Philosophy professor Dr. Peter Boghossian has been talking to students about religion and faith for decades now, and he’s ready to spread the lessons he’s learned when it comes to arguing against faith (or, as he calls it, “street epistemology”).
His new book is called, very bluntly, A Manual for Creating Atheists (Pitchstone Publishing, 2013):
In the excerpt below, from a chapter called “Anti-Apologetics 101,” Boghossian runs through some of the common arguments theists use and how we can respond to them:
Sam Harris observed that there are only three defenses offered in response to critiques of religion: (1) Religion is true; (2) Religion is useful; (3) Atheism is somehow corrosive of society or other values.
The same is the case with faith (though some defenses of faith hinge on redefining the word “faith,” or upon offering deepities). There are basically only eleven defenses of faith. Most of these defenses fall into one of Harris’s three categories regarding religion: true, useful, or socially consequential.
In this chapter I’ll break down common defenses of faith into Harris’s categories, and not my preferred responses to each. I note quotations at the beginning of most defenses to situate context for the response.
FAITH IS TRUE
1. “Why is there something rather than nothing? You have faith that there was no Creator.”
“Bear in mind that an atheist believes that all these miraculous coincidences took place by chance. But he doesn’t just believe that man and woman came into being without a Creator, but that all of creation did — amazing flowers, massive trees, succulent fruits, beautiful birds, the animal kingdom, the sea, fish, natural laws, etc. His faith is much greater than mine.”
— Ray Comfort, You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, but You Can’t Make Him Think
This is the best argument I’ve heard for the existence of God. It’s the trump card played by believers. However, it doesn’t work.
There are several related ways to respond to why there’s something rather than nothing: “Why assume nothing is the default?” This is a question that has no answer. As prolific German philosopher Adolf Grünbaum states, “Why be astonished at being at all? To marvel at existence is to assume that nothingness is somehow more natural, more restful. But why? The ancients started with matter, not the void; perhaps nothingness is stranger than being.”
Similarly, “How do you know the universe didn’t always exist?” Even if appeals are made to the Big Bang, one can never know either that reality is one endless time loop with Big Bangs strung together for eternity, or that à la American theoretical physicist Brian Greene, we’re part of a larger multiverse with an infinite number of Big Bangs constantly occurring.
Why isn’t there nothing rather than something? On what basis can one claim nothing is the default position for existence? Couldn’t something be the default position, with nothing being the truly extraordinary thing? And even if we do accept by fiat, given our limited knowledge, that something rather than nothing is extraordinary, does that give license to make up answers as to why this is the case? It begs the question: is it better to pretend we know an answer to something we don’t actually know, or is it better to simply be honest and say, “I don’t know?”
The possibility that the universe always existed cannot be ruled out. This by definition casts doubt on a creator. No faith is needed to posit that the universe may have always existed.
2. “You can’t prove there’s not a God.”
“I think that St. Paul is the great faith statement. Paul doesn’t need to prove it, he just tells you his experience, and that’s what it is: ‘It’s my experience, and I don’t need to prove it to anybody and you can’t disprove it!’ Now if the church had only stuck with that position, I think that we’d be a lot better off. This business of trying to find proof, of trying to figure out what happened to Jesus’s body — all of that is irrelevant to the life of faith. In a sense the belief in the resurrection is the final — I was going to say test of faith, but it’s not that — it is the final experience of faith.
I believe that Jesus was crucified, died, and rose again. That for me is a final expression of faith. I cannot prove any of that, but without that, anything else is meaningless. Paul says this better than anybody I know: ‘If Christ has not been raised, then your faith has been in vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). That is a marvelous passage, and I think that sums it up. I cannot prove to you that Christ has risen, but without that resurrection experience, without my experience of the resurrection, there’s no meaning to anything. We may as well throw it all out. When I would hear that part as a child, I used to say that it was one of the most fallacious arguments I’d ever heard! Because Paul goes on from there and says, ‘But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.’ So he hasn’t proved anything at all, except his faith, and I find that very moving.”
— Verna Dozier, Confronted by God: The Essential Verna Dozier
I try to have patience when I hear this. What’s perpetually surprising about this defense is that I hear it from people all over the intellectual and educational spectrum. The basic idea is that because you can’t prove
that there’s not a God, then God must exist. Of all of the defenses of faith, it is most difficult to comprehend how someone could actually offer this as a legitimate defense for faith or for belief in God.
To rebut this, I talk about little blue creatures living inside Venus. Clearly one cannot prove there are no little blue men living inside Venus. I then ask the question directly, “Do you believe there are little blue men living inside the planet Venus?” There are basically three answers for this: yes, no, or I don’t know.
If they say “yes,” then I change the color to yellow. I continue to change the color until they admit that not all the men I’ve described can physically live inside the planet. I then repeat the question and ask if they believe there are little blue men living inside Venus.
If they say “no,” I reply, “Why not? You can’t prove it not to be true.” Most people will get the point and then say there’s something different about God. That is, this line of argument works against everything except God. (Here I’m reminded of defenders of Anselm’s argument for the existence of God. Every time someone would bring up an objection, they’d state that the argument only works with God.) When the respondent says there is something special about God that makes this argument not work, then I always press them to know what’s different about God. I’ve yet to hear a coherent answer to this question.
