Category Archives: Theism

The Catastrophe of Hugh Ross

Hugh Ross, the President and Founder of Reasons to Believe, was asked via Twitter “what specific observations could be made that would disprove the ‘creator’ claim?” His response was: “If observations proved beyond any doubt that the universe has no beginning of any kind, that would be catastrophic to Christianity. If observations proved we humans are fundamentally different from the rest of Earth’s life, that would be catastrophic.”

I confess I found his response false – indeed, demonstrably so – and, frankly, dangerous.

First: his claim is false. Suppose it was proven that the universe is past-eternal. How would this be catastrophic for Christianity? My twitter response to Ross was “I can hear the Thomists laughing their heads off.” What do Thomists have to do with it? Well, for centuries Thomists have made their case for the existence of God with arguments that do not presuppose that the universe had a beginning. Take Edward Feser as a modern example. His recent book “Five Proofs of the Existence of God” pretty much does exactly what is says on the tin. The reader will notice that each of these five arguments are utterly unaffected by whether or not the universe began to exist. Moreover, on the back of such arguments Feser defends certain attributes of God, such as: necessity, simplicity, eternity, immutability, omnipotence, omniscience, and others.

There are many other arguments for the existence of God: arguments from consciousness, design arguments, and moral arguments, for example. Very few of these arguments rely on a past-finite universe. In fact, the only argument that I can think of that would suffer utter catastrophe is the kalam cosmological argument, the second premise of which states “the universe began to exist.” It seems then that the case for God’s existence would emerge relatively unscathed.

The atoning death and resurrection of Christ are probably the next most crucial doctrines. How might a past-eternal universe affect them? Not even remotely, I think. There is nothing about the eternity of the universe that means Christ could not be incarnated at a certain place and a certain time in human history to live and die for the salvation of the world and rise again from the dead. Whatever one makes of the case for the resurrection of Christ made by scholars such as Richard Swinburne, NT Wright, William Lane Craig, or Gary Habermas, it seems difficult how it would be adversely affected by the past-eternity of the universe.

So, where is this catastrophe? The obvious doctrinal candidate is the doctrine of creation. Genesis 1:1 says “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Moreover, the Apostle’s Creed (which is one of the best statements of “mere Christianity”) contains the line “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Is a past-eternal universe catastrophic for these claims? Not at all. The doctrine of “creatio ex nihilo” would certainly go, but that’s about all, and that’s hardly a core Christian doctrine. There is no need to read Genesis 1:1 as a cosmological statement (and given the mythical nature of what follows, very unwise to do so). In fact, many Christians already resist doing so. Moreover, should the universe be past-eternal, that needn’t deny God the role of creator. As Feser’s arguments show, its existence is still radically dependent on God’s sustaining power to hold it in being. God remains the “creator of heaven and earth” in a very real sense: He upholds the universe, and is responsible for the existence of the entire creaturely realm. At worst, then, an unessential doctrine held by some Christians will require revision.

So, Ross is wrong, and demonstrably so, given that there already exist schools of Christian thought which have made their peace with the possibility that the universe is past-eternal. But Ross’s view is also dangerous. The best way to see this is by reference to evolution. Fierce battles concerning the truth or falsity of this theory have been fought since the 19th century, with many churchmen proclaiming the theory incompatible with biblical Christianity. Some fundamentalists – like Ken Ham – are still at it to this day. But here’s the problem: it isn’t, and not only have most Christian academics happily embraced evolution, some have even based theistic arguments on the back of its insights! Unfortunately, as the evidence for evolution added up over time, and as Western culture and society made their peace with it, the words of the churchmen still rang loudly in many people’s ears: “evolution is incompatible with Christianity.” The result was predictable: Christianity came to be viewed by many as contrary to known truths, and therefore not a serious option for thinking people. What a shame that was. Thank you, Mr Ham, and others of your ilk!

Ross risks a similar unnecessary outcome here. Whilst I agree with Ross that – quite probably – the universe is finite, that judgment is only provisional. It might easily be the case that the consensus will shift. Should that happen Ross might very well have caused an unnecessary rejection of Christian faith by those bumbling along in his wake, hanging the acceptability of their faith on whether or not the universe is past-eternal.

Given that there are well-established schools of Christian thought that are utterly unfazed by the possible past-eternity of the universe, Ross’s comments seem particularly reckless, or we might say: catastrophic.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Creation, Theism

What Would Convince You to Abandon Theism?

In his essay “Theology and Falsification”, Antony Flew asks: “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of God?” The context of the question is Flew’s contention that no matter what evidence comes their way theists will perform all manner of theological gymnastics rather than give up their belief. This, reckoned Flew, meant that their assertions concerning God were meaningless – they suffer “death by a thousand qualifications.” I’ve always thought Flew quite unfair to theists in this essay, but I find his question a fascinating one and so thought I’d give my own brief answer to it.

Firstly, it’s important to ask why a person believes in God in the first place. Someone might well believe God exists because of, say, a combination of the fine-tuning argument and the Kalam cosmological argument. Presumably if such a person was persuaded by good reason that both arguments are unsound then they would give up their theism. If they didn’t then it would seem that their belief wasn’t really based on such arguments after all. In any event, in cases like this there seems to be a fairly clear answer to Flew’s question. However, if theism isn’t so clearly based on some particular argument or group of arguments then the situation is much more complicated.

Whilst I believe that there are several arguments which clearly and strongly favour theism over atheism (in particular the contingency cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, and the anthropological argument from the nature of human beings as free, moral, conscious, rational persons), I can’t honestly say my theism rests on any of them. Should each of these arguments be defeated my theism wouldn’t necessarily crumble, (though it might weaken to the extent that these arguments offer some degree of confirmation). So, why do I believe in God? What does ground my theism? To be honest, I don’t really know. The common wisdom is that human beings arrive at their beliefs after a process of rational thought. Each of us, so the story goes, examines the various live options vying for our assent and weigh the evidence, discarding what doesn’t measure up, and accepting what does. It’s like a man wandering around a supermarket. He picks up various items and, after making a decision, either puts them back on the shelf or puts them into the trolley for the check-out. I don’t think belief primarily works this way. Believing this or that is typically a more passive exercise than the supermarket model. To a great extent we simply find ourselves with certain beliefs, or forming certain beliefs under specific circumstances. Our minds – the beliefs we hold as well as the processes we go through to arrive at them – are conditioned by many factors largely beyond our direct control: culture, society, upbringing, peer pressure, psychological make-up, character, temperament, desires, and all manner of accidents of life. These processes are whizzing away in our minds forming beliefs, and removing others, and often quite apart from our rational awareness. We thus find ourselves with all manner of beliefs without trying: I had boiled eggs for breakfast, my son is 9 years old, the earth is round, the battle of Hastings took place in 1066, Leibniz believed the world was the best possible, trafficking of human beings for sex against their will is immoral, Jupiter has 67 moons. Some beliefs are based on memory, some on testimony; others are based on perceptual experience or a sense of right and wrong that is difficult to define. We can of course challenge these beliefs. My friend might tell me that he remembers an astronomer telling him Jupiter has 63 moons. This might prompt me to check the matter out and adjust my belief if necessary.

Let’s then apply this to my theism. For whatever reason, I find myself with belief in God. The existence of God seems obvious to me as I contemplate the universe and reflect on life. Perhaps this is due to what Calvin called a “sensus divinitatis,” or perhaps it is due to the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.” Atheists might prefer to think of it as little more than a psychological quirk at best, or at worst a delusion. Whatever the cause, my theism is there as a fundamental part of my noetic structure, and a crucial part of how I make sense of the world around me. It isn’t very easy to spell out the circumstances under which I might give up my theism. However, there are a few candidates for defeaters.

Firstly, if someone produced a convincing argument that the concept of God was incoherent, then that would be the most likely case which would cause me to abandon theism. There have been a few attempts in the history of philosophy to produce such an argument, but none has as yet come close. However, if anyone succeeded then I suspect my noetic apparatus would respond by abandoning theism.

Secondly, and particularly in relation to my theism being specifically Christian, should historians ever show that Jesus did not in fact exist, or that the resurrection was a cooked up myth (perhaps by finding conclusive historical documents of some sort) then I would abandon specifically Christian theism. Since Christianity makes a number of unique historical claims, it is always open to historical disproof.

These two are the surest cases under which my beliefs about God would not survive, but there are other instances which might well threaten my theism. For instance, suppose I suffer a catastrophic illness, or witness a close family relative going through such trauma. This could well dissolve my theism. I don’t mean that I would give up my belief in such circumstances because I think that under them the problem of evil would suddenly appear cogent. I’m simply observing that under such circumstances many people have lost their belief in God, and that it isn’t implausible to think that the same could happen to me. Of course, it could equally happen that under such circumstances my belief would end up much more steadfast and sure. How could we ever know how our minds would respond under such life-changing circumstances?

