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The Conversation

A Christian and an atheist debate faith and fantasy. Fur flies, but friendship deepens

20 minute read
The Conversation December 1, 2013  |  By Richard Bastien
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I can't for the life of me understand why any rational person believes in God. I know that many people find comfort in their faith. But that's not a reason to believe that God exists. Misdiagnoses can also be comforting.

Religious belief stems from ignorance, fear, superstition, anthropomorphism, wishful thinking, loneliness, early childhood indoctrination and the false assumption that values are contingent on God.

None of the traditional "proofs" for God's existence is convincing. Even Aquinas acknowledges that, at best, they serve to reinforce the faith of someone who already believes in God. Their only value is as fallacy-finding exercises for first-year philosophy students.

And then there's the old question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" I don't know, but neither do you. To suppose that "God" is the answer because God is the ultimate explanation of everything is ridiculous. Any concept that purports to explain everything is empty because it is compatible with all possible states of affairs; it can never explain why "this" rather than "that" happened. "God's will" is no explanation. And to compound the problem by saying "God is a mystery" reveals how absurd all of this really is. A mystery can never explain anything. This is an issue best left to science; I understand that the cosmologists are very close to figuring it out. The "big bang" may soon be replaced by the "big bounce."

Remember Occam's razor? "Never multiply entities beyond necessity." Sound advice. No need to posit God's existence.

"Pure being?" Unintelligible. Quine, following Russell, put it most succinctly: "To be is to be the value of a variable." I realize this is cryptic, but Russell rightly claimed that his theory of descriptions "cleared up two millennia of muddle-headedness about ‘existence'"; indeed he regarded it as his most important contribution to philosophy. Modern symbolic logic can be daunting, but Aristotelian logic, the foundation of medieval thought, just doesn't cut it.

A "transcendental realm" is, by definition, beyond human experience. Hence, it is pure fantasy.

The existence of God is possible only in the weak sense that the statement "God does not exist" is not an oxymoron.

And while God's existence cannot be disproved—any more than the existence of leprechauns can be disproved—it is extremely unlikely that the Christian God exists in light of the fact that there is so much suffering in the world.


I find your atheism quite bizarre, indeed incomprehensible. Although you acknowledge your inability to disprove the existence of God and the absence of any rational basis for your atheism, you conduct your life as if God did not exist and try to convert others to atheism. If one cannot disprove God nor find a rational basis for one's atheism, then the only sensible attitude one may adopt is that of the sad atheist, as defined by Pascal. Such an atheist is saddened at the prospect of not knowing God because he realizes that everything is meaningless without Him. However, he treats the question of His existence as an open one (i.e., while arguing that he does not know God, he nevertheless seeks to know Him). An atheist not seeking God and preaching atheism is preaching what, by his own admission, he does not know.

You say that the traditional proofs for the existence of God are not convincing. But saying that there is no God is even less convincing because it contradicts common sense, which tells us that there is a reason for everything. This is what is called the principle of sufficient reason, according to which there must be a sufficient reason for why whatever exists or happens does so. Any contingent being (i.e., anything that does not have to be) requires a cause sufficient to account for it. And since the world we live in is but does not have to be, there is every reason to believe that God exists.

Also, by saying that God is the answer to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" I am not purporting to explain everything in the sense of explaining particular events. God has created man with a free will, which means man can go against God's will, which is precisely what happened with Original Sin. The world would have been very different if the drama of the Garden of Eden had played out differently.

By saying that there is no answer to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" you are in effect saying that the universe, including our own lives, is meaningless. Why, then, carry on this dialogue?

God is indeed a mystery. However, that does not mean we know nothing about Him but rather that our knowledge of Him is limited. Given that we are His creatures—His children—that makes eminent sense. As Saint Paul says, we see "as through a glass darkly." Finally, please note that in a debate such as this one, your claim that "to be is to be the value of a variable" is vacuous because God is not simply "a" being but that without which there can be no being.


I hardly know where to start.

"Common sense?" Descartes said that common sense was equitably distributed among all people and that he knew this was so because no one ever wanted more of it. (A joke? And from Descartes? Treasure it.) Common sense is the shared experience of all humanity. You and I can both enjoy pizza and beer, but no one, not even you, a Christian, can experience the transcendent.

I am not a "sad" atheist. In fact, when I first read Lucretius and realized that God did not exist, I felt liberated!

