What should be the starting assumption regarding God's existence in discussions about the existence of God? Should the starting assumption be that God doesn't exist? Is the starting assumption that God does exist? Is the starting point that we don't know whether or not God exists?
Apparently, the response to this question was considered the highlight of a debate between atheist Richard Foley of the University of Missouri and theist Grant Sterling of the Eastern Illinois University -- at least, the article in the Journal-Gazette Times-Courier article about a debate begins with Dr. Foley's answer. The article, entitled Debate fails to settle question of God's existence, by Amber Williams, gives Dr. Foley's answer in the form of an analogy quoted from Dr. Foley wherein he claims that the starting point should be that God doesn't exist.
Facing a question from an audience member on why he believes everyone should start out in life thinking like an atheist, Richard Foley offered an analogy.
A professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri, Foley told the audience to imagine they were told of the existence of space aliens on the campus of Eastern Illinois University.
Everyone in attendance would start at the assumption the aliens did not exist until it was proven otherwise, Foley said.
Thinking about God should be the same way, Foley said.
"Agnosticism is not a starting point — it would have to be an achievement," Foley said. "I haven’t been moved that far."
Actually, Dr. Foley's analogy is much farther down the road than he thinks. Let's examine his analogy with a bit more depth, shall we? He is saying that a person should automatically discount the idea that space aliens exist when being told that space aliens can be found on Dr. Sterling's campus. But why should anyone do that? I mean, if you were told of the existence of illegal aliens (as opposed to space aliens) on the campus of Eastern Illinois University, would you automatically discount that until proven otherwise? Why should the first be automatically rejected while the second would be almost universally accepted?
The reason, quite obviously, is because we have additional information that goes into our acceptance and rejection of facts that are already part of our thinking before ever hearing about the aliens. We know that illegal aliens exist. We know this to be true either because we personally know one or more illegal aliens, or because we have seen hundreds of news stories that talk about the number of illegal aliens (aka undocumented workers) in the United States. We also know that (the arguments of UFOlogists notwithstanding) there is no compelling evidence to conclude that space aliens actually exist -- or, at least, there is insufficient evidence to believe that space aliens would come to Earth and hang out at Eastern Illinois University. (After all, everyone knows that if the aliens ever did come to Earth, they'd go to New Mexico -- the Best Place in the Universe.)
We know that space aliens are almost certainly not on the campus of Eastern Illinois University because we have seen insufficient evidence that aliens exist or, at least, we have insufficient evidence that space aliens have been coming to visit any part of the Earth -- including Eastern Illinois University.
This is the problem with Dr. Foley's analogy: the only reason that the analogy is facially compelling is that we're being told that something that people generally believe doesn't exist (space aliens which visit Earth) exists! It is the fact that we have come to the conclusion that space aliens either don't exist or don't visit the Earth prior to and independent from being told that they exist on the campus of Eastern Illinois University that leads us to reject the idea out of hand. But if we hadn't already made up our minds that space aliens didn't exist, or if we accepted the UFOlogists' evidence that is used to support claims that space aliens actually regularly visit the Earth, then it wouldn't be unreasonable to look at this claim in a completely different way than Dr. Foley wants, i.e., to see it as a possibility that needs to be investigated as opposed to something that should be dismissed out of hand as impossible.
In other words, for Dr. Foley's analogy to work, we already have to have been taught and to have accepted the idea that God doesn't exist or that His existence is highly unlikely. Without the prior acceptance of that position, there is no reason to treat the claim that God exists or did something on the same level as the claim that space aliens are hanging out on campus.
So, his underlying claim must be that if someone claims that God is somewhere or did something we should know implicitly that such claims are highly suspect and deserving of strong skepticism. Note that this is not a skepticism that is based on "we don't know if God exists, so show me." He has rejected this idea by saying that agnosticism is "an achievement." Rather, he is saying that when someone makes a claim it should be rejected unless sufficient evidence is presented to overcome this gut-based mental rejection. In other words, he is almost certainly saying that one should start cemented to the belief that God doesn't exist and only be moved from that position . . . well, one shouldn't be moved from that position.
This is not a way to arrive at truth. This is the way to become an a-religious zealot.