by Cliff Walker
(revised October 2, 2000)
It is important to remember that philosophical dialogues with most theists are an exercise in futility. The main exception is if you have an audience and you wish for that audience to learn something. The experience can also help you sharpen your own skills at thinking about and discussing these matters.
A good test of theists, to see if they are serious about following truth wherever it may lead, is to suggest that they renounce theism if they cannot make their case with you. This is risky in that it works both ways: you become willing to convert if they do make their case with you. Some theists are masters at the art of debating, and know more about controlling a discussion than they do about discerning truth from falsehood. Others are highly skilled, very shrewd salespeople. Rev. Billy Graham was once the Fuller Brush Company's most proficient mover of product, and went on to use these skills to sell Christianity.
Nevertheless, there are times when we find ourselves cornered by an evangelical type (accused of not being openminded or whatever). Here are the basic game-rules in such discussions.
The atheist makes no claims about gods, but simply observes what is observable and detects what is detectable. It is the theist who makes an existential claim (a claim that the thing described, a god, actually exists). The atheist makes no such claim, but maintains the default position: "I don't see any gods" (or, "I don't detect any gods"; or, "I don't conceive that gods exist"). "One cannot prove a negative, nor is that demanded in [the theistic] system of logic. Since negative is not susceptible to proof, the person posting the positive assertion has the burden of maintaining the assertion."  For this reason, it is the theist -- not the atheist -- who is responsible for backing up her or his claim. Though many atheists are able to provide very strong arguments for the nonexistence of a deity, it is not the atheist's job to make any case whatsoever. The reason for this is simple: Nobody can prove that a thing does not exist unless it cannot possibly exist (such as a square circle).
It is reasonable policy to doubt claims that are extraordinary, and to insist on strong evidence. An extraordinary claim would require that the listener give up some common-sense understanding of reality in order to believe the claim. A claim that President Bill Clinton cheated on his wife would require us to change no common-sense understanding of reality; Clinton is known to have done this before. This does not mean we should simply take this claim at face value the first time we hear it.
However, to believe that Pope John Paul II cheated on his wife would require that we change our current understanding of Roman Catholic policy forbidding popes to marry. Such a claim would require a more thorough explanation and justification than the same claim about President Clinton.
Although truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, this does not mean we should believe something simply because it is unlikely. Some Christian leaders, however, have used this very line of reasoning to justify faith. Douglas E. Krueger says, "In the second century C.E., the Christian Tertullian, in his De Carne Christi (On Christ's Flesh), said of Christianity that 'it is certain because it is impossible.' He was suggesting that Christianity is to be believed because it is so absurd. No one could make up a lie this crazy. Another Christian, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), famous for his wager, implied that some people may have to take steps to dull their reasoning faculties in order to become Christians. Martin Luther said that reason should be destroyed in all Christians." 
Any claim for the existence of the supernatural would, if true, overthrow much of what we know about nature. Claims for the existence of things invisible and undetectable, if proven, would invalidate our trust in our senses and our scientific instruments. This is why we call such claims extraordinary.
The discovery of a new species of slugs would not challenge what we know, and would, in fact, be something most of us would expect. We still need to work to verify this claim, though. If it were claimed that this species of slugs wrote words with its slime trails, this claim would invite much scrutiny, but would not be beyond physical possibility. However, if it were claimed that the slug moves from here to there instantly, with no detectable means of transportation, we would rightly doubt this claim right off the bat because it seems to contradict what we know to be physically possible. Even if the claim was somehow true, the one making the claim has some work to do in convincing the rest of us that it is true.
The most reasonable approach is to demand proofs for any claim and to demand extraordinary proofs for extraordinary claims. What we presently know and can verify about nature is the result of centuries of hard work, diligent thought, and tedious experiment. All scientific work is published so it can be examined and cross-examined by other scientists. When new evidence demonstrates that we have been mistaken about something, science abandons the old idea without remorse.
Since atheism makes no claims and theism tends to make extraordinary claims, claims that contradict the known limits of nature, the reasonable presumption is atheism -- until theism backs up its extraordinary claims with lots of solid evidence. 
Claims of the miraculous abound, even in our day. The notion of a supernatural deity almost always involves reports of miracles. Of course. As the theory goes, the only way a supernatural entity can make itself known to natural entities is by violating the known laws of nature.
When we encounter such stories, we must first determine if the alleged event actually took place. Mere testimony is not enough to establish its occurrence -- especially since alleged miracles contradict our everyday experience. Hume said, "a weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger,"  demonstrating that testimony can never override our direct experience. In any event, testimony can never be considered extraordinary evidence.
