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Theism, Atheism, and Rationality: Some Reflections

Alvin Plantinga was recently interviewed for an article that appeared in the New York Times on the question, “Is Atheism Irrational?”[1] The following Tuesday, a National Public Radio station in Los Angeles asked me to participate in a program (the next day), in which I would engage with an atheist on this topic and then address any questions from callers. I agreed and prepared some material to make the point in defending the plausibility of belief in God.

As is turns out, the person who had invited me to speak on the program informed me that her supervisor had also booked another Christian philosopher, but who happened to be in the Los Angeles area and so could possibly come to the studio. As it turns out, that theist was a fellow Christian philosopher and frequent collaborator, William Lane Craig. So I knew that theism would be very well-represented—and indeed it was![2]

Since I had typed out some notes, why not make use of them in some other way? So I thought I’d at least post some of my reflections on the topic of theism, atheism, and rationality.

1. Atheism makes a knowledge claim—“God does not exist”—and therefore stands in need of justification, as does as the theistic claim, “God exists.” The atheist is not off the hook. If the atheist claims that he simply does not believe in God, then he does not differ from an agnostic, who also doesn’t believe in God. The agnostic’s view is properly characterized as unbelief; the atheist’s is disbelief.

2. Lack of evidence for God is insufficient to justify atheism. For example, it’s possible that arguments for God’s existence are inadequate, but that God still exists.  The atheist has more work to do than debunking theistic claims. He has to show that God does not or cannot exist.

3. The best (or even only) argument atheists have is the argument from evil, which is itself a mixed bag. The argument from evil assumes that things ought to be a certain way rather than another, but does this not assume some kind of design plan? As C.S. Lewis said, we can’t understand “crooked” unless we understand what “straight” is. Or can we understand counterfeit money unless we understand what real currency is? But if nature is all there is, I see no reason to think things ought to be one way rather than another. Things just are what they are.

For all of his intellectual missteps and inconsistencies, Richard Dawkins is quite correct about the implications about the naturalistic worldview: “If the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies . . . are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune.  Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention . . . . The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”[3]

4. If all the atheist has is lack of evidence, she should call herself an agnostic—that is, taking the position of ignorance about whether God exists or not.

5. Many self-proclaimed atheists are more like agnostics. When pressed, they slip from the stronger claim of atheism (that God does not exist) to a weaker position (that the evidence for God is lacking). But as we just noted, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

6. What’s more, there are two kinds of agnostic, one of whom is still making a knowledge claim. If one really isn’t an atheist but an agnostic, we have to ask: “What kind of agnostic?” Is this a person an ordinary agnostic, who says, “I don’t know whether God exists, but I’d like to know; the evidence just seems evenly divided”? Or is the person an ornery agnostic, who says, “I don’t know whether God exists, and you can’t know either”? In the latter case, the ornery agnostic is making a claim to knowledge, just as the atheist or theist, and this claim stands in need of justification. So while the ornery agnostic may not know whether God exists, why insist that others can’t know either? One can’t just assert this; one has to justify it.

7. There are lots of plausible arguments for God’s existence that not would not only undercut atheism, but they actually make a lot better sense of the universe and of human experience. Here are some of them:

  • the beginning of the universe, which was either uncaused or caused by something independent of it:  Here we have something coming into existence from something—in this case, something quite powerful—rather than nothing at all;
  • the intricate fine-tuning of the universe: All the conditions required to make the universe are amazingly precise to make life possible—something that makes better sense if an intelligent being exists than if this were the result of unguided, material processes;
  • the existence of moral duties and the fact of human dignity: It makes better sense to say that value comes from value—namely, a supremely valuable being—rather than from valueless, material processes;
  • the existence of rationality and free will: Why should we trust our beliefs or think we are personally responsible for our actions if they are the products of material, non-rational forces over which we have no control? Rationality and personal responsibility make better sense if we are made in the image of a rational, truthful, and free personal being.
  • the remarkable and vast beauty in the world/universe: The breath-taking beauty in this world makes much better sense if a creative intelligence exists rather than that this such widespread beauty is the product of mere molecules in motion.
  • the emergence of consciousness: It makes better sense to say that consciousness came from something conscious (indeed, supremely self-aware) than from unguided, non-conscious matter.

The list goes on. I’ve gone into detail on this in my essay, “The Naturalists Are Telling the Glory of God.”[4] Note that we’re not here arguing for the “God of the Bible”—a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-wise. But we are arguing for a very great, powerful, intelligent being. We aren’t arguing for more than what the evidence warrants.

