Climbing Mount Improbable: Atheists Give up Too Easily!!

Friends,

The latest issue of Touchstone journal has a great essay by Edward Tingley titled The Skeptical Inquirer. You can access the full essay here. The gist of the essay is that atheists and agnostics do not go far enough along in their journey to truly conclude that God or gods does or do not exist because they give up to easily once hard, physical evidence is declare unobtainable. What is amazing here is that Tingley concedes from the start there is no hard, physical evidence that would lead one to a belief in God and, by extension, that God cannot be sought by the mind, by reason. But he does not stop there and this is where the essay really takes off. He write:

All of those people who insist that they would reasonably believe on the basis of “a range of confirming evidence corroborated by a community of inquirers,” or if there were no other way to explain the universe, or if there were “evidence of miracles,” or if there were predictions of “natural disasters . . . using non-ambiguous language,” or archeological traces of biblical events, and all the rest of it, are truly not worth listening to. Truly not.”

Why? Because in all of this they are refusing to go where their own skeptical-scientific questioning actually points: not back to concrete evidence but on to the question of whether there is another way to answer the question, which they reject without further thought. Rather than ask it, they balk, they flinch, they bluster—they do everything that in their own eyes signals the dogmatic refuser of science.

Given the options that logic delivers, the one thing it is utterly ridiculous to do is to keep going on about “strong, compelling evidence [for] the existence of God.” Yet that is what both the agnostic and the atheist never stop talking about: the agnostic, so that he can believe; the atheist, as the crux of the belief he has already raced to. Pascal has left both behind him: This is patent “folly,” he says.

All of the people who say that they are “atheists through skepticism, because they see no evidence that God exists,” are patently unthinking people, since by virtue of turning skeptic, no one has ever done anything—employed any logic, gathered any evidence, found any way forward—to reach a conclusion about whether God exists. So these atheists have not reached a conclusion; they have made a commitment.

What the scientific skeptic ought to say is this: “Having examined the hard evidence, we declare that route to be exhausted. The only kind of evidence for God’s existence that counts will have to be of some other kind—if there is any other kind.” (Touchstone, June 2008, pp 20-26)

That is the question isn’t it? Do atheists and agnostics exhaust all possible avenues by which one might know whether or not there is a God or gods? Tingley concludes no. I won’t spoil all the fun by revealing his conclusion. This is heavy hitting stuff and I encourage you to check it out for yourself.

I wonder if, however, on this basis alone we can agree that those people ‘are truly not worth listening to.’ That might be a bit harsh and unnecessary, but he probably just means that we should pay no attention to their diatribes and their ‘convincing arguments for the non-existence of God’ because their arguments are non-arguments, their logic is pale (‘To talk like Russell after Pascal only makes you quaint and silly, because what the lack of evidence delivers is logically a question, not a conclusion.’ 22), full of folly, and they are, to be sure, unthinking people who have already made a commitment. 

Anyhow, it’s a fantastic essay that requires, probably, two reads to get at all he saying. I know I have had some atheists visit here before so I’ll ask: Is there any other kind of evidence for the existice of God that might be explored? Have you continued to search or have you abandoned all hope? What say you?

jerry

PS–There is a ping below, but for more on this essay and the ‘other point of view,’ visit my friend Jeff at atheocracy where I have also responded to his post.

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  1. vitaminbook

    Anyhow, it’s a fantastic essay that requires, probably, two reads to get at all he saying. I know I have had some atheists visit here before so I’ll ask: Is there any other kind of evidence for the existice of God that might be explored? Have you continued to search or have you abandoned all hope? What say you?

    The problem with using ‘other kinds of evidence’ is that it also leads you to believe all sorts of crazy things. For example, the kind of non-evidence based rhetoric that people have used to try to convince me of God’s existence is little different from what I’ve heard from those who believe in alien abduction or psychic powers. If I was to accept one, I’d have no reason not to accept the other…and a lot more besides.

