Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Dialogue with an atheist (2): what about agnosticism?

This is part 2 of a fictional dialogue between two friends: a Christian and an atheist. Sam is a fictional character. As usual, comments and corrections are welcome!

Read part 1

Sam: This coffee is great, thank you!
Kevin: Well, it’s not as good as the stuff you get at Mug n’ Bean, but it gets me out of bed in the morning.
Sam: If I don’t have my cup when I wake up, I can get really grumpy.
Kevin: At least you and I have something in common: we both have faith in caffeine.
(both laugh)
Sam: I will have another cup later on. Getting back to our discussion: you said earlier that you don’t believe in the existence of God, but you also said that you don’t claim that God doesn’t exist. Can you explain further?
Kevin: If it is okay with you, I will answer with a question. Do you believe in the existence of the Loch Ness Monster?
Sam: Well, no.
Kevin: Why?
Sam: Sufficient evidence is lacking. All we have are a few eye witness accounts and a couple of fuzzy photos that are somewhat suspect in nature.
Kevin: So after some examination of the evidence you are not convinced?
Sam: Yea, kind of.
Kevin: But let me ask you this: do you know for certain that the monster does not exist?
Sam: No. I don’t know for certain that the Loch Ness Monster does not exist. Although I don’t believe in the Loch Ness Monster, I could be wrong in my belief. I’m not omniscient, and I don’t know every nook and cranny of the Loch Ness. It is probable that the Loch Ness Monster does exist, but it is hiding away quite effectively somewhere in the depths. I need more knowledge in order to justify belief.
Kevin: Exactly. The same applies to my belief in gods: if someone asks me if I believe in supernatural beings, I will reply no. In this sense I am an atheist, as I’m not convinced in the claim that a god or gods exist. However, if someone asks me if I know that gods do not exist, I will answer that I am not certain. I can’t say “there is no God” – I can only say this if I search the entire universe and find that there is no God. But this is impossible for me to do.
Sam: But aren’t you an agnostic if you not certain that God exists?
Kevin: Yes, I am an agnostic.
Sam: But you said that you are an atheist. How can you be an atheist and agnostic at the same time?
Kevin: I am an agnostic in terms of knowledge of a god or gods. I am an atheist in terms of belief in a god’s existence. There is a commonly held belief that agnosticism sits on the same scale between theism and atheism, that it differs in degree from these two extremes. However, others have argued that agnosticism sits apart from theism and atheism totally. It differs in kind. One can be both a theist and agnostic, or an atheist and an agnostic. I am an agnostic atheist. Ellie Arroway, the main character in Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact, makes a distinction between being convinced that God doesn’t exist, and not being convinced that he does exist. At the moment, I fall into the second camp.


marc said...

Kevin - that makes sense to me. Oh and by the way it Loch not Lock...:¬)

Kevin Parry said...

Hi marc

Thank you for pointing that out! I've corrected the mistake.

From now on I will refrain from editing my posts so late at night :-)

Anonymous said...

Nice post - I fit this mold myself. I am an atheist - I do not believe in god. I am also an agnostic - I do not think the existence of god can be proved or disproved. Atheism and agnosticism address two different aspects of the same question. I do not believe, yet I understand that my believe cannot be proven. So I do not attempt to do so.

It drives my friends crazy.

I drives my friends crazy.

tichius said...


Hi, interesting dialoque (as usual). One question arises for me from reading this post:

If someone you love and are very close to (let's say your wife) tells you that she knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Lock Ness moster exists, would your opinion change at all?

marc said...

It would certainly cause me to give it more consideration.

Dar said...

Just because you love someone doesn't mean you should agree with everything they believe in. Getting your spouse to believe something would still require some sort of basis and proof. Their beleif can be respected and discuseed without being passed.

forHim said...

