more difficult for everyone, but it had a greater impact on the reptiles who left their young to fend for themselves. The more altruistic mammals survived to a much greater extent.
The evolutionary advantage was even stronger for primates, who appear to have diverged from mammals somewhat before this event. Primates have a third layer in their brains, the primate complex, that gives them the ability to reason. About 1.8 million years ago, this advantage started to dramatically sway the evolutionary direction of primates, and their brains grew significantly in size. Anatomically modern humans have only lived on this Earth for 200 thousand years--a little more than one tenth of one percent of one percent (not a type-o) of the history of the Universe.
Yet, as recent as humans may be, our major accomplishments tend to be even more recent. To really see these we need to zoom in again...
In the mere 700 years since the renaissance, there has been a profound explosion of advancement. We have transformed the world from one of predominantly agrarian societies and medieval caste systems to one of pervasive technologies and modern luxuries. What is the explanation for this surge in development? Certainly, we could not have done it without the large primate complexes in our brain. But, humans didn't just become rational in the last 700 years. What changed is how we used our rational minds.
For ages, people worked to benefit themselves. But sometime around the renaissance, some sort of tipping was reached where enough people started to take up hobbies. Such people started to find happiness not just in benefitting themselves, but in making an impact in society. For ages, monarchs planned and conspired about how to secure power for themselves and their family lines. In the late 1700's the founding fathers of the United States carefully composed a constitution designed to decentralize power for the benefit of society. For ages, technological innovations were wielded almost exclusively for crushing anyone who resisted authority. But starting around the renaissance, they started being exchanged for the benefit of all. A global economy began forming, and national borders became less about individual identities and more of something for politicians to fight over.
The biggest surges in evolutionary advancement that have occured throughout history have happened when individuals at each level stopped focusing on their own well-being, and started working for the benefit of the whole. This one is no different. Records such as the Bible show that humans have been searching for morality at least since the discovery of writing. The progress of modern society suggests that now we are starting to find it. And it clearly has something to do with individuals working to help advance all of society. Now, as society itself begins to come to life, it is becoming increasingly clear that the very purpose of life itself does not involve pursuing our own personal personal interests, but in seeking after a form of altruism, and therein lies the meaning, fulfillment, and peace that people seek in their lives.
A trilemma is a difficult choice with three options. Two famous trilemmas related to the debate about God include: Epicurus' trilemma, an argument against God by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and the Apologetic trilemma, an argument for God by C.S. Lewis.
Epicurus' trilemma states:
The weak part of Epicurus' trilemma is its second point, which may be a false dichotomy. Since "will" can be complex, other reasons for being unwilling to (at least temporarily) prevent evil could potentially exist.
Lewis' Apologetic trilemma states that Jesus must be a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord:
The Apologetic trilemma also fails to cover a complete set of mutually exclusive possibilities. (Some other possibilities include that Jesus never existed, or that he was misrepresented.) However, the weakest part of the Apologetic trilemma is that there is little basis for determining which possibility is true. Lewis argued that Jesus' teachings were too intelligent to have come from a lunatic, and too moral to have come from a liar. He concludes, therefore, that Jesus must have been the Lord. However, these arguments are easily challenged. There are intelligent teachings to be found in many contradicting religions, but few people would resort to calling all of their founders "lunatics" for having some incorrect beliefs. The words "lunatic" and "liar" are overly strong description that may have been selected for their alliterative properties, but actually serve to shame the skeptic from fully considering either of the first two options.
Together the first two options cover a far more plausible space of possibilities than the third option when all of the implications are considered. If Jesus were Lord then a large body of supernatural phenomena must also be accepted. But if Jesus had mistaken beliefs and/or engaged in some deliberate deceit, then one only needs to accept some fairly plausible social circumstances.
The uncertainy argument attempts to show that it is irrational to believe that there is no God. It follows this logic:
The uncertainty argument is often presented as a Venn diagram. The theist draws a big circle and says, "this circle represents all that is currently known". Then, the theist invites an atheist to draw a circle to represent all that he or she knows. Naturally, it would appear very arrogant to draw a big circle, so the atheist inevitably draws a small circle within the larger one. Then, the theist suggests the possibility that God may lie outside of the small circle and tells the atheist that he or she has already admitted to being agnostic about the existence of God.
