Saturday, May 14, 2011


Ne nuntium necare.

The Ontological Argument.  Famously associated with Anselm of Cantebury. The argument holds that the existence of God follows from the concept of God in language. It works like this: God is the most perfect thing that can be conceived of. But if He didn’t exist, He wouldn’t be perfect. So He exists.  Rejected by intellectuals ranging from Thomas Aquinas to Bertrand Russell (who admitted that he had a fifteen-minute flirtation with it in his youth.) Currently returning to fashion in a modified form, the argument basically contends that if you write a good enough job description, the ideal employee must exist.

The Cosmological Argument.  Holds that all things must have a first cause, and that the first cause of all things is God. Dates from antiquity, but is hoisted by its own petard, as the ancients well realized. Complicates rather than simplifies the problem, thus answering nothing. Why is there something instead of nothing? Because of the Creator. Why is there a Creator instead of no Creator? Let’s change the subject. Implies nothing about the correctness of any particular religion, let alone denomination. Implies almost nothing about the nature of any alleged creator or creators - neither omnipotence, nor omniscience, nor omnibenevolence, and certainly not gender. At best an argument for a highly conditional Deism.

Argument from Miracles. Holds that the existence of various miracles proves the existence of God. Four problems. First, evidence for the supernatural origins of miracles doesn't pass peer review, except where vested interests are involved. Second, even if the miracles had supernatural origins, this doesn’t imply any particular supernatural origin. Third, if God is the cause of all things, it makes no sense to make a big deal about miracles, which would be just another thing he caused. Four, for alleged “signs from God”,  the miracles are often extraordinarily unimpressive: bleeding statues, low-probability recoveries from illness, bell-shaped watermarks that look like Renaissance portraits of Christ or the Virgin. Statues wandering about churches, getting their pictures taken with parishioners; prayer regenerating amputated limbs; full-colour, 3-D talking images of the Virgin giving interviews on CNN. This would be impressive.

Argument from Design.  Similar to the Cosmological Argument, but focuses on the remarkable complexity of life as opposed to the curious existence of the cosmos itself. See Darwin, Charles.

Gender. The belief that God must be a man runs contrary to claims of omnipotence. 

Deism. The belief that God is essentially indistinguishable from the physical laws of the universe. The default position of most of America's Founding Fathers. They would not be elected two-and-a-half centuries later. 

The Mysterious. Can be appealed to in place of making embarrassing concessions such as, "You've got a point there."

Pascal’s Wager. Famous argument that contends it’s the best bet to believe in God. Maybe. But Pascal left the problem of which God to worship and how unresolved. Rather more critically, he failed to distinguish between the beneficence of belief and actually believing. Belief follows from persuasive evidence; Pascal’s Wager offers none.

Argument from Personal Faith. Simultaneously unconvincing but irrefutable. “I know in my heart that I’m right.” But every devout believer in every god in every society in the history of the world has said the same thing, including many today who are convinced that everyone else, including you, is going to Hell.

Agnosticism. A cancellationist position which holds that the evidence for and against the existence of God is about equal. Good for fence-sitters who don’t like to commit. Agnostics are often found attending United Church services "for the music" and like to recite tautological banalities such as, “Everything happens for a reason.” Intolerable people. 

Russell's Teacup.  Russell once argued that while he couldn't prove that a teacup is not orbiting a distant planet, that was insufficient reason to be agnostic about the issue. This is important.

Suburban Protestants and Cafeteria Catholics.  Polls show that something on the order of 90 or 95 percent of people believe in God. Polls also show that the great majority of ostensibly religious people have no idea why they believe and very little idea about what they’re supposed to believe. A recent poll found that the overwhelming majority of alleged Christians could not name the four canonical gospels. Curiously, such people often get a free pass from the devout on the grounds that, “At least they believe in something.” Non-believers whose atheism is a consequence of sincere, daily, and lifelong study don't stand a chance of getting elected to political office.

Oprah. The dominant religion of our era is a belief in an immensely gregarious God who wants us to be comfortably middle-class and soothingly middle-brow; a celestial Oprah who will one day welcome all of us onto her living room set in the sky and let us jump on the sofa for all eternity.

Impossibility Arguments. Highly sophisticated evolution of ancient arguments that explored the paradoxes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence and which conclude that God, like a square circle or an honest lawyer, is a logical impossibility. Fascinating, but they do not preclude the possibility of an extraordinarily powerful but less-than-perfect God. Human beings went from stone tools to the surface of the moon in 5,000 years.  Imagine a race 5 million years old. Or 5 billion. We build skyscrapers. Could they build universes?

Theological non-cognitivism. The position that all God-talk is cognitively meaningless. Stems from the impossibility arguments. Some theological non-cognitivists are therefore hard atheists; others contend that no discussion about the matter is possible until theists can arrive at a cognitively meaningful definition of what it is that we're supposed to be talking about.

