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14 Responses to “ On Thinking Christians, Thinking Atheists, and What Really Matters ”

  1. Tom,

    Great post. I’ve been following your interactions with the Thinking Atheist and his commenters on Facebook, and you’ve handled yourself well.

    Someone (I think it was Dinesh D’Souza) said that, in principle, it ought to be easy to win a debate with the “New Atheists” and their followers because they make an extremely strong claim which is hard to cash out. The claim that simply by being a religious believer one is acting irrationally ought to be easy to defeat. That’s because all the theist would have to do to counter the claim is to argue to a draw in a debate. If *all* religious believers were irrationally simply in virtue of being religious believers, then the skeptical challenger ought to be able to clearly win a debate in the judgment of most or all impartial observers. If the theist argues to a draw, then it would seem that equally rational people can come to different conclusions on religious questions.

    But of course the New Atheists never come close to achieving this type of defeat in debates, and many (not all) of their followers would rather appeal to name-calling or social shaming than do the hard work of digging into the sometimes complex philosophical concepts involved in traditional debates about philosophy of religion.

    The most useless type of argument (from both sides) are psychological explanation arguments: “You only believe/disbelieve in God because of the psychological benefit it brings your or the psychological harm it avoids for you, or because your parents told you it was true, or because it was the culture you were raised in, or because you are trying to get tenure in your University biology department, or whatever.”

    These arguments are mostly useless because they cut both ways. There are both psychologically beneficial and psychologically difficult reasons to both believe and disbelieve in God. It’s always refreshing to see anyone – be it a theist or an atheist – acknowledge this fact and move past such psychological explanation arguments. You’ve done so in this post, and I commend you. I’d like to see some fair-minded atheists respond.

  2. I agree with you thinking Christian and this is coming from an atheist. Why do you refer to God as he? It seems like something a thinking Christian should stay away from. I think the thinking Christian is a nice evolution of Christianity, given the nasty history of violence and dogmatic approach of authoritative regimes. While I don’t believe in your final conclusion that Christianity and Jesus are the way to go, Im all for better understanding. So kudos, and keep searching. Now if you plan to debate, why should you plan to win? Shouldn’t you plan to get a better understanding of both sides? Although, we are wired to win on an evolutionary understanding of the universe, so it is natural.

    “There is a spiritual side to knowing truth, too, for an encounter with truth is an encounter with God. ” Can you explain this? Are you talking about a specific God, like the Christian God?

    How do you feel about the idea that there is no such thing as the self, spirituality, introspection, or thinking. They are all physical processes that manifest as something we do a good job pretending we have control over. How do you feel about the mentally sick? They aren’t able to think, or at least think rationally. (my wife’s a clinical psychologist, the examples are many. Ironically, most mentally ill patients do suffer from delusions that typically are less rational and more God talk. Im not saying that you are irrational, its just more than coincidental that these misfires bring God delusions.) Where do they fit into God’s plan? I know they fit quite well into the evolutionary understanding of life, but not so much into the end goal of Christianity.

    What about mental retardation? Don’t tell me God knows their heart, that’s a cop out. If that were the case, this atheist would be going to Heaven, because I am a good person. (relative to this day and age. More specifically, it’s probably accurate to say I’m a much better person than a self proclaimed Christian that lived 1000 years ago) And if this is the case, the whole idea of belief needs to be reworked and better understood. Although I think it is becoming pretty well understood if we open ourselves up to information. Lots of exciting information is coming out of neurobiology.

  3. I’d like to respond for Dr. Trapp’s request of a fair-minded atheist. I like to think I am, although I hold no titles, and I am not in any way notable.

    To focus on a single element of Gilson’s discussion. “[The mark of a thinker is] able to change his mind, based on evidence and reasoning.” Which implies that the position of God’s existence should have falsifiable conditions, so that it is possible to determine that a thinker would indeed change their mind in the face of results.

    Will Gilson propose any such conditions in which he would be willing to change his mind? I would consider it a mark against him, if he had no conditions in which he could conceive that his God might not exist.

    The agnostic atheist, (also known as a soft or weak atheist) is a person who does not reject the idea of God existing. They merely consider the evidence and reasoning provided as not being conclusive enough to change their null position. Many of these types of atheists are willing to accept demonstrable, repeatable, objective evidence as proof towards the existence of God.

    For example, prayer conclusively working for one religion, but not another. Or another example, of prophets truly revealing knowledge that could not have been guessed or discerned in their time.

    By such means, a theist could successfully talk with and convert an atheist.

    What I’m getting at is a burden of proof argument. Many theists mistake atheists to be deniers, hard/gnostic atheists, who start with the hypothesis that God cannot exist and therefore bias their reasoning. I’m certain there are a few, but even the infamous “New Atheist” Dawkins mentions himself that he is just short of that position. It’s easy to suggest it’s the hard atheist’s burden to prove God does not exist. (Which is about as difficult as can be for anyone to prove a negative.)

