A Refutation of the “Trickster God” Argument

Posted: August 9, 2014 in Apologetic Articles
Tags: , , ,

loki

Atheists sometimes offer the ‘trickster god” argument:

“Oh, you believe the Bible is God’s word, eh?  What if God is a trickster and revealed to you a bunch of lies?  You wouldn’t be able to know anything at all about Him then.  How do you know God isn’t a trickster and isn’t just lying to you about everything?”

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My response, in popular presuppositionalist jargon:  those using the trickster god argument are trying to critique the Christian worldview from outside the Christian worldview, and as such, their argument will always be formally invalid and arbitrary (or, in its strongest form, it requires impossible exegesis).

To show this, I’ve taken the liberty of re-stating the “Trickster God” argument so we can clearly see how it’s *formally* invalid.  That is:  the form of the argument itself, is wrong.  It’s structured so that the conclusion does not follow from the premises (a non-sequitur).

1.  If Christianity is true, God is not a trickster.

2.  Assume Christianity is false.

3.  From 2, then God might be a trickster after all.

4.  If God might be a trickster, then we can’t know anything about Him.

Conclusion:  We can’t know anything about God

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If premise 2 is arbitrarily assumed then the entire argument is formally invalid.  Just because an atheist has arbitrarily assumed Christianity is false, doesn’t mean the conclusion necessarily follows.  The conclusion of this argument would *only* follow from the supplied premises if premise 2 is changed from an arbitrary assumption to a statement of fact.  If this change is allowed, then the argument is no longer fallacious.  So we would have the following:

1.  If Christianity is true, God is not a trickster.

2.  Christianity is false.

3.  From 2, then God might be a trickster after all.

4.  If God might be a trickster, then we can’t know anything about Him.

Conclusion:  We can’t know anything about God.

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There are a few problems with this new formulation however.

First, if premise 2 can be proven, then the entire “Trickster God” argument becomes superfluous.  The argument is being used as a way to show an epistemological weakness in the Christian position.  But if the atheist can prove the truth of premise 2 at the outset (namely:  Prove that Christianity is false to begin with), then why use the Trickster God argument at all?  Whatever argument used to prove the truth of premise 2 would, itself, be all that’s necessary for refuting the Christian.

Second – proving the truth of premise 2 requires the atheist to step outside accepted atheistic comfort zones and make positive claims about the non-existence of God.  So any atheist willing to try a “trickster god” argument must give up so-called “weak atheism” and / or “agnosticism”.  Once they abandon these “safe” positions, they’re faced with the monumental task of trying to disprove Christianity.

Third – if the atheist is unwilling to prove premise 2 is true they’ll have to revert to the first formulation of the argument and arbitrarily assume Christianity is false.  But, as we’ve seen, that makes the entire argument formally invalid.  If this is what the atheist is trying to do then the entire ‘trickster god’ argument turns out to be nothing more than an arbitrary assertion that Christianity is false…and that’s not interesting.

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So as usually formulated, the trickster god argument reduces to a simplistic assertion that Christianity is false (and thus, isn’t worth our time).

Smarter atheists see that this sort of critique requires them to “step inside” the Christian worldview.  They’ll try to re-formulate the trickster god argument in such a way that it relies on Christian assumptions and yet still proves that God is able to lie.  So we get something like the following:

1. If Christianity were true, then God is a trickster.

2.  If God is a trickster, then we can’t know anything about Him.

Conclusion:  If Christianity is true, we can’t know anything about God.

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Be careful here because while it may not seem like it at first, the atheist is actually smuggling in another arbitrary negation premise.  Consider:

1.  If Karl Barth or Schleiermacher’s view of Christianity were true, then God is a trickster.

2.  If God is a trickster, then we can’t know anything about Him.

Conclusion: If Barth or Schleiermacher’s view of Christianity is true, no one can know anything about God.

