Everyone Believes

One of the things that fascinates me about modern defenders of the Christian faith is how casually they begin in the wrong place.  They start with the assumption that their listeners are objective and analytical and can be persuaded by facts.  I doubt this is true.  Then they assume their role is one of defense attorney who presents a reliable case sufficient to free God from the atheist’s accusations.  I know this isn’t true.

The Bible starts in a completely different place, saying we are “without excuse” for not believing (Romans 1:20).  The atheist needs a defense attorney.

And what’s most surprising about this to me is that the guy who says he doesn’t believe in God has already shown that he depends upon a world in which God does exist in three ways.

First, when one says, “God does not exist,” that person is assuming that the purpose of communication is to tell the truth.  They assume that they are somehow morally obligated to try to reflect what they think accurately, and they assume the person to whom they are speaking is doing the same.  But this moral undergirding is suspicious.  If God doesn’t exist, morality is at best a mistaken byproduct of blind evolution.  So long as survival of the fittest is the only goal, there’s really no objective moral obligation.  I can tell the truth if I want and not if I don’t.  But when we say, “God does not exist,” we’re assuming that communication in general rests on a real obligation to tell the truth, which is a moral claim.  It’s just strange to me that we act as though objective morals should exist, when a universe without God doesn’t require objective morality.

Second, when you say, “God does not exist,” you are assuming that the thoughts in your head accurately reflect the world around you.  You really think that in the universe, there is not a God, and that your perception of that world is accurate.  But there’s a problem.  In a godless universe, everything is simply matter.  Everything is made up of colliding particles.  Our brains in our heads are just a collection of particles that have come to function in certain ways.  But there’s nothing objective that obligates the particles in our heads to give us an accurate picture of the real world (this is sort of the red pill here).  It’s the same as the first point in a way – nothing objectively obligates brains to “tell the truth,” or to work in a way that is objectively accurate.  Yet when someone says, “God does not exist,” there is a fundamental assumption that brains and sensory organs must work accurately.  Descartes, Berkeley, and company knew that they had to ground their philosophies in the assumed existence of God before they could begin talking about what they did and didn’t know about the world.  But the assumption that our senses are right isn’t necessary in a godless material universe.

Third, when you say “God does not exist,” you are trusting that communication actually works.  You are trusting that the ideas in one person’s head can be translated into language, perceived consistently, and received accurately.  Deconstructionists like Foucault would say that this misrepresents they way language actually works, as truths are simply the falsehoods that have been hardened by the long baking process of history.  Derrida would observe that the place where we assume big ideas are connected to particular expressions of those ideas (where “forms” are stamped into “particulars”) is a lot more fuzzy than we assume when we talk to each other.  Again, a material universe with no guiding conscience would not necessitate that words  have meaning or that language is effective.  These things require something more purposeful than the blind movements of particles.

So when someone says “I don’t believe in God,” they are trusting that we are bound by the objective moral obligation to tell the truth, that our brains are bound to purposefully reveal accurate information, and that communication can be infused with objective meaning, none of which should necessarily exist in a godless universe.  That person is acting like God is there at exactly the moment she says he isn’t.

So ironically, the person who says “God does not exist” is actually proving that God does.

Explore this and other curiosities in my book Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know, available this September from Abingdon Press.

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39 thoughts on “Everyone Believes

  1. Great post! Certainly worth popping over to read. You seem to have a disconnect with the mechanics of human development. We exist in the structures and societies we’re in today because we’re social animals – we work with other people to achieve basic ends like food, comfort and security. As many of us move beyond the need to compete to the death with others to achieve these aims, it’s obvious that a pleasant world for ourselves and those we love (including our offspring) is one where we treat others with respect and are treated with respect. There are no objective morals, there’s a shifting perspective on what ‘nice’ treatment is. We can see it clearly in, for example, the general attitude to slavery – exploiting people shifted to treating slaves with some respect and then shifted to disgust at the notion of owning another person.

