Debate with Justin Martyr: Opening Statement

This post is part of a debate with Justin of The Faith Heuristic. The topic is: The Evidence Supports the Existence of a God. The debate is structured as follows:

  1. Justin – Opening Statement
  2. Leah – Rebuttal
    –part 1
    –part 2
  3. Justin – Rejoinder
    –part 1
    –part 2
  4. Leah – Opening Statement
  5. Justin – Rebuttal
  6. Leah – Rejoinder

Justin has maintained that the terms of this debate do not require him to defend the idea of the Christian god or, indeed, any particular deity. His proposed proof in his opening statement attempted to show the need for some supernatural force to kickstart the universe, and then he labeled that force God.

As I wrote in my two-part rebuttal, I don’t think that the case Justin makes for the need for a creator-force is sufficiently compelling, but, even if it were, I think it would fall far short of proving the existence of a god. Justin framed the debate as essentially an argument for deism (indeed, he ended his opening statement with the statement “Frankly, I think atheists are in trouble arguing against the existence of God. The evidence supports at least deism.”). However, although deism is a truth claim about the workings of the universe, for me, it falls far short of being a religion.

All truth claims, when proven, change us slightly, but usually in a very narrow and mundane way. When I witness you having waffles for breakfast, I know a fact that I would not otherwise know, but I do not expect this new knowledge to have much of an impact on how I live my life. I am interested in the ongoing debate about string theory, but I will not change the way I live my life based on how the argument is resolved. I would no more expect to change the way I live if it turns out that m-brane theory is correct than I would if Justin’s argument is.

Do I believe that there are physical phenomena in the universe that I do not perfectly understand? Of course. Do I believe there are elements of our universe’s beginnings that remain unknown by scientists? Yes. I even believe it is possible for there to be things that we will never be capable of knowing. As time goes by, more and more of the universe will slip behind the cosmic light horizon and pass beyond our view forever.

All this admitted, however, I have no desire to paper over the gaps in my knowledge and my ability to know by affixing the label ‘God’ wherever I see a crack in my epistemology. Using God as mere caulking for the frailties of human knowledge seems to be treating a deity in an awfully cavalier manner.

Part of our disagreement may stem from a difference of definitions. Usually the disagreement between atheists and theists is framed as a problem of differing standards of evidence, but I think my disagreement with Justin is more a question of different conceptions of god.

As presented, Justin’s Prime Mover God requires nothing of me. Even if I were convinced, it is far from easy to imagine any way in which I ought to change my life if I accepted his proof. To see evidence of a God, not just a yet to be named and understood physical phenomenon, I’d need to see evidence of its concern and love for people. Our relationship with our parents is not born out of a firm belief in their physical existence, but out of a belief in their love for us. So too must it be with God. I cannot believe in or worship a generic god any more than I could love a generic, distant, and unknown parent.

To prove the existence of such a god, Justin (or anyone else) would have to show me more about the properties and behaviors of such an entity. Does this proposed god offer me salvation in exchange for baptism and praise, in the manner of the Christian god or is this Universal Winding Spring more capricious and petty, requiring simply deference and animal sacrifices from me, in the manner of the Greek pantheon?

Some forms of god can be ruled out definitively simply from the current state of the world. Odin, Quetzalcoatl, and other outmoded gods can now safely be declared to either be nonexistent or impotent or entirely indifferent to worship, since they haven’t seen fit to maintain their religions. If a god merits universal worship and recognition and is also said to be perfectly just, I expect that god to have given humanity sufficient clues to find him, particularly if hellfire is waiting for the misguided.

The existence of atheists, the existence of a wildly diverse (and wildly opposed) set of religions are all small pieces of evidence against any of these religions being true, just as the existence of professional magicians undermines the credibility of fortunetellers and psychics.

Any proposed religion must now not only present a case for why their god is the true god, they must prove it according to a standard of evidence that validates their own claims while effectively negating all the claims of rival sects. I have never seen a religion do this. (Unitarians, spiritualists, etc are an obvious exception to this rule, and, accordingly, the claims they make are much smaller and more diffuse).

