Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Open to the Evidence - I Don't Believe It

I've heard atheists say things like "I'm open to the evidence, I'd believe in God if only there was evidence to actually show that he existed." or "If God came down from the sky and showed himself to me, I'd believe in him." In fact, it seems to me that many atheists particularly pride themselves on how 'open' they are to any position, so long as the evidence leads them to that position.

After pondering this subject for a bit, my conclusion is that I just don't think it's true. By that I mean, if a person automatically and presuppositionally excludes a whole class of evidence, they're not really being honest about 'being open to the evidence'. So, I've tried to put myself in the position of an atheist, and asked myself the question, 'What would I have to see in the way of evidence in order to have no choice but to believe that God exists?' The only thing I could come up with is some sort of very, very unusual – one could call it supernatural – event. For instance, the aforementioned “God coming down from the sky and showing himself to me” example is something I think would qualify.

Now, as I was thinking of all this, one of the arguments Christian apologists use to defend the faith kept popping into my head, the Moral Argument. I'm guessing this argument kept popping into my head because it is one of the more convincing ones for me personally. Don't get me wrong, I think the other more technical arguments such as the Cosmological, Anthropic Principle, ID, etc. have legs... but in all honesty, when the subject matter becomes that technically weighty, I soon reach a point where I begin to realize how much of an expert I am not in those areas. The Moral Argument, on the other hand, is one that is particularly appealing to me I think because it's one that I feel that I (along with every other human being) can be an 'expert' of sorts in. The reason I say this is because all human beings have a conscience, and all reasonable human beings recognize that there are absolute moral truths.

I won't take the time to exhaustively lay out every detail of this argument, as my intent is not to make it, or argue against its counter-arguments (such as that the whole thing is simply a byproduct of our species' evolution – herd instinct vs. self preservation, etc.). If you're interested in exploring the argument in more depth, feel free to examine some of the resources I'll mention.

Simply said though, it goes like this: If we can accurately identify just one moral absolute (eg... rape is wrong, it is wrong to murder babies) then we can safely say that there are absolute moral truths.

A few resources I've had my nose in lately that I think do a good job of laying it out in their own different ways are C.S. Lewis' “Mere Christianity” (specifically Book 1: RIGHT AND WRONG AS A CLUE TO THE MEANING OF THE UNIVERSE) and Chapter 7: Mother Teresa vs. Hitler of “I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist” by Geisler and Turek.

To quickly summarize Lewis' thoughts, allow me to quote from the last paragraph of the first chapter of Book 1.

“These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.”

So now, let me make the connection between my thoughts about the Moral Argument (as it is particularly compelling evidence to me) and my belief that atheists aren't really open to evidence. The connection happened for me when I was reading an article on the web, Morality as a Clue to God. I'll quote the author in order to show you the point he made that established the connection for me.

“If relativism is not tenable, then some form of absolutism is true. If absolute rules exist, this argues powerfully for the existence of an absolute Creator Who made those rules which apply to us and to Whom we are accountable. It's that simple.

It would be no clearer if God Himself appeared in front of you right now and tapped you on the shoulder. Because if that did happen you'd still have to ask yourself some questions. Is this really God? Am I hallucinating? Is it something I ate?"

So, this helped me answer the question I asked myself when I attempted to put myself in the atheists shoes. The question again... 'What would I have to see in the way of evidence in order to have no choice but to believe that God exists?' The only answer I could come up with was 'Nothing'. Here's why I say 'Nothing' is my answer to that question. Because of the nature of God (or as the atheist would have to say, the nature of what the Christian God claims to be), the only kind of evidence compelling enough to justify the existence of such a grandiose and infinite being would be evidence that is supernatural. If the evidence wasn't supernatural, it doesn't seem to me that it would be compelling enough to justify the existence of God.

But here's the problem. If the evidence is supernatural (God coming down from the sky and showing himself to you), then I'm pretty sure that if I was an atheist, and I was emotionally and intellectually invested in my position, I'd probably just come up with some excuse not to believe it... something akin to the 'hallucination' mentioned above.

