Loftus vs Wood Debate: My Opening Statement

Below is my 20 minute opening statement against David Wood at the Virginia Regional Apologetics Conference. The question we debated was this: "Does God Exist?" See what you think.

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No one would value the opinion of any judge who had a double standard, one for the plaintiff, and a different one for the defendant. Any judge who did that would be placing his thumb on the scales of justice. He wouldn’t be weighing the evidence fairly. And we would object to his ruling. All of us.

Tonight I’m going to argue that this is what Christian apologists do when it comes to the evidence for their God. I’m going to talk about eight of their double standards. My challenge to David will be to explain why he has them. I intend to force him to consistently apply the same standards across the board for his faith claims.

I’m going to start out by granting that a minimal god of some kind might possibly exist. Almost every atheist including Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger admit this possibility. We just think it’s very improbable. Especially improbable is the kind of God that evangelicals believe. This is the God I’ll focus on tonight. That God does not exist.

The first double standard is that David holds other god-hypotheses to a much higher standard than his own. Even if David can successfully show that our universe began to exist and that it’s consistent with his belief in a creator God, or even if he can defend some of the classical arguments for God’s existence, so what? All he’s done is to show that these things are consistent with his faith. But just showing that they are consistent with his faith does not show that his faith is probable. For they are also consistent with a god who created this world as nothing more than a scientific experiment who thinks of us as rats in a maze, wondering what we will conclude about it all and how we will live our lives. Such a belief is consistent with a divine tinkerer who is learning as he goes. Such a belief is consistent with a god who created the quantum wave fluctuation that produced this universe as his last act before committing suicide. Such a belief is consistent with a creator god who guides the universe ultimately toward an evil purpose, but who has chosen to maliciously present himself as benevolent to play a trick on us. If this god existed then all of the evidence leading David to conclude a good God exists is planted there to deceive us by such a god. David rejects these other god-hypotheses, but why? I can see no reasonable objection to these other god-hypotheses. They are just as possible as his god-hypothesis. That is why scientists cannot posit theistic explanations for answers to the origin of the universe. For once we allow supernatural explanations into our equations then most any god will do, since there seems to be no way to exclude them.

A second double standard concerns science itself. Science, you know, that which brought in modernity; that which you depend on for all of your modern comforts; that which you accept in most every area of your life except when it conflicts with your Holy Book. Believers accept its results in chemistry, physics, meteorology, mechanics, forensic science, medical science, rocket science, computer science, earth science, and so forth, but they reject it when most all scientific studies tell us petitionary prayer is not efficacious, that evolutionary science shows that all present life forms have common ancestors, or that dead people do not rise from the dead.

Christians must regularly denigrate science in order to believe. They may claim their beliefs are outside of the bounds of science, or that the scientific method itself is problematical. But what better alternative is there for understanding our universe? There is none! Why should we take seriously the musings of ancient superstitious Biblical writers when it’s clear they believed in a flat earth that had a solid dome above it where the sun moon and stars moved across it, and from which God send a worldwide flood? Sorry, but there is no reason why any intelligent person living in today’s world should prefer the Bible over modern science. I accept all of the results of science, not just some of them.

The only kind of scientific evidence believers have on their side is something called negative evidence, which is arguing from ignorance, a known fallacy. Believers claim that since science cannot explain something therefore their particular God did it. The gaps in our understanding lead them to postulate their god from out of the many other possible gods. But that’s the problem. Different religious believers around the globe can just insert their own god into the gap. There is no good way to distinguish which god best explains the gap.

There will always be scientific mysteries. The real issue that needs to be addressed is why science is closing these gaps one by one by assuming a natural explanation. If it depended on theology we wouldn’t continue seeking answers. In fact, theology stops us dead in our tracks with a “my particular God did it” explanation that squelches all scientific curiosity.

A third double standard is that Christians value faith over reason whenever they clash with each other. Who on earth would ever publicly admit this since faith can lead to many bizarre claims? What gives Christians the right to do this when they don’t allow anyone else to do this same thing? They don’t allow a Muslim or a Mormon this same epistemic right.

