We look at the ancient Greeks with their gods on a mountaintop throwing lightning bolts and say, “Those ancient Greeks. They were so silly. So primitive and naive. Not like our religions. We have burning bushes talking to people and guys walking on water. We’re… sophisticated.
Every Christian argument has an element of Common Christian Mistake #1, special thinking. To believe their religious doctrines, Christians must use a double standard. They must apply a common way of reasoning – a common sense – to the vast majority of their beliefs. And then they use a different logic to justify their religious ideas. I talk more about special thinking here.
I also want to mention three other errors of thinking common to Christian arguments. When a Christian starts defending their faith, you will usually hear one of these within 30 seconds. Listen for them, and call them out by name.
Retreat to the possible
One common mistake is the retreat to the possible. Christians often say, “If X is true, then it’s still possible that God exists.” But truth-seekers are not interested in what is merely possible. We want to know what is probable.
After all, it’s possible there are green men on Mars. It’s possible that the African tribal god Mbombo got a stomach ache and vomited the sun, moon, and stars into existence. It’s possible that the alignment of stars and planets affects our personality. It’s possible that Yahweh created the earth only 6,000 years ago and will return with an army of angels to slaughter the unbelievers.
But unless we have some good reason to believe any of these things, their chances of being true are virtually nil, along with a trillion other wild ideas.
Dinesh D’Souza made an astonishing retreat to the possible in a debate with Christopher Hitchens.1 Hitchens pointed out that the laws of physics are not broken, despite Christianity’s claims that, “Ah! Those laws can be suspended. And in your favor, too! …if you make the right prayers… A virgin can conceive, a dead body can walk again!”
D’Souza replied that “there is no scientific law at all for which we could say that there are no exceptions… How do we know [the speed of light]? We’ve measured it. One time. Two times. Ten times. A million times. [But] how do we know that on a distant star 5 million light-years away, light travels at that speed? Do we know? We do not know… And if scientific laws do admit the possibility of exceptions, miracles are possible.”
But, Dinesh: if we measure something a million times and it always comes out the same way, are you going to bet against those one million measurements? D’Souza seems to admit he is betting on something that contradicts all our evidence and experience – merely because it is theoretically possible. But so is the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot disprove him, either.
Shifting the burden of proof
A related mistake is shifting the burden of proof. Christians say, “But that doesn’t disprove God!” And they are usually right. It’s hard to prove a negative. We cannot disprove Thor, either.
But this is misleading. It is Christians who are making a claim that some exists: that an all-powerful, all-knowing invisible being created the universe and its humans, listens to their prayers, breaks the laws of physics on their behalf, helped write a bunch of ancient books, and hates gays. It is not the atheist’s job to disprove that. It is the Christian’s job to give some reasons to think all that is true.
If I said there is a magical teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars, would it be your duty to prove me wrong? No! It would be my duty to provide some reason to believe in the magical teapot.
A Christian might say I have a burden of proof because I’m claiming there are no gods. Not really. I’m just saying that nobody ever gave me a good reason to believe in any gods, so I reject them along with the tooth fairy and Santa Claus.
When pressed, I don’t claim that “There are no gods.” I claim that “There is no better reason to believe in Yahweh or Allah than there is to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, pagan gods, an all-evil god, or fairies.” So every time a Christian gives me some reason to believe in their God, I try to show them why that argument fails miserably under common sense.
Argument from ignorance
A fourth mistake is the argument from ignorance. We humans don’t like to be ignorant. When we don’t know how something works, we just invent an explanation and feel content that we “know.” As Edward Abbey put it, “Whatever we cannot easily understand we call God; this saves much wear and tear on our brain tissues.”
Humans have a long history of this. When we didn’t know how anything worked, we just said there were little spirits inside everything. Little spirits made rocks fall, trees grow, dogs run, rivers flow.2
We didn’t understand how the weather, crop failure, or childbirth worked, so we made up invisible gods who would accept sacrifices. That way we felt we had some control over these things. If your health was failing, make some sacrifices and you’d eventually get better. Maybe. If the gods felt like it.
Christians often say, “Science cannot explain X,” as if God is therefore the best explanation. This is no better than the ancient Greeks saying, “Our science cannot explain lightning, therefore Zeus makes it.”
Christianity can explain many things that science cannot. So can Scientology. So can Islam. David Shotwell has an idea that explains some things that science cannot: every subatomic particle is inhabited by a ghostly little gremlin, which maintains order via instantaneous telepathic communication with all other ghostly gremlins.
None of these ideas are “better” than science because they “explain more.” They explain more because they have no standards for evidence.
And in fact, these theories don’t really “explain” anything. If you ask, “How did God create the universe?” or “How did God create consciousness?” or “How do the gremlins communicate telepathically?” the answer is, basically: “Magic.” That doesn’t explain anything.
Christians often point out flaws or limitations in science as if they made Christian ideas more likely. That doesn’t work, in the same way that pointing to flaws or gaps in our understanding doesn’t increase the chances that Zeus or Allah or unicorns exist.
That ain’t no reason…
If you’re a believer, my hope is that after each of my posts on common arguments for the existence of God, you’ll think, “There may be good reasons to believe in God, but I can see why that isn’t one of them.”
After a while, you may see there are no reasons left. That’s what happened to me. I wanted to believe in God so badly that I looked for any reason I could find to believe. One by one, I had to admit that each argument failed. Finally, left with no more reason to believe in God than in The Flying Spaghetti Monster, I reluctantly gave up my faith.
Months later, I discovered what a gift I’d given myself. But that’s another story. For now, I hope atheists and Christians will call out these four common thinking mistakes when they see them.
- Watch the debate between Dinesh D’souza and Christopher Hitchens here. Dinesh makes the same retreat to the possible in chapter 16 of his book What’s So Great About Christianity. [↩]
- The origins of religion are hotly debated, and animism – little spirits in everything – is but one theory. Nevertheless, it is an ancient belief system, and still the dominant worldview in Botswana, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, and other countries. A scholarly but readable history of the idea of god is found in Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. [↩]