If they respond, “I don’t know,” to the question of little blue men living inside Venus, I ask them why they don’t take the same stance with God and say, “I don’t know.”
Finally, I ask, “What evidence could I give you that would prove God doesn’t exist? Can you please give me a specific example of exactly what that evidence would look like?” Because it’s not possible to have a justified belief in God due to the fact that there’s insufficient evidence to warrant this belief, very few people have been able to cogently answer the question. I then use the discussion as a springboard to suggest that they don’t believe in God on the basis of the evidence. From here it’s a rocky but clear path to, “One ought not believe in something for which there’s insufficient evidence.”
3. “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.”
“Dawkins voices distress at an imagined opponent who ‘can’t see’ the evidence or ‘refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book,’ but he has his own holy book of whose truth he has been persuaded, and it is within its light that he proceeds and looks forward in hope (his word) to a future stage of enlightenment he does not now experience but of which he is fully confident. Both in the vocabulary they share — ‘hope,’ ‘belief,’ ‘undoubtedly,’ ‘there will come a time’ — and the reasoning they engage in, Harris and Dawkins perfectly exemplify the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11, ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’”
— Stanley Fish, “Atheism and Evidence”
“And basing on the evidence that exists in this postmodern scientific world, which system of beliefs now requires more faith, the atheistic belief that life and the universe began by chance or the theistic belief that we are here because there is a Supernatural Being who put us and the universe in place? The point is, both systems of belief require faith, but the atheistic belief requires more faith in light of the evidence.”
— Don Sausa, The Jesus Tomb: Is It Fact or Fiction? Scholars Chime In
I have personally heard this objection innumerous times — mostly from those who are more fundamentalist in their orientation. My suspicion is that people who have genuine doubts about their faith but want to demonstrate or voice strong verbal support for their faith (not necessarily to others but for themselves) make this statement.
This defense is problematic for several reasons. First, what amount of “faith” is required for someone’s nonbelief in the Norse god Thor? Or, are most people Thor atheists? Does nonbelief in Thor require effort? Do people need to congregate and sing songs together to reinforce their nonbelief in Thor? Anyone who says, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist,” doesn’t understand what the word “atheist” means, or is simply insincere.
Second, one possible reason this defense has gained such traction is the starting point. The faithful start with defaulting to God; in other words, the faithful look at the world around them and say, “God.” I happen to be on a plane now, and when I look around I see clouds, seats, people, my laptop, but I don’t see an invisible, unifying metaphysical and supernatural element. I see objects. It is unclear to me why one’s default would be God.
Borrowing from a term first used by pastor and French theologian John Calvin, contemporary American Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga tries to answer questions of defaulting to God with the Sensus Divinitatis or “God sensor.” Basically, Plantinga’s answer is that some people have a built-in sense of the divine — something within them senses God in the same way that we have eyes that sense things in the visual realm.
One of the main problems with the God sensor argument is that just as some people allegedly claim to sense God, other people can allegedly claim to sense other imagined entities. This common rebuttal is referred to as “the Great Pumpkin” objection. In American cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts, Linus believes there’s a Great Pumpkin who arises from the pumpkin patch to reward well-behaved children. If the theist can claim that her sensation of God is immediate, why can’t anyone who genuinely feels an imagined entity claim that entity is real? (This argument can become very complicated, and as a general rule I’d suggest avoiding it whenever possible. Focus instead on the fact that one’s confidence in a sensation does not map onto its accuracy — just because people feel in their hearts the Emperor of Japan is divine, does not make the Emperor of Japan divine.)
When responding to, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist,” I begin by clearly defining the words “faith” and “atheist.” I can’t imagine how these two definitions could align so as to make this statement sensible.
4. “My faith is true for me.”
“My faith is true for me” is rarely heard among more sophisticated believers and almost never heard among fundamentalists.
It is very difficult to explain why this claim is fallacious because often the type of person who makes this statement does not have the intellectual or educational wherewithal to understand more thoughtful, substantive responses. (The exceptions are the youthful solipsists, the postmodernists, and the epistemological and cognitive relativists.)
The statement, “My faith is true for me,” means the faith-based beliefs one holds are true for the speaker and not necessarily for other people. The utterer of this statement is not making claims about faith beliefs being universally true — that is, true for all people.
Here’s my response: does your faith tradition include statements of fact about the world? For example, humans are thetans trapped on Earth in physical bodies, Jesus walked on water, the ability to fly can result from fasting, or the Garden of Eden is in Jackson County, Missouri.
If your faith tradition includes no empirical statements, then it’s unclear what your faith tradition entails. However, if your faith tradition makes empirical claims (and all faith claims that fall within the domain of religion make empirical claims), then what you’re saying is that your belief is true for you, regardless of how the world actually is. Since the world is the way it is regardless of our beliefs or of the epistemology we use to know the world, “my faith is true for me” is a nonsensical statement. One can have faith that if one jumps out of a twenty-story window one will polymorph into an eagle and fly to safety. This doesn’t make it the case.
What one is really saying when one states, “My faith is true for me,” is, “I prefer my delusions, and I wish to remain with them in spite of the evidence.”
(There are plenty more rebuttals where those came from in the book.)
A Manual for Creating Atheists is now out on Amazon and in bookstores.