Wow! I stumbled upon your blog and my first response was one of sadness. It is clear you do not have a personal relationship with Christ. I do not say this with condescendence, nor with smugness. I am a believer and have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, my Lord and Saviour. I was searching the internet for information about Jehovah's Witness'. I have had recent opportunities to witness to JW's. I want to read through your thoughts. I am interested to understand. It is difficult to believe because "we" want something tangible, we want evidence. I can say, without a doubt, God is real, He exists and I have total Faith in Him. It is hard to wrap one's head around how amazing and big He is. I have some great reading to recommend, if you are willing? So much to say, and I definitely can't do it in here. Just wanted to comment and tell you God loves you, He wants you and He is interested in every single thing you do. I just recently started a blog, so it's bare. In fact, there isn't really anything on it. I did so in thinking it would be nice to share with family and friends. The only blog I really thought of sharing publicly was one about my faith. God is so great and He has a wonderful way of leading us. I don't believe in coincidence.

Rodolfo said...

religious faith is not a virtue.

Lui said...

Hi Collette,

I would like to know two things if I may:

1) why do you not have a personal relationsip with the hundreds of other gods humanity has ever believed in?
2) what startling evidence do you have in your possession that leads you to believe, "without a doubt", that God is real, and the disqualifies the other gods, like Allah, the Hindu gods and the Aztec gods, as false? Is it different from "Faith"?

I do not myself mean to be condescending, I just subscribe to Carl Sagan's notion that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". I need to see that evidence.

tichius said...


1.) when you find what is true, you also find what is false. Truth, by definition, is exclusive. This means that when you come to the saving knowledge of Christ, you also know that anything that contradicts His teaching is false.

2.) This is the startling evidence: God came in the form of man, Jesus Christ, to free us from the bondage of sin and death. He died on the Cross for our sins, and was ressurrected. Through Adam sin entered the world, and through Christ we have freedom from the sin.

The problem is not lack of evidence, the problem is that you do not believe the evidence.


Dar said...

I don't understand what constitutes as "evidence" in your thought process.

"Free us from the bondage of sin and death?"

Tell me, are you free from sin? Are you free from death? These words seem to have no basis in reality.

Lui said...

"The problem is not lack of evidence, the problem is that you do not believe the evidence. " I don't mean to offend you, but that has rank among the most laughable things I've ever read. When I asked for evidence, I didn't ask anyone to repeat what I was asking evidence FOR, I wanted to see the actual evidence BEHIND Jesus being God's son, God's existence, etc.
The Bible says lots of things, many of them ridiculous (at least if you take them literally). There never were actual talking snakes, or a Garden of Eden, or Adam and Eve for that matter.

Mike said...

Hi Lui and all,

Here is the cumulative case that has persuaded me that God exists and that the Bible reveals what God is like:

- Design arguments
- Cosmological arguments (particularly the Kalam)
- Moral arguments
- Argument from evil (Basically, if evil exists than God exists)
- Argument from imagination
- Argument from consciousness
- Historical evidence
- The unique character of Jesus (this one is probably the most persuasive to me)
- The resurrection of Jesus
- Personal experience of God in worship, prayer, reflection, through others, etc.
- Answered prayers, both mine and others'
- Experience of seeing how following Jesus' teachings brings true joy and peace, not only to me but to many others I know
- The explanatory power of the Christian worldview to the human condition

Now I am not claiming that these arguments provide a 100% mathematical proof, but I think the evidence points us to Christianity as the most likely account of how reality really is. I would appreciate any thoughtful criticism on these pieces of evidence.

Mike said...

Hi Lui, BTW I posted a response to your last comment in the "Redefining Marriage" post

Lui said...

Hi Mike,

- How do you know he's "answered prayers"? How is this distinguishable from statistical chance?

- What is the "historical evidence"?

- What is so persuasive about "the ressurection of Jesus"?

- How is "personal experience" of the Christian God more legitimate than "personal experience" of Allah, Buddha, the Hindu gods, etc that their adherents claim to have on a regular basis?

