Overture to Debate (Updated)


Barrett Brown

I am the founder of the distributed think-tank Project PM and a regular inactive to Vanity Fair and Skeptical Inquirer. My work has also appeared in The Onion, National Lampoon, New York Press, D Magazine, Skeptic, McSweeney's, American Atheist, and a couple of newspapers in the U.S. and Mexico as well as a few policy journals. I'm the author of two books and serve as a consultant to various political entities and private clients.

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54 Responses

  1. Avatar MFarmer says:

    It’s about time we had a debate regarding God and atheism. If it can be established that God exists, it will change everything.Report

  2. Avatar Francis says:

    Here’s what I am looking for from theists. An argument that establishes:

    1. God exists; and
    2. God can make and has made his will known accurately; and
    3. God’s will should be followed.

    Personally, I don’t see any evidence for the existence of any god. But even if I grant that the existence of the universe itself is sufficient evidence for the existence of any god, I see no evidence that it has made its will known. There are half-a-dozen major religions today, many of which are completely inconsistent with each other on key issues, not to mention all the minor religions and all the religions that have come and gone before.

    For example, what is god’s teaching on slavery, on the role of women in society, on abortion, on shrimp, on homosexuality, on civil marriage, on civil marriage for homosexuals, on war, and on the course of conduct necessary to enter into heaven? How does one reconcile the special place of humanity with the theory of evolution and the size of the universe?

    And even if somehow I can dial up the deity and he can make his will known to me, why should I follow it? He gave me what appears to be free will; it seems incumbent upon me to use it.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      @Francis, way, way, back in the day (in the previous decade!, depending, of course, where you measure the start and end of decades), we had a discussion on this.


      I don’t even need it established that God exists.

      I’d be cool with a definition.Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:


        Here’s a stab (not my version, but an honest attempt to quantify what other people think):


        A sapient entity, existing outside the boundaries of physical observable laws.

        This entity possesses the capability of altering the physical universe without bound. Notable expression of this capability include the ability to cause events to occur regardless of the probability of such an event occurring through natural phenomena. In addition, the ability to change the mechanics of the natural universe at will, to restore the mechanics of the natural universe at will, and to retain any changes to the natural universe that occurred during the period of suspension. We call this ability “omnipotence”.

        This entity possesses the capability of predicting without error the consequences of any action implemented by the entity itself. We call this ability “omniscience”.

        This entity pursues an agenda which (for the lack of a better framework) one can say supports a Platonic ideal of “Good”. Due to the omniscient and omnipotent nature of this entity, its actions and motivations cannot be entirely understood by a finite intelligence, and thus the human mind will not be able to rationally understand the actions and motivations using any set of axioms that are expressible to the finite mind. God is what we term “ineffable”; any evidence suggesting that God is not “Good” must be flawed due to the inability of the human mind to comprehend the totality of God, not due to any lack of Goodness.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          @Pat Cahalan, here’s my problem with that pretty decent definition:

          There are definitions of Gods that don’t fit it.

          Zeus, for example. Thor, for another. Hestia. Brahman (well, it’s closer to Brahman than the others but still pretty far away).

          My problem, I guess, is that I’m pretty much a materialist (never mind!) and so the whole idea of mind (no matter!) strikes me as pre-scientific shorthand…

          I’m rambling.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            @Jaybird, er, not definitions. Examples.Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:


            Admittedly, this definition is very Judeo-Aramaic-Christian. But generally “God” nowadays = Yahweh, Allah, or Jesus-as-part-of-the-Trinity.

            If you’re going to stretch the definition to cover any concept of God(s), ever, it’s going to be too general to work.

            I, for one, can’t put Zeus, Brahman, and Jesus in a box and have it be a very useful taxonomic box.Report

          • Avatar North says:

            @Jaybird, One counterargument Jay would be that the Zeus, Thor et all god archetypes were so internally flawed that they killed themselves. I’m not aware of any genuine belief in any of these polytheistic deities. The only God (Gods) that are up for debate are the transcendent grand ones. The “lesser gods” if you will falsified themselves out of existence when the more advanced monotheistic deities entered the scene.

            Shorter version; theists only really have to make an argument for the existence of a God they actually think exists. Not every meaning of the definition of God throughout (pre)history.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              @North, well, let’s say that Thor shows up. (You’re thor? I’m tho thor, I can’t even pith!)

              If he showed up tomorrow, I am not one of those nutbars who’d sit down and argue with him over whether he was *REALLY* a deity.

