What I Think of the New Atheists

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 23, 2010 in General Atheism,Podcast

I was recently interviewed on the Oklahoma Atheists Godcast. Here is the MP3. Below is a rough transcript I typed up, so you can more easily quote me and disagree with me:

Damion: So what do you think about the New Atheists?

Luke: Perhaps a more interesting question than ‘What does Luke Muehlhauser think about the New Atheists?’ is ‘What do atheistic philosophers think of the New Atheists?’ and I’ve spoken with or interviewed a couple dozen of them by now and I was surprised to find that they all have more or less the same opinion of the New Atheists, and their opinion goes something like this. They say:

Look, the New Atheists have probably done more good for atheism in the past 5 years than all we atheist philosophers have done in the past 50 years, writing our obscure technical articles in professional philosophy journals. The New Atheists have put atheism into public discourse more than ever before, they’ve opened the door so that people can criticize religion just like they criticize everything else like political positions and economic policies and moral positions and so on. They’ve helped people to feel comfortable coming out of the closet as nonbelievers. So they’ve really done a tremendous good. But of course, none of these best-selling New Atheists are actually trained in any of the relevant fields like religious studies or philosophy of religion, so they make lots of embarassing mistakes and it opens them up to criticisms from Christian apologists that are 100% correct.

And so that’s basically what I hear when I speak to atheistic philosophers bout the New Atheists, and as it happens that’s my opinion, too.

Now of course, much of what the New Atheists have written is not that controversial or surprising. For example, Sam Harris spends most of his time saying that we should be free to criticize religion just like we criticize everything else, that we shouldn’t accept extraordinary claims on the basis of faith, and so on. So, you know, I’m not going to complain about that kind of thing. But of course… well, Dawkins says that The God of the Bible is jealous and petty and unforgiving, vindictive, bloodthirsty, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, genocidal, you know, all those things and that’s actually very easy to establish just by reading the Bible. Steve Wells, the author of the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, actually has this great blog post where he lists each of those adjectives in that sentence from Dawkins and gives all the Bible verses proving each one. So people should look that up.

Now, the believers will say, “But you’re taking those verses out of context!” But they’ve never explained: In what ‘context’ is it morally good for God to command the Israelites to commit genocide against another tribe, including the slaughter of all their children and animals, but preserve the young virgin girls so they can be raped by the Israelites? Right? What context is that, that that’s a good thing? Or in what ‘context’ is it morally good for God to command that you stone your children to death if they are persuaded to worship a different god? And of course, believers themselves almost never know anything about the context of these verses when they claim that atheists take them out of context. They have no knowledge about ancient Canaan or Biblical literature or any of that. So when people say that, they don’t actually care about the context. They have no idea if you’d be taking it out of context. What’s really going on is not that they care about history or truth or taking things in context, what’s really going on is that they want to be God’s Cringing Yes Men, where no matter what their God does they’ll just bow down and say, “Oh yes, my lord, my lord, you’re so good and praiseworthy for commanding slavery and genocide and rape. Everything you do is good, my lord. Just please, please  give me eternal life.” And that’s what that’s really about.

Or, the believer might say, “Well, what about all the good things God does in the Bible?” Well yeah, I’m sure the Son of Sam did some good things in his life, too, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a murderous psychopath. So God doing some good things doesn’t get him off the hook from commanding genocide and slaughtering millions of innocent children and animals in Noah’s flood, and all that kind of thing. So Dawkins is quite right to point that out and to say it loudly and clearly.

So there are lots of things like that where the New Atheists are spot on and they should be commended for saying these things loudly and clearly.

But then, there are other things where they make really basic mistakes in a way that allows Christian apologists to point out their mistakes and make them look stupid. And the problem is that the pastors and apologists can say, “Look, this is how bad the arguments of the New Atheists are, so you really needn’t bother reading any of their books. Just turn back to the Bible. Don’t read the good parts of these atheists’ arguments, because they’re really all just as bad as this one or two arguments.” So I really wish atheists would be more careful to apply critical thinking to their own arguments. You know, there are plenty of good arguments for atheism, so you don’t have to rely on really bad arguments, and that just opens you up to making Christian apologists look smart and make the New Atheists look stupid.

I’ll give you a few examples. One is what Richard Dawkins calls ‘The Central Argument’ of his book… I think, in chapter 4 of The God Delusion. He gives a 6-step argument for why God is extremely improbable because God is complicated and since complicated things are improbable, therefore God is very improbable. So you would need to work your way up to complexity by a slow, gradual process like evolution. But it’s very improbable that a complex thing like God would just ‘poof’, be there, without a slow gradual process beforehand.

Damion: Is that the argument that he called the Ultimate 747 Gambit?

