The Handbook: Apologetics: Pascal, Ontological, Cosmological

The Handbook: Apologetics: Pascal, Ontological, Cosmological March 8, 2015

Today we’re going to be taking a twenty-five-cent tour of some of the apologetics arguments people are likely to see once they’ve deconverted, along with an overview of their flaws. Some of these arguments rise to the level of apologetics classics. Others are painfully cringeworthy modern inventions that could only exist in a Christian population that is vastly deteriorated from loftier standards. I’ll show you three of those arguments today–and how you’re likely to encounter them in the wild, so to speak!

(Renaud Camus, CC.)

A quick note: I really don’t get into those “checkmate atheists/Christians!” memes, and I especially don’t now. The Christians using these lackluster arguments think they’re persuasive. They deploy them in hopes that you’ll be so persuaded that you un-deconvert (re-convert?). In this case, mockery won’t help anybody learn anything solid, though it might help put a few things into perspective. Instead, I want to show you exactly why these arguments fail at providing a good reason for buying into Christian claims.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s begin!

Pascal’s Dubious Wager.

Obviously, Pascal’s Wager ranks as the top classic argument you’ll hear in the wild. Written by Blaise Pascal, it’s probably the thing he’s best-known for among Christians though he did a lot of other science and math stuff in his lifetime as well.

I paraphrase his Wager thusly:

Given that knowing for sure either way about the Christian god’s existence is impossible, then believing in him is your best bet. If you believe in him and it turns out he’s not real and his afterlife isn’t real, then you’ve lost nothing. If you don’t believe in him and it turns out he’s not real and his afterlife isn’t real, then you’ve lost nothing. But if you don’t believe in him and it turns out he is real and his afterlife is real, then you’ve lost eternity. Eternity is super-long and Hell sucks. So you should believe because the risks are minimal of bad things happening if you do believe, and huge if you don’t.

Variants of the Wager are extremely popular among Christians even today–especially the sort who tend to proselytize at others. I heard it as a Christian both as a Catholic and as a Protestant, and in Protestantism up and down the board from liberal denominations up to Pentecostalism–but it must be conceded that as one gets more right-wing and fundagelical, one starts hearing it more and more often!

Sometimes the Christian pushing the Wager doesn’t phrase it completely that way. Sometimes you must infer that they’re talking about the Wager. If you hear someone talking about the risks of taking a chance on Christianity or what they’re losing by believing or not believing, then that person’s bought into it.

The Wager’s Most Serious Flaws.

FIRST: It does not actually get around to proving its assertions about the supernatural.

It outright assumes that the question of its god’s reality is unknowable. But is it? We might not be able to disprove this god’s existence any more than we can disprove the existence of Russell’s teapot. That said, we can ask questions designed to demonstrate whether this god exists. Christians have never presented any evidence suggesting that this god exists, much less that anything supernatural is real. Whether we’re talking about fairies and pixies or angels and Yahweh, people claiming that stuff is true need to pony up evidence for it if they want people to buy into it.

SECOND: It assumes that the choices are either “the Christian god” or “disbelief in all of it.”

But there are many thousands of gods and religions, and many types of Christianity as well–and almost every one of those gods and religions and denominations and flavors contradict each other dramatically. There is no way whatsoever to know which one is right or wrong. Putting one’s faith in one religion means denying it to another, in most cases. Pascal thought of the Wager as a binary sort of equation, but it really isn’t. It’s more like if you throw in with Christianity you aren’t making a yes/no bet about a single god’s existence or nonexistence, but more like a “one out of many thousands of gods” bet. The odds suddenly start looking, uh, not quite in your favor.

THIRD: The Wager assumes that belief is a choice that people can consciously make or not make.

Belief is simply not a choice. It happens whether we like it or not if evidence comes our way to support a claim. By the same token, if we discover that whatever we thought was evidence really isn’t, then our beliefs dissipate like mist. We can’t force ourselves to believe that the Bible is divine or that its god is real, any more than they can force themselves to believe in the Hindu gods.

Why Christians Like the Wager.

Christians deploy the Wager–and love it–for a reason.

Christians don’t tend to like talking about the huge opportunity cost to being a Christian during their sales pitches. And joining TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ involves a great many opportunity costs.

When I was Christian, people talked about how being Christian was, itself, its own reward. However, even then I knew that wasn’t true. I’d lost out on a lot of opportunities and fun for this religion. I didn’t love the lifestyle for its own sake. (In fact, when I did figure out that Christianity wasn’t true, I didn’t stick around. I refused to play-act belief just to be safe from a threat I no longer believed was valid.)

