Friday, July 06, 2012

Strawpeople…Strawpeople Everywhere

We are quite familiar with the strawperson argument—claiming your opponent makes a false statement when it turns out that is not what your opponent is saying at all. For example, making the argument:

“1) Scientists claim we will some day know everything.
“2) We will never know everything.
“3) Therefore scientists are wrong.

While a brilliant argument…the problem is that no scientist says we will some day know everything. One has built the strawperson—“Scientists make this claim”—and then burned it down—“the claim is wrong”—to no avail. Looks good; means nothing.

The issue I am beginning to see in theological debates, is how one can preface a statement, “Some ___ claim ____” and we can eventually find some theist or non-theist who indeed makes such a claim. Therefore, it is not technically a strawperson—the argument simply happens to only address a very small minority. “Some Christians claim we must follow Mosaic law.” “Some Christians hold to geocentric theory.” “Some atheists believe we must all dance naked at midnight on the Summer Solstice.” One could make any claim and eventually manage to scrounge out some person of a particular belief who does hold to such a premise.

For me, personally, to determine how “strawish” an argument is, I rely upon Google. A very simplistic method—plug in the claimed statement in a search, start reading through results, and determine how prevalent this claim really is. I am disappointed, when discussing with Christians, how often I hear, “Well, this is something a lot of atheists I know tell me in person” yet I find no such claim on the internet. If it was so common to hear…at least a few such items would pop up on-line. I pointed this out in a comment section and another Christian honestly conceded what was being claimed as “coming up so often” was oddly completely missing from the internet.

How is it all these atheists or Christians are making these statements in person, yet when we try to narrow them down with any precision on-line, we find nothing? I think it is because the person is hearing something different than is being said.

In a recent blog entry, ”Do people become atheists for Only intellectual reasons?” a statement was made, ”What is funny, is that some who embraced atheism on intellectual grounds, from say thinking that teaching on evolution proves there is no God,…”

The question was then brought out how many non-theists made the claim, “Evolution proves there is no God.” And whether this statement was a strawperson—are there non-theists who say, “Evolution proves there is no God”?

Now what do you think I did? Of course…I plugged “Evolution proves there is no god” into Google to see how common this claim was being made. And found (not surprisingly) a few persons who did, indeed say this. We have a Yahoo Question, “Does Evolution Prove there is no God?” where the “best” answer (by votes) responds, “Of course it does,…” However, if we scroll through the other answers provided, a number of people said, “No, these ideas are mutually exclusive.”

On the other hand Talk Origins states evolution does not say anything about a god—proof or disproof. If you bothered to pour through the Google results, the primary hits involve Christians who claim scientists allege Evolution proves there is no God (the problem I will focus on it a minute), the secondary hits are non-theists debunking the idea Evolution proves there is no God, and by far, far last place, a few hits regarding people claiming Evolution proves there is no God.

Is it a strawperson? No. Is it speaking to a miniscule small percentage (less than 1%, I would estimate). Yep.

So why…if so few non-theists are claiming it…do Christians think non-theists are saying, “Evolution proves there is no God”?

Simple—because the very core of the Christians’ belief is that their God does not utilize evolution in its creation of this world. If evolution is true—their God is not. So for us to say “Evolution is true” they are hearing “Your God is not.” And since there can only be one God—their own—these Christians translate “Evolution is true” to “There is no God.”

To demonstrate this in action, notice the comment from Bill Pratt in the Tough Questions entry:
In the God Delusion, he said the following about evolution: "Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that—an illusion."

In the context of the book, this statement means that we don't need God to explain how life arose - evolution does that. Since the creation of life has commonly been attributed to God by theists, then the fact of Darwinian evolution is a serious blow to the existence of a God who supposedly created life.