I have already alluded to the fact that beliefs can be modified or ditched in the light of evidence and rational scrutiny. However, this is easier with respect to some beliefs than others. Let’s compare belief in God with the belief that Jupiter has 67 moons. Belief in God has a certain feature that beliefs such as “Jupiter has 67 moons” do not have. Philosophers call this feature the “depth of ingression.” This is the degree to which a belief can be given up without significant reverberations throughout the rest of our noetic structure. Some beliefs are central, others peripheral. Whether or not Jupiter has 67 moons doesn’t matter much. I could give it up without any further noetic consequences. Belief in God is not typically like that. It occupies a far more central place. My theism colours – or even determines – what I believe about many other (incredibly important) things: moral value, freedom, the nature of humankind, or what a good life is, to name just a few. In fact, belief in God can occupy such a central place that it becomes a normative belief – part of the standard by which we measure other beliefs. So, take the following anti-theistic argument from evil:

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
(2) Gratuitous evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

A theist who entertains this argument might very well doubt premise (2) simply because “God exists” + (1) have so much warrant for them that (2) cannot be seriously considered. Of course, this doesn’t mean belief in God can never be overturned, for it could be by an argument which contains premises with at least as much warrant as theism. What it does mean is that it’s very easy to see why giving up one belief is a more complex affair than giving up another, and that it isn’t always easy to spell out the circumstances under which we would reject a belief the origin of which is exceedingly complex, and which occupies a central place in our noetic structure. Those who lose their belief in God tend to undergo a “paradigm shift,” a huge change in their noetic structure that often takes either a life-changing event (like a catastrophic illness), or a long time (as we see from deconversion stories) to take effect.

In my case, whilst there are circumstances in which I can imagine losing my belief in God, I suspect it is highly unlikely that I ever will.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Antony Flew, Belief, God, Theism

Message to Young Apologists, or Letter to my Younger Self

I remember the excitement of first getting into apologetics. I was in my late teens and had just given a rather ropey performance in a debate about the existence of God with an atheist friend who had studied some philosophy during his first year at university. I thought I’d better read up on the matter, so off I trotted to the local Christian bookstore, where after browsing a few shelves of apologetics books I came across a small plainly bound black book called “The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe” by some guy called William Lane Craig. I bought it and devoured it, reading it over and over and committing the main lines of the argument to memory. This was the first time I had ever read a philosophical defence of the existence of God, and I was hooked.

I began to find other books – taking a keen interest in teleological and cosmological arguments in particular. Soon, I was studying philosophy of religion academically through my degree programme and began writing papers and essays (often for fun, not just for assignments) on many of the arguments for the existence of God. I also took to debating in internet chat rooms with (as I then saw) idiot atheists who were too stupid to see that God’s existence was obvious, and too thick-headed to grasp my wonderfully crafted (plagiarized) theistic arguments.

In short, I had become an arrogant young apologist. True enough (as the Bible points out), knowledge puffs up. I was often disrespectful, condescending, patronising, and, frankly, an insufferable arrogant ass. Sadly my case is not an isolated one. I have a far more modest assessment of theistic arguments these days, and finally came to admit that my faith didn’t – and never did – rest on any of them. But I still see my younger self out there on the internet, arrogantly bludgeoning atheists with apologetic arguments – calling all those who don’t see or admit the obvious truth of God’s existence either thick or dishonest.

Here’s my message to my younger self:

Keep in mind that few arguments for any philosophically significant conclusion is so obvious that those who don’t accept it are either stupid or wicked. There are usually thorny philosophical problems lurking in the background of any neat little argument. Take the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) that had me enamoured for years. It’s beautiful in its simplicity – three short premises and BOOM! we have proved the existence of God. Regrettably the simplicity is merely prima facie simplicity. There are many issues and assumptions lying behind the KCA. For instance, it relies on the A-Theory of time being correct – that temporal becoming is a feature of reality. If the B-Theory is correct then the KCA cannot succeed. Many of those who triumphantly proclaim the KCA as a clear proof aren’t even aware of these different views of time. Personally I prefer the A-Theory, but it’s probably a minority view in both philosophy and physics. This fact alone should be caution against using the KCA as a clear proof of God. It simply isn’t.

The same goes for any other theistic argument. They are always more contentious than young apologists typically realise. This doesn’t mean, of course, that theistic arguments are of no value. There are several which I think do lend some degree of evidence to theism: I particularly like the Leibnizian contingency argument, the fine tuning argument, and cumulative case arguments from the nature of humankind as conscious, rational, free agents with moral obligations. But none of these is obviously conclusive, and it’s important to see that when anyone examines an argument their current worldview forms part of the lens through which they see it.

Which brings me to my second point: remember that the vast majority of Christians do not come to faith as a result of apologetic arguments. Sure, we know of several high profile cases of thinkers who changed their mind for evidential reasons – CS Lewis, Antony Flew, Lee Strobel, or Alister McGrath – but most of us who give a positive appraisal of apologetic arguments are already Christians or theists. So, to you young apologists pushing your apologetic wares all over hyperspace, take note that most of you didn’t come to believe because of the arguments you now offer to your atheist interlocutors. Like me you probably discovered these arguments as a theist. Most of us – theist and atheist alike – are not the wholly rational creatures we like to portray ourselves as. Many proclaim to be objectively following the evidence wherever it leads, but very few are really doing anything of the sort. Many are, as William James pointed out, simply reorganising their prejudices. We are, for better or worse, heavily influenced by social, cultural, and psychological factors which greatly shape who we are, how we think, what background beliefs we hold, and what strikes us as plausible or implausible. This is why highly intelligent people can look at the same body of evidence and come to radically different conclusions.

Which brings me to my third point: keep in mind that no matter how smart you think you are there is someone smarter who disagrees with you. As a theist it should be humbling to recall the names of atheists or sceptics such as philosophers JL Mackie, Michael Martin, JL Schellenberg, Graham Oppy, WV Quine, Paul Draper, William Rowe, Kai Nielson; or scientists like Stephen Hawking, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, Alan Guth, John Nash, Peter Higgs……. When you’re tempted to consider an atheist too stupid to grasp your neat apologetic argument please recall any of these names; the philosophers listed have a sounder grasp of the philosophical issues at stake than you do, and likewise the scientists have a sounder grasp of the scientific issues. None of these can plausibly be written off as ill-informed or wicked.

The more observant reader will detect a common theme here: show a bit of intellectual humility. Ultimate issues are tricky and contentious with plenty of room for honest, rational disagreement. Accepting this fact will make you engagements with the “other side” a little bit sweeter. After all, did you ever hear a former atheist say, “I came to faith thanks to a smarter-than-thou theist who patronised and berated me with genius apologetic arguments”? No, you don’t, so stop doing that.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Apologetics, Atheism, Theism

Are There Any Genuine Christians: An Argument Ad Masturbatum

In my previous article I considered a very widespread belief amongst Christians that there is no such thing as an honest atheist – that all atheists deep down know there is a God and knowingly reject their creator because they desire a life of sin. In this article I want to examine the flip-side charge from some atheists: that there are no genuine Christians. Sometimes this takes the form of an exclamation: “surely you can’t believe that a dead guy rose again from the dead!” On other occasions it’s the old psychological claim that Christians are simply engaged in wishful thinking rather than genuine belief. But here I want to consider an actual argument, which I’ve chosen to call the “argument ad masturbatum,” the reason for which will become obvious.

Take some ordinary Christian – we’ll call him Bob. Bob is a single man in his 20s, active in church, evangelises his friends, and has just signed up for an apologetics course. However, Bob has a little secret that he hopes is never found out. He engages in regular masturbation. Obviously he doesn’t do this in the back pew on a Sunday morning or while he’s waiting for his groceries to be bagged. Nor would he do it in the presence of his mother or an officer of the law. It’s in the dark of night, when no-one is around, that he finds himself overrun by sexual images in his imagination and engages in masturbation.

What has this to do with God? Well, Bob wouldn’t engage in masturbation in the presence of other people. He’d die of embarrassment if his mother walked into his room and saw him. However, Bob professes to believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, and personal God. So, if he wouldn’t masturbate in the presence of his mother, why does he do it in the presence of God, who he claims disapproves of his actions? Is it not the case that whilst he claims to believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, personal being, he actually holds no such belief? If Bob really believed what he claims to believe, then he wouldn’t even masturbate in private; since, obviously, if such a being exists there isn’t a private place at all.

Despite the rather juvenile nature of this argument, it does make a more general point. There are many cases when Christians engage in behaviour that they surely wouldn’t engage in if they really believed God was present and fully cognizant of what they do. So, would we so easily lose our temper with the seemingly incompetent shop assistant if Jesus was right there physically beside us? Would we engage in harmful gossip if God’s presence was manifest suddenly in our midst? And yet, don’t Christians claim to believe God is indeed present all the time? Don’t our actions in hundreds of situations betray our actual unbelief despite what we claim?

It’s a neat little argument. A little too neat, I think. The argument ignores some crucial features of how humans hold knowledge and beliefs, in particular the relative strength of the belief in question and the fact that many of our beliefs rarely enter our conscious awareness. Our minds are complex things, caverns holding a depository of fact, memories, beliefs and values. Millions of pieces of information are crammed between our ears in complex arrangements. However, the vast majority of it simply sits in there without ever flitting into our conscious awareness. Take my belief that “Paris is the capital city of France.” Until 10 seconds ago that belief wasn’t in my sphere of conscious awareness. It was somewhere within my cavernous brain, hidden away until I recalled it for the purposes of making an illustration in this article. However, it’s true to say that “Paris is the capital city of France” is a belief I hold even when I’m not consciously aware of it (which is most of my waking life). We find the same thing when we sit to watch a quiz show. We hear a question, and if the answer is hidden away in our mind somewhere it will hopefully spring back into our sphere of conscious awareness so we can answer. Sometimes we can’t get the answer but we know it’s in there somewhere. When we then hear the answer we might claim in frustration, “I knew that!” Again, I might be asked to make an exhaustive list of all the insects I know of. When I submit my list it might well be the case that an entomologist can name a few species I didn’t include in my “exhaustive” list but which I did in fact know about (eg, pond-skaters). These examples illustrate that our minds can contain lots of beliefs and pieces of knowledge that don’t constantly sit in our sphere of conscious awareness. They flit in and out, and sometimes we struggle to recall them at all.

