One of the recurring problems when communicating with the religious, both on-line and in real-world conversation, is in explaining to the believer why it’s OK for them to concede their faith is in faith itself, and not matters of proven fact.
In a recent exchange with a contributor to the Philosophy of Religion Google Plus Community, I attempted to see if someone who had responded to comments with bible verse, understood the circularity inherent to his ‘God exists because it says so in the bible’ argument – which he repeatedly used to the detriment of answering the actual questions being put to him.
I began by the use of a lighthearted analogy, which has produced interesting responses in the past, where I claim to posses the power of flight; that I can leap into the air and float around the room at will. I invite the person to learn my technique, by explaining that in order to do so, they must first unequivocally state their absolute belief I can fly without seeing any proof.
I then go on to explain that this is precisely the sort of commitment to the impossible, which the religious often insist it is necessary for the nonreligious to make, when they argue – as this person had done – that “The book is hidden in mystery (Rom.16:25) that no one can understand unless you believe God’s sending of His messengers and their teachings (Rom.10:13-17).” and that the essential claim he appeared to making, that a simple belief in things which cannot be true is sufficient for those beliefs to become true, jarred against reality for reasons that should be obvious.
When applying the logic of ‘you will believe it when you believe it’ in any other area of rational discourse, the meaninglessness of additional claims, based explicitly upon those foundational claims, become staggeringly obvious – and anyone who continues to make those claims despite this, can be placed at some point on a sliding scale between harmless if delusional, and clinically insane – depending on how much weight they continue to place upon such obviously flawed reasoning, even after they have had these discrepancies explained to them.
And yet here we are, in the 21st century, where to even point this simple fact out is to invite a tsunami of criticism, and moralising as to the suitability of whoever speaks such heresy, as if the irony of doing so by use of technology that simply wouldn’t exist were such observations about the true nature of reality found invalid doesn’t play any part.
Every single person – no matter how well meaning or conscientious they might be – who takes to the internet, to say with a straight face, “God allowed it to happen.”, “How do you expect God to tell us everything while we are made limited for now?” – and all such variations on these themes, which we nonreligious have had put before us time and time again, as if we haven’t heard them a million times before, should be embarrassed at the sheer size of this hulking great big logic elephant right smack dab in the middle of the room.
But still the assumptions and presumptions of God’s basic existence keep on coming – as if building an argument upon these assumptions and presumptions magically transforms them into indisputable facts.
Addressing this should be the primary concern of all who wish to witness their faith to the world, long before they presume to do so as if no one else has noticed the centuries which have passed in silence, since this problem was first identified. Without it, you might as well leap into the air, and wish for gravity to stop working.
It doesn’t matter how fervently you want it to be true, or insist that it is true, if only to those who believe it is true. Without evidence that your claim is true, the logic used for all ancillary claims, which are based upon the assumption it is true, are meaningless – not least because they are themselves an abstraction of the very assumptions used to assert their own validity in the first place. You cannot draw a conclusion from its own premiss. And all the wishful thinking in the world isn’t going to change that.
He responded to this by saying, “If you demand tangible proofs for the existence of God then why not present your proofs for His non-existence?”, while adding that the group was not the exclusive domain of atheists and agnostics. I replied to this by agreeing, adding, “I am merely pointing out that you cannot be expected to be given a get out of jail free card when your claims, which depend upon an assumption the bible is an absolute arbiter of truth, are either demonstrably false or unfalsifiable.”
No one is questioning your right to believe Christianity is in-fact true. I am simply pointing out that beliefs are not the same as facts. And that fact number one, in the very Philosophy of Religion you apparently wish to discuss without any objection, is that since they are self-contradictory not all of your beliefs can be true, and precisely because of this could all in-fact be false.