Faith is a wrongheaded psychological leap beyond what evidential reasoning leads us to accept. It fills in the gaps of the probabilities with some kind of certitude for most believers. Christians act as if they are 100% sure. You cannot be 100% sure of much of anything. Even if there is a 51% probability that Christianity is true then to conclude anything beyond that is an unjustified leap of faith, and I reject faith based reasoning like that. It causes believers to pray rather than take their children to the doctor. It causes believers to be more trusting of other people because they trust in God. It causes believers to take completely unjustified financial risks. It causes believers to accept social injustice because of a hope for heaven. It causes believers to support abstinence only sex education programs. It causes believers to prohibit brain stem research. It causes believers to unquestionably support Israel which in turn provokes Muslim aggression. It causes believers to sell everything and wait on a hill top for Jesus to return.

But the fact is that belief in the Christian God has no hard evidence for it. There are reasonable alternative natural explanations for every specific Christian claim. Nothing that Christians point to requires the existence of their God, whether it’s religious experience, the need for morality, the evidence for life after death, or the resurrection of Jesus. There is no hard evidence to believe. Hard evidence convinces others.

Faith actually blinds believers from seeing what the actual probabilities are. Here are three examples. 1) When it comes to historical conclusions there is always the chance that contrary evidence was lost or destroyed. Historical reconstructions can never be as certain as scientific evidence or logic. 2) When it comes to biological life it’s too imperfect, too filled with useless appendages that it doesn’t look like what we’d expect if it’s the result of intelligent design. Life looks just as it should if it’s the result of the unguided process of evolution. 3) When it comes to the beginning of this universe cosmologists today agree that quantum mechanics prevented there ever being a cosmic singularity. The universe was never an infinitesimal point in space-time, and so there is no basis to assume that time began with the big bang. Stephen Hawking changed his mind on this but it has been ignored by apologists. You can read what he said on page 50 in his book A Brief History of Time, published in 1988.

A fourth double standard comes from global religious diversity. Is it not obvious that had David been born in a Muslim rather than Christian culture that he would be defending Allah tonight with the same passion? I wasn’t born skeptical. None of us were. We were all raised as believers. We were taught to believe what our parents told us. If they said there is a Santa Claus, then he existed until they said otherwise. If we were told there was a god named Zeus we would’ve believed it. The problem is that our parents never told us God didn’t exist because their parents never told them.

All Christians must do is to apply the same level of skepticism to their own religion as they do to the religions of others. This is what I call the Outsider test for Faith. I find the Christian religion to be a delusion for the same reasons Christians find the beliefs of Mormons, Scientologists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses delusional. When Christians understand why they dismiss all other religions, they will understand why I dismiss theirs. If Christians refuse to do this, then I merely ask them why the double standard? Why treat other religions differently than you do your own? I don’t find any way around this test. Believers should be skeptical of what they were taught to believe given the proliferation of so many other religions and sects. After all, brainwashed people do not know they are brainwashed. The only antidote is to require hard evidence for what you believe, which is something Christians demand of the other religions they reject.

The bottom line is that when it comes to Christianity I agree with the Protestant criticisms of the Catholics as well as the Catholic criticisms of the Protestants. And I also agree with the fundamentalist criticisms of the liberals as well as the liberal criticisms of the fundamentalists. And I agree with the Hindu, Muslim and Jewish criticisms of Christianity, as well as the Christian criticisms of their religions. When they criticize each other I think they’re all right! What’s left is the demise of religion and Christianity as a whole.

A fifth double standard is how Christians assess the Bible itself. Isn’t it obvious that the Bible was written from the perspective of a superstitious and pre-scientific people? Who else would believe that god-like beings could co-habit with the daughters of men, or that Jacob could increase his flock of sheep using mandrakes, or believe that the magicians in Moses’ day could turn their staffs into snakes, or accept a challenge to call down fire from the sky, or cast lots during a storm to see which god sent it? Can you even imagine any judge today deciding a case by casting lots? As such I have no reason to believe the Bible. There is no way David would accept any of these claims if someone else made them. The 6th century BCE Greek historian Herodotus claimed that a horse gave birth to rabbits, that some ants were as big as foxes, and that cooked fish were resurrected from the dead. He is known as the father of history because he checked his sources. But even with these credentials David would never believe him about these things. So again, why the double standard? Why does he not believe Herodotus but believes Jesus and the saints all popped out of their graves?

