Theism/atheism debates


Enjoying this one at the moment with some time to spare. I like the format with the informal questioning/conversation starting about halfway through. Some good rapport necessary for that to work.


Dillahunty is really good in these types of debates, as he always is on The Atheist Experience as well. Very calm, logical, just gets to the points. My problem with it in 2016 though is that everything that needs to be said has already been said, so you end up just watching new people say the exact same things in slightly different ways.

The answer to “does God exist?” to me is obvious, it’s no. The only so called debate that ever takes place essentially lies in different interpretations of what the word exist means. Non religious people think the meaning of exist is tied to actual evidence. If there’s no proof of any of it, then it doesn’t exist. Religious people don’t seem to think it has anything to do with evidence, as exist is faith based. If you feel it and believe it, it exists.

So actually, the people who are best able to answer the question of whether god exists are linguists. Does the word exist really mean it has to be backed by actual evidence? Or is believing enough to make it exist?

What does exist really mean? :ponder:


Indeed, practical questions like morality get talked about a lot, and presuppositionalists show up a lot. I enjoyed this debate because they stayed out of those minefields and stuck to various arguments on the stated subject.

I’m not sure that’s quite it. The meaning of the word is clear enough, and I don’t think that anyone would deny that some form of evidence is needed even in the case of intangible things. What is the standard of evidence? That’s the question. I haven’t heard anyone say that simple belief in something would cause it to exist, though I’ve heard people contend that the widespread nature of religious belief is a form of evidence.

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Again though it’s just a question of definitions of words and unpacking common meanings of language. What does evidence mean? In no other area of our lives do we have this debate about how little evidence we will accept as adequate. It seems to me, the difference between not even remotely close and not even fucking close is about the same thing. However religious people seem to think that one level of not even close is somehow good enough.

Nobody knows whether God does or doesn’t exist. With respect to God, everybody in the world is agnostic and probably always will be.

But despite the fact that we can’t disprove God, that doesn’t mean we can’t definitively answer the question. Given the most common definitions of the words exist and what constitutes acceptable levels of evidence, the answer to the question of whether God exists is obvious, no.

And since we already have a word for belief in something without any evidence (faith) what’s the point of the debate? Aside from the obvious entertainment value of course.

Define exist, evidence, and faith, and that answers the question. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a God, but it does mean we as speakers of the English language should be comfortable saying God doesn’t exist.

Even religious people should be comfortable saying God doesn’t exist. They can still say they have faith :slight_smile:


Here’s a classic one from a few years ago, mostly about morality.

Another oldie but goodie, and pretty funny as well


The first sentence may be true, but the second doesn’t follow logically because “I don’t know” is not the same as “I don’t believe so”. Faith means “I have enough evidence to convince me of the truth of my opinion”. An awful lot of human thought, including supposedly rational thought, hinges on faith.

I would also suggest the word “agnostic” implies not only that one doesn’t know, but that one doesn’t much care either way. An atheist thinks the question is important enough to take stance.

Your faith is strong, young Skywalker :slight_smile:

I don’t think many people believe in things for which no evidence exists. If they can’t find evidence then they invent it. People believe in flying saucers because National Inquirer has the photographs, and because, like, Area 51.

However I quite agree that the debate is pointless apart from its entertainment value. Atheists have evidence for their faith; theists have evidence for theirs.

Just watching the Sam Harris video on morality now. He’s a good speaker. However I get the feeling nice people like Mr Harris simply haven’t spent enough time mixing with evil people, and has absolutely no idea that his opinions about the “obviousness” of secular morality is a product of his own faith. He also conflates “religion” with “belief in God” (as most atheists do). The difference is that religion is a formalised philosophical framework assembled around belief in some putative god or gods. Belief in God is a much simpler thing, that really means only what it says.


