In philosophy, there is a tactic to undermining your opponent’s argument that relies on accepting the premises and the conclusion, and then taking the point and running with it. It’s called argumentum ad absurdum or sometimes reductio ad absurdum. The idea is to show that a person’s position, if taken to its logical conclusion, results in situations or concepts that are absurd or, in some cases, just plain silly.
Here’s an example. In the video below, Christian apologist Sam Shamoun performs this maneuver on Muslim apologist Zakir Naik. Dr. Naik is making the claim that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, is mentioned by name in the Song of Solomon, thus showing that he is a true prophet of God:
Now, clearly, no Muslim would suggest that “Allahu akbar” means “Allah is a mouse”, but that’s precisely the point. If an argument, taken to its logical conclusion, results in absurd or impossible situations, then we must conclude that the argument is false.
This strategy is widely applicable. Mathematicians have concluded that an actually infinite amount of anything is impossible and demonstrate this through theoretical models involving hotels with an infinite of rooms, or an infinite amount of different colored marbles. Theologian and Philosopher Matthew Flannagan used this approach when responding to a fellow professor’s statement that “all consensual, and loving relationships should be valid under the law”. We even see examples of this in the bible, such as when the Sadducees came to Jesus with a dilemma about the resurrection, though Jesus sidesteps their absurd conclusion by showing that their premises are flawed (Matthew 22:23-33).
We can do the same thing with worldviews and faith systems. If the faith system requires a lifestyle that cannot be held or lived out consistently because of the absurdities or impossibilities it creates, we can safely conclude that this faith system is false. Here are a few examples:
In Jainism, one of the cardinal principles is that life – all life – is sacred and must be preserved. This means that committed Jains will go out of their way to avoid stepping on insects, will never swat a fly, and will certainly never harm a fellow human being. While this sort of extreme pacifism sounds great in a world ravaged by war, terrorist attacks, revolutions and riots, it quickly runs into serious problems. If all life is sacred – including plant life – what do you eat? The human body is designed to function on nutrients derived from plant and animal food, but Jainism forbids the necessary actions of killing, cooking and eating those plants and animals in order to sustain your own body. The answer cannot be to simply not eat, since the Jain would soon starve to death and, according to Jainism, the Jain’s life is as sacred as the flies and plants he refuses to kill.
How do they get around this dilemma? They get around it by relying on other people to do their killing and cooking for them. When a Jain is hungry and needs something to eat, he is forbidden from killing and cooking so much as a carrot in order to feed themselves, so instead they will go to their friends and neighbors and ask for leftovers. The rationale is that these leftovers, though once living material, were already killed by someone else before they asked for it so no additional death is being produced. Though it is tragic in the eyes of the Jain that this animal or plant was killed in order to feed someone else, once that plant or animal is dead there nothing that can undo it and the Jain can sustain himself without actually partaking in or contributing to the death.
Clearly, this is playing fast and loose with technicalities. What happens in a community of Jains where no one is cooking any organic material for food and there are no leftovers to be had? Can a religion be true if its adherents rely for survival on the existence of people who do not hold to it? What happens if a generous neighbor starts to cook an extra serving for the Jain who comes by every night for leftovers? That extra serving is something that would otherwise not be killed and cooked if the Jain had not regularly come around asking for scraps. Isn’t the Jain, therefore, responsible for the additional death of plants or animals his neighbor would not have otherwise prepared?
It seems to me to be a reasonable conclusion that a religion which prevents you from eating, unless in the presence of people who do not share your religion, must be false.
This takes a bit more explanation, but critics of Mormonism have dubbed the requirements for exaltation according to Mormon scripture as “The Impossible Gospel”. The problem is this:
All of this leads to the conclusion that, in order for a Mormon to achieve the best his religion has for him, he must stop sinning entirely. God’s grace is not sufficient for him, he cannot be saved, he cannot go where God is unless he does this. The onus then is completely on the Mormon to do, do, do.
However, ask any Mormon if they’re actually keeping all of the commandments and you’ll get answers like “I’m trying” or “I’m still working on that” or “I repent all the time”, not realizing that “trying” implies failure and that the goal is not to repent more, but to stop repenting because there is no longer anything else to repent of. Why? Because the Mormon gospel is impossible to live out. As CS Lewis pointed out, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”
One of the problems with atheism – from a practical standpoint – is that it tends to rob humans of everything they need to live. I’m not talking about the tangible requirements of life, like food, water, and shelter, but rather the deeper and, in some ways, more foundational aspects of human existence. Last time, I looked at James W. Sire’s seven questions that every worldview must ask in order to be complete and atheism’s answers to those questions. The bottom line to each of those is not particularly encouraging. If one could put them all in a single statement, it might look something like this:
This is nihilism, and it is not the result of theists picking away at atheism from the outside. Rather, nihilism is the inevitable result of naturalism. Some quotes to show that I’m not making this up:
Nihilism is not only bloody depressing, but it’s dangerous. Taking it seriously and following it to its conclusion leads us to a place where we cannot know anything. We cannot know right from wrong, we cannot even know if we exist or the world around us exists. Fantasy and reality become indistinguishable since any methodology of determining truth does nothing more than perpetuate the delusion. Most atheists stop following the chain long before this point, content simply to affirm the non-existence of God and revel in their status as the highest form of life, but this is what one philosopher called the Taxi-Cab Fallacy, wherein you take your argument to the point you wish to go, get out, and then send it on its way like a taxi.
In order to survive and find the deep, fundamental things of life that all humans search for (meaning, purpose, dignity, etc.), the atheist must do one of two things. They must either, (A) live in a manner that is inconsistent with their worldview by refusing to go further or giving lip service to nihilism without actually embracing it – Richard Dawkins is great at this – or (B) abandon their atheism for something more promising like theism or existentialism. Again, James W. Sire:
Sire continues, “Most of us never see the far-out ‘cases.’ They are quickly committed. But they exist, and I have met some people whose stories are frightening.”
Nietzsche, too, would later end up in an asylum, a real-life example of the Lovecraftian protagonist who dared to pursue knowledge until he was consumed by madness. It’s a great idea for early twentieth-century cosmic horror, but when it manifests itself in the waking world it is tragic.
In coming posts, I plan to argue that the logical conclusions or teachings of a religion are not, in and of themselves, a reason to reject it and some may claim that I am creating a double standard (Spoiler Alert: Christianity is true even if you don’t like what it teaches about hell or homosexuality), but I don’t think that’s the case. As we can see in the case of atheism, the logical conclusion is one that fundamentally undercuts itself. If our minds are not evolved for truth, but rather for survival, and we cannot really know anything to be true, how then would we know that to be true? The system creates a self-contradictory situation at best or, at worst, leads people to madness and suicide. If reason leads you to reject reason, then you have to know that you’ve made a misstep somewhere. Jainism holds a different problem in that Jains can only survive if there are non-Jains around to feed them. Mormonism requires that you attain sinlessness in order to be forgiven of your sins, which no mere human has ever achieved. These systems do not just lead to uncomfortable conclusions built upon solid foundations, but rather impossibilities.
And for that, they should be thrown out.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.