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One presentation of this argument is put forward by Carl Sagan:

"If the general picture, however, of a Big Bang followed by an expanding universe is correct - what happened before that? Was the universe devoid of all matter and then the matter suddenly somehow created? How did that happen? In many cultures, a customary answer is that a "God" or "Gods" created the universe out of nothing, but if we wish to pursue this question courageously we must, of course, ask the next question - where did God come from? If we decide that this is an unanswerable question, why not save a step and conclude that the origin of the universe is an unanswerable question? Or if we say that God always existed, why not save a step and conclude that the universe always existed? There's no need for a creation, it was always here. These are not easy questions. Cosmology brings us face to face with the deepest mysteries, with questions that were once treated only in religion and myth."

Source: https://genius.com/Carl-sagan-on-god-and-gods-annotated
Or watch: The uncertainty of God (Carl Sagan in cosmos series) - YouTube

Richard Dawkins makes similar arguments:

"If we want to postulate a deity capable of engineering all the organized complexity in the world, either instantaneously or by guiding evolution, that deity must have been vastly complex in the first place. The creationist, whether a naive Bible-thumper or an educated bishop, simply postulates an already existing being of prodigious intelligence and complexity. If we are going to allow ourselves the luxury of postulating organized complexity without offering an explanation, we might as well make a job of it and simply postulate the existence of life as we know it! The Blind Watchmaker, Chapter 11 “Doomed Rivals”" (p. 316)

"A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple. His existence is going to need a mammoth explanation in its own right." The God Delusion (p. 178)

"God, if he exists, would have to be a very, very, very complicated thing indeed. So to postulate a God as the beginning of the universe, as the answer to the riddle of the first cause, is to shoot yourself in the conceptual foot because you are immediately postulating something far far more complicated than that which you are trying to explain. [...] If you have problems seeing how matter could just come into existence - try thinking about how complex intelligent matter, or complex intelligent entities of any kind, could suddenly spring into existence, it's many many orders of magnitude harder to understand." Lynchburg, Virginia, 23/10/2006

"In the case of the cosmos, [...] even if we don't understand how it came about, it's not helpful to postulate a creator, because the creator is the very kind of thing that needs an explanation - and although it's difficult enough to explain how a very simple origin of the universe came into being - how matter and energy, how one or two physical constants came into existence - although it's difficult enough to think how simplicity came into existence, it's a hell of a lot harder to think how something as complicated as a God comes into existence" "Has Science Buried God?" Debate, Richard Dawkins vs. John Lennox, 21/10/2008

Source: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Richard_Dawkins

How do Christians respond to the atheistic argument that postulating a God introduces an unnecessary and overly complicated extra step?


Note: there is an ongoing related discussion taking place on Philosophy Stack Exchange right now, Is God’s very existence the ultimate miracle?

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12 Answers 12

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To Carl Sagan's point, a typical response from a Christian apologist would leverage the Philosophical Principle of Sufficient Reason. This principle states that the existence of a thing needs a sufficient explanation for its existence. Theists, especially classical theists, commonly hold that God is identical with being, and therefore because of the kind of thing He is, He is His own sufficient explanation. The material universe can't explain itself. So, Sagan is postulating that it has no sufficient reason, violating this commonly held metaphysical principle. He is, in fact, the one making a bigger assumption.

Dawkins almost always misunderstands Christian apologists. The first three quotes you share from him wrongly ascribe complexity to God. Classical theists hold God to be supremely simple, and Dawkins insists without any good basis that, if a God exists, He must be infinitely complex. He insists on this because he, seemingly, cannot conceive of a Creator which is wholly different from its creation. Dawkins sees that more intelligent things in nature are more complex, and so he postulates that an infinitely-intelligent God must be infinitely-complex. The error here, again, is to assume that the Creator must be like the creation. To explain a little further, everything in creation is a composite at least of essence and existence. There is what the thing is and the fact that it exists. But God is existence. What He is and that He exists are the same. This is why I said above that He is His own sufficient reason, on account of the unique kind of thing that He is.

His last quote makes a similar error to Sagan's, though Sagan seems to have perceived the conflict more clearly. This formulation is the very typical "what caused God" objection. God is His own sufficient reason because of the kind of thing He is: being itself, or existence itself. It will not do to say that because things which are not existence themselves need an explanation for their existence that therefore God, Who is being, needs an explanation for His existence. Just as it will not do to say that Bob needs an explanation as to why he is a man. Bob is a man because that's the kind of thing he is. He has a human soul. God simply is because that's the kind of thing that He is.

