Debate with an Atheist on Evidences & Belief

Debate with an Atheist on Evidences & Belief January 28, 2016


Image by “ArtsyBee” [public domain / Pixabay]

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Atheist J. Gravelle responded to my post, Bible on Participation in Our Own Salvation, and we had the following intellectually stimulating exchange (his words in blue):

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So my choices would appear to be: an eternity of fire and brimstone, or an eternity spent listening to the likes of our friend Mr. Armstrong tell me “I told you so”.

It doesn’t appear so much then that I can choose a path toward salvation, but rather that I’m left to decide on which afterlife might be the lesser of two Hells…

That’s the oddest description of the glories of heaven that I’ve ever heard.

If that is all you can imagine it to be, surely the devil has you in his grips as a blissful fool, thinking (perhaps, like many others) that hell is a great big party with all the decadent, hedonistic rock stars, etc., while heaven is the very epitome of boredom, where we all sit on clouds for eternity, playing harps, and become less and less happy as eternity relentlessly and pitifully grinds on.

I’m not sure if you’re trying to downplay the carrot or sell me on the stick but, either way, very persuasive pitch for the Hades timeshare. I’m sold…

May our Lord Jesus open your eyes and enable you to realize that there is so much more to this life and the next than you can presently imagine.

I appreciate the sentiment, my friend. Sincerely.

My understanding is that if any two believers pray for something, it shall be done. I’ve asked far more than two of my devout brethren to pray to be given the argument that will (not “can”, nor “may”, but “will”) convince me to embrace their faith.

Waiting patiently…

Then there is always hope! But Christian belief comes by God’s grace. If you accept a particular argument, it’ll be because God gave you the grace to be open to it and accept it.

I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but if I’m required to believe before I believe, then I’m stuck.

The best I could do is pretend to believe. But I think I owe it to myself, you, and anybody else I interact with not to be that mendacious…

I said no such thing. Almost all Christians (and certainly the Catholic Church) believe that any good thing we do (including faith in Jesus and anything to do with justification or salvation) is because of God giving us grace prior to doing so. I’m simply describing the nature of Christianity.

There is no necessity that this grace precludes or forbids reasoning in the process. It’s not “either/or” or mutually exclusive at all. For someone like you, in all likelihood reasoning would play a key role.

I was just making the important point that reason itself is never all-important or self-sufficient in decisions to be a Christian or a Christian disciple.

Paul writes at length about the relation of reason to faith in 1 Corinthians. For example:

1 Corinthians 2:14 (RSV) The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

This is why (we believe) atheists make fun of Christianity: because they cannot understand it.

It is not for lack of trying, my friend…

1 Corinthians 1:18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Thus, you wrote yesterday [in another thread altogether], in complete conformity with what Paul says, that Christians were “. . . the ones with an entire faith built around the supernatural zombie uprising of their magic carpenter.”

I was a lot like you are, back during my “practical atheism” days in the early 70s. I wrote in my published conversion story:

I prided myself on my “moderation” with regard to religious matters. Like most nominal Christians and outright unbelievers, I reacted to any display of earnest and devout Christianity with a mixture of fear, amusement, and condescension, thinking that such behavior was “improper”, fanatical, and outside of mainstream American culture.

Like you, I made fun of serious Christians, and had no intention whatever of joining them. But God had other plans. I felt totally self-sufficient, with no need of God to help me go through life; that is, till I experienced a terrifying deep depression for six months. I wrote about it:

[I]n retrospect it is clear that God was bringing home to me the ultimate meaninglessness of my life – – a vacuous and futile individualistic quest for happiness without purpose or relationship with God. I was brought, staggering, to the end of myself.

I have always thought (since that time) that atheism — thoroughly and with relentless honesty, thought through, in all its ethical and metaphysical implications –, must lead one to despair at the ultimate meaningless and futility of a universe without God.

Reaching that despair, one is then more open, as I was, to receiving the truths of Christianity and being willing to follow Jesus as His disciple. We think we can do it all on our own, but we can’t. We may be able to for a time, but it’ll all come crashing down in due course.

I neither deny the sincerity of your search, nor assert that you are “stupid.”

I think it comes down to not being “able to understand [spiritual things] because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14).

Also, it has to do with acceptance of false premises and building entire worldviews on top of them, and (I would say), a sot of hyper-rationalism that places reason [or one brand of it: empiricism] as the center of all things (as if nothing else can determine truth or reality), which is itself an axiomatic position that cannot be “proven.”

