Musings of the Great Eric

Why debates about God are stupid

with 24 comments

In a nutshell, it’s because no one knows how to define anything. Just look at how fuzzy the common terms are:

  • On one side, we have “theism”. The belief that God exists. Or a God, anyway – we could be talking about someone who believes in the existence of Zeus on Mount Olympus. A theist can also be believe tat God is merely “the thing that created the universe”, which can conceivably be a form of energy or mathematics itself. It’s usually assumed though that the discussion specifically relates to the God of Abraham. Or maybe not so specifically… after all, in the eyes of a theist, the God of Abraham may or may not be all loving, may or may not be all powerful, may or may not be all knowing, may or may not answer prayers, may or may not directly intervene in human affairs, may or may not cause miracles, may or may not be a fan of George W Bush, and may or may not be some combination of a father, son, and holy ghost. Different combinations of those properties make for 1,024 different possible versions of the God of Abraham right there that we might be debating the existence of. Very few people, theists and atheists alike, put very much thought into what exactly they’re defending or attacking, resulting in debates where either side will just change their working definition when they run up against a logical argument they can’t defeat.
  • On the other side, we have atheism, which itself is divided into (at least) two camps. “Weak atheism”, which corresponds to “I don’t believe there is a God”, and “strong atheism”, which corresponds to “I believe there is no God”. Note the difference – one is simply a statement of disbelief, the other makes a positive assertion of nonexistence. But most people don’t even know that distinction exists, not even self-described atheists. Theists tend to assume (or at least, argue based on the assumption) that all atheists are of the strong variety, ostensibly so that they can make the counterargument that atheism is just as much a “faith” position as theism. However, the reality is that most self described atheists are of the weak variety. Further confusing the issue, a lot of weak atheists describe themselves as “agnostics”, which is a misstatement of their actual beliefs.
  • Which brings us to agnosticism, which (in my experience) is the one that’s the least well understood; the average joe seems to simply interpret it as a more politically correct version of atheism. But agnosticism actually has nothing to do with a belief in God, instead concerning itself with the knowability of God (it literally means “without knowledge”). And even in this case, there’s at least two flavors: “We can’t know” (God is outside space-time, we can’t test for him), and “We don’t know” (We could theoretically find out, we just haven’t as a practical matter). Wikipedia also adds “I don’t care” and “The question is stupid” as agnostic positions. But the bigger point is that it’s completely independent of theism or atheism. You can be an agnostic theist: “I don’t believe we can know that God exists but I believe that he does exist” as well as an agnostic atheist: “I don’t believe we can know that God exists but I believe that he does not exist”. Since very few people on either end of the scale claim absolute certainty about the existence or non-existence of God (whatever flavor of him they’re talking about), the vast majority of people are some flavor of agnostic.

Personally, I hold any given definition God to the same standard of evidence that I do Santa Claus, celestial teacups, and leprechauns. So in general, I view most conceptions of God the same way I do Ether and the Caloric Theory of heat; a victim of Occam’s Razor.

But the keyword in the above is “most conceptions”. I’m a strong atheist with regards to Zeus and the Flying Spaghetti Monster – I positively believe that those Gods don’t exist. I’m a weak atheist with regards to a deistic concept of a God that doesn’t interfere (much) in human affairs – I don’t believe such a God exists. I’m strong atheist if you describe God as “Omnipotent and Omniscient”, or for any other definition that includes logically impossible attributes. If you believe God is “the thing that started the Big Bang”, then I’m a believer – I think *something* kicked it off, after all. If you want to assert “God is everything” or “God is love”, then sure, I can’t discount the existence of those things. I don’t see any real reason to define God that way, but hey, whatever floats your boat.

The thing is, no one bothers to define their terms before jumping into a debate. Too often, an atheist will assume he’s debating a fundamentalist who believes that God answers prayers, the Earth is six thousand years old, and gay sex is the root of all evil. A theist, for his part, is prone to assuming that the atheist believes in science-as-his-religion, and that knocking down any particular scientific theory in the last 500 years is enough to knock down atheism. More commonly, theists assume that the atheist absolutely positively believes there’s no kind of God whatsoever beyond any shadow of any doubt – and he can therefore win the debate just by introducing the slightest doubt.

