Thursday, August 19, 2010

Deism: Advantage Theism, or Advantage Atheism?

One thing that always tickles me about modern atheists is their attempt to 'count' deists in the atheist column. I think part of the appeal comes from there having been a number of deists who were highly critical of Christianity - Voltaire, Paine, etc. And since - let's face it - modern atheists tend to be concerned with Christianity first and foremost, I think two things go on: A "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" attitude, and a kind of wishful thinking of "he was probably just an atheist but pretended to be a deist so people would listen to him" move.

Of course, the most well-known deist in modern times is Anthony Flew, who admittedly shook things up in a major way - primarily because Flew didn't transition from Christianity or any other religion to deism, but from atheism to deism. Worse, he claimed (and given his deism, he could not help but claim) that this was not only a result of the arguments he was exposed to, but that the types of arguments that persuaded him were 'natural', even scientific: Natural law in the universe, DNA and the origin of life, etc being prominent.

What interests me most about Flew's conversion is that it establishes something that I always lament more apologists and believers in general fail to appreciate or take advantage of: The realization that deism can and does function as a kind of two-way bridge between atheism and Christianity. Instead the perspective is that deism is a kind of one-way slide - namely, a deist is a Christian or muslim or, etc, whose faith has fallen. It's easy to make that mistake, since the sort of deism freshest in people's minds is the deism of the enlightenment, where pretty much everyone started out as a Christian and thus any change in belief would have to go 'away' from Christianity. But I maintain that it is a mistake, and that apologists in general should view deism as something worth arguing for, one more tool in the apologetics array.

The funny thing is, as near as I can tell, most atheists would rather choke than fight deism. No less a rabid atheist than Jerry Coyne flat out concedes that deism is compatible with science, Dawkins himself once made a concession in a debate with an ID proponent that sounded an awful lot like him finding deism reasonable (he backed off, but not before the damage was done and a number of internet atheists suddenly came out of the closet as either being deists or deism-sympathetic.) In other words, strangely enough, there seems to be one type of God most atheists aren't willing to talk about.

One anecdote I have is about a time an internet atheist approached me wanting to engage in a public forum debate over the existence of God. I agreed (this was back before I realized how useless internet arguments really are), and when he started to rattle off on criticisms of the Old Testament, etc, I informed him that while I was Catholic, that wasn't the discussion I agreed to: I was there to defend the existence of God, period, and therefore all I had to defend was deism. The result? He flipped out and immediately refused to engage me at all unless I defended Christianity specifically - he flat-out refused to argue against deism. Now, let's point out the obvious here: The sort of people who love to debate on the internet, who out and out challenge people to a debate, don't shut up very easily. Forum/blog warriors who walk around challenging people to debate tend not to drop opportunities to run at the mouth. So to see someone cut and run - not even mid-stream, to do so before the argument even began - was enlightening to me.

The dirty little secret is that once that minimal deistic God is seen as reasonable to believe in - and I maintain that this is ridiculously easy for an unbiased observer to be persuaded to - 99% of the atheist's position is dead in the water, and 90% of Christianity's case is made. But sadly, this just doesn't get discussed by apologists, who seem to want to talk about mere deism as minimally as possible. Even Bill Craig, a fantastic philosopher and debater and whose arguments are compatible with deism, never really develops this line fully. Instead he seems to want to run past that mere God, or mere deism/theism, as fast as possible and get back to the topic of Christianity.

Either way, some philosophers and writers do dwell on this point to a degree. Aquinas himself via the Five Ways, Edward Feser's The Last Superstition (It's fun to watch critics react to TLS as a Christian book, when Ed stresses in it that if it establishes anything, it establishes mere classical theism), arguably the Intelligent Design movement is merely deistic or only broadly theist formally, etc. But I'd like to see more along these lines, precisely because A) Deism is more reasonable than atheism is or could ever hope to be, B) I am convinced that deism creates a bridge that would take on more irreligious towards Catholicism, and C) I think the reaction of many atheists alone would be worth the price of admission.

17 comments:

Ilíon said...

