Debate: Argument from Non-Belief (ANB) (vs. Atheist)

Debate: Argument from Non-Belief (ANB) (vs. Atheist) March 13, 2019

From an atheist discussion list; uploaded with editorial permission from Steve Conifer, whose words will be in blue. The original exchange was extremely long, so I have abridged it for the sake of brevity, focus, and the patience of readers. Good philosophical discussions usually don’t have a neat and tidy ending, as complete concessions or admissions of defeat are rare. My goal is to let atheists speak for themselves (rather than be caricatured by opponents) and to demonstrate how a Christian apologist might reply to their arguments. The reader is left to judge each “case.”

* * * * *

You might take a stab at refuting [philosophy professor] Ted [Drange]’s Argument from Nonbelief [I have indeed replied to him separately], which runs thus:

ANB: To formulate ANB, I put first forward these two definitions:

Set P = the following three propositions:

(a) There exists a being who rules the entire universe.
(b) That being loves humanity.
(c) Humanity has been provided with an afterlife.

Situation S = the situation of all, or almost all, humans coming to believe all three propositions of set P by the time of their physical death.

Using the above definitions, ANB may be expressed as follows:

(A) If God were to exist, then he would possess all of the following four properties (among others):

(1) being able to bring about situation S, all things considered;
(2) wanting to bring about situation S, i.e., having it among his desires;
(3) not wanting anything else that conflicts with his desire to bring about situation S as strongly as it;
(4) being rational (which implies always acting in accord with his own highest purposes).

(B) If a being who has all four properties listed above were to exist, then situation S would have to obtain.
(C) But situation S does not obtain. It is not the case that all, or almost all, humans have come to believe all the propositions of set P by the time of their physical death.
(D) Therefore [from (B) & (C)], there does not exist a being who has all four properties listed in premise (A).
(E) Hence [from (A) & (D)], God does not exist.

. . . I’ve no doubt your rejoinder will be a careful one . . .

I look forward to it.

Here is my reply to ANB:

P(a), P(b), P(c) are accepted as true within orthodox Christianity.

After that, there is a great deal less truth in the argument. :-)

ANB: (A) If God were to exist, then he would possess all of the following four properties (among others):

[Note: I’ll use “R” meaning “reply” to the existing numbers and letters]

RA (a general, preliminary observation): A is not so much a reasoned argument as much as it is (like Set P) an acceptance –for the sake of argument only — of traditional theistic concepts. Each of those have to be argued in turn. But I understand that (as I see it), ANB is an attempt to posit internal inconsistency in the Christian (or at least “theistic”) God. Thus, A1 represents omnipotence, A2 omnibenevolence, A3 a combination of omnipotence and omnibenevolence (and thus, A1 + A2), while A4 is a subset of omniscience and/or Providence. I shall now deal with each in turn:

A1: being able to bring about situation S, all things considered;

RA1: An omnipotent being can do whatever is possible to do, given logic and the law of noncontradiction, and the state of the creation as He Himself created it. It does not mean “able to do absolutely anything, whether it goes against logic or not.” Thus, even God cannot make the sun and the earth occupy the same place at the same time (not to mention physical laws which presumably would cause the earth to burn up before it ever touched the sun at all). He can’t make 2+2=5 or make a circle a square or make a galaxy travel simultaneously in two opposite directions, etc. He can’t make Himself not exist, either.

One thing, then, that such a being cannot do, is bring about His desired outcome for His creatures in every case, given the fact that He created them free beings, with the power of choosing contrary to His perfect will, and contrary to what is best for the creatures themselves. Put another way, God can only save everyone and cause them to all end up in heaven with Him eternally by creating robots who always do His will, just as a computer always does the programmer’s will, or objects always follow the law of gravity or the laws of thermodynamics.

God thought it was best to create free creatures who could therefore freely and willfully love Him (and each other) or reject God (and each other). To possess such free choice and free will is what it means to be “made in God’s image.” It makes us more like God, because we can freely, rationally choose, as He does. And this possibility in turn also opens up the possibility of rebellion against God, and evil, and hence separation from God spiritually and ultimately in every sense (the Christian doctrine of hell).

So the short answer is that A1 is false because even an omnipotent God cannot make free creatures inevitably choose His perfect will. By choosing to create men free, certain things were logically ruled out: universalism or near-universalism was one of these. But that is man’s fault, not God’s. Thus, ANB (for the Christian) inevitably reduces to merely a variant of the rejoinders to the Free Will Defense (FWD).