Absent evidence or arguments of that sort, I will remain as I am: an atheist.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05377685250633624137 Tristyn Bloom

    Justin is certainly smarter than I am, but I do think that any existence of God debate that abstracts God away from Christianity is doomed to failure. I'm not sure why one would even really want to. I've bombarded you with excerpts from David Bentley Hart in the past, so I'll refrain from doing so now, but srsly, read the Beauty of the Infinite.Okay, I can't help myself:“Beauty, when not made subject to a symbolic economy, calls attention to those details of surface, those nuances and recalcitrant peculiarities, that distinguish one story from another, one narrative moment from another, and so discourages idle chatter concerning the 'nature' of religious language or religious truth. If indeed Christianity embraces 'the aesthetic principle par excellence, then abstraction is the thing most contrary and deadening to the truth it offers. This provides perhaps the best definition of metaphysics, in the opprobrious sense of the word: an inexorable volition toward the abstract. 'Metaphysics,' so conceived, has no real name for beauty, and can account for it, if at all, only in terms of a formless ideality that is, aesthetically speaking, the only true deformity: the privation of form.”

  • Anonymous

    First of all, I hope it's not too much of an intrusion for me to be commenting on this blog, since I do not really know the people on it. But I would like to say a few things that might address some of Leah's arguments against deism as an impersonal sort of God, and therefore, not worthy of the status of God. I tend to like some of the arguments from a physical and cosmological point of view, such as some of those that Justin mentioned (one question that I have long wondered about is "why is there something rather than nothing?"). Leah made some valid points about how this is still insufficient evidence for the existence of a deity, at least one that deserves the title God and the deference due to it. However, I think part of the problem is that we need to consider not purely rigorous logic, but also more intuitive, emotional impulses, since logic merely helps us go from one level of understanding to another, but does not provide a place from which to start. I think therefore I am. Can anything be more certain and more intuitive than that? It's hard to say, and unfortunately even the statement "I think therefore I am" contains an element of logical reasoning. But I think the idea of awareness is something to take note of. Maybe awareness could just be an accident, as could be the existence of the universe, but it suggests something more than just meaningless scientific phenomena. I also wonder why we appreciate beauty and have awe at such things as a dark night sky. What does this mean? Why do we feel an urge to learn, to explore? Knowing that scientific theories tend to predict that the universe will eventually come to an end, through heat death and whatnot (the second law of thermodynamics is all about decay and disorder), it seems to me like evidence of some kind of cosmic meaning or purpose that we have these feelings of awareness, of awe and wonder, and the urge to reach and learn. Beyond that, I don't claim to have specific ideas about what exactly a "God" is, or what this "purpose" of ours is, but if you are looking for a kind of connection or set of expectations between us and a deistic God, I think those feelings are worth taking into consideration. -Philip Engelke

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    Ignoring some of the basic mistakes in Justin's arguments, there is nothing in what he says that makes deism more likely than polytheism.Why do we pander to these people's ideas? We give them credibility where they deserve scorn. Christian? Tell me which brand, Mormon, Catholic, Protestant? Have your internal battle then come debate me. Before you do, prove why Muslims, Hindus and Jews are all wrong.But no, they come with some loosely defined idea of deism. BTW. You should pick him up on one of the central issues of Kalam, it requires a mind. Where on earth did they pick that idiotic idea up from? Enough ranting.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05377685250633624137 Tristyn Bloom

    I do think Justin is starting with deism as a sort of… charity to Leah. That's how most Christians tend to think when approaching atheists- start with the divine, then move slowly toward Christ (which, as I said earlier, I think is wrong-headed).If you'd asked him specifically to prove the Christian God I'm sure his arguments would have been more satisfying, though it seems like sort of a dodge to pull out the "but what about Islam?!!!" card at this stage in the debate.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    Even if you did prove atheism was wrong (quite a feat) it is still an awful long way to go to get to any brand of theism.It's quite a leap to go from "Something created this massive universe" to "Something created this massive universe just to test me and see if I am fit to spend eternity with that something."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    @TristynYeah, I wish I'd pushed to alter the terms of the debate. I'll wait to see his rebuttal, and maybe we'll extend the debate with one more back and forth if we've both got more to say.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16072356181773206484 Justin

    Hi Leah,My rebuttal is online.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    Great! You've always got such fast turnarounds. I'll give my closing on Thursday, probably.

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