The Feebleness of “Backyard Church’s” Ten Arguments for Theism

When a hapless Christian runs the gauntlet of reason

Foster the editor of “Backyard Church,” is tired of what he calls “some very noisy atheists out there who deride people of faith as unintelligent, misguided, or downright stupid for choosing a path of faith.” In “Relax, It’s Okay to Believe in God,” Foster means to show why these dismissive atheists are misguided, by rattling off, as his subtitle says, “Ten reasons why believing in God is perfectly reasonable.”

Foster hedges only a little before he presents these arguments when he says, “I don’t think all of these arguments for the existence of God are necessarily equal, but I do find them fascinating and compelling.” So he concedes that some might be stronger than others, but he insists that they’re all at least “fascinating and compelling.”

Of course, quality matters much more than quantity here, even though Foster seems to be multiplying examples with his ten arguments. If all ten were indeed compelling, they would certainly make for a fine rebuke to atheists who don’t even respect Christian theism. Indeed, if there were just a single such compelling argument to support the Christian’s basic belief that God exists, that would suffice.

Alas, none of them is compelling in that respect.

Quantity Isn’t Quality

Before I show why that’s so for each of the ten, it’s important to understand why the number of Foster’s arguments is irrelevant if none of them makes Christian theism reasonable. Coming up with a laughably weak argument in support of any preposterous belief is as easy as stringing together some random sentences.

Suppose someone wants to justify her belief that cats are better than dogs, so she devises this argument: “I encountered a dog once and it scratched my ankle, but my cat is nice to me. Therefore, cats are better than dogs.” That is indeed an argument. Granted, it might better be interpreted as an explanation for why the person doesn’t like dogs, but the first sentence is presented as a reason to believe the second sentence, due to the word “therefore.” In any case, this argument isn’t compelling because the sample sizes are too small to justify the general conclusion.

Here’s another dubious argument: “Elephants are bigger than mice. Big things are better than small things. Therefore, elephants are better than mice.” This argument’s main flaw is that no reason is given to believe the second premise.

Or take this argument: “Grass is green. The sky is blue. Therefore, cats are better than dogs.” Here the problem is obviously that the premises are irrelevant to the conclusion, even though each premise may be separately true.

All that matters, then, is the quality of Foster’s arguments, not their quantity. We’ll see that one of his arguments’ main defects is their irrelevance to the reasonableness of Christian theism. That is, Foster’s arguments tend not to be about the existence of “God” in the Christian sense of that word. Keep that in mind as we knock over these paper tigers.

Causality

Foster’s first argument is the old one from Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, according to which the causality we see in the world makes no sense without an ultimate, “uncaused Cause capable of causing all things.” If there were an infinite series of prior causes, we would never have arrived at the present state of the universe, since there would have been an endless series of prior events, and there would be “no explanation for causality itself.”

Thus, Foster reasons, “The only rational answer is that there is, at the beginning of all things, an uncaused Cause capable of causing all things. Something had to create that point of infinite energy. Therefore the presence of a creator is required — someone or something outside of space and time.

“I suggest that GOD is that causeless cause capable of causing all things.”

Foster seems to have recognized one of the major problems with this argument as he was formulating it, since “that point of infinite energy,” which comes out of nowhere in his argument looks like a reference to the Big Bang singularity.

Thus, Foster seems at least dimly aware that scientific cosmologists have this covered as far as reason can take the matter. The universe we see evolved over billions of years from much simpler states, originating ultimately, as far as anyone can tell based on data and scientific theory, from a quantum fluctuation in a timeless state, somehow prior to the development of space and time.

Foster says that that singularity must have had a “creator,” as in, presumably, a personal one. Says who? Why should anyone think the source had to be a person? Foster provides no reason. He says “someone or something outside of space and time” must have done it. Indeed, that’s what the Big Bang singularity is for. That quantum event didn’t occur within the spatial and temporal dimensions with which we’re familiar at this much later stage of the universe.

Notice also that if the first cause was “something” rather than “someone,” this causal argument wouldn’t establish the reasonableness of Christian theism. God is a someone, not a something. Again, Foster seems uncomfortable with the ambiguity, perhaps sensing the problem that the so-called God of the philosophers was only ever a fig leaf for their atheism and was never the same as the naïve folk’s personal God, the one that mattered to their myths and folklore. Consequently, Foster closes his opener merely by “suggesting” that that uncaused first cause was “GOD.”