But, we clearly see now that premise 1 is a disguised negation of all of those forms of conservative Evangelicalism which teach that God cannot be a trickster.  So the person trying to re-formulate the trickster god argument has, again, smuggled in an arbitrary negation premise (in this case: a negation of conservative Evangelicalism), making the entire argument formally invalid.  The argument he’s making really looks like this:

1.  If Conservative Evangelical Christianity were true, then God is not a trickster.

2.  Assume Conservative Evangelical Christianity is false.

3.  From 2, then God might be a trickster.

4.  If God might be a trickster, then we can’t know anything about Him.

Conclusion:  We can’t know anything about God.

Thus, he’s right back to where he started – a formally invalid argument.

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There seems to be one move left that might save the trickster god proponent.  He might try accepting our view (ie: stepping into our worldview to critique our worldview), by trying to demonstrate that Conservative Evangelical Christianity implies that God either is, or might be, a trickster.

The argument usually looks something like this (and for this argument, when the word “Christian” is used, it entails Conservative, Evangelical Christianity):

1. If Christianity were true, then the Bible is divinely authoritative.

2.  The Bible teaches that God repeatedly deceives His creation (in epistemically-relevant ways)

3.  If God deceives (ie: if He is a trickster), then we can’t know anything about Him.

Conclusion:  If Christianity were true, then we couldn’t know anything about God.

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With this formulation, the tricker god proponent has successfully “stepped into” the Christian worldview, and is trying to critique us on our own terms.

Christians are going to immediately attack premise 2 and it’s at this point the unbeliever is at a severe disadvantage.  You see, for hundreds, (if not two thousand) years, Christian scholars have been slaving away in monasteries, seminaries, Bible colleges, and in Sunday night Bible studies, just working on understanding and interpreting verses of this sort.

The person offering the trickster god argument has taken a naive and malicious understanding of Scripture so he can use it in the worst possible light to browbeat Christians.  But Christians, after a quick and easy Google search, have immediate access to hundreds of articles scrutinizing all the relevant passages (that talk about God sending lying spirits and the like), and harmonizing them with other verses in Scripture (like the ones that teach God cannot lie).

While I have serious disagreements with John Piper, I keep his article “Does God Lie?” on hand for easy access.  Piper goes through the relevant passages and argues for the traditional Christian interpretation of them.  Piper’s article is just one of many.

In short, the person using the trickster god argument has to prove that his malicious (and naive) interpretation of the relevant passages, is more authoritative than the conclusions of 2000 years worth of Christian scholars.

Good luck with that …

Additionally – while God does allow the occasional lying spirit to deceive unfortunate sinners, this lying doesn’t seem to be any different from normal lying, dishonesty, and deception found in every-day life.  That some demons lie doesn’t pose any more of a problem for Christianity than the fact that some people lie.  And if the trickster-god proponent wants to push this argument, he’ll have to provide some criteria by which we can distinguish between truth and deception.  He’ll be hard-pressed to find an account that excludes God’s “lying Spirits”.  On the Christian view, these spirits are simply unable to deceive us in epistemically-relevant ways.  (And while God, being omnipotent, certainly has the power to deceive us in epistemically relevant ways, He’s unwilling to do so.  If He were willing, then the trickster-god proponent would have an argument – but then again, he’d no longer be critiquing the *Christian* worldview).

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To conclude…

The so-called ‘trickster god’ argument either reduces to a mere statement that Christianity is false, or, at best, it can be formulated in such a way that the person using the argument is stuck having to try to prove the Bible teaches that God can lie to His people in epistemologically relevant ways (which requires the person to disprove mountains of Christian scholarship in favor of a malicious and naive reading of the text).

In light of all this, I don’t see how the ‘trickster god’ argument is useful or worthwhile at all…

(In addition to what I’ve provided here, also check out Jason Peter’s article over at “Answers for Hope”:  How Do We Know God Isn’t Lying to Us? )

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