The other thing to note in this arena is that this exact type of evidence, the supernatural kind, existed in abundance when Christ lived here on earth as a man. Resurrection from the dead, turning water into wine, healing a man who had been blind for life, etc are all examples of it. The interesting thing though is that none of this class of evidence, the supernatural kind, the only kind that is really capable of 'proving' God's existence (when I'm attempting to wear the atheist hat that is) was enough to convince all those who personally encountered Christ of much. Here I'm thinking of those who rejected him, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees.

This all of course is based on my assumption that when I'm trying to wear the atheist hat I have to reject supernatural evidence presuppositionally, because I don't believe in it. Which, the more I think about it, seems to be an untenable position. Untenable because, as an atheist, I think I'd have to say something like the following to make my case for why I have to reject supernatural evidence presuppositionally.

  • The only absolute truths are those that are demonstrable in the following ways:
    • Naturally observable
    • Mathematically provable
    • Provable by the laws of basic logic

The problem with the previous statement is that it makes an absolute truth claim, but it is not provable as true with any of the ways it prescribes as requirements, so it's self defeating. (I realize I'm setting up a straw man here, but I invite any errors I'm making with it to be pointed out.) Since the claim is self defeating, I'm not really sure what to do as a self respecting atheist at this point.

I grant that being open to the existence of an infinite, all-powerful God is far from embracing the Christian God and receiving salvation... but no one could do the latter without doing the former first.


demian said...

Got half way through and I couldn't help but commenting on what I read so far.

So the fact that there are fairly consistent morals throughout the world (of course with adherents of different religions) is the equivalent of God descending from heaven and tapping me on the shoulder?

Holy crap, just... holy crap.

Okay, it's simple. I'll try to break it down, I know we won't get anywhere but I have to try.

Imagine 2 tribes on the plains of Africa. One tribe has people who don't share their surplus food with their neighbors and they think murder is a cool way to fight the mid-day boredom.

The other tribe is full of people who share their surplus food and they think human life is a precious thing.

What tribe will prosper? What tribe will turn into a bigger society? What tribe will wither out of existence?

Rod said...

I just need some clarification, Bryan...

When you say that there is a moral absolute, "rape is wrong" does that absolute get an exception when God approves it or blames the victim instead of the rapist, as in Judges 21:10-24, Numbers 31:7-18, Deuteronomy 20:10-14, Deuteronomy 22:28-29, Deuteronomy 22:23-24, 2 Samuel 12:11-14, Deuteronomy 21:10-14, Judges 5:30, Exodus 21:7-11, and Zechariah 14:1-2

Bryan said...

Neither of you are addressing the assertion I'm making, namely that atheists aren't really open to evidence. Like I said in the post, the purpose of it was not to make or argue the Moral Argument... that's already been done many, many times, and the three of us aren't going to add anything new to either side of the argument. If any of us want to learn more about that argument and its counter-arguments, there are ample sources on both sides... I referenced a few on the Christian side in my post.

Rod - You bring up fair points that ought to be addressed, but the subject you bring up is a completely different subject than the original post. It is something that warrants another post entirely, which I will plan to do.

Demian - Even though you're addressing something that wasn't the focus of my post, I'll briefly comment on your thoughts. The answer to your question about which tribe will prosper isn't clear to me. I'd have to first hear your answer to my question... "Is the tribe who shares their surplus food willing to defend their lives by killing members of the other tribe if necessary?"

Regardless of where this back-n-forth goes though, it doesn't change two fundamental concepts.

1) The tribe who thinks murdering people is okay may think that, but it doesn't change the fact that it is absolutely morally wrong.

2) The concept that preserving ones life is the most important thing possible does not mesh with the idea that a human soul is an eternally existing thing. Temporal bodily existence pales in comparison to eternity.

Trying to get us back to the subject that I intended to address by the original post. I guess I was hoping to hear responses like this:

Here's the kind of evidence that it would take for me to actually believe that God exists: __________
It's obvious that for the two of you, the Moral Argument doesn't cut it. So I'm asking, what would?

Rod said...


I think what you're basically saying is that atheists aren't as open to the evidence as they like to think. We always say it would take one miraculous event to convince us, but in reality we'd probably dismiss it as a hallucination.

I think you're probably right. Everyone who says they are open minded are less open minded than they like to think. I probably would dismiss a miraculous event as a hallucination. I might need two, or three, to really buy it.