8. Atheists themselves help reinforce the case against atheism. Not only is there positive evidence for God’s existence. Atheistic (naturalistic) scholars actually further reinforce the greater plausibility of theism by acknowledging that their own worldview lacks the metaphysical resources to supply the context for these features of the universe and human experience—features we routinely take for granted. I keep adding to my collection of quotations from such thinkers so that I can—like Tom Sawyer, whose chore was to whitewash the fence—sit back and let others do the work for me!

Here are a few such quotations, but I refer you to my essay “The Naturalists Are Declaring the Glory of God”—and to a lesser extent my popular-level article on the greater explanatory power of theism over naturalism.[5]

So here are a few naturalistic quotations that declare the glory of God:

Zoologist Richard Dawkins reinforcing the counterintuitive denial of purpose and objective morality: “As an academic scientist, I am a passionate Darwinian, believing that natural selection is, if not the only driving force in evolution, certainly the only known force capable of producing the illusion of purpose which so strikes all who contemplate nature. But at the same time as I support Darwinism as a scientist, I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs.”[6]

 

Dawkins on affirms the intuition of design:  “The machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like. Apart from differences in jargon, the pages of a molecular biology journal might be interchanged with those of a computer engineering journal.”[7]  And again: “[Each mitochondrion in a cell] can be thought of as a chemical factory which, in the course of delivering its primary product of usable energy, processes more than 700 different chemical substances, in long, interweaving assembly-lines strung out along the surface of its intricately folded internal membranes….Each nucleus [in all plant and animal cells]…contains a digitally coded data base, larger in information content, than all 30 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica put together. And this figure is for each cell, not all the cells of the body put together [which amount to 10 trillion]).”[8]

 

Astrophysicists John Barrow and Joseph Silk on the beginning of the universe: “Our new picture is more akin to the traditional metaphysical picture of creation out of nothing, for it predicts a definite beginning to events in time, indeed a definite beginning to time itself.” They ask: “what preceded the event called the ‘big bang’? . . . . the answer to our question is simple:  nothing.”[9]

 

Philosopher Colin McGinn on consciousness: “We have a good idea of how the Big Bang led to the creation of stars and galaxies, principally by force of gravity.  But we know of no comparable force that might explain how ever-expanding lumps of matter might have developed into conscious life.”[10] And again: “How is it possible for conscious states to depend upon brain states? How can technicolour phenomenology arise from soggy grey matter?… How could the aggregation of millions of individually insentient neurons generate subjective awareness? We know that brains are the de facto causal basis of consciousness, but we have, it seems, no understanding of how this can be so. It strikes us as miraculous, eerie, even faintly comic.”[11]

 

Philosopher John Searle on libertarian free will: “[We believe] we could have done something else” and that human freedom is “just a fact of experience.” However, because of his commitment to “the scientific” approach to reality, he rejects libertarian freedom since we’d have to postulate a self that could potentially interfere with “the causal order of nature.” [12]  (Apparently Searle couldn’t help but write this because of material forces beyond his control!)

 

 

 



[1] Gary Gutting interviews Alvin Plantinga, “Is Atheism Irrational?” The New York Times (February 9, 2014), http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/is-atheism-irrational/.

[2] The audio debate between William Craig and Michael Shermer on Wednesday, February 12, 2014, can be heard on “Air Talk” available at: http://www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2014/02/12/36019/theists-or-atheists-who-is-more-rational/ .

[3] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books/Harper Collins, 1995), 132-33.

[4] Paul Copan, “The Naturalists Are Declaring the Glory of God:  Discovering Natural Theology in the Unlikeliest Places,” in Philosophy and the Christian Worldview: Analysis, Assessment and Development, eds. David Werther and Mark D. Linville (New York: Continuum, 2012), 50-70.

[5] Paul Copan, “Is Naturalism a Simpler Explanation Than Theism?” Enrichment Journal (Winter 2012). Available at: http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/201201/201201_108_naturalism.cfm.

[6] Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 10-11.

[7] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden (New York: BasicBooks, 1993), 17-18.

[8] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 17-18.

[9] John D. Barrow and Joseph Silk, The Left Hand of Creation, 2nd ed.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 38, 209.

[10] Colin McGinn, The Mysterious Flame:  Consciousness Minds in a Material World (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 13.

[11] Colin McGinn, The Problem of Consciousness (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 10-11.

[12] John Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986 repr.) 87, 88, 92.

2 Responses to “Theism, Atheism, and Rationality: Some Reflections”

  1. Pertaining to #2 (and maybe also #4), here is a really interesting article from van Inwagen: http://andrewmbailey.com/pvi/Teapot.pdf.

  2. Wow is that deep & interesting.

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