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Quantum entanglement is two things:

  1. Scientific fact
  2. Without any good explanation

Do we then conclude that quantum entanglement doesn't exist? No, we accept the fact that the mathematics is correct, that we observe what the theory predicts, and we accept that we don't understand anything about this interesting and weird phenomena.

Philosophical arguments against God are, like the ones given in the question, usually formulated in a God-less context. We don't "need" a God to have a valid theory about the start of the universe. True. We also didn't "need" quantum entanglement to understand the universe. Until we found it.

My answer, and I am in no way a scholar in the field of debating with atheists but I am a christian, to the question would be: I don't have an answer that would satisfy your question as your question is invalid. The necessity of anything that happens to be, is irrelevant. You are looking for proof of something you have excluded as possibility in your philosophical framework. That is no honest search for truth, it is blindness to other philosophical possibilities and trying to expose others you really just don't understand or care to understand.

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    The necessity of anything that happens to be, is irrelevant - I presume an atheist would likely ask this follow-up question: how do you know that God happens to be?
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 26 at 12:12
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    No doubt he or she would ask that question. And within the context of a purely materialistic philosophy I would have to say: I cannot answer that question in any acceptable way. If you consider the world to be only physical and you ignore or deny the metaphysical, there is no answer.
    – ABM K
    Commented Mar 26 at 12:24
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    @mark the comment section is truly for clarification, not discussion. You can also ask to go to a chat room or ask another question. But any sort of question you bring up in a comment that might require a theological argument seven miles long like "prove God exists" doesn't belong in a comment. This is a good place to simply ask "What did you mean by: The necessity of anything that happens to be, is irrelevant"' christianity.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/7399/…
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Mar 26 at 13:14
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    I don't understand the metaphor being used at the beginning of the comment. Saying quantum entanglement is "without any good explanation" is wholly wrong. It came about as a theory because it was the only way to account for observed phenomenal; saying it is without explanation sounds like the kind of thing you would get from a popular book on physics and not from studying quantum entanglement itself. Perhaps there is a better example you could give?
    – mrjake2
    Commented Mar 26 at 19:51
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    Yeah, I think this is a difficult example to swallow, because quantum entanglement has causes that are rooted in math; for instance, if the universe is rotationally symmetric, angular momentum must be conserved, and so if you have two particles in a superposition of states, you must have that they preserve conservation of momentum. Certainly at some point we are left with an observation about the world, but frequently with physics you can chase the original causes to something very simple.
    – Kaia
    Commented Mar 26 at 20:25
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Why not save a step?

It's amusing that a materialist would make such an argument when "god of the gaps" is one of the more frequent criticisms leveled against deists. To halt investigation simply because it is difficult is not how one goes about obtaining Truth. Sure, one can say "the universe always existed" (a form of animism!), but doing so is to explicitly and deliberately halt one's search for knowledge, essentially drawing a line in the sand that says "no investigation is allowed beyond this point". As this is exactly what materialists love to accuse deists of doing, to deliberately employ the technique themselves is hypocritical. (And, if we're being honest, the incredible fairy tales that materialists invent to explain the universe show that they aren't willing to make such a statement.)

Nor should we be willing to accept "the universe" as a brute fact. As an explanation, it is profoundly unsatisfying. To steal the delightfully pithy rejoinder from pygosceles's Answer:

If you want a loaf of bread, I suppose a baker is an unnecessary and overly complicated extra step.

"The universe" is not a causal agent; rather, it is a thing which is in want of an explanation. By contrast, while it's true that "god" might be viewed as a complex predicate (although there are arguments against that; see "divine simplicity" as mentioned in other Answers), god is not the sort of predicate which demands a reason for its existence. As jaredad7 notes, there is a principle known as the Principle of Sufficient Reason which can be satisfied by "god", but not by "the universe".

In any case, the real issue here is Münchhausen's Trilemma, which can be simplified as "no rationally consistent exploration of nature can be complete". Either we must accept that an infinite regress of explanation is necessary, or we decree a First Cause as a starting point from which all else follows... and we have established that "the universe" is not a satisfactory First Cause. (Nor is positing it as such consistent with the available evidence, which strongly indicates a) that the universe had a beginning, and b) that life requires Design.)

To be fair, positing "god exists" isn't all that satisfactory of a resolution, though it we have shown it is superior to other possible stopping points. However, the existence of god needn't halt investigation! It does, however, offer us neat line which can be used to separate "natural" knowledge from metaphysical knowledge while suggesting that the methods used to examine the natural world may not be appropriate to "going further up the stack". Indeed, classical theism can rightly be seen as the study of god and as the proper companion to natural philosophy (that is, what we now call "science").