Hume further states "that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish."  Montaigne is much more colorful: "It is far more probable that our senses should deceive us, than that an old woman should be carried up a chimney on a broom stick; and that it is far less astonishing that witnesses should lie, than that witches should perform the acts that were alleged." 
Next, we do well to see if the event could have been staged by a huckster through trickery. In the August 16, 1999, issue of Parade Magazine, an article titled "Acupuncture Goes Mainstream" described how a woman underwent open heart surgery, fully conscious, without the aid of anesthetics or any intravenous needles. She relied solely on a single acupuncture needle. Registered nurse Kevin Courcey explained that with a hole in the chest cavity, the lungs collapse and it is impossible to breathe -- "hence the medical necessity for a heart-lung machine during the procedure." 
James Randi, world-famous illusionist and conjurer, says that the people most qualified to detect slight-of-hand chicanery are magicians like himself. Randi can bend spoons like Uri Geller (though Geller is admittedly more artful in his performance) and can make any statue weep or shed blood. The difference is that Randy, like any candid stage magician, admits to his audience that the performance is a trick; Geller and the others claim it is a miracle of the supernatural. Randi has retired from stage, and spends his days exposing various "supernatural" feats as hoaxes -- particularly when the perpetrators prey on the sickly and the gullible. So-called faith healers are Randi's prime target. 
Finally, we must remain open to other, more likely explanations for the event. "Most of us find it more comforting to have certainty, even if it is premature, than to live with unsolved or unexplained mysteries."  Many people grasp at the first explanation that comes along -- the first explanation that seems to authenticate their brand of theism. Sometimes we hear theists tell us, "You cannot explain it, so therefore it must be the work of the Lord."
Joseph Lewis said: "If Atheism writes upon the blackboard of the Universe a question mark, it writes it for the purpose of stating that there is a question yet to be answered. Is it not better to place a question mark upon a problem while seeking an answer than to put the label 'God' there and consider the matter solved?" 
Francis Crick, who helped identify the structure of the DNA molecule, further elaborates: "A belief, at the time it was formulated, may not only have appealed to the imagination but also fit well with all that was then known. It can nevertheless be made to appear ridiculous because of facts uncovered later by science. What could be more foolish than to base one's entire view of life on ideas that, however plausible at that time, now appear to be quite erroneous? And what would be more important than to find our true place in the universe by removing one by one these unfortunate vestiges of earlier beliefs? Yet it is clear that some mysteries have still to be explained scientifically. While these remain unexplained, they can serve as an easy refuge for religious superstition. It seemed to me of the first importance to identify these unexplained areas of knowledge and to work toward their scientific understanding whether such explanations would turn out to confirm existing beliefs or to refute them." 
Just because something is unexplained, does not mean it is unexplainable. An unexplained event does not prove that the laws of the universe have been overridden, because we do not yet know all the laws of the universe. Even if we could demonstrate that unknown forces were at work, we still have not shown that a particular god exists. (This would be quite a trick: to detect "unknown forces" and for those forces to remain unknown!)
It is a common ruse among the apologists for theism to declare that our failure to explain a particular event proves the existence of their particular god. Patrick Glynn does this again and again in his 1997 book God: The Evidence. However, the apologist must be able to rule out all other possibilities before jumping to this conclusion.
Douglas Krueger puts it this way: "Suppose that a believer in clever space aliens witnessed a supposed miracle and asserted that this is evidence that such beings exist. Would the theist allow that the conclusion follows? Of course not. Then neither can anyone allow that the conclusion that a god exists follows from a supposed miracle. Each must eliminate rival theories as impossible or unlikely before establishing their preferred conclusion. Almost any other proposed explanation for a seeming miracle would be more likely to be true than theism because the other claims would not assert the existence of a supreme being, a situation which would place the theistic proposal at a great disadvantage." 
In any discussion of a god-claim, it is crucial to demand a description of the god in question. Many atheists think there would be more atheists if theists would critically examine their articles of faith. Nevertheless, there are important philosophical reasons to insist on a description of the god in question.
Let us examine the following dialogue, taken from George H. Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God: 
Mr. Jones: "An unie exists."
Mr. White: "Prove it."
Mr. Jones: "It has rained for three consecutive days -- that is my proof."
Smith argues that Mr. White was premature in demanding proof without first discussing the definition for the word unie. Otherwise, the word is a series of meaningless sounds -- mumbo jumbo -- as are the claim and the given proof. This same principle holds for the word God. "His first response should be, 'What is it for which you are claiming existence?' The theist must present an intelligible description of god. Until he does so, god makes no more sense than unie; both are cognitively empty, and any attempt at proof is logically absurd." 