- how does an idea's ability to bring joy and peace have any bearing on its claim to truth?

Lui said...

I meant "resurrection".

Rodolfo said...

It's difficult for me to accept the idea that book god(s) told its people that this is the one true faith and that people who don't believe will all go to hell when they die. It's like book god(s) is some sex addicted maniac who sleeps around all over the world and convinces its inhabitants that they're the only ones they're screwing when in fact he has other groupies in the next town over. Why should one group of people have exclusive rights to this book god(s)?

Mike said...

Hi Lui,

You asked some good questions, and here are my responses:

You asked:
- How do you know he's "answered prayers"? How is this distinguishable from statistical chance?

Well I suppose when something happens that is a very specific answer to a prayer, you are free to think either that it was just a coincidence or that it was God’s doing. When these occurrences happen in my life, they are almost always accompanied by this strange feeling – call it a weight in my chest – and it gives me this sense that I am witnessing the hand of God at work. It is also accompanied by a sense of the goodness of the occurrence – God wants us to pray for things that are “good” or “right”, which is what it means to pray “in Jesus’ name” – things that Jesus Himself would pray for. Now of course I can’t prove whether this is just in my head or whether it is in fact God, but to me the very specific occurrences (i.e., a series of statistically improbable events happening soon after I have asked for them), the senses I get, and the goodness of them tell me that it is God. Again I can’t prove this to you, but it’s the most likely conclusion from my perspective.

One person has said something to the effect that when you pray, coincidences tend to happen a lot more in your life.

You asked:
- What is the "historical evidence"?

Archaeological evidence of places, events, and figures mentioned in the Bible… The remarkable consistency (99.9etc%) of the biblical text over thousands of years of scribal copying… The rise of the Christian church within an extremely hostile climate spearheaded by peasant fishermen from Galilee… the remarkable history of the Jews, to this very day… The spread of the church, particularly during the last 2-3 centuries… the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.

You asked:
- What is so persuasive about "the ressurrection of Jesus"?

I think the evidence for it’s historicity is very compelling, especially because of how the church grew immediately after it in the Jewish/Roman context. If you are asking what is persuasive about the event itself, I would say that someone rising from the dead is very significant given that humanity’s greatest problem is death itself. The resurrection gives us hope for our resurrection.

You asked:
- How is "personal experience" of the Christian God more legitimate than "personal experience" of Allah, Buddha, the Hindu gods, etc that their adherents claim to have on a regular basis? 

I believe that the nature and character of the Christian God is far superior to the character of these other gods. Thus, experience with the Christian God has a much different quality, a joy and a peace that is for lack of better terms “higher” or “purer” than others. All other gods fall short of the unrelenting unconditional love of the Christian God. These other gods place so many requirements on people in order for them to be acceptable to him, burdening people with the angst of whether or not they are “good enough” for God… But contrary to what many people think, this is not what the Christian God does. The Christian God says, “I love you, exactly as you are. I want to have a relationship with you where I can be your Father, your friend. Trust me, follow me, and I will show you a life that is full and abundant – the life you were created to have.” Before you talk to me about the atrocities in the Old Testament that you cannot understand, read the heart of God in page after page of the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, etc.), how so filled with sorrow he is because Israel rejects him time after time after time, how he longs for her to be his bride and yet she walks out on him constantly, and how even though Israel has been so unfaithful – for centuries mind you - he will still love her and bless her and be faithful to her. And then read about the unimaginable agony that Jesus went through all because he wants each one of us to enjoy his love, and how even as he was hanging on the cross, he forgave the very ones who nailed him there. This God is unique to say the least, unrelenting in his love for rebellious, undeserving people.

You asked:
- how does an idea's ability to bring joy and peace have any bearing on its claim to truth?

