Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

When Jewish Atheists Attack

posted by David Klinghoffer
At his website Why Evolution Is True, Jewish atheist and U. of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne has responded in two posts to my own entry on Chanukah, knee pain, and suboptimal design in creatures as a bogus argument for atheism. (As an aside, note the gentleman’s last name. I’m guessing it started out as Cohen, meaning that he is presumably a cohen, a descendant of Aaron. In Ashkenazic pronunciation the Hebrew name often comes out as coyne. Pending information to the contrary, take a moment to appreciate the irony of his illustrious priestly lineage.) Professor Coyne is full of “Aha’s!” and “Gotcha’s!” 
He writes: 

[T]he “bad designs” [in creatures] are more than just random flaws in the “design” of organisms: they are flaws that are explicable only if those organisms had evolved from ancestors that were different.

Why do cave fish have nonfunctional eyes? That’s bad design for sure. You could impute it to the quirks of God, but isn’t it more parsimonious to conclude (and we know this independently from molecular data) that those fish evolved from fully-eyed fish that lived above the ground?

No doubt about it. Life has a history. It has been changing in the forms it takes for a very long time and some of that history is inscribed on it, as artifacts of its development. Creatures give birth to other creatures in a chain of descent. They have a lineage, just like cohanim. Some of these descendants enjoy advantages, others exhibit defects. Who would disagree?
A very small part of the suffering in our world can be linked to these artifacts of history. Knee pain or back pain might be examples. So what? This is an example of the classic Darwinist straw-man tactic of making it appear that intelligent design proponents doubt not only the sufficiency of natural selection in explaining life’s history but that life has a history at all. In this connection, Professor Coyne berates me as a “creationist,” usually taken to mean a Biblical literalist, but I am not a creationist. Words have meanings.

Yet as Coyne observes, explaining evil and suffering is of course a serious challenge to religious believers: 

In the end, theodicy is the Achilles heel of religion: attempts to explain evil just make theologians look more ridiculous and unconvincing.

He therefore poses what he thinks is a devastating rebuke: 

What kind of world would convince you that there is no God?

If he finds such a question meaningful, then he must answer first because I posed it first, or anyway its obverse, in my original entry. What kind of world would convince you, Jerry Coyne, or any atheist, that there is a God? No vague waving of hands, if you don’t mind. No sarcastic rhetorical questions, which Professor Coyne does offer. (“I may be wrong, but couldn’t God have arranged the world so that people could ‘grow and change spiritually’ without horrible things happening to innocents?”) A straightforward reply in concrete terms would work well.
Exactly what level of evil could the hypothetical Deity — perfectly good and all powerful — tolerate so that his existence retained the advantage of being plausible to you? I argued earlier that if we’re going to say that God’s permitting the suffering of an innocent creature is the ultimate and conclusive point in favor of disbelief in him, then that would have to include any such suffering, any at all. If leukemia in children would cross the line, what about arthritis in senior citizens? Remember we’re talking about a God without limits on his goodness and power. If he’s got no excuse for a lot of undeserved pain in the world, he’s got no excuse for any.
If Jerry Coyne is consistent with his premise, then the only world into which he should be willing to admit God is the perfect and perfectly boring and insipid turtle terrarium that I described, a place that no God that I can imagine would bother to create in the first place.

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Philip Koplin

posted December 14, 2009 at 6:28 pm

If someone defined God to be a being who permitted no innocent suffering, then merely pointing out the existence of such a thing would of course disprove the existence of God. I think that most atheists would agree that leaving that as a definition of God would be setting up a true straw man, and if Coyne is such a simplistic reductionist, you’re right in calling him on it.
One can admit that a compassionate God would allow suffering in morally competent adults (as in CS Lewis’s argument that suffering makes us aware that we are not self-sufficient) and still find such an excuse invalid with regard to children. The serious atheistic challenge comes in relation to the latter, not the former; not in relation to any suffering, but to some in particular.
As others have pointed out in relation to earlier posts, God did bother to create a place of unchanging perfection inhabited by perfected creatures–heaven–with which he will have to amuse himself a lot longer than with the comings and goings of the imperfect inhabitants of Earth.
Can you clarify the logic of, “If he’s got no excuse for a lot of undeserved pain in the world, he’s got no excuse for any.” I can’t spell a lot of words, but that doesn’t mean I can’t spell any.

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posted December 14, 2009 at 10:38 pm

Theists do not have a “problem of evil” because the existence of G-d is absolutely essential for objective evil to exist. Otherwise there would be only subjective “hang-ups.”
Unlike Xianity with its dualistic (and slightly Tolkienesque) worldview of G-d (good) vs. Lucifer (evil), Torah teaches that G-d is Absolute, One, and Unrivaled. He alone creates evil as well as good by His decrees, which alone determine both.