That’s how I view atheism: bad reasoning, based on several false premises; rather than primarily a moral problem (though in some cases it could very well be that as well).

So no doubt you will say that you have tried very hard and God won’t reveal Himself to you. It may be that you have to believe without proof (i.e., as you presently define same).

A capacity I lack. One of Pascal’s “so made”, I suppose.

I’ve waited more than a half century for my own Damascus Road experience. No reason I can’t be patient for a few more decades…

This is what God requires of you. Such knowledge is interior / intuitive / experiential and comes from God’s grace.

You will know that you know that you know. I’ve experienced it. Many millions of others have. I know it seems ridiculous to you now, but I can only report what my own experience has been: which is in harmony with the Bible’s descriptions of it (Paul’s conversion, etc.) and classic stories like St. Augustine’s (Confessions).

If you have limited by your chosen epistemology, what constitutes proof, then it may be that you have “forbidden” it to occur, due to your self-imposed, arbitrary epistemological limitations.

This is the question. What is proof? And how can you be absolutely sure that your definition is the correct one?

I would say that you need to look at Jesus. What do you think of Him? Even if you think He is made up . . . is He the type of person Who is worthy to be followed and emulated?

I could “play Socrates” with this sort of thing all day long:

1. What do you expect such a Damascus Road experience to be?

2. Perhaps just like Paul’s? A blinding light, knocking you off your desk chair? But why would you expect it to be exactly the same experience? On what basis?

3. On what basis do you determine what is sufficient “proof” of God’s existence?

1 -3) God Himself.

That doesn’t answer my questions. It’s not specific enough: especially the third and fourth questions of my #2 and #3.

With due respect sir, yes it does. Again forgive the tautology, but God Himself would be evidentiary of God Himself, just as a dragon in my garage should be quite compelling evidence that there’s a dragon in my garage.

“God Himself” has appeared: Jesus. That was quite visible, physical, and tangible (and was part of history), including many miracles and a Resurrection and appearances after that, seen by upwards of 500 people.

But you reject Him. So when God does what you ask, you still reject it. You do because the problem is excessive skepticism and premises gone awry at some point.

4. Granting God’s existence for the sake of argument, why do you think He “owes” it to you to provide some sort of empirical proof to you?

I don’t.

You certainly do. It’s the presupposition behind all of your statements about lack of proof of God; insufficient evidence for you to believe. You clearly think he “owes” you some extraordinary manifestation and undeniable evidence; else you will simply refuse to believe in Him. And lacking that, you blame Him.

No sir, I do not. I don’t presuppose the proof lacking, I’ve found the proof offered lacking…

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Nor do I “owe” anything supernatural the benefit of the doubt for which we lack empirical evidence.

This is presupposing the necessity and exclusivity (?) of empirical evidence: which itself has to be established. I dealt with those considerations in my questions 5-7.

5. Why should proofs be restricted to empirical ones?

What else, especially near the magnitude of the god claim[s] do we accept without empirical evidence?

Stuff like falling in love, the fact that we exist and that our thoughts are our own (how do we know they are not delusional or that we are not in a dream?), hunches, intuitions, the very presuppositions of science and empiricism, which are not themselves empirical. We have to start there. We have to trust that our senses are trustworthy, and that the universe operates by orderly laws, that follow a pattern (uniformitarianism). The latter is not itself an empirical thing. It’s an abstract law that has to do with material objects.

6. Are you saying that empiricism is all there is, in terms of epistemological criteria for knowledge?

No, I’m saying until it’s shown we’re capable of transcending the temporal, that’s the arena we’re left working within.

You still assume it without proof, and it is impossible to do otherwise, by the very starting assumptions of empiricism, among other things. You already accept a number of things without evidence or proof, yet you refuse to extend the same “courtesy” or “epistemological likelihood” or plausibility to God.

7. Don’t you know that empiricism is a species of philosophy, that starts with non-empirical axioms?

I’d quibble with the grammar in that I’m not sure philosophy is prone to speciation. We’d need to drill down on a specific God claim to determine whether any non-empirical axioms were required.

This is a whole ‘nother discussion. I would recommend reading philosophers of science on this point. It’s not really a controversial one. Logical positivism itself is widely considered to have died in philosophical circles, some sixty years ago now. Michael Polanyi, one of my favorite thinkers, played a big role in knocking it off. Good riddance!