It is this feature of our minds that helps to explain the seeming disconnect between Bob’s proclaimed beliefs and his actions. So, in the dark of night, Bob isn’t thinking about God. This belief – like his belief that Paris is the capital of France – is sitting somewhere else in his mind, dormant and forgotten. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe it. He does. When asked for his thoughts about God, his belief will come whizzing back into his consciousness as he confirms his acceptance of it as true. Moreover, look also at the nature of God compared to the nature of Bob’s mother. Bob’s mother is a physical being and should she enter the room her presence forces itself upon Bob’s conscious awareness. However, God is incorporeal and invisible. His presence is not manifest to Bob’s consciousness a lot of the time. So, the belief that God is present is not as obvious to Bob as the belief that his mother is present.

This failure to live in the conscious awareness of God’s presence is perhaps what ultimately lies at the root of what Christians call sin. The process of sanctification is thus a process by which we live more and more in the conscious awareness of God’s presence (and hence sin less). Bob, like most Christians, has only made very limited progress in that direction. He often forgets God in his day to day living, in the same way that all of us “forget” most of the things we know or believe as we go about our day to day routines. Moreover, Bob’s belief in God isn’t certain. Like all of us we believe the things we do to a greater or lesser degree, and most of the things we believe are held to some degree of probability rather than certainty. Where our belief is stronger, we are perhaps more aware of God throughout our lives.

It seems to me, therefore, that Bob’s actions do not at all negate his confessed beliefs. Instead they testify to the level of his conscious awareness of God and the degree of his belief.

And so I end this article the way I ended the companion article about honest atheists: with an appeal to the principle of charity. In any discussion we should always do our interlocutor the courtesy such that when they tell us they believe this or that we simply believe them and proceed on the basis that what they tell us is indeed an honest account of their epistemic situation. Only by doing so can we hope to have a productive discussion about the relative merits or demerits of the belief in question. Failing to embrace this principle will leave us toying with unhelpful psychoanalysis which is patronising, self-righteous, and waste of time.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Belief, Faith, Theism

Conversion – Deconversion – Reconversion: The Stories

John’s story

I was a believing evangelical Christian until I was around 29 years old. I was a trustee in my church and an active volunteer (sound guy) for 8 years before I deconverted and became an atheist.

Even though I’m straight and have been happily married for over a decade, homosexuality was the initial cause for my deconversion. I have two gay friends, a couple which were recently married now that it’s legal. Back when I was a believer, the fact that I could see that my friends were very clearly in love stood out to me as something that contradicted the bible. I had to either accept that their love was wrong or that the bible was wrong, and I could not call their love wrong. Worse than that, I accepted my friends accounts that this is simply how they were and that their relationship made them happy. They didn’t choose to have their attractions any more than I chose mine. This caused a problem because I also had to accept that they were going to hell according to my faith.

That lead to questioning how a loving god who created everything could morally create a place of eternal conscious torture, knowing that a majority of creation would be condemned to it. In that situation, the only moral option is to simply not create anything. Theodicies where the reprobate is seen as being necessary for the elect to get into heaven made god into more of a monster.

This lead to questioning why I believed in a god in the first place. I realized I’d never seriously asked myself that question before. I was born into a Catholic family that converted Baptist when I was 9. I was taught Jesus was the son of god the same time I was taught water was wet and that 2+2=4. God was axiomatic, not the conclusion of an investigation. I realized I had no reason to believe.
That was when I started to devour apologetics, trying to cobble my faith back together for the sake of my marriage and family. I found nothing convincing. Worse, as an engineer by training I found science being misrepresented in many cosmological arguments. I was disgusted by the aura of certainty that was used to present arguments I found to be based on flimsy metaphysical assumptions that often defy our best scientific understanding of reality. When I read attempts to reconcile apparent contradictions in the bible or things in the bible that were scientifically proven false, I found the interpretations to be tortured and/or ad hoc. If anything apologetics cemented my apostasy and my atheism.

Fortunately for me eventually my wife also deconverted. Almost exactly nine months after that our daughter was born. I’m currently happier than I’ve ever been in my life and I consider myself lucky to have escaped religion.

Jenny’s Story

I can’t say I was an aggressive atheist. Whilst I didn’t believe in God, I wasn’t particularly interested in examining the evidence of God’s existence. If He existed, well, He knew where to find me. But, I wasn’t going to hold my breath either. What got me wondering about God and the purpose of existence was the death of my friend Lizzie. Lizzie and I were inseparable from childhood. Then she got sick and died suddenly from meningitis. I sat at her funeral and somehow couldn’t get my head around the fact that someone so alive could just not be there anymore. And then I examined my atheism and saw that if it was true then all exists for no reason and comes to nothing. Life just seemed more significant than that. And so for the first time I wondered was there maybe a God. I came across many different arguments, but none finally convinced me. I guess what moved me to theism was opening my eyes to the world in a new way. I began to “see” or “perceive” a creator in the natural world around me. The atheist view just seemed so incredible. That everything just came from nothing by nothing and for nothing. I couldn’t accept that, and to be honest I didn’t want to either.

Daniel’s Story

I am no longer Christian in any straightforward sense of the word. How could I be? I had trouble connecting to people, let alone a personal God who wasn’t even in front of me. I am an “Aspie;” I am on the Autism Spectrum. Of course now, I know that there are other theologies that put less stress on a personal God, i.e. Paul Tillich’s ‘ground of being’ or the impersonal ordering of the cosmos that the Chinese call T’ien (Heaven). And I am drawn to these more than I am to a personal God.

However, at this point there are so many different conceptions of God that I don’t think I can have any epistemological certainty about God, be it God’s existence or qualities. This does not fully explain it though, as I believe that belief in God is not primarily what religion is about. To me religion is about a community that shares beliefs and rituals– that is community is primary and belief is secondary. However, I am generally leery of tight knit groups who think and do the same things, perhaps also partly due to Asperger’s.

Joseph’s Story

Conversion is a tricky thing. As most people who have attempted to write their conversion story know, to try and put it into words and explain why one converted (or in my case, reverted) inevitably falls short. With that being said, as one ought to do before any essay, I beg forgiveness.

I shall admit that this isn’t my first time writing my “reversion story.” I’ve written multiple before this, and – the funny thing is – they never end up being the same. That I know. What I also know from past experience is this: that writing of this article won’t be me simply reciting reasons that I am already aware of as to why I am a Catholic, but rather, it will be a way – as a sort of self-examination – for me to actually figure out said prompt for myself.

A couple of days ago, I was reading Augustine’s sermon on Psalm 41, and this passage stuck out for me:

“It was thus that while admiring the members of the tabernacle, he was lead unto the house of God – by following a certain delight, an inward mysterious and hidden pleasure, as if some instrument sounded sweetly from the house of God. While he was walking in the tabernacle, he heard this inward sound; he was led on by its sweetness, and following the guidance of the sound and withdrawing himself from all noises of flesh and blood, he made his way even to the house of God.”

For in many ways, this short little passage encapsulates the whole of my reversion. To say anymore would be to risk over-complication; but – so as to not short change the reader – I shall continue.
Balthasar, in the first volume of his magisterial Glory of the Lord trilogy, says that:

“It is not dry manuals (full as these may be of unquestionable truths) that plausibly express to the world the truth of Christ’s Gospel, but the existence of the saints, who have been grasped by Christ’s Holy Spirit. And Christ himself foresaw no other kind of apologetics.”

I concur.

What lead me back into the confessional and “unto the house of God” wasn’t the discovery of any new, novel arguments put forward by an “apologist”, but rather it was the “sweetness” of the saints. Anything else, in Balthasar terminology, would be to collapse revelation into “a set of ‘propositions’” to be “established as ‘reasonable’ by an extrinsic principle.” The universalizing tendency latent with the Enlightenment ‘reason’ must simply, pace Romans 14:11, bow its knee to the self-revealing glory of the Lord: the truest of universalisms. Much like a work of art, the glory of revelation needs no further justification outside of itself. Revelation’s gestalt is it’s own raison d’être, subsuming everything into itself. And, as for us, living as we do over two thousand after Christ, the glory of the Lord is precisely revealed through the Holy Spirit working through and within the lives of the saints.

As Balthasar said: “Christ himself foresaw no other kind of apologetics.”

And with that being said, I shall spare you of the particulars, with the exception of three words: Thérèse of Lisieux.

