Exposing The Straw-god Argument

A common move made by atheists today, is to commit the logical fallacy of a straw-man argument in presenting an argument against God. This is not necessarily a deliberate misrepresentation of theism in general or Christianity in particular, but it’s still a misrepresentation that causes their argument to fly right by all who genuinely believe.

One of the most common examples of this, is the false dichotomy between reason and faith. This is well encapsulated by Sam Harris, who claims that reason and faith are in a zero-sum game (a perfect tug-of-war). While this is convenient for atheists to believe, it simply doesn’t fit the facts. By definition, theology is the application of reason to our exegesis of the Bible, and to exclude all theologians from those who have faith, is to exclude all Christians.

While atheists reason from a different premise (namely, that there is no God), they simply do not have the monopoly of reason (no matter how many dogmatic meetings they call ‘reason rallies’). Reason can take you from premise A to conclusion B, but reason alone cannot justify a given premise. Premises are generally drawn from observation or experience, and atheists and theists typically divide on fundamental premises.

Of course, if one demands that all faith (belief without proof) is blind faith (belief without evidence), then atheists would have a significant point. Believing something without any evidence whatsoever is hardly reasonable. But there isn’t a single theist in the world who would concede that their faith is based on zero evidence, or that it’s opposed to reason. This is what makes this objection a straw-god argument, if you think that Christianity is unreasonable, then you haven’t understood Christianity.

Another example of a straw-god argument is Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot, or the more recent equivalent of the flying spaghetti monster. In Russell’s words: “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.” (Bertrand Russell, Is There a God?)

Unfortunately, there are significant problems with comparing God to a celestial teapot or a flying spaghetti monster. We know a quite lot about celestial objects and about teapots, and everything we know about them indicates that there aren’t any celestial teapots (because teapots are made on earth). We also know quite a lot about flying objects, about spaghetti, and about monsters, but everything that we know about them indicates that there aren’t any flying spaghetti monsters (because monsters aren’t made of spaghetti).

However, God is in a very different category. If there is a God, the only way we could ever know something about him beyond his mere existence is if he revealed himself to us. Celestial teapots, flying spaghetti monsters, leprechauns, unicorns etc. are specific enough that we would know exactly what to look for and where, and so the absence of evidence for unicorns really is evidence of their absence.

But given that the only way we could ever know what God is like is if he revealed himself to us, God’s existence is more like the existence of aliens: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence because unless they reveal themselves to us, their detection is effectively impossible. It’s the difference between Hamlet looking for evidence of unicorns in the world of Hamlet, and Hamlet looking for evidence of Shakespeare. Or as David Bentley Hart has described:

“It is rather as if a dispute over the question of Tolstoy’s existence were to be prosecuted by various factions trying to find him among the characters in Anna Karenina, arguing about which chapters might contain evidence of his agency.” (David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, 303)

To pretend that a creator and his creation can be treated in the same way isn’t an argument, it’s a category error. Comparing the existence of God to the existence of impossible entities like flying spaghetti monsters may disprove a number of imaginary gods, but it’s not actually an argument against theism. It’s an argument against a specific type of theism that no one actually holds; it’s the logical fallacy of a straw-god argument.

Another example of a straw-god argument is the relatively recent atheist slogan: “out of the 1000 or so gods that people have believed in, you don’t believe in 999 gods, we just go one god further.” The idea is that monotheists (who believe in one God), have rejected all other conceptions of gods that people have believed in (say, 999 of them) in coming to the view that there is one God. And atheists have done essentially the same thing, but just rejected one god more.

Unfortunately, this is not an argument but another category error. Monotheism (the view that there is one God) and polytheism (the view that there are many gods) are both subsets of theism. Both are theistic worldviews with theistic explanations for our origin, purpose, morality, and destiny. What they have in common, is all of theism.

By contrast, atheism is precisely not that. Atheism, by definition, sets itself in contrast to all versions of theism, including both monotheism and polytheism. And so to say that monotheism is 999 steps away from polytheism, but only one step away from atheism, is not an argument but a category error. Both monotheism and polytheism have all of theism in common, but atheism is the rejection of precisely that.

By analogy, if someone claimed that a certain building was built by 1000 builders, and someone else claimed that it was built by just one builder, then the claim that there wasn’t any builder at all isn’t very well defended by the slogan: “we just go one builder further.” The one who believes in a single creator/designer of the building isn’t one step away from denying all such creators/designers, anymore than he’s 999 steps away from the view that it was created/designed by a set of 1000 builders.

Another analogy that highlights this point, is the difference between polyamory (having multiple partners), monogamy (having one partner), and celibacy (having no partners). As John Dickson points out, the slogan ‘we go one god further’ is like a married man being told by those who advocate for life-long celibacy: “When you consider why you rejected other women in favour of her, then you will see the good sense of rejecting marriage altogether”.

I’ve often heard new atheists express their surprise at the persistence of belief in God despite their arguments against it. They seem to think that they’ve understood the God that theists believe in, and so their arguments against him are sound. However, for theists, the answer is obvious: we’re not persuaded by your arguments because they’re straw-god arguments that fly right by us.

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