A2: wanting to bring about situation S, i.e., having it among his desires;

RA2: God does desire this; this is uncontroversial.

A3: not wanting anything else that conflicts with his desire to bring about situation S as strongly as it;

RA3: that is rendered logically impossible even for an omnipotent and omnibenevolent Being, because of free will (RA1). I should clarify that I am assuming that A3 is (ultimately) referring to omnipotence, and not merely desire as in A2 (which God does have): God cannot make such a state of affairs inevitably or necessarily happen, in His omnipotence, because that would overrule or supersede human free will, which is also His desire.

A4: being rational (which implies always acting in accord with his own highest purposes).

RA4: Uncontroversial; but again, the considerations of free will (RA1) must be taken into account.

(B) If a being who has all four properties listed above were to exist, then situation S would have to obtain.

RB: this doesn’t follow, due to the nature of free creatures in relation to even an all-powerful God.

(C) But situation S does not obtain. It is not the case that all, or almost all, humans have come to believe all the propositions of set P by the time of their physical death.

RC: Correct, but not due to any deficiency in God’s nature, as explained.

(D) Therefore [from (B) & (C)], there does not exist a being who has all four properties listed in premise (A).

RD: That is untrue because of the false and axiomatic premises smuggled into Situation S and A1, upon which the false conclusion is reached. It’s an argument/house built on a foundation of sand, and simply begs the question at a crucial starting-point. It presupposes determinism and the absence of human free will. The Christian view always denies determinism, so ANB fails utterly if construed as merely a claim of internal inconsistency in Christianity. If conceived in some larger rhetorical sense, it would then need to prove its assumed premises, which in turn reduces ANB (as described above, at any rate) to a discussion of free will vs. determinism, rather than the supposed non-existence of God based on arguments deriving from that unproven, unsubstantiated premise.

(E) Hence [from (A) & (D)], God does not exist.

RE: Untrue because of RD.

Thanks, Dave, for your enlightened and thoughtful reply.

You’re welcome; anytime.

It seems you advocate the Free-will Defense (FWD), whereby (A3) is false because there is something God wants more than worldwide belief, namely, the preservation of man’s autonomy.

It doesn’t follow that He wants it “more.” He wants both (as far as that goes), but both cannot (or often, or potentially cannot) exist together, and even an omnipotent being cannot make it so, if He creates and allows free will in human beings.

I’m going to attempt to summarize your objection in premise-conclusion form, then raise some objections thereto. (I will, however, respond briefly to a few of your major points, i.e., those which bear directly on FWD or which I can answer in a couple of sentences.) If for whatever reason you find my formulation unsatisfactory, please let me know how I might improve it.

(1) If God were to in any way induce or help induce theistic belief in people, then he would thereby interfere with their free will.

This is untrue. It only holds if God compels belief, where people have no ability to make a contrary choice. This is obviously and self-evidently true, I think, so I wonder from whence comes this notion?

(2) But God is unwilling to interfere with people’s free will, as it is somehow valuable or important to him that people do and believe things freely (rather than on account of coercion).

To paraphrase Einstein very roughly: “God doesn’t make robots.”

(3) Thus, while God is perhaps motivated to induce or help induce theistic belief in people (since he wants everyone to be a theist), his desire that man be autonomous outweighs that (former) inclination.

Only insofar as compulsion and elimination of free will is concerned. So you are having trouble even summarizing my position. That doesn’t bode well for what I may discover below, but maybe it’ll get better.

(4) Hence, premise (A3) of ANB is false, which makes that argument unsound.

With the important qualifications I added above, yes.

Here are my replies (note that I’ll sometimes use “nontheist” and “non-Christian” interchangeably, since we’re here discussing the God of Christianity):

Sure, no problem.


(i) Missionaries sometimes employ persuasive speech and/or demonstrations in order to convince non-Christians of the truth of Christianity. (The events of the Great Commission would be a paradigm example of such tactics.) Moreover, God himself has sometimes made use of spectacular miracles in order to show people the truth about himself (think Gideon, Samson’s parents, Damascus, Mount Carmel, etc.), and even endowed the Apostles with miraculous healing
powers to the same end.

(ii) As a result, many former non-Christians have come to embrace Christianity.
(iii) Yet, at no point in the process was their free will interfered with.
(iv) Thus, it is possible to induce or help induce beliefs in people without thereby impinging on their freedom of volition.
(v) It follows that premise (1), above, is false.

It follows that you have somehow vastly misunderstood my argument, because I agree with this, and always did, and I have already dealt with this same objection with someone else, too.


