ARGUING with ATHEISTS
There is an atheist blog called “Cross-Examined” (ironically with the very same name as a Christian blog) presented by one Bob Seidensticker. I read it often and think it’s quite good. He came across my video called “Defending Soft Theism against Atheists,” and he thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to examine my position and see how my general concept of God compares to the specifically Christian concept of God, which is what he normally opposes on his blog.
In the spring of 2021, he asked that I send him a transcript of this video, for him and his readers to critique. What followed was two months of back and forth. He posted a portion of the text three times a week, critiqued my ideas, and I responded three times a week in detail to his critiques and to the comments his readers made.
Though a very difficult process (mixing theistic thinking with atheistic thinking is like mixing oil and water), and though I doubt anyone changed their minds, I think it was a worthwhile exercise. Here is his last entry, called “Soft Theism: Final Thoughts,” followed by my final entry called “Final Thoughts from the Soft Theist”:
Soft Theism: Final Thoughts
April 21, 2021, by Bob Seidensticker
What a marathon! Over the last couple of months we've spent 21 posts with close to 30,000 words dissecting a long video about soft theism. I think it's been worth it, and the nearly 4000 comments from readers suggest that it’s been engaging for them as well. I thank all readers for their time and the commenters for their participation.
I also want to thank Miklos Jako, the video’s author, for enduring the spotlight. If he wanted a higher profile and a frank critique of his ideas, he got it. I've now had the last word over twenty times, and he has accepted my invitation to a last word of his own with a guest post giving his evaluation.
What is soft theism? And how is it better than Christianity?
Soft theism is theism in that it imagines a god that cares about and engages with our world. It's unlike deism, which imagines a god who created our world but doesn’t engage with it. And it’s unlike Christianity in that it’s not burdened with the clearly mythological Yahweh with his violent Bronze Age morality.
I described it this way in the first post: “Take Christianity and pare away the Bible, a couple of dozen ecumenical councils, church tradition, a long history of political meddling, and fear of science, and what’s left? Jako calls this Soft Theism.” Imagine Christianity without the unpleasant baggage.
I was drawn to this topic because it’s a fresh approach to religion. It’s also timely. The rise of the Nones—those who don’t identify with any religious denomination—is one of the biggest news stories within American religion from the last twenty years, but only a minority of these Nones are atheists. Most have spiritual beliefs, just not the conventional ones. This series has been our opportunity to take a deep dive into one representative worldview.
I've pulled from the posts in this series some of the key ideas. I'm sure I've missed some from Jako and others in the comment discussions. Feel free to add anything important in the comments to this post.
Science can’t answer the ultimate questions
Jako argues that we have a gap that science will never fill. He accepts all the marvelous things science has taught us about reality (refreshingly, that includes evolution) but points to the meta question: what explains science? Does its remarkable record not need an explanation? And suppose science explained everything in the universe. That still leaves unanswered, what explains the universe itself?
The infinite-regress problem
And even if science takes it a step further back—say, by explaining our universe as a tiny part of a vast multiverse —where does it end? Whatever scientific explanation you come up with, no matter how elegant or mind-blowing, is susceptible to the demand, well, what explains that? It’s the child’s dreaded “Why?” given in response to science’s every answer. Jako resolves this with God to eventually terminate this series of questions. The buck has to stop somewhere, right?
Maybe not. Common sense is not especially useful at the edge of understanding. If a smart and determined mind could answer these questions from first principles, Aristotle would've done so 2300 years ago. Discoveries at the frontier of science offend our common sense, but evidence backs up the science, not the common sense. Our common sense was tuned for a middle world. It's untrustworthy in the world of the very small (quantum physics) or the very large (cosmology).
Jako is careful to remind us that he’s neither a scientist nor a science denier, just someone interested in reality’s ultimate questions. He'll say, “It seems to me, ..." being careful to not claim any evidence pointing to his conclusions and wondering if science’s winning streak will end somewhere.
