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.