(i) Countless non-Christians would like to be made aware of the truth of Christianity, if indeed Christianity is true.
(ii) If A wants to know that P, then to make A aware of (the truth of) P would be to perform an action which is compatible with A’s desires.
(iii) To perform an action which is compatible with A’s desires is to comply with A’s freedom of choice.
(iv) Hence, if A wants to know that P, then to make A aware of (the truth of) P would be to perform an action which is compatible with A’s freedom of choice.
(v) Ergo, premise (1), above, is false.

I agree again. Hopefully, you will eventually critique an actual view of mine . . .


[ . . . — on whether voluntary choice to believe things exists]

I completely disagree with this, but don’t wish to get bogged down in a discussion of free will, free choice, determinism, voluntary or involuntary espousal of beliefs, etc. I find the subject intensely boring, and of little practical import or value. I’m afraid that if someone wants to do this discussion with me, they’ll have to assume for the sake of argument that people make, and are able to make, free choices.

Besides, since ANB (if I understand it correctly) is an attempted establishment of the internal inconsistency of Christian tenets, following from Christian premises (hence, several of Ted’s “corroborating evidences” from the Bible which he doesn’t himself accept as a valid source of information), it must also assume free will for the sake of argument, rather than simultaneously try to make an argument against free will and free choice (which is a completely different discussion, and one I’m not at all interested in). One thing at a time . . .


(i) God has sometimes made use of spectacular miracles in order to show people the truth about himself (think Gideon, Samson’s parents, Damascus, Mount Carmel, etc.), and even endowed the Apostles with miraculous healing powers to the same end. Furthermore, he once meddled in mortals’ business on a regular basis, wreaking all manner of doom and disaster on the species by way of plagues, tests, mass killings, and so on. Plus, there is reason to suppose he may have predestined a significant portion of human behavior.
(ii) Clearly, then, God isn’t too worried about encroaching upon man’s freedom.
(iii) Therefore, there is reason to doubt premise (1), above.

My argument does not entail God not interfering with human free will at all, or not being sovereign or not possessing what Christians call “Providence.” Don’t read things into it that I didn’t assert. All I was saying was that God could not compel ALL men to be saved or to believe in Him and simultaneously preserve human free will. If men are truly free, there has to exist the possibility of contrary choice, and choosing themselves over against God. Therefore, the possibility opens up for some to be damned and separated from God, and for disbelief. But the greater good is allowing free choice to follow God. That outweighs the bad result of those who choose not to do so. Therefore, God allowed the overall state of affairs to exist.

None of this suggests in the slightest that God does not exist. It suggests that free will and potential human autonomy from God exists, by God’s choice, as a better state of affairs than making all men robots who must necessarily, inevitably follow God, just as a stream always follows a downhill slope, based on the law of gravity. Now you try to escape that fairly evident conclusion by simply denying that contrary choice exists. But, as I said, that is a separate argument (and one I find extremely boring), and we have enough on our plate as it is.

Prominent Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga tackles the underlying assumptions of the “atheological” problem of evil, which lie behind objections to the free will defense (FWD), in his book, God, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Harper & Row, 1974):

(21) If God is omniscient and omnipotent, then he can properly eliminate every evil state of affairs.

. . . Is this proposition necessarily true? No. To see this let us ask the following question. Under what conditions would an omnipotent being be unable to eliminate a certain evil E without eliminating an outweighing good? Well, suppose that E is included in some good state of affairs that outweighs it. That is, suppose there is some good state of affairs G so related to E that it is impossible that G obtain or be actual and E fail to obtain . . . Now suppose that some good state of affairs G includes an evil state of affairs E that it outweighs. Then not even an omnipotent being could eliminate E without eliminating G. But are there any cases where a good state of affairs includes, in this sense, an evil that it outweighs? Indeed there are such states of affairs.

To take an artificial example, let’s suppose that E is Paul’s suffering from a minor abrasion and G is your being deliriously happy . . . it is better, all else being equal, that you be intensely happy and Paul suffer a mildly annoying abrasion than that this state of affairs not obtain. So G and E is a good state of affairs . . .

. . . Certain kinds of values, certain familiar kinds of good states of affairs, can’t exist apart from evil of some sort. For example, there are people who display a sort of creative moral heroism in the face of suffering and adversity — a heroism that inspires others and creates a good situation out of a bad one. In a situation like this the evil, of course, remains evil, but the total state of affairs — someone’s bearing pain magnificently, for example — may be good . . . It is a necessary truth that if someone bears pain magnificently, then someone is in pain.

