Monday, July 2, 2012

Debating an Atheist

Opening Statement

Pastor Stephen Feinstein

Hi Russell,

As I said the last time I wrote, I was awarded some extra time and so I can start the debate a few days early. Not wanting to overextend myself early on, I will give a general opening that will describe the Christian position, how I plan to debate the issues, and why I believe atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible.

Matt can tell you from the start that I do not argue for a god, nor do I attempt to win opponents over to theism first, only later to try to convince them of Christian theism. No. Instead I argue from the outset for the Christian position only, and I affirm that the Christian worldview is the only worldview that is possible given the preconditions of intelligibility.

With that said, let me begin with Christianity. I hold to the historic Christian faith as elucidated from the Christian canon (the 66 books of the Protestant Bible). Yes, I am defending a theological position, but Christianity is more than just a theology, it is also a philosophy. It holds a position about ultimate reality (metaphysics), possesses a distinct view of knowledge (epistemology), and it contains a system of moral and ethical absolutes (metaethics). All people are theologians and philosophers whether they realize it or not. Most people are careless when it comes these subjects and as a result they are inefficient at both. All science, all theories of cosmology, all viewpoints of anthropology, and just about everything else falls under the scope of philosophy and specifically epistemology. As a result, I am going to push all of our arguments into this realm, because it is where they belong by logical necessity.

That being the case, the historic Christian position holds a distinct metaphysical view. We believe in a two-level concept of reality (as opposed to materialism’s one-level concept). Simply put, you have the Creator and the creation. The Creator is eternal meaning He has no beginning and no end, and possesses all of the omni-characteristics. He is what in philosophy is referred to as a “necessary being,” whereas all of creation by contrast is “contingent beings.” As such He is not part of the world, nor does He depend upon the world (world meaning the physical universe), but instead He is over it and He actively sustains it. Thus, the world depends on Him. This can be illustrated with two circles on a white board with a small circle on the bottom representing the creation and a giant circle on the top representing the Creator. The Creator informs the creation through the general revelation of the created order and through special revelation with mankind through the means of language. Only religions influenced by the Bible hold to this kind of conception of God.

Concerning God, I will divide the Christian metaphysical understanding into 4 points. 1) God is an absolute personality. Simply put, He is an absolute being, meaning He is necessary and is in no way, shape, or form contingent. Yet, He is also a person. In fact, He is the original person, and "personality" is an essential attribute of God. His personhood is original and ours is derivative. We are persons because He is the absolute person. Once again, only religions influenced by the Bible have this concept of God. 2) There is a distinction between the Creator and creation. I will henceforth call it the Creator/creature distinction. God is not the world, and the world is not God. He is transcendent, meaning He is totally “other” to the world and is not contained by it. Yet, He is also immanent, meaning there is no place within the world where His presence and power are not in effect. Only Christianity and Judaism have a God that is both transcendent and immanent. The Creator/creature distinction is going to be important when we start diving into epistemology. 3) God is sovereign. This means that God has total rule over the entire universe. He is in control, and all that comes to pass is part of His will. Rather than getting too theological here, I will say for now that I am referring to His decretive will as opposed to His inclinational or moral will. This will be very important when you bring up the problem of evil in this discussion. God’s sovereignty also is important because it plays a large role in epistemology as well. 4) God is a Trinity. God, as presented in the Bible, is one God who exists as three persons. As great of a mystery as this is, it is the only conception of God that A) solves the one and many problem of philosophy and B) avoids the self-defeating contradiction inherent in all views of a unitarian God. 

Case in point, an attribute is defined as a characteristic of God intrinsic to His nature, to where it is impossible for God to be God, and yet not have that characteristic. Thus, an attribute of God is “personality” as I have already said. Personality requires relational existence. Therefore, if God were not a Trinity, who then did God have a personal relationship with prior to creation? He would not be a person until He made other persons, which would make Him dependent upon creation, thereby removing His distinction from it and His sovereignty, thus causing the whole concept of God to drown in contradiction. If God did not have the attribute of personality until the start of creation, then He existed without a characteristic that is necessary to Him by definition. I think you get the point. The triune God solves this problem since for all eternity the one God had a personal relationship among the three persons of the Trinity.