Exactly, so God is the Ultimate Boeing 747. I think it was Fred Hoyle who said that… you know, the idea that complex life could evolve just by chance, which of course is not what evolution claims, but… the idea that that could happen is like the idea of a tornado running through a scrap yard and assembling a Boeing 747. Actually, I don’t think Fred Hoyle was using it in that context, but apologists actually did take it out of Fred Hoyle’s context and applied it to evolution, and of course it doesn’t apply to evolution, which doesn’t claim that things evolve by chance – natural selection is, just like artificial selection, a very non-random process. But anyway, the idea is that Dawkins’ says: ‘Well, if you’re going to go with that analogy, God is the Ultimate Boeing 747 because he has, you know, all the information in the universe in his brain. He has relations to everything in the universe. That’s an incredibly complex being: he changes his mind, he thinks, has relationships, he incarnates himself into a complex, physical, biological body. That’s an incredibly complex being, so God, if anything, is more complex than any life that evolved.’ So if you’re gonna say that life is improbable, then you gotta say God is way, way more improbable.

So to a lot of atheists that sounded like a really good argument, but I want to explain why that’s not the case.

First of all, his 6 points that he gives, his 6 steps in the argument, is logically invalid, which is to say, even if all of his premises in his argument were true, they wouldn’t even support his conclusion! So that’s just a logic 101 mistake. I think Daniel Dennet read the draft of his book beforehand, and I don’t know why Dennett didn’t point that out to him, because Dennett’s a philosopher and he would at least recognize an invalid argument.

But maybe Dawkins wasn’t trying to give a logical argument, but rather a kind of messy outline toward some argument he wants to make but never does. Either way, it’s not very useful.

But there’s another problem, and it has to do with Dawkins fundamentally misunderstanding what theism actually claims. This was pointed out by an atheist philosopher named Erik Wielenberg who published a paper in a Christian philosophy journal called ‘Dawkins’ Gambit, Hume’s Aroma, and Something Something’. Anyway, what Wielenberg says is: Look, the God hypothesis is that a being with a particular set of properties exists. Right? The God hypothesis says there’s a being that is all-powerful, all-knowing, non-physical, personal, and necessary. That’s what almost every Western theologian has thought of when he writes about God.

Now, some people will be unfamiliar with this term ‘necessary.’ Necessary means it had to be that way. So, consider Goldbach’s conjecture that every even number is the sum of two primes. We don’t actually t know if that’s true, but if it is true, then it had to be true. If that is true, it’s necessarily true. If Goldbach’s conjecture is true, there’s no possible world in which Godbach’s conjecture could be false. Just like the Pythagorean theorem. There’s no possible world in which the Pythagorean theorem is false about right-angle triangles in Euclidian space. Even if God exists, he couldn’t make the Pythagorean theorem false. It’s necessarily true.

So theologians say something similar about God; they say God is a being that necessarily exists. That is, God exists in every possible world.  It’s impossible that he couldn’t exist. So if God exists, then his probability of existing was always 1. We don’t know, starting out, whether or not God exists, but if God exists then by definition God had to exist because he’s supposed to be a necessary being.

So here’s where Dawkins’ argument misses the point. Dawkins talks about God as if he was a contingent being like we are. He talks about God as if he’s a being like us, so that it’s possible that we could have existed, and it’s possible we might not have existed. And then, if that type of being is very complex, then such a being is very improbable, because it had to have come about by way of a long, gradual process like evolution. Well, that’s fine, but of course nobody believes in a Contingent God. They believe in a Necessary God. So if God exists, then by definition his probability of existing was 1. So there’s no sense in saying that if God existed his probability was very low, because you’re then talking about two different definitions of the term ‘God.’ So Dawkins’ argument tries to disprove a God that nobody believes in.

Now of course Dawkins could say that there can’t be any such thing as a necessary being, and he could give an argument for that, and that would be on-target for disproving theism. But he doesn’t do that, and anyway if he did offer such an argument against the possibility of a necessary being, then that argument would by itself disprove theism, and the argument he gives about complexity would be totally irrelevant.

So this is kind of the epic fail of the New Atheists. This is the central argument of the most popular book by the most respected New Atheist, and it is a complete failure. It fails in just about every way it’s possible for an argument to fail.

And so pastors can tell their flock: ‘Look, this is how bad the arguments of the New Atheists are. They don’t even address actual theism, and they’re logically invalid, and some of the premises aren’t even plausible, so you really needn’t bother reading their books at all – to read what Dawkins says about the God of the Old Testament or any of that stuff.’ And that’s a big problem, because then Christians remain isolated from all the good arguments for atheism and all the good points that the New Atheists make.