The conclusion to be drawn, therefore, is that (21) is not necessarily true . . . it is no easy matter to find necessarily true propositions that yield a formally contradictory set when added to set A

[Set A is:

(1) God is omnipotent
(2) God is whooly good
(3) Evil exists

— from page 13]

One wonders, therefore, why the many atheologians who confidently assert that this set is contradictory make no attempt whatever to show that it is. For the most part they are content just to assert that there is a contradiction here. Even Mackie, who sees that some ‘additional premises’ or ‘quasi-logical rules’ are needed, makes scarcely a beginning towards finding some additional premises that are necessarily true and that together with the members of set A formally entail an explicit contradiction. (pp. 22-24)


(i) Salvation is so crucial to God (and his redemptive plan for humanity) that nothing could possibly outweigh it: so far as God is concerned, to attain salvation is man’s most basic function.
(ii) Belief in God is invariably or generally required for admittance to heaven.
(iii) Thus, that people believe in him is surely God’s greatest concern vis-a-vis humanity.
(iv) Hence, God is surely willing to impinge on people’s free will as a means of bringing them to theistic belief, to salvation.
(v) Accordingly, premise (2), above, is false (inasmuch, anyway, as theistic belief is concerned).

St. Augustine answered this objection:

[S]ome people see with perfect truth that a creature is better if, while possessing free will, it remains always fixed upon God and never sins; then, reflecting on men’s sins, they are grieved, not because they continue to sin, but because they were created. They say: He should have made us such that we never willed to sin, but always to enjoy the unchangeable truth.

They should not lament or be angry. God has not compelled men to sin just because He created them and gave them the power to choose between sinning and not sinning. There are angels who have never sinned and never will sin.

Such is the generosity of God’s goodness that He has not refrained from creating even that creature which He foreknew would not only sin, but remain in the will to sin. As a runaway horse is better than a stone which does not run because it lacks self-movement and sense perception, so the creature is more excellent which sins by free will than that which does not sin only because it has no free will. (The Problem of Free Choice, Vol. 22 of Ancient Christian Writers,Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1955, bk. 2, pp. 14-15)

Plantinga writes: “In broadest terms Augustine claims that God could create a better, more perfect universe by permitting evil than He could by refusing to do so.” (Ibid., p. 27):

Neither the sins nor the misery are necessary to the perfection of the universe, but souls as such are necessary, which have the power to sin if they so will, and become miserable if they sin. If misery persisted after their sins had been abolished, or if there were misery before there were sins, then it might be right to say that the order and government of the universe were at fault. Again, if there were sins but no consequent misery, that order is equally dishonored by lack of equity. (Ibid., bk, 3, p. 9)

Plantinga continues:

A really top-notch universe requires the existence of free, rational, and moral agents; and some of the free creatures He created went wrong. But the universe with the free creatures it contains and the evil they commit is better than it would have been had it contained neither free creatures nor this evil. (Ibid., 27)

If by “reject God” you mean refuse to recognize God’s sovereignty or else refuse to follow God’s commands, then I am utterly baffled by your claim. I do not understand why one who knows that “[God] is exactly what Christians claim Him to be” might nonetheless choose to reject him, given that part of knowing what God is is knowing that God:

(a) both can and will damn undesirables to hell (a place of eternal torment);
(b) both can and will allow desirables into heaven (a place of eternal bliss);
(c) created the whole universe;
(d) raised his son Jesus from the dead; and
(e) is perfect, righteous, and holy in every way.

What kind of irrational lunatic could know all those things and yet nonetheless choose to “go his own way”?

I completely agree, which is why atheists like yourself invariably hold to false notions of what God is, or that He doesn’t exist at all, or (to put it more specifically) that God as Christians describe Him is non-existent. In other words, they either reject a being which, in fact, is a gross caricature of the Christian God, or they deny that the loving, holy, perfect God exists at all. They don’t (at least outwardly, in describing their views to others) say that God exists, and is wonderful, and proceed to reject Him, because they intuitively know that such an act would be utterly irrational and absurd; not even in their own self-interest (if that is how they go about deciding what truths to espouse). Hence (to speak Christianly for a moment) it is the devil’s job to get people to believe lies about God and what He is supposedly like, or to make people pretend that He doesn’t exist at all.

Even if God has provided humanity with a MOUNTAIN of evidence, he obviously hasn’t provided anywhere near enough to convince the whole world.