Bear in mind that I am not yet offering arguments showing how such a God is the necessary precondition of all intelligibility. Instead, I am simply showing that I am making a defense for the Christian worldview alone. No other religion or philosophy holds anything close to what I just mentioned. In fact, every other worldview holds to a one-level concept of reality, an impersonal ultimate (whether it be chance or Brahmin), and is committed to the epistemological autonomy of man. Christianity alone runs counter to this. And at the end of the day, only the existence of the Christian God can rightly account for all that exists.

With that being said, what we are inevitably doing is arguing over entire worldviews. I hold to the Biblical worldview as expressed in Scripture (every theological/philosophical position stated above has many Biblical proof-texts). I am assuming that you hold to a worldview that favors the ultimate reality as being that of impersonal time and chance (randomness) and that the universe and all that is in it (both inorganic and organic) come to us via macroevolution. Given that it is a battle of worldviews, we are going to have to use transcendental logic to see which worldview is even possible in the first place.

Russell, the bottom line is most people take for granted what they believe. Even more axiomatic, they take for granted presuppositions. Everyone has them, and everyone comes to conclusions based on them. The way evidence is interpreted is never neutral, but it is always 100% of the time bound by one’s presuppositions. When you and your partner debated Ray Comfort on your show, your partner accused Ray of having presuppositions that caused him to reach Biblical conclusions, whereas you atheists have no presuppositions but instead are led by the evidence alone and make your conclusion from there. I mean no disrespect at all by saying this, but that is a careless and philosophically absurd statement. It is careless because it shows that your partner so takes his presuppositions for granted that he does not even realize that they are there. Matt, the young man who arranged this discussion between us, ran into the same problem with me. Every time he made an argument, I identified for him the distinct presuppositions behind that argument and then demonstrated that without those presuppositions his conclusion was unwarranted. I then showed him that his presuppositions were in fact impossible. This is why he worked tirelessly to arrange a debate between you and I.   I can only assume that he hopes you will find a way to deal with this. So then, it is fair to warn you that I will constantly bring us both back to presuppositions at every step of this. I admit that I have mine, but I want you to see yours too. From there, we can then get to the heart of the debate. Having a background in history I love facts and I love evidence. Yet, I will not argue endlessly about facts without first arguing about the philosophy of fact. Afterwards, I would love share evidence and counterevidence. This will all come to light a little later as we dialogue.

I will finish this up with a brief discussion about atheism. As a worldview, atheism has a number of huge problems that savage it. First, let me acknowledge that I know many atheists claim atheism is not a worldview, but instead it is merely a rejection of a worldview. However, that is careless philosophy once again. Atheism possesses a distinct view of reality (materialism), a distinct view of epistemology (human intellectual autonomy), and a theory of ethics (whether it is evolutionary, utilitarian, etc.). This makes it just as much of a worldview and philosophy as anything else.  And as a philosophy, it has problems that render it irrational. I will begin with only 4, and as the debate moves on I can bring in some others. The 4 are as follows: 1) Problem of Inductive Inference; 2) Problem of Deductive Inference; 3) Problem of the Mind/Brain; and 4) Problem of Moral Absolutes. I will not get into these now because we will have plenty of time to jump into them as we go on. When the theory of evolution is advanced, there will also be a plethora of problems with it as well. I think we will both enjoy getting into these high level arguments.

Russell, I figure that you see problems with the Christian worldview that you believe discredit it. I eagerly await these as I hope to offer satisfactory and convincing counterarguments against them. I unabashedly presuppose the Bible, as I believe all rational knowledge depends on such. I hope by the end of this all, you can see very clearly where I am coming from and seek to know the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thank you for your willingness to discuss these matters with me.  Hopefully a mutual respect and admiration will build between the two of us as we seek to convince each other concerning these most important issues.

With much respect, I await your reply.

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