    The other area you don’t appear to grasp links in with this. In terms of our ability to communicate, this is what has led us to be able to advance and change so rapidly; pass on and build on knowledge from one generation to the next. The fact that we trust other people’s worldview coincides with our own is key to any human development. If we didn’t have the ability to generally tell the truth to each other, our species would have been unable to move forward cooperatively as it has.

    Frankly it’s an odd to pick out characteristics that have clearly been so key in progressing us from primitive creatures to where we are today and attempt to randomly ascribe them to the invisible deity of your culture. It’s odd, ignorant in the face of clear evidence and it’s rather embarrassing – don’t you think?

    1. Actually, what you’ve just done is making sweeping, unsubstantiated claims and then devolved into patronization. This generally captures my experience of the atheist approach. You don’t have a substantial, rational case to make, so you call names.

      You’ll want to read Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos.” He’s an atheist philosophy professor at NYU who shows that consciousness, cognition, and value cannot arise from a sheerly material universe. And, like me and most everyone else, he affirms that consciousness is real, that cognitional appeals to universal laws, and that morality is obviously objective.

      You have no basis for claiming that consciousness, cognition, and morality just magically popped into existence. So maybe curb the hubris – it just makes your case look more ridiculous.

  2. I’ve long been puzzled about the notion of “objective” morality. Theists often use this concept (albeit rarely defined) to create a juxtaposition between a theistic worldview (e.g., one in which a moral life is objectively grounded) and a non-theistic worldview.

    However, despite the rhetoric of objectivist morality, I fail to see the practical difference between the two positions (even if one of the positions is often purposefully reduced to the fully pejorative conclusion of “blind evolution”). It seems to me that the sheer assertion of objective morality–via the existence of a deity–does not in any way describe or define morality than does other alternatives. That is, the rhetoric of “objectivity” in regards to morality may have a particular appeal, but I do not see the possibility of philosophically demonstrating the actual force which such an assumed objective ground brings to bear upon the subjectivity of human experience.

    It would be an interesting experiment to see what the aggregate differences in applied morality would be between advocates of objectivism and those whose approaches are pejoratively described in this post. Of course, such an experiment is virtually impossible, given the interconnected and shared experience of humans on this planet…but would it not be interesting if the final results were, in the aggregate, virtually identical?

    So then, I really don’t see how your final point is made. If the objective nature of morality cannot be philosophically demonstrated by those who assert the same, how can it possibly be the case that the one who denies the objectivity of morality (e.g., the existence of God) is the one who ultimately proves it?

  3. Don’t we have to define whar “God” is before we debate whether a person believes in him/her? Does this god only exist in our universe or other universes? Did this god create the universe and also life on Earth? Is this god omnipotent and omniscient? Good, evil, or indifferent? Are there other gods?

      1. Okay I don’t have the time or patience to deal with the whole post, so I’ll start with the first paragraph.

        “First, when one says, “God does not exist,” that person is assuming that the purpose of communication is to tell the truth.”
        What? Where are you getting this from? The point of communication is to transmit a message, emotion or thought to another person. Truth is optional.

        “I can tell the truth if I want and not if I don’t.”
        Yep that’s how the world works

        Ok you ramble all over the place so I’ll cut to the chase.
        “It’s just strange to me that we act as though objective morals should exist, when a universe without God doesn’t require objective morality.”
        Two things here. Firstly, your argument seems to be that truth exists, therefore God exists, because God somehow created truth. I have no idea how this makes any sense and you should probably rethink your argument. To pretend you must believe in God to tell the truth or even know what truth is, is completely ridiculous.

        Second you claim that truth is an object moral and only God provides objective morals. This isn’t true as sometimes lying is justified, that is to say morals are justified. Also considering that the Bible contains lies I’m not sure if it could be considered a source of objective morality.

  4. This is about as convincing to me as I imagine “Are you a bigot? No? So you agree with me that gay marriage is a good thing?” is to you.

