How NOT to Argue Against Me: A Critique of Shandon L. Guthrie's Critique

You can find several summaries of my new book The Christian Delusion out there. But if you think dealing with a summary of a book is the same thing as dealing with the arguments in it, then think again. One professor did this with my previous book Why I Became an Atheist, and this is how I responded:

A philosophy professor at Regis University named Shandon L. Guthrie took issue recently with a summary of my case against Christianity. I like to hear from intelligent, educated Christians, and I appreciate him looking into it. But here is an example of how NOT to argue against me.

He begins by saying this:
It may not be of much surprise, but I'm not terribly moved by his arguments. Most importantly, the case he summarizes is neither new nor particularly challenging.
Well, well. If a summary of my case is not challenging to him then so be it. I am more confident that Guthrie has not come up with anything to challenge what I think either. I could describe his case as neither new nor particularly challenging to me as well. So where does that get us? Christians repeatedly say such things but I don’t see how they’ve sufficiently answered people like David Hume, even though they have repeatedly attempted it.

When it comes to Guthrie’s criticisms of my arguments keep in mind he’s not actually dealing with my case. He’s criticizing a mere summary of my case. And THAT makes all the difference in the world. I tire of people who criticize my summary who in turn think they have actually dealt with my arguments. If someone truly wants to deal with my arguments then he should read through the 428 pages of my book. A summary is, after all, a summary. I defend that summary in my book. And because it is just a summary Guthrie has not read how I deal with his criticisms. In my book I deal with and argue against each and every claim of his. That being the case I don’t have to do so here, but I'll comment on some of what he said.
Loftus' key argument is found in his statement that "an individual's religion is almost invariably determined by 'when and where one was born.' And since there are no mutually agreed upon tests for evaluating religious claims, it is little wonder that social, cultural, and political forces overwhelmingly determine what individuals believe." But it doesn't follow that simply because individuals derive their beliefs from their cultural milieu that, therefore, those beliefs are false. This is the genetic fallacy. It no more invalidates the belief any more than it invalidates the conclusion that infanticide is wrong even though certain Eskimo cultures embraced it as a normal practice.
The genetic fallacy? Come on now, does he really think I didn’t deal with this criticism? The Outsider Test for Faith does not, and I repeat, does not commit that fallacy. It does not show his beliefs are false simply because of how he came to believe in them. It merely attempts to show that someone should treat his own religious beliefs just as he treats the beliefs of others, from an outsider perspective. There is nothing circular or self-defeating about it either. In my book I deal with all of these types of criticisms.
Philosophical Reason 1

Loftus presents three disjunctive claims about the origin of the universe - one of which is necessary to believe:
Something has always existed—always.
Something popped into existence out of absolutely nothing.
Our existence in the universe is absurd to the core.
He opts for accepting either #1 or #2 here because since we enter into epistemology from an agnostic position then "moving from agnosticism to atheism is a much smaller step than moving toward full-blown Christianity" and Christianity "entails a greater number of claims and thus is inherently more difficult to defend." But this is multiply flawed. First, as I've noted in my own work, the cosmological evidence at worst rules out atheism. Loftus himself even says, "I might happily concede deism"!
If Guthrie had read my book he would know that there is a huge chasm between deism and Christianity. A believer cannot get to Christianity from a God who merely had the power to start a quantum wave fluctuation. If Guthrie had read my book he should also know there is a huge difference between denying a set beliefs and affirming a different set of beliefs. The denial is the easy part. We all do it. We easily deny Islam, Hinduism or Mormonism. But when it comes to affirming a set of beliefs Guthrie is probably as confident in what he affirms as he is in what he denies. I am not. I can best be described as an agnostic atheist. I think there isn’t a God of any kind, but I’m not sure of that.
Secondly, even if it were true that the case for Christianity is more complicated it doesn't follow that one ought to adopt atheism because its pathway is simpler.
To the contrary, the more beliefs a person has that are essential to his worldview then the less likely the whole set of beliefs comprising his worldview are true. He must maintain not only that there is a three-in-one God, but that the collection of books in the canonized Bible are all inspired by God, and that God became incarnated through a virgin in Bethlehem, atoned for our sins, resurrected from the grave, and will return, for starters. These beliefs, along with a multifaceted number of others, all stand or fall together. If one is shown wrong then his whole worldview collapses. By contrast, the only thing I affirm is that Christians like Guthrie have not made their case. My atheism is a position of last regard. I came to it by the process of elimination. I don’t think any believer in any religion has made his case. I don’t even have to make a case that there is no God, although that’s what I think.
Philosophical Reason 2

Loftus also objects to Christianity on grounds that it is a double-standard in that they believe "the biblical miracles because they accept the Christian faith, but they are skeptical of the miracles of other religions." But he simply doesn't understand the probability calculus. Yes, one must take into account the known accounts of miracles in the past - by everyone! And Christian miracles do come out as largely improbable events when only their relative frequencies are assessed. But this is not surprising to a Christian. Instead, what Loftus would have to include in the background information is the fact that a traditional conception of God is true, that the particular evidence for a Christian miracle claim is better than not, and that any counter-hypothesis is not as likely given the evidence as the Christian conclusion. In terms of the resurrection of Jesus, this is precisely what we find!
If Guthrie had read my book he'd know that I do indeed understand Bayesian probability calculus. And I deny his background knowledge for so many reasons I don’t even know where to start. I make a sustained and lengthy case against every one of the background beliefs which form the basis for him to believe in the miracle claims found in the Bible.
Scientific Reason 1