"The dirty little secret is that once that minimal deistic God is seen as reasonable to believe in - and I maintain that this is ridiculously easy for an unbiased observer to be persuaded to - 99% of the atheist's position is dead in the water, and 90% of Christianity's case is made. But sadly, this just doesn't get discussed by apologists, who seem to want to talk about mere deism as minimally as possible. Even Bill Craig, a fantastic philosopher and debater and whose arguments are compatible with deism, never really develops this line fully. Instead he seems to want to run past that mere God, or mere deism/theism, as fast as possible and get back to the topic of Christianity."

Establishing "Mere Theism," purely via reason is the point [I really do need to pull together the content of the various ways I've presented that argument on other people's blogs and post a more fleshed-out version of it on mine].

The Phantom Blogger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Crude said...

Ilion,

Well, keep at it! I'd love to see another argument developed along those lines - one thing I like about Alex Pruss' blog is that he seems to out and out love coming up for novel, simple, even playful arguments for God, against atheism, against naturalism, etc.

TPB,

Well, that just goes to show that Dawkins is something of a moron - and that apologists are being moronic for not picking that claim up and bashing it over people's heads. Rather, for not having picked it up. The New Atheism is dead - the New Agnosticism has superseded it. And it won't last long, since if there's one thing agnostics can't do, it's take a firm stance on an issue for any length of time.

Seriously though, think about what Dawkins (and Coyne, and others) is ceding: That the existence of God is entirely compatible with science. Now, I imagine Dawkins is trying to head things off at the pass by arguing "Yes, but this is the Deistic God, not the God of revealed religion! This is not a God who intervenes in nature or who planned things or who cares about humanity or.." etc. But, the kicker is, if Dawkins starts talking about that the next natural step is to ask how he knows any of that. And it gives license - scientific license! - to believers to explore the question and come to their own conclusions.

That's before mentioning that the Deist God of the Enlightenment was a God of reason, a God one could swear by, a God who endowed humanity with inalienable rights. Ah well. Someone has to do it.

The Phantom Blogger said...

"is not a God who intervenes in nature."

This is exactly what he said. It seems to be the idea of miracles or God intervening in nature, that bothers atheists more than anything, that's the aspect that to them is the most irrational with its appeal to the supernatural. Even the biologist H. Allen Orr when being critical of the New Atheists for there ideas and beliefs (and he was good at it) would always say we must not interpret any part of a religious text literally and a belief in God must be based upon the idea of a God who does not intervene in the world or do anything that contradicts the laws of science. He would also claim that St Augustine did not accept a literal interpretation of the Bible so no one else should do this either, but this statement was false as Augustine did not take Genesis literally, but with miracles and so on, he did.

The documentary came out last December so I don't know why people haven't noticed what he said in it, there must be video clips of it about on the in Internet somewhere.

The Phantom Blogger said...

In the Bristish Channel 4 documentary Tsunami Where was God? Richard Dawkins said he believed that modern science was compatible with the Deism of the Enlightenment Thinkers and only that.

The Phantom Blogger said...

Sorry about deleting that comment. I thought it was possible for me to edit it.

Crude said...

It seems to be the idea of miracles or God intervening in nature, that bothers atheists more than anything, that's the aspect that to them is the most irrational with its appeal to the supernatural.

Oh, I think the idea of a God who has any concern for or interest in our universe (much less humanity, either on an individual level or even as a group) is what bugs them. Miracles just happen to be one way in which that manifests. (Well, "miracles", since that's yet another word without a strictly clear meaning.)

Still, I remember Dawkins let the deism line slip in his Lennox debate. But if he ceded the compatibility of the Deistic God with science... I'll have to track this down, hopefully on youtube or somewhere.

Crude said...

No problem, blogger's comments system sort of sucks. I have to change it sometime.

Drew said...

I disagree and don't particularly see how deism is helpful to Christianity. Moreover, you just assumed that it was 90% helpful but never really explained why it was helpful. You may as well say that a belief in Islam is beneficial to Christianity.

Crude said...