But there’s no “therefore” there. If Jako wants to remind us of science’s unanswered questions and offer supernatural answers, that’s fine, but all he has is a lack of answers, not positive evidence.
And he can't resolve the regress problem when his own “God did it” solution just raises more questions. Who is this “God”? What are his properties, and how do you know? Has he been around forever, and, if so, why did he decide to create our universe 13.8 billion years ago? And so on. These are questions only resolvable by (dare I say it?) evidence.
What's the rush? If we have a question and don’t know the answer, let’s be honest and say so. “God did it” just replaces scientific questions with theological ones.
Science: the only game in town?
Jako insists that atheists lean too much on science. He doesn't have evidence for his position, but that’s okay, he says, because he makes no scientific claims. Instead, he lives in the domain of philosophy.
But you can’t have it both ways—you either make a convincing case by providing evidence, or you ignore the demand for evidence with the justification that you aren’t making a scientific claim. This Philosophy can be a refuge for those who have no evidence but at what cost? Evidence is important if you want to make a convincing case.
If he has a reliable new route to the truth that doesn’t rely on evidence, he must demonstrate this approach by actually uncovering something new so that we can all see its value. But if he’s not claiming anything new and is only playing the jester, asking the tough questions that the rest of us may be ignoring, then “Philosophy” is just an important-sounding label to hide the fact that all he has are questions, not evidence. That doesn’t make his position worthless, just commonplace.
The value of naturalism
We're to believe that science, the discipline that has gotten us this far, is spent. We must now rely on spirituality and philosophy, the disciplines which to this point have answered no puzzles at the frontier of science. In fact, they’ve taught us nothing at all about reality. This makes even less sense when we remember that spirituality and philosophy didn't even come up with the questions. But we're to turn to them for the answers?
If we don't know, I suggest we say that instead of “God did it.” The God hypothesis is a solution looking for a problem.
The lack of value in philosophy
A naval commander will tell us that a ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for. The same bold attitude applies to ideas. The extent to which you are able to stay safe, hidden behind Philosophy’s skirt, is the extent to which your ideas are irrelevant. Bring them out in the open so they can be criticized and tested (yes, with evidence).
You tell us that you don’t need to—or intend to—provide evidence for your statements. Okay, but then what good are they? “You haven't proven me wrong” is hardly sufficient grounding for a worldview. And if all you have are provocative ideas, that doesn't take us very far.
The homeopathic parallel illustrates the limitations of Soft Theism. A homeopathic “medicine” starts with a poison and gradually dilutes it down to nothing, but that’s as far as it can go. It no longer has a bad component (poison), but that does nothing to give it a good component (actual medicine with proven therapeutic value).
Soft theism is homeopathic religion. The bad stuff from a familiar religion like Christianity with its Bronze Age morality, barbaric god, and Bible verses that support slavery, genocide, and more has been reduced to zero. Less bad stuff is a great improvement, but there’s no actual good there—no wisdom from an omniscient god, no new science or technology to vault us to a more equitable society, and so on. It compares well against Christianity, but it's still manmade.
But that may be soft theism’s superpower. As a supernatural worldview, I find it no more convincing than Christianity or any other theistic worldview, but it's much less dangerous. There are no zealots eager for the End Times or science deniers who reject evolution or climate science as there are in Christianity.
We've made little progress in showing Jako that his soft theism is no better grounded than Christianity, but there may be bigger fish to fry. While he probably hasn't made any atheist converts, he’s also interested in sharing his ideas with Christians. Imagine if soft theism made inroads among those who now embrace the most toxic forms of Christianity. If people need answers or comfort, a homeopathic religion provides a much safer version.
I wish him Godspeed there.
Final Thoughts from the Soft Theist
April 23, 2021, by Miklos Jako
This is a guest post from Miklos Jako, the author of the video that started this exploration into spiritual-but-not-religious thinking. Miklos endured the skeptical gauntlet with patient comments, and for that he deserves the last word in this conversation.