We can examine whether your claim, that Yahweh exists is true, simply by examining the evidence — which it is incumbent upon you to present in the affirmative. Not the other way around. Yahweh’s existence is not my truth-claim, it is yours. Until you present such evidence for Yahweh’s basic existence, none of your additional claims, based upon the assumption the specific God of the particular religion you belong to does in-fact exist, meet the first and most important standards in all rational thinking:
1) How many assumptions have we made, in order to arrive at our existing worldview?
2) What would happen to our existing worldview should those assumptions be shown false?
3) By what means could we establish the validity or falsity of our assumptions, without invoking those same assumptions in order to do so?
This, again, fell on deaf ears and I rather disappointingly had to leave yet another chat thread on yet another blog posting, through the simple inability of someone taking part in it — who may well be an otherwise perfectly reasonable person — to see the fundamental problem at the heart of their own worldview. This was after I also took the time to explain in some detail, why this wasn’t a niggling detail, but in fact went to the heart of the very Philosophy of Religion the commenter apparently wished to discuss.
My first assumption is just as unfalsifiable as your first assumption, because they are one and the same: Reality exists. We cannot move beyond reality in order to observe it externally, since we are part of that very reality we wish to examine.
Dissatisfying though this first assumption may be, it is nothing compared to the stark differences between my second assumption and yours.
Your second assumption, is that our observations of reality take place within the purview of a specific God from a specific religion – and that these observations self-confirm the basic existence of that same God.
My second assumption, that reality is a natural phenomena, measurable and testable within degrees of certainty set only by the limits of our ability to observe that same reality, is arrived upon precisely because reality can be understood without the need to invoke supernatural causality in order to do so.
This is what gives naturalism the edge in terms of intellectual honesty – that is to say, arguments which are arrived upon by conscientious agents, wishing to identify methods of falsification for their claims, are always preferable to those which specifically negate all methods of falsification simply because they would undo the internal logic of those claims.
I am perfectly free to change my second assumption, at such time that evidence to the contrary is produced. Whereas your second assumption, under divine command theory, cannot be changed, or else you would no longer hold to the very Christian worldview which you have placed the burden of proof upon yourself to establish in the first place, despite erroneously claiming to have shifted this burden back upon me, with an appeal to the very same articles of faith ancillary to your initial assumptions.
Therefore I have no reason to believe any of the claims you make, which are based upon your second assumption being true, because they are by definition arrived upon by faith in faith itself, as opposed to the very deductive logic which you only negate because of what this would do to your second assumption – rather than any valid objection to the logic itself.
His final reply was to say, “I wouldn’t try to answer you point by point because there seems to be no point in arguing with someone who is determined not to believe in God and further complicate things. I feel you will never believe unless presented with the kind of evidence that is testable, measurable and everything. I would just leave you with this simple question, if, by any chance, God revealed to you personally, His existence the way you want it, do you guarantee that you will acknowledge, revere and submit to Him perfectly the way He wants you to? You alone can answer that with all truthfulness and honesty.
I have just attempted to explain to you, in terms, precisely why I am not “someone who is determined not to believe in God”, rather that I am someone who simply identifies where the burden of proof rests in this regard.
To which he replied: “Our burden of proof rested upon the words of God written in the Bible, the coherence of His teachings, the fulfilment of His prophecies and many more. Pristine teachings of God’s messengers are not based on earthly knowledge of man. But because you refute the authority of the holy scriptures there’s really no way we can arrive at the same conclusion.”
I have removed this person’s name from the above text, but have invited him to comment on this article below. It would be very helpful to hear from anyone who has a different approach to mine, when faced with those who adopt the approach used here – perhaps because they genuinely don’t see why first principals, such as those I attempted to outline, must be addressed long before we can even think about setting the assumption of biblical inerrancy to one side.
In the meantime, the commenter advised me to seek God on the website http://incmedia.org/ – the Church of Christ, founded by Felix Ysagun Manalo, which teaches that Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are apostate sects, and whose incorporation with the Philippine Government in 1914 is celebrated as being “concurrent with the coming of the Seventh seal marking the end of days.”