XFiles: Mr. Straw and Dr. GeisturMay 2, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, Appendix 1.)
The first question anyone should ask themselves, if they want to know whether the Gospel is true, is “Does the real-world evidence look the way it ought to look given an Almighty Heavenly Father Who loves us?” Even a trivial glance at the real world shows us an overwhelmingly large number of conditions and events that would not be there if there were a genuinely good and omnipotent deity around, at least if He had any concern at all about human affairs. Yet somehow, in fifteen chapters of arguing that it takes more faith to be an atheist, Geisler and Turek have not quite gotten around to considering this most fundamental and obvious mountain of evidence.
It’s not hard to see why. At the back of the book, tucked away in an Appendix, is their attempt to rationalize away the problem of Evil. Even Geisler and Turek could not deny, with a straight face, that real-world conditions are more consistent with atheistic conclusions. Nowhere in their 12-point outline for proving God’s existence was there any place where they could say, “Let’s take a moment and look at the largest and most obvious body of evidence relating to God’s existence, and show how Christianity’s explanation makes more sense.” It just doesn’t fit.
Even hidden away in an appendix, Geisler and Turek aren’t quite comfortable tackling the problem with the same scholarly(-ish) and intellectual(-ish) examination they used in the main body of the book. Instead, we get an almost cartoony script outlining a dialog between “Atheist” and “Christian”—the kind of late-night, bull session format you’d find in a casual frat house, just to kill the time. It’s not going to be deep. It’s not going to be insightful. It’s going to be two tired apologists indulging in a bit of self-gratifying fantasy so they can feel better about the problems their faith has when it confronts the real world.
Before we get started, let’s see if we can’t improve the script just a bit. Right now, it’s a bit cold and impersonal, as though Geisler and Turek didn’t care enough to give their participants names. So let’s name them. The “Atheist” character is an obvious straw man, so let’s call him Mr. Straw. “Christian” is presumably arguing the case Geisler and Turek would argue, so let’s name him Dr. Geistur. That warms things up just a bit, don’t you think? I’ll make that substitution throughout all the quotes that follow. We begin with a pretty decent question by Mr. Straw, to which Dr. Geistur replies with some frantic hand-waving intended to make the rest of the discussion assume that God must really exist.
[Straw] If there really is an all-good, all-powerful, theistic God, then why does he allow evil?
[Geistur] How do you know what evil is unless you know what good is? And how do you know what good is unless there is an objective standard of good beyond yourself?
[Straw] Don’t try to avoid the question.
[Geistur] I’m not trying to avoid the question. I’m simply showing you that your complaint presupposes that God exists. In fact the existence of evil doesn’t disprove God. It may prove that there is a devil, but it doesn’t prove that there’s no God.
You can see why this material would have been out of place in the part of the book that claimed it takes more faith to be an atheist. Mr. Straw’s very first line throws Geistur for such a loop that he immediately changes the subject and then lies about whether or not he’s changing the subject. And the point of this diversion is a rather blatant attempt to insist that the rest of the discussion must be based on the assumption that God must exist, no matter what the evidence says. Not even Geisler and Turek can follow that up with a smug “therefore I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist!”
And remember, this is their script. They could make the conversation go any direction they want, and they still can’t even begin to address the question unless everyone involved first agrees to believe that God must exist. They can’t admit the possibility that the existence of evil might have some implications regarding the existence of God. It has to be assumed, on faith alone, that God exists, before we start to consider the evidence. From their very first line, they have declined to acknowledge the most basic and obvious question here, let alone attempting to answer it.
Even their straw-man accuser sees through this ploy (which should give any amateur psychologists an interesting topic of discussion), but their faith simply will not be shaken, and they insist that Straw’s question presupposes the existence of God. Straw calls this an “interesting move,” and then agrees to make Geistur’s assumption “for the sake of argument” in order to try and get Geistur back on topic. In other words, Straw’s lines are written to suggest that he sees the validity of their point and refuses to admit it.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, what about Geistur’s claim that Straw’s question presupposes the existence of God? Does it really force us to concede, however begrudgingly, that God must exist? Let’s look at the points that make up Geistur’s claim:
- You cannot know what evil is unless you know what good is.
- You cannot know what good is unless there is an objective standard of good beyond yourself.
- CONCLUSION: Therefore God exists.
Geistur’s conclusion has no connection to the premises he claims to derive them from. Even if the premises were valid (which they’re not), they do not lead to the conclusion. You might arguably conclude, given the above premises, that some objective standard of good must exist, but it’s pure superstition to ascribe that “objective standard” to any particular god or gods. It’s like saying, “You presuppose the existence of elves that make shoes, because I see you are wearing shoes.” Attributing something real to something imaginary does not prove that the imaginary exists. You’re just being superstitious.
As a matter of fact, Straw’s question need not require us to define what “good” and “evil” even are. To ask Straw’s question, all we need is enough knowledge to understand that “good” is supposed to be opposed to “evil,” and vice versa. If it is, then a God who is both “all-good” and “all-powerful” by definition is a God whose power ought to be visibly engaged in eliminating and/or preventing evil (no matter what “evil” might be). The question itself does not presuppose that the asker necessarily knows what good and evil are, let alone presupposing that the asker must have obtained his or her knowledge from any particular god. The Christian claim that God is good (whatever they mean by “good”) is inconsistent with the Christian claim that the world is full of evil (whatever they mean by “evil”).
Remember, the core issue we’re investigating is whether or not men are telling the truth about God. We’re testing the words of men to see if they’re consistent with themselves and with what we observe in objective reality. We’re not trying to understand what we observe about God in real life, because God does not show up in real life to provide us with any objective observations, perplexing or otherwise. We have nothing to observe besides the things men say about God, and the only means we have of determining whether those words are true is the principle that truth is consistent with itself. If the real world is inconsistent with what men say about God, then the words of men are false, according to the definition of what real-world truth is.
There are many other things wrong with Geistur’s opening ploy, like the fact that different people have different ideas about what “good” and “evil” are (gays? priests? circumcision?), or the fact that knowing what “chocolate” is does not mean we must presuppose the existence of a deity whose fundamental essence is “vanilla”. Not only does this argument fail to prove that God must exist, it makes a total hash out of any kind of rational attempt to understand the real difference between good and evil.
That’s not really the point, though. Geisler and Turek aren’t trying to directly address the question of whether evil makes God’s existence unlikely, nor are they even trying to teach us how we know good from evil. Their intent is simply to divert the discussion away from any kind of reasonable consideration of whether or not the evidence is consistent with the existence of an all-good, all-powerful deity, and to move it into a “safe” rationalization about how we might best try and gloss over the discrepancies between what Christians believe and what we actually find in the real world. As we’ll see next time, there are at least two basic approaches we can take: “the end justifies the means,” and “well, I dunno, is evil reeeeeeeeally all that bad, in the end?”