Well Lui, we’ve been on this road before, and so I will say again that I believe that humanity has real needs/hungers for joy, peace, meaning, truth, purpose, love, etc., and these hungers demand an explanation, and a worldview that tackles them head on is preferable to a worldview that ignores them and pushes them away. This is something that each person will have to plumb the depths of their heart to wrestle with… Does a worldview need to address the human condition? I think it does, and when I experience the quality of joy and peace that I have with God, I think I would be a fool to say, “Well this doesn’t tell me a thing about whether this is true or not.” If the worldview claims to give you an inexpressible joy and peace, and it does, then isn’t this something to consider when assessing its truth? Remember, we are not considering it in isolation, but with everything else.

Lui said...

Hi Mike,

this has certainly been an interesting exchange!
Anyway, to your latest post:

"One person has said something to the effect that when you pray, coincidences tend to happen a lot more in your life."

Or it could be that coincidences are simply noticed more often and interpreted as answered prayers. It's known that when people believe in something, they are more apt to see confirmations of it, and forget "misses".

"The historical evidence for the ressurection of Jesus."

David Hume said that it was no coincidence that most accounts of miracles were to be found in the "barbarian and backward cultures". I have a lot of trouble trusting the accounts of people who lived two millenia ago, were uneducated, were susceptible to fanastic tales, and had no way of verifying extraordinary claims. I see no reason to give them the benefit of the doubt. I'm not saying this to belittle them (they were ignorant through no fault of their own); I only wish to cast doubt on the reliability of their testimony given their social context and lack of skepticism we would demand today.

"and a worldview that tackles them head on is preferable to a worldview that ignores them and pushes them away"

I don't know what you're referring to here, because I never came close to endorsing such a position. Far from "ignoring" or "pushing" away human needs and desires, I've been compelled to understand them, albeit from a biological perspective. I see it as unsatisfactory to explain the needs and desires by invoking the needs and desires themselves as some sort of explanation.

"Archaeological evidence of places, events, and figures mentioned in the Bible"

A more impressive mandate for regarding the Bible as divinely inspired would be to show clearly that its authors knew something revolutionary or original that was not known at the time, like some new scientific concept, and that they could not have come across this knowledge other than through some special communion with a higher force.

"Remember, we are not considering it in isolation, but with everything else."

That is precisely what I have been expounding here. It can't be separated from the sociological, biological, psychological and historical context. It's not me who wants to consider religion in isolation; it is far from being exempt from the same scrutiny as other social forces simply because of the claims it makes.

Finally, it may well be that the Christian God is the most compassionate and least judgemental of all the gods humanity has ever believed in. But God himself ordered murders in the Bible. With the "remarkable consistency" of Biblical texts, why should we regard only the "nice" bits as true but the "bad" bits as "symbolic" or "open to interpretation"? Flooding an entire planet is not the work of a nice entity.

Rodolfo said...

I stopped praying in 2004. More specifically I stopped "asking" for anything. It always seemed arrogant for me to say that my prayers were answered yet my neighbors' prayers weren't. Were they ignored? Did they not pray the right way? Then I would tell myself "god works in mysterious ways" to explain why prayers weren't answered. I stopped saying that when my brother yelled out "where does it say that in the bible?" I had no answer for him. Prayers are 50/50. We can prove that through experiments. Simple.

The search for gold and the spread of Christianity go hand in hand and still do. It's not a miracle to force an aborigine to convert or die in the name of heaven and hell.

Kevin Parry said...

Tichius wrote:
If someone you love and are very close to (let's say your wife) tells you that she knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Lock Ness moster exists, would your opinion change at all?

No, it would not. I had a friend once who claimed that she communicated with ghosts and spoke to them on a regular basis. I don’t think she was lying; she firmly believed in her abilities. I did not believe her, despite the fact that I was her friend. The truth of her claims did not depend on my friendship with her. My belief in an incredible claim is based on the evidence, not on how much I love the person making the claim.

Collete wrote:
It is difficult to believe because "we" want something tangible, we want evidence.

