I ask; will the apologists answer?

| February 2, 2009 | 42 Replies

Following from this post, which describes questions assembled by apparent atheist-to-theist convert Lee Strobel, posed to Hemant Mehta (and destroyed by Greta Christina and Ebonmuse) I decided I’d ask one or two questions of my own of theologists/apologists. Obviously I have my own thoughts on these questions but I really want to see answers from believers on these matters (even from non-believers who are playing Devil’s Advocate!).  Also, I realise my questions may be in some ways incomplete or even naive, both to theists and non-theists alike, however the following are what occurred to me after reading Strobel’s questions (and the ensuing dismemberment of them), and I present them more or less how they appeared in my mind.

Without further ado, let us begin.

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1. Considering Christianity is only one of many religions which all make similar claims to be the revealed and absolute word of the creator of the universe and all contradict each other, do you think it’s more likely that:

(a) all religions are equally valid
(b) all religions are equally invalid
(c) only your religion is valid

If (c) how did you arrive at the decision that your religion is the “right” one? How do you discount other religions, many with an equal or greater number of followers, which make similar claims to divine inspiration? How do their various claims of divine inspiration, miraculous occurrences and absolute moral authority fail to meet your standards of evidence? What is it about those other religions’ claims that makes you reject them, even as you accept similar claims from your own religion? Finally, do you think you would be of the same faith you are now if you had been born & raised in a society where the prevailing religious culture were different (e.g. in an Islamic theocracy such as Saudi Arabia as opposed to a predominantly Christian nation such as the USA or UK)? If you were to contend, for example, that you’d still be a Christian even if your parents, family, friends, teachers and entire culture were Muslim, please explain how that would eventuate. If you were to contend that you’d likely be of the hypothetical faith you were raised in, whatever that was, would that in any way, even hypothetically, affect the truth claims of the faith you have now?

If (a) explain how that does not make all religions more or less irrelevant. If all religions make similar & valid claims regarding morality, for instance, it follows that following all or, more easily, none of them is equally acceptable to any gods that may exist. If such behaviour as forbidding murder & theft & promoting tolerance & charity is more or less common to every religion, should it not be sufficient to any god that may be observing us that we simply attempt to be “good” – that is, to minimise the harm we do and maximise the happiness of ourselves and others? Considering such morality is more or less universal among all human cultures and that such morality developed independently among cultures separated both geographically and by millennia, is it not logical to assume that such morality is a purely human development and not a gift from on high?

If (b) well … you’re an atheist.

2. If we accept, for argument’s sake, the premise that there is only one true religion and only one revealed truth of the universe, please explain:

(a) how in every religion there are differing branches who disagree over doctrine, mostly respectfully but all too often violently, despite being spiritual brethren and sharing core beliefs & revelations (e.g. Sunni/Shia, Catholicism/everyone else)

(b) how acts of sectarian violence are often indistinguishable in nature from violence between competing religions

(c) how it is to be determined which particular sect carries the one definitive version of the one truth, considering again the commonality of the source material for each faith.

Considering (a), it seems that the universe’s creator was unable or unwilling to share a single, coherent vision of the required religion with a sufficient number of people. If unable, the creator seems limited in its powers of persuasion or revelation and cannot logically be considered omnipotent or all-powerful, as most followers of monotheistic religion contend. If unwilling, this begs the question as to why this all-powerful creator would allow its creation to disagree and argue for centuries, frequently to the point of murderous intra-faith brutality. If the creator is indeed all-powerful yet unwilling, that requires an assessment of the morality of a creator who could choose at any time to intervene and reveal to the entirety of its creation its wishes, yet does no such thing.

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About the Author ()

Hank was born of bird-watching bushwalking music-loving parents from whom he gained his love of nature, the universe & bicycles. Today he's a musician, non-profit aid worker, beagle keeper and fair & balanced internet commentator - but that just means he has a chip on each shoulder.

Comments (42)

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  1. Kenny Celican says:

    (a) not only could I not justify my belief in a creator but also (b) the “requirements” of being nice and minimising harm were pretty much what I’d been trying to do my whole life anyway (thanks to my parents’ sturdy moral character & still unclear religious beliefs, if they have any).

