Can we trust reason if God doesn’t exist?

Photo: Getty Images/DiatoZen
Photo: Getty Images/DiatoZen

I respond to the assertion that if the Christian god does not exist we cannot trust our own reasoning.

C.S. Lewis and other Christian apologists often formulate arguments such that an atheist has no grounds to trust their own reasoning faculties if it is the case that the universe were not designed by the Christian god. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Case for Christianity, explains,

“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, that gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But is so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? […] But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God” (Lewis, 32).

Lewis’ reasoning has several flaws. First, Lewis assumes that we cannot believe our reasoning faculties are reliable/trustworthy if it is the case that random processes (rather than a supreme intelligence) lead to thought. Why is this the case? Lewis merely, at least in this passage, only asserts that random processes do not provide justification for believing our thought faculties are available – that thought processes can only be thought of as reliable if a supreme intelligence had created them.

The process by which thought came to exist, I think, has no bearing on whether thought processes can be thought of as reliable, but rather looking at perhaps the results and analyzing the accuracy (in most cases) of said thought processes should lead to whether we can be justified in believing our thought processes are reliable.

As I explained in a piece refuting presuppositional apologetics, believing induction — that the future will resemble the past given sufficient trials or experiences — is reliable…and the circularity of induction is not only a problem for atheists, but also a problem for theists which — in order to start reasoning at all — ought to be believed lest we live reckless, destructive lives.

We can distrust out own thinking when we have good reasons to, but in tasks of everyday life we have very good reason to trust our thinking. We believe that our toothbrushes are not going to randomly fly out of our hands or harm us in some way. We understand that when we pour water from a pitcher water will empty into a glass and not spill. Because of tremendous experience with mundane life tasks (and even more complex tasks) we have good grounds to trust our reasoning; our thought processes are constantly vindicated when we are able to properly function as human beings. God, then, need not enter into explanations about justification for reasoning.phillyflight

Another flaw in Lewis’ piece surrounds ‘arguments for atheism’ – as if disbelief in Christian theology is only justified if atheists can raise successful counter-arguments. While several good counter-arguments exist to cast significant doubt upon Christian belief (problem of natural suffering; incompatibility between free will and divine foreknowledge; similar epistemological methods leading to different conclusions about religious beliefs…) , it is ultimately the case that without Christians advancing good arguments for Christian belief there is no good reason to suggest Christian belief is true [the burden of proof is on the Christian who makes a positive claim].

Third, why does Lewis privilege the Christian god over competing religious claims; that is, why assume that the creator of the universe is the Christian god? Lewis’ argumentation, if we accept it for sake of argument, can only lead someone to believe a creative intelligence which created the universe exists or existed. After all, the Christian god is not the only possible ‘greatest conceivable being.’

Finally, Lewis’ argument just reeks of ‘God of the gaps’ or ‘mystery therefore magic‘ reasoning. Because the atheist can’t give an accounting for thought processes without assuming the Christian god exists, Lewis asserts, the Christian god must exist. Centuries ago (and even in decades past) theists almost certainly have used this line of reasoning with other natural phenomena such as earthquakes, diseases, lightning, etc.; because there appeared to be no explanation for x phenomenon God must exist – only an explanation appealing to God is viable since no good competing explanations exist.

Even if the atheist has no accounting for reasoning (or any other phenomena), the theist is not justified in asserting that because something can’t be explained one has good reason to suggest the Christian god exists. The atheist can say ‘I don’t know.’ How ought one bridge the gap from ‘I don’t know’ to the Christian god did it…and the story of the resurrection, Holy Trinity, various miracles, a global flood, etc. are also true by the way.

A more modern version of Lewis’ argument is recast by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Watch Plantinga discuss his evolutionary argument against naturalism with atheist philosopher Stephen Law below.

As always, feel free to comment below.


“Turn your mind off” says Joel Osteen

Photo: D Dipasupil / Getty Images
Photo: D Dipasupil / Getty Images

I respond to Joel Osteen’s anti-intellectual encouragement for people to ‘turn their minds off’ and embrace faith.

Megachurch pastor Joel Osteen frequently advances a prominent anti-intellectual attitude of neglecting reason, argument, and evidence in favor of faith within a philosophically barren sphere of Christianity.

On October 2, Osteen wrote, “Faith is not in your head. Faith is in your heart. Sometimes you have to turn your mind off and listen to your heart.”

