Riposte to Justin Matyr: Closing up the Gaps

Riposte to Justin Matyr: Closing up the Gaps July 3, 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


In his last post, Justin has accused me of relying blindly on a “Naturalism of the Gaps.”  In his view, my belief that there is likely to be a non-theistic explanation for the unresolved question of the cause of the Big Bang is unwarranted.  I’m not going to write out my response to this criticism in full because it has already been beautifully written in a post by Common Sense Atheism.  In short,

BELIEVER: There’s still something mysterious about consciousness, and you shouldn’t accept a “Naturalism of the gaps,” either.

LUKE: But when I say I’m a Naturalist I’m not saying I’ve searched the whole universe and I know everything in it is natural. I’m just saying everything I know to exist is natural. I don’t know how consciousness works, but I have no reason yet to think it’s supernatural, and that’s why I’m a Naturalist. Besides, I do have good reason to suspect consciousness will turn out to be natural after all. The entire history of human inquiry gives me every reason to suspect that, even though I can’t know it for sure until we get much further along in our study of consciousness.

I don’t understand the precise workings of the Big Bang any more than I understand all the facets of the complicated problem of consciousness.  I’m still not going to bet that this is the one problem that’s solved by throwing up my hands and shouting “Magic!” (which is essentially what Prime Mover Theism amounts to) until I see more evidence.

Pushing the argument beyond deism into a defense of Justin’s own Christianity would have involved building up an alternate framework, that makes claims of its own.  Attempting to disprove the status quo by setting up a false dichotomy that maintains the only possibilities are atheism and prime mover theism and then claiming a weak point in atheism requires the alternative be true is flawed argumentation.

Frankly, I’m still a little baffled as to why Justin has basically taken the position that only the power of the Holy Spirit, as channeled through my boyfriend, could be expected to bring into a relationship with God.  He found this point important enough to make it the opening and closing paragraphs of this debate.  It seems odd to me that a benevolent, omnipotent being’s desire to bring grace into my life could be utterly stymied by any of the factors that could cause two college students to break up (though I suppose I now have an excellent weapon in my arsenal the next time my boyfriend and I have a dispute: “You know, I’m pretty sure someone who shines with the light that comes from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and has been partially conformed into the likeness of Jesus would love to take me to the Elm City Waltz.”)

On a more serious note, Justin placing the responsibility  for proving the existence of the Christian God onto my boyfriend suggests a strange theology of salvation.  It suggests that individual Christians are the primary proof and means of salvation for their fallen friends in a way that goes beyond even what I’ve put forward in some of my posts on evangelism.

One of the frequent atheist arguments against the existence of God involves proving the characteristics attributed to God are fundamentally in conflict.  Some atheistic objections are pedantic (i.e. If God is all powerful, can he microwave a burrito so hot that he himself cannot eat it?) while others have been provoking thought for millennia.  One frequently discussed problem is how to reconcile God’s infinite justice with the problem of salvation.  The only satisfactory defense I have seen remains C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

Justin’s position that there is no way (with the possible exception of the presumed superpowers of my boyfriend) to convince me of the truth of Christianity, rather than a deist Prime Mover makes me dubious.  If a god is going to make belief in Jesus Christ a prerequisite for salvation, there should be some reasonable way for me to acquire that belief.  At the end of the day, I have no more reason to make a leap of faith and commit myself to Christ than I do to devote my life to Islam.

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  • I am probably taking your snark paragraph too seriously, but I can't tell anymore what atheists do and don't grok, so: what Justin is saying is that you will never, ever, ever, ever come to believe in God until you develop a relationship with him, and that will not happen no matter how many arguments you have, if that's all you do. Grace usually reaches us through a human relationship- another Christian reaching out to you- although sometimes through, or in combination with, the beauty of a Liturgy, or other such things. But Christ is a person! And just like I can write you very, very long essays about how cool my brother is, you will never come to know, let alone love, him by rationally dissecting those essays, etc. You need to interact with him, somehow. Luckily, Christ has a bit more at his disposal than my brother does, and y'all don't need to meet face to face (yet).Some Christians (cough usually Catholic cough) think they can rationally convince someone to believe in the Christian God. This is not true! This is not to say that all argument is futile- far from it. In fact I know several people, and used to be one myself, who were on board with all the Christian apologetics, dissatisfied with atheistic and even deistic explanations of the world, and /wanted to become Christian/ and yet couldn't, because they couldn't find within themselves the gift of faith. They loved the Christian story but didn't know how to love Christ. I think, in some ways, Crime & Punishment is better for explaining that frustrated feeling than most other things I've read, especially the second half. But that is a longer conversation, I suppose.If Justin is suggesting that rationalism can *only* get you to deism and no farther, though- there I disagree. Christianity has a helluva lot more going for it than the Holy Spirit (not to discount the Holy Spirit, of course!). There are plenty of things that make Christianity more…appealing? true? than other faiths- philosophically, if not necessarily scientifically, speaking.

