The “God is Simple” Argument

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins said, “God, or any intelligent, decision-making calculating agent, is complex, which is another way of saying improbable.”  But is God complex?  Philosopher Alvin Plantinga argued that he is not:

According to much classical theology (Thomas Aquinas, for example) God is simple, and simple in a very strong sense.…  So first, according to classical theology, God is simple, not complex.

Seriously?  We’re consulting a 13th century scholar to understand modern cosmology?  Modern science takes us to the Big Bang, and we need Thomas Aquinas to figure out the remaining riddles?

Here’s philosopher William Lane Craig’s input:

As a mind without a body, God is amazingly simple.  Being immaterial, He has no physical parts.  Therefore to postulate a pure Mind as the explanation of fine-tuning is the height of simplicity!

So anything that isn’t physical is simple?  Sure—something that isn’t physical is maximally simple physically because it doesn’t exist physically.  But that doesn’t help us with immaterial things, whatever they are.  I don’t know what it means to be an immaterial mind, so I have no way of evaluating its complexity.  Incredibly, neither apologist gives any evidence of the claim that God is simple.  They seem to have no way of evaluating its complexity either and propose we just take their word for it.

Of course, science has shown that complex can come from simple.  For example, we see this in the formation of snowflakes, in erosion, or in evolution.  From a handful of natural rules comes complexity—no intelligence required.

But we’re talking about something quite different—an intelligent creator.  And in every creative instance we know of (the creation of a car, the creation of a bee hive, the creation of a bird’s nest), the creator is more complex than the creation.  Plantinga’s God would be the most stupendous counterexample to the axiom that, in the case of designed things, simple comes from complex, and yet we’re supposed to take this claim on faith.

But there’s a way to cut through all this.  Is God as simple as Plantinga or Craig imagine?  Then demonstrate this—make us one.  Humanity can make complex things like a microprocessor, the worldwide telephone system, and a 747, so making this “amazingly simple” thing shouldn’t be hard.  Or, if we don’t have the materials, they can at least give us the blueprints.

Surely they will fail in this challenge and admit that they have no clue how to build a God.  In that case, how can they critique the simplicity of such a being?  Now that their argument that God is simple has evaporated, we’re back to Dawkins’ argument that a complex God is improbable.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related links:

  • Alvin Plantinga, “The Dawkins Confusion (A Review of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion),” Christianity Today, March 2007.
  • William Lane Craig, “Dawkins’ Delusion,” Reasonable Faith, 2009.
  • “Divine Simplicity,” Wikipedia.  (Note: neither Craig nor Plantinga accept this view.)

Understanding Morality—It’s Really Not that Hard

Does God exist?  Maybe not.Greg Koukl tries to hold atheists’ feet to the fire to show how they misuse moral thinking. His analysis provides good instruction in poor argumentation, but not quite in the way he hopes.

The podcast is “Making Sense of Morality” (3/6/11). As I quote Koukl below, I will use approximate time markers from the audio stream.

He starts by claiming that there are objective moral values. He didn’t define them, but William Lane Craig’s definition works: “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not.”1 That’s a big claim—these are moral values that are somehow grounded supernaturally or transcendentally. Never having seen evidence for supernatural or transcendent anything, I was eager to hear Koukl justify their existence. Here he goes:

Virtually no one believes the opposite. (3:23)

And that’s it. Apparently, Koukl has no argument besides, “You believe that … right?” We’re not off to a good start.

From this flabby grounding, he proposes to dismantle what many Christian apologists have admitted is the most challenging problem they face, the Problem of Evil. There is no Problem of Evil, Koukl says, unless there are objective moral values.

Such a problem could only exist if morals were objective, not relative, because we can only complain about the existence of a good powerful god with regards to the existence of evil in the world if there is actually objectively, really evil in the world, not just “evil” in our own preferences. (4:20)

No. The Problem of Evil simply points out a paradox: the Christian imagines (1) a good god who (2) tolerates a world with plenty of evil in it. How is this possible?