Thank you for popping by. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be asking why we need evidence to believe in God. If someone claimed that they had seen Elvis in a shopping centre, would you automatically believe that person? I would think the natural response of any rational person would be to ask for evidence. Why should the idea of God be any different? Why should he be exempt from the same kind of scrutiny?

Mike wrote:
Archaeological evidence of places, events, and figures mentioned in the Bible

The Pearl of Great Price also contains many historical events, places and figures that can be verified. Does this mean that Joseph Smith’s meeting with the angel Moroni actually happened? The problem for me is that, as far as I know, none of the miracle claims in the Bible have been verified by archeology.

In terms of the evidence for Jesus and his resurrection: can you find any non-Biblical references to Jesus that were made during his lifetime?

The remarkable consistency (99.9etc%) of the biblical text over thousands of years of scribal copying

Does consistency equate to truth? Even if the present day copies are 100% the same as the original manuscripts, we have no idea if the original manuscripts accurately reported what actually happened. One can argue that current copies of the Book of Mormon are almost exactly the same as the original. Does this mean that what is contained in the Book of Mormon is true?

Mike said...

Hi Kevin,

The archaeological and historical evidence for Christianity is not put forth as absolute 100% proof, which you seem to be arguing I am saying. I am not saying that because of historical accuracies, the Bible is true. I am saying that this is one piece of evidence among many that lead me to the conclusion that Christianity makes he most sense. If it makes historical claims, then we would expect history to match up to the claims, which I believe it does. The evidence must be assessed as a whole... philosophical arguments, worldview considerations, etc.

I would suggest that if you applied the same degree of scrutiny to other historical works you would end up being skeptical about all of history. Do you believe that Aristotle and Plato existed? You might want to check the textual evidence for their works. Now I know you have said in previous posts that the Bible should be given more intense scrutiny because of its claims, but is this not special pleading? Let's not apply an unnecessary bias in our historical assessments.

References to Jesus during his lifetime... Perhaps Josephus counts here. I would also have to say in this regard that we would not expect any references to Jesus because he was an obscure Jewish figure in the remote region of Galilee/Judea during his lifetime, and a condemned criminal at that. The church started from a small group of peasants, and it took time for the church to grow into a significant number of people to influence the world... Why would major writers during Jesus' lifetime make reference to him in history books, especially if they had never heard of him, and even if they had heard of him, they didn't believe in him? They didn't have the proliferation of print media that we have today.

You should also consider that the letters of Paul were written at the earliest 15 years after Jesus' death and the latest 30 years after (which most scholars agree with), and Paul of course mentions many things about Jesus. 1 Corinthians 15 is a good example.

You cite Mormon documents, but again, I am not saying that historical accuracies = truth. I reject Mormonism primarily on their metaphysical views of God and reality. Their conception of God makes God way too small. Plus, I just happen to have an 1830 version of the Book of Mormon, the original version, and there are significant changes that have been made from that version to the current one today... and the changes that were made were made to cover "bloopers" in the facts covered in the text. The textual differences in the Bible are so minor that no docrtine is affected.

MomSquared said...

Love it. Thanks.

Lui said...

No one's asking for a 100 percent proof, just something so compelling that the alternative is even more unbelievable, after taking into account all the ignorance and superstition of the time, possibility of fraud, misrepresentation, etc.

"Now I know you have said in previous posts that the Bible should be given more intense scrutiny because of its claims, but is this not special pleading?"

No, because we have good reasons to want to be more sure about the claims in the Bible and the historical record of Jesus. The Bible, if actually the work of God, is something that we should actively want to check for authenticity and reliability because of the profound implications it carries. Supposing that Aristotle didn't actually exist, that would not profoundly impact upon our appreciation of Aristotelian philosophy. We could still tlak about the valid or invalid points about that philosophy without an appreciation of whoever came up with that philosophy. Aristotle, as a man, was, in a way, beside the point, just as Darwin was beside the point. The same doesn't apply to Jesus. Jesus is meant to be a special figure because he was meant to be the son of God. If he wasn't the son of God, or if he didn't even exist, that would profoundly impact upon our appreciation of the idea of Christianity, which RELIES upon the premise that Jesus as son of God was factually correct.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Mike

Thank you for your reply.