  • Hi Leah,Thanks for the debate! I enjoyed the discourse!Hi Tristyn,Well said. I think we basically agree about the personal and loving side of faith.

  • Thanks a lot for the explaination, Tristyn. I hope I'm not taking your metaphor too far, but one thing I find frustrating about the idea that I ought to be seeking a personal realtionship with Jesus is that this relationship looks very little like the relationship I could presumably have with your brother.If I kept trying to meet up with your brother, but he never turned up, and while I was waiting around for him, I found out that there's a lot of scholarly disagreement as to whether he exists or not, I probably would not be on the road to a meaningful relationship. In most human relationships, acquaintance preceeds love, but Christians seem to want me to do it the other way around.What's more, this remains a project that doesn't allow failure. If I never feel a connection to Jesus, that is not evidence against his existence, just a deficiency in me. It doesn't matter how many house calls I make on Sunday, the answer is always keep trying.In the absence of corroborating evidence, girl can get stood up too many times.

  • Hi Leah,I think that is an excellent point you are making – trying to have a relationship with someone who never bothers to show up. I think it can certainly feel that way! I think a good way to respond is to make this concrete, so I will use an example from my own conversion. I had two major stumbling blocks: the lack of evidence thing, and samesex marriage. How could a loving God get samesex marriage so wrong? The only possible answer was that God did not exist. He was made up by people in a less Enlightened era.But although I was socially liberal, I was also a child of divorce. I did not like the no-fault divorce laws. My stepfather was never involved in my life and it was clear to me that easy divorces were morally wrong. They were unfair to children. Eventually I realized (or more likely, the Holy Spirit laid on my heart) that children raised in samesex marriages were also being raised by one biological and one non-biological parent. They were just like me. And if it was wrong for me, then it was wrong for them too. So instead of getting samesex marriage wrong, God got it right. The world was spectacularly wrong. For me this was like making an incredible novel prediction, but in the moral realm. It is our moral presuppositions that separate us from God.

  • Rek

    Justin,I am very much appalled by your comments, implied and explicitly stated, about non-biological parents. I have seen you argue before (in re: same-sex marriage) that there is something inherently problematic about non-biological parents, and frankly, I find the reasoning very lackluster and insultingly cavalier.To use the example of someone very close to me (who shall remain anonymous, let's call him L), his anecdotal story is similar to yours but quite in reverse. His parents divorced when he was very young because his father was a reckless and irresponsible alcoholic (among other problems) who subsequently all but vanished from his life. Thank god (figuratively speaking)for no-fault divorce because it made it much easier for L's mother to amputate that cancer from their lives and focus on taking good care of her children. She remarried later and her new husband was very much a father to his step-children. Decades later, L still thinks of him as “Dad” (although he was given the option of calling his stepfather by his first name, he declined), and L’s children think of him as grandpa.I imagine we all know all sorts of people who have been treated less than ideally (to put it euphemistically mildly) by biological parents only to be taken in and truly loved by non-biological parents (one case, in fact, involves a same-sex couples), often in the context of a step-parent and a biological parent. Please don’t insult these people with idle anecdotes for which compelling counterexamples are all too easily found. You may be thinking to reply, as you did once, that non-biological parents are (trivially) more likely to harm their children than biological parents (I wonder how often child protective services are called against foster homes vs. biological homes, but I digress). I will take for granted (for the sake of argument) that this is true and point out, all the same, that such an argument could justify all manner of paternalism and is equally strong as an argument against any non-biological adoption (clearly a stupid idea) as it is against same-sex marriage. Indeed, a variant of this argument could be used to support lesbian marriages over heterosexual marriages in the interest of the woman’s well-being. To conclude, your god still seems horrible, cruelly, and egregiously wrong, and I hope you either have a better reason for your opposition to same-sex marriage than the story stated above, or else will revisit your position. To the broader point, if our moral presuppositions separate us from god, I consider that a problem with god and its/his/her /their relevance to our morality. Curiously enough, in 4 or 5 millennia, Judeo-Christian morality still seems as regressive as ever, with progress made in spite of it more than because of it. My apologies if this post sounds hostile, but your prior post rather infuriated me, and I hope I managed to adequately portray a modicum of my immense indignation.

  • Hi Rek,Weren't you one of the people outraged by my claim that atheists almost all believe that evolution works for the good of the group? The fact that children are more likely to be killed, abused, or neglected by non-biological parents is sociobiology 101. You are very inconsistent here.To conclude, your god still seems horrible, cruelly, and egregiously wrong,The salient point however, is not to go down the sociobiology tangent. The salient point is whether or not presuppositions cause us to accept or reject the call of the Holy Spirit. You are another anecdote which supports my analysis. Either (A) God does not exist, or (B) you are in a profound state of rebellion against God. (Don't worry, we all are, including me. That is why the parable of the prodigal son is my favorite teaching of Jesus).

  • Justin, I've seen you return to this non-biological parent argument before. Are you opposed to adoption? If not, what objection do you have to gay parents raising adopted children?Also, could you throw up a link to a study?