This is quite simple: you, Greg, would not be called good if (for example) you had the power to diffuse the tectonic energy that caused the Haiti earthquake that killed 300,000 people but didn’t—this is the Word Hygiene argument. The words “good” and “evil” are defined in the dictionary, and we don’t change the definitions when we talk about God. No objective anything is required—the Problem of Evil simply assumes that your god exists for the sake of the argument, and then it takes this idea for a drive and runs it off the unavoidable logical cliff.

Koukl continues, noting that atheists often say that evolution can explain morality. But:

[Evolution] is not going to get you a genuine, bona fide objective moral obligation; it’s just going to get you maybe the feeling of morality when morality doesn’t actually exist. (6:03)

Koukl is saying that morality is either objective or it’s nothing.

So let’s check the dictionary. “Moral” is defined as “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior; ethical” or “conforming to a standard of right behavior” (Merriam-Webster). And what are these principles and standards? I suggest that they’re the laws and customs of society. The dictionary mentions no objective, supernatural, or absolute anything. Evolution programs us with moral instincts; Koukl’s imagined concern vanishes.

Next, Koukl talked about listening to an interview with professor and author Steven Stuart Williams. Williams rejected objective morality and said that we should minimize suffering. But why does he say this?

Because that’s the way I like it. (10:15)

(Note that this is Koukl’s paraphrase of Williams’ answer.) This seemed to be a bombshell to Koukl, though I don’t see why. That could be a clumsy paraphrase of my own thinking: that we strive to minimize suffering because our programming (our conscience) tells us to. This conscience punishes us with guilt when we resist it—when we didn’t stop to help someone or when we took an action that caused harm.

Why is this shocking? Greg, isn’t this the way it works for you?

The interviewer next asked Williams how he would counter a Stalin or Pol Pot.

By what standard does [Williams] say that his preference is a better morally speaking preference than those other preferences that are opposite his? And for this he had no answer. (12:30)

That’s okay—I have an answer. This is just the moral relativism fallacy. Koukl apparently imagines a dilemma: you must accept either

  • objective morality, with a supernatural or transcendental grounding for morality, or
  • relative morality, where I have my moral truths and you have yours, and I have no ability to criticize.

The problem is that this doesn’t define all the options. I see no evidence for objective morality (and Koukl doesn’t provide any), but I’m quite happy to criticize moral claims with which I don’t agree.

I think we have a shared (not objective) grounding in the programming common to all humans. That is, we aren’t seeing God’s universal moral truth but rather universally held moral instincts. Wouldn’t that explain the facts?

And now it’s time to get in a dig at the New Atheists. Koukl says that the “old time atheists” were much more intellectually honest. They followed their thinking to its logical conclusion and took their medicine, whatever that was. He cautioned his Christian listeners about slippery atheists playing games.

The old style guys would bite the bullet and they’d say, “Nope, no morality, no right and wrong, all personal preferences, just emotions … no meaning in life.” (14:50)

If you want to debate the “old style guys,” Greg, go ahead, but this doesn’t describe me. I have plenty of morality and meaning in my life, but thanks for asking. It’s just not supernaturally grounded … but then there’s no reason to think yours is, either.

So what you’re saying is, there is no transcendent morality, it is just a matter of personal opinion, and when you are put up against Mao Tse-tung, you can’t give me a reason why one person would choose one rather than the other. (15:50)

Can Koukl have never had an argument about a moral issue? Each person makes a case using the shared moral ideas of our species and culture—that’s how it’s done. Or look at a legislative debate for a more formal example.

Bizarrely, the interviewer then asks,

Wouldn’t it be more satisfying to have God ground [morality] on a purely pragmatic basis? (16:25)

Do you hear what you’re saying? You’re wondering if reality is satisfying? As if we have a choice! It’s reality—we’re stuck with it! The focus should be on figuring out what reality is and working with it.

