You Wouldn’t Take the Car Dealer Seriously… So Why a Religious Leader?

AntiCitizenX created a nice video explaining why it’s philosophically impossible to prove something doesn’t exist, including a helpful analogy about shopping for a new car:

(Thanks to Brian for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Malcolm McLean

    So full of bad arguments I don’t know where to start.
    Most religions did not, historically, deny the existence of the deities of other religions. Jews were unusual in that respect. Most pagans would happily sacrifice to the local deity when on a visit to a different city.

    So the argument that “I believe in one fewer god than you do” is simply naive. it involves assuming that all religions are Christianity with different bells and whistles (because Christianity is the only religion the atheist has any real experience of), to conclude that all religions are Christianity with different bells and whistles.

    Another difficulty is that god “a being of great power, worthy of human worship” and God , “the being who is the root cause of all other beings”, are the same word, but different concepts. You can believe in God but not gods, gods but not God, both, or neither. There’s no necessary connection.

    • Rain

      So the argument that “I believe in one fewer god than you do” is simply naive. it involves assuming that all religions are Christianity with different bells and whistles (because Christianity is the only religion the atheist has any real experience of), to conclude that all religions are Christianity with different bells and whistles.

      The video is titled “Philosophical Failures of Christian Apologetics, Part 3: The Null Hypothesis”.

    • ctcss

      I find that many non-believer complaints focus on either believers with shallow theistic beliefs, or rude or unkind behavior by theists or their leaders, or hypocritical behavior by theists or their leaders. The more complex and nuanced and considerate the theistic belief and behavior is, the less non-believers usually have to say about them.

      Basically, they usually point out that unkind behavior coupled with belief concepts that are intellectually inadequate are, well, unkind and intellectually inadequate.

      Which obviously doesn’t take a genius to figure out, although the above complaint is a valid one to make. And quite frankly, any serious believer who tries to delve deeply and conscientiously into their own theological beliefs and tries to thoughtfully and humbly put them into practice is going to agree that the unkind behavior and intellectually inadequate beliefs are not the way to go.

      So I am not sure what else there is to say about such complaints except that low hanging fruit is the easiest to target. Oh, and straw men are easier to attack than those who actually are alive and living and who might actually live and respond differently than a caricature of them might. Which, as a believer, I think applies to critics on both sides of the fence.

      It really would be nice if both sides could play more nicely with one another. But sadly, trouble-makers on both sides make that a little hard to accomplish.

      • Anna

        I find that many non-believer complaints focus on either believers with shallow theistic beliefs …The more complex and nuanced and considerate the theistic belief and behavior is, the less non-believers usually have to say about them.

        I think your mistake lies in assuming that atheists see a difference between “shallow” theistic beliefs and “complex and nuanced” theistic beliefs.

        I do not think that beliefs which apologists say are deep or sophisticated are worth more respect or consideration than those they have labeled as shallow. To me, they are all the same. Fundamentalists may be low-hanging fruit, but I find them no more or less ridiculous than mainstream, moderate theists. What makes one supernatural assertion different from another?

        • Julien

          @ctcss,

          Another question that goes along with Anna’s statement: who decides which arguments are “shallow” and which “complex and nuanced”? Do you get to define it? Do the apologists?

          See, from where we’re standing, an apologist might make 100 different arguments about God. If we see 1 statement that’s demonstrably false, or that’s a logical fallacy, why should we bother looking at all 100? If someone is going to make the argument that “these things are the truth”, and one of them isn’t the truth, it wouldn’t be off the mark to suspect all of them, don’t you agree?

          What we need is the one argument that all apologists use that is totally foolproof – why would you need any more than one? Show me that one proof, otherwise I just feel like I’m playing whack-a-mole: every time you slap down an argument, another pops up that’s ‘totally better and more complex and nuanced, trust me guys’.

          • Anna

            Exactly. It seems like self-proclaimed sophisticated Christians have simply declared that their beliefs are deeper, more complex, and more nuanced that those of the fundamentalists. But it’s a subjective opinion. How does one objectively decide what is nuanced and what is not?

            Liberal and moderate Christians are particularly prone to claiming that they have deep theistic beliefs. They agree with atheists that talking snakes are a ridiculous myth, yet somehow angels are not a ridiculous myth? Making a man out of clay is ridiculous, yet a deity impregnating a girl is not ridiculous? How have they arrived at these conclusions?

      • Nox

        What are the deep theistic beliefs?

        There is this repeated complaint of strawmen every time a skeptic responds to something an actual christian says. We keep hearing about how there are better versions of theistic belief we aren’t addressing.

        Where?

