Tag Archives: Evidence

Is the definition of atheism “a lack of belief in God”?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

First, let’s see check with the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.

Stanford University is one of the top 5 universities in the United States, so that’s a solid definition. To be an atheist is to be a person who makes the claim that, as a matter of FACT, there is no intelligent agent who created the universe. Atheists think that there is no God, and theists think that there is a God. Both claims are objective claims about the way the world is out there, and so both sides must furnish forth arguments and evidence as to how they are able to know what they are each claiming.

Philosopher William Lane Craig has some thoughts on atheism, atheists and lacking belief in God in this reply to a questioner.

Question:

In my discussions with atheists, they  are using the term that they “lack belief in God”. They claim that this is different from not believing in God or from saying that God does not exist. I’m not sure how to respond to this. It seems to me that its a silly word-play and is logically the same as saying that you do not believe in God.
What would be a good response to this?
Thank you for your time,

Steven

And here is Dr. Craig’s full response:

Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God.  Compare my saying, “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.”   If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars.  There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).”   Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.

But where your atheist friends err is in claiming that atheism involves only not believing that there is a God rather than believing that there is no God.

There’s a history behind this.  Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist.  Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists.

So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken.  For the assertion that “There is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “There is a God.”  Therefore, the former assertion requires justification just as the latter does.  It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence.  He confesses that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or whether there is no God.

But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.”  So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists).  As Antony Flew confesses,

the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way.  Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist. (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford:  Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew)

Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view.  It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all.  On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists!  In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.

One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.

So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position?  Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists.  If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view.  But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof.  So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions.  They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.

This is disingenuous and still leaves us asking, “So is there a God or not?”

So there you have it. We are interested in what both sides know and what reasons and evidence they have to justify their claim to know. We are interested in talking to people who make claims about objective reality, not about themselves, and who then go on to give reasons and evidence to support their claims about objective reality. There are atheists out there that do make an objective claim that God does not exist, and then support that claim with arguments and evidence. Those are good atheists, and we should engage in rational conversations with them. But clearly there are some “atheists” who are not like that. How should we deal with these “subjective atheists”?

Dealing with subjective atheists

How should theists respond to people who just want to talk about their psychological state? Well, my advice is to avoid them. They are approaching religion irrationally and non-cognitively – like the person who enters a physics class and says “I lack a belief in the gravitational force!”.  When you engage in serious discussions with people about God’s existence, you only care about what people know and what they can show to be true. We don’t care about a person’s psychology.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

William Lane Craig debates Austin Dacey: Does God Exist?

Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!
Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!

Here is the video and summary of a debate between Christian theist William Lane Craig and Austin Dacey at Purdue University in 2004 about the existence of God.

The debaters:

The video: (2 hours)

The video shows the speakers and powerpoint slides of their arguments. Austin Dacey is one of the top atheist debaters, and I would put him second to Peter Millican alone, with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong in third place. This is the debate to show people who are new to apologetics. The debate with Peter Millican is better for advanced students, and that’s no surprise since he teaches at Oxford University and is familiar with all of Dr. Craig’s work. The Craig-Dacey debate is the one that I give to my co-workers.

By the way, you can get the DVDs and CDs for the first Craig-Dacey debate and the second Craig-Dacey debate and the second Craig-Sinnott-Armstrong debate. The Peter Millican debate is not available on DVD, but the link above (Peter Millican) has the video and my summary.

Dr. Dacey’s 5 arguments below are all good arguments that you find in the academic literature. He is also an effective and engaging speaker, This is a great debate to watch!

SUMMARY of the opening speeches:

Dr. Craig’s opening statement:

Dr. Craig will present six reasons why God exists:

  1. (Contingency argument) God is the best explanation of why something exists rather than nothing
  2. (Cosmological argument)  God’s existence is implied by the origin of the universe
  3. (Fine-tuning argument) The fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life points to a designer of the cosmos
  4. (Moral argument) God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and objective moral duties
  5. (Miracles argument) The historical facts surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus
  6. (Religious experience) God’s existence is directly knowable even apart from arguments

Dr. Dacey’s opening argument:

There are two ways to disprove God’s existence, by showing that the concept of God is self-contradictory, or by showing that certain facts about ourselves and the world are incompatible with what we would expect to be true if God did exist. Dr. Dacey will focus on the second kind of argument.