Williams argued that he could live a good life, but Koukl accuses him of playing word games:

What exactly do you mean by “good” here? I know what he meant by “good”; he meant by “good” the same thing his theistic interviewer meant by “good.” The problem is, he has no right to those terms because they aren’t at home in the worldview he was arguing for. (18:20)

And we’re back to consulting the dictionary. Show me the objective part of the definition of “good” that would make it inappropriate if said by an atheist. We have a common definition for words; that’s how communication works. Where’s the problem?

When we say we can punish people for doing bad, [Williams means] that we could still punish people for doing things that are contrary to [his] personal preference. (20:45)

Duh—doesn’t everyone want laws to be in accord with their own views of right and wrong? We make compromises as members of a society, but obviously we’d like the laws to be as in line with our personal morality as possible.

Koukl ends by encouraging his listeners to listen carefully to make sure the other guy is using moral language and concepts correctly.

Finally—something we can agree on.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

1William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 17.

Related links:

  • “Morality 1: Good without Gods,” QualiaSoup (video, 13:25), 6/23/11.
  • “Morality 2: Not-so-good Books,” QualiaSoup (video, 14:10), 7/28/11.
  • “Morality 3: Of Objectivity and Oughtness,” QualiaSoup (video, 17:12), 11/6/11.

Don’t Move the Goalposts

Moving the goalposts is a logical fallacyChristian apologists often bring up unresolved scientific questions and usually conclude with, “Well, if you can’t answer that question, Christianity can!  God did it.”  For example:

  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • What came before the Big Bang?
  • Why does the universe look fine-tuned for life?
  • How did life come from nonlife?

Admittedly, there is no scientific consensus on these questions.  But a century ago, Christian apologists pointed to different questions if they wanted to put science in the hot seat: Okay, Science, if you’re so smart, how is heredity transmitted?  What causes cancer?  What caused the universe?

And centuries before that, Christianity asked, What causes lightning?  Disease?  Drought?  Earthquakes?  It used these questions to argue that Christianity had answers that science didn’t.

Not only is science the sole disciple that could provide answers, increasingly only science can uncover the questions.  That is, the apologist pretends to inform science of questions that science discovered itself.

If in hindsight “God did it” was a foolish resolution for the questions of previous centuries—the cause of lightning and disease, for example—why offer it now?  Why expect the results to be any different?  Wouldn’t it be wise to learn from the past and be a little hesitant to stake God’s existence on the gamble that Science will finally come up short?

What’s especially maddening is apologists like William Lane Craig putting on an imaginary lab coat and ineptly fiddling with beakers and turning dials, playing scientist like a child playing house.  He imagines himself strutting into a community of befuddled scientists and saying with a chuckle, “Okay, fellas, Christianity can take it from here” and seeing them breathe a sigh of relief that the cavalry has finally come to bail them out of their intellectual predicament.  He imagines that he can better answer questions that his discipline couldn’t even formulate.

This reminds me of the fable about Science scaling the highest peak of knowledge.  After much difficulty, Science finally summits and is about to plant his flag when he looks over and sees Theology and Philosophy sitting there, looking at him.  “What took you so long?” one of them says.  “We’ve been here for centuries.”

Uh, yeah, Theology and Philosophy can invent claims, but Science does it the hard way—it actually uncovers the facts and makes the testable hypotheses.  It gets to the summit step by step along the route of Evidence rather than floating there on a lavender cloud of imagination and wishful thinking.  Religion is like the dog that walks under the ox and thinks that he is pulling the cart.

To the Christian who thinks that science’s unanswered questions make his point, I say: make a commitment.  Publicly state that this issue (pick something—abiogenesis or the cause of the Big Bang or fine tuning or whatever) is the hill that you will fight to the death on.  Man up, commit to it, and impose consequences.  Say, “I publicly declare that God must be the resolution to this question.  A scientific consensus will never find me wrong or else I will drop my faith.”

If the Christian fails to do this (or rather, when he fails to do this), he then admits that when his cherished question du jour is resolved, he’ll discard it like a used tissue and find another in science’s long list of unanswered questions.  That is, he admits that this is just a rhetorical device, stated only for show, rather than being a serious argument.