Kate’s Story

My atheism was dogmatic, but utterly unexamined. I remember arguing once with a Christian friend and I was furious at completely losing the argument, and my temper. My problem, as I came to see, maybe wasn’t that I disbelieved in God, but rather than I resented Him for bad life experiences! But who knows! But as I came to critical assess the case for God I found the evidence overwhelming. The main considerations for me were: that something like our universe should exist as a “brute fact” was simply unbelievable; that it should just pop into existence from nothing and for no reason was surely impossible; that life should then just develop by chance from non-living matter calls for extreme credulity. Moreover, when I considered the complexity of life and the fine-tuned conditions of the cosmos that allowed it to develop, atheism struck me as untenable. And that was before I discovered the problems atheism has accounting for morality, consciousness, free will, and personhood. In short: theism makes sense of the world in which I live – atheism just doesn’t, and so I couldn’t remain an atheist.

Nathan’s Story

From the time I was a young child until I was out of high school, I went to church nearly every week. I was never made to go to church once I was old enough to reasonably make that decision, but I enjoyed almost everything about it. I liked the sermons, I liked the singing, and I really liked the people. My church was a small Brethren church in a tiny farm town, so everybody knew each other and it was a pretty tight knit community. It was a fairly moderate church, no speaking in tongues or fire and brimstone. I was heavily involved with our youth group as a teen, and even attended ‘Acquire The Fire’ a few times.

Once I started college, I didn’t attend church as often, but I never really had my faith challenged too seriously during my undergrad studies. While working on my MBA, I had a job with a lot of downtime and decided that I wanted to read more often. At the time, my view on evolution was best described as an old earth creationist who believed in some “microevolution”. A few conversations I had with a friend made me realize that I was pretty ignorant about evolution, which sparked my curiosity. I read books specifically on human evolution at first because that’s what conflicted with my faith, but then began to read material that dealt more with the details and the process of evolution. This is when doubts about my faith started to creep in. I never had a problem accepting that Noah’s Ark or some of the other Bible stories were probably a myth or fable to teach a lesson, but if the whole creation story is a myth, why should I believe in any of it?

I hung on by a thread for a while as I read books in other areas of science which continued to chisel away at my belief in the God of the Bible. Up until this point, I was primarily reading material dealing with science and not really getting into the arguments for or against God. Eventually though, I started listening to debates and reading arguments for atheism. I found myself agreeing with the arguments for atheism and against theism most of the time, and I eventually realized that I was only holding on to any belief in God for emotional reasons even though I really no longer believed. Atheism was always a dirty word to me, and it took another year after I stopped believing to actually identify as an atheist.

I hate the stereotype that as an atheist, I must have had a bad experience in church, or that I am being rebellious. I have nothing but good memories from my time in church. I still admire the community aspect of it, how when someone is sick or in trouble, people are there to help without question. There are no bad experiences at church that I have to share, and anyone who knows me would laugh at the suggestion that I’m rebellious. I just simply no longer believe that God is needed as an explanation for our existence.

Johnny’s Story

I was raised in a Christian household. I was taught to believe by blind faith and thought that’s what everyone did. We just picked which beliefs to hold to, I thought, and lived by them. So that’s how I lived up until just a few years ago. I had never much questioned my beliefs, except maybe here and there when instances of evil popped up, until a friend that I met online challenged me by asking some tough questions. He was going through his own personal deconversion and was seeking answers – answers that I didn’t have. I did what every anti-intellectual would do. I ran to the Christian apologetic sites on Google and responded to him with the first things I saw. The confirmation bias in me held onto anything that would conform to my predispositions. And this, rather ironically now that I reflect on it, is how my intellectual journey began.

I started buying all of the popular apologetics books by William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Alister McGrath, Ed Feser, John Lennox, etc. I especially became familiar with some of the work of Gary Habermas, Michael Licona, Larry Hurtado, Craig Evans, and Craig Blomberg. I even attended a semester of Bible college, and this is where I started losing confidence in the Christian worldview.

I spent about two years in Christian apologetics. I attended the Bible college not even a year ago today. My journey to doubt began around this time. As a side interest, I would study biology (which I am now majoring in at Winthrop University). I couldn’t help but be troubled by the horrendous evils founded throughout the history of life on Earth. Life began looking a lot more like the products of the tinkering of nature rather than the carefully crafted works of the Divine hands of a Maximally Intelligible and all-loving being. To give one example that I’ve been troubled with lately, and an issue I’ll be researching later in my academic career: In our DNA, we have regions that code for proteins that are responsible for suppressing tumors. It just so happens that the chemical structure of these regions of DNA make them highly susceptible to being silenced by a process called DNA methylation (you don’t have to know what this is to get my point here). Of course, if the genes are silenced, they can’t do their job of suppressing tumors. What sort of intelligible creator, out of the very depths of his all-loving heart and omniscient mind, makes His children in such a way as to be perfectly vulnerable to cancer? Not only are we perfectly made for cancer, we are also perfectly made for about 6,000+ other SINGLE-gene diseases that are founded in about 24% of our ~25,000 genes. Now, this is just a few instances of evil that seemed very much gratuitous. The evolutionary picture of life painted by the vast amounts of data from the life sciences portrays nothing but a picture of these horrendous evils and indifference. Now, I didn’t expect that God would create some hedonic Utopia, but I did figure he would reduce suffering as much as possible and only allow evils that were necessary to either prevent worse evils or bring about greater goods. I find it awfully hard to believe that every instance of horrendous, seemingly gratuitous evil is necessary for the obtaining of such conditions. The issue is that an all-loving Creator would not allow such gratuitous evil and since I’ve concluded that many of these seemingly gratuitous evils are very most likely actually gratuitous, the conclusion that follows is that an all-loving Creator very probably doesn’t exist.

That being said, the evidential problem of evil was not the biggest stumbling block for me. I was still trying to hold on to my Christian worldview. I was definitely emotionally attached. “What about all of the good arguments for God’s existence?” I kept asking myself. The more I studied them, the less compelling they became. The meta-ethical argument presented by William Lane Craig, for example, began to look like an awful argument as I become familiar with reasons why many reject the argument. I actually became unconvinced of every argument I once thought was virtually indisputable – the cosmological arguments, the design arguments, etc. . . I even became convinced that verifying a miracle via historical methodology is out of our epistemic capacities.

I was in a position where I was beginning to see good reason to affirm the nonexistence of God and I was left in the dark for compelling arguments for the existence of God. I was left with nothing but the hopes of hearing the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, this is what one ought to expect when they are in tears crying out to God for spiritual confirmation. I’ve checked myself over. I’ve admitted that I may be wicked in His eyes -essentially undeserving if that so be the case. I’ve admitted that maybe I’m entirely wrong in my assessment of the fundamental nature of reality and maybe there will be a day I stand before the Divine, despite my current unbelief. If He is there and created me to know Him, there I was then, and here I am still. I’m still waiting for that inner confirmation or some intellectual spark that I’ve missed. I’ve cried out. I’ve repented. I’ve prayed. I’ve acknowledged that I may be unrighteous when compared to a perfect being, and I’ve asked to be accepted and transformed. I’ve sought God in every venue of life. God was nowhere to be found. So, as of now, I am intellectually inclined to disbelieve.


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Conversion – Deconversion – Reconversion: An Introduction

Conversion and Deconversion stories have fascinated me for a long time. All stories are unique, and yet there are often common themes that occur. The main reason for my interest in such stories lies in the fact that it is rare to find people changing their position entirely on some matter of ultimate importance. Many of the people I knew 20 years ago still hold the same views and opinions today as they did back then. Not only do people rarely change their minds on big issues, movement on smaller issues is often lacking also. As we grow older perhaps we become more set in our ways. It’s little surprise then that the vast majority of people appear to make their minds up about religion in their teens and don’t change their mind as they get older. This is a fact well known by religious evangelists, hence the massive stress on youth work in many churches and religious organisations, often to the detriment or neglect of the middle-aged and elderly. It is a well-known Jesuit maxim (though the saying, or something like it, originates with Aristotle): “Give me a child until he is 7, and I’ll give you the man.” As true as this might generally be, there are a few brave souls who go into reverse as they get older. They reject their earlier belief/unbelief, changing their minds about an issue of ultimate importance. Their stories are worth hearing. What is it that causes people to make such a radical U-turn?

There are, of course, a few famous examples. For instance, we might think of my fellow native of Belfast C.S. Lewis. Lewis believed the evidence for the existence of God too strong to ignore, but admitted to being a most reluctant convert. We might also think of more recent examples. Probably two of the most well-known are those of the former atheist journalist Lee Strobel, and the atheist-philosopher turned deist/theist Antony Flew. Lee Strobel worked as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune and after the conversion of his wife he decided to look into the truth claims of Christianity. After several years of sifting through the evidence Strobel himself converted to Christian and is now one of the most influential popular-level apologists in the world. He recounts his journey from atheism to theism in a number of books, chiefly: The Case for a Creator, The Case for Christ, and The Case for Faith.

Antony Flew was one of the most distinguished philosophers of religion and one of the foremost voices for philosophical atheism for the vast majority of his academic career. Then, towards the end of his life, there were rumours that he was moving towards theism. These rumours were affirmed when he published his book “There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.” In this book Flew lays out a number of pieces of evidence which convinced him that some sort of creator exists. Whilst not embracing Christian Theism Flew indicated that he regarded NT Wright’s case for the resurrection as the best there is in print, and hinted that he was moving in this direction in his thinking. Some skeptics were, well, skeptical. Many saw this not as a genuine conversion but simply an old man hedging his bets in his dotage as death beckoned. Others believed that his book had not properly reflected Flew’s own thoughts, but rather those of Roy Abraham Varghese, a theist philosopher who did most of the actual writing of the book. Flew denied that this was the case, but many still believe his mental state at the time was such that he was exploited. Seemingly conversion & deconversion stories can raise strong feelings!