  1. The hiddenness of God
  2. The success of science in explaining nature without needing a supernatural agency
  3. The dependence of mind on physical processes in the brain
  4. Naturalistic evolution
  5. The existence of gratuitous / pointless evil and suffering

One final point:

One thing that I have to point out is that Dr. Dacey quotes Brian Greene during the debate to counter Dr. Craig’s cosmological argument. Dr. Craig could not respond because he can’t see the context of the quote. However, Dr. Craig had a rematch with Dr. Dacey where was able to read the context of the quote and defuse Dr. Dacey’s objection. This is what he wrote in his August 2005 newsletter after the re-match:

The following week, I was off an another three-day trip, this time to California State University at Fresno. As part of a week of campus outreach the Veritas Forum scheduled a debate on the existence of God between me and Austin Dacey, whom I had debated last spring at Purdue University. In preparation for the rematch I adopted two strategies: (1) Since Dacey had come to the Purdue debate with prepared speeches, I decided to throw him for a loop by offering a different set of arguments for God, so that his canned objections wouldn’t apply. I chose to focus on the cosmological argument, giving four separate arguments for the beginning of the universe, and on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. (2) I reviewed our previous debate carefully, preparing critiques of his five atheistic arguments. In the process I found that he had seriously misunderstood or misrepresented a statement by a scientist on the Big Bang; so I brought along the book itself in case Dacey quoted this source again. I figured he might change his arguments just as I was doing; but I wanted to be ready in case he used his old arguments again.

[…]The auditorium was packed that night for the debate, and I later learned that there were overflow rooms, too. To my surprise Dr. Dacey gave the very same case he had presented at Purdue; so he really got clobbered on those arguments. Because he wasn’t prepared for my new arguments, he didn’t even respond to two of my arguments for the beginning of the universe, though he did a credible job responding to the others. I was pleased when he attacked the Big Bang by quoting the same scientist as before, because I then held up the book, specified the page number, and proceeded to quote the context to show what the scientist really meant.

Dr. Craig is always prepared!

J.P. Moreland asks: does truth matter when choosing a religion?

Dr. J.P. Moreland
Dr. J.P. Moreland

This lecture contains Moreland’s famous “Wonmug” illustration. Ah, memories! If you don’t know who Wonmug is, you can find out in this lecture.

The MP3 file is here.

Topics:

  • Is it intolerant to think that one religion is true?
  • Is it more important to be loving and accepting of people regardless of worldview?
  • How should Christians approach the question of religious pluralism?
  • How does a person choose a religion anyway?
  • Who is Wonmug, and would you like to be like Wonmug?
  • Is it enough that a belief “works for you”, or do you want to believe the truth?
  • Can all the religions in the world be true?
  • Is it wise to pick and choose what you like from all the different religions?
  • Is it possible to investigate which religion is true? How?
  • Which religions are testable for being true or false?
  • How you can test Christianity historically (very brief)

I’m posting this, because I’ve noticed that there’s an awful lot of cultural Christianity in red states. Basically, if you ask someone if they are a Christian, and they say yes, they don’t usually mean that they think it’s true and that they’ve investigated whether it’s true. They usually just mean that they like it, or it makes them feel good, or that’s how they were raised, etc. My worry about this is that if Christianity isn’t adopted because it’s true, then no one is going to do any work or self-sacrifice for it.

People are willing to invest in projects self-sacrificially if they think that they are involved in something true. So, you might enroll in a chemistry program in college because you expect to come out with true beliefs about chemistry. You’ll do the work and solve the problems because you think that chemistry is real. But if you think that chemistry is just made up nonsense with no use at all, you’re probably not going to work at it and sacrifice for it. You’ll probably just find something else to do with your life that’s easier and more fun. That’s why the truth question is really important.

Michael Behe and Keith Fox debate theistic evolution vs intelligent design

Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!
Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!

Michael Behe and Keith Fox debate evolution and intelligent design. (See below for link to video)

Details:

Michael Behe is professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania and the founder of the modern Intelligent Design movement. His book “Darwin’s Black Box” ignited the controversy 14 years ago when it claimed that certain molecular machines and biological processes are “irreducibly complex” and cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution.

Keith Fox is Professor of biochemistry at the University of Southampton and chairman of Christians in Science. As a theistic evolutionist he believes that Evolution is the best explanation going for the complexity we see and that ID is a blind scientific alley and theologically unappealing to boot.