Josephus does mention Jesus, but Josephus was only born around 37AD, a few years after Jesus’ death. As far as I know, there were a number of historians living at the time that Jesus was alive, but none of them mention Jesus at all. This would be understandable if Jesus was indeed an obscure and unknown man, as you say. But the Bible does not seem to indicate this. There are many instances in the gospels where crowds of people flocked to hear Jesus speak, and many people experienced his miracles (e.g., the feeding of the 5 000). We must also note Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem; and we must not forget the darkness that covered the land and the dead saints that walked all over Jerusalem when Jesus died on the cross. So I don't think he was as unknown as you say. These were all incredible events that were associated with this man, but no non-Biblical writer of the day makes any mention of them.

I can accept the fact that Jesus existed as an ordinary person, but the miracle claims are what bother me. Many historical documents contain great miracle stories, and historians are wise to be skeptical of these because, as Lui suggested above, many of these documents were written in times of great superstition. I think it was David Hume who pointed out the odd fact that great miracle events, those that are witnessed by hundreds of people, don’t occur in modern times. One has to ask why this is the case. Have the gods of various religions, who were active in ancient times, gone on holiday? Or have humans, through the process of better education, become less prone to spread or believe miracle stories?

We can also view this from a different angle: is it possible that miracle stories were used as a way of passing on information in a predominantly oral culture? If you cannot read or write, what better way to remember information than through a story or a myth. Were the gospel writers simply recording oral tradition, not historical fact?

Thank you for correcting me by pointing out that the Book of Mormon has gone through major changes since it was written. I didn’t know this. Do you perhaps have a reference where I can find out more information?

Again, thanks for the thoughtful comments.

Mike said...

Hi Lui and Kevin,

Sorry I haven't been around for a couple weeks, but life gets busy some times.

Lui you said:
"No one's asking for a 100 percent proof, just something so compelling that the alternative is even more unbelievable, after taking into account all the ignorance and superstition of the time, possibility of fraud, misrepresentation, etc."

I believe that if you look at the evidence as a cumulative case - not the historical evidence in isolation - then you have a compelling overall case. This is something that is almost always missed by people. Plus, the historicity of the New Testament is by a long shot a greater case than the historicity of every other document from that era and most documents after that era.

And to both you and Kevin, I think its a rather weak argument to assume that no miracles happen because you have never seen one. Contrary to your observations, they are happening even today, not only in thrid world countries but right here in Los Angeles. I know several people who all had visions of September 11 weeks before it happened, and all separate from one another, keeping their visions a secret because they did not know what they meant. A close friend of my parents was healed of fibro-myalgia right before our eyes while we prayed for her. I know people who are harassed by demons, with physical (i.e. objective) manifestations. I know people who have had information about other people "pop" into their head and when they share it with others, it is like a message from God just for them. I know of people who speak in tongues, speaking unknown languages in a dialect that sounds nothing like anything known, right before my eyes. I know people - my wife included - who have translated another language without actually knowing the language, right before my eyes. I know of countless answered prayers...

Now I bet you will try to have a naturalistic explanation for all of these occurences, which causes me to wonder if you would ever believe any miracle if it happened. Think about it, no matter what miracle occurs we today can attribute it to aliens, or "magic", or technology, or whatever. Jesus himself said that people would not believe even if someone rose from the dead. People were not just superstitious gullible dunces back in the first century, as Hume and others suggest. They were skeptical as well, and the religious establishment of that day rejected the miracles of Jesus, just as we do today. But it wasn't because of their superior education, it was because of their personal desires. Desires can blind even the brightest of minds.

