Friday, March 28, 2014

The Most Powerful Evidential Argument Against God?

In previous posts, I’ve been critical of an interview with Dr. Alvin Plantinga that was published in the Opinionator at the NYT a few weeks ago. He and the interviewer, both Christians, seem to suggest something that I think couldn’t be farther from the truth, namely, that atheists like Richard Dawkins and Bertrand Russell as well as other philosophers appeal to little or no evidence for the nonexistence of God thereby limiting them to the lesser epistemic claim of agnosticism. In fact, there is a variety of evidence that makes more sense on naturalism (the idea that no God or no entities like God exist) than on theism. While Plantinga did mention the evidential problem of evil (POE), I’d like to present two other evidential arguments that, ironically, Russell and Dawkins actually have made in the past, albeit not as explicitly as I will attempt here.

We are regularly told that the Christian God is maximally loving and that he therefore wants to have a loving relationship with each of us. A person cannot have a genuine relationship with someone in whose existence she doesn’t believe or actively denies. It should be no surprise then, that the Christian bible itself (1 Timothy 2:4) tells us that God wants everybody to know the truth of the gospel message which entails the knowledge of his loving existence.

Furthermore, many Christians believe that without a relationship with Christ, one is eternally damned. A maximally loving God would want us all to be saved, representing another reason for him to want us to have such a relationship with him.

Omnipotent God could easily provide causally sufficient evidence or a convincing religious experience so that everybody would know the truth of the gospel message.

This leads us to premise 1: if the Christian God were to exist, there would not be many (any?) nonbelievers in the world.

But there’s the rub. There are many people who do not believe in the Christian God in the world (premise 2).

Premise 2 is not only true today; one must also consider the billions of nonbelievers throughout history. The evidence of nonbelief is overwhelming and unquestionable.

Conclusion: The Christian God probably doesn’t exist.

This argument will work for any formulation of God where he is omnipotent and maximally loving – a God that I’m sure Plantinga and Gutting accept. If belief in such a God is required to avoid eternal damnation, so much the better for the argument from nonbelief (ANB).

The work of the ANB is done in premise 1. If you’re thinking that God’s reason for permitting the existence of so many nonbelievers has something to do with preserving our free will, I think that you’re demonstrably wrong. If I wanted to enter into a loving relationship with Christy Turlington, making her clearly aware of my existence would have no influence upon her complete freedom to reciprocate or (more likely!) to avoid doing so. Making people aware of facts doesn’t influence their choices if indeed they are free, and if the existence of the Christian God is a fact, he could easily make it well known to us all.

Notice that if naturalism is true, the problem of nonbelief just isn’t a problem at all. People throughout history have believed a dizzying array of false things about the nature of their world for which we can “thank” all kinds of natural conditions such as our often-unreliable cognitive faculties.

Stephen Maitzen, a Canadian philosopher argues that the following related problem is an even greater challenge for the Christian theist to explain: why is it that about 93% of Mexicans believe in the Christian God, but about 93% of Indians do not? Why do nearly all citizens of Iran, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma not believe in the Christian God (most people in the latter 3 countries don't believe in any god), while most Americans and Italians do? While the ANB asks why the Christian God permits so many people to not believe, the argument from the demographics of Christian theism (ADT) asks why he tolerates such a skewed distribution of nonbelief. If the Christian God doesn’t exist, the geographic clustering of nonbelief is easily explained by messy and haphazard human influences like culture and politics.

Christian responses to these problems often suggest that all non-believers are morally or epistemically defective and therefore blameworthy for their nonbelief. God has done all that he can and their failure to believe is their own.  Consider what this proposition entails carefully: billions upon billions of non-believers who have ever lived or are alive today are all blameworthy for their unbelief. If even one person has genuinely sought God and remained bewildered about his existence, the ANB runs through, and the Christian God probably doesn’t exist. It seems that Mother Teresa may well have been just such a person. There was a time in my younger life when I lived in a tentatively Christian family and studied at Christian schools and I genuinely sought God and heard and felt nothing in return.

Apart from frank implausibility, there are a few other problems with this line of reasoning. The claim that one's unbelieving brethren  - people like me - are somehow morally or epistemically defective is also completely ad hoc: one has no reason to believe it except that it permits one to escape the problems with belief that I’ve outlined above. Furthermore, if one assumes that all nonbelievers must be blameworthy, then one's reasoning is circular. And even if one found these types of responses plausible and fitting, what they cannot do is explain why non-belief is so geographically clustered. Even if one thought that all nonbelievers are morally or epistemically defective, what moral, epistemic, or other defect in people clusters geographically in this extreme way? None.