The truth is that you’d find few people on either one of those extremes, but rarely do you see anyone who bothers to actually state their positions before debating them; they’d rather pat themselves on the back for knocking down strawmen:

“The Earth isn’t really 6,000 years old, so I win!”

“We can’t know what happened before the Big Bang, it might have been God, I win!”

The debates wind up running in circles as one side or the other continually invokes a variation of the True Scotsman Fallacy – “I never SAID God was all loving”, “A true atheist would think this was true”, etc.

I haven’t even mentioned yet the secondary arguments that always come up on internet, which have nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of any sort of God, but one side or the other always brings them up anyway. Stuff like:

  • Atheists “hate” God and “hate” religion and “want to ban it entirely”.
  • Stalin and Mao were atheists, therefore all atheists are genocidal maniacs (that’s especially a pet peeve of mine, since those are among the most religious regimes ever in every way that matters).
  • On the flip side – atheists love to bring up abortion clinic bombers, pedophile priests, atrocities by the Vatican, the Crusades, or any number of other evils brought on by religion.
  • Theists “hate homosexuals” or “hate [some other form of sexuality]”
  • Theists are all Republicans.

The fact is that none of those things have anything to do with the existence, nonexistence, belief, or non-belief in God. They might have a place in a debate about the merits of religion itself, but more often than not they’re just fallacious arguments, encompassing a number of logical fallacies (not the least of which is pure ad hominem).

The vast majority of theists aren’t fundamentalist Bible thumpers who deny evolution and believe that the book of Genesis is literal truth, but atheists love to assume they are when they start this debate. Similarly, an atheist may or may not believe in science, evolution, secular humanism, rationalism, skepticism, or anything of the sort – in fairness, they usually do, but one thing doesn’t follow from the other. Plenty of theists believe in those same ideas, and plenty of atheists believe in astrology, UFO abductions, and other scientifically indefensible ideas.

So what’s the moral of the story? If you’re going to argue about whether or not God exists, define it first. And then, if you can, stick to relevant arguments. It makes the ensuing debate much better and far more interesting.


Written by Eric

February 20, 2007 at 8:56 am

Posted in Philosophy

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24 Responses

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  1. Bravo!

    I wish I had written this.

    Rick Sparks

    February 20, 2007 at 8:12 pm

  2. While I agree with the general thrust of your essay, I feel compelled to point out that agnostic theists and strong atheists rarely have trouble in debate. More often than not is is some Bible-thumping fundamentalist Christian that is telling me that I am wrong in the absolute and who is raising circular arguments and using sophistry in an attempt to make their point that cause most of the trouble.

    In fact this whole matter is coming to fore in large because theism and theist views are no longer content to stay in the places built for them but now wish to directly influence human political affairs, be it teaching creationist theories in schools, demanding the death of those that oppose them (fatwas), or other attempts to exert influence in essentially secular domains.

    I am a atheist, but I don’t prosthletize, however if someone wants to ‘save my soul’ and is making a pest of themselves about it, I will defend my position vigorously.


    February 20, 2007 at 9:39 pm

  3. Alatrist – a god or gods may or may not exist, but I certainly haven’t seen one worth worshipping either way.


    February 20, 2007 at 10:46 pm

  4. Congratulations DV82XL, you have given us a stunning example of the exact type of generalization this post has just pointed out and scoffed at…did you read it?

    I enjoyed the article Eric, thanks for the (fairly) unbiased enlightenment. For the record, I am a theist (my apologies for not being “content to stay in the places built for my kind”), and I despise being lumped in with the pedophilic priests and fatwa-murderers.

    The Running Emu

    February 21, 2007 at 4:07 am

  5. I agree. Define the terms of the discussion first and stick to relevant arguments. If you do this though, how on Earth can the theists win? You’re talking about having a rational argument with irrational people. Or is that the hidden agenda? 🙂


    February 21, 2007 at 6:36 am

  6. I really enjoyed this and came ’round the way from the “hot posts”. While sharing beliefs & ideas in general are common practice, they are a matter of opinion. Opinions that can be so different and unacceptable to both sides that vigorous debate oft is the result. Since there isn’t any logical answer to “the great question” there should be no argument over it. As if it were a way of trying to take away someone’s most important right as a human. You know, that whole thinking thing.