There are plenty of Christians and other theists, and other eastern religionists who believe in some concept of God. There are very few atheists, proportionately, in the world. To me that would suggest precisely the opposite of your conclusion. But the atheist easily overcomes that obvious truth by simply dismissing the 95% of the world’s population who are religious as ignoramuses and unsophisticated, gullible folks, etc. Occasionally, you will find an atheist who doesn’t take such a cynical view of non-atheist intelligence, but for the most part atheists assume that Christians are quite ignorant people, who have an aversion to rationality, where matters of faith are concerned. Don’t try to deny this, either.

(And where Christianity alone is concerned, he hasn’t provided enough to even sway the majority.)

There are more Christians than any other religion in the world, though Islam will soon overtake us because they still believe in having children (a novel and controversial concept these days). Your task as an atheist is to explain why so few people see the truth of atheism, if in fact it is the true state of affairs, and why so many believe in God. Don’t tell me: they are ignorant; they have wish-fulfillment fantasies, etc., etc. None of that tripe will wash.

Whatever the reason, wherever the fault lies, in view of the supreme importance of mankind’s salvation he surely ought to provide more.

I don’t agree at all. But the problem lies also in how one determines how much “more” is sufficient. If universalism is not required for ANB to succeed, then some people are not saved. At that point, the argument reduces to “how many people need to be saved or to know enough to get saved for us to concede or conclude that God can exist without being a weakling or unloving?” Is the magic number 90.00000000001%? Maybe 95.00000000000000001%? Or, how many have to disbelieve in order for us to conclude that God doesn’t exist? That’s an extremely difficult question, and entirely subjective. In my opinion, the argument has little or no force at all, precisely because of its extreme subjectivity and naivete as to human nature and the nature of belief and formation of belief-systems.

As Ted quipped in his debate with W.L. Craig (the Protestant evangelist who, like you, thinks God has already done plenty in the way of bringing about an “optimal balance of belief and unbelief”): “[Whether nontheists be stubborn or oblivious or just plain dull], God should say to himself, ‘Those dolts!’, and then provide more evidence, however much it takes to get them to believe; he shouldn’t be reluctant, he shouldn’t hold back.'” Why? Because he has nothing to gain by holding back, and everything to gain by giving in. Isn’t that so?

Obviously, we have a radically different perception of how much evidence is necessary to compel belief. That is where the dispute lies, not in God’s supposed shortcomings in making theism compelling or plausible.

God could give everyone free will, and then provide everyone with irrefutable evidence for his existence. That way, everyone could have free will and believe in God.

In fact, that is exactly what God did. You are just too skeptical to see it. The problem lies with you, and how you think, not with God, and how He has constructed you and the universe.

ANB would have little potency if 99.9% of the world’s population believed in God, or if the vast majority believed in GC.

Perhaps 80-90% of the world believe in a God or some sort of religion, but that’s not enough?

FWD is the idea that God refrains from inducing theistic belief in people (by any means) because to induce theistic belief in people (by any means) would impinge on their free will. You claimed to advocate FWD. I gather, then, that you mistakenly took it as the view that God refrains from implanting theistic belief in people because to do so would impinge on their free will. Is that correct?

God has to induce belief in some sense because all Christians believe that His grace is necessary for any belief or salvation whatever. What FWD argues is that God can’t make everyone get saved (universalism) or overcome their free choice (fatalism or determinism), insofar as they are free to reject Him.

It is the distinction between inducing and compelling. My dictionary defines the former as “lead on, persuade, bring about.” The latter is defined as, “to force or constrain.” FWD is talking about God’s choice to not compel belief in everyone. He persuades and induces by various means, but He doesn’t compel, because He chose to allow human beings to have free will. Alvin Plantinga defines FWD thusly:

A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does that, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good. (God, Freedom, and Evil, New York: Harper & Row, 1974, 30)

If so, then how would you respond to the idea that God could bring about worldwide belief in the gospel message simply by providing good, objective evidence therefor (e.g., sky-writing)? That wouldn’t interfere with anyone’s free will, would it?

No, but that has not occurred. Other things have, so the dispute is over whether they were sufficient to justify belief or not. The Christian (unless a pure fideist) will obviously say that they are, and the atheist will assert the contrary.

Again, if you admit that God’s performing spectacular miracles or otherwise providing clear evidence for his existence would be perfectly compatible with man’s freedom, then what is your explanation for why God fails to perform such miracles and provide such evidence?

