‘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.
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,
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.
The topic: What are the arguments that make belief in God reasonable or unreasonable?
First speech: arguments for reasonableness of belief in God
Second speech: respond to arguments against reasonableness of belief in God
Contingency argument: God – a transcendent, personal being – is the explanation of why a contingent universe exists.
Cosmological argument: God is the cause of the beginning of the universe, which is attested by physics and cosmology.
Applicability of mathematics to nature: God is the best explanation for the applicability of mathematics to nature.
Fine-tuning argument: God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe to permit life.
Intentionality of conscious states: God is the best explanation of the intentionality of our mental states.
The moral argument: God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and duties.
The resurrection of Jesus: God is the best explanation for the core of historical facts accepted by most ancient historians across the ideological spectrum.
Religious experience: God is the best explanation of our immediate experience and knowledge of his existence.
Dr. Rosenberg’s opening speech
First argument: The fallacy of ad hominem
I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry
Dr. Craig has said all of that before in other debates
You didn’t need to come out on this cold night
Craig’s arguments have all been refuted
Dr. Craig just doesn’t listen
Dr. Craig is not interested in getting at the truth
Dr. Craig is just interested in scoring debate points
The adversarial system is the wrong approach to decide truth
Dr. Craig is very confident about his take of physics
Second argument: The fallacy of arguing from authority
95% of members of the NAS are atheists
Therefore Dr. Craig cannot use science
Third argument: Effects don’t require causes
I am going to pretend that Craig said that “every effect requires a cause”
Quantum mechanics shows that some effects occur without causes
A particle of uranium (which is not nothing, it is something) decays without a cause
This uncaused effect is the same as the universe coming into being out of nothing uncaused
Therefore the principle of sufficient reason is false
Fourth argument: Silicon-based life and the multiverse
If these constants had been different, maybe we would have other kinds of intelligent life, like silicon-based life
Carbon-based life is not the only kind of life, maybe you can have other kinds of life, none of which have been observed
There could be different kinds of life in other areas of the universe that we can’t see
There are things we can’t see that disprove the current physics that we can see
Quantum foam is evidence that a multiverse exists
The multiverse would solve the problem of fine-tuning
Fifth argument: The Euthyphro dilemma
The moral argument is refuted by Euthyphro dilemma
Dr. Craig is such a moron that he has never heard of the Euthyphro dilemma ever before
This is found in the first and simplest of Plato’s dialogs
Why is Dr. Craig so stupid that he has not read this simple dialog ever before?
Evolution explains why humans evolve arbitrary customs and conventions that vary by time and place
Alternative moral theories: utilitarianism, social contract, etc. that don’t require God
Sixth argument: Mormonism undermines Dr. Craig’s three minimal facts about Jesus
Why is Dr. Craig so stupid and ignorant to persist in pushing such an ignorant, stupid argument?
Mormonism is a silly religion that is not historically well founded
Therefore, Jesus was not buried
Islam is a silly religion that is not historically grounded
Therefore, the tomb was not found empty
Scientology is a silly religion that is not historically grounded
Therefore, the eyewitnesses didn’t have post-mortem appearances
Eyewitness testimony is unreliable in some cases
Therefore, eyewitness testimony was unreliable in this case
Apparitions of Mary are bizarre
Therefore, the majority of historians are wrong to think that the disciples saw post-mortem appearances
Seventh argument: Deductive problem of evil
Evil and suffering are logically incompatible with an all good, all powerful God
Eight argument: God is not just to allow evil and suffering
God cannot make the evils of this life right in the afterlife
Dr. Craig’s first rebuttal
Dr. Rosenberg sketched the deductive argument from evil.
Dr. Rosenberg presupposes naturalism. Naturalism is a false theory of knowledge:
1. It’s too restrictive: There are truths that cannot be proved by natural science.
2. It’s self-refuting: no scientific proof for naturalism exists.
That’s why epistemological naturalism is considered false by most philosophers of science.
But more importantly than that: Epistemological naturalism does not imply metaphysical naturalism. (E.g. – W. Quine)
Dr. Rosenberg has to present arguments in favor of (metaphysical) naturalism, not just assume that (metaphysical) naturalism is true.
