Tuesday, May 27, 2008


A Challenge

Paul Dean, pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Greer, South Carolina, has an article at Crosswalk that throws down a gauntlet:

One of the basic dynamics that attends any worldview that is contrary to the Christian worldview is a lack of philosophical justification for it. This dynamic holds true even in the realm of simply knowing something to be true. In other words, the unbeliever has no basis for knowing anything.

When an unbeliever makes a statement concerning God, the world, man, morality, ethics, or any other subject, he asserts it as an absolute certainty. For example, an atheist who believes in evolution may say that God does not exist. However, on his worldview, he has no basis to make such a statement. On his worldview, knowledge is obtained through observation (or the scientific method). His problem is that he has limited knowledge and ability to obtain that knowledge. He does not have the ability to search every square inch of the cosmos to determine whether or not there is a God. On his worldview, he cannot know that there is no God. His statement of certainty is rendered completely uncertain.

At the same time, he may then say that we can't know or that we don't know whether or not there is a God. He is agnostic at that point. However, he has asserted a certainty in his mind, namely, that we don't know whether or not there is a God. Again, on his worldview, he is rendered uncertain in that he does not know whether or not there is some kind of knowledge somewhere that can tell us whether or not there is a God. He has not investigated the entirety of the universe on this point. He has no philosophical or logical basis to make such a statement.

Of course, Christians have a basis or a philosophical justification for their assertion that there is a God. On our worldview, we know there is a God because He has revealed Himself to us. We are not bound to the limits of empiricism/observation. We know that some knowledge is revealed.

Supposedly, the godless will therefore be unable to answer simple questions such as:

[W]hy do you believe spanking is wrong? Why do you believe homosexuality is not sin? Why do you think there are many paths to salvation? Why do you believe embryonic stem-cell research is a good thing? Why do you say there is no absolute truth? Why do you think pre-marital sex is okay in certain circumstances? Why do you believe in evolution? How do you know the sun will come up in the morning? ...

If someone says he doesn't believe in absolutes, simply ask him if it would be okay for you to take a key and run it down the side of his car? He will no doubt say "no" and therefore express a belief in absolutes as far as he is concerned.

But, according to Pastor Dean, the Christian has an answer:

Of course, Christians have a basis or a philosophical justification for their assertion that there is a God. On our worldview, we know there is a God because He has revealed Himself to us. We are not bound to the limits of empiricism/observation. We know that some knowledge is revealed. ...

The unbeliever ... will attempt to justify his answer or knowledge apart from God, something he cannot do logically. Without God's perspective, one's view of spanking is relative. Without a commitment to God's truth, one's opinion concerning multiple paths to salvation is arbitrary. Without a biblical worldview, one cannot know for certain the sun will come up in the morning. On an evolutionary worldview, it may not. Random chance is foundational. ...

Well, what about it? Are you up to the challenge?

I don't have time for this crap. I'm going to have to content myself with the smartarse response and set my attack Woozle on him for the in-depth stuff.

Woozle vs. Pastor: FIGHT!
John, you should be able to answer this challenge yourself. I'd like to see your response.
I will but I want to see some others first. Dana at En Tequila Es Verdad has started (and I dropped a comment on one small part of the Pastor's screed there).
This comment has been removed by the author.
I can't find anywhere to actually comment on his article. How surprising!

It's a fascinating exercise in philosophical fantasy though, isn't it. We can't be sure of anything, oh but... "On our worldview, we know there is a God because He has revealed Himself to us."

Really? How do you know? Oh, you just get to say that you do? i.e. anyone can simply say that this or that proposition is so, without having defend or justify it? How wonderful!

Problem solved.
OK, previous comment disappeared down the Innertoobs (no, not the one I deleted -- that was a test). Try again:

First and briefly: the good pastor mischaracterizes atheism as the absolute certainty that there is no god -- not merely the assertion that there is at the present time no good evidence of such, reasonable evidence against it, therefore non-existence is a rational provisional conclusion (thank you for playing; get back to me when you've got something new to say). "But you have to search the whole universe" is nothing but rather obvious special pleading. This is no doubt related to what seems to be a underlying pervasive fallacy of the piece, that there can be only total certainty or total uncertainty -- no intermediate degrees of confidence.