I deny that He has failed to do so. He has only failed according to your opinion of what is sufficiently demonstrative and compelling. And the Christian holds that some people will not believe even though any amount of evidence is given, including (I would suspect) even the star-writing bit. He can’t force everyone to necessarily believe in Him and be saved, because that would overrule free will, as Plantinga explained in my citation above.

The free will defended in FWD makes the non-belief discussed in ANB possible and inevitable (i.e., it is an offered explanation for the non-belief, which implicates man, not God — Who is said to not exist because of this non-belief), and FWD explains how that is, and how even an omnipotent God could not create the world otherwise, without making people robots. Free will is relevant to ANB (Argument From Non-Belief), because it is related to belief and non-belief, and how people arrive at those states; how they are compelled or induced, etc. So it is highly-related. It attacks certain premises falsely assumed by ANB (which seems to presuppose determinism). Since you don’t acknowledge these hidden premises that we attack, you don’t see the relevance of FWD to ANB.

Would a man want a woman’s love for him to be forced, where she couldn’t choose otherwise? Or would he want her to freely choose to love him? This is what love is. God merely multiplies that one situation by all the people that have lived. They make the choice. If they choose to reject God rather than love and serve Him, that’s not His fault.

God judges everyone (atheist, Christian, three-toed, green-eyed Rastafarian moth-keeper) based on how much they know and how they have acted upon this knowledge. It’s all in Romans 2.

I’ve already supplied at least ONE example of theistic evidence which would be MORE than sufficient to bring about worldwide belief in God (or GC, depending on the nature of the evidence): sky-writing.

Why would that be more compelling than a dead man coming back to life and eating fish with you? Would you believe that if it happened to you?

I’m afraid that biological or psychological explanations of the given sort are precisely the most plausible ones. (As I sometimes tell people, “The best way to test the plausibility of any given proposition is to ask yourself how much you wish it were so. If you dread the very thought of it, then it’s probably true; and if it makes your heart soar with joy, then it’s almost certainly nonsense.” That’s something of an exaggeration, of course, but I do think it contains a kernel of truth.) It’s well known to psychologists that, when confronted with a variety of incompatible propositions none of which is clearly supported or contradicted by any data, most people are likely to assent to the one which they find most comforting or agreeable. That is why so many mothers are convinced that their kids don’t take drugs, and why so many wives are convinced that their husbands won’t die of heart attacks at some point in the next five years, and why virtually everyone is ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that “things will work out in the end.”

How is it “most comforting or agreeable” to convert to a religion which says, e.g., that sex before marriage is wrong? Why in the world would I want to do that at age 18 if I was seeking the “easy” route? How is it comforting to adopt a religion which includes a God Who knows everything, sees everything, can’t be fooled, judges everything you do on Judgment Day, Who tells us it is a sin to even lust after a woman internally (before you even touch her), etc.? It’s a hard road. G. K. Chesterton stated: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

On the other hand, it is quite easy (on this psychological, wish-fulfillment plane) to adopt atheism, because then you become your own God, are as free as a bird, and can do whatever you wish. You call all the shots. That’s extremely simple, appealing, and agreeable to human self-centeredness (almost intuitive in a certain sense; we feel ourselves to be the masters of our own destiny). So this works both ways. I don’t think either “psychological argument” is all that compelling, but if atheists insist on making this analysis of Christians, I can play that game and bounce it right back atcha.

It isn’t a subjective question how much evidence is necessary to bring about worldwide theistic belief. It is, rather, an objective (empirical) question. That the amount of evidence currently available to people is insufficient to bring about such belief follows logically from the fact that the vast majority of people lack belief in the God of Christianity (assuming they’re neither lying nor deluded, which you of course question).

It’s beyond silly to sit there and assert that the only reason, the sole factor, in non-belief, is God’s failure to provide enough evidence. There are a host of factors which cause people to believe or disbelieve in many things, including religion or atheism. The world is never this simple with regard to anything, let alone big questions in philosophy.

P1: God has not yet provided for his existence evidence sufficient to yield worldwide theistic belief.

P2: Were God to provide for his existence still greater evidence than he has (allegedly) already provided, many if not most nonbelievers would nevertheless retain their nonbelief.

I never stated P2. All I maintained was that many people are not convinced by any amount of evidence, and we know this from experience and their reaction to existing evidences and miracles (as the case may be). I don’t know how many people would be convinced by more evidence, and which sort of evidence would be better than other kinds for such a purpose. I can only extrapolate from the current situation and how skeptics think and act. I simply deny that evidence in and of itself is always compelling for everyone, or most people (in FACT, in the sense of persuading such skeptics), if only strong and remarkable enough.

