The Best Defenders and Defenses of Atheism?

Who are the best defenders of atheism? Where can one find the strongest defenses of atheism?

I get asked those questions from time to time, and they’re good questions, so I’m going to offer my own answers (for what they’re worth) in this post.

First, however, a few observations and caveats. For the last couple of decades, Christian apologists have tended to focus on the so-called New Atheists, most notably the “Four Horsemen” of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. There’s good sense in that. Among proponents of atheism, those writers receive the most attention from the public and media, whether or not they deserve it. They’re the loudest, most entertaining, most provocative, and most influential voices for the atheist cause in the public square. They’ve had a significant impact in promoting anti-religious skepticism and turning people away from Christianity. I continue to hear stories of ‘ex-Christians’ who say that reading The God Delusion or God Is Not Great shook their faith “to the core” and eventually destroyed it. I’m always taken aback by such reports, because I’ve read those books too, and there’s precious little in the way of serious and substantive argument in them. (Dennett is the most intellectually serious of the Four Horsemen, but he doesn’t so much argue for atheism as just take it for granted.)

But here’s the thing: the New Atheists are hardly the best and the brightest of contemporary atheists (despite Dennett’s unironic attempt to self-advertise as “the brights”). Their criticisms of religious beliefs do need to be refuted, of course, but as I’ve said before, that’s low-hanging fruit. The most sophisticated and formidable arguments in defense of atheism, and specifically for naturalism, come from academic philosophers, particularly those who specialize in philosophy of religion. They’re trained in logic and critical thinking. They’ve studied the scholarly literature. They’re well-versed in the arguments for and against the existence of God, both classical and contemporary. They actually know what they’re talking about.

A Conversation with Tom Jump

Tom Jump is an atheist who posts conversations with philosophers and theologians on his YouTube channel. I accepted his invitation to discuss whether there’s reason to believe in God, and here’s how it went:

The question “Is there reason to believe in God?” could be answered in many different ways, but I thought it would be interesting for us to discuss the argument for God from logic since I’ve published on that topic and have some expertise in it. I began by giving an overview of the argument as it appears in the 2011 paper I co-authored with Greg Welty:

  1. The laws of logic are truths (i.e., true propositions).
  2. The laws of logic are truths about truths.
  3. The laws of logic are necessary truths.
  4. The laws of logic really exist.
  5. The laws of logic necessarily exist.
  6. The laws of logic are nonphysical.
  7. The laws of logic are thoughts.
  8. The laws of logic are divine thoughts.

The plan was to go through these claims one by one and find out where Tom thinks the argument goes awry. Tom immediately took issue with 4, so we fell into a discussion about whether the laws of logic, and propositions in general, are real entities. Unfortunately, we ended up spending over an hour going around and around on that particular issue, and we never reached the later (arguably more interesting) parts of the argument! So we didn’t make much progress toward resolving the opening question.

In hindsight, it might have been more productive to discuss another argument. Still, the conversation was very cordial and worth having. The reason we didn’t get very far, I suggest, is because Tom seemed unable to articulate a consistent position on (1) whether propositions exist and (2) whether propositions are concrete or abstract in nature. Living up to his last name, Tom proved impossible to pin down on which of the following he wanted to endorse:

  1. Propositions don’t exist at all.
  2. Propositions exist as concrete (physical) entities.
  3. Propositions exist as abstract (non-physical) entities.

Watch the exchange and make your own assessment. What exactly is Tom’s position on the ontological status of propositions? I pointed out the problems with the first two positions. But the third is inconsistent with Tom’s professed physicalism. It’s too bad that we couldn’t move beyond the explanatory failures of physicalism and explore the explanatory virtues of theism. Perhaps another time?

On Fairies and Gardeners

I’ve been revisiting Richard Dawkins’ best-seller The God Delusion in preparation for an apologetics class I’ll be teaching next week. On opening it up, I fell upon the dedication “In Memoriam” to Douglas Adams, accompanied by the following quotation (presumably from Adams):

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

I suppose Dawkins considered this a pithy critique of theistic beliefs and in keeping with the thrust of his book. It does at least give us some insight into how Dawkins and his ilk think about theism, i.e., that it’s epistemically on a par with belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden. But it also reflects just how shallow that thinking is.

Flower Garden

Of course it’s enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, because the former doesn’t depend on the latter in any plausible way. Fairies have no explanatory role to play in one’s appreciation of a beautiful garden. But theists have long contended that God has a significant explanatory role to play in our understanding of the world and our place in it; indeed, a necessary explanatory role.

So a more fitting question would be:

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there is a gardener who made it beautiful?

To which the answer isn’t obviously a self-congratulatory “Yes!” but rather (at a minimum) “Well, it depends on exactly what we see in the garden.” If the garden we see is an orderly, cultivated one then the answer is clearly, “No, it’s not enough; a rational person ought to believe both.”

In fact, an even more probing question would be:

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without considering not only whether there is a gardener who made it beautiful, but also how it is that we came to possess reliable cognitive faculties which allow us to see gardens, to conceive of them as gardens, and to make meaningful objective aesthetic judgments about them?

But that doesn’t sound nearly so witty, which I guess goes to show that cleverness and profundity don’t always coincide.

