- The Event
- Basic Survey and Score
- Note on Debate Strategy
- First Point: “Argument from the Universe”
- Second Point: “Argument from Absolute Morality”
- Third Point: The “Trial” Defense vs. the Argument from Evil
- Fourth Point: Shoring Up Agnosticism
- Q & A: Pitching Balls for the Home Team
- Addendum on Muslim Apologetics Handout
I attended this debate in Queens, New York, which was held by and in a local Islamic school (the Tawheed Institute). I was very interested in seeing how it would turn out, since this event was novel in two ways. First, the theist was a Muslim, and I was keen to see how Muslims approached defenses of theism, having only ever seen Christians in debates like this. Second, the burden was very unusually placed on the atheist. The topic of the debate was “Does God Not Exist?” which meant that the existence of God would be presupposed and thus had to be refuted. This changes the strategy of an atheist in a debate setting, and is certainly more challenging, though if an atheist can win under such a burden her victory carries even greater weight.
The opponents in this battle of facts and argument were the ever-popular Dan Barker, ex-Evangelist hero of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and a new guy on the debate-circuit: molecular biologist Brother Hassanain Rajabali, a teacher at the school sponsoring the event. The debate was thoroughly videotaped and will be made available on VHS or DVD ($20), but an online transcript is also available at the Tawheed Institute. My review will summarize the event and discuss the major problems. The most valuable lesson I believe we can get from this debate is how we can make our position stronger in the face of opponents.
The organizers put on an excellent and well-run event, undertaking every expense (including all travel and other expenses for Dan Barker, and free Korans and extensive refreshments for all attendees) and treating all comers with professionalism and courtesy. The only snub was religious: because the debate took place within a mosque, women and men were not allowed to sit together. There were two separate rows of seats, with a wide aisle between them. Even non-Muslim women and men were politely asked to observe this sexist seating rule. Still, though all of the several dozen Muslim women at the event kept their heads and bodies (but not faces) modestly covered, there was no apparent offense taken to the non-Muslim women flaunting their long, flowing, gorgeously seductive hair and their horrifyingly erotic figures, despite the fact that this must have tempted all the devout Muslim men into sinful apostasy and crimes against Allah. So kudos to the hosts for not making a fuss about that at least.
It was standing room only. At least five hundred people were in attendance (mostly Muslim, but there were lots of local freethinkers there, too). Dozens had to stand for the whole event. That was an impressive show of interest, since the debate took three hours altogether (with a short break in the middle). But that included a beautiful, lyrical recitation of the Koran at the opening, and an extensive Q & A session at the end. There was supposed to be a cross-examination as well, but Dan and Hassanain had agreed earlier to drop it to make for more time and, Dan says, because he felt the audience questions would be good enough. There was also a closing speech by the school principal thanking everyone and emphasizing the importance of freethought and coming to conclusions based on evidence and reason, and the beauty of meeting differences in intellectual debate rather than violence, refreshing words from a Muslim authority.
Barker was a personable and enjoyable debater as always. Rajabali, too, was professional, well-dressed in a rather attractive nonwestern suit and very well-spoken, though a bit rabid, speaking quickly and forcefully, almost dismissive of and certainly “offended” by Barker’s belief system (indeed, he outright said so). But all his brimstone and rhetoric was persuasive, and won many cheers from the Muslim crowd. As is typical of theists, almost all the cheers were for fallacious arguments or statements that didn’t actually pertain to the point in debate—in contrast, the few cheers Barker got were for solid points that demanded response. Still, I have to conclude that Rajabali won the debate, if we assess it on its technical merits. Though Rajabali did slip away from a few unanswered points, Barker failed to adequately rebut Rajabali’s two principal arguments, and since that was necessary to meet the burden of disproving the existence of God, God was not disproved that day. But we all learned a lot.
Basic Survey and Score
Apart from a lot of defining and explaining and deploying of preemptive rebuttals of arguments that were never actually made (as well as irrelevancies, off-point remarks, unclear points, and so on), as far as I could tell the whole debate consisted of these substantial arguments (here very briefly stated, generally not in the order presented, and including points raised in Q & A):
Claim: God is not obvious
Evidence: “Why are we having this debate?” Etc.
