As I said last time, many times when people give reasons for their beliefs, they express only part of what they believe. In order to build an argument, the conclusion must follow from the premises, but many times, one of the premises is only implied, not specifically stated. Let's look again a couple of objections we normally hear from non-believers: "I see an abundance of evil in the world. So, God does not exist."
Here we have a premise ("I see an abundance of evil in the world") and a conclusion ("God does not exist"), but how did the person get from the premise to the conclusion? Christians are aware of the evil that exists in the world just as much as anyone else, but they believe in God's existence. So, there must be a something that's implied in the statement, but not said. Now, we don't really know what that second premise is, but we may be able to take a guess. It seems that by using the word "abundance," the speaker is trying to say something about the amount of evil in the world. Maybe he or she thinks there is too much evil. So, I can make an initial assumption that the person is trying to argue this way:
- If God exists, He would not allow an abundance of evil in the world. (Hidden Premise)
- There is an abundance of evil in the world.
- Therefore, God does not exist.
Now, you can begin to focus on the problem with the argument. It isn't at all clear that premise #1,the hidden premise, is true. How do we know that God does not allow a certain amount of evil for a short time in order to achieve other ends? How do we know what "an abundance" means? How do we know that the world wouldn't be even worse than it is now except for the restraining hand of God (think the alternate 1985 of Back to the Future II)?
Here's another "I don't believe in God. How can you believe in an all-loving God that would send people to hell?" This one is a bit trickier, since it's a single sentence, but you can at least identify that the questioner is juxtaposing God's love with His sending people to eternal punishment. So we build the argument by rephrasing the question as different statement:
- You believe in an all-loving God.
- You believe God sends people to hell.
- If an all-loving God exists, He wouldn't send people to hell. (hidden premise)
- Therefore, the God you believe in does not exist.(implied conclusion)
By trying to identify hidden premises and the underlying arguments your challenger is making, you can hone your discussion to a more fruitful area. The key here is to keep asking questions until you understand all parts of the actual objection. Then you can begin to argue more effectively.