    There’s a good reason why hard evidence should be the arbiter of what we believe in – it works.

    As well as that, invoking some sort of alternative form of evidence is assuming that God exists first and wondering what evidence might lead to that conclusion, which is kind of doing it the wrong way around…

  2. Vitamin,

    I would suggest that you read the essay by Tingley before you assume your conclusion is correct. I think you will be surprised at why he suggests ‘hard evidence’ is not THE arbiter of what we believe in. It doesn’t always work; Darwinism is a great example of how it doesn’t work. Give the essay a chance. And thanks for stopping by.

    jerry

  3. vitaminbook

    Good God, that man can waffle.

    I’m not entirely sure what the essay was trying to demonstrate, although it sounded like the author was singing to his own choir anyway. I might have missed the part where he made a convincing argument for an alternative, non-evidence route to belief in God, because it sounded to me as though he was saying ‘Yes, there’s no evidence, so just believe anyway.’

  4. Vitamin,

    Actually, that is exactly the opposite of what he was saying.

    Re-read the section he titled “The Skeptical Theist.” To wit:

    “There are skeptical theists; Pascal was one. Skepticism and theism go well together. By a “skeptic” I mean a person who believes that in some particular arena of desired knowledge we just cannot have knowledge of the foursquare variety that we get elsewhere, and who sees no reason to bolster that lack with willful belief.”

    jerry

  5. Samuel Skinner

    Pascal wasn’t a skeptical theist. He did coin Pascal’s wager after all, a very unskeptical argument. You simply are inventing a new meaning- the proper word for that meaning would be agnostic.

    More to the point, an all-knowing and all powerful God that wants worship isn’t hard to prove if it exists- he’ll come to YOU.

    And before you assume that skeptics don’t exhast all possible arguments, keep in mind that many of us have heard ALL of them after a few months on the net- and their refutation.

  6. Samuel,

    I am no Pascal scholar so I don’t know if what you are saying is true or not. What I quoted was written by Tingley not me.

    I think you are right except that you, presumably, don’t believe that God has come to us. I do. As I told Jeff at atheocracy, history must deal with Jesus of Nazareth.

    Finally, I’m not assuming anything about what ‘some’ skeptics do and do not do. I’m merely commenting on the content of Tingley’s argument which I, personally, find helpful.

    Thanks for stopping by.
    jerry

  7. Jerry-

    Glad you were able to stop by my blog and expand upon your thoughts a bit. For those of you who want a longer version of my reaction to this piece, follow the above link to the Atheocracy. Here are a couple of more thoughts, though.

    By Tingley’s reasoning …
    – In order to be a true “skeptic,” you must believe in anything that you believe your “heart” tells you to believe in. Scientific evidence is irrelevant since it is, apparently, a lower standard of inquiry. Therefore, you can skip any searches for evidence entirely, if you wish, and “search your heart,” if you can figure out what that means. If your “heart” tells you unicorns exist, they do. If your “heart” tells you there’s a gnome living in your pants, there is.
    – Also, if Tingley’s “heart” says something is true, and you disagree, you now are not a “skeptic.” This is because, if you were actually a “skeptic,” you would have turned your back on evidence and looked to your “heart.” And if you had done that, you would have found God. The fact that you didn’t shows you didn’t try.

    It’s all a case of begging the question. Tingley clearly started from the premise that God existed and made an argument that (poorly) fit this premise. “God exists because I believe God exists; if you don’t, you haven’t really tried.”

    In Jerry’s comment on my blog, he says: “I know your arguments for (or should I say against) this, but it all comes back to Jesus of Nazareth. Somehow history must account for his life, his death, and his resurrection. There is no lack of proof for these events in ’secular’ and ’sacred’ history. He must be given his due.”

