The basics are the hardest to establish.
In a recent short comment exchange, on this blog, on the evidence for God’s existence, Dan directed me to an article entitled Still No Evidence, which he posted in 2010 to his ‘debunking atheists’ blog.
In it, he quotes Greg Bahnsen, who echoes a belief held by many Christians, that evidence of Yahweh’s existence is manifest in the natural world around us.
Dan goes on to correctly identify the obvious problem with this; that there are natural explanations for everything which can be measured and observed. He incorrectly states that this is an atheistic objection, when in reality it is a statement of fact, but the conclusion he reaches is nevertheless correct; that atheists aren’t interested in replacing evidence with faith; that we hold ourselves to a higher standard of proof, than mere belief.
The fact that Dan doesn’t realise this is what he’s done, has given me the chance to write about an unscientific experiment I’ve been conducting, on various comment threads at reddit.com/r/DebateAChristian, which deal with the problem of describing the difference between faith and evidence, to people who assume a belief in God to be the default position, and non-belief to be a rejection of that which is therefore ‘self-evident’ — at least within the internal logic of the Christian world-view.
We’ve seen, in many recent Fundamentally Flawed Podcasts, how presuppositionalism simply ignores the problem of its own logical inconsistency, when on one hand it claims to be a faith-based argument, while on the other it claims to present objectively valid evidence for Yahweh’s basic existence. In some instances it appears to tackle this, by borrowing from one to explain the other, and hopes no-one will notice it fails to do either. But in most cases, it simply demands that it is the atheist who must account for this discrepancy — which, of course, he is under no such obligation to do.
For some time now, myself and Alex Botten (as well as various others) have begun episodes of the podcast, where we talk to presuppositionalists, with a very basic question about exactly this problem. We have asked, quite simply: Do you base your position upon objectively valid evidence for Yahweh’s basic existence, or do you adopt a faith-based position?
This has been met with some extreme resistance, despite being a perfectly legitimate question, designed to be as transparent as possible, so as to establish some basics. Remember, presuppositionalism rises and falls on claiming that “Christian faith is the only basis for rational thought” and that “the Bible is divine revelation which exposes flaws in other world-views.”
Such is the strength of the objection to this question, despite that it directly invites the apologist to clarify their position, I feel it necessary to break down each element of it, in the hope of explaining exactly why it is such an important distinction to make. In so doing, I hope to bridge something of an impasse which has presented itself, in these recent podcast debates, and steer things in a different, hopefully more productive direction, so that some of the chief protagonists, who argue in favour of presuppositional apologetics, might be more willing to discuss it openly, on the podcast, rather than hide behind comment disabled blogs and the cut and paste, received opinion of their peers.
In his 2010 article, Dan correctly identifies the reason why apologists should avoid answering questions like this, if they believe the atheist isn’t actually interested in their answer. The reasons he gives for this are essentially twofold. Firstly, if an apologist claims to base her belief in Yahweh upon objectively valid evidence for God’s basic existence, the atheist can immediately demand that this evidence be presented. Secondly, because this evidence inevitably falls back on a faith based position, (that, for example, the bible is literally true), the atheist is then free to point out that this is not only a circular fallacy, but that the bible itself has been repeatedly demonstrated, by bible scholars, to be comprised of allegory and folklore, and is not historically accurate. The atheist then appears to score a double win, when in fact they have merely pointed out that Christianity is a faith, and not a science.
While this is a neat way of presenting the basic problem of presuppositionalism, to those who are not aware of other kinds of more interesting theological arguments, the mistake we atheists then make is to presume this is as obvious to the apologist, as it is to us and everyone else. We assume that this fundamental contradiction will stop the apologist from then going to say, “God is..” or “I believe that…”, as if whatever statement might then follow is being made independent of that which has already been demonstrated to be false, factually incorrect, or logically inconsistent. But it doesn’t. In fact it has the opposite effect. It actually causes them to commit to these arguments all the stronger.
A possible reason for this, is that rather than realise they’ve been given a strong reason to doubt their previous certainties, the interlocutor instead feels as if they’ve fallen for a ‘gotcha’ move; that by merely allowing themselves to be led through the basic flaw in their own argument, they have been somehow tricked into saying something which they wouldn’t ordinarily say — that in the mere act of demanding clarity on the basis for which their truth-claims are based, the atheist is playing a tactical game. Of course, in reality, we are simply asking an honest question, in an attempt to understand their true position. But because this is being done on a level which, often, they themselves have simply never thought to consider possible, it is perceived as a debating trick, designed to throw them off topic.