This brings up a sixth double standard. If logic tells Christians that a belief is improbable then the evidence to the contrary must be overwhelming or else be judged faulty. Take for example miracles. Even if miracles have taken place in the past we cannot reasonably claim that they have, for in order to do so believers must meet an almost impossible double burden of proof. For a miraculous event must be both very improbable and probable at the same time. In order to argue an event is miraculous the apologist must show that such an event is exceedingly improbable. But then the apologist must turn right around and claim this same exceedingly improbable event took place anyway.

But we’re not done yet, for on top of believing these miracles took place, the doctrines derived from them cannot be logically explained, like the relationship of the three persons in the trinity, the logical coherence of incarnation of a person who is 100% God and 100% man, how the death of Jesus can possibly atone for sins, and how there can even be a resurrected body. So if given the choice between believing in the weak evidence from history, or in following the sheer logical improbability with regard to these doctrines, I must go logic every single time, just like believers do when it comes to miraculous claims they reject.

There is a seventh double standard, what I call the Problem of Miscommunication. Isn’t it a no-brainer that if God exists he has not communicated his perfect will to the Church down through the centuries? A good foreknowing God could easily have communicated better, such that there would be no Inquisition, witch hunts, heresy trials, female subjugation, Crusades, or institutional slavery. All he had to do was replace the 10th commandment about coveting, which is a thought crime, and say instead: “Thou shalt not steal land in my name, treat woman as inferior, own slaves, or kill people who believe differently.” And he could’ve communicated doctrine better too. During the eight French wars of Religion and the Thirty Years War eight million Christians killed each other, in large part over doctrine! It was a Christian bloodbath that decimated Germany. Catholics killed Protestants and Protestants killed Catholics and each other with a religious fervor that would make Hitler jealous. If they had modern weapons of war we can only imagine what would’ve happened to Europe as a whole.

By contrast David would be the first one to blame any CEO if his company was divided like this and producing so much mayhem. With any company like this the buck stops with the CEO. He is at least partially to blame for not communicating what he wants his company to do. Why does David hold CEO’s to a higher standard than he does with his God?

This brings me to my eighth and last double standard. David holds human beings to a higher standard than he holds his God to. We are commanded to care about others, and if we don’t, we have done wrong. But he exempts God from the very commands he gave to us. Why must we do as he says rather than as he does? The Bible depicts God as a barbaric tribal god who commands what every decent person today would reject.

If God exists then like a good parent he would not allow us abuse the freedom he gave us. The giver of a gift is blameworthy if he gives gifts to those whom he knows will terribly abuse those gifts. Any mother who gives a razor blade to a two-year-old is culpable if that child hurts himself or others with it. Good mothers only give their children more and more freedom to do what they want so long as they are responsible with their freedom. It’s that simple.

If God exists then the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people should never have occurred. If God had prevented it, none of us would ever know he kept it from happening, precisely because it didn’t happen. This goes for the disaster in Haiti too. Furthermore, the amount of animal suffering is atrocious as they prey on one another to feed themselves when a good God could’ve created us all as vegetarians in the first place. God could’ve created all human beings with one color of skin too. Then there would be no racism or race based slavery. God could’ve created us with much stronger immune systems such that there would be no pandemics which have decimated whole populations of people. Any human being would be morally required to avert this kind of suffering based on the Golden Rule. But David’s God is exempt and yet he still wants to call God good and human beings evil.

One major Christian objection is that if God had created the universe differently it would upset the present ecosystem and/or go against the laws of nature. But as David Hume said, it seems patently obvious that the operation of the world by natural laws “seems nowise necessary for God.” An omnipotent God could do perpetual miracles, and if not, why not? I call this the Perpetual Miracle Objection and I have not heard one reasonable response to it from Christian defenders of the faith. Only if Christians expect very little from an omnipotent God can they defend his ways.

So there is something seriously wrong with how Christians judge their faith. David holds other god-hypotheses to a much higher standard than his own. He accepts the results of science in every area but those few which his Holy Book claims otherwise. He values faith over reason and this blinds him to the actual probabilities. He does not evaluate his own culturally given faith with the same level of skepticism he uses to evaluate others. He accepts the claims of miracles in the Bible but denies those that come from any one else. He accepts poor historical evidence over logical improbabilities. He holds the communication skills of a CEO to a higher standard than he does an omniscient God. And finally David holds human beings to a higher moral standard than he holds his God to.