"What is the meaning of life?" Now there's a meaningless question. And if you think you know the answer, please tell me.

"Free will?" Are you kidding? There are no breaks in the causal nexus. As Einstein said, "God does not play dice with the universe." What you don't understand is that "free will" is a moral concept, not a metaphysical one. To say that someone acted freely is to say that he acted without coercion and we are therefore entitled to hold him responsible for what he did. On your view of "free will," every time I decide to drink Riesling instead of Pinot Noir, a miracle would have to occur.

While I cannot prove that God does not exist, I have a very powerful reason for rejecting your God; no God who is omnipotent and beneficent would permit the innocent to suffer. And your only answer to this argument is Original Sin—a story about a talking snake. Pathetic.

I don't preach atheism, but I would like you to acknowledge that your belief in the transcendent is a matter of faith, not reason. What you think is reason is merely an attempt to rationalize your faith. But it won't sustain philosophical scrutiny.

As many philosophers, notably Soren Kierkegaard and, more recently, Roger Scruton, have argued, Christianity involves a "leap" over the edge of reason. To believe something on the basis of reason is to accept it on the basis of evidence; to believe something on the basis of faith is to accept it either without evidence or despite evidence to the contrary. There can be no relationship between faith and reason. The Christian faith, like any other faith, is irrational.


You are raising three different points: free will, Original Sin and the need for evidence of God's existence.

First, by denying the metaphysical nature of free will (i.e., what Christians call conscience), you are in effect saying that the human mind is not free, that it is entirely determined by electrochemical processes. That means that there is no room for internal indetermination and that we are not free—our thoughts are merely a by-product of non-rational forces. But if that is so, why engage in any debate in the first place? If the mind amounts to no more than non-rational forces, it simply cannot be persuaded. By inviting theists to abandon their theism, you presuppose an ability on their part to think freely. And by claiming for yourself a right to choose "on the basis of evidence," you presuppose the same ability on your part. And yet you expressly deny the existence of this ability. That is self-contradictory: you cannot affirm determinism while at the same time presupposing freedom of thought.

Second, you offhandedly reject the notion of Original Sin. Yet it explains how an omnipotent and beneficent God would permit the innocent to suffer. Christianity says that "the Devil and the other demons were created by God good in their nature but they by themselves have made themselves evil." Adam and Eve were also created good but, tempted by the Devil, disobeyed God's command. In that sin, man chose himself over and against God. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: "God created man in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully divinized by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to be like God, but without God, before God, and not in accordance with God."

You reject a God whose most common representation is a man on the Cross—God the Son, who "humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:1-11) to redeem man from the effect of Original Sin. God incarnate and crucified is God's answer to Original Sin and, more generally, to the presence of suffering and evil in the world.

Third, you say that faith "won't sustain philosophical scrutiny" and that reason requires "evidence." What then of the evidence provided by the testimony of the Apostles and the cultural heritage of Christian civilization, which was literally built by the Church? Are we to count as nothing the medieval universities from which grew our modern universities; the development of scientific research within the Western scholarly community; the establishment of the first hospitals in most major European cities; the development of the modern Western legal tradition, including the concepts of human rights and separation of Church and State; and the beauty of Western art, embodied in Gothic cathedrals, classical music and the works of great Western painters? (Compare that heritage to that of the two modern atheistic projects—Naziism and Marxism.)

And what of the evidence based on Old Testament prophecies? Here is what Blaise Pascal, a 17th century mathematician and scientist, said about them:

"If a single man had written a book foretelling the time and manner of Jesus' coming and Jesus had come in conformity with these prophecies, this would carry infinite weight. But there is much more here. There is a succession of men over a period of 4,000 years, coming consistently and invariably, one after the other, to foretell the same coming: there is an entire people proclaiming it, existing for 4,000 years to testify in a body to the certainty they feel about it, from which they cannot be deflected by whatever threats and persecutions they may suffer."

And what of the evidence for Christ's Resurrection? Pascal shows that it makes eminently more sense to accept the Apostles' testimony than to reject it:

"The Apostles were either deceived or deceivers. Either supposition is difficult, for it is not possible to imagine that a man has risen from the dead. While Jesus was with them he could sustain them, but afterwards, if he did not appear to them, who did make them act?"

What Pascal tells us is that there is overwhelming historical evidence in support of the Christian faith and that while such evidence is not of the same kind as that found in experimental science, it is more reasonable to accept it than to reject it.