I think that's true for everyone. I imagine if I made a time machine, took a Christian back to the time of Jesus, and showed the way that the bible is exaggerated, and that he was just a normal human, I'd get a bunch of responses such as saying that Jesus was just relaxing for the period of time we observed, and he probably turned water into wine minutes after we left. Or that the scientist with the time machine was trying to trick people. Or that by merely going back in time, we changed it. Or that we went back to a parallel version of the timeline because the machine doesn't work right. Hell, I could imagine an entire branch of "science", funded by Christian groups, devoted to debunking the validity of the time machine.

People aren't as open minded as they like to think in general.

That being said, there is SOME amount of evidence that would convince me. Any evidence short of that amount would make me wonder, but likely not convince me all the way. I may be inaccurate about EXACTLY HOW MUCH evidence I need, but I know that I *COULD* be convinced, with evidence.

Rod said...

I'd like to also add:

Though *I* may be inaccurate about the exact amount of evidence I would need to be convinced, a god certainly wouldn't be.

So if god WERE to decide to provide me enough evidence to convince me, s/he would know exactly how much evidence I would need.

Brad said...

I will take a swing at the off topic question of "What tribe will prosper?"

From a purely biological standpoint, the tribe that does not share and thinks murder is ok, has a higher probability of survival.

By giving away resources, the first tribe lowers it's overall fitness.

By allowing or encouraging murder, the second tribe will cull out weaker members, and will over time reach an equilibrium of strong members. Those strong members will no longer have to carry a greater workload, foraging and hunting to support the weaker members. Also the second tribe, would be better equipped to defend its territory as they will have raised their killing ability, defensive posture, and surely would have honed its killing instinct.

There are many examples in nature of these types of tribes : prides of Lions, packs of Hyenas, packs of Wolves.

Even if the murdering tribe is indiscriminate with its murdering and they all in one instant begin murdering each other till all but one are dead, the preservation of ones own life over another's life, leads to the question of the sanctity of a single members life over the life of another. If the tribe fights to survive, then they are in fact acknowledging a moral absolute. Theirs is "Murder is wrong, if I am the one being murdered."

In fact, in nature the murdering groups often begin to protect weaker members of the society if those weaker members provide methods for self preservation.
Females of the species are protected so offspring can be born. Offspring are protected so that genes can be passed along. So the moral absolute becomes "Murder is ok, unless it affects me"

The sharing tribe, ends up with the same moral absolute. When that tribe or one of its neighboring "shared with" tribes are attacked by some third party. They will defend themselves, killing when necessary. Again, many examples throughout the animal kingdom are proof.
Docile groups when provoked will defend themselves, and will kill. Murder is ok, unless it affects them. When they or their sharing neighbors are murdered it is not ok.

This all has little to do with Bryans' "Moral Absolute" argument, and more to do with biology.
In fact, it is some of the basic arguments that natural selection and biology are the reasons why there exists "Moral Absolutes". However, it leads to Bryans' question of, if the Moral Argument does not provide the "type" of evidence that atheist are open too, what type would they be open too?

In addition, which type of tribe would you rather live? The murdering tribe, while likely to flourish, would be a horrible existence. The sharing tribe would be preferable, but we would certainly want to work at raising the moral absolutes of those nearby such that the moral code could become "Murder is wrong", but what sort of evidence could they offer to prove that it is an absolute?

I think that Bryans argument, starts to have more impact when we do not look at a single moral issue, rather when groupings of moral absolutes, moral codes, and generalized conducts, are in play. When one thing leads to another, like a decision tree, or web of moral activity. Certainly all people stray off course of a given set, but does the society as a whole try to maintain those moral codes. Do they
struggle against the same moral issues. That struggle and agreement, lends itself to the idea that there is a root to the thinking. A place where all the moral absolutes begin.

Bryan said...


I was re-reading your comment, and it dawned on me after reading a particular portion of it that you and I aren't talking about the same things.

You make a reference to "fairly consistent morals throughout the world". That is not what I'm talking about when I refer to moral absolutes. Moral absolutes are not nearly so nebulous, benign and wishy washy.