Drew,

I would happily say that a belief in Islam (well, specifically, a belief in Allah) is beneficial to Christianity. But keep in mind, I'm framing this conversation specifically in terms of talking with irreligious, agnostics, and atheists. Would you agree that it's easier to make the case of Christianity to someone who grants deism, or even the basic viability of a mere deism/theism, as opposed to someone who denies that?

Now, I'd also point out that a wide range of arguments - Aquinas' Five Causes, Kalam, etc - are, in and of themselves, deistic or merely theistic arguments. (Again, granting the objection that arguments for design of the universe a la ID is deeply different from arguments which establish a prime mover, etc.) But a fair chunk of my argument here actually is inspired by the bible.

From Acts 17:16-28,

22Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

24"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'


What I find unusual is that, in my years of reading internet apologetics, I have never seen this come up as a model or example. Now, I could have simply missed it. But if it is in fact rare, I remain shocked as to why. Read the entirety of Acts 17 and tell me that this doesn't sound tremendously like the modern world. Tell me that the unknown God of Paul doesn't have strong parallels with a mere deism or theism, a belief in a "something, I know not what".

Ilíon said...

Drew: "I disagree and don't particularly see how deism is helpful to Christianity."

Is it really possible -- or proper -- to disagree with something when you realize that you don't understand it.

Drew: "Moreover, you just assumed that it was 90% helpful but never really explained why it was helpful."

And yet, I understood exactly that the first part of the statement ["The dirty little secret is that once that minimal deistic God is seen as reasonable to believe in - and I maintain that this is ridiculously easy for an unbiased observer to be persuaded to - 99% of the atheist's position is dead in the water ..."] explains the reasoning for the conclusion that "once that minimal deistic God is seen as reasonable to believe in ... 90% of Christianity's case is made."

Drew said...

It might be technically true, based on your Bible passage, that deism makes it (to some degree) easier to accept Christ. But practically speaking, I still have a hard time seeing exactly why that is so. And in any case, your percentages are definitely way off. Most of Christianity's opponents in the Bible did indeed believe in God, and most of our worldwide opponents today believe in God, so it is incorrect to say that proving God's existence accomplishes 90% of the work.

Crude said...

Drew,

My "percentages" were pulled out of my ass almost entirely for emphasis - c'mon, how do you quantify 'ease of making the case for Christianity' in percentage terms? So if you want me copping to that, sure, the percentages are not meant to be taken that literally.

Anyway, you talk about our "worldwide opponents". But again, I wasn't talking about making the case for God among muslims, or among hindus, etc. I was specifically contrasting Christians with atheists, agnostics, and irreligious. And I was pointing out how establishing the reasonableness of believing in even this God made the Christian case - again, when dealing with the groups I speak of - a vastly easier affair.

Really, I don't understand where your disagreement with me lies here. Do you think that it's inappropriate to present arguments for merely "God", and that the only kind of apologetic activity among Christians should be 100% focused on Christ? If so, I see where you're coming from. However, that's going to render inappropriate everything from Aquinas' Five Ways to most of William Lane Craig's arguments to the entire ID movement and even Saint Paul's own approach in Acts 17.

If your complaint is that I'm focusing on the irreligious, the agnostics, etc, and ignoring the fact that there exists buddhists, taoists, hindus, and muslims who need to have Christ brought to them, then you have no complaint with me because I agree. In fact, I've more than once said (not on this blog) that the New Atheist movement is spent and gets far too much attention - that I think Christians should be focusing on engaging jews and hindus and muslims and others far more, and "New Atheists" far less, if at all.

cody said...

Curious, would you say that accepting deism would also ease the way for arguing in favor of misotheism and dystheism as well as theism?

(Full disclosure: I am the typical internet atheist you speak of, though I prefer to describe myself as an antitheist.)

Crude said...

cody,

Sure, depending on what arguments are getting you to that deism / mere theism to begin with. If you accept the arguments from classical theism, then misotheism or dystheism becomes hard or impossible to reach ultimately (while still falling short of Christianity in particular), but concluding merely that the existence of God/god/gods is likely is a step required by miso/dystheism as well. Then again, establishing miso/dystheism also partial lend credibility to more robust theisms too.