    There’s no solid evidence Jesus actually even existed. Most historians believe he did, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. I think he probably did. History doesn’t have to “account for … his death” because, well, everyone dies. This isn’t particularly difficult. If he lived, he died. Now, his resurrection? Well, history doesn’t have to “account for” this because it’s such a fantastical notion to say it actually happened, that it’s you that needs to show it occurred, not the other way around. All we have now is an ancient book full of metaphors, allegories and questionable, contradictory eyewitness accounts. For instance, Paul doesn’t even mention the empty tomb in his accounts, while Matthew, Luke and John all have differing accounts of the women’s visit to the tomb. And, of all the religions in the world, Christians are the only ones who believe Jesus was resurrected. It appears you’re in the minority on this one, so it’s going to take more than an old book full of fantastical stories and contradictory information to prove a person was, literally, risen from the dead.

  8. It’s easy to test this case. Simply replace the word “God” in the orriginal essay with Santa Claus and it makes as much sense.

  9. Tony,

    That’s all you’ve got? Wow, evolution has treated you poorly.

    jerry

  10. vitaminbook

    jwhaws said pretty much what I was going to say with this:

    By Tingley’s reasoning …
    – In order to be a true “skeptic,” you must believe in anything that you believe your “heart” tells you to believe in. Scientific evidence is irrelevant since it is, apparently, a lower standard of inquiry. Therefore, you can skip any searches for evidence entirely, if you wish, and “search your heart,” if you can figure out what that means. If your “heart” tells you unicorns exist, they do. If your “heart” tells you there’s a gnome living in your pants, there is.
    – Also, if Tingley’s “heart” says something is true, and you disagree, you now are not a “skeptic.” This is because, if you were actually a “skeptic,” you would have turned your back on evidence and looked to your “heart.” And if you had done that, you would have found God. The fact that you didn’t shows you didn’t try.

    I really don’t see how this kind of thinking trumps old fashioned ‘non-skeptical’ evidence.

  11. Jeff,

    I’m not going to deal with the first part of your comments because, to an extent, I don’t disagree. I think he could have done better–which I stated in my response at your blog–on this aspect of the argument. Nevertheless, if your heart is not telling you about God it is not because God does not speak to the heart but because, more likely, you have seared your heart from belief. I fully agree: At this point in your life, you cannot believe.

    As for the second part of your comments, there is so much wrong with your assessment of Jesus as an historical figure that it defies the imagination. There is plenty of evidence that Jesus lived in history. Jews don’t deny it. Muslims don’t deny it. Christians don’t deny it. That Jesus lived is historical fact that only a minority of people dispute.

    I can point you to books that will better help you understand what you call ‘contradictions’ in the Gospels. Paul does talk about the empty tomb in 1 Corinthians 15 for example. There he states quite clearly that if Christ has not been raised from the dead then we (Christians) are to be pitied more than any other humans. I’ll post some more apologetic stuff for you to look at. Also, there’s a reason why only Christians believe in the Resurrection: IF the unbelieving world believed in it they would then, as I said, ‘have to deal with it’ and, to be sure, they wouldn’t be unbelieving!

    People think that simply by denying something they have avoided all responsibility for it or by ignoring it that it will simply go away. I am no master at apologetics, but I assure you there are people who are and I will defer to them. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John didn’t write contradictory accounts in the sense that one is trying to disprove the other. They don’t disagree that it was women who went to the tomb (they all say it was women) and the fact that they disagree on who or how many only proves that they were writing from different traditions or perspectives or with different theological purposes in mind or because they just didn’t have the same information as the other. The very fact that they tell us it was women who were the first witnesses is itself a marker of truth since women were not considered reliable witnesses in those days. Why would they invent a story where unreliable witnesses were, in fact, the first witnesses? That defies logic.

    It will take a lot more than flimsy reasoning and an a priori devotion to easily unraveled criticisms to disprove that the Resurrection took place as the Scripture says it did.

