Unpleasant conversations between atheists and theists


I was thinking of writing some considerations about that to discuss in a post here latelly. That is something that I find weird with the reasoning of many atheists, they seem to swap the hierarchical level of God and reality. What most religious people believe, formally or not, is that reality is either something produced by God (God outside and distinct from reality) or that reality is a part/inside of God (panentheism). What most atheists assume when they elaborate their arguments about God, however, is that religious believers are claiming that God is inside of reality (in the sense that the hierarchical level is reality > God, or reality contains God, instead of God contains reality), which results in arguments like “show me scientific evidence that God exists” or "God is like the flying spaghetti monster (which would be a being contained in within reality if it existed). That is why I like comparing God to multiverses and to consciousness to a certain extent. Multiverses would still be a part (inside) of reality, but they are outside or universe, and therefore we may never be able to observe them or find scientific evidence that they exist, consciousness is even more interesting, because it is something that we know that exists because of or first hand experience, but which is totally unacessible otherwise (how to prove others are conscious?). God, being outside or being greater than reality would be an even more complicated case than these, so it honestly strikes me as a little bit comic when people use the flying spaghetti monster or “show me evidence” arguments. But why should we believe in God them? Well, we infere the existence of God, from things like our personal experience and consciousness like you said, among others, but we can’t prove it, the multiverse parallel comes here again. I think the best argument against that is actually Kant’s “critique of pure reason”, although Kant was ironically a (non-religous) believer himself, but it still does not prove the inferences about God wrong, just show that they COULD be, since “pure reason” is not reliable.

(Mark D.) #202

Reminds me of the scene in the movie The Martian Chronicles where the earthling swipes his hand through the martian declaring but you don’t really exist. But then the martian does and says exactly the same thing but seemingly for ironic effect rather than from befuddlement. We are each in a position to express exasperation with the seemingly obtuse position taken by the other and yet both positions are there to be taken.

A valid point. I don’t agree with atheists who insist that believers are simply in error or worse. The statements and assumptions of believers are consistent from their perspective. There is nothing wrong with the reasoning.

Agreed. I accept that you do and I find that I experience similar things which give me empathy for your perspective. It is only the starting assumption that God > reality which I question. For me: what is out there = what is out there, and what is out there = reality. But then there is the process of how we perceive what is out there which filters what we experience and are able to become aware of. I infer that I and that which filters reality as I experience it are also an element of what is out there, part of reality. But I would not say I or even I + the filter > reality; otherwise reality ≠ reality for reality is all. So in my conceptual hierarchy, reality > any subset of reality, and must always be placed on the left side of any _ > _ relationship that pertains to it conceptually.

And therein lies the rub. For me, from my perspective … not all of reality is equally significant. I, a subset of reality, have a nature which is other than the totality of reality. That nature is capable of fulfillment or despair and beyond any doubt the former > the latter, from anyone’s perspective. This “I”, which each of us is, exercises reason and that has shown itself to be a useful thing. Knowledge is a good thing but knowledge of what matters > knowledge of all of reality for creatures like us. You can’t reason your way to fulfillment but there is something within us which knows what matters and by which we recognize what fulfills us. I think that something is what you call God.

Our conscious minds are like universal problem solving machines, we can use them to overcome a myriad of obstacles. But that power of abstraction has the capacity to lead us into a hall of mirrors in which we cannot recognize what really matters. But simply solving problems as an activity for its own sake isn’t true fulfillment. Our problem solving needs to serve what matters to be meaningful. For that we must recognize we are incomplete and partner with that which is more within. Not so easy. Risky too.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #203

[quote=“BoltzmannBrain, post:201, topic:38195”]
what is something that I find weird with the reasoning of many atheists, they seem to swap the hierarchical level of God and reality. What most religious people believe, formally or not, is that reality is either something produced by God (God outside and distinct from reality) or that reality is a part/inside of God (panentheism). What most atheists assume when they elaborate their arguments about God, however, is that religious believers are claiming that God is inside of reality (in the sense that the hierarchical level is reality > God, or reality contains God, instead of God contains reality), which results in arguments like “show me scientific evidence that God exists” or "God is like the flying spaghetti monster (which would be a being contained in within reality if it existed)

You are right. Traditionally there have been two different views of God’s relationship to the Creation: 1) that God is immanent, totally present as in pantheism, or 2) God is totally separate as in deism. Even though each of these views has some truth, they are basically false.

