Response to Reverend Brewster’s moral argument

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

During the August 31 “Does the Christian god exist?” debate within Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania’s Mount Zion Baptist Church I participated in alongside Reverend Michael Brewster, I responded to a variation of the moral argument for God’s existence. I would like to address some of his points following the debate. Watch a video of the debate and listen to an audio-only version of the debate to better understand this piece.

Reverend Brewster advanced various problematic assertions in his opening statement and throughout the debate in his attempt to demonstrate the existence of the Christian god: (1) if the laws of morality are not revealed by a transcendent mind, morality is relative, (2) God reveals the laws of morality through reason and logic, (3) without absolute morality we cannot have laws, and (4) God is the source of morality.

As presented, I do not find Reverend Brewster’s argument to be valid (premises properly leading to a conclusion) or sound (having true premises). Before examining the strength of the presented premises, Brewster’s argument begs the question; he assumes what he is trying to demonstrate when he states God reveals morality inside his argument attempting to show God exists.

A reformulation of Brewster’s argument, as follows, may be more helpful:
(1) If the laws of morality are not revealed by a transcendent mind, morality is relative.
(2) Morality is not relative; objective moral values exist.
(3) A transcendent mind exists.

Brewster’s argument, at best, leads to the conclusion that a transcendent mind exists, but through the argument we do not know the characteristics of such a transcendent mind – namely those which constitute the Christian god. In his opening statement, Brewster said that the Christian god is a transcendent, intelligent, infinite, and all-powerful being from which all things move and exist. Also consider the fact that most Christians, including Brewster, although he did not mention this in his opening statement, believe that God sent his only son Jesus to earth in order to die on a cross for a redemption of sins. The moral argument cannot possibly demonstrate all of this.Debate Newspaper Ad
Before arriving at the conclusion and assuming the argument is sound — having true premises — it’s worth examining the strength of the premises.

Premise one, as I indicated in the debate, poses only two choices when more exist: either morality is relative or objective/absolute. I did not hear support for this premise during the debate other than assertions that humans, when left to their own devices, may disagree with others concerning right and wrong. It was not my responsibility, as I noted several times in the debate, to give an ‘atheist-friendly’ accounting for morality; since Brewster brought the argument forth, he needs to show that his premises are true.

Besides, the history of philosophy and moral thought has contained many approaches to establishing moral truths such as virtue ethics, deontogy, consequentialism, utilitarianism…and divine command theory. Divine command theory — an ethical approach asserting that morality is that revealed by a deity or deities — is one of the most failed ethical approaches in philosophy, yet this is the moral approach Brewster advocates.

Divine command theory faces a serious challenge known as the Euthyphro Dilemma: is that which is moral moral because God commands it or because it is endorsed by God? If morality is established as a result of a divine command, morality is arbitrary because God could command slaughter of innocents and other moral atrocities (as he does in the Bible, as I noted in the debate). If we can know something is moral because it is endorsed by God, there must be some external standard by which something is deemed moral.

Additionally, if we could rule out the Christian god as being a candidate for establishing objective or absolute morality, moral arguments fail to establish that the Christian god exists. I also fail to see how the moral argument leads to the Christian god existing instead of, for instance, an all-evil God who — through establishing that which is evil and good — may exist.

Finally, Reverend Brewster needs to demonstrate that objective moral values exist in order to properly advance his argument. Statements such as ‘we just know what is right and wrong,’ as I heard in the debate is not sufficient.

Reverend Brewster’s moral argument — riddled with multiple problems — fails to establish the existence of the Christian god.

As always, feel free to comment below. Consider watching a video of the debate and listening to an audio-only recording of the debate. Stay tuned for more post-debate thoughts.

“Does the Christian god exist?” debate video

I debated Reverend Michael Brewster on the topic of “Does the Christian god exist?” on August 31, 2013 in Mount Zion Baptist Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Following is a video recording of the debate:

Consider reading my after-thoughts concerning the debate and a transcript of my opening statement. I also hope to provide more thoughts concerning this debate in future pieces. An audio-only recording is also available.

Enjoy and, as always, feel free to comment below.

Debate opening statement

Debate Newspaper AdFollowing is the opening statement I typed prior to my August 31 “Does the Christian god exist?” debate with Pastor Michael Brewster in Mount Zion Baptist Church of Wilkes-Barre, PA. Listen to the debate here.

Thank you, Pastor Brewster, for your opening statement and agreeing to have this debate in your church – the first of its kind open to the public debate in this area as far as I know. Thanks to everyone in the audience for showing interest in and engaging with this important topic.

I hope this will be an educational opportunity which leads people to thoughtfully consider their beliefs pertaining to religion and have the willingness to challenge them. Our beliefs, especially those relating to religion, can have a great impact on our actions – informing our political decisions, dictating how we treat others, and determining how we live our lives. Some, because of their religious beliefs, will drastically change their lives…but what if certain religious beliefs happened to be false?

