Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Convincing Theists to Abandon Theism?

This is intended as a conversation piece in response to a rather interesting blog post by philosophical theologian Stephen J. Graham.

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:
  1. Showing the concept of god is incoherent.
  2. Conclusive historical evidence of Jesus not existing or the resurrection being a hoax.
Stephen also goes on to describe how a traumatic event in his life could make the problem of gratuitous evil more convincing to him personally, which would undermine his belief in god.  There isn't too much I would say in response to that point, so I'd like to focus on the first two.

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.


  1. Nice post, CounterApologist!

    I'd like to comment on this part:

    "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."

    I think that is more a problem for the inconsistent naturalist, than the naturalist per se.

    By this I mean that, if one is asking for evidence of persons with supernatural powers - Jesus or God - it's conceivable that Being could provide empirically verifiable evidence of the sort we use to verify and accept the rest of the things we believe, especially scientifically. At some point as the evidence piles up, it would be special pleading to reject it.

    Consider the common objections that if God manifested and provided miracles - the ability to manipulate nature in the way one expects of God - that it could always be a delusion or aliens using advanced technology.

    That those very objections could be raised about everything we believe. One could say WW2 was a mass delusion, or the moon is a mass delusion, or that the outcome of any experiment - e.g. finding the Higgs Boson - was actually Aliens messing with us.

    Why don't those alternative explanations disrupt our ability to believe the natural accounts? Because, in the face of the vast space of the logically possible, we employ various strategies such as parsimony, one aspect being a basic assumption that "things are as they seem, unless we have reasons to think otherwise." (Those other reasons generally coming from the application of reason/logic to make sense of our variety of experiences).

    So, if you are looking at a tree, and it seems as every other tree in your experience, then it is as it seems: a tree. If someone suggests "it COULD be aliens causing your mind to think you are seeing a tree" then aliens are an additional entity for which we demand more evidence. Without it, they are unnecessary and parsimony allows that claim to be dismissed.

    It's why if you say to a scientist that aliens could be manipulating the results of the Higgs Boson detector, he will ask for evidence of the aliens (which can come in the form of additional evidence for the Aliens, or claims for how adopting the Alien hypothesis is more theoretically fruitful or offers greater predictive power). Otherwise "get the hell outta the lab!"

    Ok, so back to God. We needn't think of sudden, brief inexplicable appearances often attributed (conveniently) to the supernatural agents. God could manifest and remain as empirically persistent and verifiable as any other entity in the world, so we could all agree God exists. God could do empirically verifiable demonstrations, manipulating nature in the way that one would expect of a God. God could claim to BE God, our Creator, and demonstrate knowledge and powers that are supportive of that claim. Etc.

    If God supplied the type of empirically confirmable evidence we use to confirm any of our other beliefs, it would be special pleading, and contradicting parsimony to say only in THAT case: "We shouldn't believe our senses, and the fact all the data point to one conclusion because it's always logically possible everyone is hallucinating or it's Aliens."

    Agree, disagree?



    *(Of course depending on what flavor of Naturalism one is using, one might not be a naturalist any more if God were demonstrated).

    1. Please forgive the lateness of my reply here.

      I actually agree with your point here. This is something I got at a bit some time ago with the link I had at the end regarding Naturalism & Falsifiability (

      Your criteria about a god consistently showing up and being as verifiable as any other kind of way we verify the laws of nature would be the criteria I'd use as something we would need to have existing in order to use the historical method to affirm something like the resurrection, or another religions miracle claims.

      I actually want to expound on this sometime in the future, probably in a video about the resurrection argument.

    2. I should note one point of disagreement. You're right that by our normal standards of judging a theory, we would think someone who denied it was acting under a delusion of sorts - kind of like how we'd look at someone who insisted the earth was flat.

      But at least in this case, they'd still be logically consistent. There's the conceptual space available to them to believe the laws of nature were not actually violated in the face of repeated miracles.

  2. Going after the omnibenevolence should be trivial. Many people die miserable deaths -- the clearest example I recall, from some British atheist I can't recall which, is children dying from bone cancer. A benevolent and omniscient God would not allow that. The only move left for the theist is that children never die from bone cancer. Do we need to get good evidence for that sort of claim? Are all these photos we see of cancer-ridden children forgeries?

    If you don't go after the omnibenevolence claim, the only criticism you can have of any belief involving God is that it is too complex and fails Occam's Razor. Since God is omnipotent, any possible series of events is consistent with the theory that God willed it. Therefore if the theist believes in omnipotence and don't argue against omnibenevolence, all you have left is Occam's Razor.

    1. Its not so much trivial as it is another example of the kind of phenomenon I describe in this post. You end up arguing over what the definition of "goodness" or "benevolence" entails, and there just isn't a way to get there that would force the other person to accept your definition.

  3. The British atheist who used the bone cancer argument was Stephen Fry. Search "atheist bone cancer video". Excellent talk.


    Could you go through this and maybe make a post or something about it?

  5. I just read “The Social Conquest of Earth”, by E.O. Wilson. Got me thinking about morality. Morality is emergent within, and dependent upon, a social context. “God”, particularly in Judea-Christian contexts is One. No social context means no morality. As if morality could be a fundamental attribute of a single being! What’s the point of saying “Thou shalt not lie, commit adultery, or covet” if there is no social context?