He’ll just move the goalposts.  Again.

Photo credit: Graham Ballantyne

Related links:

Can Christian Scholars Be Objective?

Drawing of black handcuffs on an orange backgroundIn a 2010 book, New Testament scholar Michael Licona said that the zombie apocalypse of Matthew 27:52, where many of the dead came back to life after Jesus died, didn’t literally happen.  To many of us that’s an unsurprising observation, but this caused quite a controversy within the scholarly evangelical community.

According to Christianity Today:

[Norman] Geisler accused Licona of denying the full inerrancy of Scripture.  He also called for Licona to recant his interpretation, labeling it “unorthodox, non-evangelical, and a dangerous precedent for the rest of evangelicalism.”

“Recant”?  Is this the Inquisition?  Was Licona, like Galileo, shown the instruments of torture and encouraged to choose the correct path?

To be clear, the only objectionable item in Licona’s entire 700-page book was the reinterpretation of this one incident in Matthew, and yet he was pressured out of his job last month as professor at Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES), and his position as apologetics coordinator for the North American Mission Board was eliminated.  A single question about biblical inerrancy was, for some, intolerable.

We can try to see this from the standpoint of SES.  They have a purpose statement, which says in part that the institution assumes “the infallibility and inerrancy of the Scriptures.”  Licona was likely asked to commit to this statement, and his book could be seen as a breach of this commitment.

These kinds of statements of faith are common, and I found them for Bob Jones University, Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and others.  I attended the International Academy of Apologetics this summer (admittedly an odd place for an atheist to be for two weeks, but that’s another story), and their statement of faith, binding on the faculty, said that the Academy “accepts the Holy Scriptures as the revealed and inerrant word of God.”

Let’s grant that a university can dismiss a professor for breaching a contract, even one so odd as this.  What’s rarely discussed is the consequence of these mandatory statements: they mean that Christian scholars at evangelical institutions are unable to be objective.  With their job on the line, their hands are tied.  They can’t always follow the facts where they lead.  The public pillorying of Licona shows the consequences of intellectual honesty.

This incident has opened my eyes.  Whenever I see or hear claims by Christian scholars, I will now wonder if a statement of faith applies.  The next time I read an article by William Lane Craig, for example, I will read it with the caveat that he’s bound by Biola University’s doctrinal statement that says, in part, “The Scriptures … are without error or defect of any kind.”  When he argues that the Bible is accurate, I won’t know if that’s really his honest conclusion or if that’s just his institution talking.

This even affects Norm Geisler, Licona’s chief accuser.  Geisler is a professor at Veritas Evangelical Seminary, whose statement of faith says, “We believe the Bible … is verbally inerrant in the original text.”

How can we take seriously anything said about Christianity by Craig, Geisler, or indeed any scholar who is intellectually constrained in this way?

Photo credit: Vectorportal

Related posts:

Related links:

  • Bobby Ross, Jr. “Interpretation Sparks a Grave Theology Debate,” Christianity Today, November 2011.
  • Jeffrey Jay Lowder, “Christian NT Scholar and Apologist Michael Licona Loses Job After Questioning Matthew 27,” The Secular Outpost blog, 11/8/11.
  • Chris Hallquist, “The Mike Licona kerfluffle, and what it tells us about Evangelicals and inerrancy,” Uncredible Hallq blog, 11/15/11.
  • “Michael R. Licona,” Wikipedia.

An Inept Attempt to Defang the Problem of Evil

The pale figure of Death rides a pale horse and holds a scytheIn an article titled “Turn an Atheist Objection to an Opportunity,” apologist Greg Kokul attempts to turn the Problem of Evil, often admitted by Christians as their biggest challenge, into a selling point for Christianity.

The Problem of Evil is this: how can a good and loving God allow all the bad that happens in the world?  The simplistic answers fail to explain the woman who dies leaving young children motherless, the child that dies a lingering death from leukemia, or the Holocaust.

Kokul begins by saying that he’s found a debating technique that turns this problem into a benefit.  Instead of being solely a problem for the Christian, he turns the tables on the atheist.