      • Stev84

        Ah yes, if we only we debated that so-called “sophisticated theology”.

        That’s alluded to in the video. It’s just “blah blah blah” in an attempt to disguise that it fails even the most basic logical principles. Debating how many angels can dance of the head of a pin leads nowhere.

        • Godlesspanther

          Yes, and I think that Anticitizen X hit the nail on the head with this one. William Lame — I mean LANE — Craig (who is considered to be top-of-the-line in Xtian apologetics) just spouts off a bunch of convoluted babble that may sound impressive to a layperson, but when broken down, all he does is try to shift the burden of proof and claim that the Bible is true because it says so in the Bible.

      • http://bearlyatheist.wordpress.com/ Bear Millotts

        Need an answer to this? Please look up Tone Troll and The Courtiers Reply.

        Those two definitions cover your position adequately.

      • Kodie

        The more “nuanced” your understanding of god is, the more made up it obviously is. The bible is obviously a faulty source to get your information, that’s why the “nuanced” approach is just a word for covering up the smell of bullshit with heavy perfume and hope that nobody will notice it’s still bullshit.

      • The Other Weirdo

        I’ve this claim before, that atheists focus on shallow theism. We are told that somewhere out there is a vast, philosophically sophisticated theology out there that should deal with. Practically, however, there is no difference shallow theology and sophisticated theology since the sophisticated theologian has no more evidence to back up his claims(and that’s all they are, claims) than the shallow believer.

      • Major Nav

        No true Scotsman…

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      Not just Christians, but also Jews and Muslims. that’s an awful lot of theists!

      You do make a point. I read once that when christian missionaries first tried to convert a Norse King (sorry don’t remember which one) he simply added a statue of Jesus to his pantheon of gods. So you are right that many religions are/were polytheistic and not mutually exclusive. But in the west we mostly encounter monotheistic (are christians REALLY monotheistic? I guess that’s another topic for another thread) religions so that’s what we argue against. There’s not much point in me developing counter-apologetics against the claims of Zaroastrians. I may never actually meet anyone of that faith.

      • ctcss

        Jews actually believe that the righteous of all nations will have a place in the afterlife. So although they may feel that worshiping a false god is off-limits for them, they do not view those who do as somehow being lacking.

        • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

          Do you have a source for that? It was my understanding that there was no specific Jewish teaching about an afterlife.

          • Mick

            Daniel 12:2, 13

            • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

              Thanks.

              • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                Jewish zombie apocalypse!

        • Kodie

          This seems to be an example of a “nuance” that you spoke of earlier. This tribe believes that – and they made it up. Some tribes believe with absolute certainty that if you don’t follow their god and their rules pertaining to that god, you risk a negative outcome in the afterlife. They don’t even all agree on how negative. Some are literal pain of eternity in lakes of fire, while some “nuance” that shit up to “apart from god is punishment enough”. Other tribes sleep better believing that everyone “good” goes to heaven, although some tribes believe in a tier system, where their own go to the best version of heaven, and everyone else gets into a lower tier, if only to ease their conscience, and that’s only if they are moral, and they all have “nuanced” definitions and degrees of what makes someone moral.

          IT IS 100% MADE UP!

    • Julien

      Malcolm,

      Your statement, unfortunately, doesn’t follow itself coherently. You say:

      the argument that “I believe in one fewer god than you do”

      involves

      “assuming that all religions are Christianity with different bells and whistles”

      Actually, the only assumption it makes is that you believe in at least one god. Atheists believe in no gods, so by definition they would believe in at least one less god than a believer, regardless of the particular diety or whether the believer has any others.

      Now, I’m with you that this isn’t universally applicable to all religions – there are those without gods, for instance. However, as other commenters point out, this was a video specifically about Christian apologetics, and Christians, being followers of Christ as a god-figure, do have at least one god.
      But really, I’m much more curious what you have to say about the substantive arguments, like the null hypothesis. What is your perspective as, I assume, a believer?

      • Malcolm McLean

        The argument goes that Christians say that all gods are false except the Christian god, Muslims say that all gods are false except the Muslim god, Hindus say that all gods are false except the Hindu god, and so on, down to religions like Wicca which also say that all gods are false except the Wiccan god. So, says the atheist, I’m in substantial agreement with all of these people. I say all gods are false.

        it doesn’t hold up. Jews were unusual in being religiously intolerant. Christianity and Islam are derived from Judaism, and took over that attitude. So the ignorant man thinks that every religion denies the existence of gods other than its own. it’s simply not true.

