The atheist vs the Christian theologian

There is frequent noise made about the "New Atheists" and others who refuse to argue against the sophisticated faith of the Theological-Einsteins whose faith is subtle and nuanced. There are many responses that are possible -- among them that the majority of believers do not believe in gods in some sophisticated way.

I have had many conversations, arguments, and debates with ministers, pastors, clergy of different types, and even philosophy professors who happened to be religious. But, I have not had a chance to have an extended interaction with a professional Christian Theologian, and I have been itching for the chance.

I itch no longer.

I have been interacting with a professional Christian theologian who is a professor of historical theology at a Canadian seminary. His name is Randal Rauser -- and goes by RD. He has a blog on christianpost.com: The Tentative Apologist.

On that blog I comment under the handle: ConverseAtheist (because, like so many other sites, ConversationalAtheist is too long to be a valid username -- sigh).

My interaction with him started when he insisted that an atheist is making a positive knowledge claim about the universe, and that as such, requires evidence and justification.

I asked him if he believed in Zeus; or if by being an azeusist he was making a positive knowledge claim about the universe -- and since this requires evidence and justification; what evidence does he have?

After more back and forth than it was worth the response was:

"I am an agnostic about whether Zeus exists as a lesser-spirit being; but an atheist as to whether Zeus is the perfect creator of the universe."

-- Let me fill in some background --

RD has posted some essays that argue for the existence of a being greater than which cannot be conceived. He further posted about how when he prays to Yahweh, coincidences happen; when he stops praying to Yahweh, coincidences stop happening. When asked if these coincidences could hold up to scientific scrutiny, or some kind of rigorous statistical testing -- he wisely concedes that they would not.
I'll let you into my mind as I planned out my interaction with RD.

When dealing with a trained obsfucator theologian, he may employ a vast array of tactics and techniques to evade answering difficult questions.

First, I set up a situation that mirrored, in every relevant way that I could imagine, a parallel religious belief to what RD believes. I also wanted to make that hypothetical belief be intentionally ridiculous. (I wanted motivation for RD to defend his cherished beliefs from being equated with nonsense.)

I proposed a hypothetical person, Bob, who followed a sort of reasoning to get to his religious beliefs.
Bob starts with something like the ontological argument, and believes that the most perfect being exists necessarily.
Bob, while sitting in his car at a stoplight, prays to Zeus to change the light to green. It eventually turns green.
Based on this evidence, Bob believes that Zeus is the perfect creator of the universe that necessarily exists.

I then asked RD whether his Christian beliefs were indistinguishably well-justified as Bob's belief in Zeus.

Why did I try this approach? Well, for one, I was hoping to actually get an account from a supposedly sophisticated believer about why he believes in specific supernatural claims. I actually thought that I might learn quite a bit from the guy. However, the other alternative is, failing that, I would have the admission from a professional theologian that his religious beliefs are as well justified as believing in Zeus because streetlights turn green.

Win-win for me as far as I could tell: I would either learn some impressive justification for Christian beliefs, or get an admission that Christianity is indistinguishably well-justified as pure nonsense.

The first hurdle, though, seemed to be that RD could not view this challenge as anything but a famous previous argument that has an answer written down somewhere. I honestly could not believe the answers that RD gave.

RD started with essentially: Ah, you must mean the famous argument from evil! -- Here is my response to that!

RD followed up with: Ah, you must mean the famous argument from arbitrary belief! -- Here is my response to that!

RD followed up with: Ah, you must mean the famous ontological argument applies to Zeus! -- Here is my response to that! (his actual quote from that one: "A being that owes its existence to other beings cannot be the being than which none greater can be conceived. Zeus owes his existence to other beings. Therefore, Zeus cannot be the being than which none greater can be conceived.")

Here is a representative note from me on August 17, 2009 -- Me: "... you have missed the question entirely. I was not asking if YOU would be equally well justified for believing in either Yahweh or Zeus; but whether bob-Zeus; you-Yahweh is as justifiable for each of you."

And again on August 20, 2009 -- Me: "In fact, you apparently cannot even distinguish the justification for your belief in Yahweh with Bob's belief in Zeus...And I beg you, if you believe that you have a slightly better justification than this, to state it."