Some Thoughts on the Lowder-Turek Debate

I recently watched (or rather listened to) the debate last December between Jeffrey Jay Lowder and Frank Turek on whether naturalism or theism “better explains reality”:

Overall it was one of the better theist-atheist debates I’ve encountered, and I would recommend watching it. The two opponents were intelligent, well-spoken, respectful, experienced, and focused on the issues. I’m not going to evaluate all the arguments in the debate or make a judgment about who ‘won’ the debate (it depends which criteria you apply). I’m just going to make some very general comments about the strengths and weaknesses of the presentations.

Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism

Atheism and Amoralism

On April 1, 2010, ethicist Joel Marks sat at his computer and wrote a confession to the readers of his column “Moral Moments” which had been a regular feature in the magazine Philosophy Now for a decade. His confession was not that he had done something immoral. No, his confession was that he could not have done anything immoral, at any time, because it turns out that there really is no such thing as morality. Or so he had come to conclude. The author of “Moral Moments” had come out of the closet as an ‘amoralist’. As he puts it in the first part of his “Amoral Manifesto”:

[T]his philosopher has long been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t.

Marks immediately proceeds to explain the reasoning behind his “shocking epiphany” (bold added):

The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ because it is analogous to a thesis in philosophy known as ‘hard determinism.’ The latter holds that if metaphysical determinism is true, then there is no such thing as free will. Thus, a ‘soft determinist’ believes that, even if your reading of this column right now has followed by causal necessity from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, you can still meaningfully be said to have freely chosen to read it. Analogously, a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ … are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.

You get the point: the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, are “soft atheists” because they deny God yet still want to affirm moral realism. The problem is that their position isn’t a coherent, stable one, because it seeks to affirm some phenomenon — in this case, objective moral norms — while denying the one metaphysical framework that could plausibly account for that phenomenon. Marks summarizes how he reasoned his way from “soft atheism” to “hard atheism”:

Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves of imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; “and this all people call God,” as Aquinas might have put it. The problem with theism is of course the shaky grounds for believing in God. But the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make some kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort? In sum, while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of proof of the existence of a Commander, i.e., God, I now take the non-existence of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no Commands, i.e., morality.

In some respects, Marks’ confession shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, theists have been making the same kind of argument — no God, no morality — for aeons. Moreover, a number of influential atheists have already “made the good confession”: Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, J. L. Mackie, and (more recently) Alex Rosenberg.

So I’m not going to dwell here on what I think should be reasonably evident to those who reflect on the metaphysical foundations of morality. Instead, I want to focus on some comments Marks makes in the second part of his “Amoral Manifesto” which, while tangential to his concerns, I find to be quite revealing and hugely significant. For what Marks hints at in these later remarks is that a consistent atheist ought to be not only an amoralist who denies objective moral norms but also an arationalist who denies objective rational norms.

Plantinga Drains Russell’s Teapot

Alvin Plantinga on Russell’s teapot, from a 2014 interview by Gary Gutting:

G.G.: You say atheism requires evidence to support it. Many atheists deny this, saying that all they need to do is point out the lack of any good evidence for theism. You compare atheism to the denial that there are an even number of stars, which obviously would need evidence. But atheists say (using an example from Bertrand Russell) that you should rather compare atheism to the denial that there’s a teapot in orbit around the sun. Why prefer your comparison to Russell’s?

A.P.: Russell’s idea, I take it, is we don’t really have any evidence against teapotism, but we don’t need any; the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and is enough to support a-teapotism. We don’t need any positive evidence against it to be justified in a-teapotism; and perhaps the same is true of theism.

I disagree: Clearly we have a great deal of evidence against teapotism. For example, as far as we know, the only way a teapot could have gotten into orbit around the sun would be if some country with sufficiently developed space-shot capabilities had shot this pot into orbit. No country with such capabilities is sufficiently frivolous to waste its resources by trying to send a teapot into orbit. Furthermore, if some country had done so, it would have been all over the news; we would certainly have heard about it. But we haven’t. And so on. There is plenty of evidence against teapotism. So if, à la Russell, theism is like teapotism, the atheist, to be justified, would (like the a-teapotist) have to have powerful evidence against theism.

Plantinga goes on to discuss whether there is such evidence, whether there are any good arguments for or against atheism, and whether theistic beliefs need to be justified by philosophical arguments. He concludes with a nice summary of his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.

Not Many Were Wise

Cletus the Slack-Jawed Faith-HeadEvery so often a scientific study appears purporting to show an inverse correlation between intelligence and religiosity; in other words, the smarter you are, the less likely you are to be religious. The latest offering is a meta-analysis of such studies which confirms the now-familiar story. Not surprisingly, a hearty cheer goes up from the atheist camp every time a report like this one appears. The insinuation is often that such studies provide evidence that religious beliefs are untrue or unreasonable. The more intelligent you are, so the logic runs, the better your chances of figuring out the right answers — and the most intelligent folk are those with non-religious answers!

Should Christians be disturbed by such studies? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that these studies are based on reliable data, and that there really is a correlation between intelligence and non-religiosity. Do the studies give evidence that Christian beliefs are epistemically subpar? No, for a number of reasons.

The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

The following is the unabridged version of a review published in the Christian Research Journal 36:3 (2013). Thanks to CRI for permission to post it here.

Christian philosophers have been developing and refining arguments for the existence of God since the earliest times, but it’s not often one comes across a convinced atheist making a powerful philosophical case for the existence of God. Yet that’s precisely what we find—quite contrary to the author’s intent—in Alex Rosenberg’s book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.