I’ll give another example. Christopher Hitchens in his book gives a very famous atheistic retort to Christians who offer God as an explanation for fine-tuning or whatever. Hitchens says, basically, “Well then who made God? Who designed the designer? To offer God as an explanation is to explain nothing, because it leaves himself unexplained.”

Now this is a very popular atheist retort, and it’s totally wrong. I believed it for a while. I thought “Yeah, that’s a good question.” And then I read my first book on epistemology, and this is kind of an Epistemology 101 mistake.

See, in order for something to be the best explanation for something we observe, we don’t also need to have an explanation of the explanation. Physicists do this all the time. They said atoms were the best explanation for certain things we observed – and they were right - even though they had no idea what could possibly explain the atoms themselves. And then they said that protons and neutrons and electrons were the best explanation for some atomic phenomena we observed – and they were right - even though they had no idea how to explain protons and neutrons and electrons themselves. See, the real problem here is that if you say a best explanation itself must be explained, then you could never explain anything! You’d need of an explanation of the explanation, and then an explanation of the explanation of the explanation, and then an explanation of the explanation of the explanation of the explanation and on into infinity and we could never explain anything.

So this idea that in order for an explanation to be the best you also need to have an explanation of the explanation would completely destroy science, which I don’t think the New Atheists want to do since they seem rather fond of science.

So this is just a simple confusion on the part of people like Hitchens, who is not trained as an epistemologist. The reason the God hypothesis – that ‘God did it’ explains something – the reason the God hypothesis is a bad explanation for things is because it doesn’t have any of the qualities that other successful explanations have. The God hypothesis is not testable, it has poor explanatory scope, it has no predictive novelty, it doesn’t fit with our background knowledge, it has terrible ontological economy, and so on. That is why God is a bad explanation for things, not because God himself is unexplained. But what I just talked about is way more complicated then saying “Well then who made God?” and I think that’s the attraction of this retort – it’s just very, very easy. The five-year old can make this retort. But, you know, the five-year-old hasn’t studied epistemology. Unfortunately, it’s an ignorant retort, and it just makes atheists look uninformed when they use it, and it gives pastors another reason to dismiss the New Atheists and tell their flocks that this is how bad atheistic arguments are.

I have one more favorite example. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman isn’t usually considered one of the New Atheists, but anyway he is a non-believer who has published a couple best-selling books in the last few years, and almost every atheist I know really loves his books. Well, his most popular book is Misquoting Jesus about how the Bible is compiled from all these ancient manuscripts and fragments and these manuscripts disagree with each other all over the place and it’s obvious in many places that the later author has completely changed the original text to fit with his own theology, and so it’s a tough job for all these Biblical scholars to try to put together what these writings originally said, and that’s what textual critics do. That’s what Bart Ehrman is.

And the impression Ehrman leaves you with in Misquoting Jesus is that the text of the New Testament is just hopelessly confused and lost and we can’t really know what the Bible says because we have so many thousands and thousands of variations in these ancient manuscripts. And what’s really disturbing about that impression that he leaves you with is that it’s the opposite of what he himself writes to his scholarly audience. See, Ehrman knows that the number of textual variants we have for the Bible is a blessing, not a curse. If we didn’t have so many variants within a few centuries of the original documents, we would be in a much worse position. All these variants are precisely what allow scholars like Ehrman to detect those places where a later author has corrupted the text. All these variants are precisely what allow scholars like Ehrman to figure out a probable answer to which of the variants is correct. Now, compare this to our earliest manuscript for the writings of Plato, which comes twelve hundred years after the original text. Now that is a hopeless situation. We have no way of reconstructing Plato’s original words precisely because we don’t have variants to compare to one another, and precisely because none of our manuscripts are from anywhere near Plato’s time.

So we’re actually extremely lucky with regard to the text of the New Testament, and Bart Ehrman knows it. All these variants in the manuscripts are exactly what enable him to do what he does for his entire career.

But Ehrman doesn’t point out any of that in Misquoting Jesus. He leaves his readers with the impression that all these variants totally undermine our ability to know what the New Testament says about really important issues.

Damion: Isn’t that the book where he argues that some of the most well-known anecdotes like the woman at the well… that we have reason to believe these were added later?

Luke: That’s right. A lot of what Ehrman writes is totally true and not controversial at all and really good, especially his newest book, Jesus Interrupted – is basically just a compilation of everything that scholars know about the Biblical text, and so this is stuff that’s not controversial at all. So that book is fine.

Damion: It’s just an attempt to popularize what the scholars already know.

