Ten (bad) reasons not to believe in God, part 1

Someone named Greta Christina has put together a list of the top ten reasons why she doesn't believe in God. They are bad reasons, and have been repeatedly refuted, but responding to a recent regurgitation of them will give me the chance to clarify some misconceptions and consolidate my own current thinking about these issues.

Before I examine each individual reason, I should point out a severe flaw at the heart of Christina's discussion: her definition of God is so all-encompassing (at one point she says that by 'God' she includes "the soul, or metaphysical energy, or any sort of supernatural being or substance") that her arguments, far from relentlessly picking apart one well-defined hypothesis, at best strike glancing blows at a dozen different and sometimes incompatible views. An argument against substance dualism when it comes to explaining human consciousness, for example, has no implications for the existence of God as conceived by the monotheistic religions. The ancient Hebrews arguably held to a quite materialistic view of the person, even as they worshipped an immaterial personal deity. Alternatively, one could hold to substance dualism on philosophical grounds even if the evidence for parapsychological phenomena is inconclusive or negative.

In this series of responses I will respond to Christina's reasons both on their own terms and with regard to their relevance to whether the personal, immaterial, omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God of Christian theism exists. There will be one post on each reason.

The first reason Christina gives for not believing in God is the alleged consistent pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones in explaining what goes on in the world:

When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them. Like a steamroller. Why the Sun rises and sets. Where thunder and lightning come from. Why people get sick. Why people look like their parents. How the complexity of life came into being. I could go on and on...All these things were once explained by religion. But as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the explanations based on religion were replaced by ones based on physical cause and effect. Consistently. Thoroughly. Like a steamroller. The number of times that a supernatural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a natural explanation? Thousands upon thousands upon thousands.

The first problem with this argument is that the key terms 'natural' and 'supernatural' are never clearly defined. The closest Christina comes is when she distinguishes between explanations 'based on religion' and explanations 'based on physical cause and effect'. But what Christina does not realize is that religious and physical explantations are not necessarily in conflict. In fact, on a classical theistic understanding, they cannot even conflict in principle. 

In the Christian tradition, God is the creator and sustainer of the Universe and everything in it. As a reflection of His constant, faithful character, and to make it a place that could be subdued by his human image-bearers, the world was created to unfold mostly according to regular patterns, and the energy that actually makes things happen is inherent to the world itself. Thus, although it is accurate to say that everything that happens is ultimately due to God's action, regularly occurring phenomena such as the orbit of the moon around the Earth, the water cycle in the atmosphere or the hereditary transmission of physiological characteristics will have proximate physical causes. It is a well-established historical fact that part of the impetus for the development of science in Western Europe was the conviction that God as supreme intelligence had created an orderly world, whose principles of order could be discovered through careful investigation. 

Far from natural explanations displacing supernatural ones, the story of scientific progress is the successful search for proximate physical mechanisms, whose existence was postulated based on an ultimate metaphysical, divine explanation. Scientific progress provides retro-justification of a fundamental presupposition of science, the belief in an intelligible order, which order is best explained as the product of a divine intelligence. 

A second major problem with Christina's argument is that she does not distinguish between generalized explanations for broad classes of events under specific conditions, and explanations of specific events. In the quote cited above Christina refers to explanations for "Why the Sun rises and sets. Where thunder and lightning come from. Why people get sick..." Let's focus on the last question, which like Christina's definition of God is too broad to be useful, and could be construed in many ways for many different situations. I hope Christina doesn't think that there is a single, physical explanation for why people get sick, which applies to all illnesses in all situations. There are illnesses due to harmful bacteria, illnesses due to blunt force trauma, psychophysical illnesses, etc. More to the point, there are illnesses brought on without any specific intention, due to environmental exposure to pathogens, for example, and there are illnesses brought on deliberately, by personal agents, when a person is poisoned, for example.

This is really what the debate between naturalism and theistic religion boils down to. Both sides have a place for physical explanations of broad classes of regularly occurring phenomena, which unfold mechanistically, as well as personal explanations of certain specific events when agents are involved. For example, as mentioned above, sometimes people get sick through environmental exposure, while other times the explanation involves appeal to personal intention and action. Where naturalism and theism diverge is with regard to the types of agents at work in the world. Naturalism acknowledges animal and human agents, while theism acknowledges various immaterial agents, whose intentions and actions explain certain specific happenings in the world. 

When theists claim that an event is ultimately explained by the action of an immaterial agent, naturalists dispute the theistic explanation by constructing an alternative one involving only physical and/or human causes. But scientific progress has no bearing on this issue. Take alleged cases of demonic possession, for example: It is one thing to argue that certain psychological disorders produce symptoms which were occasionally attributed to demonic possession. It is another thing to argue that, because demonic agents weren't involved in all alleged cases, there are no demonic agents. That would be as silly as arguing that, because people are sometimes poisoned as a result of purely physical causes, there have never been cases of people being intentionally poisoned. We might also note that genuine demonic possession would involve physical manifestations which in some cases might resemble purely psychological disorders. 

Christina does allude to the need to examine the evidence case by case. She grants that "people come up with new supernatural "explanations" for stuff all the time. But explanations with evidence? Replicable evidence? Carefully gathered, patiently tested, rigorously reviewed evidence? Internally consistent evidence? Large amounts of it, from many different sources?"

In posing these questions Christina simply reveals her ignorance. She has clearly not done any detailed research into alleged supernatural occurrences, whether paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis or poltergeists, or phenomena associated with religion such as exorcisms or healings. She should know better than to demand that acceptable evidence has to be replicable (in what way could testimonial evidence to a specific crime be replicable?), but as far as the other criteria are concerned, evidence that was "carefully gathered, patiently tested, rigorously reviewed...internally consistent" there is such in abundance (see here for just a sampling). Supernatural phenomena (or better, phenomena caused by immaterial agents, or involving processes not currently encompassed by mainstream science) have been carefully, patiently and rigorously catalogued by anthropologists, psychologists, doctors, physicists and other experts for hundreds of years. Again, the evidence can no doubt be disputed in specific cases, but scientific progress does not imply anything about such cases. 

In short, not only does scientific progress have no bearing on the existence of God (except perhaps as ancillary positive evidence), it has no bearing on the existence of supernatural phenomena in general. When it comes to giving precise definitions, making meaningful distinctions and doing her homework on the actual evidence, Christina has exposed herself as a rather shallow, lazy thinker. As we will see in later posts, the rest of her discussion is equally disappointing.


Alex Dalton said…
Another problem is that for every theistic explanation of natural phenomena that has been overturned, there are 100 natural explanations that have been overturned as well. We don't eliminate a broad class of explanation like "naturalistic" or "theistic" because past explanations belonging to that class have been found wanting.

I will say, when she repeats "Like a Steamroller" as she does, I find this to be very convincing.
David said…
It's worse for her attempted argument than that: "natural" explanations have not really been replacing "supernatural" ones. What's happened is our natural explanations have got a lot more detailed (while our "supernatural" ones have got... more detailed). If anything has changed, it's that people today know a lot more scientific "details" than religious ones; but obviously they still don't understand much about the foundations on which they're built.

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