Claim: God is obvious
Evidence: Argument from the Universe (see below)
Claim: Religious belief has a better natural explanation
Evidence: Religious practice is tailored to deny doubt
[ no reply ]
Claim: Ignorance of causes does not justify plugging gaps with God
Evidence: Example of Newton’s ignorance in early form of Design Argument
Claim: Atheists also use an Argument from Ignorance, plugging all “gaps” with Naturalism
Evidence: [ none given, though implies back-reference to Barker’s defense of science and naturalism; note that R.’s first reply missed the point of the example and B.’s argument was never really addressed, but R. did raise the issue of burden as a defense, and then ended the debate with the above counter-argument, which Barker never had an opportunity to rebut ]
Claim: God-belief is unfalsifiable
Evidence: [ shifts burden, asks opponent to prove claim wrong ]
Claim: Concedes claim, says god’s nonexistence is impossible
Evidence: Argument from the Universe (see below)
Claim: God’s attributes are logically incompatible (see: Argument from Incoherence)
Evidence: ‘Merciful’ and ‘Just’ incompatible by definition; ‘Free’ and ‘Omniscient’ (and maybe also ‘Omnipotent’) incompatible by definition (per: Dan Barker, “Freewill Argument for the Nonexistence of God”)
Claim: God’s attributes are inseparable and thus made ‘compatible’
Evidence: Basically redefines God’s traits to eliminate the conflict, e.g., God is ‘mercifully just’, not ‘infinitely merciful’; also makes what is essentially a valid Compatibilist rebuttal: determinism is not incompatible with free will
Claim: God can’t be a disembodied mind
Evidence: All the minds we know of are embodied (see: Argument from Physical Minds)
Claim: God is not subject to our expectations in that regard
Evidence: God is beyond space, time, and matter (his mind is super-natural)
Claim: God has no observable effect on believers
Evidence: Believers are not better people than unbelievers, and don’t agree on moral issues (Argument from Moral Confusion; see: Atheistic Moral Arguments)
[ no reply; unless you count his Moral Argument as a rebuttal (see below); he did remark on people being fallible, perhaps to explain the observation, but that does not meet the statistical force of the argument ]
Claim: God is either nonexistent or indifferent to human suffering
Evidence: Children’s Hospital, suffering and death; “Argument from 9/11” (see: Argument from Evil)
Claim: God is not under trial, we are; implies everything that happens is good in the long run, only God knows why; we need evil to know what is good
Evidence: [ none given — see my discussion of the Trial Argument below ]
Claim: Belief in God is unnecessary
Evidence: Atheists are good people; Atheism is not a creed but a position and thus not all atheists can be lumped together (because they have different worldviews); Stalin, et al., did not kill to promote atheism
Claim: Atheists are bad people
Evidence: Atheists say and do things that offend others (like publish satires of God); there are evil atheists like Stalin, et al.
[ no reply ]
Claim: Atheism is unreasonable
Evidence: Atheism entails life and universe have no meaning or purpose
Claim: Atheism is possible
Evidence: God needs no cause, so neither does universe (Brute Fact Argument)
Claim: Atheism is impossible
Evidence: No creation ex nihilo
[ no reply; unless you count his Argument for Godless Morality as an implied rebuttal to the ‘no goals’ premise ]
Claim: Atheists are irrational [ so their unbelief is untrustworthy? Didn’t explain relevance of claim to the debate topic ]
Evidence: Atheists have no goals yet still came to this debate for some reason
Claim: Doesn’t look like God made universe
Evidence: Universe is poorly designed
Claim: Only our perception and understanding of the universe is imperfect, not the universe itself
Evidence: [ none given — see my discussion of the Argument from the Universe below ]
Claim: God cannot be a Person
Evidence: An Unlimited Being cannot be a Person
[ this argument was very muddled; I think rushing and time constraints led to fumbling this ball ]
[ notes (rightly I think) that the argument made no sense ]
[ no reply ]
Claim: Atheists have no explanation for the universe
Evidence: Atheists disagree about the universe, and offer no evidence or rational arguments to explain it
[ like an Argument from Confusion against Atheism, or maybe an indirect Argument to the Best Explanation? ]
[ no reply ]
Claim: We have specific evidence of God’s influence on the universe
Evidence: The Big Bang Expansion
[ unclear why this supports claim ]
Claim: Design can arise without a designer
Evidence: Evolution; Mind of Allah
Claim: Evolution cannot explain the entire world system [ he also says Allah is a necessary being, which may serve as a rebuttal to the Allah’s Mind example ]
Evidence: [ none given — I think he supposed this was self-evident ]