    1. You’re citing an example of name-calling. I gave concrete rationale for why our thought systems are dependent on a non-material grounding. So I gave rationale, and you did not. If you don’t find it convincing, you ought to be able to offer a counter-rationale, which you haven’t done here.

  5. Repeated studies from various, secular sources have found that when self-described “atheists” are asked “Do you believe there is a God?”, consistently 70% of them are determined as lying with their “on” response via polygraph. (And I know that polygraphs are not 100% reliable, but this is a consistent result.) I have found that many self-described atheists simply don’t like the “god” they have had described to them by others. I have seen this evidenced by how quickly many “atheists” get angry in conversations like the one above. Why the anger? Tends to suggest something beneath the surface vs. simple, honest disbelief. The other contributing dynamic I’ve seen, which I experienced in my own life for my first 40 years, was fear: of being accountable, of “having to change.” I’m not saying that all atheists are dishonest about their disbelief, but I have experienced many who are (including me up to age 40) and this experience is supported by 3rd party secular research.

    1. What are your sources? Any links to this evidence you claim? The idea that Atheists are secretly religious is the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard. I suppose next you’ll claim that Muslims are secretly Christians in denial.

  6. Jim,
    My opinion? Love the dialogue on this page – counterpoints and all. People are thinking, and connecting. This I believe is your Key Point: “It’s just strange to me that we act as though objective morals should exist, when a universe without God doesn’t require objective morality. I love this quote which is easily comprehensible to me, because I’m a C.S. fan.

    However, regarding your statement: “Yet when someone says, “God does not exist,” there is a fundamental assumption that brains and sensory organs must work accurately. ….But the assumption that our senses are right isn’t necessary in a godless material universe.” (I said, “Huh?”)

    My thought is that this tends to throw the argument into an esoteric discussion that will simply go round in circles. Why do we think? Why do we trust our brains? When it feels hot outside is it really hot? Isn’t it fair to come to the table without having to establish that (for the most part) our perceptions are ‘hardwired’ into our brains in a similar fashion across species? At any rate, this part of your argument flew over my head, or didn’t calibrate for me, and I don’t know that it would have been helpful to me as a non-believer.

    My two cents,
    Catherine

    PS. “Snorkeling and Holy Spirit” – Equalizing pressure in our lives – Loved the analogy in your sermon a few weeks ago. Priceless.

  7. Where should we start? Ok, let’s start here… The atheist doesn’t need anything. Atheism is a simple statement: “I don’t believe in any gods.”. This doesn’t need any defense, it simply is. If you want to convince an atheist, you need some evidence. Every baby is an atheist – or do you think, a baby that never hears of religion suddenly says “Praise Jesus!”? No, of course not. So religion has to be taught, while atheism is simple the default state.

    The statement “There is no god” would perhaps need some defense, ok, but who claims that? Most atheists simply say “There is no need to assume the idea of a god, there is no evidence for a god, so I don’t assume god.”. The absence of evidence may not be evidence of absence – but it is more than enough to assume absence.

    Yes, there is no absolute morality. No, we don’t play survival of the fittest anymore, because we can THINK. We can DECIDE. We are not mere animals anymore, so we can do more than our instincts tell us to. We can define morality. It is, of course, not absolute (this applies to religious morality, too – it just claims to be absolute, which is funny, but nothing more).

    And yes, we cannot know for sure if our senses paint a good picture of the world – but on the other hand, the only alternative is insanity, so let’s simply assume that we can find out something about the universe, because everything else doesn’t lead anywhere.

    Again, always the same %$^%^$, I really get tired of this. You claim, and claim and claim and claim that these and that doesn’t work without god – but you never prove it. *sigh*

    1. I understand that atheists have gotten nervous about their claims and are now trying to use agnosticism to define atheism. That’s fine; it works either way.

      I appreciate the fact that you are admitting that your worldview leads to a fairly arbitrary morality, one that will amount to little more than preference. The problem is that you’ve joined an argument in which you believe that you and I are both obligated to attempt to tell the truth. That’s a moral obligation, one which we both feel should be universal. Communication would break down otherwise. As a result, you’ve shown that you actually do believe in absolute, objective morality. And that can only come from somewhere other than a material universe. So you’ve simply made my point.