I'm talking about an absolute moral truth. I'll give another example, one that ought to resonate well with the both of us, since we both have children we love very much.

Allow me to make the clearcut assertion that it is absolutely morally wrong to murder a child. (To be clear, I am saying that it always has been and always will be, regardless of time or cultural norms.)

The 1stquestion is... Do you disagree my assertion?

I'm going to assume that you do not disagree with me so I can move this a little farther along (but correct me if I'm making a bad assumption).

Moving ahead from the point where we agree the aforementioned case of the murder of a child is morally wrong, the 2nd question is... why?

Why is that wrong?

demian said...

I'm not sure I buy into the concept of absolutes. We've killed plenty of children in Iraq and we think we're moral.

Is it morally wrong to ask someone to kill their child? Why would Abraham go along with killing his son Isaac (before being stopped by god)? Was the fictional Abraham immoral?

From a biological perspective it's not advantageous to kill your off-spring. It undermines your ability to carry on your genes. Carrying that on to a larger scale it makes sense to me that communities would thrive that think it's not good to kill children.

It's interesting that this moral issue to me is a "non-starter" while to you it's as conclusive proof as you can get.

Do people that aren't Christians have morals? Was it moral to kill children before Jesus? Was it moral to kill children 4,000 years prior to that? Do you think atheists believe it's moral to kill children?

This is where you hear that god created everyone (Christian or not) with morals.

This may seem like a tangent but this reminds me of "the atheists nightmare". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zwbhAXe5yk

Kirk Cameron and What-his-face say that the banana is conclusive proof that someone created bananas for us. It's bright, it fits our hand perfectly.

Unfortunately the conclusion you come to entirely depends on how you approach the situation. I, knowing at a high level how evolution works, think that Bananas and pretty much any fruit have adapted to catch our eye and the eyes of other animals. This is so we eat it and drop the seeds somewhere else.

Bananas went through the same natural selection humans have gone through.

Again, that's not the crux of my argument. I'm just taking a step back and realizing that the conclusions we come to are entirely determined by our approach.

Bryan said...

I'll definitely agree with you that our conclusions are interpretations of facts that fit our respective world views.

The problem with this back and forth at this point is that you and I don't seem to agree on the facts. I've made a strong and clear-cut assertion that murdering a child is absolutely morally wrong. You raise many questions of your own (children killed in a war in Iraq, the real Abraham and his son probably ought to be addressed the same time I blog in response to Rod's multiple references to God approving/allowing/condoning evil, people that aren't Christians still being able to have some morals, some such thing about bananas), and yet you've not clearly and unequivocally addressed the question I raised.

Namely... is it absolutely wrong (absolutely immoral) to murder children? (Let me be clear about motive... I'm not talking about any type of situation where a sane person could argue for it being okay, such as a euthanasia scenario, or that there was some situation where the killing of one child would spare the lives of many others, etc... I'm talking about the motive being something on the level of murdering a child... because the murderer felt like it.)

My answer to that question, as I've given previously, is that IT IS ABSOLUTELY WRONG to murder a child.

If your answer is different than mine to that question, then at the least, you’re creating a philosophical system that you would have no interest whatsoever in living in (one where I, or anyone else, could murder your child on a whim, and there would be nothing wrong with that) and at the most you’re not being honest for some reason (not being honest because to be consistent with your stated philosophy because you would have no reason to become angry with something who murdered your child because they felt like it).

If you agree with me… if you’ll draw a line in the sand and say ‘It is absolutely morally wrong to murder a child’ (with all the aforementioned disclaimers on motives), then the next question, that I also posed earlier, is why?

Maybe I am missing your answer. You mentioned how you could see how it would be biologically advantageous to us to not kill our children. Is that your answer then? That it is [morally] okay to murder a child so long as there’s a valid biological justification for it?

demian said...

Well I kind of answered your question in as much as I said that I don't believe in absolutes. I believe in moral relativism. I could imagine an incredibly contrived situation where I would feel justified in murdering a child.

Saying that, I don't see any inconsistency in my belief system. I don't think it's right to kill children in general. I wouldn't think it's right for anyone to kill my children, to put it mildly.

