B.C. Askins

The Man With the Golden Gun

Does God Exist? A Debate (6): Atheist Conclusion, Dan Courtney

(Dan Courtney is the President of the Freethinkers of Upstate New York. He lives near Rochester, NY with his wife, and has been active in the atheist community for several years. Dan blogs at http://underminingchristianity.blogspot.com/)

Dan’s Closing Statement

First, I want to thank Ben for participating in this debate. He has intelligently and articulately presented his position, and done an admirable job of expressing difficult concepts. Despite our fundamentally different perspectives, I hope that he has found this exchange beneficial.

Burden of proof

The weak versus strong atheism distinction is used by Ben throughout the debate. However, in the conclusion Ben takes a turn deep into ad hominem territory, by concluding that those who characterize atheism, in the broader sense, as a lack of belief in a deity have somehow done a disservice to atheism because “…this definition has the unfortunate consequence of downgrading atheists, in this regard, to the same noetic level as shellfish or a Chevy Lumina: they all lack a belief in God.” This bit of sarcasm is apparently an attempt to embarrass me into accepting an unwarranted burden of proof.
Ben is at least in good company in this burden shifting, as apologists such as Dr. William Lane Craig also spend considerable effort trying to place the burden of proof on the atheist. While the theist does not usually deny their burden in establishing the existence of God, they have good rhetorical reasons to place the burden of establishing non-existence on the atheist’s shoulders. In short, once the atheist accepts the burden, the theist can engage in a series of retreats for which the atheist is obliged to pursue ad infinitum. Take, for example, the analogy I gave to a commenter on this blog earlier in this exchange:

A man comes up to us and tells us that he met a man that is over 200 years old, is over 10 feet tall, and can stop the wind with his thoughts. Do you believe him? Since this is well outside of our experience, I would want some evidence before I even entertain the idea. When I ask to see the 200 year old man I’m told that I can’t be taken to him, and in fact I can’t be told where he is.

Is my disbelief/unbelief/lack of belief (whatever you want to call it) reasonable? Do I need to demonstrate that such a man does not exist to reasonably reject the claim? How would I prove this man does not exist? No matter where I look, there will always be some place unexplored.

Also consider the scenario playing out in court rooms all over:

In a court of law the jury is charged with determining the guilt or innocence of the defendant, right? Wrong. The jury’s one and only task is to determine whether the prosecutor has presented sufficient evidence to establish guilt. The verdict is either guilty or not-guilty. The defense attorney does not need to establish Innocence, but only that the evidence to convict is insufficient. So the defense merely needs to show that the prosecutor’s conclusion of guilt does not reasonably follow from his argument. If the defense does this, then in every sense, they have won the case.

Anderson by proxy

I was glad to see that Ben sought clarification from Dr. Anderson about my claim that Dr. Anderson’s own line of reasoning led him to the conclusion that “sin is intrinsically irrational”. But far from refuting my claim, this clarification simply reinforces the gaping hole in the Calvinist conception of the first sin. We could sum up the Calvinist dilemma as follows:

Premise 1: A sinning agent is one that freely chooses sin.
Premise 2: Adam did not freely choose sin.
Conclusion: Adam is not a sinning agent.

The first premise seems obvious enough, and follows from the concept of an agent as one that initiates an action of their own accord. The second premise is directly from Dr. Anderson’s paper Calvisinism and the First Sin, in which Dr. Anderson excludes Adam from freely choosing sin, “Surely to say that God foreordained the fall goes no way toward explaining why unfallen Adam would freely choose to sin.” “At this point I must confess that further answers escape me.” The conclusion logically follows from these premises. If Dr. Anderson is to assert that the Calvinist doctrine of original sin is rational, then he is must show how either the above premises or the conclusion is flawed.

To be fair Dr. Anderson states that Adam did sin, but he is unable to establish that Adam chose to sin, much less that Adam should be morally culpable for that sin. Indeed, the only one to have had a choice in the matter was God, whom Dr. Anderson implicates when he writes, “Calvinists can affirm that there is a sufficient ultimate explanation for Adam’s sin: God decreed it.” But according to Calvinist doctrine God is incapable of sin, and thus He is excluded from moral culpability.

So Dr. Anderson’s conclusion, “sin is intrinsically irrational”, applies both to Adam (as Dr. Anderson asserts), and to the Calvinist concept of sin itself. For Adam, sinning would be irrational because, as Dr. Anderson argues, Adam would not “freely choose to sin.” And the concept is irrational because there is no logical bridge between a morally perfect God and Adams sin. Nor is there a logical connection between Adam sinning and his moral culpability, or to Mankind’s subsequent culpability.