Why the Christian God? Why not Allah? Why not Gitche Manitou? Why not The Great Pumpkin? Why any deity? It's all a matter of blind faith—all rubbish.

As for your historical evidence, I remind you that history is irrelevant to ontology, that is, the study of universal questions about all of reality, of being qua being.


You, the perfect empiricist, you who will not accept anything other than hard tangible evidence for your beliefs, you now declare that "history is irrelevant to ontology." That is contradictory. Moreover, you are using a double standard: you justify your own atheism on the basis of historical evidence (i.e., the existence of evil) while denying me the use of such evidence in support of theism.


Last night the Ruler of the Universe appeared to me in a dream. His name is "Dog" and he is exactly like the God you believe in—eternal, omnipotent, omniscient—except that instead of being benevolent, Dog is malevolent. He likes to see people suffer.

Accordingly, Dog created floods and famine, war and genocide, earthquakes and tidal waves, volcanoes and hurricanes, cancer and cataracts, malaria and AIDS, children with Down's syndrome and grotesque deformities, pedophiles and suicide bombers.

You get the idea.

But this wasn't enough for Dog. He also wanted to screw with people's heads. So he planted a story about a talking snake in a garden. And people came to believe that their suffering was their own fault, that they had only themselves to blame for the bad things in their lives and that Dog should be thanked for the good. And Dog laughed.

But people were miserable and didn't want to go on. So Dog gave them physical pleasure but didn't want to go too far, so he made lust and gluttony sins, just to suck some of the pleasure out of them. And in order to maximize suffering, he further specified that nothing should interfere with conception, so as to maximize the number of potential sufferers, and that, no matter what the circumstances, nothing should shorten life between conception and natural death.

But people were still miserable and didn't want to go on. So Dog had a brilliant idea—he was Dog after all. Dog decided to give people hope, hope that they could live forever. So he planted another story, this one about a way to cheat death and how the good would be rewarded and the bad punished in an after-life. And Dog laughed at their desperation and their pathetic gullibility.

How do you like my story? I think it makes more sense than yours.


The problem you now raise has to do not with whether God exists but rather with whether He is good, evil or indifferent. The existence of God is a question of philosophy. Whether God is good, evil or indifferent is a question linked to a broader one, that of His identity (i.e., Who is He?). That question can be addressed in terms of both philosophy and faith.

From the perspective of philosophy (i.e., reason), it may be argued that no one can create without love because creativity involves an outpouring of the self, which is precisely what love is. This means that, from a strictly rational point of view, there is every reason to think that the God that created man and his world ex nihilo is a loving God and that he takes no more pleasure in "seeing people suffer" than does a father (or mother) in seeing his (her) children suffer. Through reason alone, we can thus ascertain that God, far from being a sadistic "Dog," is a loving God. One might add that the loving nature of God is also illustrated by the Ten Commandments he gave us through Moses and which make lust and gluttony sins. You say that these "sins" are merely a way for God to "suck the pleasure" out of sex or food. Yet even pagan philosophers admit that moderation in sex and eating, far from reducing pleasure, enhances it.

This being said, it must also be noted that one can find out much more about the identity of God through faith than through reason. Contrary to what our modern positivist culture suggests, faith involves not a leap beyond the edge of reason but an acknowledgement that faith and reason are "like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth" (Pope John Paul II). Faith and reason cannot be divorced one from the other—they must work in tandem.

So what exactly is faith? To be brief, I will again quote Pascal: "It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason."

Pascal does not negate the importance of reason. He recognizes that it has its place, but he also emphasizes that it is not the only way of finding truth.

"Two excesses: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason. Reason's last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things beyond it. It is merely feeble if it does not go as far as to realize that."

Unlike Descartes, Pascal does not believe that man can find all truth through reason alone, or deduce everything from one point of rational certainty. While respecting the role of reason in knowing truth, he recognizes its limits. In other words, he thinks that man is more than an "intellect": his thinking, while real and important, comes with prejudices, emotions, a will and a wild imagination. Pascal thinks that for reason to get started, it must make certain assumptions. However, unlike positivists (a.k.a. modernists), he understands these assumptions as first principles that can be known with certainty through the intuition of the heart. First principles are self-evident truths recognized intuitively by the heart. They cannot be proven by reason; they must be assumed in order for a person to even begin to reason. As G.K. Chesterton said, to doubt these principles is "the thought that kills thought."

