Just whose God are we debating anyway?

Debating God is tough work. For starters, in most circumstances, the audience is not on your side. Agnostics and atheists are the minority in a country where the population describes itself as either religious or very religious. Secondly, anyone debating against the existence of God seems to have the difficult task of trying to disprove the idea, rather than rightly asking any of the claimants for proof. Finally, the last difficulty is the fact that as a general concept, ‘God’ is so loosely defined that any theist can easily wiggle out of tough theological questions.

The Audience is Not on Your Side

Any sports team will tell you how helpful it is to have home field advantage. There’s a palpable feeling in the air, a raw energy that can be drawn. So, undoubtedly, having the audience on your side is a great help. Sadly, support for the views of atheism is placid at best, hostile at worst. Though most Americans are taught that religious tolerance is a hallmark of good citizenry, it seems the same attitude does not apply when having no religious feelings whatsoever. In fact, when asked who they would least likely vote for as electoral candidates, atheists finished dead last in terms of minorities. Clearly, we aren’t wanted.

Although I won’t try and make any excuses for poor debaters having been unable to defend their points accurately, there is nevertheless a sense of hostility in the air as one tries to debate against the existence of a higher power. One gets the feeling such ideas are not very welcome, and such a debater is not likely to win any popularity contest. As a result, although there may be many individuals capable of defending the views of atheism, the reality is the expression of such views often make one terribly unpopular; even despised.

The Difficulties in Proving a Negative

Anyone with a scientific background will tell you any attempt to disprove a negative is a futile effort, not only because of the infinite amount of things that would need disproving, but also because the claim does not first offer the possibility of falsifiability. If I make a claim that an invisible, weightless dragon is in my garage (a favorite example from the late Carl Sagan), any attempts to disprove its existence will be met not only with resistance on my part, but also by the implacable and insoluble nature of my claim. Any claim made without evidence is baseless, and should be disproved without evidence. Unfortunately, with ideas as old and entrenched as gods, the weight of evidence is not physical, but rather historical; we’ve believed in gods for a long time, therefore, the argument follows, surely we couldn’t have been wrong for so long, could we?

Yes, surely we have been wrong about a lot of things throughout our comparatively short stint here on Earth. Historical claims, at best, demonstrate there is an odd tendency for humans to be religious, and at worst demonstrate, like old theories on what ‘stuff’ was made of, or how the Cosmos operated, they almost always start out by being terribly wrong.

Theologians Use Ever Varying Concepts of God

Luckily, in most circumstances, most of the time, debates remain fairly civil, and unless dealing with a radical, can be very constructive. But in general the three problems outlined above make debating God an often futile effort; in particular, the broad and all-encompassing definition of ‘God’ make the act of debate seem pointless. If I am engaging in an argument over the existence of God with a Christian, just whose god are we debating anyway? Am I debating about God the all loving Creator, the God turned Man, or a ‘Prime Mover’? Is it possible perhaps my opponent is himself unsure?

Let us suppose for instance a debate was going on. I would begin by making a case that the illusion of design is primarily responsible for our idea of God. We are easily fooled by the apparent intricacies of the human eye, or the vastness of the Cosmos, and attribute these to be the work of some divine planner. We’ve been doing this for some time; long before we had any real way of understanding complex forces without the use of an outside influence. If nature can satisfactorily be explained without a designer, then there is no need to include one in our hypothesis about how the universe operates. Even if we do run into problems, or gaps in our information (such as the origin of life or the universe itself), we cannot infer it is appropriate to interject a ‘God in the gaps’ to satisfy our incomplete view. The notion the universe could have begun (and this is a tricky word, since time itself is not a constant, and as such, the idea of a beginning is not the adequate picture) without an outside cause works based on the information we already have at hand. Even if it did not, our inability to comprehend why there should be a universe instead of nothing does not imply a creator.

My opponent might at this point argue that although it may not prove the existence of a creator, it is certainly is not completely negated either. Fair enough. I would be on shaky ground if I tried to argue that the universe functioning without the need for interference from a God instantaneously disproves the hypothesis. The ‘God’ that atheists will always be incapable of disproving is isolable, immune to any testing or verification specifically because the concept demands ‘he’ is. Such a deity is outside of reality and the universe, and as such, is not a relevant player in it. Although the theologians, apologetics, and other religious defenders argue in favor of such a concept, they do so out of the necessity to first possess a concept of God that is irrefutable to their own selective concepts upon. However, theologians are not interested in a God that is completely outside the universe; they require a deity who interferes with human affairs, who takes sides, who offers rewards, who can produce a son, or offer divine revelation to the few who can hear them. This God is not insoluble, since we can at least measure the impact ‘he’ supposedly has in human affairs.