I'm surprised there aren't more miso/dystheists (I don't know of any, especially among academics) given the prominence of the Problem of Evil as an argument. I'd think transhumanists in particular would be open to it, but then again, that would put a damper on the eschatology.

cody said...

I think miso/dystheism are somewhat obscure, and they carry a strong scent of pessimism which many people would find unattractive; also I'm unaware of any major religion promoting either concept, and much like polytheism it seems to have died in the popular culture with the rise of the Abrahamic faiths.

Personally, were I to believe the bible had any modicum of truth, it would instill a strong sense of dystheism in me. Contrarily, I do not view the bible as factual, which is why I dismiss the Abrahamic religions--likewise with other ancient accounts of alleged matters-of-fact that don't jive with my own experiences regarding reality.

In contrast to the bible, arguments for deism don't rely on revelations, historical accounts or personal claims of any sort; they rely only on the naturally limited abilities of humans to probe the universe. (It appears to me that biblical accounts are central to accepting any flavor of Abrahamic faith.)

It is the deist argument's independence from "probe-able reality" that allows it to sync with science (not an easy feat for claims involving theistic god(s) who interact with their creation). A deist's god specifically rejects the notion that supernatural intervention has, is, or will take place.

But none of that really matters: the reason I oppose theism but not-so-much deism is the same reason I oppose anti-science mysticism but not Santa Claus: because (from my perspective) the former has caused immeasurable pain and suffering, and continues to do so, whereas the latter has remained reasonably benign. And until people start murdering one another or themselves in the name of a deistic or pantheistic god, I'll be much less concerned with the deists than I remain with the theists. (Though I would agree, the vast majority of theists are perfectly nice, wonderful people.)

Although, if all you're interested in is an atheist's arguments against deism (rather than why we atheists look wishy-washy or intimidated by deism), I'd be happy to discuss that as well.

Crude said...

cody,

I don't think "obscurity" really works here, since miso/dystheism requires little more than the belief A) There is a God/god/gods, and B) This/those gods are not benign, or even not wholly benign. As I said, the moment anyone cites the problem of evil, they're pretty much at miso/dystheism's door anyway.

I'd agree that most people would rather believe in no God/gods whatsoever than entertain the possibility of one existing that they object to. Then again, I also think that has a strong tendency to skew whether or not they're willing to (at least, in public) accept that this argument or that source contains truth or plausibility.

It is the deist argument's independence from "probe-able reality" that allows it to sync with science (not an easy feat for claims involving theistic god(s) who interact with their creation). A deist's god specifically rejects the notion that supernatural intervention has, is, or will take place.

There's too many problems here. First, it's nonsense that the "deist's god specifically rejects the notion that supernatural intervention has, is, or will take place". I forget who said it, but one statement I recall is that a deist's God has committed one act that most anyone would call miraculous or supernatural (forgetting for a moment that nowadays those words have been bled of meaning due to naturalism's melting.)

What's more, deists from Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin to others did in fact believe - through, they argued, reason - that this Deistic God would judge, would resurrect, and had endowed men with inalienable rights. The idea that deists had, as a core belief, that God would never act in history is unsustainable precisely because deists had and have no core belief. Deism is simply knowing or accepting God(s) by reason.

"God exists, but does not do miracles" doesn't sync any better with science than "God exists, but does do miracles" in the abstract, because "science" is helpless in determining what is or is not a miracle anyway. Otherwise it ceases to be science.

As for atheists and deism, my claim isn't that there exists no atheists out there arguing against deism. Nor is it merely that many atheists are "wishy-washy" on deism. It's that A) my experience is that deism-sympathy or even deism itself seems to be surprisingly prevalent among atheists, B) some prominent "New Atheists" have outright conceded both the reasonableness and even the compatibility with science of deism, and C) to concede that case for deism is to gut the core claim of New Atheism and establish grounds for accepting, justifying, and believing in a more robust theism.

To say that believing in God is reasonable, even respectable - but that believing God acts or acted with humanity is mind is not - is like arguing that it's reasonable to conclude we are living in a computer simulation, but regard it as crazy to even suspect that the programmer may intervene/have intervened.