A Deist Argument Is Inadequate

Do the Christian apologetics point to God any more than Zeus?The arguments for God in vogue among the Christian apologists that I listen to have a curious flaw. I’m surprised when they take little notice of this.

Consider the following popular arguments and see if you can find the common feature. In-depth discussions of these arguments deserve their own posts, but I’ve added brief (and incomplete) summaries to remind you what these arguments claim.

Popular Christian Apologetics

  • Cosmological Argument: “Someone had to get everything started, therefore God”
  • Moral Argument: “Objective morals exist, and who but God could create them?”
  • Transcendental Argument: “What grounds logic? God does.”
  • Ontological Argument: “If ‘God’ is the greatest possible being that we can imagine, and a being existing is greater than being imaginary, then this greatest being must exist.”
  • Design Argument: “Just look around you and you’ll see the marvelously complex design of a Designer.”
  • Fine Tuning Argument: “The constants that define the universe are fine-tuned for life, therefore God.”
  • Argument from Incredulity: “It’s all just so … so incredibly complex! Therefore, God.”

What’s the common feature? It’s that these are all deist arguments. If I bought into any one of them, I’d only be agreeing that some deity (or deities) created the universe. But which one? These arguments are as good for Islam or Shintoism as Christianity and Judaism.

(This reminds me of the famous Sidney Harris cartoon with the punch line “I think you should be more explicit here in step 2.”)

And yet the apologists are often unaware of the problem. They finish their deist argument with a “Ta-dah!” and a sweep of the hand and think that they’ve made a sale, but they’ve got a long way to go to convince me that their particular deity is the real one and it’s actually all those other ones that are mere human inventions.

Maybe they count on ambiguity to help. They conclude that God created everything and—whaddya know?—their god is named “God.” I’ve written before about this odd confusion of names. It’s like a cat named “Cat.”

One noteworthy exception is John Warwick Montgomery, an apologist from an earlier generation. He takes the opposite approach and first uses the New Testament to argue the resurrection of Jesus. From there, he tries to build the rest of the Christian worldview. This approach is no more convincing, but at least it avoids this problem with deist arguments.

How Can We Access the Supernatural?

If we explain the world in a Christian way, God is active in our natural world, and we can see his hand in Nature. This runs into a problem that (IMO) is for Christians at least as big a problem as the Problem of Evil: the Problem of Divine Hiddenness. If God enters into our world and is eager for a relationship, why the mystery? Why make things so difficult? Why make our world look exactly like a world without a god?

And if we imagine the opposite, that God isn’t particularly eager for a relationship or isn’t motivated to provide compelling evidence that he exists, then we’re back in the deist camp. We have a deity who indeed exists, but we’re on our own to show that he exists anywhere but in our minds. And if the deity hasn’t provided a conduit between the Natural and the Supernatural, why imagine that natural techniques (prayer, meditation, or logic, say) could prove the existence of the supernatural? If God is just sitting there and not helping us out, how can we show that he exists?

Christians sometimes argue that science is incapable of detecting the supernatural. But keep in mind that the boundary of “natural” expands with time. Seeing through opaque objects was supernatural before X-rays, for example. And even if science can’t detect supernatural beings, what makes those Christians imagine that they can?

A couple of analogies come to mind. Imagine using integers (1, 2, 3, …) with addition and subtraction and trying to creating anything but more integers. You couldn’t reach 7.65, the square root of 2, or pi, for example. Or, imagine a two-dimensional Flatlander trying to prove the existence of three-dimensional space. Sure, he can imagine it, but that’s hardly a proof.

It seems to me that our pointing to evidence of the supernatural with a deist argument is like creating all real numbers using addition and subtraction on integers, or a Flatlander proving the existence of 3-space. Sure, we can imagine something more, but that’s no proof and not particularly compelling evidence.

Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?  
— William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I, act III, scene i

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Something Better than “In God We Trust”
25 Stupid Arguments Christians Should Avoid (Part 8)
10 Commandments (for Atheists)
’Tis the Season!
About Bob Seidensticker
  • Rick Townsend

    Empirical evidence only gets you to the existence of a greater power, necessarily intelligent in nature. It is evidence of a creator, not evidence of a specific named God. So no argument there.

    The exact identity of that God is determined by other means including revelation to specific individuals and groups (Dead Sea crossing, for instance) with written testimonial evidence that is then passed along and carefully preserved from generation to generation. That is where textual evidence, archaeology, etc., come into play. You tend discount all of that body of research, so therefore there is nothing for you to refute. Those who try to actually deal with it have a bigger problem disregarding it.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Rick:

      You tend discount all of that body of research, so therefore there is nothing for you to refute.

      I deliberately say nothing about that in this post.

      And you’re right that I do find that other evidence far too weak to support the claims that it is made to support (many other posts respond to some of this evidence). But it is good that we both see the problem with making a deist argument and then imagining that the argument is complete.

    • Nox

      That isn’t what empirical means. Did you maybe mean inductive reasoning only gets you to the existence of a higher power, and the exact identity of that god is determined by special pleading?

      If we could directly observe god, that would be a matter of empirical evidence. If there were empirical evidence for god, apologists wouldn’t have to imagine excuses for why he has to exist.

      • Rick Townsend

        Thanks for the correction. Accepted! It’s still evidence not easily dismissed.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Not as far as I’ve heard.

          You mentioned the Dead Sea crossing. Did you mean the Red Sea crossing? Because that whole Exodus thing, even at this far remove, is pretty hard to accept. The entire generation–2 million people–had to die before the Jews could enter the Promised Land. They didn’t cremate, so that’s 2 million bodies in the Sinai, which isn’t all that big. The lack of evidence for this is pretty compelling.

        • Nox

          And aside from the complete lack of archaeological evidence for something that should have left tons of it, anyone can simply read the book of Exodus and notice some pretty big plot holes in the surviving text.

        • http://www.attaleuntold.wordpress.com Arkenaten
        • Rick Townsend

          We could play dueling web sites, but you would discount mine as biased, much as I do yours.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Rick: Is there a consensus on what archeology says about the Exodus? (Or do you not care for the consensus view?)

        • http://www.attaleuntold.wordpress.com Arkenaten

          @ Rick
          “We could play dueling web sites, but you would discount mine as biased, much as I do yours.”
          Well I don’t mind dueling , truly I don’t. In fact it would be very interesting to see who you have lined up to refute these claims. You may even choose weapons, okay?
          However, If you are going to send me to an endless stream of Creationist or Evangelical type websites then you must at least allow me to throw in a link to Oz, and maybe even the “Archaeology of Hogworts,” okay?

          Seriously, though, if you are planning on throwing Albright into the mix I would consider before doing so.

          Herzog and Finkelstin are two of the most respected men in this particular field, and even their detractors have not outright refuted their findings, merely stating that this stuff has been known for years so why the sudden fuss?
          No-one wants to hear this stuff as the political ramifications are obvious. Even the Palestinians and other ‘interested parties’ are not calling them out. Why?
          Because everything they believe in as well is rooted in some ding-bat religious text and if they call the Jews out then things are going to get very sticky.

          Now if you have something to offer that we may all learn something new, then hell, go for it. Give it your best shot.

    • trj

      Disregarding for the moment that the Bible has been proved wrong regarding several historical events, what specific “textual evidence, archaeology, etc.” proves that Yahwe in particular is the god of our universe, rather than some other god?

    • Patterrssonn

      You’re in same trouble though as your arguments could just as easily be make about the Koran.

      • Rick Townsend

        How many parallels do you see between the Bible and the Quran? Since the Quran refers to the Bible with respect and reverence, I’m not sure what your point is here. But the Quran’s focus and content are much different than the Bible. Little history before Muhammad, little prophecy pointing forward. Hard to compare them.