Now to the real meat:
I will happily concede that all human knowledge is uncertain. But until the good pastor comes up with iron-clad proof of the existence of his God (certainly, with something that doesn't just reduce to "He's there, 'cuz I said so!"), he's in the same epistemological boat as us heathens. In the mean time, I will contentedly go on interacting with the world through the medium of faculties honed by ~3.5Gyr of selection to be tolerably reliable at induction.
Okay, just for something to chew over ...

There is a subtler form of the argument that the Pastor may not know or may not be able to articulate. All philosophies start with basic propositions (the technical name for which I can't pull out of my rusty memory at the moment but I think is "priors"). Empiricism starts with the assumption that there is a real world outside our "mind" that can be accessed by our senses; materialism assumes that matter and energy (and space) are the sum total of what is; etc.

If a revelatory god is taken as a prior, certain results flow from that, including the existence of absolute truth knowable to humans to the extent they are revealed by god(s).

In the case of naturalism or materialism (assuming those are the philosophies behind atheism/agnosticism, as the Pastor seems to do), there are no true absolutes, such as "evil." There are phenomenon that may be helpful or harmful to some organism or group of organisms but that is neither "a good" nor an "evil" -- it is just a phenomenon. But some atheists insist on calling religion in general, or particular practices thereof, "evil."

May I ?

One of the key problems is that the pastor messes the preconditions. I must assume that by "God" he means the omnipotent, all-knowing and interfering Christian God. And this God is transcendental, that means He isn't bound by natural laws or understandable by humans and therefore not *provable*.

An atheist does not accept transcendental entities at all. His search is only sensible if he is convinced that "God" is a natural phenomenon because other
possibilities are outside his imagination (or he insists that possible imaginations must not exist). But that is not "God" according to the definition of the pastor. It has the same word with three letters, but that is all.

The agnostic position accepts possible transcendentalism and therefore the possibility of a Christian God. A transcendental entity cannot be checked, investigated or proved by scientific means, so any lack of
investigation is pointless.

The toughest problem for a believer is that he can't share his experiences with unbelievers, so his argumentation must be based on something both he and the unbeliever *shares*. If an unbeliever meets a Christ, a Muslim and a Zoroastrian (all infernally convinced that they have
been enlightened), how can he decide who is right ?
And what believers conveniently forget: How do I find out that my relevation is caused by the specific God mentioned in the Bible ? Muhammad/Zoroaster claims to have experienced the same relevation and Bible/Quran/Avesta are not very compatible.

The question of morality: If He has revelated us and gave us the sense of morality and conscience, I simply don't need scriptures (which are by the way often ambigous or contradictory), I can listen to my inner voice.

There *are* circumstances when I answer "yes" if someone asks me to run his key on the side:

- Accidentally the varnish and my
car are old, but well covered by
insurance and the money will
give me a new good varnish.

- Contrary to the offender I see
that a police car is coming up
the street and I will use
the opportunity to bust him.

- It isn't my car, but the car of
my hated neighbour.
Although I approve of Knight's response, I would like to see a bit of an attack included; not to merely answer and rebut Pastor Dean's claims but to challenge him with claims or questions of our own,

He made the claim that absolutes belong to Christians so a questioning of his opinion (and those of his flock) regarding the Iraq War and other issues and a comparison with the commandment "Thou shalt not kill." is a simple but reasonable idea. Simple is good enough, considering the claims he made.

"Not a pastor" Dean
It isn't my car, but the car of
my hated neighbour.

Now that's an attitude a lawyer can love!
Just for the lurkers who are outraged by my seemingly obvious
low moral stance: I am not one of these wicked atheists or agnostics, but a theist. Unfortunately.
My response (at last!) is here. Feel free to poke holes in it (or add any points I missed) on the discussion page...
Thanks, Woozle.

Atheists vs. Christian dogmatists: no contest!
I think William Bartley provides one of the most comprehensive replies to this (Tu Quoque) apologetic tactic.
Thanks for that. I think it is a good explanation of this phenomenon.
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