Berean cogitations

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Anti-Christian claims that refute themselves

I’d like to say a few words about self-refuting anti-Christian claims, especially those from an atheistic point of view.

What is a self-refuting statement? It’s one that contradicts itself, and thus, cannot possibly be true. A prime example is the statement, “All claims are false.” If all claims are false, then so is the claim that all claims are false. Ergo, the statement is erroneous, and thus, no rational person would believe that all claims are devoid of truth.

Ditto for the statement, “Everything I say is a lie.” If every single thing I say is a deliberate deception, then why should you believe me when I claim to never tell the truth? Obviously, that claim refutes itself.

I often say that such statements self-destruct. A logician or mathematician would say that they can be disproven via reduction ad absurdum. Either way, the point is that these claims undermine their own foundations, thereby proving themselves to be false.

Some simple self-refuting claims

Sadly, such claims are rather common in atheist and anti-Christian rhetoric. Who among us has not heard the claim, “Nothing is absolute” (or alternately, “Everything is relative”)? If nothing is absolute, then the truth of that statement is not absolute either. In other words, the claim that “nothing is absolute” is not absolutely true. That argument crumbles under the weight of its own self-contradiction.

Here’s a more subtle example. What about the statement, “One should never criticize another person’s morality”? That statement is itself a moral judgment; after all, there are a great many people whose morality prompts them to make such judgments. Hence, one cannot put forward this tenet without implicitly condemning another person’s moral worldview.

What about the statement, “One shouldn’t say that another person’s beliefs are wrong”? This is merely a subtle rephrasing of the previous claim, and is guilty of the same failing. What if I think it’s okay to criticize someone else’s beliefs? If you utter the statement in question, are you not saying that my belief is wrong?

Is belief in the unproven illogical?

A couple of years ago, I encountered an atheist who took pride in his "logical" beliefs, and who ridiculed Christians for being "illogical." This atheist proudly proclaimed, "It is irrational to believe in anything which is not proven!" In response, I asked, "Do you really believe that? If so, can you prove it to be true?"

He shot back, "What do you mean? I don't need to prove it. It's obviously true." So I replied, "Wait a minute. I thought you said that if a belief isn't provable, then it must not be rational. I'm just asking if you can prove that particular belief. Can you?"

Now, take note of what happened. I could have attacked his claim in other ways. For example, I could have cited beliefs which are scientifically accepted, even though they have not been strictly proven to be true -- Einstein's laws of relativity, for example, or the laws of quantum mechanics. Such beliefs have been corroborated by scientific evidence, but they have not been proven to be true, as any competent scientist can attest. Or I could have talked about mathematical axioms (e.g. the law of reflexivity), which are universally accepted yet by definition, unprovable. Instead, I chose to demonstrate how his claim contradicted itself, thus forcing him to examine his logic more closely.

(Mind you, I did bring up the aforementioned scientific and mathematical arguments later on -- but I tried to deliver the most devastating punch first. My goal was to make him think long and hard about the rationality of his own claim first, before bringing up additional reasons why his belief was in error.)

Is science the only path to knowledge?

Here's another example. I once encountered two atheists who said, "The scientific method is the ONLY way one can ever know the truth!" So I paused for a moment, then asked, "Really? What scientific methodology did you use to arrive at that conclusion?"

They were a little perturbed by that. They said in response, "Look, it's obvious. Look at all the great things that science has done, and look at all the horrible things that religion has caused." I replied, "Wait a moment. We're not talking about whether science does good, or whether religion is evil. We're talking about your claim that science is the only possible path to truth. If your claim is true, then surely you must be able to demonstrate it through scientific means. So, can you cite any scientific experiment which proves your claim to be true?"

Again, note the strategy which I adopted. I could have pointed out that some scientific fields are imprecise (e.g. biology and psychology), or that there have been times when science was proven to be wrong. Or, I could have let myself get sidetracked, and attacked their claim about all the evil caused by religion. These approaches would have given them plenty of wiggle room though, and would have merely prolonged the discussion. Instead, I chose the most pointed, the most direct, and the most decisive argument that I could think of. I chose to demonstrate that their own claim was scientifically unproven -- and thus, by their own logic, irrational.

Mind you, this didn't stop them from attempting to defend their position; after all, long-cherished beliefs can be difficult to abandon. They repeatedly said, "Well, it's obvious!" They brought up examples of all the great things that science has accomplished. They even asked me to imagine a world where science reigned supreme, and to compare it against a world where people did nothing but pray. (A ridiculous exercise, to be sure, but I think it shows that they were steadfastly unwilling to abandon their worldview.)

I could have argued against their examples, and on occasion, I did. At the same time though, I gently pointed out, "Look, each time you present an argument that's not based on strict science, you are actually proving my position. Remember, you're the ones who say that science is the only path to knowledge. If so, then science -- strict, properly conducted science -- is the only tool at your disposal."

A tactical approach

Oh, and one more thing... throughout these encounters, I took great pains to avoid adopting a confrontational stance. In other words, I tried to keep the discussions civil, instead of letting them escalate into prolonged debates. That's one reason why I like to focus on the self-refuting claims which Christian-bashers. This strategy helps to keep the discussions short and focused, instead of meandering down the complexities of science, history or textual criticism.

Moreover, while the Christian-bashers may continue to argue their positions, pointing out these self-contradictions will help shake their confidence in their beliefs -- or at least, it should, if the non-believers are honest with themselves. And that is what our goal should be -- not to win the arguments, but to make our opponents think, and to examine the logic of their own stance. If we can help the non-believers realize that their claims are not based on firm logic after all, then we have already won half the battle.