Luke: Exactly, it’s popularizing what scholars already know, even Christian scholars, from the last 200 years. So part of that is this bit about this story in the gospel of John where Jesus says to the woman who was caught in adultery, “He who has never sinned, cast the first stone.” And it’s a beautiful story, definitely not in the original New Testament, and all scholars know it, so in most of your modern Bibles you’ll either see it not there, or you’ll see a little note that says ‘This is not in the original manuscripts.’

And so there’s a lot of stuff in the book like that that’s just not controversial at all. Also, the ending of Mark – the women are silent at the end of Mark, they never go and tell anybody in the original manuscripts.

Damion: In your study Bible all you get is a little parenthetical that says ‘The earliest manuscripts don’t have this’ and people read past the parentheticals, so they need to know that this wasn’t in the original book.

Luke: Exactly, so Ehrman says a lot of really good, totally non-controversial stuff like this in his book, and so I just don’t see why he has to put bad arguments in there, because then that allows the pastors to tell people, “Look, this is how bad the arguments are, you don’t need to read the rest of it.” Because then Christians are going to miss out on all this really basic Bible scholar knowledge about the Bible.

But I want to get back to…  you know, in Misquoting Jesus he leaves his readers with the impression that there are so many variants that we can’t really know what the Bible says about all these important issues, but then here’s this quote from page 126 of his scholarly book, The Text of the New Testament. He says:

Besides textual evidence derived from the New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic compares numerous scriptural quotations used in commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.

So you compare that kind of optimism to the pessimism of Misquoting Jesus, and he seems to be saying two different things to two different audiences. And again, alot of what Ehrman says is not controversial at all, but then… this is kind of the entire thrust of his Misquoting Jesus book, which I think is totally off base from his own words to the scholarly audience.

So he seems to be saying one thing to a popular audience and another thing to the academic audience. And actually this is a little more disturbing than the mistakes of the New Atheists because Ehrman actually is trained in a relevant field. He’s one of the most-respected textual critics of the New Testament in the world, and he still gets it badly wrong when writing for a popular audience, at least in some significant ways that allow Christian apologists to tell their flocks not to read the good parts of his books.

Christian Biblical scholars like Daniel Wallace have made exactly these criticisms of Ehrman, and so again he can say, “See? Look how dishonest and terrible these New Atheist arguments are. So don’t worry your pretty little heads. Jesus loves you and I’ll see you in heaven.” And that’s a real problem.

So those are just a few examples of how the arguments of the New Atheists can be quite bad in a way that is damaging to the rise of secularism. It’s damaging to the causes that a lot of us really care about.

Damion: I know you have some issues with Sam Harris.

Luke: Like I said, a lot of what Sam Harris says is really uncontroversial. It’s about not taking things on faith, the danger of religions disagreeing with each and being in conflict with each other because their ancient books says contrasting things… a lot of his stuff I really can’t disagree with at all.

I think my main problem with Sam Harris’ approach is that he identifies the source of the problem in religion and I think the source of the problem is just in human nature in general. I think it has more to do with dogma and lack of critical thinking, and there’s nothing particularly religious about dogma and lack of critical thinking. There actually are lots of dogmatic atheists.

I don’t know if you can be dogmatic about atheism because there’s no content to atheism, but atheists are dogmatic about all kinds of things, or they’re superstitious about all kinds of things, or they lack critical thinking about all kinds of things. And we just surveyed how the New Atheists lack critical thinking about their own arguments. So dogma and lack of critical thinking, that’s a human condition, not particularly a religious condition.

I know and interact with the work of lots of Christian philosophers who are much better at reeling in their critical thinking than some atheist philosophers or the New Atheists. So my problem with Sam Harris is that he wants to make this an us vs. them fight, and I don’t think that’s what it is. I think it’s all of us vs. dogma and in favor of critical thinking, whether or not you happen to believe in gods.

Damion: I gotta defend Harris a little bit. He does attack atheists faiths like Maoism and Stalinism.

Luke: Exactly, so I think Harris knows this [that the problem is dogma, not religion], but maybe he thought he would cause a bigger uproar by making his book about the problem of religion rather than the problem of dogma. He says, for example, ‘Stalinism basically is a religion, because it’s so dogmatic.’ I mean, there are lots of religions that aren’t very dogmatic – Taoism would be one of them. Or several forms of Buddhism, where they don’t really care at all whether you believe certain principles. Or Quakers – they don’t care at all what you believe, they more care what you do.

So there’s lots of religion that is non-dogmatic, and there’s lots of non-religious people who are dogmatic – Stalin would be a very good example. So to try to cast this problem of Stalin as a religious idea is just to complete redefine religion so that it gets the bad shift. The problem with Stalin and the problem with many religions is the dogma and the lack of critical thinking.

I understand how most of us who are familiar with Western religion could see religion as the problem.