Meaningless meanings

Ben contends that by pointing out contradictions in his definition of God, I am merely battling straw men. I am, according to Ben, “working without any familiarity with these terms in their theological senses.” This reminds me of an answer I received from a Catholic apologist when I asked him for evidence that the communion wafer transubstantiates into the body of Christ. He said that I wouldn’t find any physical evidence, but that there was theological evidence. How this is better than imaginary evidence isn’t clear.

Like theological evidence, “theological senses” or meanings apparently have a magical quality that make then indiscernible to non-theists. When I challenged Ben on “divine incomprehensibility”, it appeared that he was providing a translation of this theological term into non-theological language when he expressed it as “unknowable”. But perhaps this is not a translation, because Ben also disagrees with my understanding of “unknowable” as something that cannot be known. Maybe we could have both saved a lot of time if we had agreed to conduct the debate in English instead of some unfathomable theological variation thereof.

Getting personal

In repeating his definition of a person, “a rational, self-conscious entity”, Ben is being more than a little disingenuous. Ben is arguing for more than “a rational, self-conscious entity”; he’s arguing for a host of attributes wrapped up in an immaterial transcendent mind. It is these other attributes, which Ben insists belong to a “person”, that are not shared by our common understanding of the term. This minimalist definition of a person is akin to defining anything that is alive as a dog, and then insisting that the growth clinging to the underside of a rock is a dog. But just like “dog” conveys more information than just being alive, “person” conveys more information than simply “a rational, self-conscious entity”.

It’s perfectly understandable, however, that Christians would want to claim that God is “personal”. Humans are social animals, and we have evolved sophisticated means for interacting with other humans. In fact, human interactions have dominated our lives to the degree that we relate to non-humans in very human-like terms. Referring to God as “Him” or “Lord” or as a “person” may be a natural inclination, but it is simply a metaphor for reality itself. Calling God a “person” may have symbolic significance, but it is no more justified in real terms than calling Mother Nature or Father Time “persons”.

In Closing

As with any debate, changing the other person’s mind, or even getting them to acknowledge a contradiction in their position is not the goal. The goal is to present issues to readers on both sides (or no side) that challenges their current view and assists in furthering their understanding of the world. Whatever you, as the reader, take away from this debate, I hope that you have benefitted from contemplating these issues.

In reviewing our exchanges, it seems clear that I have established that the theist has the clear burden of proof when claiming that a god exists. Not only has this burden not been met, but the definition of God that was presented is laden with contradictions and meaningless assertions such that we have not even established what God is supposed to be, much less whether such a thing exists.


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3 thoughts on “Does God Exist? A Debate (6): Atheist Conclusion, Dan Courtney

  1. If atheism means “there is no God”, then there is definitely a burden of proof on both sides of the debate:

  2. Greatly enjoyed this debate. I’ve a couple concluding thoughts:

    Part of the difficulty and importance of proving a negative is that you cannot affirm a negative until you do. Perhaps Mr. Courtney feels he has no need, and he would be right, except that he’s implicitly affirming something else instead that has not been proven. He’s affirming 1) The universe can [and does] exist without God, and 2) the Bible is in fact false to say all men know God. He has only compounded his problem.

    Perhaps doubting the existence of a really old, really tall, and presumably really fat man would be reasonable, so long as the man had nothing to do with the creation of the reasoning faculties with which Mr. Courtney doubts him. But that’s the difference: God is not some man behind a curtain, crackers in a pantry.

    It’s seems a rather careless oversight of Mr. Courtney’s, failing to realize that God’s holding Adam accountable for his action so that it neither nullifies the action, intentionality, nor the culpability of the action, is a basic feature of Christian theology. It is, in fact precisely, God’s holding Adam guilty which establishes Adam’s guilt. I would be interested to see if Mr. Courtney could cite anything in either nature or the Scriptures to support the idea that effective, sovereign, supernatural declaration of an action nullifies a man’s responsibility in performing it. But, maybe you could have both saved a lot of time if he had agreed to conduct a debate over Christianity using Christianity’s own terms, instead of some unfathomable atheological variation thereof.

    Would Mr. Courtney consider a dog a “rational, self-conscious entity”? Mold? Anything other than a person? I suggest he sees the point. It’s perfectly understandable that Mr. Courtney would recite to himself the evolutionary narrative of belief in a personal God in lieu of clear, direct statements of fact evidencing God’s personality.

    As I said, I did enjoy this debate. Thanks to the both of you for taking part, and for giving me something to read!


  3. Pingback: Does God Exist? A Debate: B.C. Askins vs. Dan Courtney | POUSTO

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