I’ve appreciated this opportunity to exchange ideas with atheists from the perspective of a “Soft Theist.” Host Bob Seidensticker has described Soft Theism as “Christianity without the baggage.” However, to be clear, it is not liberal Christianity. I actually reject Jesus for many reasons. I do not think he was a transcendently wise man but rather a religious extremist who constantly overstated for the sake of impact, at the expense of truth.
I describe soft theism as a belief in the probability of a general God not tied to any particular religion. A belief in some great intelligence behind the universe. A more credible God than the Christian one. A non-intervening God. No answered prayers. No miracles, other than the miracle of life itself. No dogma, other than the need to be a good person.
The closest approximation to it in real life would probably be Unitarianism: Be a good person and then believe whatever makes sense to you, including atheism. Soft Theism is not a truth claim, but a subjective assessment on the probability of a God, where one does not decide to believe, or not believe, but settles on a percent probability, whether it’s 10%, 40%, 60%, or 90%, and lives with that. The word “soft” in soft theism is there for a reason.
Here is my assessment of the discussion we had:
The discussion confirmed my conviction that one’s position depends very much on one’s starting point, on one’s worldview to begin with. If you start with a scientific worldview, almost invariably you will conclude there is no God, because you want evidence. If you start with a more spiritual/emotional worldview, you will conclude there may well be a God, because lack of tangible evidence is not a defeater for you.
The discussion also confirmed my suspicion that theists and atheists have innately incompatible ways of thinking, and that coming to some synthesis is almost impossible. For example, to a theist, the universe is evidence for God, obviously. But to an atheist, the universe is just the universe, obviously.
I regard the beauty of a tree as “soft evidence” for God; the atheist regards such soft evidence as no evidence, it’s just magical thinking. I was asked what would be the difference between "magical thinking" and "soft evidence"? I responded that magical thinking would be, “If I pray hard enough, God will save my child from this illness.” Whereas “soft evidence” is seeing a beautiful tree, or experiencing a wonderful relationship, and thinking there might well be something more than the ordinariness of life, and scientific explanations.”
I find the mystery of why things should work, to be a reason for positing a God. The atheist regards figuring out how things work is enough. Once you’ve got A, B, C, and D understood, you don’t need God to make it work. Whereas, I think it’s more plausible that God makes everything work, through the laws of nature he created.
I think some things may never be understood by science, like why things grow, why the heart keeps beating for a lifetime, why bodies heal. Why life, intelligence, consciousness should emerge. I suspect that consciousness may never be adequately understood. Awareness of the material world, is of a different nature than that world. The atheist thinks that whether science eventually figures it all out or not, we have chemistry, biology, and physics for explanations, no need for a God.
Soft theism accepts whatever valid science says. But it does not view science as ultimately explanatory, or capable of giving answers to spiritual/emotional issues. As one person noted, if a grand Unified Theory of Everything is ever formulated, it won’t help him decide about his love life. Agreed. That's my perspective, that a big part of life exists outside of science.
I made the claim the science has a built-in defeater against God because it is forbidden to invoke God as an explanation for any phenomenon, and is allowed only to reach the verdict of “not demonstrated.” Atheists disagreed, but we finally got on the same page in agreeing that there is not a hard and fast rule; it’s just that it’s the implicit philosophy of working scientists, because studies have never concluded yet that God is an explanation.
Going in Circles
Atheists repeatedly insisted that “We don’t know” is the proper answer, and that I should admit I don’t know. My response: “Why are you saying that?! I have repeatedly said, ‘I don’t know.’ In fact, I can give you some stats. I did a quick word search, and in the first 12 installments here I have been advised to admit I don’t know at least five or six times, and I have responded that “I don’t know” at least eight or nine times. The word “soft” in soft theism embodies the very concept of “I don’t know”!