Damion: Isn’t faith a broader term? When I say faith, I mean anything where you accept some set of dogmas on faith, without any critical thinking. So The End of Faith is an attack on a lack of critical thinking and a preference for dogma over reasoning it out.

Luke: Yup, I think you’re exactly right. I do think Harris is skating this line between ‘Well, do I want to attack religion, or am I really attacking dogma in general?’ And his assignment of Stalin, who is a complete atheist, to the religious category because of his dogma, kind of shows me that Sam Harris wants to make it about religion rather than about dogma in general.

But I don’t really know. In some of his speeches that he gave after [his book] he seems to sort of shift that distinction. So I think what you’re saying about Sam Harris is right, and my complaints about Sam Harris are much less than with some of the other New Atheists. Also, Sam Harris doesn’t really give any specific arguments for most anything in his book, so it’s not like Dawkins’ argument where I can look at the argument and pick it apart from a logical point of view. Or Christopher Hitchens’ statement.

So I don’t really have much complaint with Sam Harris’ work. Most of it is pretty unobjectionable. I would just want to shift the focus away from an us vs. them perspective, religious vs. non-religious, and shift it more to something that Harris is sympathetic with, which would be a dogma vs. critical thinking – or really, all of us trying to work for ourselves on our own minds in avoiding dogma and promoting critical thinking.

Damion: Did you want to talk about the whole suicide bombing issue?

Luke: That would be an interesting anecdote about critical thinking in my own experience. I read Sam Harris’ book, and he opens his book with this story about a suicide bomber and he says, “Why is it so easy for us to guess this man’s religion?” And the implication there is that this is obviously a Muslim who is doing this. It’s not some atheist who wants to blow up a bus.

Damion: Not some radical Hindu, or something like that.

Luke: Well, that’s what we would expect, but as it turns out if you count up the number of suicide attacks from 1980 to 2005, it actually is more likely that it’s a Marxist Hindu, namely the Tamil Tigers. When you do the math, as Robert Pape has done – he’s a University of Chicago political science researcher – it turns out that there’s actually a stronger correlation between a particular kind of political situation and suicide bombing than there is between a particular religion and suicide bombing.

When I read Pape’s work, Pape’s arguments were more persuasive to me than Harris’ arguments were, so I sided with Pape and I wrote an article on my blog explaining why I thought that Pape was right. Basically Pape says that suicide bombing is mostly a phenomena of oppressed groups wanting to evict democratic invasion of their homeland. So that’s almost always the case whenever there is suicide bombing. That’s what’s happening right there in that country.

Now a lot of that happens to be in Muslim areas – Iraq is a pretty obvious, major space where most of the bombing is done by Muslims, but that’s basically the thrust of Pape’s argument – it’s that this happens mostly where democracies have invaded and annexed the land of some other people, and so these people – the only way they can fight back is, you know, they don’t have any gunships like the USA does, so the only way they can fight back is to blow themselves up. And so Pape wants to say that that seems to be more of a cause than religion of these suicide bombing instances. Count them all up and correlate.

So I was persuaded by Pape’s arguments and I wrote an article on my blog explaining why I was persuaded by Pape’s arguments and then – one of the most useful features of having a blog is to have people criticize your opinion, and that’s what happened. A lot of people started pointing me to other articles, and I started reading more about this, and in particular I read a meta-study that analyzed the arguments of maybe 10 different people on the subject, and that made me a lot less certain of my conclusion, and so I rewrote my article on my blog, and said, “In this article I originally sided with Pape against Harris, but now I’m less certain about that,” and all that kind of thing.

So this is me responding to the evidence, I think, and using some critical thinking with regard to my own opinions, and changing my mind, and I think that’s what we all have to do. So maybe it’ll turn out to be the case that as I work my way through Harris’ books again, and the counter-arguments, and his counter-counter arguments, maybe I’ll change my mind about Harris as well. I’ve worked more deeply with the examples that I gave before with regard to Dawkins and Ehrman and Christopher Hitchens than I have with Sam Harris. So it might be that my opinion on Sam Harris changes.

And anyway, I’m not complaining with Sam Harris’ work as much I am about specific point of Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ and Ehrman.

Damion: Was there anything in Daniel Dennet’s most recent popular work that strikes you as a bad argument.

Luke: The work of Dennett that is associated with the New Atheist movement is Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which basically is an extended argument that we should study religion just like we study everything else. First of all, that’s not very controversial. Second of all, the scientists who have been doing that for a century are going pick up their heads and say, “Well, what do you think we’ve been doing for over a century?” This is already happening, so I’m not clear on the reason behind Dennett’s book.