    Who says all beliefs need to be justified? I understand that any belief you're going to make long term decisions on ought to be, but at the same time we quite frequently must make decisions based on imperfect information, and in those situations we have to act on faith. Whether the faith we're acting on is 'It will all work out in the end', 'A beneficient deity is watching over me, so I cannot fail either way', 'A maleficient deity is watching over me, so I'll fail with either alternative', or 'We'll all be dead in a billion years, so it doesn't matter', or the eminiently pragmatic 'none of the information I lack will make a difference to my decision' making a random decision requires a certain level of faith.

    More succintly, faith has power. Like anything with the power, it has utility, but it must be carefully controlled, lest it be used irresponsiblly.

    Also, why is it a requirement to be nice? I'm an arrogant bastard. Had a letter not been delayed by eighteen months twelve years ago, I would almost certainly be a real-life Gregory House at this time. I'm not known for 'nice' or 'minimizing harm'. I try more for 'deliberate rather than accidental bastardry' and 'maximizing improvement of situation'. I set my standards where I know I have a chance.

    Karl – yes, but only a True Scotsman could worship your True God via your True Religion. Ok, that was a bit over the top, but you might want to think about your phrasing a little next time.

    All humor and sarcasm aside, I am a deist, but unfortunately I got told to 'THINK!' quite a lot at an impressionable age, and now can't stop doing so. I am also a badass abstract logician with a twisted sense of humor. As such, if I hear a serious set of questions like this one, I try to provide not only answers, but analyses of where the questions indicate a questionable presumption.

    As a thought, the only question worth asking a theist interested in converting atheists is the 'do you ever doubt your atheism?' one. While it has a low chance of a positive answer, the chance is non-zero, and it has a minimal outlay in terms of both time to deliver and making the asker look like a moron, unlike the other questions asked in that earlier set.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    For people who say they believe in "God," but don't ally themselves with a particular religion, upon what basis do they posit the existence and personality characteristics of their god? I've often wondered about this, because, at least in America, many people who say they believe in "God" seem to have in mind some version of the god-of-the-Bible, regardless of whether or not they call themselves "Christian." This seems bizarre to me, because they are apparently declaring allegiance to Christianity in everything but name.

    Another thing that puzzles me about these people is why they would believe in a "God" who is entirely the product of their own personal imagination. In what way does such a god provide value to them? At least for Christians, they believe their god will give them, among other things, everlasting life. Setting aside the hubris of their belief, I can imagine that such thoughts might help them through many difficult personal struggles. But what personal value is there in believing in a god whom one has entirely self-invented? Does life become any more meaningful? Does the Universe become any less cold? I don't see how.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Sigh. Value is always a judgment call. Vicki, if a value is not assigned by oneself (intrinsic) nor by anyone else (society) nor by a supernatural agent, then to what is the value relevant?

    Value is a measurement. Value is a price. Value is a setpoint on a specified scale.

    The value of individuals fluctuate with culture, depending on overall wealth. The value is determined by each interaction. Father, employee, teacher, child, enemy, sister, captain, coreligionist, student, consumer, victor, and shepherd are all examples of a subset of roles that may all manifest in one person. Each role conveys a value based on everyone affected by the role in both directions as seen through history and through forecast.

    That is the matrix, the fabric of society, the multi-dimensional relational medium through which all our lives are perceived and remembered.

    At least, that's my narrow way of looking at the world.

  4. Vicki Baker says:

    The value of individuals fluctuate with culture, depending on overall wealth

    So, we assign worth to people based on geographic/ethnic borders and GDP? How many Danilos to the Dan today? How much value did you lose in the recent economic crisis? Where did it go? Should we perhaps decrease the penalty for murder to reflect the new value of human life in the US?