Dr. Craig presented eight arguments against metaphysical naturalism taken from Rosenberg’s own book:
1. The argument from the intentionality (aboutness) of mental states implies non-physical minds (dualism), which is incompatible with naturalism
2. The existence of meaning in language is incompatible with naturalism, Rosenberg even says that all the sentences in his own book are meaningless
3. The existence of truth is incompatible with naturalism
4. The argument from moral praise and blame is incompatible with naturalism
5. Libertarian freedom (free will) is incompatible with naturalism
6. Purpose is incompatible with naturalism
7. The enduring concept of self is incompatible with naturalism
8. The experience of first-person subjectivity (“I”) is incompatible with naturalism
Metaphysical naturalism is false: it is irrational and it contradicts our experience of ourselves.
And epistemological naturalism is compatible with theism.
Rebutting Dr. Rosenberg’s responses:
1. Contingency: no response
2. Cosmological: he mis-states the first premise to say every effect… when it is whatever begins to exist…, the origin of the universe was not from a vacuum, virtual particles come from a vacuum not nothing, there are interpretations of QM that are compatible with determinism. Rosenberg has to believe that the entire universe popped into being from non-being.
3. Mathematics: no response
4. Fine-tuning: the multiverse is refuted by empirical observations of the universe. Without fine-tuning, it’s not that we still have silicon to make life out of. It’s that we lose basic minimal things like chemical diversity, matter, stars, planets, etc. No life of any kind, not just no carbon-based life.
5. Intentionality: no response.
6. Moral argument: the answer to the dilemma is that you split the dilemma: God is the standard of good, and the commands flow from his unchanging moral nature. The commands are not arbitrary, and the standard is not external to God. Dr. Rosenberg is a nihilist and he cannot ground good and evil on his nihilistic view.
7. Resurrection: The Gospels are early eyewitness testimony. Mormonism and Islam have nothing to do with the minimal set of historical facts about Jesus agreed to by the majority of ancient historians across the ideological spectrum, general statements against eyewitnesses do not refute the specific eyewitness testimony in this case.
8. Religious experience: No response.
Dr. Rosenberg’s first rebuttal
I wrote a book and you should buy it, because it got me invited to this debate. Let me repeat the title a few times for you. Please buy it.
Dr. Craig is right, there are multiple interpretations of QM, not just the one I presented, including deterministic ones.
All the disturbing implications of naturalism that Dr. Craig stated follow from metaphysical naturalism, and metaphysical naturalism is true. (Note: he equates science with metaphysical naturalism)
Science proves that metaphysical naturalism is true, but I won’t say what specific scientific tests prove my philosophical assumption of metaphysical naturalism.
I’ll pretend that the Big Bang (science) doesn’t disprove naturalism, like Dr. Craig said. Again. (covers ears) La la la, there is no Big Bang.
We didn’t come here to debate epistemological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism.
Let me explain the problem of intentionality since I’m so smart and no one knows what it means.
There are many answers to this problem of intentionality.
My answer is that most scientists are naturalists, therefore naturalism is true, regardless of the argument from intentionality of mental states.
That’s how I would respond to one of the eight problems with naturalism that Dr. Craig raised. I won’t answer the other seven problems.
It is an argument from ignorance to argue that the applicability of mathematics to the universe requires a designer, because there are non-Euclidean geometries. Craig’s argument, which he gets from people like respected physicists like Eugene Wigner, is bizarre. It is bizarre, therefore I refute Eugene Wigner and all the other scholars who make that argument. It is bizarre! Bizarre!
Deductive problem of evil: there is no response to this argument, certainly not Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense. The deductive argument from evil has not been entirely abandoned at all! It’s not like arch-atheist J.L. Mackie himself admits that the deductive problem of evil doesn’t lead to a logical inconsistency between evil and God.
Dr. Craig has to tell me why God allows evil or God doesn’t exist.
It is offensive that Dr. Craig cannot tell me why God allows every evil and suffering that occurs.
He literally said this: “I will become a Christian if Dr. Craig can tell me why God allowed EVERY EVIL THAT OCCURRED IN THE LAST 3.5 BILLION YEARS”
Dr. Craig’s second rebuttal
We are not in a position to know why God allows specific instances of evil and suffering.
God cannot force people to freely do anything – freedom is not compatible with determinism. Freedom is a good, but freedom opens up the possibility of moral evil. You cannot have the good of free will without allowing people to choose to do morally evil things.
God can permit evil and suffering in order to bring more people into a relationship with him.
The atheist has to show that God could allow less evil and achieve more knowledge of God in order to say there is too much evil.
The purpose of life is not happiness, but knowledge of God.
Dr. Craig quotes agnostic Paul Draper (Purdue) and Peter Van Inwagen (Notre Dame) to state that the deductive problem of evil is dead because of free will and morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil.