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posted December 14, 2009 at 10:40 pm

Intelligent Design is Creationism. Specifically, it is a form of ‘lets pretend we don’t believe that the Intelligent Designer we are positing isn’t just God by another name to attempt to pass constitutional muster’ creationism known as ‘Neocreationism’. The modern use of the term was largely created when the editors of ‘Of Pandas and People’ substituted ‘Intelligent Design’ for ‘Creationism’. It repeats (with sciency embellishments) the same old and long-discredited creationist anti-science arguments. And no, only Young Earth Creationism “mean[s] a Biblical literalist”. Old Earth Creationists generally are not literalist.
So David Klinghoffer, you are a(n Intelligent Design) Creationist. Your protestations to the contrary are about as credible as your anti-evolution arguments.

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posted December 15, 2009 at 12:59 am

“f Jerry Coyne is consistent with his premise, then the only world into which he should be willing to admit God is the perfect and perfectly boring and insipid turtle terrarium that I described, a place that no God that I can imagine would bother to create in the first place.”
And that is exactly where you and Coyne meet: your concepts of god are both equally limited by your imaginations.
If it is any consolation, so is everybody else’s.

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posted December 15, 2009 at 2:18 am

Two brief points on theodicy:
1. The classic question, “why do bad things happen to good people?” (in traditional terms, “???? ??? ??”) was recently raised by my students (7=8 grade day school boys). In our informal discussion of the topic, which took place in five minute chunks over a few days, I pointed out that, while there are a variety of traditional answers to this question, the truth is that the very nature and function of creation necessitates that we cannot have any clear understanding of this issue.
If all suffering could be readily explained in religious terms, meaning that any time anyone suffered, we could immediately and clearly understand why that suffering was justified, then no rational being would ever do anything that would lead to such suffering. While we would still, technically, have free will, the significance of such free will would be minimal.
Classical Jewish sources state that our free will is integral to our purpose for existence, indeed, it is this which makes us “in the image of God”. Our actions only have meaning to the degree that they are free.
2. The argument against God based upon evil is fundamentally flawed. To put it simply, any argument that would continue to “disprove” God’s existence even in the face of a direct, unambiguous revelation, is clearly meaningless. Even if God were to openly reveal Himself, in a manner that clearly demonstrates that He is the omnipotent and omniscient Source of Existence, we would still not understand how His self-proclaimed goodness can allow the existence of evil. Yet, in such an event, we would be forced to conclude either He is lying about His goodness (a problematic argument) or that His goodness is not readily comprehensible to human minds (much more likely).
The point is that even absolute knowledge of God’s existence (similar to the knowledge the Jewish nation experienced at Sinai) does not automatically resolve all theological issues. Even once we know God exists, there are still matters that require “faith”, i.e. trust in God’s revelation. I can “know” God exists, I can only “believe” that He is good.

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posted December 15, 2009 at 9:29 am

What kind of world (universe) would convince me there is a God? (1) One in which prophets actually prophesy something that they (or those writing later) could not possibly have known without divine revelation; (2) One in which 99.99999999999999999% of the universe isn’t instantly lethal to life; (3) One in which supernatural explanations have not been consistently and steadily replaced by natural explanations for the past 3000 years (in other words, one in which “God” isn’t constantly shrinking); (4) One in which arguments for supernatural don’t fail 100% in every evidence-based court, and in which defenders of the supernatural don’t have to resort to lies; (5) One in which there is some natural consistency in world religions, or one in which the understanding of “god” actually improves over time; (6) One in which all the components of “soul” aren’t affected by physical things – in other words, one in which neuroscience has less success in explaining “divine feelings”. These are just a few ideas.

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Dave W

posted December 15, 2009 at 2:47 pm

In response to:
What kind of world would convince you, Jerry Coyne, or any atheist, that there is a God?
Paraphrasing Dawkins, one in which archeologists find rabbit fossils in the pre-Cambrian layer.
Your turn, Mr. Klinghoffer. What would convince you to renounce God?

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David Klinghoffer

posted December 15, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Dave W, you’ve given an answer to a question I didn’t ask. We’re talking about theodicy here.

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Philip Koplin

posted December 15, 2009 at 3:36 pm

How does the fact that a person or a tradition claims to have had a “a direct, unambiguous revelation” that proves the existence of God actually prove anything other than that they had an experience that they believe proves the existence of God?