Claim: Theism merely replaces one mystery with another
Evidence: “Why does God exist?” Etc. (something like a ‘God-belief is a shell-game’ argument)
Claim: So what? God is a necessary being
Evidence: [ none given — apart from referencing his Argument from the Universe again (see below) ]
Claim: God is on trial (reiteration of Argument from Evil)
Evidence: God cannot be good and yet not do as a good person does; “Argument from 9/11”
Claim: God is already perfect and thus does not need to be put on trial; 9/11 was necessary as a test (for all those involved) and as an example of evil allowing us to know what is good; we cannot know what Allah knows
Evidence: [ none given ]
Claim: Science can and may some day explain everything, therefore we can’t presuppose God as explanation
Evidence: Evidence is available for the study of love, science has studied ethics, etc. [ incomplete rebuttal, but point was made in very limited time ]
Claim: Science will never explain everything [ therefore, or so the implication went, God is needed to explain everything ]
Evidence: Reason, Love, Hate, Ethics; cites Hawking on the explanatory limits of physics
Claim: There are atheistic moral systems that make sense
Evidence: Barker’s Harm Minimization Theory [ but this fails to address R.’s actual argument, which is both fallacious and false: see discussion of Argument from Absolute Morality below ]
Claim: Atheism entails moral relativism, which is reprehensible [ therefore, or so the implication went, there must be a God ]
Evidence: Atheists can’t say Nazis were wrong, etc. (see: Moral Argument for the Existence of God)
Claim: Efficacy of prayer has natural explanations
Evidence: Cites wife’s miraculous recovery without prayer; efficacy of godless meditation, social comfort, etc.; cites studies demonstrating flaws in prayer research (see: Faith Healing) [ no time left for reply to the ‘prayer makes us morally better’ argument ]
Claim: Prayer works, and makes us morally better [ therefore, or so the implication went, there must be a God ]
Evidence: Cites scientific studies of the efficacy of intercessory and other prayer, but no evidence given that praying makes us morally better [ except by implying that removing God from American schools has made us morally worse, though he gave no evidence for that claim either ]
[ unable to reply ]
Claim: Atheists know their position is untenable / ‘Hope’ is evidence for the existence of God
Evidence: No Atheists in Foxholes (gives example from personal experience)
I have colored gray every argument that stood inadequately rebutted at the end of the debate. The side with the most gray squares thus “won” the debate, in the sense that he made more unrebutted arguments than his opponent. That does not mean, of course, that every grayed argument was sound or valid, only that if these arguments were fallacious or false this was not pointed out by his opponent (or at least not sufficiently to count as a full rebuttal).
Yes, that means it is possible to “win” a debate on wholly bogus arguments. That is one reason why knowing who won a debate doesn’t tell you who was actually right. But we should always strive for the true victory: a good debate is a debate that is both won and won on valid and sound arguments. I have to conclude that Dan Barker technically lost this debate: the basic score was 7 to 2. But Rajabali’s victory is nothing to boast of: his arguments are largely unsound or invalid.
Note: To be fair, when I give weighted scores (3 points for a strong argument or rebuttal, 2 for a middling one, and 1 for a weak one) the score comes to 39 to 37 in favor of Barker, but that is only my opinion, not an objective fact. On the other hand, if we assign 1 point for every argument asserted without evidence, and 2 points for every argument asserted with evidence (regardless of the merit of the argument or evidence), the score comes out 36 to 37 in favor of Rajabali. If we place greater emphasis on evidence over argument (assigning 3 rather than 2 points to evidenced arguments) Barker wins 53 to 52. So no matter how you score it, except on the technical score of arguments vs. rebuttals, the debate comes out pretty darned close.
Note on Debate Strategy
The strategy for an atheist changes when the burden is placed on her, rather than the theist, because it is impossible to advance every available argument in any debate, so one must choose which sorts of arguments to emphasize, as well as how to structure your position. Though the burden actually belongs on the theist, presuppositionalists like Rajabali (see below) don’t agree (see Atheism, Theism and the Burden of Proof). Even so, taking on the burden can favor the atheist by making their position notably stronger, if successfully defended. It is of course more difficult to demonstrate a negative, but not impossible (see my essays “Proving a Negative” and “Did Jesus Exist?”).
