My post yesterday on how to think about the existance of god seemed to generate a fair bit of commentary, both on the blog and on reddit. Many people popped up with alternative rebuttals to the claim “you can’t prove that god exists”, all of which I was aware of. But here’s the fundamental problem with all the conventional claims: They don’t work. Yes, they might be strictly, logically sound. Yes, they might require less of a leap of logic. But the problem is that concepts like burden of proof and occam’s razor sound totally convincing to people who have already accepted that it’s true but it’s hard to overestimate just how bizarrely counterintuitive, highly abstract and just plain wrong-sounding these concepts are. Atheists don’t have an argumentation problem, they have a communication problem.

Here’s what atheists seem to be missing when they encounter a Christian who disagrees with them: There are actually two legitimate reasons why a Christian would hold the position that Atheism is not merely wrong, but absurd on the face.

the philosophical argument

One is that they disagree from a fundamentally philosophical standpoint. It’s a perfectly legitimate model to posit that God only reveals himself to those who have made the leap of faith and, indeed, the power of religion lies in the difficulty in finding God. The evidence for God does not lie in naturalistic experiment, it lies in the human quest for meaning or the structure and order of life. It’s not a position I agree with but it’s definately one I respect as a internally coherent explaination of the world. In this case, of course atheists can’t find any evidence of God’s existance, they’re simply too stubborn and persist in looking in the wrong place despite huge and obvious signs of their ineptitude.

The urn example in this case lays down explicitly the areas of agreement and disagreement. You can move from there to the much more philosophically demanding areas of how occam’s razor and burden of proof affect each side’s claims.

the factual argument

The second reason is that they simply disagree with you on a factual level. To them, faith healing is real and demons have a manifest effect on the world. Miracles happen all the time and you would have to be stupid and blind to be an atheist. It’s so obvious that supernatural events are happening that it becomes impossible to consider that another person could view the world differently.

What the urn example demonstrates is that yes, atheists too would be convinced by supernatural events. A ball with the number 417 would convince an atheist the urn is red just as easily as a bona fide miracle would convince them of God’s existence. The point of contention is on an interpretation of evidence and this can be used as a starting point to segue into skepticism, levels of evidence, basic human psychology and burdens of proof. If you differ on a factual level, then Occam’s Razor is completely a non convincing argument. If miracles are happening on a daily basis, then the simplest explaination really is that god exists.

The fundamental problem that I’ve seen is that the average atheist argues with a Christian like they’re an atheist but stupider and believing in silly things. This is a wholly ineffective way to argue with anyone and it’s not going to change anyone’s mind.

Responses

  1. Trond Nilsen says:

    October 31st, 2008 at 8:27 pm (#)

    “Atheists don’t have an argumentation problem, they have a communication problem.”

    Agreed.

    But, I’m not convinced that improved communication would actually solve the problem, partly for the reason you outline in your last paragraph – argument itself (you know, marshaling evidence & logic) is the thing that’s troubling for a lot of people – it leaves out the privileged role they afford their own emotions (not to mention they find it insulting and condescending). It’s not that atheists fail to argue well (though some do), or even communicate well (though some do), but that arguing atheists fail to affect those people who aren’t willing to allow argument to undermine their identity and emotional beliefs.

    That willingness to question oneself and accept that one’s own beliefs and perceptions might be wrong isn’t universal, and might even be detrimental to some people’s happiness. And, that willingness can’t be changed by argument (because of itself) , so it seems to me that, before atheistic arguments can work, that person must make the first few steps on their own.

    So, I don’t usually bother arguing atheism with true believers, but only with doubters, atheists, and philosophers who are interested – otherwise I’m just irritating people. That said, I do take a guilty pleasure in asking difficult questions when opportunity knocks..

    As regards your previous post – you framed your point as an argument of proof, which it wasn’t. The logic geek in me seethes every time I leave such things alone. It seemed a bit weird to me that you were claiming it as such, but, well, you said it anyway 🙂

    It seems to me that there’s no practical difference between philosophical agnostics (who assign a probability of almost zero to God), and soft atheists (who accept the overwhelming evidence as tantamount to proof). It’s like calculus – my belief in god(s) tends towards zero, yours is zero – a difference only worth talking about with mathematicians or philosophers. Given that, then, it amuses me that some atheists spend a lot of time bashing agnostics, and, possibly vice versa..

  2. Trond Nilsen says:

    October 31st, 2008 at 1:27 pm (#)

    “Atheists don’t have an argumentation problem, they have a communication problem.”

    Agreed.

    But, I’m not convinced that improved communication would actually solve the problem, partly for the reason you outline in your last paragraph – argument itself (you know, marshaling evidence & logic) is the thing that’s troubling for a lot of people – it leaves out the privileged role they afford their own emotions (not to mention they find it insulting and condescending). It’s not that atheists fail to argue well (though some do), or even communicate well (though some do), but that arguing atheists fail to affect those people who aren’t willing to allow argument to undermine their identity and emotional beliefs.

    That willingness to question oneself and accept that one’s own beliefs and perceptions might be wrong isn’t universal, and might even be detrimental to some people’s happiness. And, that willingness can’t be changed by argument (because of itself) , so it seems to me that, before atheistic arguments can work, that person must make the first few steps on their own.

    So, I don’t usually bother arguing atheism with true believers, but only with doubters, atheists, and philosophers who are interested – otherwise I’m just irritating people. That said, I do take a guilty pleasure in asking difficult questions when opportunity knocks..

    As regards your previous post – you framed your point as an argument of proof, which it wasn’t. The logic geek in me seethes every time I leave such things alone. It seemed a bit weird to me that you were claiming it as such, but, well, you said it anyway 🙂

    It seems to me that there’s no practical difference between philosophical agnostics (who assign a probability of almost zero to God), and soft atheists (who accept the overwhelming evidence as tantamount to proof). It’s like calculus – my belief in god(s) tends towards zero, yours is zero – a difference only worth talking about with mathematicians or philosophers. Given that, then, it amuses me that some atheists spend a lot of time bashing agnostics, and, possibly vice versa..

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