On the other side one of the best known deconversions that I’m aware of is that of Jonathan Edwards, the British Olympic gold medallist triple-jumper. Once upon a time Edwards even refused to compete on a Sunday due to his religious convictions. Today he is an atheist who claims not to miss his faith, and that he is happier without it. Edwards even speaks of looking back at his time as a Christian with an acute sense of embarrassment at how judgmental and even “scary” he considers himself to have been.

That such radical changes can occur in people really grabs my attention. Why did they change? Were there arguments that lead to the change? What other life experiences were they going through that pushed them to make such a radical turn-around?

And so I thought I’d collect a number of brief stories – of conversion, deconversion, and reconversion – to give a flavour of what’s going on in the minds of people who radically change their worldview. I don’t offer these stories up for critique or refutation. They are brief, and there’s far more that each person could say about their own life and how their decision panned out the way it did. We are creatures of narrative and often decisions we make one day have been years in the making, involving a complex of rational, psychological, social, and cultural factors. I’m grateful for the people who came forward to state an incredibly complex situation into a few hundred words.

I never edit or screen comments, but I’ve decided on this occasion not to accept critical comments on anyone’s particular story. They are intended only to give (all too) brief snapshots of the goings-on in the minds of people who “repent” of their former selves. Their purpose is to inform rather than provoke critique.

So as not to take away from the stories themselves, I intend to post them separately from this introduction:

Stephen J. Graham


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Is Experience of Evil a Defeater for Theism?

I’ve never been much impressed by atheistic arguments from evil. I’ve written quite a few articles in the past year on the problem of evil and in the coming months plan to analyse what I think are two of the best arguments: those offered by William Rowe and Paul Draper. What strikes me is just how difficult it is to formulate a good argument against the existence of God from the facts of evil or suffering. A large part of the problem – as I hope to show in forthcoming articles – is that often these arguments try to produce defeaters by pointing out certain probabilistic relationships between certain propositions about God and the facts of suffering. However, defeaters very rarely proceed by way of a person becoming aware of probabilistic relationships between propositions.

In any event, even if I’m right about this (and there are those who disagree with me. Shocking, I know), that does not mean that evil and suffering isn’t a problem of some kind. In fact, I think it’s arguably the most troubling feature of the world that theism must face. But precisely what sort of challenge is it if not, say, a probabilistic one? If there is (as I think) no good argument, in what way is evil still a problem?

We could note perhaps that evil might make the theist angry with God, or make Him seem far and distant. Note those passages in Job where God seems to have become entirely mysterious to Job, and Job demands that God appear and justify Himself, and, more importantly to Job, exonerate him. Or perhaps we might think of those Psalms expressing anger towards God for some state of affairs. And then of course there are those haunting words of Christ himself on the cross: “My God, My God why have you forsaken me.” All of these show that evil and suffering can indeed be a problem for the theist as he or she wrestles with God. However, in such cases there is no hint that evil was a threat to the person’s theism. All of those in question remained staunchly theistic.

But, isn’t there a stronger threat to theism from our experience or awareness of evil and suffering? Might not one’s experience of suffering in the world provide a defeater for theism? Think of all the most horrific evils or instances of suffering in the world. We might think of those mentioned by Dostoevsky’s Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov, hideous cruelties human beings inflict on each other: “People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts: a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel.” Here Ivan is referring to people being nailed to wooden posts by their ears and left overnight before being killed, and cases where babies are thrown into the air and caught on the end of spears in front of their parents. We might also think of the cruelties inflicted on human beings by the natural world: from parasites that gradually eat away the insides of the eyes causing blindness, to the pains and indignities caused by conditions such as motor neurone disease. Further, we might reflect on a figure pointed out by Stephen Law in his debate with William Lane Craig: “for almost the entire two hundred thousand year sweep of human history, one third to a half of each generation died, usually horribly, before reaching their fifth birthday.” Or we might be cognizant of the wanton destruction in the animal world: from hyena’s who begin to eat their prey before killing it, to the wanton destruction by wasps attacking bee colonies and tearing the heads off all the bees.

Some instances of suffering are so abominable that it seems inappropriate and downright callous to use them in cool philosophical discourse. When brought face-to-face with such things wouldn’t a rational person simply see that there cannot be a God such as Christians believe in? True enough, perhaps he cannot demonstrate this with a cogent philosophical argument of some kind; he or she might even concede that there is indeed no good probabilistic or evidential argument at all. But still, he might insist, isn’t it just obvious that a being such as God wouldn’t permit such things?

The idea here is that a person who is fully aware and properly attuned to the horrors of the world will simply see – or perceive – or something like that – that such a being as God would not, if He existed, permit it. We might call this phenomenon a “sensus deus absconditus.” In the same way as Calvin spoke of a sensus divinitatis bringing people to perceive the existence of God in the absence of any argument, so, it might be claimed, no argument is needed. (Of course, if Christianity is true a sensus divinitatis makes winsome sense, but on atheism what would account for a sensus deus absconditus?) Our atheistic objector might say something like: “just open your eyes, drink in the sheer horror of reality, the utter loathsomeness of so much of earthly existence.” He might even think that giving arguments from evil is counter-productive, diverting our attention away from all the blood and pain and towards a piece of arcane reasoning. Giving philosophical arguments, it might be said, keeps our attention off the very realities that constitute a defeater for belief in God.

Is there really a defeater here? The answer is “yes” and “no.” The thing about defeaters is that they are relative to a given noetic structure. Whether something is a defeater for some belief I hold will depend on my other beliefs, and how strongly I hold them, as well as my background experiences. Thus, viewing the loathsome evils of the world might be enough to defeat X’s belief in God, but not Y’s. (I’m ignoring the complication that A can defeat B for person S without really being a defeater for B at all).

However, there is a more important point to be made here. If Christianity is true then experience of evil will not be a defeater for theism with respect to fully rational noetic structures. As Plantinga has shown, if Christianity is true then there are cognitive mechanisms such as the “sensus divinitatis” and “internal instigation of the Holy Spirit,” or others very much like these which provide, for the person with a fully rational noetic structure, a clear knowledge of God and awareness of his presence. Such a person may therefore be as convinced of God’s existence as of her own. Such a theist might be greatly puzzled about evil, but abandoning faith simply wouldn’t be on their radar.

Of course, for most of us theists there is no wholly evident presence of God; none of us enjoys such a pristine condition of complete rationality. But of course, it’s also a part of Christian belief that our cognitive faculties are being renewed, our “sensus divinitatis” is in the process of repair (to use Calvin’s language). Such knowledge doesn’t provide an answer to the mystery of evil, but still might provide over-ridding grounds for the person’s theism in the face of life’s atrocities. Whilst we do hear of stories of missionaries going off to the third world only to come back atheists due to what they have witnessed, we also hear of people whose theism in the face of the world’s evils becomes ever more resolute. Some might see the evil of the world as the result of “man left to himself,” desperately in need of God. The hideousness of it all might just as easily drive people towards God. (Note in passing that the vast majority of people who experience the worst atrocities are more likely to be theists). For my own part, whilst my awareness of evil provides possibly the greatest puzzle for me, denying the existence of God seems out of the question. The existence of God – for whatever reason – is among those propositions about which I’m most certain. If, after thinking really hard – as well as I can – on the case for and against God, and on reflecting on how the world honestly seems to me, I stand before the evils of the world with my theism still intact, I can’t see that I – or any other theist – would be guilty of an epistemic faux pas.

It seems to me then that whilst it’s clearly factually correct to say that for some theists the experience of evil has defeated their theism, there is no general defeater – either a warrant defeater or a rationality defeater – to be had here. I think the atheist could only properly claim a warrant defeater for Christian belief by first assuming that Christian belief is false, and thus that there is no source of warrant such as a sensus divinitatis or something else like that. Moreover, there does not seem to be a rationality defeater as long as the theist has considered all the evidence she has to the best of her ability and still finds herself persuaded by theism. The theist who continues to believe in the face of even the most grotesque instances of suffering the world can produce is not therefore, so far as I can see, breaking any epistemic duty, acting contrary to reason, or otherwise epistemically deficient.

Stephen J Graham

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Theism, Atheism & Confirmation Bias

Thomas Nagel once commented: “I want atheism to be true. . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Some theists (most notably James S Spiegel), in a bout of apologetic zeal, have attempted to gain some mileage out of such comments: “See! Atheism is wishful thinking! Nagel doesn’t believe in God because he doesn’t want there to be a God!” This may well be true, but allow me to balance Nagel’s comments with some of my own. I am a theist and I want theism to be true. It isn’t just that I believe in God and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is a God. I want there to be a God; I want the universe to be like that.

So I guess we’re even.