Why accept "god"?

Intelligent agents have known and demonstrated causal powers. When we see a purposeful arrangement of huge rocks in a field, we don't conclude that they arrived there by glacial action by arguing that intelligent action is "too complex". Rather, we consider how plausible it is that the configuration could result from natural processes and compare that to the known powers of intelligent action to enact complex designs.

Arguing that "a Designer is too complex" or "a Designer can't be explained" is a philosophical objection, not a rational one. The postulated god may be complex or unexplainable, but these attributes don't disprove god's existence. (Strictly speaking, it is impossible to disprove the existence of god, but we can and should consider whether god acted — in a supernatural manner — with respect to some event or circumstance. When doing so, we prefer a natural explanation, but when nature is shown to have insufficient causal power, the correct action is to consider alternate causes.) Indeed, not only is the history of science abounding with examples of things believed correct despite inadequate explanations, in a sense the entire field consists not of explanations, but merely of predictive models. Moreover, the complexity of these models tends to increase over time!

When we recognize that setting "god" aside in a box labeled "not science" is, in fact, not scientific at all, but wholly philosophical, we can properly investigate whether "god" — or, more accurately, "supernatural intervention" — is a likely explanation for what we observe.

For most things, natural laws suffice, but natural laws fail to explain life or the fine-tuned universe (among other things). These specific examples, however, are explainable by Design. The degree of intelligence necessary to produce these may significantly exceed that needed to pile up some rocks, and may be difficult or even impossible for us to comprehend, but this is not a difference of kind. By comparison, the number of coincidences needed to arrive at the same result through unguided processes is, in the literal sense, incredible. Natural processes lack sufficiency as an explanation.

At this point, the rational options would be to either decide that life and the universe have no cause, or to accept that their cause is supernatural. Now, we can probably agree that the first is genuinely not satisfactory, and Materialism, having an a priori commitment to only accepting material explanations, is unwilling to accept the second. This commitment, however, is not rational but philosophical, and since its axiom cannot be proven, it represents a potential (and, as it happens, actual) limit on the materialist's ability to accurately understand reality.

Who is "god"?

Readers may note I've used "god" with a lower-case 'g' throughout. This is because nothing in the Answer so far points to the Christian God, specifically.

If one assumes "god" is the First Cause, several inferences are possible (a la Romans 1:20); tnknepp gives us a list. To go deeper, however, requires (as previously noted) a different investigative apparatus and a different set of observations. To wit, it would be incredibly helpful if we had any directly-imparted knowledge or eyewitness testimony... and, as it happens, we do! Rather than remaining aloof from His Creation, God has revealed Himself to us in the form of Scripture, authenticated in its consistency with natural evidence and by the miracle of Christ's Resurrection.

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    Dawkins (and many atheists) would probably object that, by postulating a God, instead of solving the problem, you now have something even more complicated to explain (where did God come from?). Can you say something about that (ideally by editing your answer instead of replying in the comments)? [Note: I'm acting as a devil's advocate here.]
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 26 at 19:47
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    And anticipating your answer (and the subsequent objection by an atheist): if you say that God doesn't need an explanation, why can't we say the same thing about the universe? (This is actually what Carl Sagan said in the first quote.)
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 26 at 20:57
  • Great edit. With respect to "Rather than remaining aloof from His Creation, God has revealed Himself to us in the form of Scripture, authenticated in its consistency with natural evidence and by the miracle of Christ's Resurrection", I would also add that many Christians believe that God also reveals Himself personally to each individual through the witness of the Holy Spirit (and we can go even more extreme in this direction by considering Christian mysticism, Pentecostalism, Charismatics, etc.)
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 27 at 23:15
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I personally subscribe to the Big Bang theory. The next question from Carl Sagen is, "What happened before that?" Who or what was the cause? "Undefined" cause is not the absence of cause. Causes we do not comprehend does not mean that such causes do not exist.

When it comes to science, what caused it? That is because nothing in any form of the physical sciences can escape the physical universe. But it is reasonable to proceed on what we do know about such rudimentary things as the most basic principles of cause and effect until we have an actual reason to reject it. Whatever this cause of the BB, it must have been conscious. It would be far less reasonable to assume that an unconscious, physical object inexplicably existing outside of time and space (required for a physical object to even exist) could actually create this universe that we see around us.

