Where to Start?

Photo Credit: FreeImages.com/Krista Johanson

I was reading some more of atheist Dan Barker’s book “godless”, and came across this passage:

“I have often heard Christians say we must ‘start with God.’ … Isn’t that interesting? Would they say we must ‘start with unicorns’ or must ‘start with UFOs?’ We can only start where we both agree, and proceed from there. We both agree that there is a natural universe – no argument there. It is the religious persons who maintain additional ‘supernatural’ or transcendent assertions that go beyond what we both accept. It is unreasonable and unfair for them simply to fold their arms and demand that I disprove their allegations. Any impartial investigator will agree that we should start with what we do know, and then proceed from there. We should start with nature. We should start with the nonexistence of God and then the believer should argue for God’s existence, not demand that atheists argue against it. The burden of proof in any argument is on the shoulders of the one who makes the affirmative claim, not the one who doubts it.” [1, emphasis in original]

What do you think? Does he have a legitimate point? Let’s work through that today.

Let me first just agree with Dan on his last statement about the burden of proof. He is correct: anyone making positive propositional statements bears the burden of proof for those statements. With that in mind, let me quote the closing sentences of Dan’s previous paragraph: “…the probability for the existence of a supernatural being can be safely dropped to zero. In the name of honesty, it must be dropped to zero.” (emphasis in original) Dan, I’m afraid, took on a monumentally heavy burden of proof with that proposition. I’m no UFO hunter, but I’m not about to make the bold claim that the probability of UFOs are zero. To prove a universal negative requires either proving a self-contradiction that makes it deductively impossible, or observing all possibilities to verify inductively that the object in question does not exist in some unobserved state. However, the concept of God is not internally inconsistent, like speaking of a square circle would be, where we can truly say it cannot exist, by definition. Nor is Dan Barker omniscient, and able to search all time and space, and alternate dimensions, and so on, to verify the non-existence of God. I think I would reconsider that proposition if I were Dan.

Moving on, I agree that starting with common ground is a great place to start. That saves two opponents the trouble of arguing back and forth trying to establish such common ground. And we do both agree that a natural universe exists; we can both observe it, and we can both make rational inferences about it. So I’m perfectly OK starting with nature. But did you notice the switch Barker did? First he wrote that we should “start with nature”, but then in the very next sentence, he wrote that “we should start with the nonexistence of God….” Not so fast there, Dan. Those aren’t the same. If we start with nature, then we are starting with raw observational data of the world around us, working to establish probable causes for what we observe. One of those possible causes is God, no matter how small you personally feel that possibility is. Therefore, you can’t rule that out beforehand. This is actually the logical fallacy called “begging the question”, or “assuming what you set out to prove”. [2] Now, if he had eliminated God as a possible cause in the course of the investigation, that would be one thing that we’d have to look at more closely later to find where he went wrong. However, defining Him out of the investigation before you even begin is like deliberately putting blinders on before watching a lab experiment, and wondering why you can’t explain the results: you only saw half the experiment!

As a former pastor, Dan Barker should know that the Bible encourages us to look at nature. Passages like Psalm 19 tell us that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” [Ps19:1]  Paul tells us in the New Testament that “since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” [Ro 1:20] And when we look at nature, we find a lot of things that need explaining. We see an absolute beginning that requires a Beginner; we see an incredibly fine-tuned cosmos that requires a powerful super-intelligence beyond imagination; we see amazing code written in our every cell that points to a Master Programmer; and we see beauty that has inspired artists and poets in every generation to try to represent it to their audiences. In short, we see that nature speaks of something beyond nature, something supernatural. Contrary to what Dan Barker assumes, when we have an open mind as we “start with nature”, we are compelled toward God, not away from Him.

[1] Dan Barker, godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2008), p. 92.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 94.