The universe is not totally dependent on God as in pantheism because it is not purely good as God is, nor is the universe completely independent from God as deism, because then the universe would be evil. Instead God created the universe so it is separate from God, but controlled by God’s laws and God’s Spirit. The universe is not dependent on God or independent of God, but interdependent with God.

A part of this problem is that we live in a dualistic culture that assumes that everything is black or white, when it is not. Part of our task then needs to clear this up with a triune world view. Also we need to learn that the truth is not about things, but about relationships.

The place where science, philosophy, and theology meet is in the Beginning, which is why multiverse is a problem. It is not by chance that the OT and the Gospel of John begin In the Beginning. Sadly Fundamentalists have corrupted the Genesis narrative, by taking the exact wrong message from it. It is not how God created the universe out of nothing, but that God did it.

Through the Big Bang theory science affirms that Biblical fact that God created the universe ex nihilo, out of nothing, no matter, no energy, no time ,no space. Many people do not want to accept this, but is to very true. (If you need an explanation, I will explain it to you.)

The problems with the multiverse are 1) the multiverse denies the fact that Science is based on provable fact, not speculation. 2) It does not deny the e4didtence of God per se, but suggests that the universe is infinite and so does away with the need for a Creator. 3) Does not speak to the moral and philosophical needs of humans, while suggesting that philosophy and theology are not needed.

Multiverse seems to make moot the Beginning, which is the logical place for science, theology, and philosophy to be reconciled. It is a false answer to an important question that misleads more than helps.

(John Dalton) #204

Interesting. Let me see if I get you–do you agree with this? Is God real? He can’t be outside reality if he is, can he? Perhaps, he’s a part of reality that we don’t have direct knowledge of or access too. But can he literally be outside of reality? I don’t think so. Reality includes everything that is by definition.

Isn’t this just semantics? I’m not sure it would matter to most atheists. If what you’re saying is true, then God is literally outside of our ability to judge what is real. That doesn’t seem to do us much good. Atheists do seem in general to have a pretty strong desire to get something of a grasp on reality. We (I hope :slight_smile:) do that the best we can, and whether you’re saying something is part of reality but not directly accessible or outside of reality and containing it isn’t fundamentally different from the average atheist viewpoint.

or "God is like the flying spaghetti monster (which would be a being contained in within reality if it existed).

Don’t you know that the FSM created all reality and contains it within itself? :slight_smile:

(Mark D.) #205

Probably about as real as my sense of who I am in my waking state. Both are constructs of consciousness not of my creation, with the difference that I am of course more immediately aware of my what “I” seem to be and do in my waking state. God, if we choose to call some other nexus of consciousness by that name, is much more mysterious and easier to overlook, deny and ignore.

The truth is I don’t know what I am exactly though I understand my existence is intimately tied up with the well being of this body whose hands are typing these letters. My assumption is that God and any other construct of my consciousness will share the same relation to this body that I do. But admittedly it is something mysterious, so others may make their own assumptions.

(Luca) #206

I think that the self being an illusion is still disputed and being debated though.
Or am i misunderstanding you?

(Mervin Bitikofer) #207

This is an interesting discussion.

Bingo. I think that statement might nail it if by “ability to judge” you really mean “scientific ability to judge” – and that often is what atheistic thinkers tend to be thinking.


If (once again), “do us much good” is really code for “let us get an empirical handle on this so we can reduce ‘it’ to a new set of laws and dependable behaviors for us to be able to capitalize on – i.e. ‘technology’.” In that sense the Christian God (existing or not) does us no real ‘good’ at all.

@MarkD, I’m still trying to get a handle on how you are thinking about this. If I’ve correctly understood some of what you’ve written so far, you think of God as a construct of my/our own consciousness (but not of my/our own creation). If what that means is that God has no existence independent of us as conscious [or even subconscious] beings, then that pretty well precludes us from confusing such a being with the Christian concept of God. In any Christian theology I’ve ever been aware of, God exists prior to us and creates us – not the other way around. If we create a “god”, then we are in the higher driver’s seat, such as it is, and would have authority over that which we create. I think that would remain true even if ‘god’ was our unconscious (i.e. non-deliberate) creation. Such a god may remain stubbornly beyond our direct control (like our own subconscious selves also do), but the dependency would still be in the opposite direction from what Christian theology sees: which is that we have complete dependency on God, and that this dependency is not in any way reciprocal.