Now, am I speculating, of course I am, but so are they. The fact is, neither I or them can do anything more than that. I say that anything that can cause this universe--this truly awesome, nearly unbelievable universe, with all of its sextillions of deeply intricate, shockingly complex and carefully interrelated parts--to exist is rightly called "God."

Now, for the big question, "Where did God come from?" I'm going to tell you how it was explained to me many, many years ago. It doesn't matter where God came from? What matters is that in this universe we are accountable to Him, and Him only.

To put it another way I will use the court system as an example. In fact, this is exactly what is happening today in the political world. A person is convicted of a crime, he may or may not actually be guilty. He appeals to a court and they rule against him. He then appeals to the Supreme court and the supreme court rules in his favor. That's the end of the matter.

It's the same with God who alone has the final and last word, this is who your accountable to, period.

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  • It's highly questionable to suggest the only possible alternative is a "physical object inexplicably existing outside of time and space" that "created this universe". You're trying to project what you think God is onto some non-God origin of the universe, just without the conscious part, but most non-believers wouldn't say that, they certainly wouldn't speak of a "creator" object (because creation implies intent which implies consciousness) and may propose an infinite or cyclical universe, or point out that our models of time break down at the Big Bang, so "before that" may not even make sense
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Mar 28 at 13:26
  • "am I speculating, of course I am, but so are they" - the difference is atheists aren't committing their life to some proposed Big Bang cause (and most theists propose that God did/does a whole lot more than just create the universe). I have my speculation about the cause of the Big Bang, but I recognise it's mere speculation, whereas theists tend to assert their speculation as truth. And it matters "where God came from" because God is a proposed hypothesis for the universe's origin - without knowing where God came from, that merely kicks the can down the road while adding an unnecessary step.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Mar 28 at 13:39
  • NotThatGuy. The Apostle Peter said to Jesus Christ at John 6:68-69, "Lord to who shall we go? You have words of eternal life." So what can you offer me that's better than what Jesus offers? What would you accept as absolute tangible evidence of the existence of God and His Son? Again, what absolute tangible evidence Christ, Moses, or any of the Old Testament prophets lived? Would you expect Moses or Christ to have left behind that would remain today, 2,000 to 4,000 years later? Please be specific so I can see if I can find it for you. How would you prove to me that George Washington lived?
    – Mr. Bond
    Commented Mar 28 at 21:27
  • "what can you offer" - Jesus can offer the hope of eternal life, but I can offer truth* (but if you prefer hope above truth, then so be it). What I'd accept as evidence of God. I'd trivially grant there lived people named Jesus, Moses, etc, that correspond very roughly to the events described in the Bible (in the same way the historical life of Abraham Lincoln corresponds roughly to the events described Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). The issue is the miraculous events, for which I'd expect a mountain of evidence. ...
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Mar 28 at 22:59
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    NotThatGuy Since you admitted your not a Biblical Scholar how would you know I would have a hard time dealing with so-called discrepancies or errors? This in view of the fact that you don't know the operation of one's mind. You've brought up a lot of questions which obviously cannot be addressed in these little boxes. Start a thread of your own focusing on just one or two questions that bother you and I will be happy to address them. Btw, I do have one question for you? If man evolved or came from "apes," which are primates, why do apes and chimpanzees still exist today?
    – Mr. Bond
    Commented Apr 1 at 21:31
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This argument seems to use Occam's razor for what it was not designed to be used for.

Occam's razor is a tool to help us organize our research better, to decide in what priority we investigate the possible hypotheses for the phenomena we are studying. For example, we spend our efforts first on the simplest explanations, and move on to more complicated ones if the previous ones were disproved by our experiments. Or if all else being equal, if two explanations have support of the same exact extent, then for practical purposes we use the simplest one in our work.

Occam's razor is not something to be used to prove or disprove something on its own. It's not like "A sounds simpler then B, therefore A must be true and B must be false". It is a problem-solving technique about how we organize our searching for explanations. This Wikipedia quote formulates it very nicely: "This philosophical razor advocates that when presented with competing hypotheses about the same prediction and both theories have equal explanatory power one should prefer the hypothesis that requires the fewest assumptions and that this is not meant to be a way of choosing between hypotheses that make different predictions."

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There is a law of physics taught to children; "Nothing comes from nothing."

The existence of God has a complexity penalty from Occam's Razor of 1. There is 1 hidden entity required.

The penalty may be justified by the normal methods of historical reasoning.

Either the work of the Gospels is the work of the Apostles or it is not. If it is not than all history is overthrown; because it is more intact than all other written history of ancient Rome itself. A hundred years ago the idea of the reassembling from periscopes might have been plausible; not so now. We have too many nearly complete manuscripts from the first century; overlapping the lifetimes of the apostles themselves. And the letters of the early Church from which we can reconstruct the NT to an amazing degree.