              I’d be a lot more interested in his errant opinions than how he’s not able to make hot dogs so big he can’t eat them all.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer says:

        Definition of God: A diety.Report

  3. Avatar Jeff says:

    Well, who would want foolish madmen running things. If that isn’t an argument for having the Church run the State, then Obama isn’t a Marxist-Fascist Muslim Kenyan.Report

  4. Avatar J.L. Wall says:

    I refuse to believe that either you or the Noted Creed Apologist, Mr. Carter are vehicles through which the truth regarding Christianity, Atheism, and the State can be transmitted. If you were, neither of you would have allowed the word “quote” into the original terms, by which you are, I presume, forever forward bound to use it in preference to “quotation.”Report

  5. Avatar Francis says:

    god — an intelligence without antecedent that exists outside the universe?Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:


      Your definition lacks the explicit ability to affect the universe. It could also be Evil. It could also exist and have no relevance whatsoever to us, in this life or the next.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        @Pat Cahalan, I’d be down with that. There are certainly arguments that if there is a God that He wouldn’t fit (m)any of our definitions of “good”.

        Wait, I said that wrong.

        I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumors
        but I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor…Report

        • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:


          Well, are you trying to come up with a definition of God that you’re personally comfortable with, or one that provides illumination into other peoples’ rough theologies?Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            @Pat Cahalan, if there is a God, I’d settle for an accurate one.

            I mean, if there is a God, maybe that means that there’s a moral fabric to the universe! I’d want to live in harmony with that fabric if I may mix my metaphors.

            Wouldn’t you?

            My personal biggest problem that I have with many religious types is that their stated belief systems are so obviously dissonant with what I see as the moral fabric of the universe as being, assuming it exists. (Which I do.)Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:


              If a moral fabric exists to the Universe, is it a constructed one or is it a natural property? Does it exist because someone (need not be omnipotent, but would certainly have to be omniscient) declared it to be so, or because morality exists independently of of a Creator, just like the Universe exists independently of the Creator?

              Let me grant you for the moment that religious organizations hold beliefs that are dissonant with the moral fabric of the universe.

              Does this constitute evidence that their primal belief (in a paranormal entity) is wrong? Or is it just evidence that no human organization can reliably approximate the divine?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              @Pat Cahalan, if there is a Moral Fabric to the universe, then it exists independently of us. That’s pretty much all I mean. It’s not a social construct (like gender!) but something that would exist even in our absence.

              While it may be possible for such a thing to exist without a God, I don’t think that a God could exist without there also being a Moral Fabric.

              Like, if a God showed up? We’d be able to say “damn, we need to include a lot of stuff in our ontology that didn’t used to be there”.Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:


              “If there is a Moral Fabric to the universe, then it exists independently of us.”

              Must it, or does it?

              I get that you’re not a moral relativist, but is this because you find moral relativism disquieting or because you believe that the ideal exists?

              I like atheists who are simultaneously not moral relativists. Discussions with them are always chewy, with a caramel center. Atheists who are moral relativists are all too common.Report

      • Avatar Francis says:

        @Pat Cahalan, I’m trying to come up with the bare minimum definition of a deity. Anything added to it presents the question of why the deity has that characteristic and who gave it to her.

        Hypothesizing, for a moment, the existence of a creator deity (cd, for short). So cd said “Let there be light” and there was the Big Bang. Now, cd by my definition has no predecessor; if it does, then the cd is not a deity, it’s just really powerful. But let’s take this a little farther. This cd somehow exists, in the framework of a self-created hyperuniverse. Its existence does not imply to me that it has any other characteristics, especially goodness.

        Hmm, that’s pretty incoherent. Let’s try this: why does the cd have any other powers except creation? Why should we assume omnipotence or omniscience?Report

        • Avatar Arabesque says:

          @Francis, because a god limited to creation is indistinguishable from whatever process it was that expanded at the beginning of or present universe. Most people want a little more from their godhead than mere creation, a little moral guidance or reassurance that they are not just the instantiation of out of control chemical replicators of the skin of an average rocky planet. We want to be in the image of the creator of everything and talk to him.Report

        • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:


          “Let’s try this: why does the cd have any other powers except creation? Why should we assume omnipotence or omniscience?”

          I’m reminded of an exchange from a Steven Brust novel:

          “I’m assuming our enemy is not a god.”
          “Why are you assuming that?”
          “Because otherwise, this conversation doesn’t matter.”

          If the CD exists, but that’s the extent of its existence (i.e., it threw the switch that launched the Big Bang but otherwise does nothing) it’s existence is irrelevant to the questions of sapient beings’ collective responsibility to the CD. We have none; from a theological standpoint such an entity is equivalent to “there is no deity”.

          The question of man’s duty (or lack thereof) to the divine – which does predate monotheism – sort of depends upon the divine giving a damn 🙂

          You can remove omnipotence or omniscience, as I’ve defined them; they’re there to frame the essential properties of the divine, but they’re not strictly necessary. They are, however, strictly necessary to a discussion of the Big Three Inceptions, as they’re commonly held (and theologically important) principles of The Big Guy.Report

          • Avatar Francis says:

            @Pat Cahalan, But then you’re assuming your conclusion. If the entire debate is predicated on the existence of a deity that has those characteristics, then the theists have already won.