        The null hypothesis has a technical meaning. It’s the hypothesis you try to reject. Let’s say that my hypothesis is that women like chocolate more than men. So I do a survey, asking some men and some women how much chocolate they ate over the last week. Now if I find that women ate 11 bars of chocolate, and men 10, and the sample was quite small, I wouldn’t be able to say that this difference wasn’t the result of sampling error. So I’d say “we haven’t rejected the null hypothesis that there’s no difference between men and women”. let’s say that women eat 20 bars of chocolate every week, men eat 5. Clearly now we’ve rejected the null hypothesis (for any sensible sample size). But we haven’t proved the alternative hypothesis, that women prefer chocolate. Maybe women have better memories than men. or maybe women eat smaller chocolate bars. You never prove the alternative hypothesis by statistics, you only reject or fail to reject the null.

        So the maker of the video doesn’t really know what a null hypothesis is. That’s the first point.

        However he’s right that, in a sense, our default hypothesis should be that something doesn’t exist. So it’s simpler to accept that the universe has always existed than than there is a God who has always existed, who created the universe. However if you’ve got reason to suspect that maybe the universe hasn’t always existed, Occam’s razor no longer applies. Similalry it’s easier to assume that everything is matter and nothing is non-matter, as long as you accept that you yourself are not conscious. if you consider yourself to be conscious, and you can’t explain that for the properties of matter, then you’ve reason to think that maybe not everything is matter. That’s doesn’t mean the God hypothesis must be accepted, it’s simply that materialism is no longer our default hypothesis, Maybe there are ways of patching up these difficulties and rescuing materialism, maybe the alternative hypothesis isn’t a creator God. At this stage we don’t know. But the misnamed “null hypothesis” argument is dead.

    • Rain

      So full of bad arguments I don’t know where to start.

      I think the burden of proof argument is plenty. All the rest of the arguments make for convenient targets for theists to attack so they can make some noise while ignoring the burden of proof one. If they didn’t have all those extra arguments to go after, then the only thing left for them to do would be twiddling their thumbs. (New comedy show idea: “Ergo Jesus”, where everyone twiddles their thumbs for a half hour, and then everyone says “ergo Jesus”, and then the audience laughs their tails off.)

      • meekinheritance

        Waiting For God, Oh?

      • Kodie

        That sounds more like an infomercial.

    • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

      Most religions did not, historically, deny the existence of the deities of other religions.

      Can you substantiate this claim?

      because Christianity is the only religion the atheist has any real experience of

      Proof you really don’t have a grasp of Atheism. Many Atheist’s, myself included, have travelled the pantheon of religions trying to find a place we fit in. In my particular case I went from Methodist to Buddhism to Druidism to all the way back to Fundamentalism, where I started a two year degree to become a minister, then Agnostic, Ignostic, Atheism, Existentialism and Nihilism and now more or less Absurdism witha smattering of Theological Non-cognitivism.

      • Amor DeCosmos

        Oooh, when I get over this Atheism thing, I am definitely convertimg to Absurdism… It’s the ultimate sensible ism in a nonsensical world.

      • Stev84

        The Romans for example frequently incorporated other gods into their pantheon as minor deities. It served as a way to integrate conquered peoples into their society. They usually had some kind of official state religion or cult and going through those rituals was seen as a civic duty, but otherwise people were free to worship and believe what they wanted.

    • Amor DeCosmos

      because Christianity is the only religion the atheist has any real experience of

      WTF? You do know Hemant’s backround is not Christian? I have studied Wicca and lived in countries where I studied Buddhism and Hinduism. You do know this blog often features stories about atheists persecuted in Muslim countries?

      Who the f**** are you, you presumptuous little prick?

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    It’s especially difficult to prove something doesn’t exist, when those who believe it exists can’t actually define what it is.

    • Stev84

      Or constantly move the goal posts

    • Kodie

      Where is this “no-god”? Everywhere.

      There you go.

    • viaten

      It’s defined just enough and in just the right way to make its disproof not trivially obvious.

  • Mick

    “You Wouldn’t Take the Car Dealer Seriously… So Why a Religious Leader?”

    The car dealer is selling a car – no big deal and no severe consequences for failing to buy – but the religious leader is selling eternal life with a severe punishment for those who refuse the offer. People (gullible people) think to themselves, “Why take the risk? Why not believe the parson and stay safe.?”

    “…it’s philosophically impossible to prove something doesn’t exist…”

    AC Grayling wrote: “For a simple case of proving a negative, by the way, consider how you prove the absence of pennies in a piggy-bank.”
    http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/10063-graylingsquestion/

    • Stev84

      Pascal’s Wager is extremely simplistic though and fails logic as well.