From here one thing must be answered. If the tomb were not empty, the challenge would be "Find me twelve men willing to die on crosses for a lie they made up themselves." No, it's not easily done. The great Trilemma was always intended. What is Jesus? Liar, Lunatic, or Lord. There is no option to say He was a good earthly teacher.

And again answer me; if the tomb were not empty, why did not the Jews parade the body through the streets of Jerusalem. Had they done so, though the epicenter be in Damascus the sect of the Way as it was called in those days would have passed away.

And as though that were not enough; the dead sea scrolls make the prophecy of Isaiah a true prophecy beyond all doubt. If radioisotope dating works, it works here. Answer if you will; the death and forgiveness and resurrection of the Messiah was prophesied not less than seventy years before it happened.

The existence of God is not postulated. The existence of God is observed from the historical record.

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    God is not in the physical universe so why should that law applies to God? Commented Mar 26 at 12:08
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    @stackoverblown It doesn't have to apply to God. "Nothing comes from nothing" applies to the material universe not always existing or not creating itself. Commented Mar 26 at 12:50
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – Joshua
    Commented Mar 29 at 18:51
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Dawkins' arguments tend to center on bold assertions that are stated as axiomatic. He asserts that a creator must be "vastly complex", "very, very, very complicated", and not "simple". But how does Dawkins know that God must be complex? What does he mean by complex, simple, etc.? I honestly do not know. Given the ambiguity the only response I can offer is to correct his assertion that God could "spring into existence" by stating that, per Christian theology, God is an eternal being that has no beginning or end.

Second, I would say that Dawkins' characterization of natural processes (void of God) to be more simple (per Occam's razor) to be unpersuading. In Christianity you have relatively few miracles. Some are big (e.g., creation of universe) while others are small (turn water into wine), but they really are few and far between. On the other hand, from a purely naturalistic perspective life as we know it requires orders of magnitude more miracles (or, events tantamount to a miracle). I would argue that every step in the evolutionary process is near a miracle. We could discuss the anthropic and teleological arguments for a creator, but I'm just disinclined to go too far down the road with engaging these questions.

While I find Sagan to be far more rational and lucid than Dawkins, there are issues that need resolved with Sagan's comment.

If the general picture, however, of a Big Bang followed by an expanding universe is correct - what happened before that?

There was no "before" the big bang. The current big bang model points toward the creation of space and time at exactly the same moment. Therefore, time began at the moment of creation and, by definition, there can be no time before that. We normally don't think about this, but time and space are fundamentally linked. Therefore, to ask "what happened before that" is to ask "what time was it before time existed?" It does not make sense.

Was the universe devoid of all matter and then the matter suddenly somehow created?

Before the big bang there was no universe. Therefore, the universe was not devoid of matter.

...where did God come from?

Sagan gets to the point here: something has to be eternal and it's either God or the universe. I'll address how this relates to the universe next, but the Christian response, regarding God, has been consistent: God is not a created being therefore has no beginning, no end.

if we say that God always existed, why not save a step and conclude that the universe always existed? There's no need for a creation, it was always here.

So why not conclude that the universe always existed? Because we know that it has not. We know that it had a distinct beginning for several reasons

  1. The second law of thermodynamics states, in essence, that entropy inescapably increases. This means that everything trends to its lowest energy, or highest probability, state (this is a bit of gloss on the second law, but I think this definition will suffice for the moment). Therefore, if the universe "always" existed (i.e., had no beginning) then entropy would, of a necessity, be at a maximum. Since we observe entropy increasing we know that the universe is not infinitely old and therefore it had a beginning.

  2. The microwave background radiation observed by space telescopes is exactly what was predicted from big bang theory (down to the finer structures). This is direct support for big bang, which is direct support for the universe not being eternal.

  3. The universe is expanding and lacks enough mass to pull itself back in (this precludes a series of big bang/big contraction/squeeze events). Not only is the universe expanding, but this expansion appears to be accelerating as well. All evidence points toward the universe expanding from a single location. Therefore, if we rewind the clock we see everything coming from a single spot at a distinct point in time, meaning the universe had a beginning.

  4. Einstein's general theory of relativity ties space and time into the same fabric, provides a framework for the big bang model, as well as predicts the expansion of the universe (interestingly, Einstein rejected the notion of an expanding universe because that would require a starting point for the universe and he was more comfortable with an eternal universe). This theory has been proven time and again and, contrary to Einstein's bias, points to a beginning of the universe.