    But for those with a null, skeptical mindset. It is the theist’s burden to prove that God exists. And often the response offered is laden with faith.

    Faith, by the definition I’m familiar with, is a jump of belief in spite of evidence to contrary. Many theists argue that they perceive supernatural causes, but I don’t see how any cause can be known to be supernatural if it affects the natural world. Might it just be a natural cause in the first place without adding an additional, untestable layer? What would separate supernatural hypothesis from each other? To say fairies push atoms about is just as reasonable as angels if we have no means of discerning the difference.

    So I ask to wrap up my comment, is it reasonable to assert gods exists, let alone a specific God, if there are no means by which the concept could be proven to be false?

  4. @Robert Doyle:

    Faith, by the definition I’m familiar with, is a jump of belief in spite of evidence to contrary.

    A definition straight out of an atheist propaganda leaflet, I dare say.

    So I ask to wrap up my comment, is it reasonable to assert gods exists, let alone a specific God, if there are no means by which the concept could be proven to be false?

    The Popperian falsifiability criterion may be good for empirical sciences like physics, but it is too strong for say, history, and mathematicians and philosophers laugh at it.

    In other words, you are asking the wrong questions.

    But just in case you think I am dodging the question, I will say, just in passing, that if for example Jesus body were found tomorrow lying in a tomb somewhere in Jerusalem, Christianity would be falsified.

  5. @ Robert Doyle

    I would have to commend you for a quite reasonable and fair post. On the other hand, there is a point you raise that I think sets unrealistic standards for a discussion about God. You ask ”… is it reasonable to assert gods exists, let alone a specific God, if there are no means by which the concept could be proven to be false?” This kind of starting point is problematic. Specifically, there is no proof that God exists just as there is no proof that God does not exist. In any discussion about God, the entire idea of “proof” sets a false standard. The belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist are both just that, beliefs. They are both faith positions. That is, they both require adopting a belief that is not provable.

    I have no proof he exists, you have no proof he does not. What we are both really trying to do is reason to the best possible inference. That is as close as we can come to “proof”. In other words, given what we can observe and know about, the universe, ourselves, humanity, society and anything else that might give us some insight, what can we best infer from that about the existence of God or the non-existence of God.

    One last thing for now on your definition of faith. You stated ”Faith, by the definition I’m familiar with, is a jump of belief in spite of evidence to contrary.” I don’t know where you heard this but it’s simply not a good definition. From Wikipedia. ”Faith is trust, hope and belief in the goodness, trustworthiness or reliability of a person, concept or entity. It can also refer to beliefs that are not based on proof.” “Not based on proof” not contrary to proof.

  6. I’m just curious, when atheists go out shopping or out to a restaurant etc. what do they think about the other people they meet or observe? Do they think that they are smarter and better than all those other people? Or is it just when other people identify themselves as religious that they have those kinds of thoughts?

    Here are some comments about “Thinking Christian” from the “Thinking Atheists”. Is it just me? Are these people really as conceited and condescending as they seem?

    Michelle Frybarger Lawson ‎’Thinking’ and ‘Christian’ should NOT be used in the same sentence!

    Ryan D Sheppard HAAAAAAA the IRONY…..

    Claudia Schifferh In all fairness I have met many Christians who do think. I tend to find when they think enough they become Agnostic and fall into Mysticism. One step further and they become Atheist.

    Nathan Do Thinking and Christians in the same sentence? It must be a joke…

    Arnold Kelley Ill stick with thinking atheist and reality instead of fantasy christian junk

    Jerry Barrington Wow. That page is thoroughly moronic…

    Peter Grice wait a sec, that guy Tom Gilson seems to construct coherent sentences! I bet he got his atheist friend to do it for him… har har… I bet he’s one of them oxy-morons who doesn’t realize he’s automatically stupid for being on the wrong team!

    Oh by the way, to be fair there was one lone voice who said this:

    Lisa Ledford I’m really disappointed by a lot of you. I’m an atheist, but I don’t go around acting like I’m smarter than everyone else. Some of you are so militant and bigoted (in the opposite direction but, yes, bigoted) that you have become the very t…hing you despise. I deal with enough people saying atheists are assholes, and I’m sick of it. If you treat Christians like that, I’m not surprised they don’t like us too much. I actually seek to be FRIENDS with people who aren’t exactly like me. Believe it or not, we can coexist so long as we’re respectful of each other

    So, who is the voice of reason here? Lisa or her fellow atheists?

  7. That is, they both require adopting a belief that is not provable.

    And both must be sufficiently justified.