    A book by NT Wright called The Challenge of Jesus is a short, wonderful book that will introduce you to some of these ideas. Another book by Craig Evans called Fabricating Jesus, for which I have written a lengthy review here at my blog, is also a most excellent exploration of the historical validity of the Gospels and the person of Jesus Messiah. If you are truly interested in truth, give these two books a chance to speak to you.

    y/f
    jerry

  12. Vitamin,

    Then I will just direct you to my responses to Jeff here and at his blog.

    jerry

  13. Jerry-

    It’s nobody’s job to “disprove that the Resurrection took place as the Scripture says it did,” and your insistence that someone prove a negative is indicative of the divide at play. You think the stories in the Bible are true because they’re in the Bible. It’s circular logic. If Christians want to say their beliefs are based upon evidence, it is their responsibility to prove these things happened, not the other way around. No book proves anything about anyone at any time. Never has. Never will. Eyewitness accounts are fraught with problems, as any court will tell you. Especially when these accounts were written several decades after the event took place.

    It is only imperative that Christians prove this if they want to claim their belief has evidencial backing. If they want to simply acknowledge that it is faith, then I have no problem with them making whatever fantastical claims they want, so long as they don’t try to affect my life with their belief systems.

    As for your statement that “if your heart is not telling you about God it is not because God does not speak to the heart but because, more likely, you have seared your heart from belief. I fully agree: At this point in your life, you cannot believe,” this is another variation on the typical “Angry Atheist” argument. Basically, it’s saying “The only reason you don’t believe in God is because you won’t allow yourself to do so.” But I find this dismissive and somewhat insulting, frankly.

    I spent more than 20 years going to church. I was a Christian for many years. I’ve read the Bible, listened to hundreds of sermons, sung in the church choir, been an acolyte, attended Bible study, participated in church youth groups, talked with hundreds of Christians about God, taken a religious studies class and given Christianity chance after chance to take hold in my life. There is nothing “seared” about my heart. I am not hateful or angry toward Jerry or his beliefs. I was open to the idea of God for more than 20 years while going to church and still am today. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to take Tingley’s tact, explained in this essay that Jerry called “excellent,” by willfully ignoring the stunning lack of evidence for this belief.

    Oh, and by the way Jerry, Tony Konrath is entirely correct, despite your dismissive response. But I’ve noted that point earlier.

    What I really don’t get is how you could fawn so much over this essay when you say definitively that you think he put too much emphasis on the “heart,” and he completely disagrees with you on the presence of “evidence” for your beliefs because he says flat-out that there is no such evidence. It was basically nothing but one big reach-around to Christians, attempting to inflate their egos by telling them how intelligent and “skeptical” they are, and you should be smart enough not to fall for it.

  14. vitaminbook

    With regards to the Resurrection, can you understand how, for atheists, the Bible simply isn’t good enough evidence? There are many ancient texts that say many strange things – for us, the Bible is no different from the rest of them.

  15. Vitamin,

    OK. I have no other answer for you. As I said elsewhere, I am not an apologist. However, I do think you make the mistake of assuming that the Bible is evidence in an of itself. The Bible is not, as far as I can tell, such evidence nor does it purport to be. The Bible reports on the eyewitness accounts of ancient people. Thus, in that instance, it’s not that I am believing in the Bible as such, but that I believe what certain historians have claimed to witness and have subsequently written down. In this case, it is no different than believing George Washington was the first president of the US or that Lenin was a leader in the Soviet Union or that Ghengis Khan was real or that Pharoah was king of Egypt at some point. I’m sorry that you cannot accept the fact that the documents Christians call ‘Scripture’ are valid as historical, eyewitness testimony to historical events that took place a mere 2,000 years ago. Essentially, since the authors of those books claim to be eyewitnesses of history, you are not so much disbelieving as much as you are saying those historians, who happen to be Christians, are liars.

