Reply to Atheist Seidensticker on Demands for “Evidence”

These exchanges occurred in a blog combox of mine. Bob Seidensticker runs the large and influential blog, Cross Examined. See the related dialogues / critiques involving him: Why Do We Worship God? Dialogue with an Atheist, and Seidensticker: Christians R Intellectually Dishonest Idiots. Bob’s words will be in blue.

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God is not an unjust Judge because He doesn’t give rebellious man an infinite amount of time to repent or because some refuse to accept His gracious pardon or to give Him due honor and worship and end up in hell.

Man is rebellious? Whose fault is that? Maybe we should blame his Maker.

“Accepting his gracious pardon”? Paul makes clear that that’s unnecessary: “Just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 1:19). In other words, we didn’t opt in to get Adam’s sin, so we don’t need to opt in to get Jesus’s salvation. We’re good. . . . 

And don’t get me started on the injustice of hell. Infinite punishment for finite crimes? It doesn’t even make sense within the context of religion. Wow—how savage is this guy?

[replying to someone else]  Sounds like you’ve assumed the Christian god exists. I don’t make that assumption. Indeed, I find very little evidence supporting that claim. . . . I came out of the box imperfect. Whose fault is that? . . . Perpetual torment for finite crimes is God’s greatest gift? What a cool religion—how do I sign up? . . . How about if God simply shows me he exists for starters? Why is that too much to ask?

If he gave me this big brain, he gave it to me to use. It would be an insult if I simply said, “Well, the predominant religion where I come from is Christianity, so I guess I’ll just go with that.”

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Sounds like you’ve assumed the Christian god exists.

I would contend that most Christians do indeed assume that there is a God, not simply from irrational blind faith (whether they are fully aware of the reasoning or not), but rather, from the rational and quite defensible notion of a “properly basic belief.” See my paper about that, which heavily cites Alvin Plantinga: the greatest living Christian philosopher.

I’ve never found that compelling, though I have yet to understand the idea well enough to write about it. I’ll add your post to my list.

I think you’d find it fascinating and challenging, at the very least.

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Along the same lines, there are the related concepts of “innate knowledge” or “tacit knowledge”: per the thinking of Michael Polanyi or John Henry Cardinal Newman (Grammar of Assent). I’ve collected many papers along these lines on my “15 Theistic Arguments” collection of links (see section 2).

I don’t make that assumption. Indeed, I find very little evidence supporting that claim. . . . How about if God simply shows me he exists for starters? Why is that too much to ask?

Well, that gets into very deep waters. Right off the bat, I would ask you several closely related questions:

1) What do you mean by “evidence”?

You and I have been chatting. That’s some evidence that you exist. Suppose we had lunch together. That’d be more evidence.

Jesus chatted with His disciples, before and after His crucifixion. He ate with ’em, too, before and after. That’s evidence.

No, we don’t have evidence that Jesus ate with his disciples. We have a story that he did so. We don’t get to put that story into the History bin without a lot of work.

He claimed to be God. Either he was a nut case or a liar, or truly was God in the flesh.

Liar, lunatic, Lord, or Legend.

We think all the evidence considered together makes it overwhelmingly more probable that He is God, rather than the alternatives.

My evidence for God is that of a pen pal who communicated telepathically. Sometimes. Or at least I think he does.

That’s what we believe happens in prayer. And similarly, in written form, the inspired revelation of the Bible.

Right. Which is very different from my evidence of you. I need to see that God doesn’t have no more evidence for him than someone who doesn’t exist.

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That God exists is kinda key to even beginning any discussion about apologetics. Why is he hidden? A hidden god that Christians handwave excuses for is precisely what you’d see if he didn’t exist at all. You can see why I haven’t moved past that default assumption.

We deny that He is hidden. He’s revealed Himself in many ways:

To paraphrase Churchill, God is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. I want really, really, really good evidence that he exists. Christians can’t provide it. Why is this not Game Over?

1) Through Jesus.

To repeat myself: we don’t have Jesus, we have a story of Jesus. Did it really happen like that? Maybe, but surely not likely, given how history treats the supernatural tales of everyone else of antiquity (Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus, Alexander, etc.).

2) Through many miracles.

3) Through the changed and transformed lives of those who wholeheartedly follow Him (including my own).

4) Through the marvels and wonders and beauty of His creation.

And now you’ve moved onto deist arguments. You say, “Look at God’s marvelous sunset!” and I say, “Look at the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s marvelous sunset!”

5) Through the laws of science and the remarkable way things function in the natural world, which are extremely difficult to ultimately explain through purely naturalistic assumptions.

6) Through reason: the cosmological and teleological arguments and many more theistic arguments.

7) Through the revelation of Scripture.

8) Through the lives of saints.

9) Through personal spiritual experiences.

This is, of course, a big discussion in and of itself. But my point is to strongly contend that we deny that He is hidden in the first place.

No, I don’t think so. Since the ordinary ways of knowing that a person exists don’t apply to God and you’ve got to tap dance other approaches, this again seems to be the Game Over moment. Doesn’t God really want to have a relationship with us? If so, the fact that he doesn’t make himself known in a conventional manner contradicts that. Makes me think that he doesn’t exist. How could I do otherwise?