I suggest reading "In Defense of Miracles", a collection of essays from many of the top Christian thinkers today. It is edited by R. Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas.

And to Kevin regarding the notoriety of Jesus... I mentioned the lack of print media back then. How many writers were around back then? How many books? Where were most writers writing from? They were mostly Roman and Greek, and they were not interested in writing about a traveling sage in Judea. But there were some Jews interested in writing about Jesus. They were Paul, Matthew, John, Mark, and a Greek named Luke. And their writings spread like wildfire. But if you will not accept them because of the miracles, I suggest you reconsider your view on miracles. And if you think they are mythical in genre, I suggest comparing them to other "myths" written at the time, and you may see just how historical the New Testament sounds.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Mike

I’m not saying that present day miracles don’t happen. I think that you and I are on the same side of the fence where the existence of present day miracles are concerned. However, I think we differ over the cause of these miracles. You listed an impressive array of examples where people you know have had strange experiences. Despite the fact that the stories are anecdotal in nature, I don’t deny that they happened. In fact, when I was a Christian, I had two very strange experiences that, at the time, could have been mistaken as supernatural occurrences.

The first occurred when I was a member of a Christian drama and music team travelling around the country, evangelising in schools, hospitals and prisons. One night I was lying in bed, in the dark, when I thought I heard strange, guttural voices in the room, talking in an unknown language. It was only for a few seconds, but it was quite spooky. Demons, perhaps?

A few years later, when I was at university, I woke up in the middle of the night and felt a presence in the room. I suddenly found that I couldn’t move. Although I couldn’t look around, I could ‘feel’ the malicious presence moving around me. It was an incredibly frightening experience for me, and when I recounted the story to some of my friends, they thought that it had been a ghost or a demon.

I now know that it is highly likely that that both these experiences were not supernatural, but had entirely natural causes. With regards to the voices: auditory hallucinations are normal and they happen to everyone at some time or another (have you ever heard a voice calling your name when no-one is there?). In terms of my second experience: the symptoms were totally consistent with sleep paralysis, an experience that happens to some people just before they fall asleep or wake up.

Now, if I had these two experiences while living in the Middle Ages, I would definitely have attributed both of them to supernatural causes (in fact, witches were thought to have been the cause of sleep paralysis). And this brings me to my point: our increased knowledge of the human body has enabled us to conclude that both auditory hallucinations and sleep paralysis are natural. And this has happened with many other views of nature: humans once thought that lightening and thunder were caused by the gods – we now know that lightening is simply a movement of electrons; humans once thought that frothing at the mouth and spasms were signs of demon possession – we now understand what causes epilepsy, and how to treat it. Humans seem to have the tendency to ascribe supernatural causes to experiences we do not fully understand.

Present day miracle experiences that various religions describe might indeed happen, but is it premature to claim that they have a supernatural cause? Religions claim that an invisible supernatural being is responsible, but they cannot even explain how this being actually goes about conducting these miracles. Are religions simply answering a mystery with a larger mystery here?

You say that as a skeptic, I will never believe that these miracles are supernatural in origin, no matter what kind of miracles you show me. You are right – if it is only miracles you show me, I won’t believe. But this doesn’t mean that I cannot be convinced. To convince me to believe, all you need to do is convincingly show a clear causal link between the miracle occurrence and your god (assuming that I accept your premise that a god exists in the first place). I guess the question is: can you clearly show that it is a god, and specifically your god, that is the cause of the miracle experiences that people often have?

Sorry for this long post – I get a bit long winded when I get excited over a discussion like this, and I’m really enjoying this one, Mike. Thanks for all your input.

Mike said...

Hi Kevin,

I appreciate your candidness and openness with this.