They debate whether micromachines in the cell such as the “bacterial flagellum” could have evolved by a Darwinian process of evolution. When inference to design is and isn’t acceptable in science. Whether random mutation can mathematically stack up to complex life, and whether God is reduced to a divine “tinkerer” by ID.

Here’s the debate:

Summary

Note: the following debate summary is rated “S” for Snarky. Reader discretion is advised.

Michael Behe:

  • ID is not Biblical creationism
  • ID is not religion
  • ID is a scientific research program
  • People refuse to discuss ID because of personal philosophical assumptions
  • ID is like the Big Bang – it is based on evidence, but it has broad religious implications

Keith Fox:

  • ID is not Biblical creationism, but it isn’t science

Michael Behe:

  • ID is compatible with common descent
  • ID is only opposed to unplanned, unguided evolution (Darwinism)
  • ID is not necessarily opposed to long periods of time

Behe’s first book – the bacterial flagellum

Keith Fox:

  • Here are a couple of papers that show how parts of the flagellum evolved
  • They are possible pathways

Michael Behe

  • No, those are studies that show that there are similarities between bacterial flagella in multiple organisms
  • Similarities of proteins between different organisms do not necessarily imply a developmental pathway
  • The problem of having the instructions to BUILD the flagellum still remains

Keith Fox:

  • Maybe parts of the flagellum had other functions before they were used in the flagellum
  • Maybe you can use the parts of the flagellum for other purposes
  • Maybe, one can imagine, it’s possible that!

Michael Behe:

  • No, parts have to be modified and re-purposed in order to be used for other functions

Keith Fox:

  • But maybe the proteins can be used in other systems for other things
  • I re-purpose parts from of designed things to other purposes in my house when I do maintenance

Michael Behe

  • Uh, yeah – but aren’t you an intelligent designer? What does your home maintenance have to do with Darwinian evolution?

Is ID another God-of-the-gaps argument?

Michael Behe:

  • Well consider the Big Bang… there was a build-up of scientific evidence for that theory
  • Just because a theory has religious implications, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true
  • You really have to look at the specific evidence for a theory, and not decide in advance

Keith Fox: (I’m paraphrasing/inventing/mocking from now on)

  • But the Big Bang is based on discoveries, and intelligent design is based on gaps in our scientific knowledge
  • What if I did have evidence of a step by step pathway (which I don’t right now)? Then I would win the argument – what would you do then?

Michael Behe:

  • Well, if tomorrow you do manage to find expiremental evidence of a pathway, which you don’t have today, then I would be wrong
  • ID is falsifiable by experimental evidence
  • But what about your your view? Is that falsifiable by experimental evidence?
  • What if someone goes into a lab (someone like Scott Minnich?) and performs gene knockout experiments, and publishes the results
  • You knock out a gene from the bacterial flagellum, you wait for a large number of generations, and it never develops the missing gene
  • You repeat this with every one of the 50 genes in the bacterial flagellum and it never recovers for any of the 50 genes
  • There is no pathway to build up even one of the 50 genes – according to actual experiments
  • What do Darwinists do with experimental evidence that falsifies Darwinism?

Keith Fox:

  • No, I would not accept that experimental evidence could falsify Darwinism
  • Just because known published experimental evidence that we have today falsifies Darwinism, it doesn’t mean Darwinism is false because it’s not falsifiable
  • We don’t know how Darwinism even works – it happened so long ago, and it’s not repeatable or testable, so how could lab ,experiments falsify it?
  • Darwinism is science and intelligent design is faith, though

Which side has the experimental evidence?

Michael Behe:

  • Consider the largest longest-running lab experiment of evolution, Richard Lenski’s experiments on e. coli
  • Lenski has presided over 50,000 generations, (millions of years of evolution)
  • The bacterium did evolve and they did get better but not by evolving features, but by disabling features

Keith Fox:

  • But those are just LAB EXPERIMENTS! What do lab experiments prove?
  • What if? What if? What if? You don’t know, it happened so long ago, and you weren’t there! You weren’t there!
  • (clutches Flying Spaghetti Monster idol tighter and sobs pitifully)

Michael Behe:

  • See, the thing is that I have actual experiements, and here’s some more evidence that just got published last week
  • So I’ve got evidence and then some more evidence and them some other evidence – experimental evidence
  • And all the evidence shows that adaptation is done losing traits not by gaining traits
  • And the published observations are what we see in nature as well

Keith Fox:

  • But doesn’t Darwinism explain some things that we observe?