Moreover, I don’t think I’m alone in such sentiments. I’ve lost count of the number of theists in general – and apologists in particular – who claim that if atheism is true then it’s bad news for humanity. Typically the claim is that if atheism is true then our lives have no meaning or value or purpose, and that there is no objective morality. I’m not convinced that there would be no meaning to our lives if atheism is true, but I’m sympathetic to the claim that morality appears difficult to ground objectively in an atheistic universe. In any event, whatever we make of such claims the point is that it suggests that most theists do not want atheism to be true.

Thus I suspect that there’s a fair bit more wishful thinking going on than protagonists on either side care to admit. And that’s OK: we’re merely human. We aren’t the impassable, emotionally cool, wholly rational agents we may often paint ourselves as. We’re a complex of rational, emotional, psychological, historical and cultural factors that make us what we are, and, crucially, that greatly influences – maybe even determines – much of what we believe.

Seemingly our capacity for self-deception is great indeed. The heart is deceitful, as the prophet says, in an observation that was way before its time. None of us should kid ourselves that wishful thinking or what is commonly referred to as “confirmation bias” has no jurisdiction or influence in our own minds. I regularly come across apologists whose only familiarity with atheistic thought is what they read in apologetic works – where, of course, it’s being critiqued and rejected. Alternatively it’s not uncommon to find popular atheists mocking a great mind such as Alvin Plantinga despite never having read a single significant work written by him. Or take the phenomenon of atheist versus theist debates, who you reckon won often depends on who you agreed with before the debate ever took place. For instance, it’s my view that William Lane Craig pretty much comprehensively defeated both Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris when he debated them, and yet there are many atheists whose contrary opinion is just as adamant.

The phenomenon of wishful thinking – believing what we wish to be true, or gravitating towards what we hope is true – isn’t a new one but it is only relevantly recently that the scientific investigation of the phenomenon took off, influenced largely by the work of the social psychologist Ziva Kunda. Kunda argued that our prior emotional dispositions influence how our minds process information. We are more likely to be critical of bad news than good news. When we read an argument for something we already hold we seem to do so much less critically than when we read a piece of work which runs contrary to some cherished belief of ours. In the latter instance our sceptical dial is often cranked to the max. When it comes to information or evidence which agrees with our worldview or coheres well with our current noetic system we are much more likely to accept it.

There are numerous studies which affirm the phenomenon of confirmation bias. In one study it was discovered that people scoring low on IQ tests tended to give more credence to articles criticising the useful and validity of such tests than those who scored higher. We like to think we’re smarter than perhaps we are; when the evidence contradicts us so much the worse for the evidence!

Another study looked at the correlation between climate change denial and political persuasion – why those who are right-leaning free-market advocates are less likely to believe in manmade climate change than leftists. John Cook, of the University of Queensland, concludes: “For supporters of an unregulated free market, regulating polluting industries to reduce global warming is so unpalatable that they are far more likely to reject [the idea] that climate change is happening.”

There are numerous theories as to why we are so prone to wishful thinking and confirmation bias. For those who have studied long and hard and come to a conclusion about some matter it can be disconcerting when we are presented with some piece of strong evidence which we have heretofore overlooked. It’s not easy to let go of years of work, to acknowledge that one was wrong all this time. How often, for instance, do academics change their minds about significant matters? We like to think we are right. It makes us feel good about ourselves. Contrary evidence can be disconcerting, confusing, and worrying; it may make us feel very bad.

One thing I find fascinating about so-called “deconversion stories” is the amount of pain and upheaval losing one’s faith can bring. In many cases it’s a loss of an entire social life and support network. Many take years to finally accept that they no longer believe, living in self-denial before making the break. Of course the same can be found in conversion stories. Mortimer Adler, who converted very late in life, speaks of years of rejecting religious commitment primarily because it didn’t suit his life and would require a radical change in how he lived.

One of the features of the question as to whether or not God exists is that it’s more than an academic question. If, say, the Christian God exists that fact would be something of a terribly inconvenient truth for many people. It would mean a change of life for many that they would not be willing to make. Of course it can be equally convenient for a theist to hang onto belief regardless of what evidence comes against it. For many people their belief in God is a comforting one. Believing that when they die they will go to heaven gives them strength to face their demise. Their entire social life may revolve around church. So, if faced with conclusive evidence against their beliefs understandably they won’t easily let go of them.

Some scholars have argued that wishful thinking and confirmation bias might even have been of biological or evolutionary advantage in some cases, at least when it comes to matters which aren’t of immediate survival concern (wishful thinking that we aren’t being chased by a tiger when in fact we are wouldn’t have lent itself to human thriving!). Believing certain things that make us feel good, or rejecting beliefs that threaten to make us feel bad, anxious or depressed, certainly has a stress reducing effect. Ryan McKay and Daniel Dennett argue for the evolutionary advantages of wishful thinking and confirmation bias along these lines.

Whatever the science of the matter the fact appears clear: we are very prone to such biases. The Scottish philosopher David Hume once remarked that reason often becomes a slave to our passions. Perhaps when our heart doesn’t want to accept X our head will try extra hard to resist X, even if that means ignoring the evidence for it almost entirely. In his influential essay “The Will to Believe,” William James said “If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.” The point is that our will is not neutral when it comes to belief formation.

But of course how we feel about X doesn’t determine the truth of the matter. So what are we to do? What steps can be taken to lessen the influence of biases in the formation of our beliefs? Perhaps simply being aware of how prone we are to biases can help weaken their influence over us. Alternatively we can make a conscious decision to read a certain number of books or articles which run contrary to our cherished beliefs. If you’re an atheist and your only knowledge of Christian philosophy comes through articles on Internet Infidels, then make it your purpose to read some Christian philosophy directly. Read Plantinga’s influential essay “Reason and Religious Belief,” for instance. Are you a young earth creationist? Then perhaps read Richard Dawkins’ book “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Don’t just stick to Ken Ham’s summary dismissals. Write articles and essays and submit them to sceptical friends for criticism. Another Christian might give you glowing praise for your article on the evidence for the resurrection but a sceptic will force you to face arguments, evidence and issues that your Christian friend probably won’t. Or perhaps play Devil’s Advocate against yourself or those who agree with you.

Above all conduct yourself with a dash of grace and a dollop of humility. The person you critique may indeed be the victim of cognitive biases or wishful thinking, but it might easily be the case that somewhere in your own mind you too are a victim.

Stephen J. Graham.

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The Most Powerful Theistic Argument?

JW Wartick, a graduate in Christian apologetics from Biola university, has written an article that appeared retweeted in my Twitter feed this week in which he seeks to outline what he thinks is the most powerful theistic argument. You can find the full article here:

For Wartick the most powerful argument for theism is “The Argument from Religious Experience” [ARE], and he seems to think it’s head and shoulders above the rest. Wartick rightly points out that – like most arguments – the ARE can be stated in different forms. Here is the form Wartick provides, (actually this is a revised form after realizing his initial argument was question-begging):

1. Generally, when someone has an experience of something, they are within their rational limits to believe the experience is genuine.
2. Across all socio-historical contexts, people have had experiences they purport to be of a transcendent realm.
3. Therefore, it is rational to believe there is a transcendent realm.

Now, to be fair to Wartick he has only written a blog article so there isn’t time or space to flesh out all the details. However, even allowing for this fact the argument strikes me as desperately weak at best, if not fatally flawed. I want to raise five problems with what Wartick presents.

Firstly, in an article concerning what is the best theistic argument it’s odd that Wartick doesn’t actually outline what this exclusively theistic argument is. He prefaces the argument he does give with these words: “Here’s a way to formulate [the ARE] to merely defend a transcendent reality.” This, then, is not an argument for theism. Even if the argument he presents is a good one (it’s not, see points 2-5 below) an atheist could affirm every single step and remain just as much an atheist as he was before. Buddhists, for instance, are typically atheistic and would affirm this argument’s conclusion. Other atheists might agree that believing in a transcendent realm is rational even if they themselves don’t believe it. What use, to theism, is an argument that could easily be affirmed by an atheist? Take the Kalam cosmological argument by way of contrast. If valid and sound the KCA brings us to an immaterial, timeless, spaceless, incredibly powerful personal creator of the universe. Wartick’s argument doesn’t even give us the actual existence of a “transcendent realm”, it simply concludes that it’s “rational to believe” such a thing exists. Now, Wartick might say this is only one formulation of the ARE, but then why in an article outlining “the most powerful theistic argument” does he use such a weak formulation? Why not state what this powerful theistic argument is? As it is the reader is left totally in the dark. Moreover, it’s rather bewildering why Wartick concludes with “I think my overall point stands: The ARE is the strongest argument for theism,” when in fact he hasn’t even presented any argument for theism at all.

In any event we can but analyse what Wartick has given us, which the rest of this article will do.

The second point of critique is that the argument as presented isn’t even valid. Wartick realizes this, saying: “The argument leaves a few spaces to fill in for the sake of making it deductively valid, but we’ll just look at it as it stands now.” This is a curious statement indeed! The argument is invalid, but let’s consider its merit anyhow? It has no merit, it’s invalid! As it stands it’s little more than 3 dubiously connected sentences on a page. Claiming to be painting in broad brush-strokes is no excuse for presenting an invalid or incomplete argument. I don’t wish to be uncharitable but it smacks of laziness.

