10 bad reasons to believe in God

This article is a response to a response. Specifically, this article is a response to this article by SJ Thomason, a.k.a. “Christian Apologist” who wrote her article in response to this article by “mrozatheist”. I realize both posts are somewhat older but I felt I needed to add my 2 cents because the 10 good reasons to believe in God that Thomason provides are actually 10 bad reasons to believe in God.

Thomason offers the following reasons to believe in God. Reasons which she claims are good reasons. I’ll list them here first and then I’ll explore them one by one.

  • The Ontological Argument
  • The Cosmological Argument
  • The Teleological Argument
  • The Moral Argument
  • Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22
  • Christianity has survived against substantial odds.
  • Embarrassing Testimony
  • Extra-Biblical Testimony
  • Early Christian Bravery
  • The Purpose of Life

The first thing to note is that none of these are particularly new arguments. That in itself would not be so bad. What’s much worse is that all of these arguments are long since defeated, mostly by simply logic. Let’s explore each argument a bit further, shall we?

The ontological argument

The ontological argument is about a millennium old. It’s greatly surprising that after all that time, it is still trotted out as evidence for the existence of God because it is quite possibly the worst argument in the entire list. Why? Because it is merely word play. Let’s demonstrate.

Thomason renders the ontological argument as follow:

1. God is the greatest conceivable being.
2. If we can conceive of something greater than God, then that would be God.
3. Nothing greater than God can be conceived in the mind.
4. It is greater to exist in reality than merely in the mind.
5. God must therefore exist not merely in the mind, but in reality as well.
6. Therefore, God exists.

To demonstrate that this is merely word play, let’s use the same argument to “prove” something else.

Picture of Aragorn, from Lord of the Rings
Aragorn
  1. Aragorn is the greatest king conceivable.
  2. If we can conceive of a greater king, then that would be the greatest king.
  3. No king greater than Aragorn can be conceived in the mind.
  4. It is greater to exist in reality than merely in the mind.
  5. Aragorn must therefore exist not merely in the mind but in reality as well.
  6. Therefore, Aragorn exists.

Wait? Did I just prove that Aragorn was a real king? No, of course not. The argument can be used to prove absolutely anything. It is therefore a useless argument and probably the worst of the 10 bad reasons to believe in God. There are several other flaws with the ontological argument, which you can explore here, but I think I have sufficiently demonstrated how weak it is.

The Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument for the existence of God is also a golden oldie. It is also easily refuted because it can not serve as evidence for the existence of the Christian God. Thomason writes the following:

At this point, science hasn’t provided an explanation for what caused or powered the Big Bang. What we know is that the force to inflate the expansion of the universe did not have properties of linear time, space, and matter. The force that powered the expansion seems likely to be powerful. So, the assumption can be made that the force that powered the universe’s expansion was powerful, metaphysical, and eternal. In other words, the force had all of the qualities of our Creator.

She then quotes Thomas Aquinas’ “unmoved mover” argument, the conclusion that there must be a first cause of the universe, one that doesn’t need a cause itself, while all subsequent causes do require a cause.

A universe without a creator

What is bad about this reason to believe in God?
For starters, even if we grant the premise that the universe had a cause and that this cause didn’t have a cause itself, we can not arrive at the conclusion that this first cause has to be the Christian God. The best we can do, is arrive at a deistic position. It is not possible to move from that position to the conclusion that there is a personal god who cares about us, forgives sins and actively interferes in our lives.
Secondly and equally devastating is the statement that the first cause doesn’t need a cause itself without saying why this must be so. This is committing a special pleading fallacy.
Thirdly, just because science doesn’t know what came before the Big Bang, you can’t say “therefore God”. There is no basis for this assertion. It’s nothing but an argument from ignorance.
The cosmological argument is definitely among the 10 bad reasons to believe in God.

The Teleological Argument

The teleological argument is an argument for design, more specifically intelligent design of the universe. It basically argues that the fact that the universe exhibits signs of being designed, such as complexity and fine-tuning, proves that there is a designer. It is again not a good reason to believe in God. Thomason argues that:

Scientists have found that constants must fall into an extraordinarily narrow range of values for the universe to be life-sustaining.

However, as life-sustaining universes go, we have a sample size of one. It is not possible to make any useful arguments based on such a small sample size. We also do no know exactly under which conditions life arises. Life may be possible under a wide variety of circumstances.
There may be many universes out there which don’t support life. We can only exist in a universe which allows for our existence. In all the other universes there is no life to marvel at the amazing coincidence of its existence. We simply do not know.