He doesn’t actually spend much time arguing ‘Does God exist? Does God not exist?’ That’s not the thrust of his book. So it’s kind of outside the realm of what the New Atheists usually write about. And again, the vast majority of what he writes about in that book is not anything I can complain about.

One minor point that I would pick out would be where he represents the cosmological argument. He does a real quick dismissal of all the theistic arguments for the existence of God. And when he gets to the cosmological argument, he says that it goes like this: “Premise 1: Everything must have a cause. Premise 2: Therefore the universe must have a cause. Premise 3: Therefore God must have cause the universe” or something like that. But that’s not what the cosmological argument says at all, it’s a complete misrepresentation of the cosmological argument.

Obviously, the Christian isn’t going to say that everything needs a cause, because then he’d be committed to the proposition not only that the universe has a cause, but also God has a cause. And the Christian doesn’t want to say that. I’ve never seen the cosmological argument represented that way by a theist, and so what Dennett is doing here is – I mean, this is such a basic point in the cosmological argument that I can’t imagine  Dennett… it’s hard for me to imagine he would be confused about, and so it really looks like he’s putting up a straw man, where he’s putting up a weaker version of the actual argument so that he can easily take it down, instead of dealing with the actual argument.

So it’s things like that that I would just rather not see at all from the atheists, because… it does reinforce that we all need to work on our critical thinking skills, that’s really what it does.

Damion: I totally agree that we should engage the best arguments that theists have. Sometimes theists will make bad arguments – maybe they don’t make that particular one, but sometimes they’ll make bad ones. Sometimes popular writers will make transparently bad arguments, but we should engage the best version of the cosmological argument that we can find, and the best version of design arguments that we can find, because what’s the point of digging into the Medieval scholars and finding one that’s easy to knock down? How’s that going to serve anyone’s needs.

Luke: Actually, I think it would be useful to engage the bad arguments that Christians do give because in the popular work especially, the people who read those just have no idea that they’re bad. They don’t understand why they are bad arguments. So I think it is good to just get rid of those bad arguments and explain why they’re bad arguments. Then, when we’re interested in going after the truth we can engage these better arguments. But the problem with Dennett there is that not only was not engaging the best arguments of Christians, he wasn’t engaging an argument that any Christian has ever made.

So it just completely misses the point. No one is making that argument.

Damion: I bet I could find someone who makes it that bad, if I did some work and asked around. People make really bad arguments in real life, because most people don’t think about issues like you do.

Luke: Sure, well… if I were to argue about how the mechanics of a car would work, I would have no idea which argument is good or bad, because I know nothing about the mechanics of cars. And most people have never studied logic or critical thinking or the arguments for God or epistemology or any of that, so I’m not really blaming people for reading these arguments and thinking that they’re compelling. What I’m more concerned about is that if you’re going to write an entire book about religion or philosophy of religion you should study religion and philosophy of religion first.

Damion: Our book club here, in Oklahoma city, we’ve been going through the Four Horsemen. We’re about done with that, and I’m hoping we can move on to some more sophisticated books. So do you have a set of books that you’d recommend that go beyond what the New Atheists have written.

Luke: Well, about my Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge, which I stole from John Loftus of the blog Debunking Christianity, who said, “Look, if you want to know the truth, do yourself a favor and read both sides of the debate, or at least two sides of the debate, between theism and naturalism. And if you’re a Christian and you finish it and you still thinking Christianity is true, then at least you’re a lot better educated Christian and you know better how to respond to the arguments of atheists. You might even be kind of a trained apologist if you go through and read both sides.

And if you come out the other side and you think, “Well, actually Christianity is false.” Then in that case you haven’t lost anything either, because God never did exist, and so you haven’t lost anything that was real – you’ve only improved your ability to interact with the world as it really is. And vice-versa for atheists as well…

And so on my blog I gave some books that I recommended. With regard to atheism, I don’t particular recommend the New Atheist’s books – not because they’re all bad, just because it’s a mix of good and bad, except maybe Sam Harris’ book…

But then if you want to read about whether or not God exists and familiarize yourself with the arguments, there are lots of good books. Unfortunately on the atheist side there aren’t as many that are at the popular level and also good. If somebody has done a lot of reading in philosophy and is pretty well familiar with that, there’s plenty of books they can read. They can read Miracle of Theism by J.L. Mackie, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification by Michael Martin, Arguing for Atheism by Robin Le Poidevin, Logic and Theism by Jordan Howard Sobel, Arguing about Gods by Graham Oppy, The Non-Existence of God by Nick Everitt, and on and on, Theism and Explanation by Gregory Dawes…

But at the popular level, honestly the atheist books that are available are not as good on this as the Christian books that are available, just because there are a hundred Christian books that are available for every one atheist book that is available, so inevitably there are some pretty good Christian ones at the popular level.