What if opposition to birth control, sex education, and abortion – mainly because of religious reasons – happened to be unwarranted and dramatic increases in population, unplanned teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and correlated poverty – could be avoided? What if ideas suggesting that LGBT individuals are abominations not deserving of the same legal opportunities that many straight individuals have – mainly because of religious beliefs – were unwarranted? What if slaughter of animals dictated by religious teachings was unwarranted? These is just a sample of harm religious beliefs can bring about.

Religious beliefs can have a significant impact on our lives. I hope that people will thoughtfully consider their religious beliefs and be concerned with truth rather than what happens to feel good, which traditions one was born into, or wishful thinking. We should be concerned with whether our beliefs – especially those which matter most in our lives – are true or not.

Tonight I will present a case for why I do not believe the Christian god exists. I am an atheist, first and foremost, because I do not find sufficient reason, argument, or evidence to believe any gods exist. An atheist merely lacks belief in any gods – nothing more, nothing less. In addition to not finding compelling reasons to believe any gods exist, I find compelling reasons to believe that the Christian god does not exist.

During tonight’s debate, I will be arguing against the proposition “Does the Christian God Exist?” by providing two distinct arguments: the evidential problem of natural suffering and the problem of divine hiddenness.

Argument One: The evidential problem of natural suffering

The problem of natural suffering is well-known throughout the history of philosophy and is one which many, including religious believers, find compelling. Even Christians, confident in their belief in God, have a very difficult time reconciling natural suffering with belief in an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful god. The problem is echoed quite plainly in the 1964 film “The Masque of the Red Death” starring Vincent Price who says “Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it? Famine, pestilence, war, disease, and death! They rule this world!”

How can an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing god coexist with natural calamities throughout history – having nothing to do with human action – such as deathly birth defects, late-term miscarriages, and deathly diseases; devastation of communities by famines, tsunamis, earthquakes, and other natural disasters; and a predatory food chain in which species must kill and consume other species in order to survive?  

Throughout most of human history, when medicine and technology was not at the level it is today, people died at very young ages from cholera, smallpox, yellow fever, plagues, tuberculosis, whooping cough, and malaria. Many of these problems are still widespread today in underdeveloped countries. Can we really say that this is the handiwork of an all-loving perfect god?

The world would be a much better place, almost everyone realizes, if this natural suffering did not exist. All of our moral intuitions point to the conclusion that natural suffering is a horrible thing – something we would be much better off without. If we were able to stop or avoid natural calamities, we would. In fact, we attempt to. We erect flood walls, inoculate ourselves with medicines, flee dangerous areas, and use technology to anticipate natural disasters. When disasters happen, we mourn and donate – realizing tragedy that we would be better off without.

While reasons for belief in the Christian god may seem compelling – such as the complexity of the universe dictating a designer – such reasons are challenged by the existence of so much natural suffering. Even if we were to grant, for the sake of argument, that there are reasons to believe some designer exists, this is a far leap from an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving god who sent his son Jesus to die on a cross for the forgiveness of mankind’s sins.

After all, a being, other than the Christian god, could have created the universe. The universe may also be accounted for by natural causes. Who knows? Mere complexity and unanswered questions should not rightly lead us to the conclusion that an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing being created the universe. How is it that we infer moral and other properties from what we perceive as complexity in the universe? It takes more to lead us from complexity to design to an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful being.

Lack of an answer does not give us warrant to suppose anything – and this process has a track record of failure. Throughout history, the unexplained has become explained. We no longer need to use gods to explain mental illness, famine, earthquakes, or the germ theory of disease. As science explains more, God explanations are reduced to gaps as what we used to believe was the work of God is explained through natural causes.

Surveying the egregious amount of natural suffering in the universe should lead us to a conclusion that an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing being does not exist – this universe is not what we would expect had such a being created it and remained active in human affairs. For if such natural calamities were not the handiwork of the Christian god, however they came about, such a god could easily put a stop to it, but instead – from the view of many Christians who continue to believe God exists despite such calamities – does nothing.

I pose an evidential challenge to belief in God – namely that evidence of the egregious amount of natural suffering in the world provides us good reason to reject the claim that an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing Christian god exists.

Argument Two: The problem of divine hiddenness

The fact that the Christian god wants people, according to Christian belief, to come into communion with and worship him, at least partially to avoid the punishment of eternal torment in Hell and experience whatever benefits knowledge of God’s existence may bring, yet does not make his existence obvious to all poses a serious challenge to Christian belief.

Philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche once said, “A god who is all-knowing and all-powerful and who does not even make sure his creatures understand his intentions – could that be a god of goodness?”

If God exists, and wants people to believe he exists, God’s existence would be obvious to a point where non-belief would be completely unreasonable – as unreasonable as us here today denying the existance of the sun, moon, and clouds. Surely an all-knowing and all-powerful god would know how to make his existence known and have the ability to reveal himself so that all would believe – yet we do not have such knowledge of God; God has not revealed himself to everyone so that they believe.

Since severe punishment – eternal torment in Hell – comes with non-belief, and God is all-loving – God would want to reveal himself to everyone so that they would believe and avoid Hell – but this doesn’t happen.