The first sentence may be true, but the second doesn’t follow logically because “I don’t know” is not the same as “I don’t believe so”. Faith means “I have enough evidence to convince me of the truth of my opinion”. An awful lot of human thought, including supposedly rational thought, hinges on faith.[/quote]

I would make a distinction between faith and belief. People believe all kinds of things to be true without complete evidence. The corollary is that you do not know it to be true. Faith goes farther than that, and suggests a certain attachment to the concept in spite of a lack of evidence. Can we take the New Testament’s definition?

Not necessarily, at all. Agnostic means “not knowing”. Atheist means “not believing in a god or gods” I, and many atheists, consider myself to be both. I am agnostic as to the question of whether any type of god/higher power beyond our understanding/etc. exists, and atheist with regards to any god which I have heard people suggest exists. I suspect you are with respect to many such gods, as well.

I don’t think so–many people change their conviction during the course of their lives. These are important questions in many practical senses. It affects many things in my home country of the United States, for example. Also, I’d like to know if there is a God. That would be good to know. I’m agnostic about our ultimate origins, and although I do not expect to ever have answers, I think discussion of this topic is interesting in a way that transcends “entertainment.”

Why? I don’t see why, based on what he said at least, or why that would be important. Do you think he would deny that people do evil things at times?

Before I say anything else about this, does he? Where?


Yeah, that sounds reasonable.

Even so, “not seen” doesn’t mean there is no evidence. Think of Galileo: he had cast-iron evidence, but it wasn’t accessible to the dumb masses and their leaders. Similar things happened with the discovery of disease-causing microbes. I see plenty of evidence of God, because like all humans I’m subject to confirmation bias.

Human are terribly limited little creatures, both in terms of what we can know and what we can think about. In the grand scheme of things, we’re a very small step up from monkeys hooting and flinging poo at each other.

That said, I do agree (to a certain extent) with BG’s point about semantics. Some people take “to exist” a bit too narrowly: if God isn’t an actual white-bearded guy floating on a cloud, then he doesn’t exist. I know people who conceive of God as embodied in the universe itself. A sort of distributed God, who exists In The Cloud rather than on it :slight_smile:

Fair enough. It’s just my experience that people who use the word ‘agnostic’ to describe themselves just aren’t that interested in the God question. It bores them.

Well put. I stand corrected :slight_smile:

What I meant was that he doesn’t appreciate that evil is neither more nor less rational than his “common sense” moral framework. He mentions a debate with a philosopher at the beginning of his segment who tries to illustrate this. The point goes completely over his head. If he had met more people with no moral values at all, he would be forced to confront the idea that their views are no less logical than his ideas about maximizing the wellbeing of humanity at large. Some people just don’t give a shit about the wellbeing of humanity at large, and aren’t interested in whether their behaviour is evil (according to whoever’s yardstick) or not.

Just in passing - he doesn’t make a point of it. He takes it as axiomatic that they’re the same thing. Incidentally, I should modify what I said before: a religion doesn’t necessarily require a supernatural deity.


Again this is an issue with the language. Agnostic means to not know. Nostic is knowledge, and the ag is the lack there of. It’s quite simple, agnostic means to not know. Therefore my statement that everybody on the planet is agnostic with regard to God is absolutely true.

theism / atheism is a belief claim
nostic / agnostic is a knowledge claim

You can either be an agnostic theist, or an agnostic atheist, but everybody on the planet is agnostic with respect to God and likely always will be. On the one side, even if science backs God into the tiniest little corner to the point where it’s absurd to believe, and we could prove scientifically how life began and what happened before the big bang, that still wouldn’t disprove God.

On the flip side, if a being so powerful emerged that he could demonstrate spontaneous creation of life and could see into my thoughts and predict my future, and he told us he actually did create the universe, that still wouldn’t prove he was God. It would just mean he’s sufficiently more powerful to the point where it appears he’s God and he’s making claims for which are untestable.

So nobody will ever be truly “nostic” with respect to God.

Nope it doesn’t. It simply means exactly what it says. (Nostic + ag) says nothing about the desire to know or not to know.