You ask for a clear causal link between a miracle occurence and a god... I wonder what kinds of things would qualify as "clear" to you, just out of curiosity. What if a god manifested itself physically before you and did some neat trick... I would say that even that could be questioned, because the skeptic could attribute the presence to an impostor, and the tricks to magic or technology. I tend to think that there is a skeptical way out of every conceivable scenario that I can think of... I think you assume too much when you suppose that a "clear" causal link will convince anyone, or even that a "clear" causal link can be demonstrated. After all, wasn't it Hume who questioned whether we could know of any causation at all? ... That is why I emphasize a cumulative case or wholistic approach to worldview assessment... In other words, we must take the evidence as a whole and assess how well it addresses ALL of the problems we find in reality. Each individual piece of evidence in any belief system can be picked apart by a skeptical person, but I really do think that we must look at the whole picture and ask ourselves, "What worldview makes the best sense out of everything we know about?" And when I assess naturalism/physicalism, it woefully fails in so many categories in my opinion (in particular, it provides absolutely no answer for the human condition).

You are right that there are examples of physical conditions providing explanations when supernatural phenomena were previously invoked as explanations (epilepsy, sleep disorders etc.), but the same phenomena may have more than one possible source. You did say that you sensed an evil presence in the room... Is this solely to be explained by a physical process in your body, or is it possible that there was an evil presence there, along with some physical processes going on? Disease may not just have a physical source. And just because we may identify chemicals and medicines that treat these hallucinations and what not does not entail that there is no non-material phenomena attached to the process, nor does it mean that we will find medicine for every mental anomaly. The physical may be an entry point for the non-physical. Now at this point you may say that invoking non-physical entities complicates things and they are unnecessary, but remember the cumulative case wholistic approach, for we may have good reasons to believe that there is a non-physical world out there with spirit beings. We already have great reasons to believe that the mind/consciousness itself is not purely physical.

I also mentioned several other examples that do not seem to have a nice physical explanation. Knowledge of future events for example. Knowledge of other languages or events when no prior knowledge is there. Could these be just natural occurences? "Psychic" phenomena? Even if psychic, what exactly is psychic phenomena, given a purely physical world?

Kevin, I know you have been asked this many times, but I really want to know what it was that convinced you to become an agnostic/atheist/skeptic... or more accurately, what it was that led you to reject the Christian worldview. I am interested because I am guessing (although I am not sure) that you and I have faced the same questions or problems that Christianity faces and yet we arrived at different places. I have approached many of the major problems of Christianity with what I think was a skeptical eye, and I have experienced a great strengthening to my beliefs when I probe them to the limits. I'm the kind of person that is not satisfied with the easy answer, the book answer (whatever you want to call it)... I want to take it to the limit, and each time I do I come away more in awe of God than before. That is probably why I am here in this blog because I want to know what the evidence is that convinces you, to see if in fact it sounds convincing to me, to see if there are intellectual threats to my belief system that I have yet to encounter, and to provide you and others with arguments/evidence that perhaps you have not encountered. Now of course I am not a perfect objective person with no bias, but I am a curious, skeptical person who likes to play "devil's advocate." And I do want to say that I really appreciate the attitude you take with this, because it is rare. People tend to get very emotional with these issues, and you have maintained a wonderful spirit even when challenged. So thanks, and I hope to hear from you when you are free... I know you are busy at this time, so no pressure. Perhaps I will email you. Or you can check me out at under the "staff" link.

Roger Saner said...

Sorry, this isn't a contribution to the discussion but rather a comment on the original post. Thanks for the post, Kevin - I've always thought of you as this type of person (agnostic athiest) and your reasoning makes sense to me. In fact, if I were to follow your reasoning I would describe myself as as agnostic theist - fairly certain that God does exist and is who He claims to be - but not able to prove it (in the sense of empirical fact).

And yes, the Loch Ness monster (or "Nessy" for those of us who've met her) is real!

Lui said...

Could someone please define "non-physical", in such a way that a scientist would appreciate?