Under Pastor Brewster’s idea of God, I was created in such a way that I would – at this point in my life – not believe god existed. God, on Pastor Brewster’s view, endowed me with certain cognitive faculties and, since God is believed to be omniscient, knew what my future would be. Despite knowing my future — that I would not believe – I am condemned to an eternity of torment in Hell – all of which could be avoided if God were to make his existence obvious and reveal himself to humanity so that no reasonable challenge could be made to his existence. In addition to me going to Hell, all other non-believers and believers in other gods, are consigned to eternal torment which could be avoided if God had taken the time to reveal himself.

If the Christian god exists, and is going to punish people for eternity for simply not believing he exists, he is quite the un-loving being sitting around while I and many others persist in my non-belief unsatisfied with the reasons presented by believers in God.

God, too, must be content while people of other religious belief systems happen to be born in the wrong time and culture – believing in other gods than they would if they they were born in the United States with a devout Christian family who indoctrinates their children.

Muslims and Hindus today, in addition to people throughout history with different religious belief systems, have died and will die lacking belief in the Christian god – and, through no fault of their own, will, under Pastor Brewster’s belief, be tormented for eternity simply because they didn’t believe in the right god and were not exposed to reason for belief which could have been provided by God. This situation gives me great reason to doubt the existence of the Christian god.

If the Christian god existed, we would expect him to reveal himself to everyone so they may – as the Christian god desires, under Pastor Brewster’s view – become aware of his existence and avoid eternal punishment in Hell. Since the Christian god does not do this – and many throughout the world do not believe the Christian god exists – it is reasonable, especially when considering the grievous punishment such a god would want the humans he loves to avoid, to believe that the Christian god does not exist.

To recap, natural calamities throughout earth including natural disasters, deathly birth defects, deathly diseases, and a predatory food chain provides evidence against an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing god who would have, if he existed, created the earth in a different way to put a stop to such calamities.

The hiddenness of the Christian god is incompatible with the nature of such a god; if an all-loving being existed which wants all humans to believe in its existence – and punishes them with eternal torment if they do not believe – such a being would reveal itself so that people could come to know him and avoid eternal torment.

If we are to believe the Christian god exists, we must believe that a being who wants everyone to know he exists to reap benefits and avoid eternal punishment in Hell just sits by, failing to reveal himself to everyone, while millions are on the road to torment through no fault of their own.

If we are to believe the Christian god exists, we must believe that the best creation of an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful being contains earthquakes, tsunamis, and devastating diseases annihilating humans. Not only did this being devise such a plan, but also does nothing to cease these calamities.

I cannot honestly believe in such a god and hope that you will do the same.

Thank you.

Post-debate thoughts

JVLast night I debated Reverend Michael Brewster of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA on the topic of “Does the Christian god exist?” within his church. Pastor Shawn Walker of First Baptist Church joined us as the moderator and the audience — composed of crying babies, young children, teenagers, young adults, older adults, and senior citizens — included approximately 70 people.

The structured debate lasting about 80 minutes — including opening statements, first rebuttals, second rebuttals, closing statements, and a question & answer session with comments from the audience — went quite smoothly thanks to assistance from Pastor Walker.

Following the debate, I primarily spoke with members of Rev. Brewster’s congregation who thanked me for attending and inviting Rev. Brewster to debate. Some, presumably well-meaning, said they would pray for me. One said that she “just knows” I believe in God because she “can see it in [my] eyes”. Another told me she “just knows” God exists because she was freed of addiction following calling out to God. Some said they really enjoyed the event and are looking forward to future interactions. One person unexpectedly said I was “right.” One Christian, saying she was thinking about me while browsing Christian books in a bookstore, gave me a book. Another Christian said she would mail me books and DVDs.

A cordial debate about religious belief — likely the first of its kind in Northeastern Pennsylvania — went well and was well-attended. Many parishioners who likely have never heard such a debate or encountered arguments against their religious beliefs had a chance to think critically about their beliefs and consider (or reconsider) some doubts. Images people may have had of the ‘nasty, angry, uncivil, rude, foolish, irrational atheist’ have hopefully been dispelled.

Pastor Brewster — who told me that he wasn’t much of a debater and is not practiced at debating or apologetics — courageously accepted my debate challenge and prepared for the debate. Brewster agreed to debate, offered his church as a venue, invited members of his congregation to attend, and made a good effort to debate. Pastor Brewster’s hospitality, and the hospitality of his church staff, on the day of the debate was also excellent; the venue was prepared for the debate and my needs were attended to.Debate Newspaper Ad

I hope to have more events like this in the future — whether they are debates or not — and engage with religious believers in cordial open to the public discussions which are educational opportunities for the community. Sadly, as far as I know, events like these are not common – at least in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Thanks again to Pastor Brewster, Pastor Walker, all who attended in person, and those who listened online.

I hope to follow-up with thoughts concerning the content of the debate. I will reproduce my opening statement, elaborate on my responses to the material Pastor Brewster presented, and detail problems I found with Pastor Brewster’s case for the Christian god. Stay tuned.

Listen to the audio recording of the debate here.