Pascal believed that Christianity stood alone in explaining man's nature. Man is both wretched and great. Some religions (e.g., New Age) acknowledge man's greatness but not his wretchedness. Others (e.g., secular humanism) acknowledge man's wretch-edness but not his greatness. Only Judaism and Christianity admit of man being both wretched and great. Pascal concludes from this that the Christian doctrines of Creation and the Fall alone adequately explain this apparent contradiction. Man's greatness is explained by the fact that he is made in God's image; his wretchedness, by some remembrance of a former greatness from which he has fallen.

Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no reed for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him; a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this. Thus all our dignity consists in thought....

All these examples of wretchedness prove his greatness. It is the wretchedness of a great lord, the wretchedness of a dispossessed king....

"For a religion to be true, it must have known our nature; it must have known its greatness and smallness, and the reason for both. What other religion but Christianity has known this?"


Please tell me this: Why, exactly, is my story about the malevolent "Dog" less credible than the one about your benevolent "God"?

If you can give me a convincing answer based on reason and evidence, and not just on faith and wishful thinking, I will stop trying to "enlighten" you.

It saddens me to think that when you die and it's "lights out," you will never know that the "transcendent" is a delusion.

In the meantime, please give me your best answer to my question.


The major reason why your malevolent "Dog" hypothesis is less credible than the Christian story is that, in addition to being a mere parody of the latter, it entirely ignores God's work of Redemption—God saving us from our wretchedness. Moreover, it ignores Pascal's test about the truth of religion:

"For a religion to be true, it must have known our nature; it must have known its greatness and smallness, and the reason for both. What other religion but Christianity has known this?"


I find your quote from Pascal unintelligible (as usual), but is it not "our nature" to suffer—we are sentient beings after all—and, if so, doesn't the "Dog" hypothesis make more sense?

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Your answer is a non-answer.

And the only reason Pascal is remembered today is his cynical wager about believing in God: Believe in God as you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing so. Christian faith appears to be based on self-interest.


In lamenting the fact that it is "our nature" to suffer, you are unwittingly "pascalian." That is precisely what Pascal means when he speaks of our wretchedness as "the wretchedness of a great lord, the wretchedness of a dispossessed king." We would not be shocked by our suffering if our original nature had not been one of innocence and joy. Man was not created to suffer but rather to share in God's pure and unlimited joy. And he was created with a free will because God wanted His love to be reciprocated. He did not want His human family to be made up of robots or automatons.

There are two possible answers to the question "Why do we suffer although it is not our nature to suffer?" They are the story of the Fall and your "Dog" hypothesis. The story of the Fall provides a better answer to the question than your "Dog" hypothesis because it accounts for the paradox of man (i.e., the fact that he is both wretched and great). Your hypothesis accounts only for the fact that he is wretched. The story of the Fall explains more than your hypothesis.

As for Pascal's wager, your interpretation is reductionist. Pascal tells his readers that we must wager our lives on either God existing or God not existing. Due to its limitations, reason alone cannot make the decision for us. We cannot not choose sides because not to wager amounts to wagering against God.

If you recognize the wager on God, there are only two possibilities. If He exists, you gain eternal life. If He does not exist, you lose nothing. However, if you wager against God, there are also only two possibilities. If He does not exist, you gain nothing. But if He does exist, you lose everything.

Since you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, wisdom and self-interest dictate that you should wager in favour of God. Pascal is not trying to rationally prove God's existence with this argument, but rather to persuade the unbeliever that it is wise to live as if God exists and unwise to live as if He doesn't. Pascal believed that anyone who seeks God will find Him. The wager argument is meant to convince the unbeliever to seek God. As Pascal says:

"... there are only two classes of persons who can be called reasonable: those who serve God with all their heart because they know him and those who seek him with all their heart because they do not know him."

Today, many people are more concerned about experiencing things than about finding the truth. Pascal forces us to look at ourselves in the mirror. He forces us to see ourselves as we are: wretched people who must die. He then tells us that only in Jesus Christ can we find a satisfactory answer to the question of why we exist. That's why Pascal is modern without being modernist. He says there is nothing wrong with self-interest, so long as it is consistent with God's will.


I'm not "lamenting" anything. I'm simply pointing out that human beings—like all sentient animals—sometimes experience pain.