    The more I think about it, the more incoherent it becomes. It’s like the joke, when someone does something exemplary, we say “You win your own personal internet.” It’s humorous because it’s incoherent. The concept of a monotheistic god being the basis for morality is equally incoherent.

    1. 'As if morality could be a fundamental attribute of a single being!'

      As God is a single being, so this is the reason as to why God can be neither good nor evil. Actually God is beyond good and evil, but both good and evil have come from God.

  6. I wish Counter Apologist would interact a bit more with
    folks in the comment section, who enjoy his stuff enough to come here, and who take time to think about it and provide responses.

    1. Sorry Vaal. I ended up turning off comment notifications for YouTube and the blog because of some bad experiences I've had in the past. I also don't have the time to really moderate things here.

      FWIW, the best way to get a response out of me would be via Twitter (@CounterApologis) or just emailing me: CounterApologist at gmail dot com.

    2. I just encountered your replies. Thanks.
      I don't do twitter, but if I ever come up with something interesting enough perhaps I'll email
      for your thoughts.

      Cheers, and keep up the good fight :-)



  8. I Read Graham's post and it seems it wasn't to communicate that he, "Doesn't really know what grounds his theism," as you suggest. But that ALL HUMANS have epistemic limits in how they come to believe certain things are true. He says,

    "Our minds – the beliefs we hold as well as the processes we go through to arrive at them – are conditioned by many factors largely beyond our direct control: culture, society, upbringing, peer pressure, psychological make-up, character, temperament, desires, and all manner of accidents of life."

    These would apply to atheists like Flew as well. What could remove his belief that there is no God. Flew misses he point that he is hoist on his own petard.

    Graham suggests that part of his beliefs are from intuition looking at the world. And some are a priori in nature, namely, "in particular the contingency cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, and the anthropological argument from the nature of human beings as free, moral, conscious, rational persons)." His point is that he can't give an exhaustive list of all the components tied to his beliefs, BECAUSE NO ONE CAN.

    In fact Antony Flew, softened his own belief in atheism once presented with the scientific evidence for the fine-tuning of the universe for life. After considering mounting evidence for over fifteen years, Flew abandoned his faith and became a theist.

  9. The argument for Jesus' non-existence has been rejected by atheist scholars for over a century now. Most scholars find the evidence compelling and are unable to delete Jesus from history without destroying the entirety of ancient history in the process. Most skeptical scholars on this topic just adjust their skepticism up for Jesus' existence and back down for other individuals with significantly less evidential data, such as Pontius Pilot. Bart Erhman errs this way constantly. Jesus Seminarians Funk, Borg, and Crossen couldn't even get past the peer-review process to publish their fiction and so published outside of academia.

    "Zeitgeist" is probably not the quality of research you are looking for in historical Jesus studies. Most atheist avoid this line of argumentation all together due to the overwhelming consensus from atheist scholars (peer-reviewed that is).

    Do we reality want to throw out history because it doesn't operate like science. There is no methodological naturalism legitimately in history or science. It is one of the biggest missteps made by those ignorant of philosophy of science.

    The forensic scientist is determining if the dependent variable if an intelligent agent! The archeologist is doing the same. The cryptologist, is looking for a intelligent agent's code. All as the best explanation to the data they have collected.

    If I applied mythological naturist a priori assumptions to the scientific method (forget history), and put a 1000 scientist in front of Mount Rushmore and said, "Produce a causal inference to this mountain resembling 4 past POTUS," I would never get the correct understanding of the external world! Not in a million years.

    These types of a priori inferences are best left outside of science and history. Now that doesn't mean we start by assuming an intelligent cause. All these fields start by eliminating possible natural causes. But that is not the goal of methodological naturalism.

  10. Now the argument from gratuitous evil is however, a strong potential defeater for theism!

    It is best handled in Walter Sinnott Armstrong's debate with William Lane Craig. The point is that in all cases of "apparent" gratuitous evil it could be the case that an infinitely-knowledgable being could have reasons that we couldn't begin to intuit. Knowing for instance that JFK rather than his older brother, would best defend the US against the Russians during the Cuban missile crisis. God allowing his brother to die in an experimental-plane crash seems like pure tragedy to all around. It is only God's exhaustive foreknowledge that enables these choices.

    When the difference between a successful brain surgery depends on getting the surgeon with 1 or 2% more knowledge than the other surgeons, how can we then say that God, who if he exists in the way Christians conceive of him, has 10s of millions of orders of magnitude more knowledge, can't make a difference?

    That is incoherence for you!

    1- A little knowledge advantage (and no future knowledge) often makes significant difference in every field we humans have.

    2 - A near-infinite amount of knowledge (including knowledge of future counterfactuals) makes no significant difference!

    These two propositions are as coherent as a married bachelor.

    That said, I applaud your recognition at the end of your post that we all suffer the same epistemological limits. "Fuzziness," shouldn't bother us though. Why think you need a full-blown explanation of your own explanation of the world? And wouldn't we then need an explanation of the explanation of the explanation? An so on and infinitum.