This one is really bad in Loftus' arsenal. He argues that since we employ a "methodological naturalism" in doing science and such science explains away some particular instances of supernaturalism, therefore Christianity is not likely true. Therefore, "how likely is it that a methodology that has worked so well in every other area of investigation would not shed light on the truth or falsehood of" Christian beliefs in general? First, note that this is not a scientific claim to assert methodological naturalism, this is a philosophical claim about science. Secondly, the conclusion again doesn't follow from the premises. Even if it's true that one ought to use this approach and that some events deemed supernatural can now be explained away naturally, it does not follow that Christian beliefs are not likely true. Finally, at best, such naturalistic explanations opposing Christian ones begin from an equally problematic assumption - that there is no God. So even if the evidence for a particular Christian claim suggests its truthfulness over naturalistic alternatives, the methodological naturalist has to jettison it and opt for a naturalistic alternative - no matter how fantastic the evidence for it might be!
Here I simply do not think Guthrie understands what methodological naturalism entails. It is not a philosophical commitment to naturalism. It is the method he himself uses to evaluate any noise in the night or any crime scene. He assumes a natural explanation. He does this every day of his life. No intelligent modern person assumes that a noise in the night comes from an angel.

Maybe he should read Barbara Forrest's great essay titled, Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection, which I quote from in my book. She argues that
...the relationship between methodological and philosophical naturalism, while not one of logical entailment, is the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion given (1) the demonstrated success of methodological naturalism, combined with (2) the massive amount of knowledge gained by it, (3) the lack of a method or epistemology for knowing the supernatural, and (4) the subsequent lack of evidence for the supernatural. The above factors together provide solid grounding for philosophical naturalism, while supernaturalism remains little more than a logical possibility.
Turning again to Guthrie he wrote:
Biblical Reason 1

Loftus argues that the biblical God is "clearly a hateful, racist, and sexist divinity." But even if he were right about those particular passages he cites to make his point, it only serves to show that perhaps the Bible is not inerrant, not that Christianity is not true.
My case is much more nuanced than that. My case is against the existence of the triune Christian God found in the Bible. Where does Guthrie propose we learn about his Christian God if it isn’t found the Bible? If he can pick and choose what he wants to believe from the Bible then he needs to specify the criteria for doing so. How does he determine what to believe in the Bible if he doesn’t believe it all? Until he does that I don’t have much more to say about this.
Historical Reason 1

Loftus's basic contention here is that "[a]lmost anything can be rationally denied in history, even if the event happened" and, therefore, [implicitly] Christianity is not likely true. This is yet another non-sequitur. But more importantly Loftus fails to understand that Christianity's truth is not based on the evidence of history. It's based on the realilty of God and His continuing presence. The evidence merely gives probable support for what we already know and experience.
Does he think I didn’t deal with this objection? How does he know that it’s God he experiences? Billions of people claim religious experiences that have a different cognitive content.
Historical Reason 2

His complaint here can be summarized in his opening sentence, "The history of the Christian Church undermines the veracity of Christianity." He cites the Inquisition, Crusades, Witch Hunts, etc. in making his point. Can you say Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-Tsung? And contrary to popular belief, most wars are not fought in the name of religion but in the name of control. In effect, they're carrying out the Nietzschian atheist's dictum that morality is the will to power!
How does this actually answer anything I say in my book?
Empirical Reason

Surprisingly, Loftus invokes the now-defunct deductive problem of evil. He writes, "If God exists, the reality of intense suffering is a stubborn fact indicating that something is wrong with God's ability, goodness, or knowledge." But, as I've argued elsewhere, if you're going to argue that the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God exists is logically contradictory to the existence evil in the world then you have to show why. Loftus doesn't defend himself here.
My argument focuses on the inductive or evidential argument from evil. There are probably very few arguments showing something is logically impossible anyway, so that should not give Guthrie any comfort at all. If he demands that I show his God to be logically contradictory before he can see such a God is improbable then he needs to look again at what a non-sequitur is.
Loftus concludes his essay explaining what it would take to convince him. But all he's arguing for is an increase in an awareness of God in history. But as he is so often fond of pointing out, atheism was not a problem in antiquity and yet overwhelmingly few people were part of the family of God. How could Loftus guarantee that had the evidence been more abundant, then the amount of true believers would have increased more than what the actual world contains? And I can't imagine how he could prove this.
See him asking here for proof…that I should prove this to be the case? This is such a high standard that it shows he has not thought through what he’s asking of me. When Christian apologists think they can continue to believe simply because we might not be able to prove their faith false they are asking way too much. I might as well say that there are green gremlins and tell Christians that I am within my epistemic rights to believe they exist until or unless such entities are proven to be logically contradictory. You see what they do? I’m dealing with probabilities, not proofs, plausibilites not impossibilities.

Anyway, if someone truly wants to engage me and my arguments keep in mind that a summary of a case is just a summary. It summarizes. That's what summaries are supposed to do. The arguments in defense of that summary are to be found in my book. Guthrie has not dealt with my arguments. What he has done is to provide us with an example of how NOT to argue against me. Guthire, I challenge you to actually deal with my arguments next time. No more straw men, okay? You are not helping your readers by not dealing with my arguments. It might make it seem like you have. But you haven't. Not by a long shot. Your readers deserve better than that.

This is just my opinion, though. Do as you wish, and I wish you the best.

Original post first published on Dec. 29, 2008

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