  8. G. Rodrigue, I apologize for the ugly way I defined faith. I understand it’s different for other people. I’m afraid it was a bit of a hyperbole on my behalf.

    Let us suppose you have convinced me. That the fact that Jesus has not been found in a tomb is a relevant proof for Christianity.

    I am a naive outsider. You have also proven Islam and Mormonism to me. For if I am to accept that Jesus had risen, it is not impossible for me to understand that he also was able to travel the Earth spreading his message. Why there’s even a burial site in Japan that claims to be the final resting point for Jesus. They must be right as well.

    All these religions I dare say you’d label falsehoods, and yet they make claims of equal validity to your level of falsification.

    If you lower the tennis net on the debate, you allow more than just your ideas to enter play. And your truth is now hidden among all the other false prophets. How am I to tell yours from the all the rest?

    BillT, your position is understandable. In a Deistic god, or even a Pantheistic god among a few examples I can find no fault in pondering the possibilities of existence or non-existence. To be able to see both sides surely must have benefits.

    I am more concerned with specific gods. We do not ponder it to be a fallacy to deny that the Greek gods probably do not exist. Nor the Egyptian, nor the Raelians, nor the Aztec gods, and so on.

    In each of those cases it is appropriate to ask for more proof that these gods exist since they are specific claims made by humans, who claim to speak on the behalf of their gods.

    I’m sure even a few of these people genuinely believed they served their gods. But it still remains that they may either have been mistaken for one reason or another.

    How is Moses any less considerable for the same level of scrutiny? Or Saint Paul? Or the Pope?

    This is the problem. When philosophers ponder the possibilities of a first-causer it isn’t something that I am skeptical of. It’s when a believer automatically assumes that the first-causer must be their God by default.

    To both of you, your comments have not ensured me with the sense that either of you could be swayed to come around on the issue no matter how much I talk on it. How fair is it for me to respond if you hold a position that you cannot be moved from?

    Thank you for reading my first comment.

  9. @Robert Doyle:

    Quick response as it is late and I am drowsy (I feel like HAL shutting down in Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” movie).

    If you lower the tennis net on the debate, you allow more than just your ideas to enter play. And your truth is now hidden among all the other false prophets. How am I to tell yours from the all the rest?

    I will not give you a straight answer (at least not right now), but instead, I will turn around your question and ask you: do you think the existence of competing religions is somehow evidence that God does not exist?

    The reason I am asking this is because your question is a loaded one from the get go. The case for Christianity is a cumulative case and you want to start at the top instead of at the bottom.

    This is the problem. When philosophers ponder the possibilities of a first-causer it isn’t something that I am skeptical of. It’s when a believer automatically assumes that the first-causer must be their God by default.

    How many religions are compatible with the first-cause argument? Only the big monotheistic religions. Philosopher’s arguments are not completely useless are they?

    To both of you, your comments have not ensured me with the sense that either of you could be swayed to come around on the issue no matter how much I talk on it. How fair is it for me to respond if you hold a position that you cannot be moved from?

    Oh puleeze, and how fair is it for us to respond if you hold a position that you cannot be moved from?

  10. You have also proven Islam and Mormonism to me.

    Incorrect. If the empty tomb, as evidence, convinces you of the truth of Christianity and all that it entails, it cannot at the same time convince you of the truth of Islam. Islam teaches that Jesus never died on a cross and was not God incarnate. There are similar problems with Mormonism.

    So, I’m sorry, the empty tomb can’t be evidence for both A and not-A at the same time.

  11. It’s really sad that so many people have to attack members of a Christian community. We are not bothering or attacking them, yet they feel the need to attack us. What’s up with that? I’m glad to see that you are taking it all in stride. I’ll add both you and the “Thinking Atheist” to my prayers.

    On a side note, thanks for including a link to those discussion boards. I hadn’t heard of the site before. 🙂

  12. In response to G. Rodrigues, You have asked three things. I will best attempt to answer them:

    1. I have been lead to the conclusion that the presence of a diversity of worldwide religions says much about the human pursuit to explain the world in which they live. Religion, just like philosophy and science (not in dichotomy) are a method by which all human have attempted to describe how things came to be. When you present other religions aside Christianity, I see methods of explanation, some older, some younger. It would be harsh to to say these religious explanations are “wrong”. I think the term “inaccurate” better applies, as it can show the relative nature upon how ideas develop over time.

    In rebuttal, I ask that you develop a means for how a naive non-theist might filter a false prophet from what you see as a valid one. By what means do you determine that Jesus remained in heaven and did not travel to Japan and the Americas?