The circularity here reminds me of a scene in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles movie. The governor’s assistant says, “OK, the meeting is adjourned. Oh, I’m sorry Governor, you’re supposed to say that.” “Say what?” “The meeting is adjourned.” “It is!?” “No, you’re supposed to say that.” “Say what?” “The meeting is adjourned.” “It is?” “No, you’re supposed to say that.” “Say what?” “The meeting is….”
Here’s my atheist blog version of that: “The honest response on the God question, is ‘We don’t know.’” “I don’t know, I’m just speculating.” “You can’t just speculate; you have to give some evidence.” “I don’t have any hard evidence.” “Then you’re just speculating; you don’t know.” “I don’t know. I’m just speculating.” “You have to give some evidence.” “I don’t have any hard evidence. I’m just speculating.” “Then you don’t know. You’re just speculating….”
Telling Me Stuff I Already Know
Atheists kept telling me what I already know and already agree with, yet somehow regarded this is an argument against my position. One gave an eloquent description of the progress of science, almost as though I were not aware of it. I agree that science has a magnificent history. I know that. I agree with that. Or tells me that the further reaches of science (the quantum world, cosmology) do not make common sense to us living here in middle earth. I know that. I agree with that.
Another wrote that God’s hiddenness is “not an indictment of science or nonbelievers, it's an indictment of God's choice to remain hidden.” I responded, “You’re informing me of something I already know and agree with. I’m not indicting science or nonbelievers! And yes, God’s hiddenness is an indictment of God! He should have given us more evidence of his existence. (Bertrand Russell)”
Attitudes / Differences
Many atheists viewed me as making truth claims, and not just offering an opinion. I think one reason for this is that in discussing anything, if I constantly have to qualify my remarks with “I think,” “in my opinion,” or “it seems to me,” that gums up the writing. So, it seemed more a truth claim than it actually was. Plus, atheists are used to the Christian attitude of “We have the Truth,” and so assumed more of an attitude than was actually there on my part.
We disagreed on the standards of evidence for philosophy versus science. I felt that the standards for philosophy are much lower and do not require the same degree of hard evidence.
Many atheists viewed my approach as classic “God of the Gaps” thinking. But I maintained that I do not appeal to God for any of millions of scientific issues, except for where I think science will never reach an answer, such as origins of life, and consciousness.
Atheists think I am interpreting mundane things as spiritual realities. Yes, I am. I regard life, as miraculous. A life-force is not mundane to me. It is a powerful, incomprehensible reality to me, that life should exist.
We did agree that morality is properly a practical issue rather than an intellectual one. And we agreed that the problem of evil is a very strong argument against God.
I found the atheists on this blog very intelligent and educated. But also prone to contempt. I was described as “nasty” and “sneering.” I do not know what they are talking about. On the contrary, they were the ones who used the words “disingenuous,” “idiot,” “stupid,” “daft,” “ignoramus.” Not me. I did express my conviction that atheists are blinkered by science, and they found that, per se, insulting. I thought that many of the commenters spoke with contempt and ridicule as a matter of course. And I am baffled as to why they think this helps their cause. Bob Seidensticker, the host, incidentally, was appropriate. He strongly disagreed with me but did not find it necessary to add gratuitous insults.
I certainly did not expect to change any atheist’s mind here. As I noted at the start, I expected them to say, “He’s just making all this stuff up.” But I hoped they would also conclude, “Well, at least his version of God is not as harmful as traditional ones.”
Atheists and I do have a common cause in opposing Christianity. I hope people visit my website. http://www.confrontingbelievers.com/ I have videos of my informal debates with a wide variety of Christians and ex-Christians.
Thank you to Bob for hosting this exercise and for appreciating the value of Soft Theism, not as a valid belief system, but as a better, less harmful one than Christianity. A lot of people see reasons for leaving Christianity, but do not feel comfortable going all the way to atheism. Soft Theism is a good middle ground.
God does not make good sense to me, but makes better sense than no God. I agree with the opinion that believing in God is absurd, but not believing in God is even more absurd.
Maybe theists have over-active imaginations. Maybe atheists have under-active imaginations.