[ A slight time-out here: If I said I had a dragon in my garage, I think a fair reaction from you would be to raise an eyebrow and ask that I show it to you. If, instead of opening the garage door I launched into an epistemological tangent about “Well, how do we really know that we know what we know?” I don’t think it would, in any way, contribute to the merit of my dragon claim. ]

There is no serious history in the field of philosophy of defending the existence of dragons, whereas there is such for the existence of God, construed roughly in classic theistic and even monotheistic terms. This is always my answer to the stock atheist recourse to fairies, Santa Claus, unicorns, the Easter bunny, leprechauns, etc. It’s great fun, but it’s a silly pseudo-argument.

8. How can you be so sure that you are not repressing knowledge of God that is really there deep inside of you?

Were I doing consciously repressing, by definition I’d know, because I’d be conscious of it.

At first you would, but as time goes on, we can easily forget. Many people have had experience of this, in cases of, e.g., severe traumas. Oftentimes we bury them so as to avoid any further pain.

Conversely, you would certainly know if you were fabricating knowledge of a god that wasn’t there. We’ve come this far without calling one another liars, I’ve no intent to start now.

It’s not a matter of lying, but of repressed knowledge. Once it goes into the unconscious or sub-conscious realm, the person is far less blameworthy.

It’s a relevant factor to consider.

9. How can you be so sure that what Paul states in Romans 1 is not correct:

Romans 1:19-20 (RSV) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
[20] Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse;

I bear no burden to prove anything in the Bible wrong. The onus is on those who assert it is correct.

But challenging you in terms of not knowing for sure that it is untrue is a valid point.

Etc., etc. There are a host of such questions that could be asked. As soon as you ask more of your questions, more questions of this socratic sort are immediately produced.

If you think inquiring and inquisitive minds and intellectual curiosity are confined to atheists, you are wrong. :-)

I assure you, my friend, I do not…


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[ Firstly, I’d use “evidence” vs. “proof”, the latter being reserved for mathematicians and bartenders. ]

I wouldn’t know how to go about “following” the dead, either hypothetical OR historical. Emulated? Perhaps, only insofar as helping somebody who needs assistance, sure. My own self-interests though (in wanting to live in a world where people help one another) get me that far, sans any prerequisite emulation or deification.

But (at the severe risk of opening more cans of worms) you certainly won’t find me, say, traveling to Mauritania to tell the slaves there to obey their masters. Nor would I counsel anybody else to pluck out their own eyes, cut off their hands or, if we need a less gruesome example, smite any fig trees…

You’re not aware that the hand and eyes thing are examples of hyperbole: very common in ancient Hebrew culture?

And that the fig tree incident had a symbolic meaning, just as Jesus’ parables always did?

All this shows is that you lack the proper understanding of these things, so that, in rejecting them, you reject straw men, not the thing as it actually is or should be understood.

That’s what comes from studying theology and ancient Near Eastern culture, so as to better understand the teachings of Jesus and the Bible in general.

And I have to say (nothing personal) that such basic misunderstanding is extremely common among atheists. I’ve seen it firsthand scores and scores of times.

So on the one hand, you say that you have read all kinds of apologetics (in the link you gave), whereas you don’t even comprehend aspects like this which are quite elementary for any student of theology.

It comes down to lack of knowledge, at least with regard to your last comment.

As for slavery, that is a very involved discussion, as regards the Bible (and I have written about it). Briefly, biblical slavery was more akin to servanthood than it was to what we saw in the South, 1800-1865. In other words, it was not an intrinsically evil thing.

Paul commands masters to treat slaves kindly:

Ephesians 6:5-9 Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; [6] not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, [7] rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, [8] knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. [9] Masters, do the same to them, and forbear threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.

I am [aware of biblical hyperbole]. You’re not aware that (to answer your original question) I wouldn’t engage in that sort of hyperbole out of fear the devout would take it literally: …especially if I were omniscient and knew that would be the outcome.

Extremely few people have taken Jesus’ hyperbole literally. I suppose one could argue that if one in a billion takes hyperbole literally, that we shouldn’t use it.

Your linked example is rather ridiculous, given these purported / likely facts about the person who plucked out his eye: “Thomas is accused in the March 26 stabbing deaths of his 4-year-old son, his 20-year-old estranged wife and her 1-year-old daughter. All the victims’ hearts were cut out; . . .”

He is clearly a nut and a madman (thus it is ludicrous to call him “devout”). Anyone can interpret the Bible ignorantly, or abuse it.

Personally, I don’t think stupidity can be blamed on someone who said something that a tiny number will misunderstand.