The difference of approach is, primarily, to place a greater emphasis on positive “arguments against” (thus Barker carefully divided his case into negative and positive arguments) and not to rest solely on rebuttals, preemptive or otherwise. When the theist has the burden, the atheist need merely rebut every argument for theism. But that is insufficient when the burden is reversed. And I believe any successful “case against” a proposition must advance and defend an excluding alternative. That is, in a debate, everything predicted by the contended proposition must be explained by some other proposition(s) that exclude the contended proposition. For example, to defend the argument “Big Foot Does Not Exist” it is necessary to account for all the “evidence” for Big Foot in ways that exclude Big Foot as the cause of that evidence (like hoaxes, human error, etc.). And that means offering evidence for the alternative explanations, not merely pointing out their possibility. This is not necessary when faced with a positive burden (“Big Foot Exists”), since one need only show the mere inadequacy of the evidence, and a distinct but unproved possibility of alternative explanations will suffice (e.g., “I don’t have to explain the evidence, since you have not proved that it reliably indicates that Big Foot exists anyway”)
The best way to do this when defending atheism, I believe, is to stake your ground on an entire worldview and defend that, thereby winning the debate on an Argument to the Best Explanation (e.g., “Naturalism is true, therefore Theism is false”). Barker deployed Naturalism in this way, though not as effectively as he could have (for an example of a very effective use of this tactic, see the Lowder-Fernandes Debate). The reason is this: if all you do is poke holes in your opponent’s position, offering no explanation of your own, then you leave the proposition as it stood. You just lost. On the other hand, by defending a coherent ideology rather than merely playing Devil’s Advocate you are giving yourself a ready framework for responding to any claim made in the debate, and you will be able to rely on an abundance of evidence for your position that otherwise does not directly relate to the contended claim—because it does indirectly refute the intended claim if you give more reason to believe your entire system over your opponent’s. For your system as a whole entails that the contended proposition is false.
Another bit of advice: when stuck with a negative burden, it may be necessary (as it was in this debate) to articulate and actually defend as reasonable the position of agnosticism. In a positive burden agnosticism is moot: if the proposition is not successfully defended, then it does not stand. Winning in that case does not require explaining, much less defending, the merits of agnosticism. Not so in a negative burden debate.
First Point: “Argument from the Universe”
Rajabali’s position was based almost entirely on one macro-argument, which I shall dub here for convenience the “Argument from the Universe.” This was actually a conflation of three separate arguments within a larger covering argument, and since Rajabali seemed unaware of these distinctions his argument was often muddled and hard to pin down. This made Barker’s task difficult. But it was basically a confused reiteration of the same old Ontological, Cosmological, and Design arguments that have long been refuted. But Rajabali combined them to defend a rather novel position that I shall here call Evidential Presuppositionalism (surprisingly, he did not use the Kalam Cosmological Argument, even though it is Islamic).
Traditional Presupposition, advanced by several Christians today (see: The Transcendental Argument) is a logical or a priori argument. It argues that, in effect, human reason is impossible without God, therefore the atheist must either confess to being irrational or else presuppose God’s existence even to argue against it. On this argument, the nonexistence of God is impossible—unless, of course, we acknowledge that there is no such thing as reason or rational argument. Since that is a logical possibility, presuppositionalist arguments are not really valid arguments for the existence of God—even advancing evidence that reason does in fact exist does not help, since all evidence of reason may be an illusion created by our lack of rationality. Thus, presuppositionalism counts on the audience finding this possibility so personally repugnant that they would rather confess belief in God. That this is actually not a rational ground for belief-formation is an irony quite lost on presuppositionists. Of course, the argument is more gratifyingly refuted by demonstrating that no god is needed to explain the existence of reason and rationality.
Rajabali’s approach was quite different. Rather than starting with a logical, a priori position, he starts from an evidential, a posteriori position: we observe that we and the universe exist, but this is impossible without God, therefore God exists. This is a presuppositionalist argument because, according to Rajabali, it is logically impossible for this universe to exist otherwise—that is, you can never have a universe like the one we observe without a god, therefore it is impossible for God not to exist. In other words, the undeniable evidence of the senses presupposes there is a god and, therefore, atheism is absurd. Though the argument is for a logical impossibility, its premise is evidential (the universe as we observe it). Therefore I call it Evidential Presuppositionalism.
This has an advantage over Traditional Presuppositionalism because it does not appeal to an irrational motive for belief. If the argument is correct, then belief would be completely rational—Indeed, the only rational position. That is why Rajabali confessed to being “closed minded,” incapable of ever allowing that God might not exist, for Rajabali is a rational being, and reason leads to only one conclusion. But how are we to know this universe could not exist if not for God? This is where Rajabali introduces his conflated pea soup of arguments, and all four together make for his “Argument from the Universe.” This argument fails if we can show that God is not a necessary being in Rajabali’s sense.
The first of the three arguments Rajabali conflates is called the Ontological Argument. This holds that the nature of being in and of itself entails the existence of God. God exists necessarily, because if he didn’t, nothing would (but clearly something does, etc.). Rajabali never makes anything like a formal defense of this argument, but he clearly implies it at several points in the debate, like when he says that nothing can come from nothing, therefore something must necessarily exist that brought everything about, and that is God. Barker correctly refuted this argument by noting, at several points, that the universe itself, or some other impersonal (i.e., nonintelligent) entity, can be the required necessary being.