Thirdly, the argument turns on what strikes me as an incredibly vague term: “transcendent realm.” What does this term mean and what does it refer to? Wartick never tells us, and again it’s such an important phrase that the lack of space is no excuse not to define it. Later in the article Wartick claims that “when millions of people say they have experienced a transcendent realm, prima facie it is rational to believe them.” This is the so-called principle of testimony. Now, I’ve no problem with the principle of testimony itself but Wartick is flat-out wrong to claim that people say they have experienced a “transcendent realm” (whatever that means). The literature on religious experiences is massive, but it’s rare to find people claiming to experience a “transcendent realm.” Christians typically claim to experience the grace of God or the love of Christ. Hindus claim to experience some sense of oneness with “the Real.” Mormons experience a burning in their bosom. And so it goes on. It seems to me that Wartick is taking massively diverse experiences and sticking them all in a box labelled “transcendent realm,” a term suitably vague to cover the fact that many of the experiences contained therein have precious little in common with each other, with many downright incompatible. Of course this is all before we address the thorny difficulty in moving from what some person claims to have experienced to what – if anything outside their own mind – they did experience.

Fourthly, the argument’s conclusion is also vague. The first premise is singular – when a person experiences something then they can prima facie trust their own experience. Then in premise 2 Wartick refers to people who have had experiences of the “transcendent realm.” However, in the conclusion he simply says “Therefore it is rational to believe there is a transcendent realm.” But who are we talking about in the conclusion? Are we talking of the people who have had such experiences? Or are we talking of those who haven’t had such experiences? Again Wartick doesn’t tell us, and again there’s no excuse for not doing so. Presumably it’s the latter since this is intended as an argument with powerful apologetic potential. However, in addition to adding to the argument’s invalidity, this presents further problems for the argument. Which brings me to…

Fifthly, the argument is of very limited use for those who have never had such experiences (and of course the argument is hardly necessary for those who have!). In the comments section of his article Wartick states: “[the ARE] may provide evidence to those who have not had the experience by way of the principle of testimony.” [Emphasis mine]. This is not nearly good enough! Surely any apologetic argument has to do a little bit more than maybe provide someone with some evidence, especially if we’re talking about incredibly powerful theistic arguments. The problem Wartick faces if he tries to make his argument conclude to something more specific than some ill-defined “transcendent realm,” is that religious experience is so diverse that it’s understandable that the skeptic will stand scratching his head wondering who on earth to believe. If he believes the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Christians, and all the various species of these faiths, to take him to belief in a “transcendent realm” it seems that he will have to rule out most of these experiences when it comes to believing in something more specific – say, a triune God, unless Wartick would suggest that the experiences of the Hindu are in some way evidence for the trinity? Are we to accept the Buddhist’s experiences as evidence for a transcendent reality only to rule them out later if we narrow the argument to the existence of a personal God? That sounds like a dubious pick and mix approach to me.

The principle of testimony which Wartick draws on is fairly uncontroversial and unproblematic in the world of physical reality, but it’s incredibly difficult to apply to otherworldly contexts in which there is widespread disagreement amongst those who claim to have had such experiences. This is the only objection to the ARE that Wartick actually addresses, albeit doing little more than glossing over it. Wartick rightly points out that claim X and claim Y don’t “cancel each other out.” True, but who is the skeptic to believe? For the person lacking any such experiences it’s understandable that he should throw his hands up in despair and join Hume in a game of backgammon. This isn’t to dismiss everyone’s experiences as false – though Wartick would have to overcome powerful psychological and cultural explanations for religious experience before he could construct a plausible argument – it’s simply to point out that such an argument faces massive difficulties in the diversity of reports of religious experiences.

Wartick’s example on this point concerns two people giving different descriptions of a murder suspect in court. The first describes the suspect as a “tall, dark male” and the other describes him as a “pale, short male.” Both descriptions could be correct from the point of view of the different people giving them. With this example I fear Wartick isn’t taking the differences in religious experiences nearly seriously enough. It’s more like having multiple witnesses: one claims he saw a tall man, another saw a group of teenaged girls, a third that a dog savaged the victim, a fourth that the man collapsed as if with a heart attack, and a fifth that he committed suicide. Wartick doesn’t deal with this problem except some waving and hand gesturing in the direction of “the relevant literature.” However, I wonder does Wartick believe the experiences of the following are veridical: Buddhists, Sufi Muslims, Hindus, Theravada Buddhists, Shamanists, Wiccans, Druids and Satanists. Do they all just experience God (or the transcendent realm or the Ultimate or the Real) from their own point of view, as his witness analogy would suggest? John Hick would’ve probably welcomed such a conclusion, but he was a pluralist – is Wartick?

In another article ( Wartick is much more modest about what the ARE can achieve: “it seems that we are justified in being open to the existence of things beyond the mundane, everyday objects we observe in the physical reality. If people from all times and places have had experiences of things beyond this everyday existence, then it does not seem irrational to remain at least open to the possibility of such things existing.” [Emphasis mine].

However this is now a long way from a powerful theistic argument. If in fact there is a powerful theistic argument from religious experience Wartick has done little to cast light on what exactly it is.

Stephen J Graham


Filed under Theism

Leibniz’s Best Possible World


Karth Barth accused Leibniz of having no serious interest in the problem of evil. Barth was wrong about many things, and such is the case here also. The problem of evil was of concern to Leibniz from his youth, and his thinking on the problem culminated in his influential work, “Theodicy.”

The central thesis of Leibniz’s work is the notion that the world in which we live is the best possible world (BPW). The concept of the BPW is a slippery one, often left ill-defined as if those who use it expect their listeners to instinctively know what it means. Unfortunately it is used differently by different thinkers, and, as we will see, criticisms of one understanding do not necessarily apply to others. According to Leibniz the BPW is that state of affairs – or combination of possibilities – which allows the maximization of being, in terms of both quantity and quality. His idea here has echoes of Neo-Platonism’s so called “principle of plenitude;”in creating God intends to manifest his goodness beyond the bounds of his own being, and such purposes are best served by creating a rich variety of finite beings, as opposed to a mere quantitative maximum of the same sort of being: “To multiply one and the same thing only would be superfluity, and poverty too. . . to eat nothing but partridges, to drink only Hungarian or Shiraz wine – would one call that reason?

In developing his notion of the BPW Leibniz also points out that while X, Y, Z might be individually possible, they may not be “compossible” – capable of existing in the same reality. For instance, it’s possible for Dodos to exist in the year 2014 and it’s possible that Dodos be extinct by 2014. But we can’t have one reality in which Dodos exist in 2014 and are extinct in 2014. One excludes the other. So, God must choose which set of coherent possibilities to actualize. Leibniz pictures an infinite number of possible universes present as ideas in God’s mind: W1…Wn. These universes exhaust all possibilities, such that any change in W1 would render it identical to, say, W2. From surveying each possible universe God applied his creative power to bring one into existence. The combination of God’s omnipotence, perfect understanding, and perfect goodness leads him to choose the best world.

It is Leibniz’s notion of compossibility – or noncompossibility – that means that whilst God chooses the BPW, this world still contains a great deal of evil. God’s creative activity is thus limited by inherent compatibility issues. There are, however, countless possibilities from which God can choose. He compares them – perfections and imperfections, weaknesses and strengths, goods and evils – and then in His wisdom chooses the best “in order to satisfy goodness completely.”

So, God surveys all the possible worlds he could make: W1 to Wn. According to Leibniz God knows these possible worlds exhaustively, including all the free decisions of any beings he could create in whatever circumstances he chooses to create them. Moreover, God sees each world as a completed whole. So, in terms of the idea of our own world in the divine mind, He knew about the Fall and its corrupting effects, about the redemption of Christ, and about the choices of each person which leads them to either salvation or damnation. God doesn’t determine these choices; He simply decrees the existence of this world and its entire history.

Here we meet the first common criticism of Leibniz: that the universe is just as rigidly determined as Spinoza’s, despite Leibniz’s protestations to the contrary. In fact, Charles Werner accuses Leibniz of presenting us with “a perfect and devastating image of necessity.” After all, in Leibniz’s scheme, God has decreed a complete sequence of events; what room then for human freedom?

This criticism is much too hasty, as Leibniz’s view needn’t exclude genuine free will. If – as many philosophers of religion think – God has so-called “middle knowledge,” then He knows what any creature He might create would do under any set of circumstances in which God might place him. These circumstances are “freedom-permitting” circumstances. For example, under the particular circumstances God knew that Peter would freely deny Christ three times. God’s knowing this does not, however, make the actions any less free – even in the libertarian sense. So, when our world was considered in its totality in the divine mind, this included all the free actions of free agents within it. God does not determine the agents to act as they do, but rather He knows how they will freely act in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

On the Leibnizian view we notice that evil is unavoidable. Evil – for Leibniz – is very real, though always a privation of something good. No matter what form evils come in – whether metaphysical evils in terms of finitude and imperfection, physical evils in terms of pain and suffering, or moral evils in terms of human sins – they are part of the BPW by virtue of being inter-connected with certain goods. Leibniz here agrees with Augustine that the universe as a whole is good despite containing elements that, when considered in isolation, are bad: “Not only does [God] derive from [evils] greater goods, but he finds them connected with the greatest goods of all those that are possible: so that it would be a fault not to permit them.”