I would even say that there is more reasonable justification for belief in God than for our own existence. There aren’t 15 or so major theistic (serious philosophical) arguments for why I exist, but there are for God’s existence.

Uh . . . because it’s easy to see that you exist? Why isn’t it easy to see that God exists? Why the rigamarole? Why is it hard?

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2) What do you believe is “enough” evidence?

You tell me. How much evidence would you need to convert to some other religion? That’s probably how much I’d need.

[I replied to this question asked of me, to another atheist. But here it was an attempted diversion on Bob’s part]

I can’t tell you how much you need, because that is your thing, that I am exploring. I’m delving into your epistemology, and your fundamental axioms and premises, not mine. You say you need more evidence, so the natural question to ask is: how much is enough? What would this look like for you?

So where does this leave us? I keep answering this question, and you keep telling me that my answer is unsatisfactory? Doesn’t sound like a fun or useful game.

This is a bit of a tangent, and I don’t want to assign you homework, but I’ll include a blog post series that does respond to this in a way. It’s called “25 Reasons We Don’t Live in a World with a God.” In short, I’m saying with these reasons: show me that these arguments that we don’t live in a world with a god don’t exist, and I’ll have an easier time believing in the Christian god.

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3) On what basis can you establish what is “enough” evidence?

Ask God. He’s really smart, and he would know what it would take to convince me. And yet he’s not give that to me. Is he just playing games? Or does he not exist? You can imagine which answer I think is simplest.

This is basically an evasion of the simple question I asked you. It makes perfect sense to ask you this. Now, if you have no answer, simply say so (and then you would have other problems to deal with, with regard to your own intellectual justifications). But the topic-switching game is not one I ever play, and it doesn’t work with me. If you want to engage in dialogue with me, you’ll have to provide some sort of direct answer to what I ask you (just as I am doing with your questions). That’s the nature of the game of dialogue.

This sounds, again, like an unanswerable question. If what I’ve given you so far doesn’t satisfy you, then I’m pretty sure that, from your standpoint, I have no answer.

And, again, I’m wondering why I’m in the hot seat, getting failing grades for my answers. Last time I checked, you were the one making the extraordinary claim that God exists.

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4) Do you presuppose that empirical knowledge is the only valid sort of knowledge?

What else do you have in mind? If you have other ways to know things, I’m all ears.

Looks like that is a yes. For starters: 1) mathematics, 2) logic, 3) the non-empirical starting axioms of science, and 4) innate or tacit knowledge that I have already alluded to.

Mathe . . . what is it? Mathematics? Wow—that’s weird stuff. You’ll have to explain that one to me.

Sarcasm aside, you are, as I expected, pointing out avenues with which I was already familiar.

As for 3), how is this not empirical? These axioms aren’t taken on faith; they’re tested all the time. Take, for example, “everything has a cause.” Sounds right, but we’ve tested that and found that, in the world of quantum physics, this isn’t necessarily the case. Some things don’t have causes (this is the Copenhagen interpretation).

As for 1), suppose we had as a foundational assumption 1 + 1 = 2 (or take another axiom math is built on). We test this continually. If we were to find an exception, that would be noted, and we’d proceed using that.

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5) If so, why?

6) If you say “yes” to #4, are you unaware that mathematics is a valid non-empirical form of knowledge, and that it is necessary for modern science to proceed? And that logic is also non-empirical, and that science starts from non-empirical assumptions?

7) You do apparently acknowledge that there is a “little” evidence for God. Okay, what is it? Otherwise, you should say, “no evidence . . . ”

Christians exist. The Bible exists.

Good! Glad to hear that. It’s a little crack of light (from where I sit)!

OK, I’m glad you’re pleased. I’d be surprised if you were surprised, however.

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8) On what basis do you determine that your standards for evidence with regard to God are more unarguable and self-evident than the next person’s, or indeed, many thousands of persons?

Do we agree that people make up religions?

Yes.

Is Hinduism manmade, for example?

I think so, though I would say that the impulses for most religions are based on a real knowledge of a real Being (God), however imperfectly so.

I doubt that. If Hindus could see Yahweh poorly, Muslims see him a little better, and Christians see him with varying degrees of clarity (depending on specific beliefs), you’d imagine that world religions would converge with time. God and his truth aren’t changing, after all. In fact, we see the opposite. In Christianity especially, we see new denominations forming at a rate of 2 per day.

This is just what religions would do if they were manmade.

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If we agree that religions by the thousands are manmade, then I would suggest that Christianity looks like just one more.

I understand that. But by the same token, I see atheism as simply one more man-made tradition, which is as susceptible and vulnerable to intense scrutiny and analysis as anything else. I’ve examined atheist premises and arguments and again and again and I find them altogether non-compelling and underwhelming. In other words, two can play at that game.

Not really a game.

When the time is right, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on atheism.

And that gets back to my initial question (which you partially avoided): you have not established (in this discussion) why your epistemology is superior to that of Christians or other religious groups.