[with edits now]

(Mark D.) #208

Well I don’t think the self is an illusion, just a little hard to nail down conceptually. More slippery than a straight forward object or measurable kind of energy. But I don’t think the self is an illusion, and I don’t think those who feel in touch with a God are fabricating anything.

Of course I do not think God has any existence apart from our minds anymore than “I” do.


Well, that depends on how you define reality, if you are talking about reality with a big R, in the sense of literally “absolutely everything that exists”, then of course, God is included on that. But if you define reality more like “everything that is contained inside the world we experience”, then God is not a part of reality, because he is above that level, what I mean is that God is not contained inside a higher structure, but rather contains everything else. You can just imagine a big circle writeen “God” and a smaller circle written “reality” inside it to get the idea I’m trying to convey. But of course, if you define “reality” as the sum of all circles, then God is part of reality, but still above everything else hierarchically.

I do some discussion on semantics in the argument, but it is in order to try my best to get precise definitions for the logical statements, it is not like semantics themselves are the arguments. About the viewpoints, I think it would be fair to compare it to a strong agnostic’s viewpoint, which would be “there might be something outside/bigger than reality, but since reality is all we can access, I don’t care”, but it is actually the precise opposite of an atheist view point, even an agnostic atheist, which would be “There might be something outside/higher than reality, maybe even God, but I highly doubt it”, when my argument is more like “I believe it is very likely that there is something higher/outside of reality, although there is no way I can know for sure”.

Well, then you just invented a different name for God. If I somehow managed to convince the scientific community to change the nomenclature of “electrons” to “fairy dust” it doesn’t mean that electrons ceased to exist or became something else, we are just calling them by a weird name now.


Well, what I mean is just that God is not a subset of reality, but rather “all things out there” are subsets of God. But if you are talking about reality as being “everything that exists”, then yeah, God is included in reality, but not as a subset of a higher structure, but as the structure itself, in that sense, God = Reality with a big R. It is like trying to discuss if the multiverse is part of the universe, if you define “the universe” as our universe, then the answer is no, but if you say “but to me the universe means EVERYTHING that exists”, then the answer is yes. Of course, I’m not saying that this assumption is inquestionably right, just that it is logically consistent and that it is the assumption of most theists.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #211

Then what you are thinking of is not God – at least not God in any theistic sense. But it sounds like you want to retain the idea that it somehow is, actually. Perhaps it would be more deferential to existing definitions to take every instance where you used the word “God” and replace it with “my idea of God”. The latter “thing” is, of course, entirely contained within our own minds (or cultural/communal mind), but without purporting to think the subject of such ideas is also imprisoned there.

[additional thoughts added …]

And I will hasten to add that you could push on this and say that “my idea of God” is really all any of us could ever mean when we presume to speak of God in any more direct sense. And such push-back would be correct, I think. Perhaps it is a height of arrogance for any of us to casually discuss the great “I am”, whose very name the Hebrews would not allow themselves to fully write. The only reason I push the distinction here [between direct address vs. speaking of mere ‘my idea of…’] is because it becomes more important if somebody [you?] is speaking of God as being only “my idea of God” and no more than that. At that point, there needs to be some distinction between those who believe God has real and independent existence, and those who don’t. As Lewis was quoted somewhere … our waking world is more real than our dreamworld because we can apprehend, think about, discuss, and generally subsume our dreamworld into our waking one, but the reverse is not true. We cannot, while we are dreaming, give any of the same deliberate thought to our waking lives.

So we live out our faith that what is “only in our heads” does not have the same level of reality as that which exists beyond us as well.

(Mark D.) #212

On the other hand “reality” = everything that is out there probably is the most basic meaning regarding reality. That there could be something of a higher order, God, to which everything out there is but a subset must appeal to some other less basic intuition, and probably one that is less widely held I suspect.

I suppose so if one adopts that definition.

(Mark D.) #213

This is what I want to emphasize, that whatever it is God really is is an unresolvable mystery. So rather than ask for the generally accepted wisdom regarding its nature, I prefer to ask for my self what could it be?

But honestly it isn’t even God as such that I am curious about but the experience which has supported the belief in God or gods for so long and almost everywhere. That is what I think needs explaining. I assume there is a good basis for it, I just don’t think that basis resides in there actually being an external agent of immense power that creates everything there is cosmos-wide from nothing whatsoever. So I assume that a literal god is not in play, only some good reason for people to base their belief in such a thing.