Evidence of egregious evil abounds.  How do I account for such depravity?

But, I am quick to add—and here is the strategic move—I am not alone.  As a theist, I am not the only one saddled with this challenge.  Evil is a problem for everyone.  Every person, regardless of religion or worldview, must answer this objection.

Even the atheist.

Of course evil is a problem for everyone, but that’s not what we’re talking about.  Kokul made clear that we’re talking about the Problem of Evil.  We’re talking about how a good and loving God can allow all the bad that happens in the world.

What if someone is assaulted by personal tragedy, distressed by world events, victimized by religious corruption or abuse, and then responds by rejecting God and becoming an atheist (as many have done)?  Notice that he has not solved the problem of evil.

The atheist hasn’t solved the Problem of Evil; he’s eliminated it.  A God who loves us infinitely more than we love ourselves and who stands idly by as rapists or murderers do their work is no dilemma for the atheist.  But, of course, the problem still remains for the apologist.  Kokul can’t simply Continue reading

Christianity Can Rot Your Brain

Two men wearing crowns swing swords toward kneeling menThere’s a lot of killing in the Bible—the honest and wholesome kind.  The God-commanded kind.

What are we to make of this violence?  Apologist William Lane Craig takes a stab at justifying “The Slaughter of the Canaanites.”

Craig’s entire project is bizarre—trying to support the sagging claims of God’s goodness despite his passion for genocide—but he gamely has a go.  Craig responds to the question, “But wasn’t it wrong to kill all the innocent children?”

… if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation.  We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy.  Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

What’s this supposed to mean??  Does it mean that Andrea Yates was actually right that she was saving her five children from the possibility of going to hell by drowning them one by one in the bathtub?  Does it mean that abortion is actually a good thing because those souls “are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy”?  I hope none of Craig’s readers have followed up with this avenue to salvation.

It’s hard to believe that he’s actually justifying the killing of children, but there’s more.  Let’s parse Craig’s next paragraph:

So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites?  Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgment.

I thought that genocide was wrong.  Perhaps I was mistaken.

Not the children, for they inherit eternal life.

Yeah, right.  Killing children is actually a good thing.  (Are we living Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”?)

So who is wronged?

Wait for it …

Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves.  Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children?  The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.

Uh, yeah.  That was the big concern in my mind, too.

Can you believe this guy?  My guess is that he is a decent and responsible person, is a good husband and father, works hard, and pays his taxes.  But he’s writing this?  It’s like discovering that your next-door neighbor is a Klansman.

This brings up the Christopher Hitchens’ Challenge (video).  Hitchens challenges anyone to state a moral action taken or a moral sentiment uttered by a believer that couldn’t be taken or uttered by an unbeliever—something that a believer could do but an atheist couldn’t.  In the many public appearances in which Hitchens has made this challenge, he has never heard a valid reply.

But think of the reverse: something terrible that only a believer would do or say.  Now, there are lots of possibilities.  Obviously, anything containing variations on “because God says” or “because the Bible says” could be an example.

  • “The Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’”
  • “Despite the potential benefits to public health, we should avoid embryonic stem cell research because it’s against the Bible.”
  • “God hates fags.”

Or, as in this case, “God supports genocide.”

This reminds me what physicist Steven Weinberg said: “Religion is an insult to human dignity.  With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.

In other words: Christianity can rot your brain.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related links:

  • Greta Christina, “One More Reason Religion Is So Messed Up: Respected Theologian Defends Genocide and Infanticide,” AlterNet, 4/25/11.
  • Adam Lee, “Defending Genocide, Redux,” Daylight Atheism, 4/11/11.
  • Richard Dawkins, “Why I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig,” The Guardian, 10/20/11.
  • Tim Stanley, “Richard Dawkins is either a fool or a coward for refusing to debate William Lane Craig,” The Telegraph, 10/21/11.
  • “Concern over William Lane Craig’s justification of biblical genocide,” Open Parachute blog, 10/30/11.