Christians hold to far too many double standards. For this reason I must object to how Christians judge this case. Their thumbs are on the scales of justice. I object to their rulings. Their God does not exist.
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28 comments:

Raul said...

John,I don't really understand how you go from claiming,that christian god is ver improbable to claiming that christian god doesn't exist.
Other than that,I like your opening statement.

What was done said...

Here is a kind of life after death you can be sure of...
http://www.whatwasdone.com/Age.php?&Age=-1

Richard H said...

How long do you have to deliver your opening statement?

jimvj said...

Great stuff!

About the fifth point, faith in the Bible:

- There is no such thing as "The Bible". No "Bible" defines itself. So if a con artist claims to have decoded gold plates from God and must be included as part of a "Bible", Christians have no logical refutation.

- The concept of a "Bible" is an afterthought in the evolution of the Christian sects. In fact, it was 350 years after the relevant events supposedly took place that the concept was finally solidified. The founders of most Christianities - Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, etc - had no clue about such a concept. If they did, they would have written a "Bible" with some irrefutable definition. Or God/Jesus could have "materialized" a Bible like the fish and loaves that fed 5000. That certainly would have been a more meaningful miracle.

For protestants, the concept of a "Bible" is even more troubling. They must believe that God decided to keep the "real" version hidden for 15 centuries. And when Martin Luther attempted to put together the first protestant Bible, he could not decide if "Revelations" belonged.

AdamK said...

When you refer to "brain stem research," was that a typo for "stem cell research," or is there another controversy I'm unaware of?

Soul Crushed said...

In the words of an ancient wise king: "there nothing new under sun" here. John's arguments are pretty standard fare for most atheist apologists, most of which resorts to mischaracterizations as to what Christians actually argue and believe. That said, I do appreciate John's sincerity.

Raul said...

Yup,the contrargument "You're not arguing against true christianity" isn't new either.
Still,Soul,could you give a few examples of what you call "mischaracterizations"?

delinquentminer said...

John, I had never heard the "double-standard" argument, before. Compelling. Are you able, or were you intending, to post any of Mr. Woods' comments or rebuttal? From the looks of the "Answers" web page, I don't expect much in the way of "fair-and-balanced".
--Justin

Soul Crushed said...

Raul,

Most Christians I know aren't anywhere near having the hostility or suspicion towards science and reason that John presents. And I certainly don't fit under the strawmans in his statement.

Toby said...

Soul,

How compelling! You didn't actually say anything of substance to backup your statements, but you have me convinced!

I find that ancient wise kings words applicable to your posts as well, "Everything is meaningless."

Nice work.

Toby said...

John,

I loved this opener. I look forward to the whole debate!

Nice work... really!

Toby said...

Soul,

I guess you attempted to have substance with, "Most of the Christians I know." The reason that this likely meaningless is because its a convience sample that you haven't really sampled. Even if you know 2000 Christian well, how many of them fully support the science of evolution, a well-backed and accpeted thoery by 99%+ of PhD level scientists in related fields of study. I would guess that you haven't a clue as to how many of them reasonably understand or support the theory of evolution. Even if you had sampled all 2000 of them, it is a convience sample of your cohorts. Compared to the 2 billion world-wide adherents, it represents .0000001% of them.

Toby

Toby said...

HA! I should spell check...

convience should be convenience.

Tony Hoffman said...

Soul Crushed,

So you accept the common descent of man? Even if you do, do you really think that most Christians do?

Mike said...

John, how was the debate? Was there a clear winner? Anyone hear/watch the debate? Care to give us a report on how it was? Will the debate be posted?

James said...

As politely suggested above, point 5 makes the mistake of treating the Bible as if it wasn’t 66 quite diverse books, only some of which are open to the criticisms directed at “it.”

Point 1 will be dismissed by 90% of your listeners, who will find each of your supposed characterizations of God implausible and inconsistent with the understanding and experience of the world.

Scientific explanations are genuinely explanatory. “God did it” is no explanation at all. But his isn’t an easy point to make clear, and in dragging on other gods, you seem to concede that one or the other of them might provide a genuine explanation. To make the point--the absence of explanatory power in theistic explanations, the power of scientific explanations--would require ten times more exposition than is provided here.