  • Rek

    Justin,You made that accusation before and I expressed bewilderment at the characterization of my views. I remain bewildered. What I have said on the subject of atheism and the group dynamics of evolution is that evolutionary psychology is amoral and descriptive. To the extent that an animal species is social–as humans are–there is a degree to which evolution has designed them to operate within the structure of the group. The only moral claim I would draw from this is that humans are by nature moral because humans are by nature social. Still a descriptive claim, actually. If you were unclear about my take on evolution and sociology, I hope that clears things up.As for "sociobiology 101", I took it for granted that everything you said is true. Now answer the actual point I made about it.I don't hear any call from any spirits, holy or otherwise. And they certainly aren't showing up to help clarify things. But this gets back to Leah's point. Your dichotomy is incomplete. A and B are options, but so is C) there is (a) god(s) and it/they don't care what we think/want/do and D)there is a god who perhaps notices us but doesn't love us. Point being, I find the "rebellion" image profoundly unconvincing, whether or not there is a coherent and meaningful being that can be called god. My only worries are about what religious people will do to me (and others) in the name of their faith.Presuppositions aside, I think the real question is why some want to believe in god (whichever one(s) they choose) in the first place, and why others don't. What is it exactly that people seem to get out of their religions, and why is it that some don't seem to need it? That's the question that interests me, anyway.

  • Hi Rek,Your dichotomy is incomplete. A and B are options, but so is C) there is (a) god(s) and it/they don't care what we think/want/do and D)there is a god who perhaps notices us but doesn't love us. Point being, I find the "rebellion" image profoundly unconvincing, Those are all logical possibilities, but this comment thread is about the Christianity. If Christianity is true then the Holy Spirit is calling you to God. Thus, the only possibilities are that Christianity is false, or that you are rebelling against the Holy Spirit.Hi Leah,I was hoping you would comment on my epistemology rather than follow the same-sex marriage debate!Marriage and adoption are different issues. Marriage includes a bunch of rights and duties, and one of those rights is the right to intentionally procreate. Adoptive parents do not have that right. I think this was a widely shared moral intuition for everyone, liberal and conservative. It is why we have laws that prohibit adoptive parents from paying birth mothers. The intent is to make sure that women do not get pregnant with the intent of selling their baby. I think social liberals threw that intuition out the window, first with single motherhood, and now with samesex marriage.Adoption is a privilege, not a right. Thus, adoption reduces to an empirical debate about the kind of care that different parents and family structures can provide children. As a Burkean conservative (not to be confused with being a social conservative or any other type of conservative – they are orthagonal), I'd like to go slowly and wait until we have a larger body of research on gay co-parents. But in principle, I see no reason why samesex couples cannot adopt.

  • I'll come back to epistemology when I'm not sneaking my internet at work. For now, marriage is all I can handle.If the reason you are opposed to same sex marriage stems primarily from sociobiological objections, you should be very nervous about adoption generally, but not particularly more nervous about gay adoption than single parent adoption than any other kind.Otherwise, I'm curious why you don't take a more eugenic view. There are plenty of risk factors for children, and non-biological parent is, I presume, pretty low on the list below a father with a history of domestic abuse or a mother with a history of alcohol abuse (fetal alcohol syndrome). Ought there be state imposed restrictions on marriages between these types of people, since marriage carries with it the right to intentionally procreate?

  • Hi Leah,you should be very nervous about adoption generally, but not particularly more nervous about gay adoptionI made the Burkean argument. We have had adoption by married heterosexuals for a long time and we know that it works out pretty well. The research is strikingly different than the research on single mothers or stepfamilies. We do not yet have any research on gay families except for a few very preliminary studies. And as I freely admitted, I do not see an in-principle argument against gay adoption if we are going to allow single mothers to adopt.And yes, I am nervous about single parent adoption. When those single moms (or dads) they face the same challenges as people with biological children. I'd also like to see more research on this. But what research I have seen seems to lump all adoption together.There are plenty of risk factors for children, and non-biological parent is, I presume, pretty low on the list below a father with a history of domestic abuse or a mother with a history of alcohol abuse (fetal alcohol syndrome).Once upon a time – and yes, this is more of an oasis than a general principle – people had to get permission from their parents, pastor, and community to get married. This is an informal way of making sure that the groom can provide for his wife and children.Nowadays, we have a stronger sense of the right to privacy. But that does not mean that married couples no longer have a duties. Rather, it means that the discretion of making the judgment call on the suitability of the match falls on the couple themselves. Of course, in practice that means people feel that they have the right to do whatever they want.What about you Leah? You are probing me for inconsistencies. Do you think that adults have a carte blanche to procreate? Should poor women be allowed to sell babies to adoptive couples? Should people in group marriages be allowed to procreate? Do all men and women have the right to use surrogates or sperm donors? Is there any in principle situation in which you would say "whoa! it is not fair to bring a child into the world into this family structure?"