I’ve gotten a little frustrated with the amount of bad arguments that both Christians and atheists make when debating the existence of God. So here’s a question for both groups: do you stop using bad arguments once you find out that they’re flawed? Or do you keep using the argument anyway, hoping that the person you’re using it on won’t be smart enough to spot the flaw? Do the ends justify the means as long as you lead them to the right place, or is it more important to make honest arguments?
By bad arguments, I mean those that are either logically invalid, or rest on very questionable assumptions. I’ll give you a few examples to let you know where I’m coming from. One argument I hear a lot of atheists use is that because the overwhelming majority of the universe is lifeless, it could not have been designed. The problem with this is that if an omnipotent God existed, he could have created everything with no effort whatsoever and could have created the entire rest of the universe just to give us something pretty to look at and explore. Another atheist argument that I think is logically flawed is the statement that because evolution can explain why people have religious beliefs, those religious beliefs must be false. If God exists, he could simply have made us this way in order to make it easier to realize that he exists. So it shows why people might believe in God even if he doesn’t exist, but it does not show that God is merely imaginary. Another common argument is that religious people have done very bad things in the past. This does not show that their religion is false, just that members of any religion are humans, and have flaws. Both atheists and Christians have been brutal murderers and both atheists and Christians have been generous humanitarians.
As an atheist, I obviously think that many Christian arguments are flawed, and I’ll mention a couple of them. Sometimes Christians say that their beliefs must be reasonable since so many people share their beliefs and atheists must be wrong since there are fewer of us. The problem is that popularity is not a good way of establishing what the truth is. Christianity is no more or less true today than it was when it consisted of a few hundred people. Islam does not become true if it far surpasses Christianity in adherents. Another argument that just doesn’t work is Pascal’s Wager, which says that an atheist loses nothing if he accepts Catholicism and has everything to gain if it turns out to be true. Because of this, an atheist should supposedly try to believe. One problem is that religion isn’t completely costless (going to mass, giving money to the church). So in order for the wager to work, there must be some evidence that Catholicism is true, otherwise we should give all our money to anyone who walks up to us on the street and says that he will somehow give us infinite happiness in exchange. Since there are many contradictory religions, someone would have to consider every possible religion, and pick the one with the most evidence. It would take more than one lifetime to thoroughly consider the evidence for the many thousands of religions (and only considering the most popular is not good enough). So this does not really work as a way of deciding what to believe, and it really all comes down to whether the evidence for Catholicism is enough to conclude that it is probably true. Pascal’s Wager is an attempt to get people to accept weaker evidence, but it only works if people already have good enough evidence to convince them that Catholicism is probably true, in which case the wager is not needed. Another argument I sometimes hear is that someone you know was sick and recovered after you prayed for them. The reason why this doesn’t work as evidence of God is that some people will inevitably recover whether you pray for them or not. What would provide evidence of God is a study showing that people receiving prayers recovered faster than those who did not. However, so far no properly conducted study has discovered a significant effect.
I’m not saying that I’m immune from this, but when I find out that I made a bad argument, I figure out how to fix it or stop using it. So feel free to let me know if you think any of the arguments I just made are bad. Finally, I’m not trying to demean anyone; I’m just trying to figure out why people use bad arguments, and hopefully raise the level of debate so we can figure out which side has more support.