        • Patterrssonn

          They are both “textual evidence” of their own existence but not much evidence for anything else.

  • Greg

    Bob said, “Why make our world look exactly like a world without a god?” I think this is a great question, because that sure is what it looks like to me: A world without a god.

  • Greg G

    There is no real reason to think a god could not be detected by empirical means except that all claims of gods that would have empirical consequences have been disconfirmed. The supernatural is a contrived concept to protect imaginary things from scientific investigation. If empirical evidence actually implied a god, as Rick says, why do proponents insist on calling their gods supernatural?

    If empirical evidence did point to a supreme being, why do believers only point to beyond what the evidence tells us? They only offer appeals to ignorance.

  • Richard S. Russell

    My Freethot Book Discussion Club is currently reading 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. It’s a novel, but it has a 60-page appendix that does indeed list 36 arguments for the existence of God (including all those that Bob mentions), along with refutations of each.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      When you’re done with it, I’d be interested in your critique, in particular whether it’s an elementary survey or if it gives compelling and well-crafted arguments.

      • Richard S. Russell

        Well, I can give you my take on the appendix now, since I started there. It was only 60 pages long and independent of the novel, so it was a fairly quick read. In my estimation, she did quite a thoro job — dredging up rationalizations of God’s existence that I’d never heard of before as well as the old standbys — expressing each of them as easily readable numbered-premise syllogisms, then providing a pithy explication of the flaw (or flaws) in each. None of it requires degrees in theology, semiotics, advanced mathematics, symbolic logic, or philosophy to be able to comprehend; a working knowledge of English suffices.

        The novel, tho, is a different story. It’s got some of the most insufferable characters I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction, every one of them a Mary Sue based on what the author evidently thinks of as a not-all-that-idealized version of her own life. Most of them remind me of Doc Savage’s band of assistants, the world’s 2nd greatest archeologist, 2nd greatest engineer, 2nd greatest lawyer, etc. You also get the distinct impression that she thinks that only Jews ever become intellectuals worth paying attention to. And it’s replete with retrospections and introspections from people whose rich inner mental lives are obviously far more interesting to them (and the author) than the real world that the rest of us actually live in. So she obviously thinks nothing of bringing the whole plot to a crashing halt to explore some mild rumination of decades gone by, which she finds much more compelling. As a novelist, she makes a fine historian of philosophy.

        Of course, that’s after only 100 pages, and perhaps it gets better after she’s introduced us to all the characters (in far more detail than we’re interested in) and finally gets around to advancing the story line. I’ll let you know.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Richard:

          dredging up rationalizations of God’s existence that I’d never heard of before as well as the old standbys

          Hmm. That does sound intriguing.

          I’ve read a fair amount of apologists’ thinking, and it’s getting pretty repetitive, so some new ideas would be nice.

          It’s got some of the most insufferable characters I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction, every one of them a Mary Sue based on what the author evidently thinks of as a not-all-that-idealized version of her own life.

          Ouch! That reminds me of some of the wittiest criticism I’ve ever read, an Amazon review of The Shack:

          And so it wears on, chapter after chapter of clunky dialogue about ill-defined concepts which are picked up and dropped like the toys of a hyperactive child, apparently seeking to clarify but succeeding only in obscuring all meaning in a lavender cloud of unicorn farts. By about chapter 6 or 7, the Missy plot seems like a distant memory, and the reader’s only concern is to get out of this book alive. …

          As a novel, then, this is a laughable effort, but I know it is not primarily intended to be a novel — it is intended to be a recruiting tool, aimed at winning non-believers over into the theist camp with a sort of warm ’n cozy New Age-y version of Christianity, in which the Holy Trinity are a kind of nonthreatening multicultural sitcom family, a trio of irascible kooks with hearts of gold, etc. etc.

          The whole thing is here and is a fun read, especially if you feel an ill-advised itch to read the book.