1. Contingency: no response.
2. Cosmological: QM does not apply, because the universe came from nothing, not a vacuum, and QM only works in a vacuum.
3. Mathematics: He mentions alternatives like non-Euclidean geometry, but we have to explain the structure of THIS universe.
4. Fine-tuning: ???
5. Intentional states: intentional mental states proves that minds exist, which fits with theism better than it fits with atheism.
6. Moral argument: You need God to ground morality, and Dr. Rosenberg believes in morality. He needs God to ground objective moral values and duties.
7. Historical argument: He has to respond to the minimal facts supported by the consensus of ancient historians across the ideological spectrum.
8. The problems of naturalism: He says that you can’t have science without naturalism, but you can have science with EPISTEMOLOGICAL NATURALISM, and theists accept science and methodological naturalism. We don’t accept METAPHYSCIAL NATURALISM because of the eight problems Craig presented, like intentionality, first-person, persistence of self, etc. You can believe in both science and theism, by embracing epistemological naturalism, while rejecting methaphysical naturalism.
Dr. Rosenberg’s second rebuttal
Dr. Craig hasn’t answered many of my points, I won’t say which ones though.
Debates don’t work as a way of deciding what’s true, so we should overturn the entire criminal justice system.
The principle of sufficient reason is false because it is disconfirmed by quantum mechanics. And quantum mechanics (vacuum and virtual particles that exist for a short time) is similar to the origin of the universe (nothing and entire universe and 14 billion years).
We know that alpha particles come into being without cause all the time from a quantum vacuum for a tiny sub-second duration before going out of existence, so we can say that the entire physical universe came into being for 14 billion years from absolute nothing which is not a quantum vacuum.
Peter Van Inwagen is the best metaphysician working today, and he says that my deductive argument from evil is not decisive, it’s not a successful argument. (Why is he undermining his own problem of evil argument????!)
Dr. Craig invoked Plantinga’s free will defense to the deductive POE. Freedom allows us to do evil. God could have given us free will without evil and suffering. I won’t show how, but I’ll just assert it, because debates are such a bad forum for supplying evidence for my speculative assertions.
If you answer the question 3 + 5 as being 8, then you don’t have free will – you are biologically determined if you answer 8, because everyone answers 8, and that means everyone is biologically determined with no free will.
Why can’t God give us free will and then prevent us from making a free choice?
No scholars date the gospels earlier than 60-70 AD, especially not atheists like James Crossley who dates Mark to 40 AD. Therefore Jesus’ burial isn’t historical, like the majority of scholars across the broad spectrum of scholarship agree it is.
The original New Testament documents were written in Aramaic.
All New Testament scholars are orthodox Christians, like atheist Robert Funk for example.
Dr. Craig’s concluding speech
In order to sustain the deductive argument from evil, Dr. Rosenberg must show that God could create a world of free creatures with less evil.
Principle of Sufficient Reason: not using the general principle of sufficient reason, but a more modest version of this states that contingent things should have an explanation for their existence. And we know that the universe is a contingent.
The New Testament was not written in Aramaic, they were written in Greek. Dr. Rosenberg is wrong there too.
(Dr. Craig spends the rest of his concluding speech giving his testimony and urging people to investigate the New testament).
Dr. Rosenberg’s concluding speech
Some long-dead French guy named Laplace said that he has no need of that (God) hypothesis. He did not know about any of Dr. Craig’s arguments made in this debate tonight when he said that, though.
There is no need to explain how the universe began or how the universe is finely-tuned if you just assume metaphysical naturalism on faith.
The Easter Bunny, therefore atheism.
Most scientists are atheists, therefore atheism.
You can do a lot of science without God, just don’t look at the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, or the other parts of science that Craig mentioned, as well as the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, the habitability argument, and so on.
You can be a Christian, but good Christians should not use arguments and evidence.
Good Christians should be irrational and ignorant. Bad Christians look for arguments and evidence from science and history.
Good Christians should embrace the absurd. Bad Christians want to search for truth and use logic and evidence.
A while back I finished reading “God’s Crime Scene”, the new book by J. Warner Wallace. I wanted to post something about some studies he mentioned in Chapter 6, on free will. This is one of the places where he found evidence in a surprising area.
Wallace says that free will makes more sense if theism is true, because we have non-material souls that interact with our bodies, but are not causally determined by them. On atheism, only matter exists, and you can’t get free will (or consciousness) from matter. So atheists like Sam Harris and Alex Rosenberg, for example, deny free will, because they are materialists and atheists.