And again on August 23, 2009 -- Me: "I am not asking you to believe in Zeus. I am not asking whether it makes sense for you to believe in Zeus. You have never prayed to Zeus for the light to turn green and witnessed the miracle. Thus, you do not have the same reasons as Bob to believe in Zeus -- I agree. I am talking about a guy, who believes that Zeus is the perfect creator of the universe because Zeus answers his prayers about street lights, and because Zeus punishes Christian churches. And I am asking whether you can come up with a defeater for his beliefs. And if not, to at least distinguish the justifications for each of your beliefs. Or, to admit that your Christian belief is indistinguishably well-justified as Bob's."

And yet still, on August 24, 2009 RD says: "ConverseAtheist has been hammering on this point for awhile now, focusing in particular on Zeus. That is, if I believe in the Christian God, why not believe in the Greek God as well? Or why not the Greek God instead of the Christian God? It would seem that from ConverseAtheist's perspective, the basic problem, I suppose, is arbitrariness."And then, after much arm-twisting, RD claims to have more justification that hypothetical Bob.

Ready?

Christian theologian's belief in Yahweh and his life and professional livelihood is more justifed than nonsense because of the following fact: the majority of people who do not believe in Zeus is larger than the majority of people who do not believe in Yahweh.

Take a second to let that sink in.

I asked whether I could use his reasoning as illustrative of the kind of thinking that gives intellectual vindication to Christian faith.

September 4th, Me: "I'm pleading with you to make the case to the ideal disinterested rational listener that your religious beliefs are more justified for you to believe than a person who thinks Zeus is the creator of the universe because the streetlights turn green when he prays to Zeus. Whatever you think an ideal disinterested rational listener should take into account as evidence, present that evidence as though he will take it into account."

I think this is a generally useful idea: write to what you expect would convince the ideal disinterested rational listener. It's win-win -- either you convince your primary target, or other rational people should be able to read the account for themselves and see that the primary is being irrational.

I continued: "When you mentioned that the majority of people who do not believe in Yahweh is not as large as the majority of people who do not believe in Zeus, I gained valuable insight into precisely what a professional theologian counts as a distinguishing justification for his personal religious beliefs over nonsense.

But -- and this is important -- you have free reign. List defeaters to this guy's Zeus beliefs. List evidence for your beliefs. Or not -- I personally do not have an opinion on this apriori. I want to see what you, a professional Christian theologian, think would count to a disinterested listener that is considering the justification that you have for your beliefs versus the justification a Zeus-believer has for his beliefs."

I was explicit in highlighting the fact that RD has free reign to call in whatever justification/evidence/whatever that he wants.

I finished: "I'm not asking you to convince this listener that one or the other has the correct beliefs. What evidence do you have that supports your personal belief? What do you think counts? What do you think counts in favor of your belief and against this hypothetical nonsense?"

Conclusion: A theologian apparently has an absolutely terrible time claiming justification for his religious beliefs from nonsense. The single justification that he claimed gave his Christian beliefs more validity than nonsense was to argue from popularity.

So far, RD has written 4 entries since that last comment and no response to me. I'll update this post if anything happens.

UPDATE:

You won't believe how RD responded to my entry...

Ok, so in this entry, I criticize RD for not responding to my challenge and insisting that I must be making some previously discredited 'famous argument'.

In fact, I list 3 times, where I say RD says, essentially, Ah, you must mean the famous argument ... blah blah blah!

Here is part of his response that he leaves in a comment on his blog: "To put it another way, it sounds like you are aiming for the Great Pumpkin reductio ad absurdum that Plantinga raised in "Reason and Belief in God" and which atheists like Michael Martin have since taken up."

Ha ha ha! I am meaning the famous reductio-ad-absurdum-argument-mentioned-by-Plantinga-and-which-Martin-has-defended! He guessed it, finally, after all these wrong guesses, he finally got the CORRECT famous atheist argument with a canned theist response! </mirth>

RD alludes to the great time and effort that I've put forward as though this interaction is work or something ... I'm having a blast. The only thing I'm regretting is having taken so long to find a theologian to debate!

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