Listeners won’t begin to accept your characterization of their faith.
t causes believers to pray rather than take their children to the doctor. I TOOK THEM THERE A WEEK AGO.
It causes believers to be more trusting of other people because they trust in God.
NOT ME. I TRUST GEORGE JUST FINE, AND HE’S A CATHOLIC.
It causes believers to take completely unjustified financial risks.
I INVEST ONLY IN BONDS.
It causes believers to accept social injustice because of a hope for heaven.
I WORK FOR A CHARITY.
It causes believers to support abstinence only sex education programs.
YOU’RE PUSHING PROMISCUITY.
It causes believers to prohibit brain stem research.
YOU’RE ONE OF THOE BABY KLLERS.
It causes believers to unquestionably support Israel which in turn provokes Muslim aggression. YOU WEREN’T KEEPING UP WITH NEWS AT CHRISTMAS TIME?
It causes believers to sell everything and wait on a hill top for Jesus to return.
THAT’S A ZANY FEW, NOT ME, AND NOT ANY OF US.

I break off my point by point here.

My advice:
Make three points, elaborately and clearly.
One, surely, an elaboration of your eighth, the problem of evil--as you seem to agree, maybe best natural evil,
Then some particular Christian belief that’s conceptually, empirically, normatively problematic--maybe atonement.
Maybe an anticipatory cutting off of his strong points, fine tuning and who started it all.
Maybe something about meaning of morality.
But for sure, much much less than throw out. And above all much less that’s bound to be dismissed as false or misattributed by a majority of the listeners. You have to find points of agreement to work out from, instead it’s as if you’re raising as many points of disagreement as you can.

I

James said...

Correction:
"Meaning OR morality" above.

Candidate for an assault on the moral soundness of basic Christian doctrine:
http://formerfundy.blogspot.com/2010/03/may-innocent-be-punished-in-place-of.html

How could Christ die (be punished) for our sin?

Brad said...

Hi Toby,

"I guess you attempted to have substance 'with, ;Most of the Christians I know.'"

You mean like..."Well, I used to be a a super-duper evangelical, fundamentalist Christian but then I read XYZ with an "open mind" and.... "

I'm keeping my power dry here, Toby. No need to spend an hour refuting John's opening remarks with a couple thousand word point-by-point response that will be skimmed by a bunch of guys rah-rahing John.

But Perhaps I'll put something up on the blog later this week, and should some one here actually care what I have to say. then maybe we'll have a meaningful conversation about it. But until then, I'll just trade my experiences (which I agree are no proof at all) with yours.

Brad (Soul Crushed)

Brad said...

Hi Toby,

"Even if you know 2000 Christian well, how many of them fully support the science of evolution, a well-backed and accpeted thoery by 99%+ of PhD level scientists in related fields of study."

And so you do have a statistically valid sample that backs your mere opinion that Christians think this or that about science or believe or don't believe such and such? And if you don't, please see my previous post. Cheers.

Brad (Soul Crushed)

Andre said...

This is good, solid, well-expounded stuff, John. Given the format of these debates I believe that this is the way to win (for whatever that means) - get the foot in the door and keep it there, relentlessly.

And outside the context of a debate, this opening statement can really be printed and stuck on the world's fridge door - it says it all.

Looking forward to the whole debate.

Toby said...

Hi Brad,

Great! I look forward to your arguments. Here is how you can best convince me. Answer this question, "What can your God do that can be scientifically tested whereby proving your specific God exists?"

I really shouldn't be that picky. If you can show any god or gods to exist, I'll be impressed. I'll even direct you to James Randi so you can collect his million dollar prise.

Jack Nickolson said to Adam Sandler in Anger Mangement, "Sarcasim is anger's ugly cousing." Good movie.

I tip my beer back to you with a "Cheers!"
Toby

Andre said...

You have to love people like Brad - even though their type of apologetics is becoming quite the rage all over the internet.

They get something like John's statement to deal with, and the response is a lot of head-shaking, tongue-clucking, knowing smiles (that wonderful Christian brand, the one that says "you are an ignorant sinner, I know it all because Jesus told me so, but I will pray for you") - some promises of devastating critiques to follow, and that is that.