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posted December 15, 2009 at 7:21 pm

What basis do atheists have for saying that something is evil, or that evil even exists?

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posted December 15, 2009 at 7:25 pm

And the flip side of unnecessary evil would be gratuitous goodness. There are lot of things that make people happy that aren’t necessary for survival. For example, people like looking at sunsets. Where did that come from? What’s the evolutionary explanation for all the goodness we experience. It kinda cancels ut the bad.

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posted December 15, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Philip, I think your missing my point. It doesn’t matter whether such an unambiguous revelation has happened or not. The point is that the “argument from evil” is flawed in that it cannot be shown false even in the event of an unambiguous revelation. In other words, according to the “argument from evil”, even if we know that God exists from direct experience, His existence remains disproven. This is an obvious logical absurdity (like disproving the existence of your irritating co-worker because it is “impossible” that anyone could be so obtuse – so, poof!, he disappears).
What this problem points to is that there is a fundamental difference between proving God’s existence, and understanding those Divine characteristics that He has (supposedly) chosen to reveal to humanity. The argument from design, for example, makes no claims on what the Creator’s personality might be like. It simply argues that the existence of a Creator is necessary to explain what we see in the world. Said Creator could be motivated by any number of reasons, none of which need be analogous to the human concept of “good”.
The idea that “God is good” is not built upon such arguments, but is based upon their belief in an actual revelation in which God describes Himself as “good”. This is a fundamentally different kind of belief from the idea of God’s existence. One can know with certainty that a person (say your father) exists, but, ultimately, you cannot know with certainty that he loves you – you can only trust that he is sincere when he says he does.

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Ray Ingles

posted December 16, 2009 at 10:21 am

Noachide, N. Schuster, an answer to your question can be found at the link between this text and my name.

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Ray Ingles

posted December 16, 2009 at 10:27 am

I would very much like to see Klinghoffer explain why heaven is not “the perfect and perfectly boring and insipid turtle terrarium that I described”.

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Ray Ingles

posted December 16, 2009 at 10:40 am

LazerA – you write, His goodness is not readily comprehensible to human minds (much more likely)… I can “know” God exists, I can only “believe” that He is good.
Are you sure you want to say that God’s ‘incomprehensible’? That means you can’t conclude anything at all about God – it’s the intellectual equivalent of dividing by zero. From such a proposition, any proposition at all can follow. (And, judging from the plethora of denominations on Earth, does follow…)
Consider – sheep trust in the goodness of their shepherd. Shepherds feed their sheep, protect them from danger, and so forth. Sheep trust their shepherds… until just after the knife comes down. What if God’s not just metaphorically like a shepherd, but literally like a shepherd? If a God is as incomprehensible to us as we are to sheep, then there’s no way to tell.
You note, One can know with certainty that a person (say your father) exists, but, ultimately, you cannot know with certainty that he loves you – you can only trust that he is sincere when he says he does.
I’d contest that. Your father isn’t considered fundamentally incomprehensible. Evidence actually matters there – how many songs are there about the difference between saying you love someone, and actually acting like you love them? I’ve got a lifetime of experience indicating that my father loves me, and I’m trying hard to build such a lifetime of experience for my children.
But Gods are supposed to be incomprehensible to humans. No amount of evidence could possibly justify any kind of conclusion about such beings.

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Philip Koplin

posted December 16, 2009 at 12:29 pm

When you referred to “absolute knowledge of God’s existence (similar to the knowledge the Jewish nation experienced at Sinai),” I assumed that you were saying that such a revelation was possible because it had actually occurred. Sorry if I misunderstood.
If one agrees that God has unambiguously revealed that he exists, then, as you say, further argument about evidence for or against his existence is meaningless. But that isn’t the issue we face in a world in which there is no unambiguous revelation; in such a world, which is the one in which we live, we do need to look at evidence, of which the existence of evil is part. So your hypothetical example doesn’t clarify anything we actually face.
In addition, in your hypothetical example, if God revealed himself and said “I am good,” then we would have to figure out what the word “good” was supposed to mean and what relation, if any, the word is supposed to have to human actions. If “good” is meant to refer to the things that God does, then we would have to apply the word to birth defects and childhood cancer and try to figure out, if that’s what “good” means, how to understand the sense in which God wants humans to do “good” things. If the word “good” means different things for God and humans, then God using the word to describe himself is meaningless.
If the argument from design is to be of any use, it has to be based on some analogy involving what we know about humans. If we say that the world looks as though it was created through intelligence and skill, we’re using concepts we derive from observing human actions and productions. If we can apply those human concepts, there’s no reason we can’t also apply the human concept of “good” to explain what we see in the world. Conversely, if the word “good” can’t be applied to God, neither can the word “intelligent,” much less the words “compassionate,” “loving,” or even “designer,” and we’re left with a God indescribable through human analogy, which might just as well be identified with Spinoza’s Nature, hardly what I think theists generally have in mind.