I believe that this argument has been made before (though clearly not as explicitly as I have tried to summarize here based on the work of J.L. Schellenberg, Theodore M. Drange, and Stephen Maitzen) by other atheists including ones that Plantinga criticized for failing to appeal to sufficient evidence to support atheism over agnosticism. Recall the ending of the Bertrand Russell quote that Plantinga referred to:

I cannot, therefore, think it presumptuous to doubt something which has long been held to be true, especially when this opinion has only prevailed in certain geographical regions, as is the case with all theological opinions.”

And watch the first couple of minutes of this video of Richard Dawkins:

Is there any doubt that the vast numbers of nonbelievers and especially their skewed geographical distribution count as evidence against Christian theism and in favor of naturalism? I can’t see any. There is other evidence and there are other arguments against Christian theism, but Plantinga and Gutting seem to want you to believe the contrary. If you’re a Christian, I encourage you to be skeptical of their suggestion and look more deeply into it.

In the meantime, do you have a reasonable doubt about either the argument from nonbelief or (especially!) the argument from the demographics of theism? If so, I’d love to hear what it is. Spell it out for me and challenge my beliefs. I don’t want to be wrong for a second longer than I have to. If you don’t, then I’m afraid that you have no reasonable doubt that the Christian God (at least as described above) does not exist.


  1. I compliment you, Yorgo, on rooting out a couple of arguments with which I have had no previous experience. The argument about distribution of believers is a fresh one. But for now, rather than operating at the empirical level, I'd like to spend some time at the epistemological level.
    "Omnipotent God could easily provide causally sufficient evidence or a convincing religious experience so that everybody would know the truth of the gospel message."
    I suspect that part of the problem here is that God is construed as being human-like in how he is, particularly in how he loves and how he exercises his omnipotence. So, we humans implicitly say, "Well, if I were God, then I would make myself obvious to people and I would abolish all suffering." Perhaps the chimp in your posted picture equally might say, "If I were human, well there'd be no meat eaten, just bananas." Hence, I suggest that there is an epistemological flaw in assuming that God must exercises his innate qualities in the same way which I might exercises them were I God.
    In the Hebrew scriptures one frequently encounters statements from Yahweh like, "My ways are not your ways." Indeed, in the tradition of the biblical Hebrews to see God was to die. My interpretation of this is that were we to encounter in our bodies the fullness of God, our free will would be obliterated. I believe that God wants us to love him...and who can love with a gun to his head?
    One of your persistent arguments concerns the theodicy problem. And it is a credit to anyone's humanity that he hates to see others suffering and, even better, he strives to ameliorate the causes of others' suffering. So, the atheist, like Prometheus, refuses to acknowledge a god who permits suffering to continue.
    But look at yourself as a parent. Of course you do all you can to make your children's lives good and to prevent harm from coming to them. But do you cosset them in a crib? One of the current concerns in the medical community is that North American children have become obese and unfit because parents are confining them to strict supervision for fear of predators or who knows what. Yes, I suppose that if kids "go out to play" some will break limbs but I am with Baden Powell who commented, "Better a broken arm than a broken spirit."
    Or look at the times you have to discipline your children for their own good. Oh, I know parents say, "This hurts me more than it hurts you." I know mine did. But what child accepted this statement? And what child would choose the discipline, had s/he the choice?
    Is it not possible that God is like this parent? That God does love us fully and passionately but that because of God's bigger picture in his loving care he permits things which to our limited perspective seem unjust or even callous?
    Anyhow, Yorgo, the bell just rang and I must attend to the instruction of young minds!
    And so addressing your distribution argument will have to wait.

  2. Thanks for your interest, Johnston. It’s always a pleasure to share thoughts with you.

    You seem to be objecting to premise 1 of the ANB. Secondly, you’re objecting to premise 1 of Rowe’s evidential argument from evil ( When I write about that, I’ll address your concern there.

    Regarding (1), you’re suggesting that my limited, human epistemic perspective prevents me from understanding why God doesn’t provide causally sufficient evidence of his existence or a convincing religious experience to everybody. Then you propose an explanation for that state of affairs, namely that while God wants us to freely choose to love him, “if we encountered the fullness of God in our bodies, our free will would be obliterated.”