Regardless of his tactic to prove the universe could contain a God of some kind, why would my opponent think the concept he has outlined in any way resembles the God he believes in? Why is it that apologetics engage in heated discussions about the existence of God fail to argue properly in the God as they so effortlessly define him as being Omnipresent, Omniscient, and Omnibenevolent? Of course I cannot prove the non-existance of God as an entity who exists completely outside our realm of experience, but so what? That definition in no way resembles God as he is described in the Bible, or the Qur’an, or any other ‘holy’ book for that matter.

The recent debate of Sharpton vs Hitchens is a good example of this; Reverand Sharpton argued that Hitchens did not disprove God in his book, God is not Great, but rather mentioned only the evil and wrong-doings of organized religion. What does Al Sharpton believe? Well, his comment about Mitt Romney (tongue in cheek of course), who is a Mormon, not believing in the right God obviously demonstrates that he has a solid idea of what this God is, and certainly this God is the one contained within the texts that Hitchens so venomously attacks.

Sharpton, like all religious people, relies on the insoluble God to debate with atheists, even though, when the debate is broken down, the real argument is rather about an anthropomorphized and active God than the improvable one. We can measure such a God, and we can certainly refute it. The simple fact is prayer, for instance, has been shown to do absolutely nothing in double blind studies (in fact, people who were sick and knew they were being prayed for did worse). However, so long as any debater falls back on the insoluble concept of God (related more to deism than to theism), then the atheist is effectively wasting his time. He will never be able to disprove this idea, anymore than he can disprove fairies or goblins.

Comments (4)

  • avatar

    Jacob Fortin

    A quick note to anyone who came to read this article before: I posted the article before realizing that I hadn’t spellchecked! Hope no one thought less of me as a result!

  • avatar


    Jesus may have died for your sins… but certanly not for your bad spelling.

  • avatar


    People who live in glass crack-pots shouldn’t throw stones!

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    I’m glad I stumbled upon your “Good Atheist” site. I was reading the article about that museum in Slate.com and your blog was mentioned.

    To focus on the moral aspects of Atheism would do more for your argument that disproving God in a debate. Have you read Susan Jacoby’s book about Freethinkers? I highly recommend it…also some of Frances de Waal’s work in primate studies like my favorite: Our Inner Ape.

    The question remains: How can a supernatural being be disproved using rational methods like debate and civilized discussion anyway?? Like your article above makes perfectly clear:
    1) We need evidence…can’t debate without evidence.

    2)Humans tend to be religious creatures. And emotionally vested.

    3)God is a theory;belief system is both social and psychological.

    4)Dieties are outside reality, experience, and the Universe as we know it. Science has no need to study gods…they are human contructs. We can study the chemicals in our brains that get activated by religious experience, I suppose…euphoria.

    When in comes to your book, I think it may be interesting for you to “fill the gaps of knowledge” with secular explanations. I was also thinking that the introduction of “Jesus” into the conversation brings in how a symbolic human face and heart were central …once a figure like Jesus (and his Mother Mary) was introduced as human rather than supernatural..and experiencing human suffering…that was a huge value to early Christianity as a new religion recruiting new members.

    It continues to promote the powerful message in America today with fundamentalist Christians and the Evangelicals out there in political arenas..active involvement matters…no more hiding in meekness or turning the other cheek!

    Christianity has tried to remain “culturally relevant”…it needs new members and children are under the control of their parents’ viewpoints and educational guidance. What better way to market Evangelical Christianity than a dinosaur exhibit with “hands on” gadgets and “life-like” robots. This is pure spectacle and entertainment. I would not call it education of course…because education does not need “frills and thrills” to take root in the mind of a child.

    But this is why a museum that promotes Creationism and Intelligent Design will be popular among segments of American society…it supports fundamentalist beliefs rather than challenging them. It markets the message in pseudo-science and sparkly technology and is “family friendly” entertainment in a “scary world”. Because they market fear and self-loathing.

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