    I find that most atheists and theists tend to forget one thing, denial of something is essentially admitting it exists. To deny, is to choose something isn’t real. It’s like saying that a circle is really a square, I may know it isn’t but I can think that way if I want. Spare to mention that beliefs are a personal matter and most personal matters should be kept as such: personal. No one really has the ability to take it away from you, though it may cause you to think about your choices. Ultimately, isn’t it ourselves who shape the world around us?

    Furthermore, why worry about what happens after we die (because honestly, isn’t that what theism and atheism is essentially about, preparation/the lack of preparedness for death)? As far as I can see, that’s what the arguments are really about; “Jesus dies for your sins, and you should listen …”, “Why would your god let children die?”, or even “god speaks to me and tells me of the world’s demise”.

    As far as I am concerned, we’re here now, in this “life” or “consciousness” or whatever you’d like to call it for a seemingly short amount of time. No one has come back to tell us what happens, so we may as well just enjoy this seemingly one chance to do something in the present.


    February 21, 2007 at 10:25 am

  7. You’re making far too much sense Elaine… The only problem I have is with your, “there should be no argument over it” assertion, as many people tie these beliefs into politics and policies that affect everyone. There need to be arguments to keep this is check. Should this be the case? No.


    February 21, 2007 at 12:43 pm

  8. Excellent post. Almost everything in life is unprovable to someone who doesn’t want to accept evidence one way or the other. Plus, not having the terms of the argument defined to begin with presents huge problems in two parties ever coming to an understanding.

    I’m always reminded of the line that is something to the effect of “We never experience the real world — all we experience is our own nervous systems.”


    February 21, 2007 at 1:47 pm

  9. whew, nice to see this in “hot posts”.and i do agree with that, fish.

    but i believe thats why they call it “faith”, whether or not you believe there is God because no one can really produce a fact acceptable by all to ascertain such statement. its not as simple as saying “the earth is round” because we can prove it and i am yet to meet a person in the present day who would say otherwise.

    I know God exists and i believe that without conviction as others would have the same burning conviction in their belief of the opposite.

    each to his own, really.

    Margarette Rona

    February 21, 2007 at 2:41 pm

  10. Running Emu, I did read the essay, and I was pointing out that in large the issue of bellicosity is only a problem when hard nose theists are part of the debate. When rational people discuss religion I have never found them resorting to shoddy dialectics. Did you read my post?

    Oh and while I’m at it; I define a theist as someone who believes that there exists an entity that is conscious, has created the universe as an act of its Will, and requires that humans act in certain ways. Also this belief is founded on faith which is to say there is no proof for the existence of this entity beyond the theists stated beliefs.

    In other words they have abandoned logic on this issue.


    February 21, 2007 at 3:11 pm

  11. Mwah. I kissed my computer screen when I read this article.


    February 21, 2007 at 9:16 pm

  12. How about this as a valid definition of God, whether you agree with the def or not:

    “God is the one and only supreme being, who is responsible for the creation of the universe and everything in it including us humans).

    Stephen Davis

    February 21, 2007 at 9:52 pm

  13. Stephen Davis: I think that’s a pretty basic definition of what most people would think the term “God” actually means. It covers the “creator” side of things, but does it cover the “influencer” side? i.e. is there fate? Does God cause things to happen, such as children to get horrible and painful diseases and babies to die? What about afterlife? Is there heaven and hell? Is God a judge who sends “good” people to one place and “bad” people to another?

    Or do we look at and argue over all the God concepts separately? Is there a creator? Is there an almighty judge? Regardless, you’ll always end up with an inability to “prove” a negative. You can always prove that something exists, but not that something doesn’t exist. Atheists can never “prove” their point to theists. But theists SHOULD be able to prove their point that God does exist. Strangely enough no one EVER has. Now why is that?

    If you want to “disprove” the 6,000 year old universe, have a read of How Hubble Killed God:


    February 22, 2007 at 1:50 am

  14. Parallel Divergence: You can very much prove a negative (some negatives at least), but that’s part of the reason you need a well defined thing “thing” first.

    The simplest examples of this are found in mathematics. I can prove, quite easily, that there are no circles with corners, as such a shape by definition would not be a circle. For another example, I can “prove” the non-existence of perpetual motion machines because such a thing would be in violation of the laws of physics. You can even sort of apply it in reverse, with the anthropic principle – the universe has no physical laws which would make impossible our ability to exist.