I am nodding my head as I read along. “Yep. Dawkins is definitely arguing evolution proves there is no non-evolution-using God.” (sorry for the double negative) But it doesn’t say anything about proving no God exists—just that any such God that did would be utilizing evolution. As Andrew Ryan wisely responded—our determination of how lightning occurs did not disprove God, it only impinged the lightning-bolt-throwing Zeus God

See, to us non-theists, we are looking to see if any god exists. Whether it is the Mormon God, the Islam God, the Hindu Gods, the North American Spirits, etc. So for some particular argument, proof or truth to prove “No God Exists” it would have to eliminate every single one of these. Yes, we certainly can eliminate some gods, or some particular characteristics of gods. If one claims God made the world 6,000 years ago, we would certainly say we have proved that particular God does not exist. Or the theist is incorrect about that particular aspect of that God.

Does the age of the earth prove no God exists? Of course not.

But the Christian is so certain they have the aspects of their God correct—certain items MUST be true—to argue against it or prove this one detail incorrect causes the entire house of cards to fall. So when we say, “The Bible has errors” if inerrancy is such a key requirement, they hear, “There is no God.”

“Jesus didn’t bodily rise from the dead.”
Physical resurrections hear “There is no God.”

“The earth is 4.5 Billion years old.”
YEC’s hear “There is no God.”

“Evolution is true”
Intelligent Design theorists hear “There is no God.”

It is this confusion where the non-theist is puzzling, “But I’m not saying there is no God—I am saying your God-concept does not align with reality. Either modify it, or present compelling reasons why.” And all the Christian hears is, “If this part of God is incorrect, then there can be no god whatsoever.”

I had another similar strawperson discussion over at Dr. Clay Jones’ Blog. There, the confusion seems to arise regarding what the Christian was saying and the non-theist (Dr. Ehrman) was hearing, although it is not quite clear.

We have an obligation to clarify when we are discussing a particular topic: Reality removes or greatly diminishes certain aspects of possible gods. But there is no one line-item, or one proof, or one fact disproving all Gods.

If the Christian cannot understand that (and I fear most cannot), then we have done our duty and I would move on.


  1. DaGoodS, I agree that the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection does not say anything about the existence or non-existence of any ‘god’. However, I do think that the theory does disprove the existence of a first man named Adam. To many Christians, that is enough. To these Christians, there is only one god, and that is the one described in the Bible. To entertain the existence of other gods would mean to widen the definition of what they think a ‘god’ is. I recently had a conversation with a Christian workmate. I asked him to give me his definition of ‘god’. He replied that god is simply that person described as the creator in Genesis 1:1. Neither Allah, Brahma nor Thor count as gods to this person, because they are not the ones described in Genesis 1:1. Now we can argue about my workmate’s methodology, but I guess the point here is that for many Christians, attempting to disprove the existence of the Christian god through evolution is enough to disprove the existence of any god, because there ARE no other gods. I think I can honestly say that I thought the same way as a Christian. When I became convinced that the Christian deity did not exist, I did not investigate any gods of other religions. As a Christian, I knew that only one god existed. I knew there were no others!!

    In this way, I think I understand the Christian’s point when they think Atheists are claiming Evolution disproves ‘God’. The atheist uses ‘god’ as a philosophical abstraction that the Theory of Evolution never discusses. The Christian uses ‘God’ as a personal character. To the Christian, god’s name is ‘God’, and ‘God’ made man in His own image.

  2. Great Post. I am agnostic on the god question, however, when it comes to the Christan God I am far more certain that this particular God doesn't exist. Since most Christians, especially of the American, Evangelical type, say the Bible is truth it is far easier to come to a conclusion about their God.

    I wish you wrote more, bro. I always appreciate your work.

  3. Science has been reducing the need for God as an explanation for as long as man has been curious about why the world is the way it is. Prior to the theory of evolution, however, there were gaps that were so conceptually huge that it may have still made sense to think that God would always be necessary. Religion still desperately clings to the gaps that remain, but now it is much more obvious that that's what it's doing.

  4. Dagoods wrote: "Reality removes or greatly diminishes certain aspects of possible gods"

    I have not yet found fundamentalist Christians who are interested in identifying reality because they are certain, to the exclusion of reasonable doubt, that have already identified reality. I have never met a fundamentalist Christian who examines their basic belief in God with any consideration that they could be wrong. Anyone who does not believe as they do speaks from the margin and is not considered or heard.

  5. OT but is there an RSS feed enabled for new posts?

  6. Great piece, and cheers for the cite (and indeed the site).