“Relying on God to make an argument against God”

October 28, 2014

David Murray has a nice summary of an essay in The Atlantic by atheist Crispin Sartwell, “Irrational Atheism:
Not Believing in God Isn’t Always Based on Reasoned Arguments—and That’s Okay.” Murray summarizes Sartwell’s piece as follows:

  • The atheistic worldview “is similar to the worldview of religion—neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith, stances taken up by tiny creatures in an infinitely rich environment.”
  • His view of the universe as a natural, material system is based on his interpretation of his experience not on a rational argument.
  • “I have taken a leap of atheist faith.”
  • Atheism can be as much a product of family, social, and institutional context as religious faith.
  • “The idea that the atheist comes to her view of the world through rationality and argumentation, while the believer relies on arbitrary emotional commitments, is false.”
  • Just as religious people have often offloaded the burden of their choices on church dogma, so some atheists are equally willing to offload their beliefs on “reason” or “science” without acknowledging that they are making a bold intellectual commitment about the nature of the universe, and making it with utterly insufficient data.
  • Science rests on emotional commitment (that there is a truth), a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up.

Sartwell concludes his piece with this:

Genuinely bad things have happened to me in my life: One of my brothers was murdered; another committed suicide. I’ve experienced addiction and mental illness. And I, like you, have watched horrors unfold all over the globe. I don’t—I can’t—believe this to be best of all possible worlds. I think there is genuinely unredeemed, pointless pain. Some of it is mine.

By not believing in God, I keep faith with the world’s indifference. I love its beauty. I hate its suffering. I think both are perfectly real, because I experience them both, all the time. I do not see any reason to suspend judgment: I’m here, and I commit. I’m perfectly sincere and definite in my belief that there is no God. I can see that there could be comfort in believing otherwise, believing that all the suffering and death makes sense, that everyone gets what they deserve, and that existence works out in the end.

But to believe that would be to betray my actual experiences, and even without the aid of reasoned arguments, that’s reason enough not to believe.

Who can’t sympathize with Sartwell? If I were an atheist, my atheism would be based on indignation that the world is deeply unjust. Nevertheless, as pastor and author Tim Keller points out, this kind of reasoning has a “boomerang effect”:

It is inarguable that human beings have moral feelings. A moral feeling means I feel some behavior is right and some behavior wrong and even repulsive. Now, if there is no God, where do such strong moral instincts and feeling come from? Today many would say our moral sense comes from evolution. Our feelings about right and wrong are thought to be genetically hardwired into us because they helped our ancestors survive. While that explanation may account for moral feelings, it can’t account for moral obligation. What right have you to tell people they are obligated to stop certain behaviors if their feelings tell them those things are right, but you feel they are wrong? Why should your moral feelings take precedence over theirs? Where do you get a standard by which your moral feelings and sense are judged as true and others as false? On what basis do you say to someone, “What you have done is evil,” if their feelings differ from yours?

We call this a conundrum because the very basis for disbelief in God—a certainty about evil and the moral obligation not to commit it—dissolves if there truly is no God. The ground on which you make your objection vanishes under your feet. So not only does the argument against God from evil not succeed, but it actually has a “boomerang effect” on the users. Because it shows you that you are assuming something that can’t exist unless God does. And so, in a sense, you are relying on God to make an argument against God.[†]

† Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 103-4.

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