Does God’s Existence Rest Upon Human Consensus?
Three minutes and 45 seconds into Dan Barker’s opening statement in our Darwin Day debate on February 12, 2009, he presented an argument that he has often used in other debates and writings. In his list of “probability” arguments, he included as his fifth argument against God’s existence the following comments: “There is no agreement among believers as to the nature or the moral principles of this God that they are arguing for. They all differ with each other” (Butt and Barker, 2009). According to Dan, since those professing Christianity come down on either side of moral issues such as abortion, divorce, and the death penalty, then the God Who wrote the Bible “in all probability” does not exist, and the Bible must not be a sufficient guide for human morality.
Is Dan correct in his assessment that disagreement among professed believers nullifies the existence of God? Certainly not! Barker is incorrect for a number of reasons, the majority of which are quite clear after the briefest consideration of the argument. First, we could simply say that Dan’s argument, used against his own brand of atheism, refutes itself, since he admits that atheists do not agree on moral issues. In his book godless, Barker stated: “Most atheists think that values, though not objective things in themselves, can be objectively justified by reference to the real world.... Although most atheists accept the importance of morality, this is not conceding that morality exists in the universe” (2008, p. 213-214, emp. added). Notice that Barker qualifies his statement with the word “most,” implying that some atheists do not see morality as he does. In his discussion of human free will, Barker wrote: “By the way, this contributes to my compatibilist position on human free will. (Not that all atheists agree with me.) I am an determinist, which means that I don’t think complete libertarian free will exists.... I admit that my definition of free will is subject to debate” (2008, p. 128, emp. added). If Barker’s statement about disagreement of professed believers is true, we could, with equal force, use it on atheism and say that since there is no agreement among atheists on moral issues, then atheism “in all probability” is false.
Of course, Barker does not want to extend his “truth” criterion to atheism. And his statement is inherently flawed in the first place. If two or more people disagreed on whether the holocaust happened, but they all professed to be honest historians, would their disagreement prove that there never was a holocaust? If two people, who both claim to be honest geographers, disagree on the fact that the continent of North America exists, would that negate its reality? Or if two or more people adamantly disagreed on the idea that Dan Barker exists, would his existence be jeopardized based on their disagreement? No, on every count. Agreement among people cannot be used as evidence of the truth or falsity of any proposition.
Barker’s atheistic colleague, Sam Harris, has eloquently written on this truth. He disagrees with many atheists about ethical questions. In spite of his atheism, he contends that objective right and wrong do exist (an impossible proposition for a true atheist to maintain, by the way). He wrote:
The fact that people of different times and cultures disagree about ethical questions should not trouble us. It suggests nothing at all about the status of moral truth. Imagine what it would be like to consult the finest thinkers of antiquity on questions of basic science: “What,” we might ask, “is fire? And how do living systems reproduce themselves? And what are the various lights we see in the night sky?” We would surely encounter a bewildering lack of consensus on these matters. Even though there was no shortage of brilliant minds in the ancient world, they simply lacked the physical and conceptual tools to answer questions of this sort. Their lack of consensus signified their ignorance of certain physical truths, not that no such truths exist (2004, p. 171, emp. added).
The irony of this quote from Harris is that it manifests the atheistic community’s lack of consensus on ethical issues, which should disprove atheism according to Barker’s line of reasoning. Furthermore, it hammers home the self-evident truth that consensus among professed followers of any concept or entity has no bearing on its existence or its claim to truth. Harris further remarked: “It is quite conceivable that everyone might agree and yet be wrong about the way the world is. It is also conceivable that a single person might be right in the face of unanimous opposition” (2004, pp. 181-182, emp. added).
While it is true that the lack of consensus on moral issues by those who profess Christianity does nothing to discount the existence of God, it is appropriate to ask why such disparity exists. Again, it is ironic that Dan Barker has answered his own question in this regard. In his speech, “How to be Moral Without Religion,” given at the University of Minnesota on October 19, 2006, Barker stated: “A tendency that we all have, we look through our documents to try to find what supports our already prejudice views about what we think morality should be like.” In one succinct sentence, Barker explained why there is a lack of consensus among professed believers on moral issues. It is not because God does not exist. It is not because the Bible is hopelessly confusing and cannot be understood. It is not because there is no objective moral truth. It is simply because humans bring their already prejudiced views to the text of the Bible and try to force it to say what they “think” it should say.
Barker, Dan (2006), “How to be Moral Without Religion,” [On-line], URL: http://www.ffrf.org/about/bybarker/CASH1.mp3.
Barker, Dan (2008), godless (Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press).
Butt, Kyle and Dan Barker (2009), Butt/Barker Debate: Does the God of the Bible Exist? (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
Harris, Sam (2004), The End of Faith (New York: W.W. Norton).