Promises, misunderstandings, and more promises

(Text: “Debating an Atheist — Round Two“, Soli Deo Gloria, July 8, 2012)

Pastor Stephen Feinstein wraps up his second post the way he began it: with more promises about what he’s going to do at some point, plus a misunderstanding or two. His presentation isn’t going to advance the discussion a whole lot, but at least we can take a look at what he has to say and perhaps clarify a point or two.

He begins with another statement of his superstition that God is somehow responsible for the existence of intelligibility, which he thinks is going to trump every possible atheistic argument.

Christianity must be true because without it we lose all intelligibility.

Why did I frame it this way knowing that you will shake your head at it? Well, it is rather simple. It is the thesis of my argument for the existence of the Biblical God. After we go back and forth a number of times, it will have plenty of meat and bones and it will stand over anything you might be able to say.

Notice he apparently has a pre-planned script in mind: he expects Russell to make one or more stereotypical remarks, for which he has certain “zingers” prepared that theoretically will make it sound like the atheist’s answer wasn’t as good as it should be. Unfortunately, he can’t deliver his zingers until the atheist sets up the straight line that will make it all zing. Meanwhile, he’s reduced to promising over and over that he’s going to stomp us.

Of course, I don’t want you to start worrying that I am going to turn this into fideism, meaning faith against reason. No my friend. I will give you a lot of evidence. I will use much reasoning and logic. I will fall back to epistemology frequently. And at the end of it, your position will no longer justifiably be called as rational.

Technically, he’s already broken this promise by including the Trinity as part of the foundation for his so-called epistemology, and there’s no way the Trinity can justifiably be called a rational concept. That’s why the Church had to adopt the term “mystery” as a theological technical term meaning “that which the mind of man cannot discover through sense and reason alone.” You cannot, by application of logic and reason, arrive at a valid conclusion both that there is one God, and that each of three distinct persons is God without being three distinct Gods and without “God” being a collective noun like “species” or “race.” Pastor Feinstein has to simply accept this proposition by faith against reason, which means that his epistemology is based on faith against reason.

I understand that this is bold for me to speak like this, but I am so convinced of the transcendental necessity of the Biblical God and all of the reasoning and evidence to go along with it, that I have this confidence. I am so convinced of the truthfulness, perspicuity, and infallibility of the Bible and the worldview it presents that I confront your position with such boldness.

In the end, though, what counts is not how bold you are, but how correct you are. Boldness without accuracy is merely annoying. And in his next paragraph, he gives us a good example of boldness without accuracy, through his discussion of atheism as what he calls “a distinct philosophy.”

All things considered, atheism is a metaphysical position about reality. Regardless of what any given atheist holds (e.g. materialism, non-divine spirits, Theravada Buddhism), the position that no God exists is a distinct view of reality… That is the first marker of a philosophy.

Notice the bait-and-switch: he began with atheism as “a distinct philosophy,” but then quickly substituted the idea that atheism is “a metaphysical position about reality,” and finally replaced that with atheism as a mere “distinct view of reality.” So we’ve gone from “atheism is a distinct philosophy” to “atheism is a distinct view of reality.” That’s true in the sense that atheism is defined in terms of gods not being real, but there are also any number of other things that are equally “a distinct view of reality” (in the same sense that atheism is) without being distinct philosophies.

Let’s name a few: the belief that Santa Claus does not exist, the belief that cutting taxes does not reduce the deficit, the belief that people are not the reincarnation of souls that are born over and over until they work out their karma, the belief that aliens in UFO’s are not abducting people to find out what they’re hiding in their butts, etc. etc. Yes, these are distinct propositions regarding which things are or are not real, but it’s stretching a point to describe such conclusions as “a distinct view of reality.” Like atheism, such propositions are not systems of thought, like a philosophy, but merely a specific enumeration of some particular thing held not to be true. Pastor Feinstein boldly argues that atheism is a specific philosophy (i.e. a systematic approach to understanding the world), but his argument lacks accuracy.

Second, all atheists have a distinct view of knowledge (e.g. human autonomy; Theravada yoga; etc.). They believe that we learn truth about reality through certain means.

In order for atheism to be a distinct philosophy, it’s not enough that every atheist has his or her own distinct view of knowledge. They must all have the same view of knowledge, and their view of knowledge must be different from the view held by every non-atheist. Otherwise their view of knowledge is not specifically an atheistic view of knowledge, but is merely a view that happens to be held by some atheists (and some non-atheists).

Solipsism, for example, is an atheistic view, since it holds that gods, like everything else, are illusion. This is not “the” atheistic view of knowledge, even though anyone who held it would have to be an atheist, by definition. At best it could be an atheistic view of knowledge, even though it would be held by few atheists, if any. (Technically, it could only be held by at most one.) So atheism is not a view of knowledge, nor is there any particular view of knowledge that is “the” atheistic view.

Finally, atheists believe in a theory of ethics. Even the psychopath has the ethical position that no authoritative ethical position exists that he/she is bound by. By definition, that is still a position.