His first argument amounts to handwaving followed by that lame suggestion. Foster suggests that God caused the universe. I suggest that a vacuum fluctuation in quantum chaos did so. I further suggest that no one knows intuitively how that fluctuation could have happened, and that armchair speculation on the matter is asinine rather than being as reasonable as the scientific explanations which are methodically atheistic (naturalistic).

Here we have one suggestion clashing with another. That makes us even, and there’s no reasonableness of Christian theism yet in sight.

A parody of Foster’s argument would be: “Grass is green. The sky is blue. Therefore, I suggest that God created the universe.” Premises about the philosopher’s impersonal first cause don’t establish the reasonableness of Christian theism; specifically, they don’t rationally justify the belief that the source of everything is a person.

Contingency

The second one is another old argument. Foster puts it this way:

If something exists, then what it takes for that thing to exist must also exist. The universe exists. Therefore, the thing that it takes for the universe to exist must also exist. However, if the thing that causes something to exist exists beyond the thing itself, then the universe cannot be all there is.

Therefore, what it takes for the universe to exist must be outside of the universe, beyond space and time. Enter God.

This is a classic case of the fallacy of composition, as you can tell from Foster’s helpful wording. Things are contingent, but who said the universe is a thing? The whole doesn’t need to have the same properties as its parts. Things are in the universe, but the whole universe isn’t in anything else (unless there’s a multiverse, in which case the multiverse would be the whole in question).

Just because each part of a large machine might be light in weight doesn’t mean the whole machine is easy to carry. Just because one person can stand up in a crowded theater to see the movie better, doesn’t mean that if everyone stood up, they’d be able to see the movie better.

Moreover, the universe we see today isn’t what it was billions of years ago. One state led to another, but the earliest stage was a quantum event to which our terrestrial intuitions about space, time, and contingency don’t apply. So says quantum mechanics.

Finally, notice again the arbitrariness of calling the “condition” that led to the universe “God.” “Enter God,” Foster says. But that’s an equivocation, because the God he has in mind is the one of Christian theism, whereas even if the argument from contingency weren’t fallacious, it would call for something much more abstract, namely for the philosopher’s absolute, force, simple substance, or some other source that needn’t be at all personal.

That’s the sticking point: Christianity needs this ultimate source to be a person, but the old philosophical arguments won’t take you there. The ancient philosophers and the less reflective religious folks weren’t talking about the same thing. Indeed, ordinary religious folks wouldn’t have been interested in proving their religion’s rationality; faith, tradition, or authority sufficed for them. To be genuinely concerned with the rationality even of religion is to be on your way to atheism.

Infinite Knowledge

Next, Foster says:

Ultimately to prove that there is no God, one must know everything. Or rather, to sustain the belief that there is no possibility of the existence of a God, one has to demonstrate that they have infinite knowledge.

This is tantamount to saying, “I have infinite knowledge that there is no being in existence with infinite knowledge.”

Foster here confuses knowledge with certainty. There’s a lot we know without being psychologically certain about it. Rene Descartes showed this with his skeptical thought experiments. You’d claim to know that you did whatever you remember yourself doing. You know that if you remember eating fish last night, you ate fish. But isn’t it possible you’re just a brain in a vat, and your memories are being fed to you by a trickster demon?

That skeptical scenario is perhaps logically and metaphysically possible, so technically you couldn’t be a hundred percent certain that you ate fish. That means your memory-based knowledge is probabilistic, not mathematically necessary. Likewise, scientists say they know there’s a force of gravity and that life evolved on this planet largely by natural selection, but they’d also say this knowledge is tentative, like all scientific knowledge.

Necessity is a matter of mathematical or logical proof, and that’s because the rules in those fields are stipulated and are therefore game-like. If two people play chess and one player checkmates the other, that one is the winner and the other is the loser. That’s a necessary outcome of the rules of that game. But that doesn’t mean all knowledge is mathematical and logically necessary. There’s also empirical and commonsense, practical knowledge, or knowledge that’s required to get by in life.

We can know that the God of Christian theism is highly improbable, without being certain there’s no such God based on mathematically necessary reasoning, just as we can know that Earth’s sky during the day isn’t likely green.

So this third argument fails according to elementary epistemology. Moreover, even if the argument were plausible, it would show there’s something wrong with a kind of atheism, not that Christian theism is reasonable. Again, the argument is irrelevant to the task at hand.

Universal Moral Law

Foster next argues that “universal moral laws cannot exist without a universal moral law-giver. If there is no God, then ultimately, the idea that rape or murder, or theft is wrong is an idea that people conceived. And if people made up those laws, why am I obligated to follow those laws since I, being a person also, am equally capable of constructing my own morals too. Why should I listen to yours?”