    • David Kopp

      The piggy bank is a closed system. The universe, not so much. Did you even watch the video? He explained that exact thing, that it’s not incumbent on the person saying there are no pennies in the piggy bank to disprove it, but upon the person claiming there IS a penny to show it. In finite systems you can prove a negative. Equating that to claims of god is either deceptive or ignorant.

  • Larry Meredith

    After a while into the video the explanations get so complicated with words I don’t understand and going too quickly to follow it logically. I get the jist of it but geeze he made it confusing.

    • James Nagel

      I guess you’ll just have to watch it again. ;)

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    This is far, far too much work. Make the theist do all the work. He’s the one making the claim, he’s the one trying to sell you something. The work is his to do, not yours.

    A theist comes to me and tries to convince me of his god and his religion. I politely listen to his description and definition, and then I politely ask for evidence of his elaborate and remarkable claim. He fails to convince me, because he only offers arguments without any empirical evidence, or unsubstantiated stories about miracles which are just claims piled atop other claims, or he offers poetic metaphors like sunsets, starry skies, or babies’ smiles, or testimonials about his improved lifestyle, or warm, happy feelings brought on by his belief.

    I remain unconvinced.

    It might end there, but if he’s a nice enough person and if I have nothing better to do, I might explain what kind of evidence I would need to be convinced. This would be something at the very least as convincing as the evidence that he’s picking up right there that I exist, plus something more, since he’s making an elaborate claim about something far more impressive than a mere mortal like me.

    He fails. I remain unconvinced.

    So far he has done a hell of a lot of work in his sales pitch, and I have done almost nothing. I have merely made a single polite request, and in my more generous moods, I have briefly explained what I need to be convinced.

    He goes away tired. I resume enjoying my day, still with plenty of energy to make things better in the real world around me.

  • C Peterson

    I’m afraid there remain quite a few people who would buy that car on the word of the salesman alone!

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    In support of the author of the video, the analogy of the car salesman is useful, and the descriptions of how apologists try to manipulate the dialogue by changing the rules of the game and creating their presuppositional loops are very useful, and I am grateful for those. I will watch it again for those points.

    The problem is that the burden of proof argument is sufficient, and the video does a good job of showing that. The second half of the video came at so rapid a pace I felt like I was getting a Gish gallop, and then the overall idea that we can and should work so hard by argument alone to declare that “God does not exist” contradicts the impression I got at the beginning that the burden of proof argument is sufficient.

    This might be better as three videos, and I hope that AntiCitizenX might consider reworking this one into three: One showing how the burden of proof principle works, another about the sneaky manipulations of apologists who try to define and distort the dialogue, and a third for those people, of whom I am not one, who want to work hard with the disproof of a god by argument alone. Somebody else might be good at that, but it’s not my style. I’m always suspicious of trying to prove or disprove something by argument alone, devoid of observable evidence. You can plug anything into those mesmerizing word games.

    As I described before, I prefer to let the theist exhaust himself doing the tasks that he and only he should do, and if he can convince me by giving me the simple and reasonable things I have told him that I need to be convinced, great. If not, I have not wasted any calories on him. My time has not been a complete waste, because he goes away understanding me better. He knows the kind of evidence I would need to be convinced, and it’s a reasonable request. I have not stooped to humiliating him, and he knows that coming back later with new versions of what doesn’t work will be a waste of his time. We can still interact on friendly terms.

  • Stev84

    I like the use of Bayes’ Theorem by the way. Hadn’t seen it put that way so far :)

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Funny how you never see Joe Klein helping to clarify Bayes’ Theorem.

  • matt

    If you do not believe in God why all of the effort? Go eat drink and be marry for tomorrow you die, right? If life is short and ends and there is nothing to look forward to after why so much wasted time?

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Hi matt,
      You seem to be confusing atheism with moral nihilism or self-centered hedonism, as many uninformed theists do. The effort which you think would be a waste without an afterlife comes from atheists caring about other people in the here-and-now, and trying to make things better for society by encouraging people to abandon superstitious thinking, which leads to a great deal of unnecessary suffering. One does not need to believe in an afterlife or in a god to care about people, and to live a meaningful life that includes efforts for the betterment of one’s family, friends, and community.

    • Stev84

      It’s many who Christians who don’t give a shit about what happens on this planet because all that counts is the afterlife. Atheits know that this life is out only chance and that we shouldn’t mess it up.

      • matt

        Corrected: “Many Christians don’t give a shit about what happens on
        this planet because to them all that counts is the afterlife. Atheist know that
        this life is our only chance and that we shouldn’t mess it up.”


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X