    Where to begin?

    The argument from non-belief (and the evidential argument from evil) is not aimed at showing that the existence of God is logically impossible. Rather, the available evidence is meant to show that, all else equal, the existence of God is less probable. The vast evidence for nonbelief throughout space and time make the existence of God much less probable, but the conclusion is always probabilistic.

    Accordingly, a defense that suggests that it’s merely possible that God has some good explanation for the evidence we observe just doesn’t cut it. I might argue that it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, but your retort that it could possibly be a robot that looks like a duck has little influence on my conclusion that it is a duck. So do not mistake what is merely possible for what is actually probable. You must plausibly argue that the following conjunction is probable: that (1) God can make his existence known to people but (2) that would rob them of their freedom to enter into a loving relationship with him. How could you do such a thing without it seeming completely ad hoc?

    Isn’t it rather clear that God doesn’t have to “expose our bodies to his fullness” in order to convince us of his existence? He is omnipotent, after all! Surely he could convince us of his existence with some lesser type of religious experience, the kind that people regularly describe and with which scripture is replete. He could appear to people (as a talking flame, say, or in the corporeal form in which he allegedly appeared to the disciples post mortem) and perform miracles as he has allegedly done before. He could have provided within scripture information that no living human author could have known (like the germ theory of disease, say, or heliocentrism, that E=MC2, how heredity & DNA works, etc.). He could appeal to individuals with information about their lives that nobody else could know. It’s not hard to come up with examples that he has apparently used in the past to make his existence known that would not overwhelm a human being in the way that you postulate

  3. I could stop here. But I won’t.

    Christian theism does entail that there will be a vast epistemic chasm between God and us so the Lord should indeed appear to work in mysterious ways. I warn you, though, that there are significant consequences that flow from that state of affairs that are as or even more problematic with respect to Christian theism than the problems that this response seems to address. I encourage you to become familiar with the can of worms known as “skeptical theism”. You may not want to resort to opening it during these interlocutions.

    Let’s consider this notion of God wanting us to freely enter into a loving relationship with him without a gun to our heads. It strikes me as the most foul double standard to argue that God remains hidden for fear of interfering with our free will while the doctrine in his highly implausible book indicates eternal hellfire for failing to believe on insufficient evidence. I’m afraid that Christian doctrine places the mother of all guns to our heads, Johnston, and I will remind you that we entered into this conversation on FB as you were defending the Catholic doctrine of indulgences which wave around a flame-thrower spewing searing purgatorial heat.

    But there is an even deeper problem with this reasoning. The type of free will you are no doubt referring to – contra-causal or libertarian free will – it seems we do not possess. Even worse, it may not even be a coherent notion. I don’t wish to go off on this tangent, but surely you must be aware that bringing free will into the conversation hinges the defense of God’s hiddenness and the problem of non-belief on a subject that may not even be real or make any sense.

    You used the analogy of God as a parent. Is the parent-child relationship tarnished or diminished because the unconditional love parents show children unduly influences them? Should children not be interfered with in this way, that is, not loved, so that they can “freely choose” whether to love their parents or not? A good parent wants his children to love him, so he does not abandon them. He makes them aware of his existence and more. He makes them aware of his love. God, if he exists, has left billions needlessly bewildered.

    But a deeper question is whether anybody ever is free to choose what to believe or even what loving relationship to enter into. Are you free to choose to believe that Santa Claus is vacationing in Maui at the moment?

    Even if I grant you that we are free to choose chocolate or vanilla, it seems to me that we are compelled to believe what we believe for a variety of reasons including indoctrination, peer pressure, praise, ridicule, condemnation, and evidence. Does evidence interfere with our free will? Bad question. Free will has nothing to do with what we believe. I doubt it has anything to do with whom we fall in love or when. Where is someone’s freedom when they experience love at first sight, or when they realize after a few years that they have come to romantically love their best friend? So I challenge the entire foundation of your defense of God’s hiddenness and the problem of widespread nonbelief.

  4. The 2 URLs (links) above are not active. If you want to check them out, you have to copy them and paste them into the address bar at the top of your web browser.

    Here they are again:

    Plus, regarding Rowe's evidential argument from evil and skeptical theism, Google is your friend!