    This is why I insist on defining God. Is he omnipotent? If so, I can disprove his existence because I can prove that no omnipotent being exists anywhere. This doesn’t work for every attribute though – you can’t disprove logically that God “created the universe”, for example.


    February 22, 2007 at 11:10 am

  15. Thanks Eric, but you’re talking about mathematics and physics “laws”. God is supernatural according to theists, therefore can circumvent any “law” you’d like to throw at Him. That’s their standard argument. As I said, you can’t argue rationally with these people.


    February 22, 2007 at 5:11 pm

  16. […] Read Erics Entire Blog Entry Here […]

  17. Discussion about God is NOT stupid as it can point some to the right place. Many have missed God because of what they have heard or what they have deduced from what they have seen.

    The key is how do you do it and where do you go? You do not go to the Atheist, he is a FOOL as the Bible says, “The Fool has said in his heart there is No God.” Psalms 14. You do not go to philosophy, religion, etc.

    You must go to the Bible which is a revelation given by God, nowhere else. Even there, you do not apply your natural mind!1 Cor. 2:14, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” So, you must be spiritual. How do you become that? Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation Acts 16:30-32).


    March 3, 2007 at 5:42 am

  18. Great points!


    March 3, 2007 at 5:48 am

  19. DV82XL said: “Oh and while I’m at it; I define a theist as someone who believes that there exists an entity that is conscious, has created the universe as an act of its Will, and requires that humans act in certain ways.”


    What if someone believes that there is an entity that is conscious, has created the universe as an act of it’s will, but does not require that humans act in certain ways? Would this someone not be a theist?

    You are doing exactly what Eric wrote against, you are assuming what theists believe before you begin the discussion. You would be better saying “I do not believe there exists an entity that is conscious and has created the universe as an act of it’s will, what do you think?” and then dealing with the answer, discussing what people have actually said and not what you think they will say.


    March 8, 2007 at 4:52 pm

  20. Good argument, and well done. But remember that many of us practice non-theistic religions, where issues of gods are just not relevant. Buddhism (I practice Zen)is a method–not a set of beliefs about gods or other things to take on blind faith. The world is as it is, and who cares if someone made it? The issue is a waste of time and not relevant to making the world better for you and others. In one of the oldest writings, Buddha is reported to have said, “Follow my teachings if they work, not because I or anyone else told you. It’s all experience.” Some Zen Buddhists remain strong Christians or Jews without conflict. I’m a scientist, pretty much an atheist (to the extent I think about it here in my sixty-second year) and a committed follower of Buddhist practice, and there is no conflict. So please have a look at the “Dharmic” religions and you’ll see a fascinating contrast to the “Abrahamic” religions.


    March 10, 2007 at 9:59 am

  21. This made for an excellent read. Well thought out.


    July 29, 2007 at 7:15 pm

  22. To all the enlightened/unenlightened people on this post.
    Great comments, great arguments, impressive vocabulary and a lot of smugness, I assume. However, one thing that nobody ever seems to be willing to admit is the fact that life and everything else in this thing called ‘space-time’ is basically ‘absurd’, i.e. doesn’t make sense. We argue/fight/quarrel/debate just to prove our own superiority to other humans (superirority too is something that is human, I mean it probably doesn’t mean a thing to plants, animals and inanimate objects).

    Granted there is no way to disprove the existence of ‘god’, but then why would a ‘god’ allow the existence of humans who would question his existence (if indeed he does exist). I can say a whole lot of other things but it would all amount to the existential dilemma of a Samuel Beckett work, that we are all just passing/killing time while we are alive, assuming things/events really have a purpose, whereas if we try and look at the bigger scheme of things, nothing much makes any sense, nor will it ever will.

    Why don’t we just accept the fact that we (and everything) came out of nothingness and will eventually go back to nothingness?

    Probably because ‘true nothingness’ is impossible to imagine. Even when we try to depict nothingness in art, we have to use a medium to show it to other people, but in ‘real time nothingness’ there is ‘NOTHING’. That is what the eventual fate of the cosmos will be, not armaggedon, return of christ/allah/or some such lunatic but ‘NOTHINGNESS’.