But again, Pastor Feinstein makes the same mistake. The psychopath may or may not be a theist. Does a theistic psychopath make psychopathic morals the theistic theory of ethics? The fact that each atheist has some theory of ethics or other does not mean that all atheists have the same theory, nor does it mean that no non-atheists hold the same theory. And in fact, the reverse is commonly the case. There’s currently no shortage of utilitarian arguments among some believers for why God would be perfectly fine with Christians killing Muslims, for example. The fact that this is bad ethics does not change the fact that theists embrace it. Nor does this make such rationalizations the theistic moral system.

Pastor Feinstein does much better when he abandons his attempts to make atheism a distinct philosophy, and switches to describing his arguments as targeted at common attitudes held by typical Western atheists.

I acknowledge that not all atheists fall into that framework. However, of the most notable atheists that have written in the last 300 years, most do fall into the definition and examples that I gave.

Had he agreed up front that he was only addressing common arguments advanced by recent atheists instead of trying to disparage atheism by framing it as a religion comparable to Christianity, he could have saved himself a lot of poorly-conceived and badly-executed rationalizations.

I still assert that we are talking about the most prevalent stream of atheistic thought in the Western world, and thus this debate is against far more than just your personal view. Instead it is the typical atheism that we Christians run into on a daily basis, and my position is not just my own, but instead it represents the Biblically minded Christians that atheists run into everyday.

Also perfectly fine, provided he realizes that he is only addressing certain specific atheistic arguments, and that even if he were successful, he would not be proving that God did exist, but only disproving certain arguments that say He doesn’t. I’m not sure he wants to do that, and in fact I suspect that the reason he wants to make atheism into a single, specific philosophy is so he can claim to have defeated it and then say, “Therefore God.”

Pastor Feinstein wraps up with a response to Russell’s observation that “All else being equal, it’s better not to assume that something is true without good reasons.” (Emphasis Pastor Feinstein’s.)

I could make the same statement. It is better for me not to assume that the universe somehow made itself through random processes, that time (a category of motion) started its own motion from non-motion, that personal beings randomly came into existence from impersonal matter and chance, and so on since there is no good reason whatsoever to believe it. I’ve seen persons come from persons, and I’ve seen orderly systems of technology come from designers. I have seen a farmer produce a field of agriculture, but I have never seen a field produce a farmer. I have seen mechanics produce tractors, but I have never seen a tractor produce a mechanic. So with that being said, I have by your own words that I should not “assume that something is true without good reasons.” A personal God, distinct from creation, that is sovereign, and that is Triune makes so much better sense.

To the superstitious man, superstition is the best possible reason, and therefore Pastor Feinstein argues that he has better reasons for ascribing the universe to an arbitrary magical creator than scientists have for connecting the universe with processes and constraints that we can actually verify in the real world. Pastor Feinstein even overlooks the delicious irony of claiming a Triune God makes better sense than science. Really, a Triune God that even believers could not make sense out of, forcing them to consign it to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” agnosticism of theological Mystery? Better sense than science?

Pastor Feinstein’s superstition can partially be accounted for by his apparent ignorance of actual science. Yes, the universe began at the Big Bang, but so did time itself. That means the material universe has quite literally existed for all time, and there has never been a time when the universe did not exist, just as there has never been a time when time did not exist. Or to put it another way, there was never a time before the universe when nothing existed, and thus never any opportunity for “nothing” to produce “something.” The universe was never “made,” not even by God, since there has never been a time when it did not already exist, and thus questions about how it was made are completely moot.

Atheistic, materialistic science tells us that persons come from persons, and technology comes from designers, and fields do not produce farmers, or at least not over periods observable during a single human life span. Science tells us a lot of other things as well, like how the electrostatic properties of organic molecules can allow for variations in how they’re put together, leading to systems that naturally evolve and that are influenced by their environments in ways that make some configurations more statistically likely than others, ultimately producing sophisticated ecologies in which the various species adapt to their niches naturally and without any need for intelligent direction. And since the natural processes we observe and verify are sufficient to account for the species we observe, there is no good reason to superstitiously assume that some kind of magical, invisible Person must have deliberately designed them all.

Pastor Feinstein closes with one last promise.

Russell, I will give you good reasons to believe in the God of the Bible and I hope to demonstrate to you that you are the one who believes in atheism for no reason, whereas I have plenty of reason to believe in my God. I think by this point I’ve shown you which direction I am going to take this. I am interested to see where you are planning to take it. I think the phase of using feelers is coming to an end.

In other words, hurry up and give me my cues, so I can unleash my zingers. 😉

We’ll pick this up next week with Post #3, and see how well that script works out for him. Will he continue treading water and promising to have some super duper arguments that will end atheism for all time? Or will he actually deliver? Stay tuned.

14 Responses to “Promises, misunderstandings, and more promises”

  1. Zoe Ellen Brain Says:

    Am I the only one who thinks that this is a serious, solemn discussion about whether or not Santa Claus can beat up the Easter Bunny?

    Or to put it more charitably, whether the NCC-1701 Enterprise could beat the Battlestar Galactica?