While these are only 4 examples I think they provide a reasonable demonstration that the universe had a beginning, which is why we cannot conclude that the universe "always existed". This leads directly to the cosmological argument:

  • everything that begins has a cause
  • the universe had a beginning
  • the universe has a cause

I think the science and logic is incontrovertible: the universe had a beginning therefore it must have a cause. This cause is not necessarily complicated but it is necessary! Christians call that cause God. The consequences of this are interesting:

  • since this "cause" created time it must be timeless (eternal)
  • since this "cause" created space it must be spaceless (outside the bounds of space; infinite?)
  • since this "cause" created matter it must be immaterial
  • since this "cause" created everything out of nothing (by fiat) it must be powerful (omnipotent)
  • since this "cause" created everything out of nothing (by fiat) it must be intelligent (omniscient)
  • since this "cause" decided to create something it must be personal since impersonal forces do not make choices

I find the similarities between this creator to be strikingly similar to the God that we find in the Bible.

Anyway, that's how I would respond. Did I dodge Dawkins' questions? Yes, but for 2 reasons:

  1. These comments do not come across as someone who genuinely wants to hear the response. They are too full of broad claims, bold assertions, etc. They don't come across as sincere and I would have to ask too many "what do you mean by that" questions to even get started.
  2. I think the response I proposed to Sagan's comments would cover all the ground I would hope to cover in addressing Dawkins' claims.

Finally, there is nothing novel in what I have presented and there is nothing novel in what Sagan or Dawkins presented (as Solomon said, there is nothing new under the Sun). However, it does not hurt to continue the conversation.

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Maybe the title of this book gives the clue - Inventing the Universe - Why we can't stop talking about science, faith and God. The author speaks here about how, a hundred years ago, it was massively accepted that the universe had been around for ever, but now scientists believe it had a beginning. This caused him to quote Carl Sagan on the fact of how scientific theories change, and will continue to change. Sagan's quote first, followed by the author's comment:

'Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don't conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts.'

"I like that humility. It stands in sharp contrast to those arrogant religious and anti-religious dogmatisms which seem to trade only in certainties. These dogmatic views of reality have no place for the tentativeness, open-mindedness and, above all, the intellectual humility which I now know to be characteristic of both science and religion at their best." Inventing the Universe, Alister McGrath, p. 49, Hodder & Stoughton 2015. Sagan quote in 'Why we Need to Understand Science', Skeptical Inquirer 14, no.3, Spring 1990.

But here's something else Carl Sagan said - 'If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.' The author observes that:

"Sagan is right. Everything we do - whether making apple pie, writing a book, or walking by a river - depends on the existence of the universe. And not just any universe, but the specific universe in which we live, which has certain properties that allowed both apples and human beings to come into existence. If you do not have people or apples, you cannot make apple pie." (Ibid., p.69)

The author then delves into nitty-gritty questions, about the beginning of time; Darwin and evolution; souls - on being human; the quest for meaning; the limits of science; whether there is an empirical ethics - science and morality; how to make sense of the world, and life. But he shows that Christian claims cannot be tested scientifically.

More interestingly, he shows that most atheists see a belief in the non-existence of God as functional and unremarkable, and would not think of it as a defining characteristic of their lives. But the New Atheism turns it into a fixation. Yes, you read correctly - there is such a thing as the New Atheism, and this is what we are up against with many questions these days. If we don't know what this New Atheism is, nobody on either 'side' will be able to make progress in understanding. This quote in the book from a humanist chaplain at Harvard University (Greg Epstein) gives an example of how anti-theism is a defining characteristic of the movement, recommending a stridently aggressive use of this stance:

"Anti-theism means actively seeking out the worst aspects of faith in god and portraying them as representative of all religion. Anti-theism seeks to shame and embarrass people away from religion, browbeating them about the stupidity of belief in a bellicose god." (Ibid. p.14)

In the author's conclusion, he pointed out that, in his first term of studying science at Oxford University, he realised that his way of looking at things was not a factual account of things. Why not? "I was imposing meaninglessness onto the cosmos." (Ibid. p.200)

That was that scientist's unnecessary, and overly-complicated step that was preventing taking a necessary and simple step to discover that (in his own words):

"The narrative of faith affirmed my sense of awe in the presence of a vast universe, while adding a layer of interpretation that enabled me to see myself in a new manner. I might be very small, overwhelmed by the majesty of the cosmos. But I mattered to God. As I write these words, they seem trite, even simplistic. Yet that thought changes everything." (Ibid. pp.200-1)