The closest thing that I can think of is John Loftus’ Why I Became an Athiest is pretty good, though it can  get kind of heavy at times. And then, 50 Reasons People Believe in a God by Guy Harrison. That one is really easy to read, and it’s got one short and breezy chapter on each of the top 50 reasons people give for believing in a god – it’s just a nice summary of why skeptics don’t think each of these things is a very good reason. So that’s a really great book to start with. A lot of it is paraphrase of things like Hume, and you don’t even know that you’re reading the words of a famous philosopher…

Another book I would recommend would be Sense & Goodness Without God by Richard Carrier. It present not just a defense of atheism but an entire atheistic worldview. What would you think about what things exist or how we come to knowledge or what are mathematical objects or what’s morality, what’s politics – from a thoroughly naturalistic worldview. This is a great book, especially for people who somewhat recently left a religion and became skeptical of religion in general, because in most religions you’re give this complete way of looking at the world – there’s a moral system, a political system, all your questions are answered. So when you suddenly realize that God’s don’t exist, there’s this vacuum – Well what do I think about that now? Everything that I thought about morality was premised on the idea that God commanded such and such, so what do I think about morality now that I know God doesn’t exist?

So there’s this huge vacuum, and Richard Carrier’s book is maybe the only one-volume popular-level work that will address all those questions and give one plausible worldview that you could adopt and test against your reason…

There’s also a book coming out in April that I’m very excited about called The Christian Delusion, which is edited by John Loftus and has contributions from people like Richard Carrier and Bob Price. It looks like it’s gonna be a really great compilation of skeptical arguments by people who are really expert on each of the individual topics…

Damion: What process did you use to put together your particular list of 10,000+ pages.

Luke: Oh, right, my Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge. How did I choose the books? The books on that list are both theistic or apologetic in nature, and also skeptical or atheistic in nature. The way that I chose the books on the list was… I tried to choose the books that I thought made the strongest case on either side, and then I arranged them in order of how easy they were to read, so people could start with the first couple books and pick up all the arguments and get an idea for how philosophers think about these issues, and how to think logically, and what the concepts involved are. And then it slowly gets more into the technical issues involved here, until at the very end when you’re reading somebody like Plantinga or Sobel where… if you make it that far…

Damion: You may as well go ahead and major in philosophy at that point!

Luke: Exactly! You might as well become a philosopher if you can understand those books thoroughly. So that’s kind of the idea there. There are lots of books I haven’t read from either side, so I’m probably missing some really good ones, but I’ve read a lot of books, and these were the best of each side. And I also tried to balance them so that you would see the same subjects covered.

Damion: Right, you’ve got one book on each side about Jesus, for example.

Luke: Exactly, or I’ve got one book on each side that compares the philosophical foundations of theism vs. the philosophical foundations for the entire worldview of naturalism – that kind of thing. So I tried to balance them out and help people see both sides of each issue.

Damion: When are you going to get around to debating William Lane Craig in person?

Luke: Well, here’s the thing, I would definitely lose. I do actually plan to get into the debate circuit, I really enjoy public speaking, I really enjoy interacting with people at the tip of your tongue as it were, and I really enjoy educating people about these issues, so I probably will do a lot of that. But I don’t have any experience in live debate, and William Lane Craig has been doing live, Lincoln-Douglas style debates since he was in high school. He’s also a Ph.D. philosopher and historian on all of the relevant issues. So that combination makes him almost unbeatable.

The part that the atheist is usually missing when he goes up against William Lane Craig is that he hasn’t been in any debates at all. The atheist thinks he’s giving some kind of leisurely lecture and they end up being completely destroyed by the technical mastery that Craig has.

Damion: Right, they don’t get a chance to rebut his arguments, they run out of time, they don’t call out drops, all that debating technique.

Luke: Yeah, you know what you’re talking about. And I would be in the same boat, because I have no experience debating… yet. I think I would be able to better than some, but – well, that would be fun. Maybe if William Lane Craig is still alive when he’s 95 years old and I’ve had 20 years of debate experience, then maybe I’ll give that a try.

Damion: You can hardly do worse than any of the New Atheists. You’ve seen how it went.

Luke: Well, the real problem is that most atheists don’t even understand Craig’s arguments in the first place. There’s been like two people that he’s debate that actually understood the moral argument, and they end up just talking about something completely different. Or they don’t understand Craig’s response to the problem of evil, and you won’t unless you’ve read Plantinga, but if you’ve studied any philosophy of religion at all, then you’ve read Plantinga. So they don’t know how respond to his arguments.

These are very old arguments. It’s not like there’s aren’t atheistic responses to Craig’s arguments. It’s just that the people who debate him don’t see the need to read the literature before debating him.