I haven’t argued that most atheists (let alone none whatsoever) would refuse to convert upon further extraordinary miraculous evidence, but that the excessively skeptical persons would refuse, and that it is quite conceivable for someone to resist even the most “compelling” miracle.

There are a host of possible reasons for non-belief, none of which necessarily involve or implicate God (thus casting doubt on His omnipotence or omnibenevolence). Therefore, P1 is utterly simplistic and fallacious. It only works at all when determinism is assumed without argument, so its “force” only obtains if the circular reasoning is assumed. Personally (sorry!), I don’t think circular reasoning is all that compelling. ANB exhibits little understanding of the nature and complexity of belief, belief-systems and the multiplicity of causative factors involved therein. People are neither computers nor robots.

Worldwide belief doesn’t obtain because people irrationally reject the sufficient evidence, or reject it out of ignorance and misinformation as to the very evidence that exists, or because they don’t want it to be true because of the implications, or because they have seen lousy role models in people who do believe this stuff, or because their brains have been stuffed with opposing propositions (Islam, atheism, New Age, Hinduism, hedonism, libertarianism, Elvis-worship, etc.), and many other reasons. I deny that your choices are the only ones. The whole thing is circular. The logic leads to the conclusion you want because the premises are false to begin with.

To put it mildly, then, it rather strains credibility to suppose that nonbelievers would by and large dismiss miraculous star-writing (spelling out, say, “John 3:16”) as a hoax or hallucination or some such thing. But even if such star-writing were to convert just ONE person (some lonely, self-loathing sap in Idaho, let’s say), that would be one more saved soul goin’ to heaven, one more faithful among the corrupt. And why should God pass up the opportunity to save even one lost soul, even one small man?

With more evidence, obviously it stands to reason that more would believe. But we continue to reply that the evidence available now is sufficient, and that people reject it for the wrong reasons, or no reason at all. That’s why God is not obligated by some human-generated sense of “justice” to provide more. It is true that you or Ted may start believing if I went through a tree shredder in front of you and then you saw the pieces of my body come back together before your eyes and I stood in your face, winked and grinned mischievously and triumphantly and said “See?!” So then you would become good Christians and I would be your sponsors at your baptism on Good Friday (Catholic, of course).

It does not follow from that, however, that the existing evidence was not good enough. It was only not good enough subjectively, for you (and Ted), and your standard of what is “sufficient” may be deficient in any number of ways.

Let me try an analogy that came into my head just now. The ancient Greeks discovered that the world was a sphere by mathematics and geometry and astronomical observations (however they did it). Some people were therefore convinced by that evidence. But one had to be pretty educated to grasp the proofs.

Later, you had people sailing around the world and coming back to the same place. That provided more evidence that more people could more easily grasp, so they accepted the sphericity of the earth. Or, someone could conceivably look at the sun and the moon, see that they were round, and conclude that, by analogy, the earth is probably the same.

Then Copernicus (a Catholic monk, supported by the Church) came up with his heliocentric theory. Then Galileo looked through his telescope, saw Mars and other planets (all round), and expanded upon Copernicus’ work. At each step, more and more people could believe in the sphericity of the earth. Then we flew a rocket to the moon and looked back to the earth and literally saw that it was round.

Now; more people came to believe that the earth was a globe with each new development, didn’t they? Does that mean that the ancient Greek proofs were therefore inadequate and not “sufficient” to compel belief in those who could understand them, or who were willing to take the word of the people who did understand them? No. They were sufficient all along. Simply because not everyone accepted them does not prove that they were insufficient. Yet at the same time, the more information and proof that came out (all the way up to photographs of the earth from the moon), the more people believed. This is how “evidence” works.

(I assume there were very very few flat-earthers in 1968, but there are still two or three in the world today).

The same situation applies to further miracles which would make more people believe. Sure, more would (I readily grant that; it is common sense), but it doesn’t follow from that (by the above analogy), that the existing evidence is insufficient. Nor does it follow that God is obliged, in His love and justice to provide more more more evidence, just so hard-nosed stubborn skeptics will yield up their irrational and excessive skepticism. That would entail a continuum whereby each additional evidence convinces more people: you keep going down the scale till 80% believe, 85, 90, 95%, everyone in the world but two (you and Ted). Pretty soon God is compelling everyone, and then we are back to the “man-as-robot” scenario, which is exactly what God doesn’t want.