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    "Science ... counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts." As long as "God exists" isn't allowed to be one of those hypotheses! ...because "science" is certain that God doesn't exist. So much for not being arrogant.
    – Matthew
    Commented Mar 26 at 20:57
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    @Matthew There are great numbers of scientists all over the world who DO believe in one, creator God. But if you only listen to the New Atheists, you would never think that to be the case. I have several modern books written written by scientists from a whole range of disciplines, and they are committed Christians - the tip of a scientific 'iceberg' that New Atheists give a wide berth to, aiming instead for 'soft targets'. Science can say nothing against God; that's outside its remit. The scientists you refer to have strayed into metaphysics.
    – Anne
    Commented Mar 27 at 9:22
  • 1
    True, and those same New Atheists proclaim quite loudly that theirs is the only "true science" and all else is "pseudoscience", "disproven", etc. (And have a stranglehold on many information sources, including e.g. Wikipedia.) In reality, (true) science may not be able to disprove God, but it gives us much evidence that He does exist!
    – Matthew
    Commented Mar 27 at 15:07
1

The quotes all seem to turn on this postulate

that deity must have been vastly complex in the first place.

which directly contradicts the clear and concise doctrine of Divine Simplicity.

So the apologetic goes like this: Ask the atheist to point to a being which is complex, yet does not have parts?

They will say "that's impossible", you can either take:

  1. the Biblical route "Nothing is impossible with God" and end the conversation.

  2. reductio ad gloriam this proves God is greater than you could possibly imagine

  3. Explain Divine Simplicity in all its facets.

If you should choose to explain Divine Simplicity, you will fall into the trap of having to defend things that St. Anselm wrote, which seem to be contradicted by St. Thomas Aquinas, when this happens. You say "They're probably both right" and when the atheist says it's impossible for two contradictory opinions (for that is all dogma really means) to be right, then you say "Well, they're both more right than you or Dawkins", which is eminently logical.

Lastly, you ask them to pray to the Holy Spirit to infuse knowledge of these things into them so they can understand (or at least accept) the deeper mysteries of the universe before they die (and go to Hell) and when they ask who the Holy Spirit is, you say "He is the Lord and Creator of All".

tl;dr;

Lather, Rinse, Repeat...

1

If you want a loaf of bread, I suppose a baker is an unnecessary and overly complicated extra step.

There is no aspect of life anywhere that does away with the necessity of a Creator or that makes this reality unrelatable.

8
  • 1
    I think that posits that on the confirmed existence of the baker. When the existence isn't of a baker is not confirmed and you don't know whether a baker is required at all for bread, or whether it needs to come from anything at all, then it becomes a matter of why complicate things?
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Mar 27 at 23:28
  • @DKNguyen "you don't know whether a baker is required at all for bread" Ignorance of the process by which bread is made does not absolve a person who wants bread from learning and applying the correct model for obtaining it. I don't know how to make my own jet airplane, but simply wishing for one is definitely not the right way to go about getting one. Perhaps I should find someone who makes them and learn what his asking price is. Maybe I will learn that the process of making one is, in fact, complicated.
    – pygosceles
    Commented Mar 28 at 16:39
  • But note that this again, presumes the existence of a baker to even ask which is something I mentioned in my response. I hope you can understand why this answer would work for someone with the faith that there is a baker and is able to start from that end, but would not work for someone starting from the other end. I also don't know where you pulled wishing from.
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Mar 28 at 18:01
  • @DKNguyen No. There is no presumption of the existence of a baker. We know about bread and we want it. Ignorance of the necessary requirements to make a loaf of bread are fundamental problems a person has to solve if he wants one. People can delude themselves into thinking they can get around this but that is manifestly childish.
    – pygosceles
    Commented Mar 29 at 2:52
  • "Perhaps I should find someone who makes them and learn what his asking price is"
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Mar 29 at 3:24
0

It occurs to me that the person asking the question is unnecessary. So I would simply ask "does the fact that you are unnecessary in the grand scheme of things mean you don't exist?"

I don't see any reason to get more complex than that.

If I wanted to get more complicated, and perhaps also make some Christians think, I might consider that people have different ideas of what "God" is, what that word means. Some people think of a cosmic Santa Claus. The cosmic Santa probably doesn't exist, so if that's what someone means by "god", we can agree that probably doesn't exist. Let's try this on as a useful and generally agreeable definition of what the word "god" means -

We can define the word "God" to mean "what has always been, and therefore created what is". The verses "I am who I am ... This is my name forever" could also be translated something like "I am who has always been, and will be forever". Something like in Spanish the distinction between "estoy" and "soy" - God stated the permanence of God.