Michael Behe:

  • Well, I am not saying that micro-evolution doesn’t explain some things – it explains bacterial resistance, and other micro-evolution
  • it just doesn’t explain macro-evolution, and that’s what the experiments show

Keith Fox:

  • But ID is a science stopper! It stops science! You can’t produce experimental evidence to falsify Darwinism – that would stop science!

Michael Behe:

  • Well, you have to understand that the Big Bang postulated a non-material cause to the entire physical universe and yet the experimental evidence was allowed to stand because it was testable and verifiable evidence, even if the theory does have religious implications
  • All explanations in science are design to settle a question and it stops rival explanations that are not as good at explaining the observations
  • Finding the best explanation stops further study because it is better than rival explanations

Keith Fox:

  • Well you have to come up with a materialist explanation because that’s the only kind that a functional atheist like me will allow

Michael Behe:

  • Well, what if the best explanation for an observed effect in nature is non-material, as with the Big Bang?

Keith Fox:

  • But I have to have a material explanation because I am a functional atheist! (i.e. – a theistic evolutionist = functional atheist)

Michael Behe:

  • Well what about the cosmic fine-tuning argument? Do you accept that?
  • That’s an inference to design based on the latest scientific discoveries

Keith Fox:

  • Well I do accept that argument, but I don’t accept design in biology
  • When you apply it to biology, somehow it’s bad and you can’t do that or you losing research money and get fired
  • Anyway, your argument is based on a gap in our current knowledge

Michael Behe:

  • No, back in Darwin’s time we had a gap in our knowledge – we didn’t know what the cell was – we thought it was jello
  • Now, we know what the cell is really like, it’s irreducibly complex, and you can’t build up those molecular machines in a step-wise manner
  • The inference to design is based on the progress of science revealing the increasing levels of complexity
  • In experiments, Darwinian mechanisms cannot build anything useful, instead genes are disabled or dropped
  • You guys don’t have the evidence to prove your view that naturalistic mechanisms can do the creating
  • You keep issuing promissory notes

Keith Fox:

  • Well, you’re just seeing design subjectively, because you are a non-scientist
  • I’m being objective when I tell you that we will discover a materialist explanation later on – really really soon now, maybe even tomorrow, yeah
  • You won’t accept my speculations and you insist on these published experiments
  • You’re subjective and I’m objective
  • Just give me more research money so I can hide the decline better

Michael Behe:

  • Uh, you’re the one who is subjective – I cited evidence, and you are the one who is speculating
  • You have arguments from credulity, and I’ve got the lab experiments
  • You refuse to be skeptical, I am the one who is being skeptical

Keith Fox:

  • Maybe, maybe, maybe! Maybe tomorrow! Maybe in a parallel universe! Maybe aliens from Planet 9 from Outer Space!
  • Who knows! I certainly don’t know! And that somehow means you don’t know either! See?

Michael Behe:

  • Well, to prove me wrong, go into the lab, and run experiments and evolve some new genes (using Darwinian mechanisms) that have new useful functionality

Are there limits to what evolution can do?

Michael Behe:

  • You need multiple changes in the genome to get a new helpful feature (let’s say two specific mutations)
  • One specific change is possible
  • the odds are against getting multiple beneficial changes are really really small – you need two SPECIFIC changes to occur in order

Keith Fox:

  • Well, lots of things are really unlikely – any permutation of dice rolls is as unlikely as any other

Michael Behe:

  • Well, we are talking about TWO SPECIFIC mutations that are needed to get a beneficial function – lots of other mutations are possible, but we are looking for a specific outcome that requires two SPECIFIC mutations out of the whole genome
  • You aren’t going to get useful outcomes unless you direct the mutations

Keith Fox:

  • But then why does God allow evil!!!!1!1!!one!!!

William Lane Craig explains how to structure a conversation with an atheist

Man teaching a woman how to shoot a firearm accurately
Man teaching a woman how to shoot a firearm accurately

It’s from his latest question and answer on the newly redesigned Reasonable Faith website.

Here’s the question in brief:

I must say I feel completely defeated and I could use your help and insight. I had a discussion over God’s existence tonight and totally botched it!! I feel I did a dis-service to the reasonableness of the Christian worldview.

