The following article is taken from Mr. Jim Pierce’s presentation at the Wyoming District’s Tell the Good News About Jesus Convocation held on January 31, 2014 through February 1, 2014. This is part two of his speech, “What the Atheist Can Know About God.” (Each article of this series may be found at this link.)
Now I would like to illustrate for you what the strong atheist claims to know about God by presenting you what I have found to be their three most common objections to the existence of God. The three objections are 1) The Inconsistency of Revelation, 2) Wish Fulfillment, and 3) The Problem of Evil.
As a side note, please keep in mind that what I am presenting are general arguments due to time constraints. I would want to fill their arguments out much more if this were a debate, but you should get the gist of what it is they claim to know about God from my presentation of these three objections.
The Inconsistency of Revelation
Listen to how Bertrand Russell, the great 20th century mathematician, sets up this objection from the inconsistency of revelation in his essay titled What I Believe,
“I do not pretend to be able to prove there is no God. I equally cannot prove that Satan is a fiction. The Christian God may exist; so may the Gods of Olympus, or of ancient Egypt, or of Babylon. But no one of these hypothesis is more probable than any other: they lie outside the region of even probable knowledge, and therefore there is no reason to consider any of them.” (1)
Here Russell is not merely placing a limit on the types of knowledge we can have, but he is also presenting a dilemma. What he is implicitly arguing is that if one wants to claim they know the Triune God exists and in order to be rational, this same person would have to acknowledge it is just as likely Zeus or Ra exists. The same arguments used to demonstrate the existence of the Christian God can be deployed in defense of Zeus’ existence, or that of today’s Flying Spaghetti Monster. But, a Christian will not want to concede that the same arguments they present for the existence of God also demonstrates the existence of Zeus, let’s say. So, the Christian must abandon any of their reasonable arguments for the existence of God and acknowledge the irrationality of their beliefs.
So, what we have is this issue of the many sorts of revelations about God which contradict each other. Surely if God exists, He would reveal Himself to us in a unique way such that it is irrefutable who is the one true God? However, we have all these mutually exclusive truth claims out of the various world religions. The odds that anyone of them has the truth about God are so improbable, that we have a better chance of winning by betting on God’s non-existence.
What is underlying Russell’s dilemma is empirical skepticism. If one wants to prove the existence of a supernatural being, such as God, then we must be able to produce supernatural evidence. That is, we should be able to find through experience the supernatural effects of our supernatural cause, God. Or, in simpler terms: if the gloves don’t fit you must acquit! Remember the OJ Simpson trial? Recall how he stood before the jury with that blood soaked glove and tried to squeeze it over his hand? His lawyers were pretty smart! They weren’t concerned about other reasons why that glove might have fit OJ’s hand before it became blood soaked. No, what Simpson’s lawyers wanted was for the jury to see that the glove didn’t fit, and so couldn’t have been his. Seeing is believing!
There in my example we find the skeptical appeal of Russell. Whatever reasons one will marshal out in defense of the Triune God’s existence, will not be appeals to physical evidence, but will be involve arguments grounded in presuppositions which aren’t supported by experience. So every such argument is subject to counterexamples involving so-called deities such as Zeus who are just as likely to exist as our own God. For Christians to be consistent we have to acknowledge we have merely provided bad reasons explaining the existence of the universe, for what we attribute to our God is also applicable to Zeus, but since we don’t want to prove the existence of Zeus or Ra, we must concede that what we have is merely wishful thinking and not a reasonable justification for our beliefs.
I would like to illustrate what Russell is claiming above with what I call The God Lottery. What Russell is presenting is that the probability for the existence of God is much less than the likelihood any one of us will win the Powerball Lottery. Russell, and strong atheists, thinks the statistical probability for the existence of God is a demonstrable fact much like the Powerball. Here is how this logic supposedly works. Through empirical data we can know how many of those buying Powerball tickets will not win the lucky draw. We can come up with ratios such as 1 in 175,223,510 will win the Powerball and we know this from experience. Likewise the strong atheist argues we know from experience it is improbable that God exists. They tells us the more we examine the world, the less inclined we are to believe that anything non-material could exist in the world and therefore cannot be the explanation for this material world we live in. The universe appears to be wholly material, from the largest star clusters to the smallest quantum. Everything in our experience is explainable without God, according to the strong atheist.
What I have illustrated is the skepticism of the strong atheist. The atheistic claim is not merely the agnostic’s shrug of the shoulder and a resounding “I don’t know.” Rather, the atheist is arguing the scope of human knowledge and claiming that what we can know is confined to what we deduce of the world via experience. All explanations of the phenomena we experience are to be given in physical terms, not by appeal to extraordinary events and beings which can’t be measured through scientific methods. It is upon this type of empirical skepticism (this “seeing is believing”) that the strong atheist builds his most common objections to theism.
As a pertinent side note, the strong atheist is arguing that at best these inconsistencies of revelation point to a psychological or anthropological explanation. Indeed, this is the explanation offered to us by a contemporary philosopher, Daniel Dennett, in his book, Breaking the Spell. There in Dennett offers us the works of modern day evolutionary biologists and anthropologists to make the case that all religions are “a social phenomenon designed (by evolution) to improve cooperation within (not among!) human groups”(2). As if evolutionary processes can be said to “design” anything at all!
Dennett goes on to argue it is significant we evolved in such a way as to be able to communicate through language. It is this evolutionary trait which affords us the ability to concoct stories about gods and demons, or whatever else we like, in order to make sense of the world. To support his claim Dennett marshals out an argument very similar to Russell’s inconsistencies of revelation to suggest that the origins of religions, and therefore of God is evolutionary, social, and psychological. In short, the idea that God exists isn’t because God actually exists. Rather, the concept of God is the evolutionary result of having a brain and language which affords humans something of a niche in survival.
To hold onto belief in God when given the inconsistency of revelation showing its absurdity, demonstrates that the Christian is holding an irrational belief. Irrational beliefs do not give us sufficient justification that what we believe is true. So the argument concludes that what the atheist knows about God is it is unlikely He should exist. The odds are much more in favor of some naturalistic explanation, not a supernatural one.
The purpose of pointing out the inconsistencies of revelation is to force the theist of any stripe into seeing their own illogic and direct them to some other explanation for why we are here. In short, the fact that long ago some believed in Zeus, Aphrodite, Ra, Shiva, or a council of gods perched atop a mountain somewhere, should inform us that if there is a God, as purported to exist by any one believer, then we shouldn’t find such a variety of revelations about his nature.
The upshot of the inconsistency from revelation objection is theists are bonkers for believing in God! Namely, theists don’t have a reasonable justification for their beliefs and therefore don’t have knowledge that God exists. The inconsistency of revelation simply increases the odds against God in the God Lottery and purportedly shows that the theist is guessing God exists.
In the next installment I will offer some thoughts about why the inconsistency from revelation objection fails.
1) Russell, Bertrand (1957) Why I am not a Christian, pp. 50-51, Simon and Schuster.
2) Dennett, Daniel C. (2007) Breaking the Spell, p. 106, Penguin Books.