Despite being quite very opposed to Stephens views, I really enjoy interacting with him on Twitter. Most exchanges we have are very respectful and we seem agree on a variety of topics not related to theism.
His blog post really caught my eye since he tries to answer philosopher Anthony Flew's challenge of asking what it would take to abandon theism.
Stephen's answer is quite candid, pointing out he doesn't really know exactly what it is that grounds his theism but never the less he gives two things which could undermine his Christian beliefs:
- Showing the concept of god is incoherent.
- Conclusive historical evidence of Jesus not existing or the resurrection being a hoax.
Showing the concept of god is incoherent
Here I assume Stephen is talking about showing an internal logical contradiction between the properties of the god of classical theism - an omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent being.
This is what initially caught my interest in Stephens post, because I'm not exactly sure that this is much of an honest challenge for the atheist to be able to accomplish. This isn't to impugn on Stephen, since I think the problem is related to the fact that god and his properties are simply ill defined.
My first problem is that the properties of omniscience and omnipotence are particularly hard to define. What's more is that the definition of these properties has indeed changed over time in the history of Christian theology.
A good example of this highlighted in a Real Atheolgoy video by Justin Schieber on omnipotence:
Now this isn't to say that there is no coherent definition of omnipotence or omniscience, but rather to point out that our conceptions of these properties has changed over time once logical problems have been teased out.
What's more, our conceptions of what these terms mean will depend on other philosophical positions we hold - like the nature of time, free will, etc. When these different metaphysical beliefs come into conflict we have the option of rejecting either conception. So we could for instance reject the existence of libertarian free will if we held to a definition of omnipotence that conflicted with it, or we could modify our definition of omnipotence to be compatible with libertarian free will.
Perhaps an atheist was able to show a contradiction between some conception of omniscience and god's foreknowledge of the actions of libertarian-free agents. What is to say the theologian is incorrect in simply thanking the atheist in highlighting a problem in his theology, and then simply modifying their conception of either omniscience or moving towards a compatiblist version of free will?
So trying to "show a internal contradiction between gods properties" is itself a kind of moving target, and this fact may not itself be objectionable. However this would mean that asking atheists to show a contradiction in gods properties is a misconceived challenge!
Historical evidence that Jesus was a fraud/hoax
My objection to Stephen's second criteria is somewhat similar. It's not very clear that we could have conclusive historical evidence that Jesus's resurrection was a hoax, let alone conclusive historical evidence that Jesus never existed.
For one if we follow the strict historical method, you're not going to get to the fact that Jesus rose from the dead - because the historical method itself is tied to a kind of methodological naturalism. There's no principled way to use the historical method to support the idea that Jesus rose from the dead without having that same method being used to support the idea of a host of other supernatural claims of other religions which would conflict with core parts of "mere" Christianity.
Second, this kind of thought experiment has been brought up plenty of times in Christian fiction. Usually such evidence of the falsity of the resurrection is unearthed, society ends up going completely immoral or nearly collapsing in a wanton decent into depravity, before it is revealed that the previous evidence for the resurrection being a hoax is itself shown to be false and then everything is made right in the world again.
I really don't know what kind of writing or archeological evidence we could find that apologists couldn't come up with objections to. That any grave claiming to contain the bones of a crucified 1st century Jew named Jesus of Nazareth would itself be false plant made by anti-Christian Jews, or something to that effect.
This is to say nothing of the immense improbability that any kind of grave for a crucified criminal in 1st century Israel would be marked so specifically. So even if the resurrection didn't' happen, our ability to prove that via the historical method, especially conclusively, would be near impossible probability wise.
This post isn't meant to be hard on Stephen, but rather to reflect on the fact that it's impossible to meet the criteria he puts forward as ways to disprove theism and Christian theism.
Conversely, I don't want to act all smug about the unfalsifiability of Stephens beliefs. After all, naturalism itself can have problems related to being disproved. In principle, one could witness the resurrection of Jesus and still be logically consistent in holding to naturalism, just by claiming that some advanced aliens used technology beyond our understanding to bring him back to life.
One of Stephen's most interesting points in his article is the very fuzzy nature of what exactly grounds our beliefs in things like naturalism or theism.
Personally this kind of issue makes me very wary of these kinds of metaphysical questions themselves having much meaning or at least their utility.