I’ve been studying apologetics for quite some time. I felt I knew the material pretty well. Now I’m not so sure. Dr. Craig, I know you’re one of the great Christian debaters. When you were younger, did you ever feel you completely botched a debate and felt like a failure? That is how I feel right now!!

Dr. Craig’s response, in part:

So right at the beginning of the conversation, when he says that he is an atheist, it would be important to understand exactly what he means by that. Is he just agnostic or does he claim to know that God does not exist? If the latter, what justification does he have for so radical a position? You might comment on how difficult it is to prove that God does not exist and so express your interest in hearing his arguments against the existence of God. If he just says that “there’s no real evidence for the existence of God,” that’s a perfect opening for you to say, “Wait a minute! You’re a criminal analyst, right? As a criminologist, you must know that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I want to hear your evidence against God.”

Or again, when he makes a claim like “there’s no way to know if there’s absolute truth,” you ought to be ready for such an assertion. Take out a pen and write his claim on a paper: “There’s no way to know if there’s absolute truth.” Then show it to him and ask, “Is that absolutely true?” If not, then is it just his opinion? If it is absolutely true, then how does he know it? Isn’t his position self-refuting? Be nice about it. Say, “I’m really trying to understand how your position isn’t self-referentially incoherent.”

When he says, “not knowing is okay and we should be more willing to accept uncertainty,” you should respond, “Have I ever claimed to know with certainty that God exists? I’m just saying that on balance God’s existence is more probable than not.” Ask him if he wouldn’t agree with that. If not, why not?

If he demands evidence of God’s existence, then you should be ready and waiting. I don’t get the impression, Marshall, that you have memorized any arguments and their respective premises. If you have them memorized, that’s the best antidote for becoming tongue-tied. You need to have memorized: “Why, I can think of at least five arguments for God’s existence!” When he says, “Yeah, like what?”, then you recite your list of arguments that you’ve memorized:

1. God is the best explanation for why anything at all exists rather than nothing.

2. God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe.

3. God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life.

4. God is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties.

5. The very possibility of God’s existence implies that God exists.

For the average unbeliever to hear even a list such as this is overwhelming. If he then wants to talk about one of them, recite from memory the premises of that argument, e.g.,

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

3. Therefore God exists.

You may even want to write the premises out on a piece of paper for him to look at.

If anyone ever responds to your arguments by attacking or blaming you personally, like saying you “must live with a lot of guilt and that’s why [you] probably feel the need for God,” just smile and say, “Are you not familiar with the logical fallacy of argument ad hominem?” (It’s evident by this point that you’re dealing with a really snarky person and therefore can afford to be more confrontational.) “Even if what you said were true—which it isn’t—, it has no relevance to the soundness of my argument. If you want to deny the conclusion of my argument, then you must think that one of its premises is false. So I want you to tell me which premise you think is false and why.” If you have these sentences memorized, you won’t feel tongue-tied when he makes his accusations.

In my opinion, Dr. Craig left out a very important point, which is that you need to structure the conversation so that you major in the majors and purposefully set aside any discussion of minor issues. If your atheist wants to discuss whether she is going to Hell, you respond by explaining that Hell is only a problem if the New Testament is an accurate description of God, which depends on whether God exists at all. So we start with God’s existence, and Dr. Craig’s 5 arguments. And, as Dr. Craig says, we focus the atheist on the discussion of whether God exists, and what evidence he has against God’s existence.

I would also say that you need to be ready to discuss the scientific evidence related to the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, habitability, etc. You need to be able to retrace the histories of the discoveries that lead the majority of scientists to accept this data, and name the scientists. That way, when your atheist denies your evidence, you can ask them why they hate science. This is the most powerful argument for theism, in my opinion – the opposition to mainstream science that atheists must necessarily commit to in order to be atheists.

Also, you need to know the minimal facts case for the resurrection of Jesus, which doesn’t even assume that the Bible is inerrant or inspired or even generally reliable. And finally, you’ll need to know how to spot a self-refuting claim and how to respond to philosophical objections to God’s existence: the problem of evil, the hiddenness of God, physicalist conceptions of mind, etc. But the main point is that you are always on the topic of whether God exists, where your evidence is strongest, until you get that as a solid admission. Never move off that until you get that admission. The Bible should not be cited until you get a solid admission from your opponent on the existence of God.

Positive arguments for Christian theism