It is difficult to charitably interpret Joel Osteen’s comment particularly because his position appears to be self-refuting; Osteen advances what he would consider reasonable advice while simultaneously telling people to neglect using their minds which would be necessary for comprehending advice. Perhaps Osteen is being metaphorical — particularly because thought is a product of the brain and not the heart — and wants people to prioritizing feelings while neglecting anything which would seem to oppose feeling?

Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Osteen is not advancing what some Christians would call a reasonable faith or a combination of faith and reason which would warrant belief in the Christian god. Rather than providing reasons for Christian belief — without merely appealing to faith — Osteen advocates a position of ‘listening to the heart’ – a faulty approach to attaining justified true beliefs which ironically leads religious people of various denominations to radically different conclusions about the nature of the supernatural…and presumably also leads some to believe that no gods exist.

If Christian belief — or any belief for that matter — is worthy of consideration it should have no difficulty facing the greatest intellectual challenges. Rather than ‘turning the mind off,’ Christian adherents ought to, as 1 Peter 3:15 suggests, provide reasons for their belief in God. Besides, if there is good reason to suggest Christian belief is warranted, faith — in Osteen’s case, ‘listening to the heart’ — need not enter the picture.

I am extremely skeptical of someone who casts reason, argument, and evidence as something to be shunned – something to be ‘turned off’ – especially when very good reasons exist to doubt the claim being advanced. Osteen’s position, it seems, regarding Christians dealing with doubt, is not to rationally evaluate whether Christian beliefs should be maintained, but rather appears to be a suggestion to self-delude and neglect to wrestle with any challenges. Perhaps this position also further mires Osteen in an epistemological wasteland since this renders Christian belief is unfalsifiable — immune to revision — if it is the case that all challenges should be neglected in favor of faith.

Resorting to a position of telling others to ‘turn their minds off’ is a tactic of desperation and a huge red flag indicating that a claim may not stand to face intellectual rigor. Osteen offers a faulty epistemology with his anti-intellectual appeals. Christians should do much better than this. Are there any other areas in life in which people should ‘turn their minds off’ and ‘listen to their heart?’ If not, why take this approach when considering Christian belief?

As always, feel free to comment below.


Pharrell Williams is un’happy’ about atheists

Pharrell Williams Performs At Ziggodome In Amsterdam
Pharrell Williams Performs At Ziggodome In Amsterdam By: Paul Bergen

Singer Pharrell Williams has recently made several uninformed comments about atheists and demonstrated a lack of intellectual rigor in basic philosophical argumentation.

Pharrell Williams, perhaps most famously tied to his hit song ‘Happy,’ has spoken with a UK magazine about atheists, his supernatural beliefs, and more topics. The Christian Post particularly reports on Williams’ statements on matters of religious belief and atheists quoting Williams saying, “How do you see the stars and think there is nothing else out there? It’s so incredibly arrogant and pompous. It’s amazing that there are people who really believe that. It’s unbelievable.” Williams’ argument is similar to ‘god of the gaps’ argumentation or, as Dr. David Kyle Johnson calls it, ‘mystery therefore magic.’

Just because a phenomenon is unexplained or not sufficiently understood does not mean that it is proper to suggest God is responsible. Why privilege the god explanation, anyway, particularly inserting a Christian god into the equation? Why not instead say, ‘I do not know?’

At best, Williams’ argument could be rephrased to a more sophisticated cosmological argument for God’s existence, but even then the argument has significant problems as I have explained as a follow-up to my 2013 debate with a Christian pastor Michael Brewster. If everything that exists must have an explanation, would not God need an explanation? Can we extrapolate our causal reasoning on what we have experience with here on earth to events we have no experience with (creation of universes) at a cosmological or quantum level? Can a simple ‘there has to be a cause’ lead to supposed truths within Christian belief?

Reverend Brewster and I pose following our August 31 debate.
Reverend Brewster and I pose following our August 31 debate.

Perhaps it is not the atheist who is arrogant in saying ‘I reject Christian belief because there is no good reason, argument, or evidence to support its supernatural claims,’ but rather the Christian who is arrogant when claiming they are especially loved by the creator of the universe, saying they know what the creator of the universe wants for them, claiming to have trivial prayers answered while people — their prayers unanswered — die of malnutrition and natural disasters, and claiming have ongoing communication with the creator of the universe. I am not a fan of advancing these claims, but note so only to point that the assertion of arrogance can cut both ways.

Williams also casts doubt as something not to be prized saying, “Every person who doubts is another person unconverted to better ways of thinking.” Doubt, rather than something to be lamented, is something to be prized…and happens to be antithetical to arrogance; the person who doubts is anything but arrogant because they are willing to change their beliefs given good reason, argument, and evidence and admit that they aren’t certain. If the atheist did not doubt, of course, there would be arrogance, but since there is doubt there may not be arrogance.