Astronaut in space suit
We need suits like these to protect us from the inhospitable environment of outer space

Also, to argue that this universe was specifically designed to support our existence or the existence of intelligent beings in general, is to ignore the fact that most of the universe is extremely inhospitable to us. Put a human being at a randomly selected spot anywhere in the known universe and there is an almost 100% chance he or she will be killed nearly instantly! It is very possible to think of potential universes which are much more hospitable to life, which makes the teleological argument certainly one of the 10 bad arguments to belief in God.

The Moral Argument

The moral argument for the existence of God basically states that because humans have objective moral laws, these moral laws come from a lawgiver which is the source of morality. This lawgiver is God. Again, there are several good reasons why this is a bad reason to believe in the Christian God.

Thomason quotes William Lane Craig:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.

There are several objections we can raise. For one, we can question if there are indeed objective or absolute moral values as I have explored earlier. Even if we accept that there are objective moral values, it is by no means certain that they come from a god nor that this must be the Christian God. There simply is no proof of this. The entire argument is a non sequitur.

To demonstrate, simply replace the word “God” in Craig’s argument with something else and you’ll see how it falls apart:

  1. If Santa Claus does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, Santa Claus exists.

Have I now proved both the existence of Arargorn and Santa Claus? Obviously not. There are many more flaws with Craig’s argument, which you can learn about here. Let me conclude by saying that this is definitely another of the 10 bad reasons to believe in God.

Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22

Once again I am forced to point out that you can’t prove your faith by pointing to your holy book. Holy books aren’t proof for your beliefs, they contain your beliefs! The holy book doesn’t prove your claim, it is your claim. You wouldn’t even know about your god if it wasn’t for the texts mentioning it. Using scripture as proof of your faith is simply circular reasoning.

Isaiah 53 is often quoted by apologists as an old testament prophecy of Jesus as the Messiah but this interpretation is problematic at best. Among Jewish and Biblical scholars, it is most often understood as referring not to Jesus or a Messianic figure but to the nation of Israel as a hole. In fact, just before the passages quoted by “Christian Apologist”, there’s this:

He said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.’

Isaiah 49:3

The suffering servant in Isaiah 53 is therefore most likely the nation of Israel, not a single person. Chapter 52 of Isaiah is addressed to Zion and Jerusalem, which strengthens that interpretation further. For more on this, see RationalWiki.

Psalm 22 is also often quoted by apologists as predicting Jesus but again, there are problems with this interpretation. Most apologists point to verse 16, which tells:

    they pierce my hands and my feet.

Psalm 22:16 New International Version (NIV)

This is taken as prophecy of Jesus being crucified. However, the original Jewish manuscripts don’t read like that, instead they mention a lion, pinning down the hands and feet.

At best, the parallels between the old and new testaments serve as evidence that the new testament writers knew the old testament. But that certainly doesn’t prove the Christian God exists. Definitely one of the 10 bad reasons to believe in God.

Christianity has survived against substantial odds.

Yes, and? Many ideas have survived against substantial odds. Take for instance the heliocentric model of the solar system which the Roman Catholic church sought to suppress. Take Darwin’s theory of evolution which again saw great opposition from Christians and still does to this day. Do these ideas have divine backing as well?

Of course not. The argument that an idea surviving against substantial odds has divine backing is nonsense. Thomason predicts a rise in Christianity to almost one third of the global population by 2050 but that is an appeal to popularity fallacy. The popularity of an idea has no bearing on the truth of an idea. Another one of the 10 bad reasons to believe in God.

Embarrassing Testimony

As Thomason puts it:

In apologetics, evidence of the truth in a statement or source is provided by embarrassing testimony. In other words, if authors were contriving a story or inventing a myth, they would not include testimony about which they would be embarrassed. Instead they would only include information that they could “sell” to followers easily.

In apologetics, maybe. In the real world…not so much. The criterion of embarrassment has several problems attached to it, especially when used on its own like it is here. It is nearly always used in conjunction with other criteria to establish authenticity (for instance, the stronger criterion of multiple attestation).