Moreover, he says, “without God, right and wrong are purely relative, and so is truth. We each construct our own meaning and our own morals for our own lives, which, by the way, is all we have…And if this life is all we have, if we are all going down, if the Titanic is sinking, and if we are all going to die and what I do here ultimately makes no difference, then it really doesn’t matter if we go down hugging or mugging.”

This is the first relevant, plausible thing Foster says in his list of arguments. There is indeed a problem with morality in a godless universe, as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche showed. Alas, theism doesn’t solve that problem, as Plato established much earlier with his Euthyphro argument. If God were the law-giver, why would his judgments about what’s right be any less arbitrary than yours or mine? If God’s moral preferences aren’t arbitrary, they must be based on something other than God, in which case you don’t need God to know the difference between right and wrong.

(If, as sophisticated Christian apologists like to say, God’s morals flow from his nature, and his nature isn’t subject to his will, God wouldn’t be omnipotent since he couldn’t change himself. In any case, a person’s “nature” is an abstraction. If we say that Tim is brave by nature, we mean that Tim usually chooses brave or bold courses of action, so his nature or character isn’t separate from his will. In that case, a person’s nature is subject to change after all, which would make God’s morality arbitrary.)

The notion that the source of the universe would be especially interested in morality or justice became laughable in the modern era when we learned the universe’s astronomical scale. Most of the universe is perfectly amoral, so even if there were a personal Creator, why should we infer his nature based on the moral happenings in 0.0000001% of the universe, whereas we might better focus on the indifference that prevails in more than 99% of it?

Even if human morality came from God, that wouldn’t mean our highest purpose is to be moral. Much else might have come from God, namely everything else in the unfathomably vast universe, including the mindlessness of natural events and the viciousness of animal predators and parasites. Thus, this argument for theism hardly justifies the Christian’s preoccupation with morality.

Of course, there’s no need to make these concessions since morality emerges from the natural processes that form social groups in the animal kingdom. The core of morality isn’t arbitrary. As a matter of logic or philosophical abstraction, you might be free to invent an idiosyncratic moral system. But practically, you’re not free to do so because your parents likely instilled their values in you when they raised you, so that by now you’re obliged to follow the dictates of your conscience.

There are norms in morality because certain behaviours support society while others are antisocial, and the former tend to be passed along and favoured. Criminals and freeloaders prefer to steal, rape, and murder, and in large societies they’re punished for it because civilization would be unsustainable without the rule of law.

Indeed, to explain the emergence of morality, we might have to posit the belief that God exists, since religion is certainly part of human history. But that’s not the same as positing the reasonableness of that belief. Our survival might be based as much on our irrationality as on our more rational habits.

Intelligent Design

Foster says there’s the appearance of intelligent design in nature, including the way organs work together to fulfill a larger purpose such as the organism’s health. And “When confronted with whether this intelligible order is the product of chance or the product of intelligent design, the argument for intelligent design concludes that the universe is the product of the kind of intelligent design that comes only from the mind of an intelligent design designer.”

But Charles Darwin showed how biological order arises from the ground up, by natural selection, so biological designs aren’t as suggestive of intelligent design as they once were.

Also, the design in nature we’re struck by might be subjective in that we’re preoccupied with finding it because we’re pattern-seeking social mammals. We’re quick to find meaningful shapes in the clouds and when we’re thinking of a type of car, we might find that we keep seeing that car everywhere. This is tunnel vision, also known as confirmation bias. Often, we see what we expect to see.

But suppose there are objective improbabilities in nature, such as the emergence of life or the physical constants. Does intelligent design make sense of them? Of course not since you don’t increase your understanding by appealing to intuition or by positing a miracle. Your net understanding decreases if you explain one mystery by positing a much bigger mystery such as an infinite, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing mind that created a universe by uttering some magic words.

This argument for theism, then, obfuscates more than it illuminates.

Consciousness

Foster appeals to C.S. Lewis’s specious allegation that “Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.” After all, says Lewis, if there were no intelligence behind the universe, “nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought.”

The fallacy here is Lewis’s reference merely to “physical or chemical reasons.” Why should we be entitled to appeal only to such lower-level reasons in a godless universe? If such regularities could emerge in the brain without God, why not psychological and social reasons, too, to account for the emergence of persons and of groups of persons?