Barker should have elaborated, though, since I doubt the Muslim audience understood the point. Even if all matter, energy, space, and time are contingent beings, the mere potential for their arrival was probably not contingent, and thus was a necessary being (this “potential” could then be nothing more than the underlying “nature of the universe,” for example, or the Primordial Seed of the Big Bang, which may have been a dimensionless, mindless bundle of raw possibility, and so on). And on B-Theory Determinism, which is compatible with Naturalism (and the view I personally take), there is no such thing as a contingent being—all beings are necessary—making the entire universe its own necessary being.
The second argument conflated by Rajabali is called the Cosmological Argument. This holds that the universe must have had a First Cause, and that cause had to be God. This differs from the Ontological argument in that it depends on premises about causation, rather than on the nature of “being” in itself. While the Ontological Argument requires no evidence (it reasons to God’s existence by logic alone), the Cosmological Argument depends on evidence—evidence of the necessity of causation, especially, but also evidence that the universe began, hence Big Bang cosmology plays a big part in contemporary Cosmological Arguments, and that is exactly how Rajabali used it, though in a fairly unelaborated way. Barker made some attempt at rebutting this aspect of Rajabali’s case, but because Rajabali made no distinction, neither did Barker. Barker’s argument that the universe (or some aspect of it) is its own necessary being thus doubled as his argument that the universe (or some aspect of it) was its own cause. This claim definitely required some justification rather than mere assertion, and Barker didn’t do so well at providing that as I would have hoped.
The third conflated argument deployed by Rajabali is called the Argument to Design. This he relied on to a far greater extent than the other two. His examples ranged from remarkable order in the human body to the organization of the universe itself (the latter he deployed in a kind of loosely-stated Fine Tuning Argument, on which see my essay “Response to James Hannam”). His position here was somewhat self-contradictory, in that he openly accepted evolution as a natural phenomenon yet kept employing examples of its products as evidence of God’s work. Barker rightly rebutted this by discussing the natural basis of evolution. However, Rajabali also repeatedly emphasized that the very system of the universe that made evolution possible was evidence of design, and evolution did not explain that (he included in his array of examples a generic reference to physical constants, etc.). Barker never adequately rebutted this argument, at least not directly.
One argument that Barker used but didn’t have time to capitalize on is that there is imperfection in creation, and that does not seem likely on the hypothesis that God created it. Rajabali rebutted this by saying that there were no imperfections in creation: it is only the imperfections in us that cause us to see the world incorrectly. It never dawned on him that this was self-refuting. We are part of the universe. If we are imperfect, then creation is imperfect, and Barker’s point stands. But Barker never had an opportunity to go there. Instead, the audience was left with the impression that atheists couldn’t explain any of the “obvious” things Rajabali was pointing out, and therefore God probably exists (by way of an Argument to the Best Explanation). Rajabali’s position, of course, was that God necessarily exists, but he never demonstrated the logical syllogism grounding this assertion, and thus I think he only conveyed at best a probability argument in spite of himself. But this still left him in the lead. It seemed in the end that atheists could explain evolutionary design, but not how a universe happened to exist that was so well-arranged as to make evolution into human beings possible. And why does this universe exist at all, causally and ontologically? Barker didn’t explain.
Second Point: “Argument from Absolute Morality”
This kind of argument is technically invalid, since, just like Traditional Presuppositionalism, it appeals to an irrational motive for belief. In short, only God can justify a system of universal morality, so if there is no God, there is no moral truth, and that would mean “we’re all screwed” (to put it colorfully). Of course, maybe we are all screwed. Just because we want there to be an absolute morality, it does not follow there is an absolute morality. Just because some fact is personally repugnant to us, it does not follow that it isn’t true. Though there are more sophisticated forms of the Moral Argument that avoid this fallacy, Rajabali definitely wasn’t using any of them. His argument, made repeatedly (so often in fact it clearly was his second most important argument), was that atheism entailed moral relativism, moral relativism is repugnant to us, therefore atheism is false. That is simply an egregious fallacy. Nevertheless, as always, it was rhetorically very effective and brought ample agreement from the crowd.
Unfortunately, Barker never pointed out the fallacy in this argument. Nor did he ever really address the argument. He spent a great deal of time explaining how his own ethical system worked, but never once said why we should care. Rajabali saw this weakness and pounced on it again and again. Barker needed to explain why we should all agree with him, in other words why he was right (and, say, Hitler wrong) about what we ought to do with ourselves, how we ought to treat others. Though the attack was fallacious, even had Barker pointed that out, it still looked very bad to the Muslim audience. Atheism did not come off well that day, and I fear the audience was left with even more fear and disgust with atheists than they came in with. Rajabali even said atheists will do any crime if we think we can get away with it (by then, Barker had no time remaining for rebuttal,but a lot of preemptive damage control could have been done before it came to that).