Doesn't do much for me, but hey, millions of believers can't be wrong, now can they. Oh wait - that would make Islam "true". And Buddhism. And Hinduism. And Mormonism. And ...

Toby said...

Brad wrote,

"And so you do have a statistically valid sample that backs your mere opinion that Christians think this or that about science or believe or don't believe such and such?"

Great word, "mere." Just the right touch of condescention, considering the sarcasim I've directed toward you any way. To answer you question, I never made any claims about what Christians think. I was actually asking you that question, but made a punctuation error by ending it with a period insead of a question mark.

I really can't believe you missed my point, but I'll write it differently. You were trying to claim that John's arguments were invalid becuase they didn't apply to your brand of Christianity or to Christians you know. My point was that who cares if your brand of crazy, along with the Christians you know, is different. How many millions of Christians do you think John is accurately depicting?

Cheers again,
Toby

Scott said...

Soul Crushed wrote: Most Christians I know aren't anywhere near having the hostility or suspicion towards science and reason that John presents. And I certainly don't fit under the strawmans in his statement.

Soul,

I think what John is referring to is the boundary which Christians, and supernaturalists in general, claim exists between nature and the supernatural.

For example, solipsists claim that we simply cannot know if anything really exists beyond our own consciousness. It might be that the earth is surrounded in a giant and elaborate planetarium which only simulates a vast universe around us, including returning images with light that is red-shifted to simulate vast distances, captures and returns space ships with precisely the right amount of fuel missing, manufactured telemetry data and astronauts with altered memories, etc.

Surely, each of these positions are logically possible, but why should we think the boundary falls here, rather then there?

Solipsists claims this boundary falls at the brain, self or or soul. Giant Planetarium theorists claim this boundary falls at some point not far beyond the earth's orbit. Theists (among other supernaturalists) claim this boundary exists with the supposed creation of nature though the existence of some contra-natural realm - the exact location of which varies depending on the particular theology they subscribe to.

Christian fundamentalists would likely claim the development of human beings falls outside this boundary. Common decent would be equivalent to an external reality to the solipsist or the planet Mars to a Giant Planetarium theorist.

However, in the case of more liberal Christians, the boundary doesn't disappear - it's just pushed out further to meet their particular theology. For you, the belief that human beings have a non-material soul likely falls outside this boundary, despite our ability to detect decisions before we're consciously aware of them, the impact of brain trauma and diseases such as Alzheimer's. etc.

My personal view is, if God did exist he'd be part of nature we haven't discovered yet.

But it's likely you'd have none of this as some aspects of God must remain mysterious and beyond our understanding. It's not merely that we lack the capacity - there are simply some things we're not meant to know or grasp and attempting to do so somehow degrades them or belittles them. As such, you claim these things exist beyond the boundary you personally define.

In other words, just because your boundary extends farther than other Christians doesn't mean you're not 'superstitious' of the scientific method.

BJ said...

I think the above is a great opener, and I'd like to mention two points that I think you might want to guard against in future debates.

1) You speak of negative evidence, but your audience might not be familiar with that phrase or its usage. It is a logical fallacy in which it is claimed that a premise is true only because it has not been proven false. But, it has another side. If I look in all the likely places for God but don't find him, and if it's reasonable to think that God would be there for the finding, then couldn't one argue that God probably isn't there? I think Vic Stenger and others have refuted the whole "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" thing elsewhere.

2) You say one cannot be 100% sure of anything. And I can see the Christian smugly retorting "Ha! Can you be 100% sure of that statement you just made?" I imagine you'd have to be ready for that.

Thank you for the great post. I look forward to hearing future debates.

John W. Loftus said...

Thanks for your comments on my 20 minute opening. I think the debate went well, although I can't say for sure until I watch it later. It was recorded and will probably be put on YouTube sometime in the future.

Lynn said...

I think it's great, John. I like the CEO part. I like how you pointed out that Christians don't expect much from their God.

Calling them brainwashed-probably not a good idea. How can you like someone who thinks you are a brain-washed idiot?

I love the Outsider test. It's eye-opening to realize that there are many very smart people in this world, and that the Christians COULD have it wrong.

Andre said...

From the, um, site called "Debunking Atheists" (no really) this little discussion about the debate :

https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=7771612431511732960&postID=7121219313653095149