    If your formulation is true, why do a number of countries with smaller GDP's than the US do a better job of providing all their citizens with a decent quality of life and a chance to participate as an equal in the life of the culture? And how can you be sure that increased overall wealth will lead to increased value put on human life? This doesn't usually happen if the increased wealth is distributed unequally. See Russia in the 1990's and many another example throughout history. Furthermore, it seems well documented that an increased investment in human development (nurturing, nourishing, teaching, training) will lead to increased overall wealth – however that is measured.

    Really, Dan, the point that Mark and I are trying to make is not that difficult to understand. Mark put its best:

    It is a very simple idea, Karl, that the value inherent in other people must be the same as you place in yourself.

    I would also add the value you place in your loved ones. For me, there is no economic price that could be put on my child's life. There is nothing I would consider as compensation for the taking of her life. The value of her life, to me, is infinite. I know that other people feel this way about the people they love. Furthermore, it seems beneficial that all humans be valued in this way by someone

    There's no moral justification for why my kid gets a decent chance at life (hopefully) and some other kid doesn't. They both deserve it equally. My child is not objectively "worth" more – or less- than anyone else's child because she's mine, and because I happen to be in the circumstances that I'm in.

  5. Karl says:

    Dan,

    If I read Dan properly then:

    1) Slavery then is a matter of economics.

    2) Control of the subject matter taught in a classroom then is a matter of economics.

    3) Yet if political power grows out of the desire to equalize or pull some down and pull others up, the end result of justice as most would perceive it is an even distribution of values of both over or under valuation.

    When society does the real value appears to be the elimination of inequity.

  6. Kenny Celican says:

    Dan – Ok, that explains it; it was an issue of illustration, not a limit of the concept. Thanks!

    Grumpy – A few points:

    1 – The God and assorted supernatural entities I believe in are imperfectly illustrated by the Bible. While this means I believe in the Judeo-Christian God, this does not mean I feel allegiance to any of the religious power structures associated with Christianity or Christians. In point of fact, I often find myself defending non-Christians from those who purport to share my faith.

    2 – Given your assertion that all religions are based on the imagination of some human, why should I value the imagination of someone else more than my own? To put it a more flippant way, does it make more sense to talk to your own imaginary friend, or to someone else's imaginary friend?

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    [Dan] The value of a person is that which is ascribed to him by his social matrix.

    [Mark and Vicki's point] The value inherent in other people must be the same as you place in yourself.

    I sense that Dan is describing how things often work in the real world. I interpret Mark and Vicki's point to be the standard which needs to prevail in a just society.

    Thus, I see the apparent dispute as descriptive versus prescriptive perspectives.

  8. Vicki Baker says:

    "Thus, I see the apparent dispute as descriptive versus prescriptive perspectives."

    That doesn't completely capture it either. My life and liberty have a "use value" to me independent of my "exchange value" at the going market rate. The idea that the "use value" of the individual's life and liberty takes precedence of over his or her "exchange value" is the founding principle of democracy. The idea that the "exchange value" of human beings takes precedence over the "use value" of life and liberty to the individual is the founding principle of totalitarianism.

  9. Vicki Baker says:

    Karl, once again I have no idea what point you're trying to make, other than you seem to be winding up to share your misinformed ideas about the nature of socialism with us yet again.

    Control of subject matter taught in the classroom is not relevant to this post so don't try to drag things off-topic.

  10. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Karl, evolution is not a higher power. It is the collective results of several natural processes. As for a person's "inherent" value, I fail to understand the concept as applied to people.

    A wrench has inherent value if it fits then nuts and bolts on your car. A 20 dollar bill has inherent value only if you are able to exchange it for something else. A new born has no inherent value. The value is added through education and exploration of abilities, interests and limitations as the baby matures, a lifetime process.

    Non belief is not a philosophy, and most non-believers ascribe to some type of non religious philosophy. I am an agnostic existentialist. I've noticed that atheists and agnostics that post to this 'blog firmly believe in the existentialist concept of accepting the responsibility for their failures as well as for their triumphs.

    With the exception of a few fringe groups, non-believers tend to very tolerant of believers of all religions except when they try to impose their religion on us.