Einstein, Albert.  At a public debate, I sat, jaw dropping, as an atheist and theist argued over whether or not Einstein was religious. Did they think that the existence or non-existence of God was somehow contingent on what Einstein believed? A particularly dangerous argument for Christians to make, because if Einstein was anything, he was a Jew. Similar arguments are deployed for a pantheon of historical giants, good and evil, from Plato to Jefferson to Hitler.  Historically interesting but, as a point of logic, utterly irrelevant in terms of the argument over the existence of God.

Atheism, hard. The position that there is no God. Generally held to be logically untenable, but adherents of impossibility arguments say otherwise.

Atheism, soft. The position that there is insufficient evidence to believe in God. An important distinction. 

Atheists. Very rare. A rigorous philosophical position: not something soft that one can fall into. Atheists are also not to be confused with secular liberals who are mad about organized religion.

New Atheists. A recent breed of aggressively irreligious nonbelievers who hold that a general critique of the beneficence of faith follows from their disbelief. But whatever else they may be, religions are social institutions of enormous importance and cannot uniformly and universally be deprecated for "poisoning everything."

Prayer.  Fortifying for millions, but removed from schools. The worst prayers are the begging kind: the belief that maybe this time God will intercede on your behalf. (“Please let my team win the Superbowl”, etc.) Convincing to some people because of an inability to separate correlation from causation.  “I prayed and somebody found Fluffy, who was lost for three days.” Wow. Now, about that Holocaust...

Praying. It is disrespectful for non-believers to lower their heads, as if in prayer, while others are praying. Listen attentively, instead: you might learn something. But do not disrespect the devout by pretending to be something you are not. In the 7th grade, a nasty old crone who was our substitute teacher for the day made the whole class re-do the Lord’s Prayer, saying the words. Even then I wondered, “What is the point?”  If the words meant nothing to us, did she think we would be fooling God?

Comparative Religion. Should be mandatory in schools. Until 1988, students in Ontario public schools rose diurnally for the immensely symbolic pairing of “Oh, Canada” and the Lord’s Prayer, understanding neither. Nor did most of their teachers, and discussion of religion was verboten anyway. Further proof that the real agenda of the Ministry of Education is to impose ignorance, and for obvious reasons. Educated people would abolish the Ministry of Education.

Darwin, Charles. A visionary genius who both demonstrated the fact of biological evolution’s existence and offered a theory – natural selection – to explain the mechanism by which it operates.  Also, and this is critically important, dead since 1882. He lacked a proper understanding of heredity and did not know about genes. Today, most competent undergraduates in biology know more about evolution than did either of its co-discoverers. School-boards in Texas and Kansas can deny the existence of biological evolution all they want, but what they think doesn’t really matter. Darwin gathered a few pebbles of evidence that subsequently have become mountains. “It’s only a theory,” they say. So is gravitation. They lose. Period.

Evolution, biological. Change in the inherited characteristics of populations over time. As factually established as anything can be science. Has implications for most creation myths and for the Argument from Design, but otherwise has no bearing on the argument over the existence of God.

Catholicism. A favourite target of liberals who are at once relativists but also moralizing crusaders. In other contexts, the same people gleefully will report you to a Human Rights Commission for criticizing a religion or religious group.

Argument from Beauty. Similar to the Argument from Design. Holds that such-and-such a cultural object is “too beautiful” to have been created by a species that emerged solely as a consequence of random mutation followed by non-random natural selection. Bad thinking for obvious reasons. “How do you explain Mozart?” they say. Okay, how do you explain Michael Bolton?

Doubt. Malcolm Muggeridge said that doubt is like a pillar at the center of faith, because no one who is sincere in his or her beliefs need fear argument and disputation about them.


Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by the impending (May 21st) end of the world.

Adam said...

I support just about everything you wrote, except your opinion of agnostics. Not to cite wikipedia, (, but agnosticism can look a lot like soft atheism. There are different degrees of agnosticism just as there are different degrees of atheism, allowing for occasional synonymity. I feel you recognized agnosticism at its worst.

Adam said...

Honestly, I was surprised by your comments regarding agnosticism because I was under the impression that you identified with them the most. Specifically, Thomas Huxley's brand of agnosticism: "a method of skeptical, evidence-based inquiry." (from the wiki)

Graham Broad said...

Since the early days, Measure of Doubt has maintained a policy of leaving the message board to the readers. I get more than ample time to voice my views. On the other hand, I hardly get any comments anyway. So, a brief follow up:

The form of agnosticism to which I was referring often sometimes is called "cancellationist" agnosticism which is essentially a position of neutrality between the two sides in this discussion, rather than what Huxley describes. And I'll admit there are times where it's difficult to distinguish between agnosticism and soft atheism and, indeed, some definitions of agnosticism encompass soft atheism by default. But, and it's a BIG but (so to speak). Read the last label under the post. Measure of Doubt always has tongue firmly planted in at least one of its cheeks.