In the last couple of days, I have been exchanging emails with a believer in Australia. I haven’t been called mate since I was in Australia some 9 years ago, just before I retired from the military. I enjoyed my time in the land down under, and the people there were very nice. Oh, and I was a believer then, and corresponded with other believers there for some time after my short stint in Townsville Aus.
The reason I make special mention of this exchange is that in her letters I recognize some of the thinking I myself once held dear. Now that I am free from religious dogma, and have been for the past few years, I think it is interesting to observe how fallacious her arguments are. I once thought this same approach with unbelievers to be effective, yet now I am embarrassed to realize how infantile I was in my thinking. This is not to imply I think I have nothing more to learn, no, it is just a realization of how much I didn’t know then, yet how arrogant I was in my ignorance.
She posted to about half a dozen articles and letters on my website, to which I delayed in responding. She wanted to be sure I saw what she had to say so then she emailed me directly. Finally I responded with a short letter refuting her contentions. I am posting the whole exchange to my site and can be read by clicking HERE.
The main points I want to address:
1) Her first contention is that it is apparent “that nothing anyone can say to you is going to change your mind – nothing.” While it is true that I write emphatically and that my mind set is such that I can now rightly call myself by the name atheist, it was not always so. I spent 30 years as a die-hard fundamentalist Christian. However, even then my theology changed and developed as I discovered evidence that my thinking was lacking or skewered on one topic or other. Finally, after a lifetime of Christian life and service, I realized that religion generally and Christianity in particular just doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. The contradictions in the bible, the lack of historical support for the miraculous stories all over the bible, the opposition to good science demonstrated in the bible and throughout the history of Christendom began the unraveling of my commitment. The general denigration of human wisdom and learning taught in both the Old and New Testaments and the way Christianity has played out in history and reality felled the final blows that destroyed my faith. You might say my reason won out in the battle for my mind. While she accuses me of being unable to change my mind no matter what anyone says, I say that this is a prime example of the pot calling the kettle black as the old cliché goes.
2) “I am living my life, so if I die and there is no God, then I lose nothing. I lived a good life!” Now I wonder if this is valid or not as an apologetic for living a lie. Should we attempt to heal individual suffering from delusion, if they are happy with their fantasy life? If someone believes they are Napoleon Bonaparte, and they are harm to neither themselves nor others, is that then a good life? It might be reasonably argued by some that a happy delusion is preferable to an unhappy reality, but personally, I prefer to face reality squarely in the face. Of course also to be considered in this statement is the fact that she obviously accepts only Yahweh to be GOD. What if one of the other deities believed in by millions of people around the globe and in history turns out to be the right one. Perhaps living for the wrong god will suffer stiffer penalties then those who serve none at all. Anything is possible when people bring invisible friends into their version of reality.
3) “I do not want to rumble with you alright!” “However, if I do see stuff that I believe is twisted about the Bible or about the Church, then I will say something! So which is it? No, I suppose you do not want an argument, which is why the half a dozen posts and the veiled accusations were written if I respond in any way that appears even the slightest bit adversarial. Finally: “Neither can you by any scientific experiment prove that God doesn't exist! If you come up with something, heck, let me know and I'll ring all the TV stations so that we can all watch you do it!” I love this one more than any other that is thrown at me. By the way, that fallacious argument is thrown about like confetti. Oh, and I admit, I also threw it about in my day. Of course proving a negative on almost any item of interest is impossible. This type of argument is popularly known as “Burden of Proof.”
Burden of Proof is a fallacy in which the burden of proof is placed on the wrong side. Another version occurs when a lack of evidence for side A is taken to be evidence for side B in cases in which the burden of proof actually rests on side B. A common name for this is an Appeal to Ignorance. This sort of reasoning typically has the following form:
A. Claim X is presented by side A and the burden of proof actually rests on side B.
B. Side B claims that X is false because there is no proof for X.
In many situations, one side has the burden of proof resting on it. This side is obligated to provide evidence for its position. The claim of the other side, the one that does not bear the burden of proof, is assumed to be true unless proven otherwise. The difficulty in such cases is determining which side, if any, the burden of proof rests on. In many cases, settling this issue can be a matter of significant debate. In some cases the burden of proof is set by the situation. For example, in American law a person is assumed to be innocent until proven guilty (hence the burden of proof is on the prosecution). As another example, in debate the burden of proof is placed on the affirmative team. As a final example, in most cases the burden of proof rests on those who claim something exists (such as Bigfoot, psychic powers, universals, and sense data).
Examples of Burden of Proof
a. Bill: "I think that we should invest more money in expanding the interstate system."
Jill: "I think that would be a bad idea, considering the state of the treasury."
Bill: "How can anyone be against highway improvements?"
b. Bill: "I think that some people have psychic powers."
Jill: "What is your proof?"
Bill: "No one has been able to prove that people do not have psychic powers."
c. "You cannot prove that God does not exist, so He does."
In conclusion: “I am a thinking person, and I don't just accept something because it sounds good! Even with the ones standing behind the pulpit, I check out what they say too! I can't just accept something! I can't - that's not me! So, it was a thinking person along with many others who have gone before me (thinking people - even atheist scientists!) that accepted Christ as Lord.” This too is a fallacious argument known as “The Appeal to Authority” which uses admiration of a famous person to try and win support for an assertion. For example:
"Isaac Newton was a genius and he believed in God."
This line of argument isn't always completely bogus; for example, it may be relevant to refer to a widely-regarded authority in a particular field, if you're discussing that subject. For example, we can distinguish quite clearly between:
"Hawking has concluded that black holes give off radiation"
"Penrose has concluded that it is impossible to build an intelligent computer"
Hawking is a physicist, and so we can reasonably expect his opinions on black hole radiation to be informed. Penrose is a mathematician, so it is questionable whether he is well-qualified to speak on the subject of machine intelligence.
I could say more, but that is enough for now.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)