          I’ll let you know.

          Yes, please do.

  • http://www.hongkongudy.com Karl Udy

    If someone claims that there is no God, then a deist argument is totally appropriate, as it dealing with the particular objection they have.

    Of course, any particular deist argument is not saying everything there is to say about the identity and nature of God, but then that’s not its purpose.

    You would have a valid point if those who use those deist arguments never provide any arguments to take you any further, but I think you’ll find that most of them use various arguments for the deity of Christ, Jesus’ resurrection, etc

    • Kodie

      Right, if you get someone to consider there might be a god based on these arguments, it’s probably a good time to sell them your god.

      Why is there such a problem among the religious and generally culturally of godlessness? A lot of people aren’t Christians but still have to have the idea that it’s ok to believe in a different god, but they won’t let you not believe in any god at all. You’re supposed to have one just like you have a height. It is more like a favorite color. My favorite color is blue, but I can conceive that not having a favorite color is also a valid answer to that question. None of the arguments above appeal to me in a convincing way. They aren’t serious arguments, they are meant to soften up the mark.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Karl:

      You would have a valid point if those who use those deist arguments never provide any arguments to take you any further, but I think you’ll find that most of them use various arguments for the deity of Christ, Jesus’ resurrection, etc

      At least we’re on the same page in agreeing on the importance of a step 2 to the argument. In my experience (which is limited, I’ll grant you), apologists rarely do. An honest presentation of any of these deist arguments by a Christian apologist would need to conclude with, “Now, let me be clear, we still haven’t covered part 2, which is to show that the particular deity in question is the Christian god.” But that (in my experience) is very rare.

      Perhaps your experience is different.

      • http://www.hongkongudy.com Karl Udy

        CS Lewis, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, William Lane Craig, Norman Geisler all use both. I imagine it’s harder to find someone that does not use Christ-specific arguments as well as “deistic” arguments.

        The only possible exceptions I can think of are the presuppositional apologists but then they don’t tend to use either type of argument.

        • http://www.hongkongudy.com Karl Udy

          Thinking a little more about things Bob, there may different opinions as to how to best engage someone in your position (fairly committed atheist). I would guess that most would think that the first thing that needs to be dealt with would be the issue of whether or not God exists, and to then move on from there to considering what God that is once you’ve got that far. This may be what you’re experiencing, and many have become Christians through this route (CS Lewis being probably the best-known example). Maybe you haven’t experienced them presenting step-2 arguments because you resist their step-1 arguments, so they go back to the drawing board with another step-1 argument.

          Others may consider the best approach would be to demonstrate to the atheist the uniqueness and superiority of Christ, and use that as a demonstration of God’s existence. This may be a less common strategy.

        • http://www.attaleuntold.wordpress.com Arkenaten

          It is crucial for you as a Christian to be honest – just for a change – and recognize that without the Bible you would have no notion of your god whatsoever.
          Not a creator of the universe – which anyone can imagine if they so wish – but the actual physical manifestation of this belief in the form of the character of Jesus.
          Establishing the existence of a creator is NOT the issue at all, but rather establishing the veracity of the bible and the historicity of Jesus. Then try to prove his divinity and only then can the matter of whether he is the creator (God) be raised.
          Until then, every single christian is merely P*****g in the wind.

        • Kodie

          What do you all need approaches and strategies for? And I think the deist arguments when combined with the Christian (or any other religion you’re advertising) arguments, are exclusive to each other.

          Ex. Sure, there may be a god, but what does that have to do with these other things?
          Or – if your god were the certain god you’re demonstrating, you wouldn’t need general arguments. The specifics would be evident. You just have some idea that they’re not convincing enough until you paint the broad picture first. Anyone of any religion can make most of these deist arguments and tie it to their beliefs. I can even use the deist arguments, and I think Bob sometimes does this, some other atheists I’ve seen have, to put doubt on which is the correct god – what does this have to do with your god, in essence.