For an example of how this manifests itself in Christian to Christian advice blogging, let’s look at the following paragraph from Dan’s 2010 article:
I must make an apology to you at this point. We who believe in God have not always made this position plain. Often enough we have talked with you about facts and sound reasons as though we agreed with you on what these really are. In our arguments for the existence of God we have frequently assumed that you and we together have an area of knowledge on which we agree. But we really do not grant that you see any fact in any dimension of life truly. We really think you have colored glasses on your nose when you talk about chickens and cows, as well as when you talk about the life hereafter. We should have told you this more plainly than we did. But we were really a little ashamed of what would appear to you as a very odd or extreme position. We were so anxious not to offend you that we offended our own God. But we dare no longer present our God to you as smaller or less exacting than He really is. He wants to be presented as the All-Conditioner, as the emplacement on which even those who deny Him must stand.
Did you spot it? They think we don’t understand their predicament. They assume we choose to adopt a contrarian stance simply out of some kind of malice. This explains their belief that atheists “hate God”. It also explains why they believe we are ignoring what to them is obvious. In short, they believe we base our worldview as much upon faith as they do theirs.
So when we present an argument against this presumption, they not only assume we’re attacking everything which follows-on from their faith-based position (which they have incorrectly identified as objectively valid) but that we are also arguing against our own position — which they are literally incapable of seeing as anything other than a faith-based position — since these are the kinds of absolutes in which they exclusively deal, and so assume everyone else does too.
Pointing out that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of why we are non-religious, has led to a lot of bad feeling. And I would argue, we’re doing ourselves a great disservice for not acknowledging it, in the interest of moving the debate on.
We need to give them space to make their argument, without making them feel as if, no matter what they say, we’re going to disagree with it. We must make it clear, to the apologist, that if we state as a fact that no evidence for Yahweh’s basic existence has ever been presented, their insistence that it has, doesn’t constitute evidence that it has.
Similarly, we must accept that the standard of proof required to satisfy this demand, must exceed mere empirical observation. It must be a combination of all the available information about reality, comprising personal experiences, private revelation, and it must, above all else, be logically consistent. This is the standard of proof presuppositionalism itself insists would constitute evidence of Yahweh’s basic existence, so we must let them present it.
More than that, we must also allow them to explain how this constitutes evidence of everything from miracles, to Jesus’s divinity, Mary’s virginity and all points in-between. We must, quite simply, allow them to explain all of it. Each and every last one of their truth-claims must be explained, and we must listen to those explanations, with an eye on the same level of detail they would demand of us.
This is what they claim to have, and this is what they claim to be unique about Christianity, so this is what they should be given the space to account for. And on the assumption this is what they can and will do, we must then demand — just as they would from us — that they explain why this renders our position false, and theirs valid.
To the Christian reader: If you’ve ever wanted to ask an atheist, “What would constitute reasonable evidence that you are wrong, and Christianity is right”, you now have my answer: Prove all of it is true. I have identified what you yourself claim, so go ahead and convince me.
“I cannot convince you, you can only do it yourself” doesn’t count. I am doing it myself by asking you, the expert.
“Your heart is hardened, you must allow the holy spirit to enter you” suggests that I am close minded. Don’t sell yourself so short. If your argument is as robust as you insist, my objections will melt away. Remember, you’re preaching what you believe to be the absolute truth about life itself.
“I would prefer not to appear on the podcast, as I think better when writing my ideas down” is a massive copout. Stand in the corner and think about what you’ve done, until your mummy gets here.
“I have some links for you to read” won’t cut it either. If you think I’ve never read any apologetics before, you’re judging me by a very low standard. If you understand it, you can explain it in a way which should make sense to anyone. It’s knowledge, not prison rules backgammon. Now get on with it.
“Jesus said…” isn’t an opening line, it’s a presumption Jesus existed, that accounts of his words are accurate, and that he was the creator of the universe in human form. Start from the beginning and work your way up. Again, these are your truth-claims, not mine. So present the evidence for them and I’ll sit back and listen.
“How do you account for…” isn’t a question for me to answer. It is you who claims to posses something unavailable to the non-religious. So, pretty please, don’t ask me to account for your argument on your behalf. Make your position stand on its own merits, and stop leaning against straw man, false refutations of what you believe my position is and is not. If it’s true, it’s true. You don’t need me to hold your hand. Speak, Ubu, SPEAK!
“Be like me, or suffer forever” spam comes through here every day. Save yourself the trouble. If you want to annoy someone, ask your church how much they paid in taxes last year.
To accept the above invitation, having understood the burden of proof you’ve placed on your own shoulders, you can take part in the Fundamentally Flawed Podcast debate, by adding the username thatjim to Skype, and leave a comment below. Good luck!