    OK. I have nothing else to offer you but history.

    jerry

  16. Jeff,

    See what I wrote to Vitamin. No, I don’t believe the ‘stories’ in the Bible are true because they are in the Bible as if the Bible were a magical book with magical powers to do things magical to unsuspecting and unaware people. Talk about dismissive!

    I believe in the eyewitness accounts of things that took place in history much in the same way you might believe in the eyewitness accounts of the Civil War–the best histories of which were written down many, many decades after they took place. But even if many decades after the fact, they were written within a generation at times.

    As for dismissing the eyewitness accounts because they were ‘written several decades after the fact’ is to misunderstand the nature of the oral culture in which they were passed on from person to person, generation to generation.

    Look, I said the article was excellent, but I hardly fawned over it. I think it was excellent because it made me think, not necessarily because I agree with all of its conclusions or because I think it was especially well thought out. It made me think about why I believe what I believe. Frankly, I think Tingley is wrong about the evidence for Christian faith.

    However, let’s also not miss the point of the essay which is, simply, to say that the atheist doesn’t go far enough in his unbelief. His point is that they give up too quickly in their search. If he is seeking to hook those undecideds, perhaps he is also trying to spur on the atheist and the agnostic so that they will at least give the evidence another chance or give the search another chance.

    Since you claim there is no physical evidence, and since you summarily dismiss the Resurrection, what else is left for you Jeff but to search the heart? I think something tragic happened in your life that caused you to dismiss faith in Christ. If there is no evidence to persuade you of belief now, then how can the lack of evidence disuade you of what you once possessed? I guess I am trying to understand why you are so quick to abandon that which you claimed to own for 20 years of your life. Tell me a story. Let me listen.

    y/f
    jerry

  17. vitaminbook

    In this case, it is no different than believing George Washington was the first president of the US or that Lenin was a leader in the Soviet Union or that Ghengis Khan was real or that Pharoah was king of Egypt at some point

    It’s completely different from believing any of those things. None of the above are in any way unusual, nor do they invoke the supernatural. Believing that someone came back to life – something that has never been reliably proven to have happened before or since – requires far stronger evidence than mere eye witness, just as the many instances of the gods appearing in ancient Roman history would require more evidence than believing that, say, a certain man was emperor or king at a certain time period.

  18. Nothing “tragic” happened, Jerry. That’s a really weird thought, actually. What do I have to do beyond all that I’ve already done, documented in my previous comment (attending hundreds of church services, listening to sermons, attending Bible study, reading the Bible, talking to Christians, discussing these issues with friends and colleagues, even having several heart-to-heart talks with the reverend at my last church)? In what way have I not “searched the heart”? The fact is that “search the heart” is meaningless, happy-sounding psychobabble with no concrete basis. It’s stated in such a way that you can always say, either 1) “You still need to do more” or 2) “You weren’t ‘open’ enough while you were searching.” To tell someone to “search their heart” is to tell them nothing.

    The only way the Bible’s accounts relate to those of the Civil War is that there are, in fact, eyewitness accounts of the events of both. Here’s your biggest problem, forgoing the many others: Eyewitness accounts of the Civil War do not make fantastical claims, unprecedented in the history of mankind and impossible by all standards of evidence hence collected.

    For instance, if an “eyewitness account of the Civil War” were to suggest that Stonewall Jackson rose from the dead a few days after he was shot at Chancellorsville, I wouldn’t believe it absence some sort of evidence. Even if a handful of people made this claim, knowing there were no reports of this ever happening before or since, I would be rather skeptical unless we had more than a few people’s word. And that’s with something that happened just 150 years ago. With the Bible, we’re talking about 2,000 years. Not only that, but I understand the “nature” of every “oral culture,” and that’s for stories to change and be embellished the further away from an event you get. Eyewitness accounts of an event that happened minutes ago are tremendously more reliable than those of an event that happened months, years or 50 or so years ago.