It is trivial to show that the uncertainy argument is equally effective at demonstrating the possible existence of unicorns, leprechauns, Big Foot, and Santa Claus. Therefore, one might reasonably respond that God should be considered among those fictional entities as possibilities for consideration. However, a deeper fallacy is made in the uncertainty argument by assuming that nothing is known about those fictional entities. For example, the mythology behind Santa Claus teaches that he lives at the North Pole, travels by means of flying reindeer, and delivers presents to all the children of the world in one night. If any of those attributes were known to be impossible, then one could reasonably claim to have knowledge that Santa Claus was a myth without knowing everything. Perhaps, there might yet exist a man who calls himself "Santa Claus", but the lack of those mythological attributes would render the title disingenuous at best. Similarly, God also comes with some very significant and falsifiable attributes. If we divest him of those attributes, then the uncertainy argument only shows that someone who calls himself "God" might exist ...which is probably true, but utterly irrelevant. And thus, one might reasonably believe that there is no God, without claiming to know everything, if one or more of God's attributes is unbelievable.
Vain, taking name of God in
The fifth of the Ten Commandments states, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain". This command is often taught to children to mean, "Don't use swear words", but it is more likely that the original intention of the commandment was to protect religious leaders from competition. To take the name of God in vain is to use his name for the purpose of advancing an agenda that was not directed by God. Thus, the most blatant offenders of this commandment are actually false churches that leverage the name of God. When an organization speaks in the name of God, perhaps in asking the people to support the organization, but has not actually received a directive from God to do so, that is taking on the name of God in vain.
The practice of using God's name without authority is more common than is generally acknowledged. When people bear testimony, and use the words "I know", but lack supporting evidence to justify the knowledge, they assert that God has given them the certainty they express, and that they represent him in their expressions. Yet, such testimonies are shared throughout the world in diverse churches with contradicting doctrines.
Volunteer clergy argument
Some Christian denominations that use volunteer clergy make the claim that they are immune from being a fraud because no individual gains from the activities of the denomination.
Many crimes can be committed either willfully or through acts of negligence. For example, if a medical doctor attempts a surgical procedure without having the proper training or sufficient knowledge in the relevant area, he is responsible for the consequences of his negligence. And if parents are so busy taking recreational drugs that they forget to feed their young children, then they are guilty of the consequences of their neglected responsibilities. Similarly, fraud can also be committed through acts of neglicence. When a minister claims to have certain knowledge about matters pertaining to the will of God or the existence of an afterlife, but actually bases his "knowledge" on his feelings or on others whose "knowledge" traces back to something unreliable, those negligent teachings can have significant and lasting consequences in individual lives.
Many religions promote acts of negligent deceit by encouraging members to publicly claim that the "know" things they actually only "feel" or "wish" to be true. The beneficiary of negligent fraud is not any individual, but is the organization as a whole. Religions require people to have faith in order for them (the religions) to survive, and many of them are highly effective at leveraging their members to be both the perpetrators and primary victims of negligent fraud. Using volunteer clergy may ensure that no individual is the beneficiary of fraud, but it does not make the religion as a whole any less fraudulent than one that does employ its clergy.
Watchmaker analogySee Explosion analogy.
Witness-based arguments rest the veracity of God on human witnesses. It usually takes one of the following forms:
Unfortunately, all of these arguments commit logical fallacies:
#1 is an argumentum ad populum. But democracy is a very poor mechanism for establishing truth. Moreover, it is not clear to what extent witnesses in the time of Christ were influenced by each other. Very few ancient witnesses actually left any written accounts, so we are relying on a few witnesses to have correctly counted the total number of other witnesses, and also to have correctly assessed the level of conviction of those other witnesses. Even the gospels of Matthew and Luke appear to have derived some of their accounts from Mark, which suggests that what currently appears to be several witnesses may actually just be derivations from a common source. And witnesses on matters of religion tend to be notoriously unreliable.
#2 is trivially turned against itself by noting that people have suffered and died for other religions as well. Christianity may very well have been the best thing that ancient witnesses had ever encountered, and it may have very well been something that they considered to be worth dying for. However that does not mean that it withstands modern science, or that it would necessarily carry the same weight in modern times. If anything, the combination of barbarous treatment toward Christians and the fervor with which they withstood it casts doubt on the degree to which witnesses from that time would have offered objective unexaggerated accounts of the events about which they testified.
#3 is an attempt to shift the burden of proof onto the skeptic. Just because one cannot imagine a valid reason for someone to bear false witness, does not mean there is none. The social circumstances of ancient witnesses are not well-known, and significant rigor is certainly warranted before accepting a testimony about a supernatural event that falls far outside the scope of anything ever before observed. Moreover, retellings of anecdotal experiences are known to be unreliable, especially when the story has passed through multiple intermediaries.
#4 is a bad analogy because courts of law exist for establishing guilt, not truth. Science generally does not consider witnesses to be very reliable, and numerous studies have corroborated that human witnesses are heavily influenced by their own cognitive biases, and that physical evidence is much more reliable for establishing the veracity of events.