Oh boy, you’re one of those people who say atheism is faith? Since when is the lack of accepting bad evidence faith?

To steal a line from Sam Harris, I suppose you also think that a lack of belief in astrology and zodiac signs is a faith? :slight_smile:

Which is immoral. That’s kind of the point is it not? Are you sure you understood what Sam was saying on this issue? He’s trying to define morality, and he just did. Whether you accept it or not is on you, but it certainly didn’t go over his head. That was his exact point.


It’s a + gnostic :smiley:


While your literal translation of the Greek might be accurate, that’s not the way the word is used in English. The point is that there are degrees of not knowing, or of certainty. The agnostic is completely on the fence.

Well, there are two forms of atheism:

“I believe there is no God”.
“I do not believe there is a God”.

The former is an explicit statement of faith. The latter is not. However, it would be a hard sell presenting evidence even to the second case. Confirmation bias again.

Yes, he was trying to define morality, and failing. He failed because he started with some “self-evident” axioms, in particular that we “ought to” maximize benefit to humanity. He then tried to muster “science” in support of these axioms, which science sadly cannot do. Sam Harris believes in the axioms he invented (or more likely absorbed from his culture’s Judeo-Christian traditions). I have met people who would find his axioms puzzling at best. I’ve also met people who don’t have a conscience, which Sam Harris insists is an evolutionary thingy that everyone has. He’s dead wrong, and I suspect certain societies actively select against whatever gene codes for our conscience.

Have you watched Terminator 2? Remember that scene where wossisname tries to convince the Terminator that he can’t just go around killing people, and Arnie just keeps saying “why?”. There is no “why”, and there is no “ought to”, at least none that science or logic will give you. To provide those things you need to invoke a belief system with value-judgements, which might or might not involve a god.


Again I just think you are incorrect. That is exactly how people use the word, or at least people who know what it means use it. Agnostic means to not know, period. How YOU use it is up to you, but don’t assume that the world is supposed to take on your own little version of the definition of words.

Agnostic is not confusing in the slightest. It means to not know. It doesn’t mean you don’t want to, or what degree you do or don’t, it just means to not know.

[quote=“finley”]Well, there are two forms of atheism:

“I believe there is no God”.
“I do not believe there is a God”.

The former is an explicit statement of faith. The latter is not. However, it would be a hard sell presenting evidence even to the second case. Confirmation bias again.[/quote]

Again you are conflating definitions, muddying the waters to the point where it all gets lost.

Atheism means a person does not believe in God or gods, full stop !

Now there are subcategories, strong and weak, positive and negative, militant, anti, etc…

But the word atheism is not at all confusing. What is the problem? It means a lack of belief in God or gods, that’s it man.

Which is why I said it’s up to you whether you accept it or not. Are you convinced by his argument? Apparently not, which is fine. But it’s pretty clear you didn’t understand his general point. To say that there are people who don’t care about humanity and the well being of others puts a dent in his argument? Dude, that IS his argument.

As far as whether you’ve met people who think his axioms are puzzling at best, I’ve met people who think they were abducted by aliens. Was there a point somewhere? There’s plenty of people who agree with Sam 100%, and plenty of others who don’t. But your attempt at an argument from popularity is quite meaningless.

And your Terminator analogy just further shows that you don’t understand what Sam is saying. That is his entire point my friend. According to him, and again be convinced of his argument or don’t, but what he’s saying is that there are scientific truths about morality, and the ought to in Terminator might actually be explained by some of them.

Honestly, give Sam another chance. It really does appear you missed his point.


