Frank Turek, professional Christian apologist, founder of the Cross Examined website, and co-author of the book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, recently paid a visit to the University at Albany to give a talk to the Impact Christian Fellowship on the evidence for the existence of the Christian god. I learned about his talk from a student on our local atheist meetup’s mailing list. Having read Frank’s book a while back, I figured it would be worth checking out.
That’s me in the middle (in case you were confused) and Frank on the left, with his dour-seeming partner Phil Weingart completing the trio. I engaged the two of them (and a few eager audience members) in a brief debate on the subject of absolute vs. objective morality; it was… revealing.
Several others have already thoroughly critiqued Frank’s apologetics, but in all the discussions I’ve seen, there’s a major element that seems to have been overlooked. I’ll briefly go over what he said in his talk, then give my new insights.
As you can tell from the outline of his talk, Dr. Turek’s arguments build upon each other:
- There is such a thing as objective truth, and it is possible for humans to know what it is.
- Scientific (the big bang, complexity, design, etc.) and philosophical (cosmological, moral) arguments provide good support for the existence of god.
- The existence of god makes it possible for real miracles to happen.
- The possibility of miracles makes the New Testament story more likely to be true.
These arguments, with little variation, tend to be the focus of all of Frank’s talks, from the college-level presentation to his debates with Christopher Hitchens. In the details, there are a lot of things to object to. (I might cover those in a separate post.) But it seems to me that Frank appears to overwhelm with details as a way of waving away the majorly flawed reasoning upon which his entire argument stands.
Step 1 of the argument I have relatively little disagreement with. I’m not necessarily sure we can know objective truths with absolute certainty, but I’ll allow it for the sake of argument because such certainty tends to be a red herring.
The problem enters in step 2. We’re supposed to be providing evidence for the existence of a god. But all of Frank’s arguments promote a very specific concept of god – that is, the God of Christianity, complete with all the attributes generally conferred upon him: personal, self-existent, outside of space and time, intelligent, the source of absolute morality, and so on.
Steps 3 and 4 are built on the premise that step 2 has shown that God exists. The problem is simple: He’s just attempted to define God into existence. We’re given absolutely no justification to think that, if a god exists, it has the aforementioned attributes. They’re just taken as a given. Essentially, Frank has said:
Suppose there is a god with attributes A, B, C, … X, Y, and Z. We have holes in our explanations of the universe which can be explained by a being with these attributes. Therefore, the best explanation is, in fact, this god. Thus, this god exists.
But this gets us nowhere. A being which does not exist cannot have any attributes. For us to know that these attributes apply to an actual existing deity, we first have to know the deity exists. Frank claims that this is not an argument from ignorance, a charge he refutes with a lot of hand-waving about how the complexity of life and the universe requires such a being – which really just boils down to “we don’t know, therefore I know.”
So from where does Frank derive the idea that an existing God would have these attributes? Why… from the Bible, of course. The talk is given with the assumption that most of the audience will be Christian, so that they’ll share a god-concept. That way, when Dr. Turek flat-out asserts that the deity would have a specific set of attributes, most people will overlook that it is an assertion.
But wait a minute… for the Bible to be true and thus useful as a source of information about who and what God is, miracles need to be possible. And for miracles to be possible, God has to exist. So steps two through four are entirely circular.
Dr. Turek’s initial discussion argues for God on the basis that we know what God’s attributes are. He talks about how the universe shows the signs of an intelligent, personal creator existing outside of space and time. But the only way that these are arguments for a god is if we know that these are the attributes an existing god would have. We have no such knowledge apart from the claimed revelation of the Bible. But Frank argues that the Bible is true based on the assumption that this specific God exists!
It’s a bit like coming home to find your house burning down, then insisting it must’ve been caused by a dragon because the definition of ‘dragon’ you use implies ‘a giant lizard that sets houses on fire.’ Sure, it’s a clever fit for the problem. But why should we believe dragons exist in the first place? And if we don’t even know that, how can we claim to know that they set houses on fire? You’re still rooted back at square one: proving that dragons exist at all. And you can’t do that by inventing a definition and claiming that the definition proves you right.
So, ultimately, that’s where Frank Turek’s arguments fall apart. They not only assume the existence of the generic sort of thing he wants to prove; they assume that his specific version of that thing is the kind that must exist, and therefore he can use it as a basis for further discussion. Sorry, Frank… you’re a nice enough guy, and you’re definitely sincere, but I just don’t have enough faith to accept such bald assertions.