    • Francois Tremblay Says:

      That’s a terrible comparison. At least discussions about comparing fictional universes assume common laws of physics and mathematics for the comparison to take place. Presup debating is more like a child wielding an Enterprise model and going “PEW! PEW! I beat you!”

  2. Rodney Nelson Says:

    I’m less than impressed by the pastor. He keeps promising us arguments but the delivery is extremely slow. Plus, as noted, he talks about cosmology without understanding the subject.

  3. Skepticali Says:

    I tried to read this debate transcript as well, and started drooling during this 2nd post from the Pastor. It sounded like a filibuster. Now that you’re writing this series, I’m motivated to read their original posts – but Feinstein HAS to get better, doesn’t he?

  4. Michael Buchheim Says:

    Enjoying your deconstruction of Feinstein’s arguments. I think you hit the bull’s-eye claiming that he was working off a script. He was prepared to fight a straw-man, not Russel.

  5. Naked Bunny with a Whip Says:

    Yes, the universe began at the Big Bang, but so did time itself.

    Notions which are still being debated as science learns more about how the world works, rather than being dogmatic statements of faith from which all other conclusions must be drawn.

  6. mikespeir Says:

    We see this kind of thing all the time, don’t we? Deep words as cover for shallow thoughts?

  7. Naked Bunny with a Whip Says:

    Or will he actually deliver?

    Considering he ended this essay with “I haven’t seen humans evolve from hydrogen with my own eyes, therefore God”….

  8. Alex SL Says:

    Two observations:

    It is astonishing how often philosophers but especially apologists and theologians seem to make arguments from time, causality, probability, etc., without ever bothering to check back with the relevant field of science or math whether their argument is even coherent, much less correct. “Time (a category of motion)” – pfff.

    But I think the saddest part is that he actually seems to believe that if atheism = false, then his personal trinitarian Christian sect = true. I can kind of understand, even if not agree with, people who have convinced themselves of the first, but surely it is not rocket science to figure out that the most that follows from it is some kind of unspecified deism, or perhaps even just agnosticism?

  9. Rain Says:

    “Christianity must be true because without it we lose all intelligibility.”

    Yeah, that doesn’t sound anything like he’s cheerleading for the home team. Go team go!

  10. Russell Wain Glasser Says:

    It’s nice to get this other perspective on our conversation and realize yeah, it’s not just my imagination — Stephen was this full of crap every step of the way. You’ll notice when you read my end of the conversation in round 2 that I start to get gradually more snarky about some of the points you mentioned — Stephen keeps promising to bring this amazing argument, but then he sits around stalling and not bringing that argument. And in future posts, when I suggest that he’s making many assertions without backing them up with solid arguments, he says, “I DID make the arguments, I’m not going to tell you where but go back and read my previous posts.”

    Your point about stalling so that I can say things and he can zing them is well taken. Maybe in fact some of those arguments were in the zinger script and he just never got around to writing them in our discussion, but assumed that they were points that had been made because he meant them in his heart.

    You mentioned that this is post two out of only five. Bear in mind that at first we hadn’t set a hard time limit, but we did agree to a rule in advance saying we could request at any time to take a few more rounds and then wind up. It takes me one more post after this before I decide it’s time to call that in. Stephen’s posts do get wordier and wordier without getting more substantive, and he also starts getting more and more snide when his zingers don’t seem to be landing, or something.

  11. pboyfloyd Says:

    “Christianity must be true because without it we lose all intelligibility.”

    He’s using this as a ‘confirmatory’ premise a la, “Everything that begins to exist has a cause.”, as if he is talking to people who already believe his conclusion.

    He can ramble on about what he is going to do, what he is going to prove, and so on, slipping in what we imagine is a premise where we might add ‘if’, or ‘if it’s true that’.

    But no, we’re just supposed to take his word for this now, because, well, because he’s a man of God, don’t you know.

    It’s my ‘theory’ that this is a hypnotic technique, keep going on about what you’re going to do, slip in one or more ‘confirmatory premises’ which, if you let slip by as if they’re the regular kind of premises, as in, not take them for granted, then you’ve already been fooled into admitting his position.

    He’ll never tell you this, but other Christians will agree that he made his point, that he slipped his point by you, you just don’t realise that you’d already agreed with him.

  12. Pacal Says:

    “I could make the same statement. It is better for me not to assume that the universe somehow made itself through random processes, that time (a category of motion) started its own motion from non-motion, that personal beings randomly came into existence from impersonal matter and chance, and so on since there is no good reason whatsoever to believe it. I’ve seen persons come from persons, and I’ve seen orderly systems of technology come from designers. I have seen a farmer produce a field of agriculture, but I have never seen a field produce a farmer. I have seen mechanics produce tractors, but I have never seen a tractor produce a mechanic.”

    I really hate this sort of deliberate strawmaning. The sheer amount of distortion and bilge in those comments is huge. What Rev. Feinstein is doing is uttering hot button phrases and clichés that are utterly routine in Creationist circles.

    It is a distortion amounting to falsification designed to score points at the expense of truth. I also note the argument from incredulity. I further note he seems to have no problem with God puffing the Universe from nothing.

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