When it comes to the question of whether there is a God (which when defined for debate purposes as a creator of the universe), it seems to me that sometimes the atheist wins and other times the theist wins, precisely because I don’t think science can take us any further. The Big Bang theory tells us that the universe was created ex nihilo. There was nothing (meaning no matter, no space, no time), and in an instant everything. So what happened before there was nothing? Who knows?! It’s one philosophy against another. Krauss and his universe from nothing is no help either: particles aren’t the universe and a vacuum isn’t nothing (subatomic particles and the vacuum resulting in the so-called vacuum fluctuation). Other scientific theories, while interesting to ponder, are in principle unprovable. It’s my understanding that multiverse theory falls under this category (and also, doesn’t multiverse theory just push back the question of how it all started in the first place?). So I’ve given up on these debates. Someone mentioned that they’re just a rehashing of things already said in previous debates. I totally agree. So pick your philosophy. Figure out what’s most rationally satisfying (or perhaps what’s most rationally unsatisfying) to you and live your life accordingly.


Unfortunately Harris appears to be one of those people who is clueless about what science is for or how it works - which is bizarre since he’s employed as a scientist - and thinks that referring to something as ‘scientific’ makes it so.

If there were ‘scientific truths’ about morality, my opinion wouldn’t matter in the slightest: his assertions are either true or they are not. The only part of his thesis that is scientifically falsifiable is his belief that moral frameworks arise naturally from evolutionary pressure. There is plenty of empirical evidence that evolution doesn’t necessarily select for the characteristics that lead to humane or “good” behaviour. There is a very obvious reason for this: people who behave in thoroughly immoral ways get to pass on their genes just as effectively as people who don’t. Possibly more so. They are only constrained from doing so where the majority rejects their behaviour and suppresses it. If the majority approves of such behaviour - or does nothing to halt it - then that society will end up in the ‘worst of all possible worlds’ scenario that he describes. There are specimen human societies of this type.

Since observation does not fit his hypothesis, it is wrong and can be dismissed out of hand. Welcome to Karl Popper’s world, Mr Harris.

It goes without saying, of course, that dismissal of one hypothesis does not automatically ‘prove’ any competing hypothesis.


Not to nitpick the general point, but science doesn’t really say that. At least that’s not the implication. It actually just says “I don’t know.”

If you were to ask me if X can come from Y, what would I need? I’d need an X so I can examine it, and I’d need a Y so I can examine it. I would then be able to tell you whether X can come from Y.

If you ask can a cat come from a bicycle? We can examine the properties of both of them and conclude that no, a cat can’t come from a bicycle.

So if the question is whether something can come from nothing, that’s easy to answer right? Go get me a “something” and go find me a “nothing” and we will analyze both of them and see if something can come from nothing.

Wait, what’s a “nothing?” Nobody has ever seen one. Nobody knows what that even is. It’s wrong to say that something can’t come from nothing. Maybe it can, who knows? We’d first have to know what a nothing is wouldn’t we? Science doesn’t make claims like that, despite certain scientists saying that in the language we use. It just rolls up it’s sleeves and goes searching for answers. It doesn’t just say “God done it!”

So for me anyway, and of course to each his own, but to me science wins 100% of the time, all day every day and twice on Sunday. :slight_smile:


I’m pretty sure Sam Harris is comfortable with his level of understanding of science, as is the vast majority of academia. Calling a clearly scientifically brilliant man ignorant of science is the type of comment that makes people doubt you, not him. Not for nothing, but you’re the one who said atheism is a faith. :loco: To enter the discussion in the first place should require a person to understand why the rejection of a claim is not a faith.

I reject the idea that my zodiac sign has anything to say about my life. It’s sure as hell not my faith to be anti astrology. :unamused:

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So does that mean you think the evidence against his hypothesis is invalid? How so?


Not that it makes me right, but here’s a guy at Oxford University with, like, loads of PhDs and stuff, saying pretty much the same thing (except a bit more eloquently than me): … -morality/

[quote]So by “science” Harris evidently means, “philosophy” … or at least something that’s not different from philosophy in a principled way. Let me check my brochure for a second and confirm what the title of his talk was — the radical-sounding title that sold so many tickets — yes, here it is, it’s, “Who says science has nothing to say about morality?” If we do a quick update based on Harris’ personal definition of science, we get … “Who says philosophy has nothing to say about morality?”