The criterion of embarrassment, when applied to the New Testament, is plagued by the following problems:

  • Obvious cases of embarrassment are few
  • What is considered embarrassing now, may not have been embarrassing at the time of writing
  • The embarrassing testimony may have been a simple literary device to provoke a reaction or to create a point of discussion or teaching
  • It’s easy to forge embarrassing details to lend credibility to a story

So, is the embarrassing testimony in the Bible a good reason to believe in God? No, it’s one of the 10 bad reasons to believe in God.

Extra-Biblical Testimony

Thomason writes:

Atheists often request evidence that is extra-biblical, as if the evidence provided in the Bible is invalid. When considering that the New Testament has at least nine independent authors and is endorsed by numerous highly respected, scholarly archeologists (sic) and historians, the Bible is a valid historical text. Yet, we do have accounts of events and people in the New Testament from external writers.

As I’ve already discussed above, using your holy book as evidence for your beliefs is circular reasoning and thus not a valid argument. You can’t prove the existence of God by pointing at the Bible, just as you can’t prove the existence of Aragorn by pointing at the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We need material outside of the source to establish the authenticity of the source (see the criterion of multiple attestation). If multiple, independent sources talk about an event, giving similar details, that gives you a high degree of confidence that the event actually took place.

Image of Flavius Josephus
Flavius Josephus.

Sadly, the Gospels are seriously lacking when it comes to multiple attestation. We simply do not have contemporary, independent sources to verify many the events described in the Gospels.
Of course Thomason trots out the usual suspects such as Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and others. I’ve explored this list of sources in a discussion with Brad Emery here. In short, the passage in Josephus is widely regarded as a later addition to the text, Tacitus mentions Christians as a sect but nothing more and Suetonius mentions riots in Rome instigated by a “Chrestus” but that’s all the detail we get from him.

So are these extra-biblical sources actually proof of God? You be the judge but the case seems extremely flimsy at best. At best, they lend some credence to a historical Jesus but that’s a fair cry from proving God is real. This again, is one of the 10 bad reasons to believe in God.

Early Christian Bravery

Thomason argues that early Christians were brave, facing persecution and death to worship their god because early Christian disciples saw the risen Christ. As examples she mentions among others the martyrdom of Peter and Paul and also those executed by Nero as punishment for their role in the 64 CE fire of Rome.

Unfortunately, there are problems with these assertions. For one, while tradition holds that both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome, possibly during the reign of Nero, this has never been firmly established. Neither has the manner of their death been firmly established. Even someone like John Oakes on Evidence for Christianity concedes that there is no solid evidence for the martyrdom of the Apostles, except in one case: the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus.
Secondly, the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was not persistent and was not widespread. Instead, it happened sporadically and locally, especially before 250 CE.

Even if it could be firmly established that all the apostles died for their faith, that still would not give us a good reason to believe in God. The tradition of martyrdom exists in many faiths, from Christianity and Islam all the way to Buddhism and Hinduism. All we may conclude from this is that people are willing to die for ideas they hold to be greater than themselves. Yes, one of the 10 bad reasons to believe in God.

The Purpose of Life

Thomason writes:

We were put on this planet to fulfill our spiritual purposes of becoming more Christ-like and more perfect, yet we were intentionally put here as imperfect, flawed beings. Overcoming our flaws and physical obstacles and limitations helps us to grow spiritually.

I understand that this is what she believes to be the case but there is no reason for people to accept this as a good reason to believe in God. It’s just a baseless assertion that this is our purpose in life. I’m sorry “Christian Apologist”, this is one of the 10 bad reasons to believe in God.

In summary

To sum up Thomason’s 10 good reasons to believe in God are actually very bad reasons, let me quickly recap the above.

The ontological argument

Simple word play

The cosmological argument

Doesn’t support theism

The teleological argument

Argument from improbability, inconclusive

The moral argument

Unproven claim

Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22

Circular reasoning, original text doesn’t support interpretation

Christianity has survived against substantial odds.

Inconclusive, appeal to popularity fallacy

Embarrassing Testimony

Inconclusive

Extra-Biblical Testimony

Incorrect claim, suggests historical Jesus but nothing more

Early Christian Bravery

Inconclusive, not unique to Christianity

The Purpose of Life

Unproven claim

As you can see, Thomason’s 10 good reasons to believe in God are in reality 10 bad reasons to believe in God.

What is your take on this? Do you know a good reason to believe in God? Or a good reason not to believe in one? Please leave a comment below.

Any thoughts about this? Please leave a comment!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.