Response To an Angry Christian (2 of 2)

Response To an Angry Christian (2 of 2) February 20, 2013

Let’s put on our asbestos suits again and finish with Mark Shea’s article “Padding the Case for the New Atheism.” Part 1 of my response is here.

Mark claims that reasonable arguments for atheism boil down to the Problem of Evil and “Natural Explanations are Sufficient.” About these, he concludes,

[These] are all she wrote as far as good atheist arguments. … [They are] the only two really reasonable objections to God’s existence there ever have been or ever will be.

And why is this? Mark won’t tell us. I guess it’s obvious or something. As for additional arguments, he dismisses them out of hand as “fallacies.” But he deigns to gives his critique of three more, so let’s make the most of this opportunity.

Argument from Intellectual Maturity

In Aquinas-esque form, he gives the argument as follows:

It seems that God does not exist, because children, fools, and other simpletons believe He does. Therefore, God is a delusion concocted by mental and emotional juveniles.

I’ve never made this argument, nor have I heard anyone who has.

Next, he concludes that in God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens “reveals his own atheist convictions to be entirely faith-based.” (I remember some actual arguments in Hitchens’ book, but perhaps we’re referring to different books.)

Argumentum Contra Suckers

Mark gives the next fallacious atheist argument.

It seems that God does not exist, for shepherd children, peasants, polyester-clad tourists from Jersey, and other people I regard as suckers say they see miracles. But any God worthy of the name would submit to my demand for experimental proof, not manifest Himself to such tacky people. God does not submit to my demands, therefore God does not exist.

Or, we could just drop the snarkiness and address head-on the Problem of Divine Hiddenness: if God exists and wants us to know him, why is he so hidden? Why the need for faith? Why not just come out and show us?

Yes, Mark’s lampoon of this argument is fallacious, but, unless Mark’s goal is simply to write a humor piece, this problem actually exists and deserves serious discussion. We see this problem in Mother Teresa’s agony from unanswered prayer and the plaintive beginning of Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

Mark isn’t interested in acknowledging that this is a real problem for honest Christians. Instead, he brings up the miracles of Jesus. First, he notes that Jesus said,

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah (Mt 12:39).

And then he notes the contradiction. Jesus says that he does healing miracles

so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins (Matt. 9:6).

Mark wonders what we conclude from this. How about that the Bible is contradictory? Or that this suggests different authors or copyists modified a consistent original? Or that competing stories from the decades of oral tradition were too precious to harmonize away, so they were all included when Matthew was finally written?

Wrong—Mark tells us that this is too obvious a problem to have been an accident, and we must presuppose that it all makes sense and give it a deeper reading.

Mark picks another atheist to bash when he finds a columnist who was unimpressed by the 2006 story of a nun who claimed that her Parkinson’s disease was healed after the heavenly intervention of Pope John Paul II. The columnist dismissed the claims out of hand, and perhaps with good reason. A diagnosis of Parkinson’s can only be confirmed by an autopsy, and it’s possible that her illness was something else. She was reported to have had a relapse. Perhaps the columnist’s certainty was misplaced, but it was certainly a good bet.

You don’t like this miracle? Mark lists others: the stigmata of Pio of Pietrelcina, the miracle healings of Lourdes, the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima. One can be sure that he’s got plenty more, and that’s the problem. You poke holes in one claim, and he’ll just throw another one at you.

Let me propose another approach: Mark, you take the burden of proof. Don’t complain about skepticism; skepticism is appropriate in response to a miracle claim. Show us a miracle that has passed scientific scrutiny—something that, if true, would overturn some substantial part of our scientific understanding of nature. Until we have that independent confirmation, I won’t accept any as true. Nor is it my job to do the investigation.

Did you ever wonder why the miracles accepted by the church are not accepted by science? What does this tell us?

One problem with Christians citing miracles is that they have nothing on the line. If you poke holes in one claim, they’ll just bring up another from their Mary Poppins carpet bag of miracles. What I’d like to see is some commitment. I’d like a Christian to say, “This miracle claim is for real. No natural explanation explains it or could explain it. I’m so certain that I rest my faith on it. Show me scientific consensus that I’m wrong, and I drop my faith.”

We never see this. Maybe claims of evidence are only for atheists’ benefit.

Argument from Chronological Snobbery

It seems God does not exist, because if he did exist he would meet my demand for proof by giving a biblical author knowledge — such as the soil composition of Mars or the design of a microchip — impossibly ahead of the Bronze Age. He has not done this, therefore God does not exist.

Wow—is this guy blind to the arguments that are actually leveled against Christianity? Or maybe it’s a genre mistake, and I’m misunderstanding a humor article.

Yes, it would be compelling evidence if the Bible contained scientific knowledge unknown to people of the Ancient Near East. No, that this isn’t the case doesn’t prove that God doesn’t exist.

He talks about Catholics’ belief in progressive revelation. This is simply vaccine against a plain reading of the Bible, which documents the evolution of the unchanging Creator of the universe.

He asks whether atheists would like to have seen the rejected theories of bodily humors, leeches, or luminiferous aether in the Bible. No, atheists would like to see something scientific found in the Bible before it was discovered by science. Anything.

What we see instead are the superstitions and pre-scientific musings of an early Iron Age people—a global flood (Gen. 6–8), a geocentric universe (Ecc. 1:5), a belief that what animals see while mating affects their young (Gen. 30:37–9), and so on. Sure, that doesn’t prove that God didn’t want to hide his majesty behind superstitions of the time, but it makes the Bible look like just another ancient book of mythology.

Mark concludes:

There are two sorts of questioners, roughly speaking: those who ask to find things out and those who ask to keep from finding things out.

Atheists are apparently in the latter camp, but Mark is in neither. He’s got it figured out.

Mark has given us two reasonable (but wrong) arguments for atheism and assured us that the rest are all fallacious.

Really? Atheism has nothing else to offer to the conversation? Not that polytheism in the Old Testament shows early Judaism to be just another Canaanite religion? Not that God’s own prohibitions against other religions show it to be cut from the same cloth and just as fictitious? Not that many Christians have insulated their religion from critique, turning it from an evidenced-based viewpoint to just a belief? Not that God’s support of slavery shows the Bible to be nothing more than the history of a not-particularly-enlightened tribe? Not that the Bible shows Yahweh to be vulnerable?

These are a few posts from my blog from just the last month. I’m sure there are lots more.

In this article, I find Mark’s arguments unconvincing and his style obnoxious. He has scolded me in the past for being offensive myself. I’d reach more Christians with a more likeable approach, he says.

He’s right, and that’s bitter medicine that’s actually on target. I think he might want to take a dose himself.

Happiness is the only good.
The time to be happy is now.
The place to be happy is here.
The way to be happy is to make others so.
— Robert Green Ingersoll

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