    So to your final question … how can the lack of evidence dissuade me of what I once possessed? First, my “faith” was entirely unexamined through most of my youth, as is the case with most children who are indoctrinated into their parents’ religion. It was simply unquestioned. Secondly, once I did begin to seriously question it, around 13 or 14, I didn’t have the intellectual sophistication to come to valid conclusions one way or the other. Basically, I continued to believe because I didn’t really know not believing was a real option, having never been exposed to any non-believers. Third, once I graduated from college, I wanted to truly determine what I believed, so I dove head-first into the Christian church, attending every week, becoming a part of the church family near my home. I spent more than a year going to church, um, religiously, if you will, diving deeply into faith to figure out where I stood. It was hard. I wavered both ways many times. I read the Bible, I talked at length with our pastor and I went to Bible study groups. I wanted to truly know myself, and I knew the only way to do that was to fully commit myself to the possibility of God’s existence. That’s what I did, and I’m glad I did it.

    From that, I determined that the evidence for God’s existence was not only lacking but non-existent. I determined that I don’t have the mental capacity for blind faith. I determined that calling myself an agnostic would simply be giving in to societal pressures (this actually took a couple more years) and not wanting to be labeled with many of the nasty stereotypes many Christians toss onto atheists. So I embraced my lack of belief in light of the current state of evidence for Christian beliefs while reserving my right to change my belief if presented with substantial reason to do so.

    Nothing “tragic,” Jerry. I know that’s the typical Christian response. I’ve heard it many times in different variations: “What did God do to make you hate him?” They think atheists must have lost a close family member or friend, so they’re simply angry at God for being a meany. Again, it’s the “Angry Atheist” canard. I’m not angry, and I’m not better than you. I’m just evaluating evidence in a non-biased way and seeing Christianity for what it is: faith. Faith I do not possess.

  19. Mike

    “In this case, it is no different than believing George Washington was the first president of the US”

    Of course a big difference between historical references to George Washington and “historical” references in the Bible are that there are multiple sources that acknowledge Washington’s existence. Many of the accounts in the Bible are unique to the Bible.

    The Bible is fiction. Just because it mentions real places and real events doesn’t make it historical nor accurate. King Kong takes place in New York City, but that doesn’t make it a true story. The Bible, like a lot of fiction, was placed into a familiar locale so that people could relate to it.

  20. Mike

    “misunderstand the nature of the oral culture in which they were passed on from person to person, generation to generation. ”

    Perhaps you’ve misunderstood oral culture. I’m sure everyone has that friend who tells the same story, and each time that story is told, it gets bigger and better. So what’s to say that the people who wrote the Bible didn’t add a bit of exaggeration to their stories?

    The Bible surely could have been written, re-written, edited, and changed over the years as Christianity absorbed other “pagan” religion’s beliefs and tweaked their stories to match pagan beliefs. Even today there are disagreements over the wording and stories in the Bible. If you can’t get your story straight after 2000 years, it’s probably BS in the first place.

    The Bible was written at a time when people believed in superstitions and “truths” that have long since been disproved.

  21. Mike,

    I’m done having this conversation, but I do appreciate your input. Your reply demonstrates, quite exquisitely, how profoundly ignorant you are of history, of Christianity, of the claims of Jesus, of the claims of Christians, of the Bible, of the transmission of the Bible through history, of the history of Christian faith, etc., etc. Your condescension and dismissal do nothing to alter one iota any of these things, or the truth they proclaim in the name of Jesus.

    Good luck with your unbelief. I am hopeful that whatever it is you are or are not looking for in life will be or not be found.

    Always,

    your friend,
    jerry

  1. 1 Self-congratulatory religious “logic” « The Atheocracy

    […] religious “logic” Jerry over at Life Under the Blue Sky wrote glowing comments yesterday about an essay from Touchstone magazine, in which Edward Tingley […]

  2. 2 Unless You See « Life Under the Blue Sky: The View From Below

    […] Climbing Mount Improbable: Atheists Give up Too Easily!! […]




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