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What Did the Friendly Atheist Really Mean?

April 29, 2015

Last week I got involved in another frustrating Twitter debate with a non-believer. But please don’t stop reading yet; this was slightly different: instead of them asking me too many stupid questions for me to reply, it was them that didn’t reply to the one question I had asked.

It started with a post1 by the Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, where I found a statement that baffled me, so I quoted it on his Twitter feed:

tweet 1

Hemant himself never replied, but somebody else did:

tweet 2

I still didn’t get it: all Bible-believing Christians reconcile those two things. So what was he getting at? Why can’t you believe in both? Is there some explanation of miracles or the laws of nature that I’m not aware of?

If that is the case, I never found out. When I pointed out that whereas the laws of nature dictate how things normally operate, God can overrule them, they called this “nonsensical”, and that was as far as they got:

tweet 3

So instead of answering my question as to why it’s logically impossible to believe in both (which is what I took Hemant Mehta’s original statement to mean), they just state that believing in God is nonsense. That, in itself, is worth a debate or two, but that wasn’t what I was asking about.

Somehow my opponent never got beyond the standard atheist line of reasoning: since God doesn’t exist, believing in miracles is nonsensical. That doesn’t address my question at all. The fact is, millions of us happily accept both miracles and the laws of nature, and just saying that there is no God doesn’t really cut it when it comes to persuading me that we’re wrong! Plus, in my book, not answering the actual question is just bad debate manners.

This morning, a member of my church pointed out that miracles actually presuppose the existence of regular laws of nature: if there were no laws of physics dictating how things normally act, nothing is miraculous. Miracles are by definition violations of the natural order of things: God intervening to make something happen that would not have happened if the laws of physics had been allowed to operate as usual. If people 2000 years ago hadn’t known that babies happen only through sexual intercourse, the virgin birth wouldn’t have been seen as miraculous. If people back then hadn’t known as well as we do that dead men don’t talk, the resurrection wouldn’t have been particularly miraculous. It’s precisely because they contravened the well-known laws of nature that they were proclaimed as miracles!

So I guess I’m going to have to ask Hemant Mehta himself what he actually meant – which is what this blog post is all about. What did you actually mean, Hemant? Did you really just mean that miracles are impossible and therefore believing in miracles negates believing in the laws of physics? I hope not… because that is patently untrue.

UPDATE: I posted a link to this on Hemant’s Twitter feed; he replied within an hour or so. If I get any further clarification, I’ll post it here!

UPDATE 2: No, it still seems to boil down to “there is no God, so you can’t believe in miracles”. Sorry; I had hoped for something a bit more sophisticated than that.

Notes:

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From → Christianity, Faith, Jesus

5 Comments
  1. jlb permalink

    Well that’s a completely inaccurate representation of the conversation.

    But hey – whatever straw man you need to make yourself feel better about your position…

    • I’m sorry you feel I misrepresented the debate; it’s all on my Twitter feed for anyone to check. I don’t think my version is inaccurate, even though it’s a summary, and I maintain that my original question was never answered.

      • jlb permalink

        “dis·in·gen·u·ous
        ˌdisənˈjenyo͞oəs/
        adjective
        not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does.”

  2. I think the issue is that the laws of physics don’t allow for exceptions. If someone says they have a perpetual motion machine we can automatically know they’re wrong because it would violate the law of conservation of energy. If a Christian believes in a version of Newton’s laws that can be suspended by God, then they’re operating on a different set of laws than what science has produced. If that’s so then Hemant is correct.

  3. At last, someone who is actually addressing my question! If that were true, Hemant would be right: you couldn’t believe in both miracles and laws of physics. But that’s not how it works. I don’t believe in a different version of Newton’s laws; I don’t believe there are exceptions to the natural workings of the laws of nature; I just believe in a God that can overrule those laws.

    If you drop a marble, it will fall to the ground – unless somebody shoves a hand in to catch it. That doesn’t mean that somebody has a different version of the law of gravity! Flicking the switch will turn the light on – unless somebody has removed the bulb…

    In the same way, the laws of physics don’t allow for exceptions – but AFAIK there’s nothing in science to stop them from being susceptible to interference. Miracles are just God interfering on a larger scale and in ways that we can’t replicate. And as far as I can see, the only argument against that happening is that there is no God – an argument which I obviously refute!

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