The basis of Rajabali’s argument was that moral codes can only derive from divine accountability. Otherwise, since no one is accountable, no one will have any real motive to be moral, thus atheists are not “socially bound” in “any system.” As he put it, we “can’t legislate” Barker’s principles because there is no authority to enforce them. Barker responded with what turned into some interesting but disappointingly brief discussion of the morality of hell (i.e., we should be good because we are good, not because we want to get into heaven and avoid hell, etc.). Though that didn’t pertain to the actual debate topic (whether hell exists or not has nothing to do with whether God exists), this is clearly a point of vulnerability for Islam that debaters would do well to consider formulating better arguments for. The Koran is far more gruesomely explicit than the Bible about the tortures of hell and who will end up there, so a Muslim cannot deny the existence and awful nature of hell (unless he reinterprets it as an allegory for the natural consequences of ignorance and sin, per secular theories of morality as in my essays “Does the Christian Theism Advocated by J.P. Moreland Provide a Better Reason to be Moral than Secular Humanism” and “What an Atheist Ought to Stand For”).
From Q & A it was clear that many attendees were very concerned about how atheism could sustain a moral system. Indeed, most of the questions aimed at Barker were on metaethical concerns. This only made clearer the importance of this issue to our public image, key to overcoming irrational prejudices in audiences around the country. Any audience will dismiss all our facts and substantive points if they reject our worldview on ethical grounds. So if we leave them in that position we will have entirely wasted our time. No one will be swayed and we will not have improved their understanding of us or their respect for atheists generally. To the contrary, they might walk away with an even more negative view of atheists than they had coming in. I think it is thus very important to do better at this issue than has been done in debates of the past.
Note: Rajabali attacked a straw man of Barker’s Harm Minimization Theory and though this was entirely off the point of the debate, a brief remark is in order setting the record straight. Rajabali said it was impracticable because harm is necessary to do good, yet Barker said only unnecessary harm must be eliminated, not all harm, and all other harm must only be minimized, not eliminated. Rajabali also said atheists can’t know when harm is really minimized, but Barker made it clear that it was the intention that matters, not the unpredictable side effects of our behavior.
Third Point: The “Trial” Defense vs. the Argument from Evil
Rajabali’s best defense against any of Barker’s arguments was his response to the Argument from Evil, and its construction I think is most worth careful playback and study for anyone planning future debates. Barker addressed this rebuttal, but again I think he could have done better.
The defense Rajabali employed was what I will call the Trial Defense. It is not new—Christians have been using it for millennia. But Rajabali deployed it so forcefully, with such curious examples, that I am sure it looked like a good argument to many in attendance. Basically, the argument is that all evil is a test. Not only do ethical choices have to exist so God can test us, thereby sorting the good from the bad (and the existence of such choices entails that evils must exist), but we need to see evil in order to understand what is good.
Barker never rebutted this position adequately. There are many available refutations. One is to explain how a god would have no need of such cruel tests: since he can know our merits at once (not only because he made us and thus knows exactly how we will always tick, but even as Rajabali himself admitted God knows every choice we will ever make in the future) he can either judge us at once or let us suffer the tests. Since the one option entails far less misery than the other, but with absolutely no difference in the outcome, it follows that only a cruel God would choose the system Rajabali suggests, and that is the point of the Argument from Evil. Similarly, we do not need real evil to know either evil or good: myths and stories serve quite well to educate us about things we will never likely see for ourselves. Thus, Rajabali’s defense does not stand even on that count.
Of course, the Argument from Evil does not prove God does not exist (God might be evil after all), and thus is fallacious in this kind of debate if left to that point alone. But a proper deployment of the argument will complete the process by arguing that (say) Naturalism is a better explanation of such a cruel (or, rather, random) universe than God. This point would be especially clear if you show examples of gratuitous misery—misery that serves no reasonable purpose whatsoever even on Rajabali’s own assumptions. Unfortunately, Rajabali already preempted such a move by declaring such evidence impossible: any example of gratuitous evil we present would merely demonstrate our lack of understanding; it would not actually be gratuitous. This is the “God Knows Best” argument, also not new. It succumbs to the objection that it is unfalsifiable and thus is incapable of being known. But Barker did not articulate this rebuttal here; he only deployed it against Rajabali’s God belief (yet Rajabali’s response to that would not have been applicable here). Indeed, the “God Knows Best” theory is also compatible with the proposition “God is evil” and one might ask how Rajabali decides between the two (of course, as to the third and equally compatible proposition—“God does not exist”—Rajabali returned to his Argument from the Universe).
