Debate | I’ve proven God to myself?

Jubilee Nunnallee 7/2/2018

Vision of St Augustine

“Faith is to believe what you do not yet see; the reward for this faith is to see what you believe.” – St. Augustine

Debate | I’ve proven God to myself?

I recently got into a dispute at my college with a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) about the existence of God. This was surprising for me; I stopped engaging with theist long ago. After nearly a decade I find myself weary of their arguments which are almost always littered with fallacies and duplicitous rhetoric. So I don’t know what tempted me this time, but I suppose as a strong-Atheist I couldn’t help myself. And so I asked one of them, “show me your proof of God“. Her response was initially to shift the burden of proof. I called her out on this because the one making the positive assertion is required to provide evidence and demonstrate it to be true. You may have heard of the old philosophical adage, “you can’t disprove a negative.” But the conversation quickly turned dull as I kept persistently asking her to provide physical evidence for her God. But I always got this nonsensical reply, “I don’t need to prove God exists, I’ve proven it to myself.” This honestly stumped me. How to respond, I thought?! Firstly, I pointed out that that is not a factual proof but an ad hoc hypothesis to avoid contradiction. Then I quoted a passage from the Bible (1 Peter 3:15). But this woman simply repeated, ad-nauseum, that she did not have to prove her belief in God for it to be true.

I left feeling frustrated and somewhat confused. I felt this person wasn’t trying to have an honest discussion but was rather trying to shut down the conversation and avoid contradiction. I spent the next few days trying to stay productive but something kept bugging me about that conversation so I decided to do a bit of research into how I could have responded. I started looking at propositional attitudes and beliefs. States of belief have no intentionality: meaning minds do not represent things in reality. This is the fallacy famously used in the ontological argument from St. Anselm which I plan to cover in the near future. But her claim that she has “justified it to herself” is simply a reflexive way thinking as if to say the object and subject affect the other. Let’s look at an example next to the JW original statement. 

(Ex: 1) Janet stares at a painting and felt worrisome, she began to ponder life. 

(JW) I don’t have to prove God exists, I’ve proven it to myself!

Such reflexive arguments reflect back on the agent but have no ontological relationship with reality. I’ve been searching around and have not found much, if any, articles that cover this. I have heard of these reflexive tactics before while listening to protestant theologians debate the concept of sola fide – as justification for salvation received by faith alone. But lets not digress, this is an argument between theologians. I just thought it relevant because we all know the common response for Christians when their beliefs are challenged is to say they simply require faith. But faith is belief without evidence nor justification. Saying that she simply justified it to herself was a sad attempt at a thought terminating cliche – a cheap rhetorical tactic meant to stop an argument from proceeding forward rather than defend it. I wish she would have given me some valid explanation because at least we could have ingressed into such topics without obfuscating the issue. Knowing that beliefs do not determine the truth of ontological propositions this is how I should have responded.

(JW) I don’t have to prove God exists, I’ve proven it to myself!

(Me) Let’s avoid arguments from personal incredulity. I asked if you could provide proof not whether you’ve justified it to yourself. 

I was never at any point trying to convince her of atheism nor agnosticism. Her beliefs may have been dogmatic as it was clear from her usage of reflexive argumentation to avoid contradiction. It is a state of belief as Quine would put it, “Hold come what may.” Still I could not help but feel that this impasse soured the purpose of our exchange that was meant as an opportunity to critically analyze her pre-suppositions. It is a relief for me that I could address them here. No person or idea should be above criticism nor critique. Every person should be obliged to sip from the cup of reason even if it must be held to their lips.

Edit: The woman I spoke with from the JW group was suffering from cancer. We all wish her the best in her recovery and self-care. Personally, I hope she accepts her mortality and spends what precious time she has left with family and friends, instead of wasting it proselytizing these false dogmatic beliefs.

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