Leibniz thus approves of the ancient hymn which translates as “O fortunate sin that merits such and so great a redeemer,” to illustrate this principle, and writes: “all the evils of the world contribute, in ways which generally we cannot now trace, to the character of the whole as the best of all possible universes.” But, what about tiny evils? Couldn’t we do away with even just one of them and so make a better world than this? Leibniz answers: “if the smallest evil that comes to pass in the world were missing in it, it would no longer be this world; which, with nothing omitted and all allowance made, was found best by the Creator who chose it.”

It’s crucial to understand that Leibniz does not think we can derive the conclusion that this is the BPW simply by reflecting on how it appears to us. This, reckons Leibniz, would be impossible: “For can I know and can I present infinities to you and compare them together?” We have no way to know what the BPW is, except in so far as we might arrive at this conclusion by reflection on the existence of a perfectly good creator. Being perfectly good (and omnipotent) means that – having freely chosen to create (as an expression of over-flowing goodness creatively expressing itself to creatures) – God will create the best possible world: “supreme wisdom, united to a goodness that is no less infinite, cannot but have chosen the best.” Leibniz, then, would be utterly unimpressed by recent atheistic arguments which attempt to show that God does not exist because this is not the best possible world. Leibniz was all too aware that he wasn’t nearly omniscient enough to draw such a conclusion!

This brings us to another criticism of Leibniz’s position: the coherence, or lack thereof, of the concept of “best possible world.”

Certain theologians, following Aquinas, have argued that the “best possible world” is by definition unrealizable – like the fastest possible speed. Charles Journet argued that regardless of what world God makes he could always make a better one, and thus: “To demand that God, to be above reproach, must make the best of all possible worlds is to demand him to make what is not feasible, and to give existence to something absurd.”

It seems to me that Journet has failed to grasp the sense in which Leibniz uses the term. Following the Thomist tradition Journet holds that there is a scale of possible universes from non-being to God, but that this scale contains an infinity of steps, and that between any two universes there is always the possibility of another. This means that no matter what universe God creates there is always the possibility of there being one that is better but still less than God. If the Thomist tradition is correct then the concept of the best possible world is indeed incoherent, since there cannot be a best possible world in the sense of a closest approximation to perfection within an infinite series of such approximations.

However, this is not how Leibniz uses the term. Leibniz agreed that there could well be an unlimited range of possible worlds; however there is one which – though not particularly close to the level of God – is such as to be the most superior compossible system, in so far as it best satisfies some given criterion of excellence. Thus, Journet’s criticism misfires.

Journet then levels a second criticism at Leibniz, one with which many other commentators concur. Journet accuses Leibniz of effectively denying God’s omnipotence, and setting up a form of dualism. According to Leibniz, once God has freely chosen to create he is limited by fixed possibilities and compossibilities, and therefore even in the BPW there may well be a lot of evil. And since He is limited in these ways, God is not omnipotent.

To my mind accusing Leibniz of denying God’s omnipotence or advocating a dualist solution to the problem of evil is quite unfair. Philosophers of religion have typically argued that there are certain things which God logically cannot do. God cannot create a world in which it always rains everywhere and in which it never rains anywhere. Moreover, there are logically possible worlds that even an omnipotent God cannot create. For example, it’s possible under the conditions he finds himself in that Judas not betray Christ. But God can’t create a world with exactly those conditions in which Judas does not betray Christ, because Judas will freely choose to betray Christ under those circumstances. Such a world is not feasible for God to create despite its being a possible world.

Some critics go further and accuse Leibniz’s system of being one that leaves us without hope. Why? Well, if this is the best possible world then there is no hope of improvement. Arthur Lovejoy writes, “It was possible to hope that in the fullness of time the Devil might be put under foot, and believers in revealed religion were assured that he would be; but logical necessities are eternal, and the evils which arise from them must therefore be perpetual.” Or, as Voltaire’s Candide asks in a spirit of hopelessness: “Si c’est ici le meilleur des mondes possible, que sont donc les autres?” (“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?”)

This, however, represents an unduly wooden interpretation of Leibniz. This is best illustrated by differentiating between two other concepts: a static view of the world and a dynamic view of the world. The static view treats the world like a picture – existing all at once, such that if this is the BPW then there can never be any improvement. The picture is as good as it’s ever going to be. However, this view totally ignores the time dimension to existence. By contrast, the dynamic view treats the world more like a drama, moving across time. In fact, the best possible drama might start off incredibly boring, but such boredom may well be setting the foundation for later scenes of the play. After scene one should I despair that because this is the “best possible play” that it therefore can’t get any better? Not at all! The same holds for Leibniz’s concept of the BPW. With this dynamic view we can see that the BPW can improve as time goes on. The world today can be a better place than it was yesterday and yet it would still be true that the world is the BPW. When we say “best possible world” we are referring to the entire state of affairs: past, present and future. Moreover, some evils might be necessary in the early stages of this world but that does not mean they will be perpetual. It’s perfectly plausible and consistent with Leibniz’s theodicy to suggest that perhaps part of the reason why this world is the BPW is precisely because evil is not going to last forever; and of course Christianity does indeed envisage a future in which this becomes a reality.

And thus the criticisms of Lovejoy and Voltaire fail. Once we adopt the dynamic view there is no reason at all why the best possible world could not be such that it is better at time t2 than it was at t1.

Admittedly this notion of a dynamic view of the universe is not explicit in Leibniz. When he speaks of the universe as the BPW he is referring to its adequacy – as a complex whole – as an expression of the overflowing creativity of God. As such the criticism of Leibniz above is understandable, since arguably he may have thought that the universe at t2 could not in any way be better than it was at t1. At both times, for Leibniz, the world perfectly reflects God’s goodness. However, as I have argued, his view can be easily interpreted, or at least modified, in precisely the way I have outlined.

Such criticisms further expose the need to carefully define what “best possible world” means. The BPW, as I have said, is certainly a slippery concept and often different thinkers mean different things when they use the term. Some, with Leibniz, understand the term along the lines of the universe’s being the best expression of the overflowing goodness and creativity of God. Others – particularly modern atheist critics – use the term in an ontological sense to mean a world containing only “perfect” types of being. However, on the back of the dynamic view outlined above we can find another understanding of the term, one which fits neatly within an orthodox Christian view. This understanding we might call “instrumental,” and recognizes that it’s impossible to make any claims about what would be the best possible world aside from dealing with the prior question of what God is trying to achieve through creation. What are God’s purposes?

This then brings us to the question of why God created the world. We need not disagree with Leibniz that the world is the expression of the overflowing creativity of God who desires to communicate his being beyond Himself. However, on the Christian understanding of God there is more to creation than that. In fact it seems that whether or not this is the BPW ultimately depends on a prior question: why did God create us and place us in the sort of world in which we find ourselves? The BPW, then, is that state of affairs which best serves the purposes that God wishes to fulfill through it. The early church father Irenaeus seemed to think along such lines (though not in any kind of systematic way). Put simply, Irenaeus thought that man is an unfinished creature – not created in perfection, as Augustinian theologians often suggest. Human beings – as autonomous moral agents – must be developed. The world then is the “vale of soul-making,” a place built for this process, a place in which human beings can exercise and grow in virtues, but by necessity also a place where vices and real evils exist.

I will expand on this Irenaean idea in a later essay, but for now we notice what this exposes about the nature of the real divide between theists and atheists when it comes to the notion of “best possible world.” Atheists and agnostics – represented philosophically by the likes of Hume, Mill and Russell – tend to assume that if an omnipotent and perfectly good being exists then its purpose is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the creatures it creates. The BPW will therefore be that which works best to this end. Since this world is almost certainly not that kind of world, then God almost certainly does not exist. By contrast the Christian view is not at all like this. The highest good in Christianity is the knowledge of God – not the maximization of earthly pleasure. In other words the world is designed as an environment for the development of finite persons, and in this world they have real and significant freedom to engage in real and significant acts of good or evil.

This brings us back to Leibniz: how do we know that this is the BPW? For Leibniz, as we have seen, there is a reasonable answer: because it is the creation of an omnipotent, perfectly good God. For the atheist, how do we know that if an omnipotent, perfectly good God exists that He would create a better world than this one? I don’t see how the atheist can answer that question. It requires knowing that there is a world which is better than this one. But how can we know a thing like that? To paraphrase Leibniz: Can the atheist know and can he present infinities to us and compare them together? Most atheist arguments here take the form “If God existed he would/would not do this or that.” Unfortunately this amounts to little more than crass presumption, as if such a being might have the same values, goals and purposes as a modern day atheist, and no higher level of insight into reality. Such arguments would have been regarded as sheer folly by Leibniz, and rightly so.

It seems to me that Leibniz was certainly on to something in his central notion that we live in the best possible world. Even Christian philosophers who claim to reject Leibniz end up affirming his core thesis in some shape or form. For instance, in Evil and the God of Love, John Hick rejects Leibniz’s position, and yet his own position strikes me as inherently Leibnizian, with the exception that he defines “best” in more explicitly instrumental terms. Others make a similar move, implicitly accepting that if God exists with the attributes Christianity claims He possesses, then in some sense this must be the best possible world. And so they should, since if an omnipotent and perfectly good God exists and has a purpose for his creation it would be inexplicable why He didn’t create the world that would be best suited for achieving it.


Filed under Atheism, God, Leibniz, Problem of Evil, Theism