          I’ve seen a lot of people here and elsewhere also claim to have been skeptics but “intellectually” convinced of god’s existence by one of these arguments and leap right to “and that’s why I’m a _______ (name of specific religious sect).” Where’s the rest of the argument? The parlor tricks, as I call them, are designed to soften the doubt of the mark and lead immediately to the religious belief of the seller. Like Bob’s prayer experiment. I’m sure some people “saw” the patterns and signs now that they were looking for them, and that’s not Buddha, that’s Jesus. Logical leaps.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Karl:

          I would guess that most would think that the first thing that needs to be dealt with would be the issue of whether or not God exists

          Yes, that’s not a bad beginning, given their goal.

          You listed a number of apologists and say that they all use both. I’ll grant that they do in their entire corpus of writings, but not always so in any one piece (lecture, article, blog post, etc.). That was my complaint.

          Maybe you haven’t experienced them presenting step-2 arguments because you resist their step-1 arguments, so they go back to the drawing board with another step-1 argument.

          Could be. My complain evaporates when they wrap up one of these arguments with, “Mind you, this is just a deist argument. Once we agree that there’s a Creator(s), I need to show you which one I think it is.” And this is what I rarely see.

          Others may consider the best approach would be to demonstrate to the atheist the uniqueness and superiority of Christ, and use that as a demonstration of God’s existence.

          J. W. Montgomery is a fan of this approach. It doesn’t work on me, as you might imagine.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Arkenaten:

          It is crucial for you as a Christian to be honest – just for a change – and recognize that without the Bible you would have no notion of your god whatsoever.

          A fun thought experiment is to imagine a thousand years into a post-World War 3 world. All of modern civilization is gone, and the new civilization is rediscovering science–f = ma, e = mc^2, and so on. They have different notation, but the concept is identical.

          And what about religion? Given humans’ drive for the supernatural, they might well have religion, but if they’re starting from scratch, they certainly wouldn’t recreate Christianity.

          (I’ve explored this idea more here.)

        • trj

          He, you reminded me of this comic, Bob.

        • http://theophor.us Ignatius Theophorus

          It is crucial for you as a Christian to be honest – just for a change – and recognize that without the Bible you would have no notion of your god whatsoever.

          This is just silly. Of course without God revealing himself we would have no sense of revelation. Seems akin to saying “without writing, you would all be illiterate.”

          Not a creator of the universe – which anyone can imagine if they so wish – but the actual physical manifestation of this belief in the form of the character of Jesus. Establishing the existence of a creator is NOT the issue at all, but rather establishing the veracity of the bible and the historicity of Jesus. Then try to prove his divinity and only then can the matter of whether he is the creator (God) be raised.

          They are admittedly separate questions, but they are both important. Saying, “Ok, if God exists you have no proof of what he is like” (that is actually incorrect, BTW, there are certain things which are required by the cosmological argument) is completely irrelevant to the question “Does God exist?” That might be equivalent to answering the statement, “from this evidence I conclude there a train to Hoboken” with, “well, you can’t prove that it is silver colored.” The first statement has to do with existence of a thing, the second has to do with the properties of a thing which has already been stipulated.

        • http://www.hongkongudy.com Karl Udy

          You listed a number of apologists and say that they all use both. I’ll grant that they do in their entire corpus of writings, but not always so in any one piece (lecture, article, blog post, etc.). That was my complaint.

          They do in longer works, such as books and lecture series.

          I think you need to give them the allowance to allow shorter works to keep their structural unity, which will probably entail not including things that aren’t directly pertinent to that more focused topic.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Karl:

          I think you need to give them the allowance to allow shorter works to keep their structural unity, which will probably entail not including things that aren’t directly pertinent to that more focused topic.

          If they say that this is the Cosmological Argument and that’s that, I agree. What I object to is the suggestion that they’ve actually made an argument from Christianity with this argument alone. That’s the problem.