    Oh yes, am proud to be a non-believer in all divine,sperficial things. I mean I am so much superior to the people killing/proseletyzing in the name of a self-made, superficial, opportunistic god,(read: all ABRAHAMIC religions)


    September 12, 2007 at 8:55 pm

  23. I have to strongly disagree with the premise in the title, but please do not expect me to offer any knock down arguments, or conclusive reasons why in this brief post. I have just finished writing a book on the nature of God…relax, it is a pantheist account… and it is a very clear and coherent definition which I believe will prove to be not just verifiable but falsifiable too. The book comes in at 288 pages and and could have been ten times as long.
    You make some valid observations concerning the problems of defining concepts prior to discussion. However, because there are many engaging in debate who are not logically rigorous does not mean that all who engage in God discussions (and beliefs) are the same.
    As a philosopher I was taught to put my opponents argument in to the strongest possible form and then destroy it. There is no worthwhile victory in attacking a weak argument and it is no route to knowledge or the clarification of a concept.
    As I am engaged in book promotion I dare say I shall be back to discuss a variety of matters, and hopefully I will be busy on my own blog. But for now I will comment on a point raised above. That of the omnipotent God that can be proven illogical or irrational.
    In the case of the theist God, that is quite true. A common argument is the one that asks “Can an all powerful God create a stone that he is unable to move.” The rub is that either he can create the stone – in which case he lacks the power to move it. Or he cannot create the stone, in which case he is not all powerful.
    I have heard theist attempts to poo-poo this argument but I believe it holds. It is a very serious problem for the theist God and is, I assume the point the above commentator was making.
    However, a pantheist God is very different. If we consider the definition of both God and of omnipotence then we can quite readily join the two ideas.
    Pantheism equates God and the Universe. They are the same thing. God is necessary and exists as he does because that is his nature. Now there are two reasons why he can be considered to be omnipotent, and we will define omnipotence as we progress.
    All things that exist are caused by something else. That is all things except one thing .. the universe. One thing is self caused and all other things are caused by it. Therefore everything is limited by the nature of what caused it. Except for the one self causing thing.
    Everything is limited by its cause. In the case of the self caused entity, it is only limited by its own nature.
    With these self evident principles we can see that God (the universe) is omnipotent on two grounds. First, He is the only thing that is not limited by something else. Second, all that exists, (all power) is an attribute of that God. All things come from God. So, he is all powerful….but only in the sense that all that exists (all power) comes from him. and, He is not limited, because he is only limited by himself.
    That is the way that a God can be omnipotent without contradiction. How God exists is a consequence only of his own nature. If it is in his nature to have certain characteristics then he will have those characteristics. But he will have them because that is how he is and not because he is limited by something outside of him. If it is in Gods nature that annoying things have to happen then that is what will happen.
    The definition of omnipotence then does not involve magic wands or thunderbolts. Omnipotence in this sense means the cause of all that exists, and being self caused without limit from without.
    The God we have here is a very benign God. He is not capable of deciding what to cause, nor is he capable of deciding how he himself will exist. Things are as they are because it is in God’s nature that is how they must be.


    September 19, 2007 at 6:00 pm

  24. My second point I wished to raise from the post stems from the final paragraph of the post. Defining God entails defining the universe as a complete entity. Now that is some request you have made there, but it just so happens that I am sitting on such a definition. If you seriously want to get to grips with a comprehensive definition watch this space. Well watch
    I shall be posting regularly in to the run up to publication day which is 22 Jan 2008.

    Finally, most people ask “why call the universe God? Why not just call it the universe?”
    That is a good question. The use of the theist God as an all powerful, all seeing and vengeful master is a political tool. The use of God as a metaphor is an aid to deep understanding of life and the universe.

    The reason to use God as a metaphor is to embellish the idea that humans are a necessary component of the universe. If mental phenomenon is a vital component of the universe in the same way that space and time are then the God metaphor is a valid one to use.

    Whatever the initial conditions of the universe were, there is one thing we know for sure. That in those initial, eternal conditions that gave rise to the world we live in, there was a seed for creating humans and human thought. It is hard to get away from the position that spirit/mind/thought (whatever) is fundamental to existence. If the universe is a thinking thing then God is a valid concept.

    Of course it may all be just random. But random what, and any randomness still had the ‘seed of possibility’ to develop mind.


    September 19, 2007 at 6:17 pm

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