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posted December 16, 2009 at 8:06 pm

I didn’t see an answer to my question of how do we know evil even exists. Thge lonk you provided talks about the benefits of practical morality for people living in a society. That’s nice, but it doesn’t answer my questions.

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posted December 21, 2009 at 5:35 am

How amusing to see the OP avoiding the question.
Atheists have been answering the OP’s question for ever – chiefly by demanding that god must interact with the world in a simple, plain, manner, just like a good person would only more so. That is necessary for evidence for a god, any god, good or otherwise. Specifically on the topic of evil, a world compatible with a benevolent omnipotent deity would have unlimited resources and no possibility to come to physical harm, be imprisoned, or so on. Kind of like Second Life with unlimited server space. That will allow unlimited capacity for creation, unhindered by natural evil, while leaving free will its place but not allowing oppression. Again, however, this will not be compatible with a powerful benevolent deity that doesn’t make himself easily accessible for interaction with his “sons” – God cannot be our heavenly absentee father and still be good. He must answer when we call to him – not in some vague metaphorical way, but really, tangibly answer in speech an action; he must actively guide us and illuminate the way for us; and so on. Anything less would not be compatible with unlimited moral perfection and even a smidgen of power.
Now – what world will convince you that there is no god? How great a lack of intervention in the face of horrendous evil must occur? Not even a single rape, a single murder, a single life of ignorance is justifiable. Saying otherwise makes evil into good in a mockery of all that is just and wholesome.

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posted January 9, 2010 at 12:09 am

The comments above are in general excellent. I am sorry David, there is no winning this “argument” by logic. Logic is in clear favor of the atheist. There is no point in pretending otherwise. Arguments for the existence of God must stem from exhortations regarding “faith”. Now I don’t mean to be rude, but I am very concerned about the direction that unexamined “faith doctrine” is taking this country, and the world for that matter (Christian, Jew and Muslim). I was raised in a Christian tradition, but I am also a scientist, with a deep abiding respect for the truth, and an aversion to claims that do not stand up to the evidence. So I have followed the evidence, and this is where it leads. Atheists as a group are among the most thoughtful, moral, and humanistic members of our society. In general they have the moral integrity and strength of character to buck societal pressures and follow truths arrow – through open and honest inquiry and analysis. They have no ax to grind except against ignorance. On the other hand “faith” means believing in (and being even willing to kill and die for) things that cannot be proven, for which there is no hard evidence. This is supposed to be good thing (a “virtue”) – even in this day and age? In my opinion “faith” has become an increasing dangerous political force, even threatening civilization. Isn’t it obvious that the “faith” of muslin suicide bombers is unparalleled? I submit that the evidence, from an impartial and logical inquiry would strongly suggest the following: God does not exist (at least not anything like what 99% of believers believe in) – instead there is only the natural universe, which is more awe inspiring, complex, and wonderful than the many accounts of the frequently petty, vengeful and violent “God” depicted in the bible. The Bible is simply a collection of writings by men (some wise, others not so much) that were collected together (through a very political process) and cemented into our culture through the power of force exerted by a Roman emperor (Constantine). Not only was Jesus not immaculately conceived, did not perform inexplicable miracles, or rise from the dead, but in all truth “Jesus” probably did not exist as an actual man in history. He is a mythical construct combining many Jewish and Hellenistic myths and fables that were prevelent at the time. There is much evidence to support this theory (see essays by the Earl Dougherty, and Richard Carrier – available on line). There are scholarly works on this subject, and many unbiased historical scholars are converging toward a Christ as myth theory. Finally, United States of America was founded on the constitution, not the bible, and with a strict admonition for religious tolerance and the separation of church and state. It is the Constitution, not the bible or Christianity that we should be protecting. The claim that this country was founded on “Christian Principles” (whatever that precisely means) seems to be most commonly ginned up by those in our society promoting intolerance, unchecked capitalistic greed, and violence (very unchristian behaviors). So why are Jews and Christians and Muslims still killing each other over silly, childish, unsubstantiated nonsense which has been carried over from antiquity – before Darwin, and Einstein, and gene theory and molecular biology – even now in 2010?! I have no answer. Do you? Ignorance is the real enemy. So when are we going to grow up and take responsibility for the destiny of our species and our planet? Soon, I hope for all our sakes.

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