Humans have created laws to encourage an orderly society. You don't have to be a moral absolutist to believe that some laws are a good thing. We have proof of societies codifying laws before the earliest Jews were borrowing the flood story from neighboring cultures for their own fables.

demian said...

RE: Bryans comment...

You mentioned how you could see how it would be biologically advantageous to us to not kill our children. Is that your answer then? That it is [morally] okay to murder a child so long as there’s a valid biological justification for it?

In that, I'm saying that there are evolutionary and biological reasons for societies to develop altruism. If you share genes then it's to your advantage to protect them.

The individual organism isn't thinking, "Oh crap, a bus, I need to save my genes before they get hit." Just like when you see curves on a female you aren't thinking, "I need to propegate my genes."

Rod said...


Imagine that a child, age 6, is born with a virus that stays hidden for all of his life. On his seventh birthday, this virus 'activates', and unfortunately it is extremely contagious. By the end of the week, 99% of the Earth's population is dead.

Luckily, you are part of a secret government agency that has been experimenting with time travel. You are locked in the lab (if you or your team go outside, you will catch the virus and die). Food is scarce, and you could survive for one more day. Your time machine is very flawed, and can only go back in time by one week.

You have the option of going back in time and stopping the kid's virus from spreading, but unfortunately the only way to do that is to kill him. Do you go back in time and kill the kid, or do you refuse to use the machine and allow yourself to starve in your lab, ensuring Earth's doom?

It would seem, in this case, difficult to say that killing the kid is absolutely and totally 100% wrong. It certainly is an unfortunate choice to make, but it would seem that killing the kid, in this case, is right.

Seem a little to sci-fi?

Imagine instead a set of twins, joined at the heart. The heart is not powerful enough to pump blood to both bodies. Within a year, both children will die if nothing is done. The only other choice is that one of the children is surgically removed from the other, so that the other may live. The one that is removed would die.

Again, not an easy choice to make by any stretch. Do you wait a year to see if any artificial heart might work? You risk them both dying then. If you pick one of the kids, which one do you pick? This situation actually happens (rarely, but it does happen) and some people ARE faced with this extremely difficult burden.

If your question is "Is it absolutely, 100%, always wrong no matter what, to kill a child?" then another way of rephrasing it is "Is it impossible to conceive of a situation in which murdering a child is the right thing to do?"

Well, I just thought of two. I'm sure someone more imaginative than me could think of even more. You may be able to come up with ways of avoiding the choice, like "I try to use my one day left to make the time machine capable of going further into the past, then I travel to the past and give myself enough time to find a cure." but that's just avoiding the issue - I could think of a limiting factor that makes your solution impossible, and back and forth forever until you either admit that you'd kill the kid, violating your ABSOLUTE MORALITY, or you'd allow millions of people to die, which surely has to violate some other rule of absolute morality.

I believe that there is a such thing as objective morality, but based on my understanding of how you are defining absolute morality, I'm not sure I can agree that exists. You can always think of a reason why doing something awful is still the right thing to do.

Side Note:

The problem with the god's morality argument is this:

Take any action, X, that is immoral because God says it is immoral.

Now, ask God why X is immoral.

He will either tell you the exact reason he has decided for X to be moral, or he will tell you it's immoral because he said so.

If it's immoral for no reason, then God's rules are arbitrary, and not worth following.

If he has a reason, then THAT is the reason reason X is immoral. God telling you it was immoral was a helpful guide, but it's not the reason in and of itself.

Bryan said...


First, your examples are valid. That was my point about throwing out all possible motives that a sane person could use to justify killing a child (you have your time machine/virus and conjoined twin examples, I mentioned euthanasia and one child's death resulting in the saving of many lives). I'm narrowing the granularity of my statement to make the point more clearly.

To be clear about what I'm saying...

Is it absolutely morally wrong to murder a child (given that the motive was not one of the aforementioned four, that there was no evolutionary or biological advantage to society in the child dieing... but that the motive was that the person doing the murdering arbitrarily and whimsically felt like and decided to kill the child)?

Secondly, your notion of requiring God to justify why this thing or that thing is immoral seems akin to asking God to justify why 1 + 1 = 2 or why the rules and laws of logic work they way they do (both things I believe you, more than the average Joe, are particularly fond of).