So much for the technicalities of debate. Now for a personal observation. Rajabali’s defense of God against the charge of cruelty is reprehensible and betrays a startling lack of compassion and imagination. Rajabali mocked Barker’s example of suffering children with some bluster about the absurdity of having invincible children. Yet it never occurred to him to ask: Why not? What would be so bad about a universe where physical injury didn’t exist? Beats me. It is strange that his imagination cannot even entertain the idea. So accustomed he is to the cruelty of this world that he takes it as perfection. He would rather our teachers burn us with brands than treat us with kindness and patience. A worldview that deadens your heart like that is truly scary.
Fourth Point: Shoring Up Agnosticism
Barker deployed the trifecta of God-of-the-Gaps Fallacy, The Problem of Unfalisfiability, and the Plausibility of Naturalism, but I don’t think as effectively as he could have. I don’t think the audience came away understanding how these three points are established or why they collectively undermine Rajabali’s case. As Barker said, “Evidence of our ignorance is not evidence for God,” but Rajabali seemed oblivious to the point. Rajabali also did not understand what agnosticism was, much less why Barker’s arguments justified it. This brings us to that issue of strategy I mentioned before: explaining and justifying agnosticism as a position was too important to this debate to give it short shrift.
Barker tried. He defined himself as a “hard atheist” with regard to the “God of the Revealed Religions.” Rajabali missed the significance of this, partly no doubt because Barker did not clearly explain what was different between this god concept and others (with respect to which Barker implied he is, at least in most cases, a soft atheist, i.e., agnostic). Rajabali clearly didn’t understand the equivalence of proper agnosticism and soft atheism, and instead treated agnosticism as some sort of ‘state of indecision’, thus arguing that agnosticism is not acceptable because “You can’t float forever in some limbo with no ideology.” But this is one definition of the word that in fact has no real basis apart from the same popular ignorance that classifies cucumbers as vegetables simply because “That’s what mommy told me.” The proper definition of agnosticism is well-discussed in the Secular Web’s section on Agnosticism, and the failure to grasp its meaning, and the form of its justification, misled Rajabali into a lot of empty rhetoric that I am sure looked good to his equally-ill-informed audience, though it totally missed the point. Some examples of things Rajabali was probably agnostic about (like the existence of alien abductions or mushrooms on Mars) would have exposed his error and clarified the point that agnosticism is a form of unbelief, and one that does not entail suspension of all beliefs, only some beliefs, so it does not entail the lack of an ideology—Barker did make something like this point, though again Rajabali missed it.
Barker could also have emphasized how a God that actively reveals himself to others is substantially different with regard to the evidence we are entitled to expect. For example, why hasn’t he revealed himself to us? Why are we supposed to trust a fallible human intercessor? And so on. Basically, a revealed God is a God who by definition gives some people direct and powerful evidence of his existence, thus it is manifestly strange that we don’t get any such evidence for ourselves.
Q & A: Pitching Balls for the Home Team
One final point about strategy: debating can be a team sport, especially when the audience is allowed to ask questions. As Barker said to me right before the debate, it is always nice if someone in the audience can tie up a loose end or two by posing the right kind of question. I did just that, and it worked beautifully: both of my questions were among those selected (they were submitted on cards and read by the moderator—a good method, since it keeps questions short and simple and on-point) and Barker hit both balls out of the park. He thus came out a bit better after Q & A than before it. To give you an idea of how you can help your side in a debate this way, this is what happened:
By the time Q & A was about to begin, it was clear to me that Rajabali had not established any reason to believe even if God existed. I was also curious what the Muslim position was on this, since it ties directly into the ethics of condemning to eternal torture those whose only crime is a mere lack of belief. So my first question was, in short, Why believe? Won’t Allah treat all equally good men equally regardless? Rajabali’s answer was decidedly uncompassionate (basically, atheists deserve what they get) and Barker was able to employ this to show how ethically questionable Rajabali’s belief in God was (a fair enough tactic given Rajabali’s own attacks on the character and moral position of atheists).
Better than that was my second question. Rajabali was defending a novel form of presuppositionalism and I wanted to test it. So I asked whether, if science one day explained everything, would he then concede that there might not be a god after all? He said this was impossible: science can never and will never explain everything, and therefore (in effect) atheism was impossible. Though his answer was predictable, forcing him to say this put his position into sharp relief—no one in the audience left that day unaware of the closed mindedness of his position (he was basically saying he can never be wrong about God’s existence). More importantly, Barker made good use of this, as I knew he would, driving the point home.
Addendum on Muslim Apologetics Handout
Formal public debates with Muslims are rare. It is thus important to provide as much advice as possible to atheists and other freethinkers regarding what they should do differently when approaching such a debate. To that end I include this addendum. But of obvious importance is all the material we catalogue and provide in our Modern Library section on Islam as well as those books for sale in our Bookstore under the subject “Islam.” Of course, all other debates are still of use in preparing: see Debates on Specific Arguments for Theism, Debates on Creationism, and Debates on Atheism. Now to my addendum.
