Defeating Religion in One Easy Step, part 1

Part 1 – Laying the Groundwork

Luke Muehlhauser, the proprietor of Common Sense Atheism, has proposed that we can defeat religions in one easy step.  To do so, he takes a broad look at different arguments for God and notices what they all have in common: They all posit God as the best explanation for something.

The problem?

How does saying “God did it” explain any of these things? How does “God did it” offer a solution to any of the problems that philosophers and scientists are working on? When you’re confronted with a difficult problem, you can’t just say “Well, I guess it was magic.” That doesn’t solve anything!

“Poof! Magic” is not an explanation.

How is he going to argue that God isn’t the best explanation?  He begins by listing reasons that an explanation would be good:

  1. It’s testable and it passes the tests we give it.
  2. It’s consistent with our background knowledge and experience.  (What philosopher Tom Morris called The Principle of Belief Conservation).
  3. It’s simpler than the alternatives.
  4. It has good explanatory scope — in other words, it explains a wide variety of data.

Luke argues that “God did it” fails all four of these criteria:

For example, is the God hypothesis testable? No. Saying “God did it” renders no specific predictions for us to test, because God is all powerful and he could be responsible for anything. And theologians are very insistent on this because if they started to make the God hypothesis more specific and he would render specific predictions, it usually turns out that he fails the test. So they’ve been very careful to make God this mysterious, all-powerful thing and we don’t understand his purposes and he could be doing just about anything and we wouldn’t understand why. So there are no specific predictions that come out of the God hypothesis; there’s no way to test it. And it doesn’t make sense to say God is the best hypothesis if there’s no way to test whether or not that hypothesis is true.

This seems to work prima facie.  In fact, this summarizes two websites (Why Won’t God Heal Amputees? and God is Imaginary) in one paragraph — without the red herrings, arrogant sense of superiority, and overbearing rhetoric.

Unfortunately, it isn’t without the same bad theology.  This reply doesn’t work because it argues against a straw man while misunderstanding some basic points about the nature of God.

First, God’s motives aren’t mysterious.  God makes all things work out for the sake of those that love him (Rom 8:1).  God makes himself plain to the fools and obscures himself from the self-professed “wise” (1 Cor 1:18-31).

Second, the New Atheist mindset makes God a thing and tries to point to experiments that “prove” prayer doesn’t work as evidence that God doesn’t exist.  The problem with that is that God isn’t a thing or a force; but a living, acting intelligence with a will of his own.  For that reason, tests of the efficacy of prayer are difficult since God is free to not honor the prayer (by nature, a prayer is a request, not a demand; and despite atheistic contentions to the contrary it is not promised by Jesus that God will answer every prayer affirmatively).

Some may argue that I’ve proven Luke’s point for him.  But what I’ve done is created a testable prediction.

  1. God answers prayer.
  2. God obscures himself from the intellectual elite.

There is one additional thing Luke has overlooked.  God has warned us that we shouldn’t test him.  Jesus reiterates this to Satan in Matthew 4.  Putting (1) & (2) together with this new point, I propose that we would expect direct tests or experiments to fail every single time.  I would further propose that genuine appeals have a much higher likelihood of an affirmative reply.

Why Won’t God Heal Amputees? cites the case of Jeanna Giese, in which it appears heartfelt prayers actually saved a little girl from dying of rabies.  However, the same site points out that all of the “test” or experimental trials don’t seem to work.  Score one for a testable prediction!

Tomorrow, I’ll answer whether God fails the second criterion.

About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on January 30, 2014, in Apologetics. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I wonder about the “failed prayer” test as well. One thing that I’ve pointed out in the past is that the notion that there is “no difference” between people being prayed for and those who aren’t is that there is literally no way to do a control on that kind of experiment. For example, in one that I recall (I could be wrong here), the testers had a group where some people prayed for a group of cancer patients, while the other group of patients were not being prayed for.

    Well, every night when I pray part of my petition is something to the effect of: “Lord, be with those who are ill…” Thus, I just ruined that test group. I would envision there are people out there who cover all kinds of other prayer topics that could be “tested” for.

    What do you think of that?

    • I’ve never liked the prayer experiments. The scientific method is designed to isolate variables and that’s inherently difficult to do in the social sciences because you can’t control people. For example, in a prayer study, they wouldn’t account for people in the control group being prayed for by people that aren’t a part of the study.

      In all, I don’t think prayer IS something we can test effectively in a scientific experiment.

  2. I should probably mention that I’m an atheist. That doesn’t mean I think I can disprove God. I just think that God almost certainly doesn’t exist. Why? No evidence (as far as I’m aware.)

    “1.God answers prayer.
    2.God obscures himself from the intellectual elite.”

    How do you know God answers prayers? Can you point me towards some evidence of this? You’ll no doubt recall that one experiment where praying for the sick failed to show any positive results. I can try to get you a link if you haven’t read about it.
    Why would God obscure himself from anyone? Why does God remain hidden from us (if he exists)?

    “I propose that we would expect direct tests or experiments to fail every single time.”

    That would mean that we can’t find any experimental evidence of God.

    “I would further propose that genuine appeals have a much higher likelihood of an affirmative reply.”

    Has prayer ever worked?

    “in which it appears heartfelt prayers actually saved a little girl from dying of rabies”

    I’m guessing that it was her immune system saved her, but then how do we even know the story of this little girl is true? How could we ever find out?

    “Score one for a testable prediction!”

    I agree with you that God is testable and that Luke is wrong on that one.

    I will reply to the other parts on their respective pages.

    • I don’t believe we can find any experimental evidence for God. That was the thrust of my article.

      I also don’t believe I could ever show you, beyond a reasonable doubt, that prayer works.

      In philosophy of religion, we can never remove the “mystical experience” from the equation. That thing, whatever it is, that some might say is hogwash or the product of drug-induced stupor (“A burning bush talked to you? Whatever you say, Moses…”).

      But we may not be able to prove it definitively.

      So what? I believe it works. Others believe it works. And we think that attempts to test it both cheapen it AND are doomed to failure.

      But, before you think I’m hastily dismissing you or punting to “faith,” let’s ask a much more fundamental question. If something “fails,” as most atheists believe prayer does, it indicates that there is a standard it is falling short of. To quote the definition that the wise pharmacist from Phineas & Ferb uses, “works = functions properly.” Prayer doesn’t work; or, it doesn’t function properly.

      So, how do you think prayer is supposed to work? Perhaps it was never meant to work the way you think it does. Meaning, it isn’t prayer that’s faulty, but your definition of it.

      • “I don’t believe we can find any experimental evidence for God. That was the thrust of my article.”

        So why believe?

        “I also don’t believe I could ever show you, beyond a reasonable doubt, that prayer works.”

        I thought you believed that prayer can work?

        ““mystical experience”

        I’ve had a few delusional experiences in my life and they were very convincing at the time but I still look back at them as delusional. Neither of them were drug induced btw. Why don’t we have even more mystical experiences? See them happening all of the time? Have them on video?

        I would have thought that prayer would at least occasionally produce results such as the re-growing of severed limbs or producing other even more unlikely results. What does prayer actually do? Has prayer worked for you. For instance I prayed, despite being an agnostic-atheist, that I could be turned in to a God. Hasn’t happened yet. 🙂

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