My approach is to take individual arguments, either for Christianity or for atheism, and evaluate them. Will you be unconvinced by my arguments? Almost certainly. You’re asking for my proof that your evaluation of my arguments was flawed? I don’t have one.

And these are the sorts of questions you will have to grapple with, if you are serious about your own views (just as all people ought to be).

Obviously. To assume that I need this nudge is condescending, but perhaps that wasn’t your intention.

You passed over my questions 9 and 10 [see them immediately below], which I can understand in a way, because they are very difficult to answer. So I will assume that you can’t answer them, rather than that you can and refuse to for whatever reason. :-)

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9) What exactly do you require God to do to prove to you that He exists?

Do what Dave Armstrong does when he wants to prove to someone that he exists. If God would need to do a little more to prove that he’s actually God rather than a human or an alien, I’ll bet he’s smart enough to handle that.

(Oooo . . . I bet I get another F on that answer.)

10) On what basis do you have the opinion you have in reply to my question in #9?

I don’t know what this means. But perhaps this is relevant: you could say that I’m arrogant (or something) for my stance on evidence for God. Let me dig my hole deeper: I demand this evidence. God, if you exist, the ball’s in your court, pal. Your move.

How could I have any other stance? You are making what is about the most remarkable claim possible. I’m open minded. I’ll consider your claim. But don’t expect me to accept it because it’s a nice worldview or because I’d like it to be true. If I stand in judgment, I’ll be able to say that I used his gift of a human brain to its fullest. I didn’t check my brain at the door.

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Etc., etc.

I’m sure I could think of many more, but these are sufficient for starters. All of a sudden it’s not quite as simple as atheists typically make it out to be, is it? Y’all just ain’t used to the scrutiny that you constantly send our way.

I’m happy to clarify my position, but let me encourage you to avoid asking questions just to avoid being put on the defensive. You’re the one making the remarkable claim, so you have the fundamental burden of proof.

can’t avoid asking questions because I am a socratic.

A bit of feedback: the typical teacher/student structure of a Socratic dialogue is obnoxious to the “student.”

I will always go right to the premises of my dialogue opponents, to better understand what they believe and why. Without that, constructive dialogue is impossible. It’s not true that Christians have all the burden of proof. You have just as much, because you make extraordinary claims, just as we do (just of a different nature).

Gotta disagree with you there.

You have come here and made certain claims which are contrary to my Catholic beliefs, and so (as an apologist and socratic debater) I have challenged you with regard to them.

You don’t get away with merely stating things here. You don’t get to [try to] simply poke holes in all the Christian beliefs, as if it is a one-way thing. You’ll be challenged every time to back up what you are saying: your beliefs and epistemology as well. And it’s not always fun. It’s work and toil, too, because I’m a very experienced debater on these topics. I’ve been doing it these past 37 years.

If I can’t ask questions, or my opponents start refusing to answer relevant and necessary ones, then there will be no dialogue with me.

?? The problem is when you want to be the one asking the questions, the one on the offensive.

I only engage in authentic dialogue. I’ve answered your questions carefully, and at far greater length than you are offering me. You need to do the same for a good, constructive dialogue to occur. This one is way above average, and I appreciate that and commend you.

Likewise, this conversation is more constructive than the ones I have with the vast majority of Christian commenters on my blog.

And you haven’t descended to personal insults at all (bravo!). But it could be much better than it is if we got into the great depth that these topics deserve.

In the meantime, I don’t recall if you have said whether or not you used to be a Christian. If so, what denomination? And if so, do you have a posted deconversion story?

I was raised Presbyterian. Basically, it dictated what you did Sunday morning, and that was about it. It never had much of a hold on me, so my deconversion story was untraumatic. When I went to college, I wasn’t made to go to church anymore, so I didn’t. I probably would’ve checked the “Christian” box in a survey form for a couple of decades later, but I never really thought about it. Then about 20 years ago, a fundamentalist, YEC relative got into it with me on evolution. From there, we got into the God question. And once I started thinking, I couldn’t stop. In other words, I’m an atheist thanks to my fundamentalist relative (not what he intended, I’m sure).

Funny story: when I told my wife about my new conversation with that relative about evolution, she immediately said, “It’s a waste of time. You’ll never convince him.” What? His responses were all softballs. They were easy to hit out of the park! Seeing how shallow his arguments were, I was sure that with a little time, he’d change his tune.

Nope. She was right. I think there’s a lesson in that for me somewhere. Maybe more than one.

So, if you have studied Christianity as an atheist, has it only been through reading skeptical / atheist materials, or have you read the Christian side, too?

Reading the Christian side too, obviously. How much can you learn by reading only one side?

One ongoing issue, though, is finding more than just the fundamentalist side. They seem to be the noisiest–WLC, Frank Turek, Greg Koukl, J. Warner Wallace, etc. To a lesser extent, CS Lewis, Plantinga, and others. Suggestions welcome.

I find the deeply philosophical to be the least accessible and least interesting (on both sides of the issue)–if it’s a boring slog for me, what would I have to share with my readers?

Glad to hear that you are reading our side, too. Good for you.

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Photo credit: image by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images [The Blue Diamond Gallery]

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