        • http://www.hongkongudy.com Karl Udy

          Fair enough. I think we’ve pretty much said all that we can say to each other on this one :-)

        • http://www.attaleuntold.wordpress.com Arkenaten

          @ Ignatious ” Silly? Methinks the lady protesteth too much” with apologies. to WS

          Not silly at all. The christian god is Jesus. Without the bible you would have notion of this god, therefore it is incumbent upon you to prove the veracity of the claims of his divinity.
          Even the historicity of this character is still not cut and dried no matter what the likes of Ehrman will have us all believe.
          One does not have to enter into endless circular philosophical discussions, merely apply commonsense to the history and the bible as it reads.
          And ,remember, of course, the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus were concepts concocted, introduced and made Law by the Church.

      • http://www.attaleuntold.wordpress.com Arkenaten

        Bob
        @Excellent post. And I note Karl was being a ding bat back then as well.
        (I’ve explored this idea more here.)
        I wrote a comic fantasy exploring similar ideas only the character who decided that there was a god and re-established was, unfortunately, dyslexic.

        • http://www.attaleuntold.wordpress.com Arkenaten

          and reestablished religion…

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Arkenaten:

          @Excellent post.

          Thanks!

          And I note Karl was being a ding bat back then as well.

          Meh. Karl is civil. That kind of Christian I can take (the other kind, not so well).

          I wrote a comic fantasy exploring similar ideas only the character who decided that there was a god and re-established was, unfortunately, dyslexic.

          Sounds like the Christian Gnostic view of the world, where our world was created by a god who wasn’t all that perfect–hence the imperfections we see in life around us.

  • Michael

    “…they’ve got a long way to go to convince me that their particular deity is the real one…”

    They couldn’t care less whether or not an atheist accepts their “proof”, as long as it’s enough to fool the kids in Sunday School, that’s all they want.

  • Patrick

    Bob Seidensticker: “What’s the common feature? It’s that these are all deist arguments.”

    As can be drawn from the following statement, written by philosopher Edward Feser, at least with respect to the Aristotelian-Thomistic versions of the cosmological argument this is not true:

    “Now of course, human beings, liana vines, and everything else could not from an A-T [Aristotelian-Thomistic] point of view exist even for an instant unless God were conserving them in existence. They also could not have the causal power they have even for an instant if God as first cause were not imparting that causal power to them at every moment. All of this is (I would say) what the A-T versions of the cosmological argument, rightly understood, establish.”

    (Source: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/07/does-morality-depend-on-god.html)

    • Matti

      “Now of course, human beings, liana vines, and everything else could not from an A-T [Aristotelian-Thomistic] point of view exist even for an instant unless God were conserving them in existence. They also could not have the causal power they have even for an instant if God as first cause were not imparting that causal power to them at every moment. All of this is (I would say) what the A-T versions of the cosmological argument, rightly understood, establish.”

      I am now convinced that A-T reasoning is terribly impressive from a proper, A-T point of view!

      • http://www.attaleuntold.wordpress.com Arkenaten

        @Matti
        This is more like T & A rather than A-T. BTW, which god are we talking about now, please?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Patrick:

      Aristotle would argue that the Christian god exists? That sounds unlikely.

      I don’t see any argument that Yahweh is the only god that could do this. Sounds like he’s simply saying that he concludes that Yahweh enables existence. OK, and perhaps a Muslim would use the argument to conclude that it’s Allah.

  • Patrsn

    Is the, god is the Christian/Islamic god even step 2? Shouldn’t step 2 be more along the lines of god has intelligence and has intentions regarding the human race or god is even aware of the existence of the human race?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Patrsn:

      Sure, that sounds fine. Step 2 could make the jump from a deist god to a theist god. And then in step 3 you could worry about which one it is.

    • Nate Frein

      As opposed to something a la H.P. Lovecraft?

    • Nate Frein

      Or I guess a creator-being that is simply a mindless source of creation.


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