Naïveté 101 for the Naïve

2 November 2009 at 2:08 pm (Uncategorized)

There is a story, very likely an apocryphal one, about an atheistic philosophy professor who confronts his Christian students on various questions of faith and theology centring on the origin and nature of good vs. evil. After some incredibly superficial “debate,” one student offers the thesis that evil doesn’t exist in its own right but that it is the result of a god not being there. Exactly which god that might be isn’t specified, but given the context, the Christian one is a sound inference. The story makes it seem like the professor capitulates at the end for not being able to meet his student’s “brilliant” exposition. (You can read the full story here.) I recently received an e-mail with this story from a concerned acquaintance. It was meant to convince me that I had made a grave mistake in my youth when I jettisoned the Greatest Superstition in the World, a.k.a. “religion.” Instead, the twee vapidity of the story annoyed me just sufficiently to frame a reply.

There can be little doubt that this little “bad stuff equals god’s absence” puff piece will fill Christian hearts that share a taste for pedagoguery with smug contentment. There are a few obvious problems, though. Firstly, the bible describes Satan, the alleged supreme malefactor, together with his cohorts as a band of fallen angels, not as the absence of god, so the “absence of” analogy doesn’t even accord with the fundamentals of religious doctrine. Dogma and the bible itself say that evil properly exists as a separate entity, and so this “absence of” thesis is a big swindle. Plus, it’s a double swindle when one considers the theological precept that this god is supposedly omnipresent. In case it’s not clear, “omnipresence” means that this god supposedly is everywhere all the time, so how is one to reconcile this with the proposed absence?

Secondly, the whole elaborate storyline is contrived to obfuscate the obvious. The professor begins by asking germane “what if” questions that can reasonably be asked, assuming the existence of a god with the presupposed attributes. Reductio ad absurdum is a very useful weapon in the arsenal of the logician, be s/he professional or merely aspiring. Instead, the storyline surreptitiously changes so that no one, including the professor, ever confronts this a priori assumption. The reader hardly notices said narrational subterfuge (it’s a story, remember?), and uncritical heads will surely nod their eager agreement as if some great truth has found dazzling vindication – i.e. where the student’s arguments actually persuade the professor rather than, say, incurring a bray of derisive laughter.

Thirdly, is a natural disaster like a tsunami that wipes out a large number of people in one fell swoop also the absence of god? Are the thirty to forty million human foetuses who are miscarried annually also the absence of god? Are the Aids orphans and droughts and crop failures affecting millions also the absence of god? Is the genocide and large-scale slaughter of people also the absence of god even when the victims are devout and committed believers? Assuming this god to exist purely for the sake of argument, one must conclude that if these things are as they are owing to an absence of this god then this god is clearly a shirker and possibly a malingerer, too. If it’s not shirking, this god is either powerless or purposely evil, possibly both.

Fourthly, the analogy relies on a deeply naïve conception of physics. For example, there is no difficulty in reversing the heat/coldness situation to claim that heat is merely the absence of coolth without substantively affecting the physics – in fact, the air-conditioning industry often does just that for reasons of convenience. This means that one could just as well reason that the presence of good is merely the absence of Satan, not the presence of god. Moreover, the mechanisms of many physical phenomena are well understood. Such understanding allows us to establish reliable protocols and procedures for detecting the presence or absence of various things. We have no reliable criteria of such a kind to apply to god (or Satan), which means that “good” or “bad” can be whatever suits someone’s momentary perceptions and circumstances because god’s presence or absence cannot dependably be ascertained.

Finally, direct sensory perception of a phenomenon is hardly necessary when a reliable facsimile is available whose origin is causally bound to that phenomenon. To illustrate: the presence of the professor’s brain can reliably and repeatably be confirmed through an MRI scan or similar. An EEG will also do the trick, and several other techniques, e.g. the Turing Test, can be applied that will produce results in direct conflict with the “no-brained-professor” hypothesis. The operative concept here is that of scientifically compelling evidence. There is none such in support of any kind of omni-everything personal god, and much evidence that speaks against it. Therefore, to draw parallels between physical phenomena that are well understood like heat, light and electromagnetism, and some amorphous, indefinable, ineffable hypothetical deity is seriously to overstep the line of plausibility.

The only lessons to be drawn from the above concern the logical consistency of apologetics: (1) Apologists will say literally anything to preserve the illusion of respectability for their mythical absurdities, and (2) they will insist that their argumentation is perfectly rational when in fact it cannot be simply because it is predicated on fundamentally incomprehensible tenets to begin with.



  1. Objective said,

    We seem to have similar conserned relatives/associates because when the email started circulating i received no less than three copies although i will confess that two came from family members their motives obscure but most probably attempting to point out to me the weakness of philosophy.

    They obviously did not understand the obvious flaws and irrationality of the arguments presented by both the professor and the student.

    I also received a copu of an article that apparently appeared in Rapport newspaper under the title: Confession of an atheist.

    Have to confess i didnt bother with the professor’s story but i did reply to the ‘confession’ story and have been met by silence. I suppose i should have simply pointed them a middle finger rather than expose them to themselves – their hatred would have been less intense. 🙂 as if i care about the intensity.

    Problem with your writings is that it goes over the heads of most – and i find that more scary than anything else that i am exposed to by the mystical madmen around me.

    But keep it up all the same – I read it!!

  2. Objective said,

    “Is George fed up with contributions of some or all of the regular commenters?

    Sorry but this line kept coming back to me…must be some 😉

  3. Objective said,


    obj wrote: “I also received a copu of an article that apparently appeared in Rapport newspaper under the title: Confession of an atheist. ”

    confesion of an atheist in Afrikaans: geloofsbeleidenis van ‘n ateis.

    The implication here is that atheism is as much a matter of faith as belief in a god/gods/gremlins/toothfairies and devils. The idea that all knowledge is the product of belief is an old one and naturally required for those who rest their knowledge claims on faith/belief. the latter is obviously a product of the idea that knowledge is revealed……..and us mortal have no options but to believe….

  4. defollyant said,

    So asserting a positive belief in non-belief is effectively asserting some kind of faith? One can almost see a superficial validity in that insinuation until one compares it to non-belief in something trivial like Watchman the Punisher. I simply don’t care one way or the other about Watchman the Punisher (except for his illustrative value), probably in line with most grownups, but the Watchman the Punisher may be fundamentally important to a small minority of grownups. Now picture the diametrically opposed image of that situation, namely Watchman the Punisher being important to all grownups except for a small minority. Does the reversal make non-belief in Watchman the Punisher some kind of faith? I think the answer is obvious enough.

  5. Hendrik said,

    A month after the post, but what the heck…
    Yip, I received the same crappy story from (if memory serves me) four different people. Mostly family, but one from a colleague. I did not bother to follow the link you posted, but in *my* version the student turns out to be none other than a certain Albert Einstein. My (atheist) brother received the same story from his in-laws, twice.

    Funny how most people will (automatically?) suspend their rational faculties when confronted with a feel-good religious tale.

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