  11. Karl says:

    Niklaus,

    If a new born has no inherent value then who decides the relative value of how and in what philosophy the new born is raised? That is a matter for society and education is it not?

    Dan seems to state that utilitarian outcome is all that has a materialistic value. I sense you believe the same?

    Seems most attempts to discuss theism versus atheism all degrade to this very foundational premise. What really are the values people cling to and why do they cling to them.

    Trying to use science to support either of these value systems only appears to detach a person's philosophical worldview from a non-materialistic perspective.

    I would add that the matter isn't lost on me, but it is why hypothetical science becomes overwhelming to others.

  12. Dan Klarmann says:

    A newborn provides value directly to the parents. It is a legacy, the future. Value as an expression of relationship and hope.

    Science as a practice can observe the way value is applied. It does little to determine how value is discerned. But it can offer guidance on how to weigh certain attributes based on past performance.

    I may have an atypical view of utilitarianism; I see vast social utility in fuzzy concepts like beauty and hope.

  13. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Karl, I contend that a newborn has no inherent value, because a newborn child is like a clean slate. The value, the worthiness, the importance, the goodness, call it what you like, comes from the judgment of others. These judgments can be based on the assessments of the person's skills, his demeanor, his attitude and behavior within the framework of society. This personal value is subject to change and reflects those parameters and attributes that are considered important to the society and culture.

    Personal value is often confused with personal values. Personal values are the criteria a person uses to assess and judge the value of himself and others. Personal values are learned, from experience, from parents and relatives, from peers and from society.

  14. "(a) all religions are equally valid

    (b) all religions are equally invalid

    (c) only your religion is valid"

    Any of these options are significant possibilities, and when looked at all together, there is only one good solution.

    If (a) then it does not matter what faith you choose because God would not really care. If (b) then it does not matter because we are either all hanging in the matrix and/or there is no God. If one of the religions are correct then you really want to be part of it.

    To simplify the numbers a bit, lets say that if (a) is true, everyone is saved, if (b) is true, everyone gets suckishness after death, if (c) then some people are saved, and the chances between them are equal.

    Being an atheist, you give yourself a 33.3% chance of happiness after death, and taking an educated guess at the correct religion increases that chance. It doesn't exactly reach 66.7% because you could easily have chosen the wrong one, but it increases nonetheless.

    Therefore, rejecting religion entirely is not the best idea.

    You wanted an answer; there it is.

  15. Actually, from a starting position of atheism, choosing the wrong religion decreases your chances, since most religions have exclusionary clauses about idolators, which would be the worship of false gods or, in a more modern interpretation, following false doctrines. You're actually better off remaining an atheist, since you then have only two choice (a and b) and a working 50% chance of getting to some presumed pleasant afterlife. (The only place where it is not an even bet would be if one of the religions advocating Hell is correct, then you have a further 50-50 split as to whether there is nothing or eternal pain. That would then make the breakdown closer to your three way.)

    • Erich Vieth says:

      If the real true "God" (if there were a God) was a decent fellow such that "He" would allow any kind-hearted human beings into heaven regardless of their belief systems, then there is no difference between A, B and C. Might as well be a skeptic since it's a more honest approach.

  16. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    In the novel "Stranger in a Strange Land" the supporting character of Jubal Harshaw explained why he was an agnostic. As I recall, the argument went something like this:

    There are many religions.

    Each religion claims to be the One True Faith.

    Most of these religions profess a belief in the End of Times, that all life on earth will end.

    These religions also claim that the True Believers of the True Faith, will somehow transcend the End of Times to some form of eternal existence.

    The believers of the False Religions will die, or will be eternally punished for not following the One True Faith.

    Now, what if the End of Times comes tomorrow and we discover that the One True faith is the worship of Magog of Ogg or some other long-forgotten deity that no one has worshipped in centuries?

    Harshaw said he was waiting to the last minute to convert.

    To be clear on this point, I am an agnostic, not because I'm waiting to the last minute to convert, but because my understanding of the physical world does not imply or require the existence of an omnipotent, extratemporal intelligence to have called it into existence.

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