Christians use the Wager as a threat. They seek to foster fear and terror in their victims.

Sometimes they phrase the threat as wheedling concern: “I hope you’re riiiiiiiight….” with a singsong trailing-off and a wistful sad look. At other times, they hurl more obvious threats at us. In those cases, they embellish the punishment and make the tortures awaiting us in their fantasies considerably more obvious.

Either way, they want us to use the Wager to “bet on” Christianity to save us from the threat presented to us.

The Ontological Argument.

This one’s older than dirt. Surprisingly, I still run into Christians (usually the “logical” sort) who use this argument and take it seriously. It’s worth knowing about it in case some Christian springs it on you.

People think of the Christian god as the greatest, most powerful being imaginable. Because it’s greater to be real than not-real, then the greatest conceivable being simply must be real. In other words, if we can think of a being who is the most powerful being ever, then that being must be real because real beings are more powerful than imaginary ones. No, really.

RationalWiki ain’t impressed. Here’s another good refutation.

It’s fallen out of fashion because it utilizes some really old philosophical underpinnings. It also sounds distinctly woo-ish even to Christian ears. If you hear it at all, it’ll likely sound like “But he must exist! How would we be able to imagine a god if he didn’t exist?”

Its main flaws are that it is one of those arguments trying to argue themselves into a god without any evidence, and that it definitely doesn’t actually prove that the Christian god in particular exists. It definitely flunks the Unicorn Test!

The Cosmological Argument.

This one’s also pretty old, but it’s found new life in the writings of the modern apologist (and heartless atrocity-excuser) William Lane Craig (WLC). This star debater slightly reworked it and released it as the Kalam Cosmological Argument (or KCA), after the Arabic word for discourse of science. Specifically, it means apologetics based on science. The argument goes basically like this:

Everything that exists had to have some kind of cause. The universe exists, so obviously it was caused too. Therefore the universe must have a cause. If the universe was caused, then something/someone caused it, and that something/someone has to have been an eternal and infinite being who was not caused. Therefore, such a being exists and has simply got to be Jesus Christ.

I poke at WLC a lot. Hopefully my scorn and derision make a little more sense now!

Indeed, the argument he loves so much fails grandly on a whole variety of fronts. Someone of his education and standing should feel humiliated to be caught making any one of these mistakes. And William Lane Craig would feel ashamed, if he still possessed any sense of shame at all.

How the Cosmological Argument Fails.

First: It grandly fails the Unicorn Test. It fails spectacularly. Galactically. Christians simply cannot leap from “the universe has a cause” to “therefore, Jesus.”

Second: The Christians deploying this argument make a lot of factual errors–both in science itself and in logic. Fundagelicals talk about “nothing” and “something” in colloquial ways. They talk in similar fashion about “theories” and the like. But scientists mean something very different than apologists do. For example, we’re not totally sure that absolutely everything has a cause. And that’s just the start of apologists’ problems.

Most damning of all, though, this argument commits the fallacy of “special pleading.” The Christians using it need you to allow their god to exist without a cause. Everything has a cause–except him. These Christians demand that we accept that their god doesn’t need a causing agent. In fact, he can’t possibly have had a cause. Everything else has a cause. Even a child might notice that this idea is a serious problem. But Christians won’t ever explain why their god should receive that slack.

This argument also disintegrates in the face of the fallacy of equivocation, begging the question, and a variety of other issues.

Education: The Best Defense.

Even smart Christians can fall for apologetics arguments. And these are some of the most popular ones in the Christian arsenal. Some of them have centuries of the Christian apologetics engine backing them up. Worse yet, the hucksters themselves promise Christian flocks that these failed arguments are not only PROOF YES PROOF of Christianity’s various claims, but also absolutely foolproof sales pitches.

Therefore, a Christian can buy that apologist’s books and learn their technique. Then they should be able to go forth and harvest souls for Jesus. When they fail to win souls, then the apologist will only blame them for using the technique incorrectly. Or the apologist will blame them for sinning, harboring doubts, or any of a number of other conditions that can totally destroy a soulwinning attempt.

You will rarely run across an evangelism-minded Christian who understands the flaws in these three arguments. Sometimes the best you’re going to do is to politely stand firm in rejecting their attempts to recruit you. And that’s okay. You’re allowed to refuse a sales pitch!

NEXT UP: We examine science- and history-based apologetics tactics. See you soon!

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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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