    2. One of the notable authors of the first-cause argument, Aristotle, was a multi-thiest. And even if we were to grant this trend that monotheism is better argued, you have still have not successfully separated yourself from a multitude of claims all asserting they are more accurate than yours. Baha’i, Christianity, Gnosticism, Druzism, Islam, Judaism, Samaritanism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism all line up alongside. Not to forget the less formally considered claims, such as Pantheism, Panentheism, Transtheism, and even people who think we live in the Matrix and we are all just really complicated A.I.

    3. I have already given two conditions that would be helpful to discuss on my changing my stance. But even if I were a philosophic zombie, unable to change my stance it does not change the unfairness of a theist debating here unwilling to have fair conditions for conversion. The title of this blog is “Thinking Christian”, not “thinking commenter”. And as I noted earlier, one of the conditions to being a “thinker” was the ability to have a position which could indeed change.

    To place more conditions on myself, I want to show you how unfair the body-in-a-tomb example is, by providing a few similar myself. I would be much more open to conversion if the following were found and properly identified: The Ark of the Covenant and/or The Tablets of the Ten Commandments, The Spear of Destiny, The Cross Jesus bore, writings in multiple languages describing the construction of the Tower of Babel, DNA sampled from the weeping blood miracle of a statue.

    To SteveK,

    You show a wonderful display of skepticism. But it tickles me that, assuming you are Christian, you believe Jesus to be God and yet you have already have in mind what God can and cannot do. That Jesus came back down to Earth after his affair on the cross and decided to be buried in Japan is well within his power. Being God he is still able to do that and at the same time travel to America and found the Mormon Religion.

    Who are you to argue what Jesus can and cannot do?

    What if he survived being on the cross, and even being stabbed by the roman soldier? Would it be any less Godlike for him to endure such a hardship and survive? Would be so impossible for him to flee across the Persian Empire and find peaceful respite in Japan? It’s said Moses could have lived 900 years, it seems not so impossible for Jesus to live at least as long traveling the world.

    Thank you for taking the time to read my reply.

    I will check back to read responses, but this will be my last. I have seen the much larger thread of comments on the earlier posting and the folks there cover much better philosophies than I myself am capable of.

  13. @Robert Doyle:

    In rebuttal, I ask that you develop a means for how a naive non-theist might filter a false prophet from what you see as a valid one. By what means do you determine that Jesus remained in heaven and did not travel to Japan and the Americas?

    The usual means. How do you know Julius Caesar existed, or if he did, that he did not travel to Japan or the Americas?

    One of the notable authors of the first-cause argument, Aristotle, was a multi-thiest. And even if we were to grant this trend that monotheism is better argued, you have still have not successfully separated yourself from a multitude of claims all asserting they are more accurate than yours. Baha’i, Christianity, Gnosticism, Druzism, Islam, Judaism, Samaritanism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism all line up alongside. Not to forget the less formally considered claims, such as Pantheism, Panentheism, Transtheism, and even people who think we live in the Matrix and we are all just really complicated A.I.

    Very, very short answer:

    (1) The classical arguments for the existence of God, if successful, imply that atheism is false. Contrary to what many people think, these arguments also refute practically all religions; the ones that survive are basically the big Monotheistic religions.

    (2) If Jesus did rose from the dead, he really was who he said he was. So, if we can establish on good grounds, the resurrection of Jesus, Christianity is vindicated.

    I have already given two conditions that would be helpful to discuss on my changing my stance. But even if I were a philosophic zombie, unable to change my stance it does not change the unfairness of a theist debating here unwilling to have fair conditions for conversion. The title of this blog is “Thinking Christian”, not “thinking commenter”. And as I noted earlier, one of the conditions to being a “thinker” was the ability to have a position which could indeed change.

    You demand conditions on theists, occurence of which they would abandon belief, and then present a laundry list of conditions whose standards are impossibly high to meet. You pay lip service to reasonableness and rationality and demand what in practice is equivalent to a miracle on your own life. You know what? As the Bible repeatedly tells us, men will not be convinced not even by miracles.

    If you want to discuss arguments, evidence, etc. I am open to it, but please, do me a favor and stop this nonsense of trying to pass yourself as more reasonable and open to evidence than the theists around here, ok?

  14. Robert,

    Who are you to argue what Jesus can and cannot do?

    Arguing requires that one follow the rules of argument. In doing that, I know that Jesus cannot be the Jesus of Christianity and the Jesus of Islam. I know that Jesus cannot be the Jesus of Christianity and the Jesus of Mormonism.

    Remember what you said, Robert.

    Let us suppose you have convinced me. That the fact that Jesus has not been found in a tomb is a relevant proof for Christianity.

    I am a naive outsider. You have also proven Islam and Mormonism to me.

    If, as you say, the facts are a relevant proof for Christianity (where Jesus is defined a particular way), then the same facts are a relevant disproof of any contradicting definition of Jesus (Islam and Mormonism). You are flat out wrong, Robert.