Anyway, here’s what he writes on p. 256:
In 2008, researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of British Columbia conducted experiments highlighting the relationship between a belief in determinism and immoral behavior. They found students who were exposed to deterministic literature prior to taking a test were more likely to cheat on the test than students who were not exposed to literature advocating determinism. The researchers concluded those who deny free will are more inclined to believe their efforts to act morally are futile and are, therefore, less likely to do so.
In addition, a study conducted by researchers from Florida State University and the University of Kentucky found participants who were exposed to deterministic literature were more likely to act aggressively and less likely to be helpful toward others.” Even determinist Michael Gazzaniga conceded: “It seems that not only do we believe we control our actions, but it is good for everyone to believe it.”” The existence of free will is a common characteristic of our experience, and when we deny we have this sort of free agency, there are detrimental consequences.
Does moral behavior draw on a belief in free will? Two experiments examined whether inducing participants to believe that human behavior is predetermined would encourage cheating. In Experiment 1, participants read either text that encouraged a belief in determinism (i.e., that portrayed behavior as the consequence of environmental and genetic factors) or neutral text. Exposure to the deterministic message increased cheating on a task in which participants could passively allow a flawed computer program to reveal answers to mathematical problems that they had been instructed to solve themselves. Moreover, increased cheating behavior was mediated by decreased belief in free will. In Experiment 2, participants who read deterministic statements cheated by overpaying themselves for performance on a cognitive task; participants who read statements endorsing free will did not. These findings suggest that the debate over free will has societal, as well as scientific and theoretical, implications.
Laypersons’ belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting helpfulness and reducing aggression, and so disbelief in free will may make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and therefore less socially desirable. Three studies tested the hypothesis that disbelief in free will would be linked with decreased helping and increased aggression. In Experiment 1, induced disbelief in free will reduced willingness to help others. Experiment 2 showed that chronic disbelief in free will was associated with reduced helping behavior. In Experiment 3, participants induced disbelief in free will caused participants to act more aggressively than others. Although the findings do not speak to the existence of free will, the current results suggest that disbelief in free will reduces helping and increases aggression.
So what to make of this?
If you’re an atheist, then you are a physical object. And like every other physical object in the universe, your behavior is determined by genetic programming (if you’re alive) and external inputs. Material objects do not have the ability to make free choices, including moral choices.
And that’s what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output. Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. (These studies use crude imaging techniques based on blood flow, and I suspect that future understanding of the brain will allow us to predict many of our decisions far earlier than seven seconds in advance.) “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.
Atheist William Provine says atheists have no free will, no moral accountability and no moral significance:
Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.
If you don’t have free will, then you can’t make moral choices, and you can’t be held morally responsible. No free will means no morality. Can you imagine trying to get into any sort of enterprise with someone who has this view of moral choices? A marriage, or a business arrangement, etc? It would be crazy to expect them to behave morally, when they don’t even think that moral choices is possible. It just excuses all sorts of bad behavior, because no one is responsible for choosing to do the right thing.
Believers in materialism are going to struggle with prescriptive morality, including self-sacrificial care and concern for others. Their worldview undermines the rationality of the moral point of view. You might find atheists acting morally for their own purposes, but their worldview doesn’t rationally ground it. This is a big problem for people who can see objective morality woven into the universe – and themselves – because they have the awareness of objective right and wrong.
Choosing to do the right thing
I think what atheists like to say is “I can be moral, too”. That’s not interesting. What is interesting is whether it is rational for you to be moral when doing the right thing sets you back. When I look at the adultery of Dawkins, the polyamory of Carrier, the divorces of Shermer and Atkins, etc. I am not seeing anything that really wows me about their ability to do the right thing when it was hard for them to do it. They all deny free will of course, and think that trying to resist temptation is a waste of time.
Wallace explains how the awareness of free will and moral choices caused him to turn away from atheism, in this blog post.
As an atheist, I chose to cling to naturalism, in spite of the fact that I lived each day as though I was capable of using my mind to make moral choices based on more than my own opinion. In addition, I sought meaning and purpose beyond my own hedonistic preferences, as though meaning was to be discovered, rather than created. I called myself a naturalist while embracing three characteristics of reality that simply cannot be explained by naturalism. As a Christian, I’m now able to acknowledge the “grounding” for these features of reality. My philosophical worldview is consistent with my practical experience of the world.
I think atheists who want to be honest about their own experience of first-person consciousness, free will, moral realism, etc. will do well to just accept that theism rationally grounds all of these things, and so you should accept theism. Theism is real. If you like morality, and want to be a virtuous person, then you should accept theism.