As part of an event being run on campus by the Freethought Association, the other day I found myself involved in an argument over the existence of God. That wasn’t anything unexpected given the circumstances. However, what was unexpected was how utterly I forgot one of the most basic ‘laws’ of such discussions: there is no shortage of people willing to bring out the most worn-out and thoroughly overthrown arguments as though no one had ever heard them before. I don’t merely say this as an atheist making fun of certain arguments for the existence of God that ought to have been laid to rest centuries ago (although that is what I’m doing here): I’ll admit that some of my fellow atheists are also willing to make silly arguments which ‘the other side’ have in fact answered more than adequately. –Personally, I think it all goes a long way to supporting a claim made by Thucydides millennia ago: despite the passage of time, people are people and so they inevitably do the same basic things that they’ve always done. The great historian’s claim is that history inevitably repeats itself (and therefore that, not unrelatedly, there is use for us historians).–
Here’s what happened. We were sitting in two groups facing each other: atheists on one side and theists on the other. The people on the theist side were, I think, all Catholic with the exception of this one fellow. When he said that he could prove to us that there was a God, no one on either side knew what he was going to say next. I’ll skip past the details of what he did first, which was to attack our club’s name. He next held up three objects, an orange peel, a plum pit, and some other thing from the produce aisle which I’ve since forgotten: he said that he would use these simple objects to make his point. I was actually excited to hear what he was going to say next: I had no idea where his train of thought was going, as though I had forgotten everything I’ve ever learnt over these past few years of getting into such arguments. I thought I was really going to hear something new, something interesting. Do you see already where he was going though? These were not his exact words, but they’ll have to do: “Behold the peach, so finely designed for an animal to eat its fruit to free its seed. Behold the orange leaves, which know to arrange themselves so as not to block sunlight from the orange. Design implies a Designer, etc.” This was simply a rather dated version of the argument from design, one that predates the modern evolutionary theory by which it is well answered. There were audible groans from the atheist side of the room, and I saw people on the theist side looking deeply annoyed as well: I don’t think anyone was impressed. As for myself, I felt rather let down at first, and then irritated that I’d been so naïve as to have expected that he really was going to present something which no one had ever heard before. At the very least I should have seen it coming once he pulled out the produce.
Don’t misunderstand: my complaint isn’t simply that his argument was old. Many such arguments lose none of their force as time passes. My complaint is simply that this wasn’t one of them. It is the year A.D. 2012: presenting an argument which lost any power which it might ever have had by the 19th century doesn’t make for a very interesting discussion. But what can be done? Obviously not everyone knows that these arguments really are so obsolete. I suppose that those of us who are so inclined can keep trying to
get it through their thick skulls help them to understand. It doesn’t always work, but the fact that we’ve seen it work sometimes (i.e.: there really are people who listen) shows that it isn’t necessarily a useless struggle. I remain doubtfully optimistic, picturing Sisyphus watching his boulder roll down the hill yet again and wondering if maybe, just maybe, it’ll stay there at the top next time.