Beyond all that, there is this thing called “faith.” No airtight proof for anything is possible. That’s what I believe. That being the case, it is not unreasonable for Christians to exercise faith, when they can’t prove Christianity completely (but big wow: nothing can be so proven), and must take that little Kierkegaardian “leap of faith.” That’s how it was designed by God. There is enough reasonability and evidence to “compel” faith or make it eminently reasonable, credible, and as good as any alternate choice. It is not irrational. But it goes beyond what reason can prove. Faith simply makes a leap based on many things which are rationally or empirically demonstrated: a leap not unlike all the other axioms that all knowledge whatever is built upon.

If determinism (and also theism) were true, there would be nothing to discuss on this. God would simply cause everyone to believe and go to heaven (universalism), where there would be billions of C3PO’s and R2D2’s buzzing around eternally, doing whatever God programmed them to do. At least we could play chess, because I have a computer chess game. That’s comforting to know . . .

Evidence alone is not the only factor (it is not sufficient in and of itself to bring about universal salvation), and that free creatures can resist it. In other words, it’s back to FWD (and whether determinism exists), which creates a situation of non-universality that even an omnipotent God cannot remedy without sacrificing the freedom of His creatures. God can’t do what you “require” Him to do. He can create conditions which make it theoretically possible (as indeed He did do), but He can’t compel universal belief — not if men are truly free, which entails the ability to choose the contrary of God’s perfect will.

And that is why ANB fails to prove that He doesn’t exist, because it sets up a logically impossible scenario that even God can’t overcome (to save absolutely everyone by this “evidence” — whatever the atheist deems appropriately “sufficient” — without any other outcome, yet also create truly free creatures).

Would any parent want a child’s love only because he or she was forced to “love” and could do nothing else? Love is a giving thing: the parent loves the child freely and the child freely loves back. Anything less than that would be a sort of slavery.

If I were to act in a way that my will and desire would be in perfect “harmony” vis-a-vis my children, I would make them always love me and not have any possibility to do otherwise. That would also entail my controlling absolutely everything in their lives, because they would have no autonomy or free will in actuality. I could whip them, hold them in chains, put them in a room and never let them out, let them eat only bread and water — all because I wanted it. I could give them some sort of drug that always made them obey my command (and enjoy doing so), and “love” me. I exaggerate, of course, but I trust that my point is made.

Or I could let them be free and live their life as they chose, which would open up the possibility of their rejection of me. It’s the old “mother bird letting the young bird fly” routine. If the bird comes back, then there is a real relationship there, because the bird could have chosen to leave and never return. But if the bird is never allowed to fly, then the mother can’t know if it really loves her and wants to freely stay.

I think it is a matter of thinking through what it means to be free, and why it is the only way of conceiving human self-understanding which makes any sense of our experience and perception. Also, reflection upon the relationship of omnibenevolence and omnipotence and the laws of logic . . .

It is not at all self-evident that people will believe in God if spectacular miracles are performed (which Ted Drange, in his original presentation of ANB, casually assumes without argument). And the aspect of human rebellion against a God which imposes on human autonomy is likewise ignored. This is the weakest link in ANB. It also might lead one to the conclusion that ANB is a circular argument, because it assumes almost all of its conclusions early on in its formulation. The argument is both logically weak and psychologically and epistemologically naive with regard to belief-formation.

If it is allowed and conceded that not everyone would believe by any one miracle, but that a “great majority” would, then the problem becomes “how many people have to disbelieve in order for God not to exist?” 4.9%? 1.9%? 16,743 people in the whole world? 16,744? The arbitrariness is apparent.

The Christian believes that all men have sufficient evidence to believe in God, by “the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20), and by their consciences and moral sense in their hearts (Romans 2:14-16). These things are intrinsic to human beings, even before anyone ever hears of Jesus, the Bible, or the gospel, or gets to the various evidences that Christian apologists like myself present and defend.

When Steve ran out of answers, he stopped answering and started repeating or rephrasing or recycling. That’s a sure sign that he hasn’t closely examined the many highly questionable or unsupported premises in ANB. This will not do. He has avoided truly grappling with the hard questions. If an argument is true, its advocates need not hide or run from strong critiques; they will meet them, one-by-one. I now confidently leave to the reader the decision as to who has made the best case.

I thank my friend Steve for another fun and challenging debate (one of several posted on my website).

Thanks for the dialogue, Dave. ‘Twas, as always, a pleasure. :-)


(originally from 2-26-03)

Photo credit: God the Father, attributed to Cima da Conegliano (1459-1517) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons] 


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