Before the debate, everyone was handed a little pamphlet that included material “extracted from the book Inquiries About Islam ” that argued for theism against an unnamed “scientist” (the scientist’s name is Dr. Wilson H. Guertin, himself a believer). It took the interesting position that no holy book can ever be evidence for God, since one can only approach a book as holy after you already believe in God, and such belief should be based on evidence obvious to all people: “the evidence, which produces such a belief, must be universal and available to every rational being.” The evidence used in the pamphlet is Creation (understood as that which is consistent with scientific fact, deployed for theism in a conflation of arguments as I described earlier). This aligned with Rajabali’s strategy of avoiding the Koran almost completely (except for drawing parables and quotes, never as evidence) and emphasizing “The Universe” almost exclusively.
I suspect this will be typical of reasonable Muslim debaters, since I have encountered it from several quarters. In contrast, Muslim Fundamentalists tend not to have any real interest in reason, much less reasonable debate, and consequently they rely heavily on the Koran, selling it in one respect or another as a “miracle” that proves God. Thus, for those who will be engaging Muslims in formal public debates, I think you can expect more along the lines of Rajabali’s approach rather than the Fundamentalist approach, so that the Koran becomes effectively irrelevant to the question of theism per se (it becomes relevant, I imagine, when debating other theists, and the Tawheed Institute is setting up such a debate here at my university in the coming months—I will be sure to attend).
In fact, the pamphlet I was handed contains some concise yet effective arguments that can be used against Muslim Fundamentalists who insist on using the Koran as evidence in a debate, and debaters will thus find it handy (especially since the arguments are from a Muslim, and quoting your opponent’s own is a good tactic). For those interested, I recommend requesting this pamphlet from the Institute (it is copyrighted, so I cannot reproduce it for you).
However, the pamphlet contains one false claim and I want to make sure to point this out before closing. I had prepared a question for Rajabali thinking he would repeat this falsehood, which I was curious to see since as a molecular biologist he ought to know better. But apparently he did know better. The claim, not used in the debate, was: “inanimate material does not increase by self-reproduction. Only living beings are capable of multiplying by self-reproduction.” If one could reformulate this argument so as to exclude obvious falsifying examples like crystallization, it still would not be deductively valid (it is not necessarily true), but it could have been used in Pasteur’s day as an inductive argument (i.e., the claim could perhaps have been said to be probably true; the pamphlet in fact cites Pasteur as having ‘proved’ the claim). But the claim has since been scientifically refuted. We know of several inanimate chemicals, made by artificial processes that could occur in nature, that self-reproduce. I discuss some of them in my essay “Are the Odds against the Origin of Life Too Great to Accept?”). Thus, when the pamphlet says “the scientists of today are still unable to disprove [Pasteur’s] conclusion” it is stating a falsehood.
The pamphlet had one other notable argument, a defense against the Argument from Divine Hiddenness, that those who may face Muslim opponents should also be familiar with. It basically argues that, first, because God is everywhere “his visibility is not going to make us believe in Him or know Him” since “His visibility would be blinding,” in fact “we would perish” at the sight of Him. So he cannot make himself visible—indeed, we are lucky we can’t see God. The argument is carried using air as an analogy: obviously it must be invisible or else it would obstruct our vision and make life impossible. The analogy of course breaks down on the point that air is nevertheless evident to the senses (it can be felt, heard, seen with instruments, weighed, etc.). A similar analogy about the invisibility of electricity also fails for the same reason. But fallacious analogies aside, the argument being deployed here is a Straw Man: God does not need to make himself entirely, blindingly visible to make himself evident. The Argument from Divine Hiddenness rests on the claim that God gives us no direct evidence of any kind. Since he need merely give us evident “signs” and speak to us personally, the fact that he doesn’t makes more sense on atheism than theism. That is the problem, and the rebuttal attempted here does not solve it.
I give examples in the following essays of the sorts of evidence a god could give us but doesn’t, evidence that would change my worldview and would, if carried through, make me a believer in God:
- “A Fish Did Not Write This Essay”
- “The Problem with Miracles”
- “Moreland’s ‘Christian Science’”
- “Geivett’s Exercise in Hyperbole”
- “Newman on Prophecy as Miracle”
- “The Event is Not Proportionate to the Theory”
- “No Miracles Today Implies None Then”
- “Response to James Hannam”
- “Conclusion (Part 11 of “Bad Science, Worse Philosophy”)”