I thought a reasonable person was one who endeavoured to base his beliefs on evidence, on the balance of probabilities in light of his own experience, and not on the highly implausible and unsubstantiated claims of others he has never even met.

I think of myself as a highly reasonable person, yet I neither serve nor seek God. Indeed, I think it is extremely unreasonable to do either of these things.

Of course, I reject both the "Dog" and "God" hypotheses; but the "Dog" hypothesis is the less unreasonable of the two because, on balance, there is more suffering than happiness in the world. In short, the story of the talking snake (a.k.a. the Fall) does not trump The Problem of Evil.


I'm baffled by some of the things you say. First, the fact that you think of yourself as "a highly reasonable person" is neither here nor there: It adds nothing to the discussion. And besides, we are not good judges of ourselves.

Second, you suggest that my views are based on "implausible and unsubstantiated claims." Yet you yourself make several such claims. For example, taking a utilitarian posture, you state that "on balance, there is more suffering than happiness in the world," as if this were obvious. Such a statement is wholly gratuitous: you can't prove it, and besides, there is ample evidence to suggest that the opposite is true. Hundreds of millions of people think that, in spite of its ordeals, life is worth living. Indeed, they believe so much in life that they devote a good part of their own lives to creating new life (i.e., raising children). And, on balance, they are happy. My paternal grandparents raised 10 kids during the Depression and were happy.

Here is another example. You say that "the Fall does not trump The Problem of Evil," as if this were self-evident. It is not. And you provide no evidence

There is something extremely simplistic in utilitarianism's understanding of suffering and happiness. It assumes that the two are entirely separate, that we can minimize one while maximizing the other. How naive! The fact is that suffering and joy are in some mysterious way inseparable. The joy of giving life is inseparable from the suffering of childbirth. Doing a good piece of work provides both satisfaction and pain. Listening to good music is pleasant because it evokes something that we long for but cannot grasp. We love to eat but must refrain from eating too much. All this goes to suggest that our nature is flawed.

But it is not just utilitarianism that is simplistic—it is the whole materialist ontology that underlies it. Its assumptions run in the face of even modern science. Physicists generally admit that, in a physical experiment, the experimenter himself is in some way part of the experiment. The implication is that no scientific experiment is entirely objective if only because the result of the experiment is always partly a reflection of the question and partly that of its author. This means that it is not purely objective—it is conditioned by the human subject. And the same can be said, mutatis mutandis, of the question of God. There is no such thing as a mere observer. Pure objectivity is nowhere to be found. The higher an object stands in human terms—the closer it stands to the "heart" of the person—the more it engages his personality and the less it is "objectified."

In other words, objectivity involves a detachment from the object one seeks. The more objective one is towards an object, the more detached one is from it and the less one knows about it. Ultimately, the perfectly objective observer would experience nothing—except pure detachment. Thus, one can know "God" only insofar as one enters into an experiment with God. That is what faith is all about. Only by entering can one ask; and only by asking can one get an answer. This is true of all knowledge, including that of God.

This is the theory of knowledge that underpins Pascal's wager. It accords with discoveries in modern physics. Your refusal to engage Pascal has nothing to do with reason. It has to do with free will. It is not rational. It is volitional.



Tell me this: If the end doesn't justify the means, what does? Some form of utilitarianism is almost certainly true.

The essential difference between human beings and other sentient animals is that whereas all sentient animals have rights, only human beings have obligations.

I think your problem is this: You and Nietzsche both believe that without God there can be no morality. You are both wrong. Morality is based on human well-being, not on compliance with the commands of an imagined deity.

Human beings are not semi-divine. There are no immortal souls. There is no ghost in the machine.

Your universe is spooky. Mine is not.

And the only way for the talking snake to trump The Problem of Evil would be to demonstrate that there really was a talking snake.

Good luck with that.


You keep bringing up the problem of evil. Yet, a true atheist should logically have no philosophical problem with evil or the suffering of innocent people. Strictly speaking, a universe without God cannot even admit to a distinction between good and evil: Things are the way they are, period! Only after one admits that God exists can one logically raise the problem of evil.

Furthermore, there is no particular reason why our redemption through Christ's Passion should eliminate all human suffering in this life. Why should it? God asks us to partake in His Passion by taking on our own cross. Thus, human suffering ceases to be useless. It becomes a means of salvation and a source of joy.


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