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March 4, 2010
Last night I encountered an argument for the existence of god that is very hard to counter without calling someone insane, which I was rather loath to do. It went as follows.

I was told that my “belief” in the lack of god was irrational. I was ignoring the evidence. I was obviously a tad sceptical of this; the evidence of my senses, of rationality and of science don’t point towards god. What was the evidence I was missing? Voices. Whilst not the argument that pushed this particular person to religion, it is how they justify it as a rational view. They belief they hear god and have conversations with him. And not in a metaphorical sense. I cannot claim that god doesn’t exist without dismissing their evidence, which, if it was actual evidence, would make me irrational.

Now, the only reply to this I could think of that would satisfy me was that if this person heard voices but didn’t attribute them to god they would be considered insane. The only reason that it is viewed as acceptable to say (and mean) that you hear god is that religion has been institutionalised to the point where society is willing to turn a blind eye to what would normally be considered a mental health issue. I think it’s pretty clear how I would be viewed if I premised my belief in pixies on the fact that I heard a pixie talking to me, regularly had conversations with it and accepted it’s advice.

In the case of hearing the voice of god, I would obviously have to put this down to the person in question attributing their thoughts to god instead of to themself, which I think is a pity. It’s also important to remember that only good thoughts are attributed to god; if I have a negative thought it’s because I’m a mere human, weak and liable to bad thoughts. Personally, if I have a good thought I like to think it’s my own, not a supernatural deity giving me the benefit of it’s omniscience. It’s yet another argument that takes something away from the wonder of humanity and places it in a higher realm.

I didn’t feel that I could say any of the above, so we moved on. I’m still not comfortable with my potential reply, part of me thinks there must be a more reasonable response.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2010 1:38 PM

    So the argument above is listed at as

    (1) I hear voices in my head.
    (2) The voices say they are God.
    (3) Therefore, God exists.

  2. March 4, 2010 6:37 PM

    I think that to deal with this argument, one need only to refer to Occam’s Razor–the simplest explanation is most likely the truth. When searching for an explanation of the voices that your friend claims to hear, several possible explanations exist:

    Your friend is mentally ill.

    Your friend is a liar who falsely claims to hear voices in an attempt to convince unbelievers of God’s existence.

    Your friend has an extremely active imagination fuelled by years of religious indoctrination.

    Your friend is occasionally under the influence of hallucinagenic drugs.

    And of course…Your friend actually talks to God.

    While we could debate which of the first four explanations are, in fact, the simplest and therefore favored by Occam’s Razor, we can easily conclude that the last option is the LEAST simple because is pre-supposes the existence of a being for which there is no corroborating evidence who is possesive of powers which violate the known laws of physics. The other explanations all have in common the fact that they consist of only currently known and proven phenomena–we know that mental illness exists, we know that people lie, we know that the imagination can be a powerful force and that “brainwashing” can happen, and we know that hallucinagenic drugs are real. Therefore, you can tell your friend that you may not know WHY he or she hears God’s voice, but we can be reasonably certain that it ISN’T because God is actually talking.

  3. March 5, 2010 9:04 AM

    John, thanks for your interesting comment. I haven’t really thought of Occam’s Razor this way before, I always had it as more an argument to choose a specific explanation rather than to discount a specific explanation.

    This argument is certainly a more reasonable alternative, leaving room for me to avoid making specific comments about the other persons mental health, truthfulness and the like. The reason we agree that it works is that we both have a prior commitment to the statement that the existence of god is the least simple explanation, unsupported by corroborating evidence etc. This is fine for you and I, but would it work in a practical argument?

    Having tried a similar argument in different circumstances I’m pretty sure that this presupposition would instantly be discarded by the other party. For them god explains everything and is therefore as “simple” an explanation as they come. For us, a theory that explains everything explains nothing, but the religious mindset seems happy to just let it explain everything. To break down the argument I would need to look at their list of “evidence” (aside from the voice) and talk about the historicity of the bible, argue against their argument from complexity, the list goes forever on.

    I think in the end anyone who uses the argument from voices is basing it on faith as belief coupled with a suspension of the rational mind. The problem is that this contrasts with faith as a position saying “we don’t know either way, therefore I choose to have faith in god”. I find that these two definitions seem to switch in discussion very subtly, and it gives those who have suspended their rational mind a lot of wiggle room.

    I need to think about this some more, thanks again for your contribution.

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