      1. Agnosticism is about knowledge.

        Atheism is about belief.

        The two terms are NOT mutually exclusive. Do I know if a god/gods exists? No. Therefore I am an agnostic. Do I believe in any of the claims about god/gods? No. Therefore I am an atheist.

        Its not about ‘trying to use agnosticism to define atheism’; its the definitions of the words!

  8. Just on the objective thing, do you mean:

    •Moral facts are objective1 if they are made true or false by mind-independent facts, otherwise they are subjective1.
    •Moral facts are objective2 if they are made true or false by facts independent of the opinions of sentient beings, otherwise they are subjective2.
    •Moral facts are objective3 if they are made true or false by facts independent of the opinions of humans, otherwise they are subjective3.

    (NB this is taken entirely from lukeprog over at LessWrong)

    1. There are no mind-independent facts. Any supposed facts are product of mind and are, therefore, wholly subjective. Objectivism is a tool of over-power, not a tenable philosophy.

  9. I already have. You are beating the dead horse with this objective morals thing.

    Morality is ever changing, it evolves. I seriously doubt that you live accordingly to Leviticus, as you are not writing from some prison. And do not tell me that the old testament is not to be used as your moral guide and only the new testament is the one Christians have to follow.
    “Think not that I am come to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.
    “For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or one tittle shall in any wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled.”
    Matthew 5:17-18 KJV

    And if we talk of objective morals, I have another nice example of how morals are not written in stone for you god:

    “Thou shalt not kill.”
    Exodus 20:13 KJV

    and then all of a sudden, killing is acceptable…

    “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who hath known a man by lying with him.”
    Numbers 31:17 KJV

    And the list goes on and on, including rape,incest and slavery among other objective moral values.

    And of course genocide as mentioned in this lovely verse:

    “And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:”

    “All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.”

    “And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.”
    Genesis 7:21-23 KJV

    Oh, and how about the killing of 42 children just for making fun of a bald prophet? You will find that nice tidbit in 2 Kings 2:23-24.

    And we also have a great objective moral value: misogyny.

    “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.”
    “And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
    1 Corinthians 14:34-35

    Morality is about humans and is of human origin. You might like to read my post http://sixpointnineme.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/borrowed-morality/

    I believe that the evidence available is against the existence of a omniscient, all-good and omnipotent god. And I act accordingly. As a scientist, I understand that it is not possible to disprove a god or many gods,or unicorns for that matter, but the probability of one existing is very slim. Furthermore, the onus probandi is not on me, but on the one who makes the claim that a god exists.

    And yes my brain may be playing trick on me, maybe I am in the matrix and all of this is just part of the program I am in and you are only a figment of my imagination. That does not fly with me and has no practical implications on my life, or yours.

    1. So just two brief observations:
      1) You are evaluating God on the basis of objective moral values that you hold to be true for all people
      2) You believe that when you and I converse, we are obligated to attempt to tell each other the truth. Conversation would break down if we didn’t. And that’s a moral commitment.

      So you’ve just proven my point. Thanks.

      As to your claim that morality is always changing – that’s patently false. The core of moral practices have held consistently through all cultures and in all times. The two rules Jesus cites as most important, love God and love your neighbor, he quotes from the Old Testament, because NT morality and OT morality aren’t particularly different, except that one exists in the wake of an incarnate God.

      1. In response to your brief observations:
        1) No, I am evaluating your god on the basis of modern secular human values. If I were to evaluate your god based on absolute moral values, then as I already pointed out, he would be a grand failure.
        2)I believe that we ought to tell the truth but I have no idea what you are thinking when you respond to me. I only have the hope that my conversation is with an honest person. And might I add, lying is not always immoral. Let us say for arguments sake that your next door neighbor’s wife come to your house in great fear for her life and tells you to hide her. You agree and a few minutes later the husband appears with an ax in his hand, asking if you have seen his wife. Would it be immoral to tell him that you have not? Or would you stick to an absolute moral value (lying is wrong) and tell him that she is in fact in your house, with the great risk to her life?