The answer is: no one ever said that. Moral philosophy plus facts is not “science” telling us objective moral truths.[/quote]

He also says exactly what I said above: that Harris’s whole premise hinges on a personal opinion that he takes as axiomatic:


No, and I don’t think that even Sam would say that. Him and several others are at the forefront of a very interesting thought experiment about expanding the moral landscape to potentially include science. He’s at the very beginning, putting forward ideas for discussion, some of which I’m sure even he will be willing to admit will be successfully picked apart. He’s certainly not presenting definitive answers in scientifically verifiable ways yet, he’s just giving talks on a very interesting subject. It’s thought provoking to say the least and in some respects, at least in my opinion, in some areas accurate in it’s assertions.

I have zero problem with people taking the opposite stance, that’s what science is all about. I’m sure Sam welcomes the dissension. But that’s not what it sounds like you’re doing. You’re introducing logical fallacies, mischaracterizing his points, making arguments from popularity, and insulting him personally. And like I said, oddly as well making silly comments about how atheism and rejecting a claim of a God is a faith.

Honestly, considering how smart and scientific most of your posts on this forum are, it sounds to me like somebody is having a bad day. I’m quite sure you can find many people who disagree with Sam, and you’ve brought up some good points as well. That’s why he’s doing it, it’s controversial and new. But I don’t think you’ll find many who take the opposite side in quite the same manner you’ve chosen to.


So Sam’s main premise is “The worst possible misery for everyone is bad.”

I like that. I agree with that, and I like how he says that (I’m paraphrasing cuz I’m lazy) "if you don’t agree with that, then I don’t know what you’re talking about, and what’s more, I don’t think YOU know what you’re talking about.

So, do you agree that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad? Or is it one of the other axioms that you disagree with?

Some people say science has nothing to say about morality, and I like Harris’ way of explaining how it can. Is health better than sickness? Can science say something about how to be healthy?


Whether I disagree with it or not is irrelevant: the fact remains that it is an axiom, not something that can be proven from first principles. There have been, and still are, plenty of men who think that the worst possible misery for everyone is bloody awesome. Or at least is neither here nor there as long as they, personally, are having a good time. Their very existence pokes a big hole in his evolutionary argument, as I said earlier.

Anyway, the basic problem here is that Harris wants this axiom to be accepted as “scientific”, and it just isn’t. For any reasonable well-adjusted person, it’s a perfectly good value-judgement. But it ain’t science.

Science can say something about how to be healthy. Whether you think that is desirable is entirely up to you, isn’t it? There was actually a debate on, um, the other place about whether being fit and healthy might not be completely pointless. I know several people who have eaten themselves into Type 2 diabetes who nevertheless continue eating the shit that gave them the disease in the first place, and which will ultimately kill them. Why? Because they want to. People make weird, irrational decisions. Science won’t help them do otherwise.

That’s like trying to include kitchen utensils in a discussion of heart surgery. What he’s saying is actually nothing new. It’s been attempted many times, and never goes anywhere, because science cannot be used for answering moral questions. Science is a tool for establishing facts about the natural world. It’s been carefully refined to do that very well. You can’t repurpose it just because you think it’s a neat idea.

I suggested that there is no mechanism by which evolution could favour “good” behavior, and pointed out that some societies do not select for it. If I’m right about that, then his assertion is false. Where is the fallacy?

I’m pretty certain I didn’t. Zender gets it, although I disagree with his response.


Religion is pretty interesting, and I don’t get too uptight when people make jokes about it or insult believers. That’s their prerogative. Debasing science, on the other hand, really gets me wound up, and that’s what Harris is doing. Science is an awesome tool. It does what it says on the tin, and it really pisses me off when people twist it into something it’s not just to support their religious or political beliefs.

If you disagree with me on that point, I assume you also disagree with Earp (the PhD-laden academic I linked to)? Perhaps you can address his points rather than mine?

No, I said that claiming there is no God is an act of faith. That’s not the same as rejecting a claim of God.