With that definition, there is in fact no argument. Something caused the creation of the sun, the planets, etc. We can all agree on that. We can agree on the principle of causality - the cause always comes before the effect. So whatever created the planets must have existed before the planets did. I call that something "God".

Note that creator exists just the same whether you call it God, Yahweh, Dios, Dieu or "unknown force".

3
  • I think that posits that on the confirmed existence of that thing. When the existence isn't confirmed then it becomes a matter of why complicate things?
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Mar 27 at 23:25
  • Welcome to Christianity.SE! and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others. I would also recommend reading the Help Center's sections on asking and answering questions.
    – agarza
    Commented Mar 28 at 3:21
  • It's cross-linked from a philosophy thread; asking the question here became necessary.
    – Joshua
    Commented Mar 29 at 21:29
0

tl;dr

Instead of asking how to counter certain arguments, why not ask how you can sincerely try to understand why someone came up with those arguments in the first place?

Long story:

I think many atheist would claim their convictions are based on facts and objective arguments.

Facts in themselves may be objective, but how we search for them and how we filter and interpret and explain them is very subjective. Because the way we search for facts and the way we filter and interpret and explain them is based on deeper convictions -- perhaps deeper convictions than we might be aware of. Our rational arguments (how we reason about facts) are based on those deeper convictions as well. This counts for believers and atheists alike.

One could say that rational arguments are only the tip of the iceberg. What really matters are the convictions underneath the surface. For some people a deeper conviction might be a longing for autonomy. They don't want some god telling them what (not) to do. Other people may long for security. So they need some god protecting them. And there's probably a whole lot more of such deeper convictions that shape the way you look at God.

I'd not be surprised if large parts of atheism are rooted in (perhaps valid) resentment against church and religious upbringing. The atheist arguments are just rational expressions of the underlying resentment. Or perhaps more precisely, the atheist arguments serve to rationally dissociate oneself from the underlying resentment against church and religious upbringing.

Looking at atheism from this perspective shows that it doesn't really make sense to carry a debate by scientific or philosophical arguments, unless you first understand your own deeper convictions and (just as important) the other's deeper convictions.

Maybe I put it a bit sharp and I might be wrong, but if you only ask for counter-arguments, then to me at least it sounds like you mostly care to protect your own convictions, rather than considering the other person's convictions.

So instead of asking how to counter certain arguments, why not ask how you can sincerely try to understand why someone came up with those arguments in the first place? It will take the conversation to a much more interesting level. Spoiler alert: you'll quickly find out that at this deeper level the Christian foundations are much stronger than atheist foundations.

5
  • So instead of asking how to counter certain arguments, why not ask how you can sincerely try to understand why someone came up with those arguments in the first place? - Do you want me to interview Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins? Carl Sagan is unfortunately dead now, so at least that interview is impossible. The second one is technically still possible but quite unlikely to happen.
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 26 at 19:51
  • Well, maybe there are other ways to find out about their deeper convictions? And I hope you get my point: if you're willing to have a real conversation with actual atheists, then showing interest in their deeper convictions might bring the conversation to a much more interesting level.
    – 1277154
    Commented Mar 26 at 20:06
  • @1277154 - Interesting ideas, but you assume that Atheists would be willing--not uncomfortable--to reveal their convictions, if they had some.---Atheist's convictions are based on facts... It would be best to say rather, selective facts. It is apparent in past discussions that many facts are ignored or avoided.---Possibly, many who do examine their convictions, are uncomfortable with them, and use an atheism of the gaps as a Bridge to pass over into an Atheistic Rationale that avoids God talk. Could be...but getting an atheist to venture into this discussion might be a divine miracle.
    – ray grant
    Commented Mar 26 at 22:06
  • Ha yes so perhaps when you got an atheist so far to discuss these things, you can tell him that this is a divine miracle in itself, so God must exist. Not sure if he'd accept that argument though. :P
    – 1277154
    Commented Mar 27 at 16:23
  • But on a serious note: I don't assume that atheists would be willing to reveal their convictions. In fact, I think many would not. But at least we can try. First, it might just depend on how we approach someone. Second, once you did your best to approach someone in a sincere way, and it turns out they are not willing to examine their convictions, then you know there simply is no common ground to keep talking. That's a valid outcome too. But at least you tried.
    – 1277154
    Commented Mar 27 at 16:45

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