Thinking needn’t be reduced to physics or to chemistry, since higher-order systems can develop from simpler ones. Therefore, we can trust out cognitive processes not based directly on physical or on chemical grounds, but on biological, psychological, sociological, and philosophical ones.

Sure, the higher-order processes might be biproducts of physics and chemistry. But why should that make the former less reliable than if they’d been designed by a personal creator who could always change his mind about how thinking should proceed? Indeed, monotheists predict that God will indeed change his mind in the End Times, terminate the natural order, judge the quick and the dead, and thus drastically alter the purpose of human thinking. But if cognition emerges from mindless processes, there could be no such world-altering dictatorial whims.

So much for that canard.

Longing for God

Atheists like Richard Dawkins frequently point out that just because we want something to be true, doesn’t make it so. There’s even a fallacy called “appeal to consequences,” which is the mistake of claiming that a statement is true just because that truth would be beneficial.

Yet Foster cites a video from Bishop Robert Barron that blows past all of that. Foster summarizes Barron’s argument as follows: “every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire…However, some would argue that there are desires within us which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy. That desire could be explained as a desire for existential meaning.”

And ‘since nothing on this earth seems to satisfy this desire, there must exist something more than time, earth, and creatures, which can satisfy this desire. This something is what people call “God.”

The mystery here is supposed to be the origin of our idea of God. If the idea itself is miraculous, pointing us to supernatural possibilities, we might conclude that only God himself could have implanted that idea in us.

The fallacy this time is the converse of the genetic fallacy. The latter fallacy is when you reduce the value of something to the value of its origin. Barron and Foster are doing the opposite: they’re ignoring outright the history of religion to make the idea of God seem uncanny.

The original, proper objects of our highest religious concepts were the forces and cycles of nature themselves (animism), and the peak states of consciousness caused by entheogens (shamanism), followed by the human kings that ruled large societies who were thought to embody or to represent the chief gods (polytheism).

Monotheism emerges from that long history, as secular knowledge progressed and the realm of supernature shrank to accommodate the expanding domain of what was naturally understood. The more natural the world became, the less room there was for the gods in it. Kings, for example, were understood to be lucky, typically vicious tyrants. And natural effects had natural causes. So religious people could only long for something supernatural because reason had disenchanted nature.

Why should that evident historical weakness of theism be thought of rather as a strength that vindicates religion? It’s as though after being beaten and weakened by a bully for decades, the victim’s state of lying in a corner, snivelling, and whining were taken as evidence instead of the victim’s ability to vanquish his tormenter.

Not so.

The idea of God isn’t miraculous; on the contrary, only after the long histories of religion and of secular advances did that idea become the embarrassment it is today, with theists equating God with anything but that which is evidently real by its being perceivable or understandable. The Christian’s idea of God evolved from rudimentary stages just as the present state of the universe evolved from simpler ones.

Religious Experience

Foster makes a boldly fallacious choice with his next argument:

The argument of experience simply says that many people of different eras and widely different cultures claim to have had an experience of the “divine.” Therefore, it is inconceivable that so many people could have been so utterly wrong about the nature and content of their own experience.

Therefore, there exists a “divine” reality which many people of different eras and widely different cultures have experienced.

Can you guess the name of the fallacy that applies this time? If you guessed “appeal to popularity,” congratulations! I owe you a chicken dinner.

Is it “inconceivable” that so many people could be so wrong about religion? How many people used to believe that the Earth is flat, that the sun revolves around the Earth, or that the universe consists only of our solar system? How many people used to think diseases are caused by demons or that women and dark-skinned humans aren’t people? The answer is: about as many as those who took themselves to be having religious experiences. And they were all flat-out wrong, led astray by their intuitions, prejudices, and dogmatic traditions.

Moreover, most religious experience isn’t theophanic. That is, most people wouldn’t claim to be experiencing God directly. Even Moses supposedly saw only God’s hindquarters on Mount Sinai. So even if there were religious experience, that might entail only the subjective reality of some religious phenomena, such as the sense of life’s grandeur and of the universe’s sublimeness. The God of Christian theism needn’t be part of that spiritual sensibility.

For example, lots of religious people in the East experience the sublime oneness of nature or the divinity of consciousness within themselves. So this argument will fall prey to the problem of the multiplicity of religions. If anything, judging from how readily Christians have compromised with secular powers over the Church’s history, resulting, for instance, in white Evangelicals’ embrace of Trumpism and of the plutocratic Republican Party in the US, Christianity may be detrimental to spiritual or to existential concerns.