        Your point is not made and in no way have my comments given any support to it.

        On your last point, I have to say that you are just cherry picking. You omit all the ugly things in your holy book, but do not address the rampant immorality in it. You cannot have your cake and eat it too.

        1. 1) No, when you say the evidence doesn’t support an “all-good” God after a list of moral criticisms, you are appealing to a universal morality. Denying it is trying to have your cake and eat it too.
          2) You’re wandering off topic and equivocating between a situation in which rival moral values contend (lying to saving a victim) versus a situation in which they don’t (casual conversation). I think you’re confused, and you ARE proving my point. Burden is now on you to explain why you’re appealing to objective morals when nothing in a sheerly moral world requires them.

          Moral outrage towards religion simply validates religion. And anger towards religion betrays a motive that isn’t sheerly rational anyway.

      2. So what you’re saying is that because (you think) we appeal to objective moral values, there must be a god to provide them. This, in spite of the fact that your god contradicts his own values, and he contradicts the objective moral values (you believe) that atheists appeal to. By your reasoning, there must be a god, and that god must not be the christian god.

        So, why do you appeal to objective moral values? Why do you automatically discount the inconsistencies in the bible? Why do you wear clothes with mixed threads, eat shellfish or pork, and maybe even have a tattoo? Do you let illegitimate children, or illegitimate children’s children into church? And, even if you believe that these laws don’t apply to gentile christians, do you think they make any sense at all for Jews? If you can ignore them with impunity, how are they objective?

        1. I appreciate the fact that your granting that objective moral values require something more than a sheerly moral universe to provide them. That’s the point I was trying to make, and it looks like we agree.

        2. Seriously, Pastor James,

          You do not get to put words in my mouth. I started with your own, stated, beliefs, not mine, and followed them through to the logical, absurd conclusion. Allow me to do to you, what you just did to me:

          “That’s the point I was trying to make, and it looks like we agree.” – Pastor James Miller
          Oh! You agree with me that the christian god as a moral source is a logical impossibility, due to him having come up with laws in contradiction to his own laws, and silly laws that everyone agrees are without moral relevance, thereby forfeiting his status as a moral source? Excellent, I appreciate your open mindedness.

          If you would like to know my own opinion on moral values, I believe that they are a natural result of cultural evolution, changing as we as a people change.

          If atheists can appreciate god’s moral values so well and naturally, why do we disagree so much with theists about their morals? Oh right, because we don’t have a personal relationship with god. Wait, why do we appreciate any of his values then?

  10. I appreciate the thinking and the irony 🙂 Reminiscent of when C.S. Lewis commented that when we argue against God we argue against the very source of reason. Talk about a losing argument!

  11. This seems pretty… biased. Taking your own assumptions of reality and drawing them as the conclusion to your arguments when they don’t relate at all. This sort of ‘philosophy’ is exactly why the practice is growing a bad reputation among atheists.

    1. If you think they “don’t relate at all,” perhaps you’re missing the point. Materialism doesn’t give logical grounding to assumptions that most people rely on, while theism does give them logical grounding. I think the kind of ‘philosophy’ you’re rejecting is what most people refer to as reason.

      1. “First, when one says, “God does not exist,” that person is assuming that the purpose of communication is to tell the truth.”

        The purpose of communication is to communicate ideas and concepts, there is no part of that which assumes the purpose is to tell truth. Have you never considered the difference between what a person is telling you, and what the reality of their statements are? Like I said, you took a logical leap in order to draw the line to god.

        The kind of philosophy I mean is meaningless postures on the nature of existence in order to slide a character into the equation. We know the nature of communication, we know the nature of perception, we know the nature of bias, and these are easily taken into account in conversations, without the need for a god.

  12. Brilliant piece. Sounds like not only a case for truth, thought, reason and objective moral communication, but for life itself.

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