Atheists will always try to blame God for hell, for example, but its existence is necessary given free will. God respected mankind enough to give us free will; then He gets blamed because a good number of us make wrong choices and end up in hell. I’d much rather have free will and hell as a possibility than to be robots with no free will and choice.

With free will comes the possibility of evil and also stupidity. I don’t see that it makes any sense to blame that on God.

By analogy, it would be like telling a married couple: “don’t have any children, because one of them might turn to to be a bad person.” So, say, one of the children of this couple grows up to be a murderer. The cynic / critic who thinks like an atheist could (would?) then say: “well, hey, I told you not to have any children! If you had listened to me, then that person would still be alive! It’s your fault for creating and bearing that child in the first place!”

You want to blame the creator / procreator, whereas I put the blame squarely on the person who freely chose to do the evil.

And none of your slavery apologetics come anywhere near the prohibition on owning other human beings as property which, no matter how pretty a bow you put on the practice of human trafficking, I could neither endorse, follow, or emulate…

Is it irrelevant to you also that when slavery was outlawed, almost invariably it was because of Christians like Wilberforce in England and the abolitionists in the US?

No sir. What’s relevant is you asked me to consider following a figure purported to have told slaves to obey rather than revolt.

I have made that consideration, and I don’t find it a sentiment worthy of reverence…

And today, of course, Christians are in the forefront of trying to eliminate the far greater evil that we are now burdened with: childkilling.

Is it relevant also that the Bible makes it very clear that a child in his or her mother’s womb ought to be nurtured rather than legally killed and/or tortured (with body parts possibly being sold, as with Planned Parenthood)?

If you feel compelled to blame Jesus and Christianity for slavery, you ought to at least give Him and us credit for being pro-life and opposing today’s greatest evil.

If you are so concerned about slaves being maltreated, then certainly you must oppose babies being murdered in cold blood. That’s a no-brainer . . .

…unless it’s the offspring of a pregnant Amalekite.

FWIW, I’m pro-life sans stick or carrot…

Great to hear that you are pro-life.

The Amalekites, like most such biblical instances, involves God’s judgment, which is a quite different thing from human beings acting on their own.

The Creator of all has the full prerogative to take away in judgment the lives that He has granted. If you’re interested enough to read an apologetics treatment of that vexed issue,  I have collected several links (see the section: “Divine Genocide”).

Fine. I am still incapable of revering any entity who’d suborn the slaughter of the unborn, newborn, infant, etc.

And I’ve read your apologetic, sir. While I often disagree with the content, I find your writing style easier to follow than most. Still, the nexus of that essay:

“God would be perfectly just to wipe us all out the next second. No one could hold it against Him.”

…I could not disagree with more, save for the technicality that nobody’d be around to object, I suppose…

Okay; so we are to believe that God can create out of nothing, human beings, but by some inexplicable law that you think governs His behavior, He cannot possibly judge and kill them, no matter how wicked they become.

That’s far more absurd than the notion of a judge pardoning a prisoner, but never having the power to punish him (up to and including execution) should he decide to become a murderer.

In effect, by your reasoning, you grant the first thing (the pardon), but refuse to admit the possibility or necessity of the second (further legal punishment).

It’s all the more absurd to deny that prerogative to a God Who created everything and is perfectly good and just. You simply say He cannot ever judge or punish because in so doing, He would immediately cease to be loving and just.

I think exactly the opposite. It is neither loving nor just to let evil people and cultures run rampant, destroying all that is good and corrupting others not yet corrupt.

It’s all in how one looks at it, ain’t it?

No sir. We are not believing in god[s] in the first place…

Nor that evil infants running rampant constitute a threat worthy of their murders…

Obviously you don’t [believe in God]. The idea here is that if God is Creator, then He has the prerogative to also judge. The Christian view on these matters is perfectly consistent.

But you think that if God exists He cannot judge, lest He be evil and hence, not God (since God oughtta be good, etc.).

The Christian simply says that “whatever God gives, He can also take away.” And that is what happened with the Amalekites, Sodom and Gomorrah, the ones judged in the Flood, etc.

“Judge” is troubling enough. “Jury” and “Executioner” is where things really get problematic. I’m a parent myself, but that’s no license for infanticide…

You can have the last word.

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And so goes Christian-atheist discussion as usual: round and round, and little seemingly accomplished (from either side’s perspective).

But I have enjoyed it and especially appreciate your friendliness and stimulating comments. Thanks for the great dialogue.

I appreciate your time as well, sir.

One doesn’t play tennis against a wall with the expectation of beating the bricks, but it still makes one a better player…


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