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God, Obviousness, and Persuasiveness

posted Jun 12, 2012, 10:25 AM by Anthony Severin   [ updated Jun 12, 2012, 10:29 AM ]
One of the message boards that I routinely visit had an interesting post this morning. The argument (made by an atheist) went as follows: first, God is not obvious. The poster went along the usual things that Christian apologists point to for evidence: our existence, love/beauty in the world, and miracles, dismissing each point in turn. This poster then argued that if God existed, He should be so obvious no rational person could deny His existence. Finally, he argued that if indeed God exists and underpins our very existence, is involved in the world and actually talks to people, God should be obvious.

The poster's argument, in a more simple format:

1. God is not obvious
2. If God exists, He would necessarily be obvious
3. Therefore, He does not exist because He is not obvious.

There had already been another poster who made an argument in favor of God being obvious. He was summarily destroyed in the ensuing debate. I knew that, in this case, I couldn't persuade them that God was obvious. The opposition was too well prepared. Thus, I focused on the second premise. Something rubbed me the wrong way about it, but I couldn't figure out what it was. (This might be a good time to mention that that feeling is almost always correct, whatever the case may be.) The phrase "hidden in plain sight" slowly came to mind. I ultimately replied with the following:

You imply that "obvious" means we cannot miss it and no rational person can deny it's existence. However, simply because something is obvious does not mean that we recognize it as what it is. In the same way, God (to the Christian) is obvious. To the atheist, He is not. For thousands of years, humans knew of the existence of gravity, but could not explain it. The effects were obvious, but the source was beyond comprehension. I see no reason that a similar circumstance could not apply to God.

I later clarified:

Perhaps a better restatement would be "it's not necessary that God be obvious. He could also be 'hidden in plain sight.'"

By no means do I believe my argument is perfect, but I do think it is significantly more defensible than most other responses. I think this has a few applications. First, when you know you can't argue something head-on, take the tack that your opponent least expects. In this instance, the poster knew that Christians tend to harp on the fact that God is obvious. The Bible is filled with verses relating to God's presence in the world. It was unlikely that anyone would contest his second premise. Thus, he and the other atheists on the board focused on the first premise in the ensuing discussion. In academic debate, similar tactics can be extremely valuable. Running "wacky arguments" particularly when one is pressed and at a disadvantage in terms of experience, can be both educational and give you an upper hand. The second application is more generally to rhetoric. When trying to persuade a hostile audience, notice what they seem to like to talk about and, more importantly, what they don't talk about. In this case, though perhaps not consciously, the poster was really baiting a rhetorical trap; he wanted an apologist to present one or more arguments for God's existence, and then attempt to use that to prove God is obvious. However, this is begging the question in the first place: one must prove God's existence before proving He is obvious, and one can't prove God's existence without proving He is obvious. Thus, in any situation with a potentially hostile audience, awareness is key.

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