Debate with Justin Martyr: Opening Statement

Debate with Justin Martyr: Opening Statement June 27, 2010

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.

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