            Jaybird wanted to start with a commonly acceptable definition of god. I still think that the minimum useful definition must include intelligence (as opposed to the blind laws of physics) and existence independent of our universe (to avoid the question of who created god). (Note that I do not concede the existence of such a thing.)

            If your god needs additional characteristics in order to be worthy of worship, then I think you need to be upfront that your definition of god (god2) starts with my definition of god but then adds additional features. I don’t think it’s appropriate to assume for this debate that the god at issue is the Christian god. After all, he’s only 2000 years old. The Olympian pantheon is much older.Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:


              Since the terms of the debate are limited to The Christian God (TM) vs. Atheism, I think you are in error to say, “I don’t think it’s appropriate to assume for this debate that the god at issue is the Christian god.”Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:


              Also, sorry, didn’t address:

              “If the entire debate is predicated on the existence of a deity that has those characteristics, then the theists have already won.”

              Won what?

              The Theists posit the existence of such an entity (to be precise, we’re talking about Christians and the Judeo-Christian God). Clarifying what they believe doesn’t give credence to the underlying claim. It also doesn’t help any conclusions that follow, at least, not automagically.

              God might not exist. God might exist, but might not resemble the Judeo-Christian God. God might exist, and might resemble the Judeo-Christian God, but the Christian orthodoxy may not entirely accurately reflect the theological reality of God’s Will. Christian orthodoxy may in fact have some of its theological axioms cross-wired, and God might be *really pissed* at them for that. Maybe God really does love gays and He/She/It cares not one whit about sexual activities, but otherwise is right on.

              The Atheists may be wrong. There may be a God. However, the Atheists may have created a moral framework that is indistinguishable from a Christian framework in terms of approximating the Will of the Divine (morality may be an Ideal that can be approached to the same degree of accuracy from either a belief or a non-belief in the Divine). Atheists may actually be *better* at approximating moral Truth than Deists due to the nature of human social organizations (a rational empirical approach to deriving morality may be more likely to come close to the truth than groupthink with a fallible organizational authority).

              Nobody wins this outright even if one side is dead-on, balls accurate with its base assumptions. I’m not even sure they have an advantage 🙂 But declaring the base assumptions is important, because (at least on the religious side), contradictions in your argument are going to weaken your case.Report

          • Avatar Arabesque says:

            @Pat Cahalan, I agree to an extent. It is as probable as not that if there is a god, there is more than one or that a creator is limited in the scope of changes. This splits the allegiance due a creator and opens to question weather any or all phenomena are naturally caused.Report

  6. Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

    From what Plantinga speaks of as a “evidential, inductive, or probabilistic” argument there arises as a result of ‘evil’ (this seems to drive atheists to extreme hyperbole) one of the primary point of the argument “…for the non-existence of God.” That is that because there is the idea of ‘evil’ there can be no ominiscient God.
    Following Plantinga’s explication of Thomas Aquinas’s comments that God is a necessary Being, who exists in every world, and who participated in a movement in freedom and love ((Schelling), defined by the poles of potentiality and actuality, His existence “is self-evident in itself.”Report

    • Avatar Francis says:

      @Robert Cheeks, That is about as incoherent as you’ve ever been.

      Of course evil can co-exist with an omniscient god. You simply have to make the additional assumption (on top of the assumptions that god exists and that god is omniscient) that your omniscient god (a) is incomprehensible, (b) doesn’t care, and/or (c) doesn’t like you. None of these alternatives particularly motivate me to worship such a thing.

      Thomas Aquinas’s scientific background is just a little out of date. As for his logic, if god’s existence were self-evident, why are there atheists? why do different people worship different gods, with very different characteristics?Report

      • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

        @Francis, Dude, let me recommend Voegelin’s classic “In Search of the Ground.”
        When you reference derailed elements of modernity to the truth of the classical Greeks, the revelation of the Nous, then you need to stop and re-examine the problem. Do Leibnitz’s two questions first in your eitological analysis.Report

      • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

        @Francis, Dude, let me recommend Voegelin’s classic “In Search of the Ground.”
        When you reference derailed elements of modernity to the truth of the classical Greeks, the revelation of the Nous, then you need to stop and re-examine the problem. Do Leibnitz’s two questions first in your eitological analysis.

        Dude, people are ‘atheists’ because they have immanetized the eschaton.Report

  7. Avatar ScrubAssChump says:

    I have to say I like both of them so far. Mr Brown is very amusing and clever and Mr Carter is very amusing but I’m not sure how clever he is yet. I’d like to take them both out to dinner.Report

  8. Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

    Mr. Carter has some logic issues with his first post. Comment awaiting moderation over there.Report