Next!

Suffering

By way of responding to the atheist’s problem of evil and of unnecessary suffering, Foster appeals again to C.S. Lewis, to that apologist whose pronouncements seem clever only because they sound British.

Whereas the atheist says the existence of injustice in nature discounts the monotheist’s uplifting conception of God, Lewis and Foster say the atheist has no basis for distinguishing between justice and injustice. Again, without God, there’s no moral law-giver, so morality would be arbitrary.

As Foster says, “If God does not exist, then why should we be troubled by the problem of suffering? After all, suffering would, under those circumstances, be statistically unfortunate but ultimately meaningless.”

Foster is clearly padding out his list of arguments, since this one overlaps with the other one about universal moral law.

I’ll just add that Foster’s point is easily reversed. If God exists, why be troubled by suffering? Wouldn’t God make everything better in the end, rectifying all wrongs? Wouldn’t any suffering in this relatively brief life pale next to infinite rewards in the afterlife? Doesn’t religious terrorism, in which zealous believers throw their life away believing they’ll inherit eternal glory, demonstrate that theism is compatible with indifference towards earthly life, including earthly suffering?

Indeed, suffering matters more without an all-powerful magician that can heal all wounds and right all wrongs. Misdeeds are all the worse when they can’t be corrected unless we alone oppose the wrongdoers. Suffering is more tragic and profound when it’s existentially pointless and when it leaves a permanent stain on the universe’s record.

Next!

Scripture

“I’m not going to spend too long on this one,” says Foster, “except to point out that some will never be satisfied that the Bible itself is a trustworthy source of information about the nature of God and His divine purpose for the universe.”

“However,” he adds, “after many years of study and research, I have found that the Bible ought not to be tossed aside like some book of old fables — far from it. I find it odd that many people dismiss the Bible as a reliable document, out of hand, when the evidence I find causes me to believe it is, in fact, worthy to at least be considered — if not completely trusted.”

Talk about damning with faint praise!

Of course, the reason for the lightness of Foster’s touch in this last of his arguments is due to his likely awareness of the historical-critical method of approaching the Bible, which has shown that the Bible is far from the inerrant divine revelation the Church declared it to be for centuries.

We now know the other cultures that were the sources of many biblical stories, and we know where much of the plagiarism and redaction happened in the Bible, how many decisions in canonizing the biblical texts were political, and how many contradictions, failed prophecies, and naïve mythologizations and hagiographies the Bible contains.

Sure, the Bible can be appreciated for its historical and spiritual messages. But do those meanings amount to a reason for thinking the Christian’s God exists, given that the biblical texts plainly have all-too human authors? Does the beauty or the historical importance of the world’s great novels entail that the fictional characters exist in reality? Nope.

Nasty Atheists

Foster’s point in writing out these arguments is to show that he’s not a moron. That’s literally the heading of his article’s concluding section: “No, I’m not a moron.” His aim is to knock condescending atheists down a peg, to compare their sanctimony to that of Christian fundamentalists.

That’s to say his case is tribal, not intellectual. He’s targeting a tribe of nasty atheists, not reflecting on the merits of atheistic and theistic ideas. When you do the latter, you end up with something like the above assessment of the ten arguments, which is hardly favourable to the rationality of Christian theism.

But if all Foster wanted to do was to show why Christians can “relax” about believing in God, as his title suggests, he needn’t have bothered with the pseudorational enumeration of arguments. He could have chalked up theistic belief to a matter of “faith” and been upfront about the irrelevance of the belief’s rational status.

Instead, Foster wants it both ways. He wants his religious beliefs to be logical but not too logical. If God’s existence were obvious, there would be no room for faith or for a free decision to submit to God’s plan for our salvation. Only if we could choose to reject God could we be rightly punished for that sin of disobedient disbelief.

Christian theism must be just rational enough to prevent Christians from being laughed out of sophisticated dinner parties in the twenty-first century, but not so logically airtight that the Christian could no longer make excuses for the palpable foolishness in the Bible and in Church history and theology.

My advice to nasty atheists is to leave these anachronistic theists to their double life. Hypocrisy is almost universal in human circles, since only religious or secular saints would be free from it. So stop mocking religious folks personally, and focus on exposing the sham of all worldviews that are unworthy of rational, autonomous, creative, godlike people.

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Edward Eni

Edward Eni

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The Mediocrity Slayer | Creating that ripple effect of awareness and positivity | Spreading knowledge to help others get their mind and their lives right.