This holds true even if the theists asks us to believe solely on faith, without evidence. William T. Blackstone said, "Until the content of a belief is made clear, the appeal to accept the belief on faith is beside the point, for one would not know what one has accepted."  Some theists will respond by saying that their god is "ineffable" (not describable; defying description). If this is the case, then an atheist cannot refute the claim because the claim cannot be stated.
Theodore Drange says that in cases like this we best call ourselves noncognitivists rather than atheists.  Some are flat-out noncognitivists: A. J. Ayer went so far as to say that "no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance."  Annie Besant wrote, "Never yet has a God been defined in terms which were not palpably self-contradictory and absurd; never yet has a God been described so that a concept of Him was made possible to human thought."  Such philosophers say that theism, atheism, and agnosticism "are equally untenable doctrines because they all rest on a highly problematic assumption about the meaning of the sentence 'God exists.'" 
Drange responds to flat-out noncognitivism by recommending that people "divide god-talk into two categories, the cognitive and the noncognitive (or sentences containing the term 'God" which can be used in arguments, as opposed to those which cannot be used in arguments)."  Michael Martin suggests that primitive ideas of anthropomorphic deities (gods described as having human features or character traits) can be understood by most people, while "religious language is unverifiable and hence factually meaningless when it is used in a sophisticated and nonanthropomorphic way." 
Drange's conclusion is very useful in deciding whether religious language is cognitive: "Statements cannot be noncognitive if, for example, they are about situations that can be described in stories or depicted on film. And many biblical stories about God have indeed been depicted on film. For example, in the movie The Ten Commandments God is portrayed as a mighty being who knows what is happening everywhere, who speaks to people in a deep male voice, and who brings about spectacular miracles, apparently through some process akin to telekinesis." 
Any philosophy that is based on faith is vulnerable to criticism. The New Testament's main responses to this problem are solidification and isolation.  Solidification is best accomplished with isolation. Most groups don't enjoy the luxury of living together in a compound, so techniques are used to isolate members emotionally, psychologically, and especially intellectually.
Believers, particularly fundamentalists, become so determined in their faith (solidified) that no opposing evidence cracks the shell of their resolve. They do not care about evidence that shows the New Testament to be fiction and fraud. They will not see that the Bible is a powerful indoctrinating tool wielded by a dominant and dominating organization. "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!" Having instilled this outlook, reasoning is no longer of any use.
Anyone who questions or criticizes the dogma is an enemy; therefore, any discussion with an unbeliever spells danger. "And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words."  Avoid "profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called."  "Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned." 
A person who criticizes Christianity is de facto cunning and deceitful, intent only upon leading astray the helpless lambs of God. "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves."  "For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect."  (If it were possible!) Solidification and isolation makes this a tall order. "If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain." 
Testing and discernment are unnecessary, because the alleged truth of Christianity is somehow shown to believers: "the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit -- just as it has taught you, remain in him."  To put God to the test (even to test whether he exists) is strictly verboten. "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"  "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? 'Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, "Why did you make me like this?"'" 
The ultimate isolator is the Bible's claim that true believers possess a secret and unseen truth that is incomprehensible to (and deliberately hidden from) all outsiders -- particularly scholars, intellectuals, and thinkers. "But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification."  The anti-intellectual sentiments of the Bible are astonishing: "Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe."  "God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise."  "Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written,... 'The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless.'"  And let us not omit that favorite passage of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia:  "We are fools for Christ's sake." 
"Contradictory data is portrayed as a test of the believer's faith. The more out-of-tune with reality Christianity becomes, the greater the test and the ultimate reward."  Tertullian admits the following in this, his most famous quote: "The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed just because men feel ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible."  Martin Luther had this to say: "Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and ... know nothing but the word of God." 
Equipped with its "secret wisdom" and its utter contempt for humankind's carefully wrought processes for determining truth from falsehood, believers are urged to spread this despicable philosophy. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations."  Of course, spreading a "godly" dogma such as this is guaranteed to invite opposition. The Bible writers knew this and prepared its followers accordingly: "In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." 
However, whenever this sect does gain control, it is more than happy to use means other than reasoned persuasion. "Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled."  The slogan "Compel them to come in" was used for many centuries to justify State-mandated church membership. Eventually, the church obeyed Jesus' statement that "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned."  This passage was the "proof-text" to justify burning us heretics at the stake. And these disciples felt it better to burn us slowly (upwind of the flames, and such) in order to give us that much more time to see that the Christian religion is, in fact, full of truth and justice.