Arguing about God’s Existence: Which Side Won the Debate?

This is an updated summary of a debate about the existence of God in which I took both sides of the argument. For the full text of the debate, see the previous several posts.

If someone cannot argue for both sides of a controversial issue, that person probably does not understand the issue. So “debating with myself” is always a useful exercise. I began the debate by assuming the role of a Christian minister, “Pastor Chris,” and I responded to the pastor as the atheist, “Dr. Schriner.” Pastor Chris quoted atheist Daniel Dennett as saying that religion helps people deal with challenging life issues. Later he returned to this theme:

“Schriner never denies that the vast majority of people have sensed the presence of this sturdy support, for centuries, all over the world. The overwhelming testimony of this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ speaks far more eloquently than the outdated arguments of atheism.”

Dr Schriner then strode to the lectern:

“That great cloud of witnesses is a whole lot smaller than Pastor Chris thinks. I realize that the vast majority of Americans say they believe in God. However in Canada around 20 or 30% are atheists or agnostics. In the U.K. it’s 30-45%, and 65% in Japan.”

Dr. Schriner then critiqued the claim that the universe is “fine-tuned” for intelligent life: “My opponent never responded to the idea that there could be an infinite number of universes, many of which could not support life.” And he added: “I admit that religion does some people some good, and probably belief in leprechauns was helpful to some of the ancient Irish. But if religious people were in touch with a supreme goodness, they would tend, as a general rule, to be morally superior to us ‘heathens,’ and they are not. Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg’s comment rings true: Without religion ‘you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.’

Pastor Chris had the last word:

“As a religious person I get laughed at for believing in fairy-tale mythologies. But when scientists dream up wild stories about there being an infinite number of undetectable universes, all the secular humanists solemnly nod and agree. There is only one reason these bizarre multiple-universe scenarios get any press. People see that if this is actually the only universe, then it looks like the universe was fine-tuned for our benefit. Some great creative power intended for us to be here.

Looking back at this debate about deity, ask yourself what you experienced when you heard something plausible that pushed against your own opinions. What did you feel inside? If you discover what happens when a good argument disturbs your belief-systems, then you can learn to notice your own mind closing, and perhaps learn to prop it open.

And here is an idea that is obviously true but difficult to fully accept: There is no objective place where we can stand and say, “Now I can see who is right about deity.”

Many people believe they have attained The Truth about God. Some say it is quite clear that God is real. Others find it equally clear that atheism is correct. But there is no “tie-breaker,” no super-objective vantage point that settles this dispute.

It would be more comfortable if we had certainty about this important subject, so that all people who are good, smart, and well-informed would agree, but that is not where we find ourselves. We cannot dismiss either the testimony of intelligent and well-informed believers or intelligent and well-informed unbelievers.

Both theists and atheists are speculating, and that is unavoidable. But theists, atheists, and agnostics who understand that life is deeply mysterious and who sincerely search for greater truth are kindred spirits in spite of their differences.

Roger Christan Schriner

P.S. I would be happy to debate the existence of God in any public setting. I’ll take either side. Contact me by commenting on this posting.

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Why People Misunderstand Each Other in Talking About Religion

In my previous post about “Heathen’s Progress,” I mentioned that “Even religious liberals may struggle with scientific principles.” In response, one reader reported that his religiously liberal minister rejected “the prevailing scientific understanding of evolutionary biology (an unguided and undirected process without an overseeing intelligence directing it). She didn’t like the theological implications and said that the evolutionary process only “appeared” to be undirected/unguided …”

In Bridging the God Gap I suggest that a lot of what people say about religion is ambiguous, with many possible interpretations. In such cases it’s easy to think I know what someone means, because I know what I would mean if I said those words. (Or at least I think I do!)

In reality, even the speaker may not know what s/he is driving at, not having thoroughly explored the many ways one can look at a seemingly straightforward theological issue. Let’s take the minister’s statement about evolution as an example. Here are some ways of interpreting “Evolution only appears to be unguided, but actually an overseeing intelligence directs it.”

Interpretation 1. Evolution is directed by the God described in the Christian Bible.

2. Evolution is directed by a personal God (a being that does what persons do – thinks, makes decisions, acts). But this deity is different in important ways from the Christian God.

3. Evolution is directed by an impersonal intelligence that knows about us as individuals and intervenes on our behalf.

4. Evolution is directed by an impersonal intelligence that works for good in a general way, but does not intervene in our personal lives.

5. The universe itself has or is a sort of mind and works toward positive goals. Evolutionary of progress is evidence of its intelligence. (Remember, some people construe “mind” and “intelligence” rather abstractly. For example, some say that the Internet, the human immune system, the stock market, and the American electoral process are examples of intelligent systems. Perhaps it’s a stretch to call the stock market or the electoral process intelligent, but you get the idea.)

6. Saying evolution is “directed” by “intelligence” are metaphorical statements, meaningful but not literally true.

7. Sometimes people say things they didn’t mean (or are misquoted). “I didn’t intend to imply that a supernatural mind is running the show. Evolution is ‘a design without a designer,’ but that means it isn’t really random. It has a positive direction.”

I could give more examples, but I needn’t belabor the point. When someone says something about religion, your first interpretation of their words may be exactly correct – or completely off base. Try asking clarifying questions:

“Basically, then, you are saying ______. Is that right?”

“Are you saying ____ or are you saying ____?”

Remember, even the speaker may not know exactly what s/he is thinking. Someone who says evolution is intelligently guided may not have reflected upon the varied ways of interpreting this statement which I listed above. Clarifying questions help people sharpen up their own opinions.

To the fellow who offered this example: Your interpretation of the liberal minister who has qualms about evolution may be exactly right. I am not in a position to pass judgment about what she wanted to convey. Regardless of what she intended, I appreciate this opportunity to offer a case study about ambiguous language. Thanks.

Roger

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