How anyone could possibly tell that the extent of this mystery must be cosmos-wide rather than intra-personal is beyond me. But of course a culture grows up around a set of beliefs which really informs what theists believe much more than anything in their personal experience.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #214

This is good clarity. Thanks. And of course you are among those very ones here (those of us that are believers anyway) who, contra to your assumption, assume that God is.

And you have rejected, from the outset, the possibility that among the ‘good reasons’ for people to believe it might be because it is actually true? Is all human belief (including yours) so reducible? You, and many of us here, have very mathematical and analytical minds. If an outsider looked in on us and asked “I wonder why they think so mathematically and scientifically about everything?” … “of course, it couldn’t be because such thinking is accurate, but I’m sure there must be a good reason they think that way. I’ll study it and see if I can find the real reasons they approach life so.”

Would we not rightly feel at least the slightest puzzlement toward this alien examiner, and think to ourselves, “well – she should at least not throw out the possibility that we think this way because it seems to us to yield some good truth!”

It isn’t an assertion that anybody could ever “tell”. Definitions aren’t things whose accuracy can be checked or measured. They are cultural agreements we make around language and words to avoid confusion and miscommunication. The historical theistic experience claims to have taken in revelations from God and distilled those down to some truths … including that God is our Creator, and so theists today carry on from such foundational assumptions. We could be wrong. Perhaps there is no such God. But if we were wrong, it would be dishonest and culturally confusing of us to try to redefine our concept of ‘God’ in an attempt to save face or salvage something of value. It is flattering, perhaps, that you do acknowledge some things of value that you see in belief apart from any real object that belief might have. But the believing theist already has all their eggs in one basket – which they (we) cling to as the basket of truth. Science is in that same basket too. We are rightly disturbed when QM or other mind-blowing views postulate that there is no reality apart from our observation of it. As scientific thinkers we rebel, and insist that “we are studying a real world – and yes, I know I am a part of it and influence it, but nevertheless it is not a world entirely shaped by my own mind.” That same healthy rebellion that we keep alive (if we are to retain any sane scientific approach to the world) is the same rebellion that theists must inevitably push back with when you start in with an “–well, of course this is all in your heads” assumption. It is a non-starter for the believer, as I’m sure you understand.

(Mark D.) #215

I realize this is a Christian website and I am here on purpose because I am interested in improving relations between believers and nonbelievers.

Yes. We start out disagreeing but neither of us has come to believe what we believe in a casual or offhand manner. Just as my beliefs lead me to take the supernatural alternative off
the table, don’t yours lead you to dismiss a natural explanation for god belief?

But I do assume that you believe it because you think it is true. I even give what I think are good reasons for you to believe as you do. But I remain convinced by my interpretation of what God belief is about. I’m sorry if this is an unpleasant conversation for you. I don’t think it should have to be.

(John Dalton) #216

I don’t. I mean any ability to judge.

If (once again), “do us much good” is really code for “let us get an empirical handle on this so we can reduce ‘it’ to a new set of laws and dependable behaviors for us to be able to capitalize on – i.e. ‘technology’.” In that sense the Christian God (existing or not) does us no real ‘good’ at all.

It isn’t :slight_smile: My point was that if we have no way of judging if something is real or not, it seems we can’t reliably say anything about it.

I never considered that there could be different definitions of “reality”. I now understand that you mean “everything we experience” (to be brief). I can’t square this with what you say above though:

This is starting to make my head hurt a bit :slight_smile: I think you’re talking about atheist arguments about the Christian conception of God, and not atheist arguments that God is some kind of artifact of human experience. With respect to the former, I can’t see how “most atheists assume when they elaborate their arguments about God…that religious believers are claiming that God is inside of reality”. Clearly the Christian God and other such gods are a) not exclusively contained within human experience, and b) hierarchically superior to it by definition.

I don’t think you’ve accurately characterized the agnostic atheist viewpoint. I’d say (and I am one :slight_smile:) “There pretty much has to be something outside/higher than human experience (I wouldn’t use the word “reality” in the sense you are), and it could be what people think of as God, but I don’t believe it is for various reasons. Whatever it is is likely something essentially unimaginable to us.”

when my argument is more like “I believe it is very likely that there is something higher/outside of reality, although there is no way I can know for sure”.

That doesn’t conflict with the AA viewpoint at all. We have cookies :slight_smile: You seem to have, however (apologies if I am mistaken), rather definite ideas about what something is.