Pharrell Williams should keep to his musicmaking and cease from making uninformed philosophical comments which should even embarrass most Christians who — although I find their arguments lacking — can demonstrate far more philosophical rigor than Williams. Hopefully he is ‘happy’ to receive some feedback.

As always, feel free to comment below.



Pope Francis and killing in God’s name

Pope Francis. (Photo credit TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis. (Photo credit TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

A response to Pope Francis’ lamentation of ‘distorted religion’ and others killing in the name of god

Pope Francis recently spoke in Albania condemning people who kill in the name of a god. He said, “To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege” – that “authentic religious spirit” is “perverted” when “extremist groups” appeal to a “distorted use of religion” to justify violence.

While Pope Francis is right to condemn violence, I can’t understand how he — as a Christian — can condemn religious-inspired violence when other religious people use similar thought processes a la divine command theory to arrive at moral conclusions. Further, how ought one establish what a ‘perversion of religion’ is considering that thousands of religions exist in the world containing adherents whose devotees are the next person’s blasphemers?

Divine command theory is the view that morality is grounded by sanction from a god. Religious individuals of various sects claim to have access to the word of a god through scripture, personal experience/revelation, and religious traditions. Although the Christian and the Muslim, for instance, hold competing beliefs, both generally claim to acquire knowledge and endorse divine command theory via similar mechanisms.

Pope Francis will say that the “authentic religious spirit” is not killing in the name of God while a member of Islamic State will say that the “authentic religious spirit” is killing in the name of God – that scripture, personal experience/revelation, and religious traditions call for individuals to murder. How can we determine who is right in this instance? Is is possible?

Scriptural interpretation leads to a tremendous amount of disagreement within religious sects; individual believers — including the most esteemed theologians/scholars — point at similar verses and arrive at wildly different conclusions. Personal experience/revelation is almost always wholly subjective; there is almost always no external verification for such experiences. Religious traditions, like scriptural interpretation, leads to vast disagreement and is subject to subjective interpretation.

Different groups, too, have competing ideas about what religious people ought to strive for whether it be reaching personal enlightenment, wholly submitting to an alleged divine being, bringing about a supposed divine being’s plan on earth and killing those who oppose it, alleviating suffering on earth, etc. Even within Christianity and Islam there is vast disagreement about what devotees ought to strive for.

Pope Francis interestingly focuses on what he considers to be the “authentic religious spirit” [not violence in the name of God] and wholly ignores atrocities said to have been committed and/or ordered by God throughout the Bible (a global flood slaughtering countless humans and animals, commands to commit genocide, command for a father to kill his son, a pact for a man to win a war in exchange for the death of a person who walks through a door…). History, too, is filled with Christians killing in the name of God. Are fellow Christians prepared to argue that their ancestors’ religious experiences/interpretations were not genuine while also believing that their religious experiences/interpretations are? Is the Muslim believing he has orders to kill in the name of God really much different than the Christian?

Since Pope Francis [and please correct me if I am wrong] believes that morality stems from God — that something is moral because God commands/endorses an action (divine command theory) — Pope Francis is in no position, unless he rejects divine command theory, to reject conclusions of people who believe that it is moral to kill because God commands killing. Francis says God considers killing to be wrong while some Muslims say Allah endorses killing in some circumstances. Under divine command theory, we are at an impasse. Why should Pope Francis’ knowledge claims about religious conclusions be taken more seriously than Islamic State’s? Can we show one conclusion as being more legitimate than the other?

Francis and others can surely argue that one religious tradition is wrong — that the personal experiences/revelation claimed by other religious adherents are not genuine i.e. explained through means other than supernatural interventions — but in doing so they are arguing against similar thought processes/justifications they use to defend their religious beliefs.

As always, feel free to comment below.

Another discussion with Pastor Dan Nichols

I recently spoke with Pastor Dan Nichols whose church, Restored Church in Wilkes-Barre, received national media attention following its display of a billboard reading “I Love Sex” – God.

In a recorded audio clip, we speak about the billboard, sex, sexuality, marriage, abortion, politics, marketing Jesus, Christian belief, atheism, philosophy, and much more.

Consider also watching our first recorded discussion — an open-to-the public conversation which took place in Restored Church — here. Also consider reading some of my recent pieces which are follow-ups (1, 2, 3) to the discussion we had.

As always, feel free to comment below and/or on the YouTube video.