That’s the entire point of the FSM BB. I’m not sure what you originally meant by “atheist arguments” about it.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #217

Actually they don’t! Or at least I’m not sure the symmetry holds in that respect. While you do feel compelled to remove the supernatural from the table, I don’t think I’m necessarily compelled to remove the natural explanations from mine. Just as I don’t think that thanking God for my food obliges me to disbelieve in farmers, supermarkets, and such. “Natural” explanations, even for morality or belief or religious feeling, etc. need not seem at odds with genuine Christian belief until proponents of the “natural” try to promote it as the only possible kind of explanations, to the exclusion of all else.

Thanks – I think we are all learning to speak of and to each other more respectfully and civilly thanks to people like you, even while we continue to honestly hold our stubbornly persistent differences! While it may be an unpleasant conversation for many, I assure you it is not for me! I’m glad you’re here and hope you continue to push, challenge, and consider.

On reflection of something I already wrote above, I feel compelled to dial back my bold claim that we theists “have all our eggs in one basket”. I realize (as I should have when I wrote it) that I should not be presuming to speak even for all Christians, much less all theists! Perhaps I can get away with saying that many of us here aspire to have all our eggs in one basket, having in the back of our minds the words of one who had a few things to say about people who put their hand to the plow, but then look back; or about those who attempt to serve more than one master. There is a call to a purity or single-minded devotion of which we often fall short, but nonetheless feel compelled to keep in sight as a gold standard of the Christian life. Trying to dabble or hedge our bets by keeping a ‘plan B’ around is not a long-term resting place for any Bible-reading, thinking Christian.

[…and there I am …purporting to speak for all Christians again! Hopefully it’s at least a more modest claim, though. I do realize I shouldn’t underestimate our (the Christian’s) ability to make ourselves ‘comfortable’ for amazingly long periods in the midst of cognitive dissonance or even in outright heterodox situations. There is no limit to Christ’s reach, not only among self-identified Christians, but across all humanity including non-theists. So nobody should mistake my words above as some kind of final judgment – as if my little judgments were the ones that mattered.]

–with edits now of course, including the additional paragraph above.

(Luca) #218

Ooh. I see, i agree with that. Sorry for misunderstanding!

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #219

For me there is more than one kind of “Reality.” There is physical reality, which is what science is about. There is also moral law or moral Reality, which is what philosophy is about, and there spiritual law or spiritual Reality which is what theology is about.

It is my experience that atheists are concerned only about physical Reality, which is only a relative small aspect of Reality, and effectively they deny or disbelieve in the reality of the moral and the spiritual. God is real, certainly as real as the moral and the spiritual. This does not deny the4 reality of the physical also, but there is much more to Life, that is Reality than the physical.

The Body (physical) is important and necessary, but secondary to the Mind (rational) and the Spirit (spiritual.) God is the Source of all Reality, just as God is the Source of the Universe. See the Big Bang.

(Mark D.) #220

I suppose one could talk about the reality of the legal system or of our feelings or of the stock market too. But I wonder if you would agree with me that some of those realities are either private or ones which we construct socially? For me, the first analytic division to make is between the world out there which every organism must navigate to prosper and the world within each organism which enables it to do so. Every organism requires sensory input regarding its environment as well as the cognitive capacity to interpret it. Consciousness seems to arise along with those capacities.

When I describe reality as everything that is out there I have in mind everything which is outside the organism. Of course other organisms are also outside of ourselves so an ambitiously complex organism must also develop the capacity to discriminate between and account for the opportunities and dangers associated with the other beings which share its environment. There would be selective pressures brought to bear in favor of organisms which could best anticipate the activities and the intentions of other organisms. One favorable adaption might be to collaborate with a group of like organisms. To do this successfully could result in the development of empathy and prosocial behaviors, further sharpening the organism’s powers of discernment. To continue to progress in this direction, a creature would have to develop self awareness in order to better anticipate what others are apt to do within the same cooperative group as well as what others are apt to do in competing groups of the same organism . This I think describes the path our kind has taken.

Now as we got better and better at getting into the minds of others perhaps we internalized a kind of idealized other which then got elaborated culturally. Something like that is what I think is going on with religion. That doesn’t mean it is a mistake. It might serve a valuable function in maintaining equilibrium for our kind of organism. But just maybe that beneficial effect can be maintained without a literal, external God. Maybe an internal God only arises in consciousness given a sufficiently complex development of an organism’s perceptual/cognitive system. But just maybe that God can be sufficiently appreciated and incorporated without conceptualizing it in literal ways which bleed what we understand of our selves and others into our concept of what is out there?

Anyhow, that is how I’m thinking about it now.