Damion: Or even listen to his 5 arguments, which he gives every single time. The amount of unpreparedness is killing me! How could you go in cold when he has given the same 5 arguments 20 times in a row?

Luke: If you’re going to debate William Lane Craig you know word for word what he’s going to say in the opening 20 minutes. And all of his writing, all his debates, everything is available online – some of it you can order at the library, and become completely familiar with what William Lane Craig is going to say in response to every single thing the atheist says. There’s almost nothing that hasn’t been said, so you know what William Lane Craig’s response is going to be, and you can develop a counter-response.

Ray Bradley is a philosopher, and he actually read Craig’s paper before debating him, and that’s good. Almost nobody else does that.

Damion: You mean the kalam cosmological argument paper?

Luke: Bradley’s debate with Craig was specifically on the issue of hell or the moral argument, so he read some of Craig’s work on those topics. But yeah, if people are going to go against Craig, they should definitely read his article on the kalam argument, his popular work on the teleological argument, his popular and scholarly work on the moral argument, his work on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, and the last non-argument that he gives about the Reformed Epistemology of inner witness of the holy spirit providing grounds for properly basic belief in God. This is all very extensively discussed in the literature, there’s no excuse for being completely unaware of what Craig’s going to argue when you debate him, but unfortunately that’s what most atheists do.

Damion: Yeah, it’s really disappointing. I’ve been making my way through the massive list of debates you’ve compiled; thanks so much for doing that. It’s a service to the world. But yeah, you hear Craig make the same arguments, and you think “Okay, this time maybe they’re gonna hit the argument” but oh… wait… nevermind.

Luke: Nope, they’re gonna lecture about hos evolution makes Christianity implausible, or something else totally irrelevant to the argument.

Damion: That’s fine when they’re doing their opening statement, but in the rebuttal period I want to hear at least two of his arguments addressed and shot down.

Luke: Heh, yeah, just two – that’s all we’re asking for!

Damion: Two out of five!

Luke: Yeah.

Damion: Of the atheist bloggers in the atheist blogosphere, who are the top 3 or 4, in terms of popularity?

Luke: Oh, in terms of popularity. Well, if you’re counting by visits and you include blogs like the Flying Spaghetti Monster blog that mostly just posts funny pictures and things…

Damion: No, I mean people who are writing stuff. There’s P.Z. Myers, there’s Hemant Mehta… is Dawkins?

Luke: Well, Dawkins is not really blogging. Most of the action on his site is… the people who run his site will post news articles or the latest video of a Dawkins talk or something like that…

So if you’re asking about the most popular atheist blogs of articles, P.Z. Myers definitely is the most popular, then there’s the Friendly Athiest, he wrote that book about how he sold his soul on ebay, and then there’s me, there’s Daniel Florien at Unreasonable Faith, there’s vorjack at Atheist Revolution, there’s the skepchick girls, John Loftus at Debunking Christianity. It’s hard to tell how popular the About.com blog on agnosticism and athiesm is, but I think that one’s popular by Austin Cline.

Damion: So congratulations, you’ve made the top three!

Luke: I have, I shot up like a rocket, I’m way up there! It’s been a lot of fun. And what I really enjoy is that when you have a lot of readers, you get lots of criticism, and so that really helps me refine my views and people will say “Oh, no! Go read this scientific article” and then I’ll find out I was wrong about that, so that’s a really benefit of having a popular blog.

Damion: Thanks for your time and your blog. Keep up the good work on that, I hope you don’t get burned out.

Luke: You too, I’m glad for what you’re doing, and I look forward to what you do with the Godcast.

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{ 76 comments… read them below or add one }

Erika March 23, 2010 at 9:10 pm

Thanks for putting up the transcription! That was long, but a good read.

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Ajay March 23, 2010 at 9:21 pm

This is a very interesting interview. My main critique is this: in criticizing the ‘New Atheists’ you often make an apples-to-oranges comparison; i.e. “William Lane Craig, PhD Christian philosopher, defeats Christopher Hitchens, Journalist for Vanity Fair”. I think, even though these two men did debate, that this comparison is invalid. You’re picking popular science atheists and comparing them with theist philosophers.

There are two simultaneous debates going on; one on the level of popular science and an academic debate. What if I said to you, “Boy, Graham Oppy really destroys the arguments of Rick Warren.” Or C.S. Lewis. Nobody would really be impressed by that, right?

This isn’t to say that your criticisms of the ‘New Atheists’ are incorrect. I agree with quite a few of them. But to criticize them for not matching up to theistic philosophers does not seem to be an apt comparison.

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lukeprog March 23, 2010 at 9:34 pm

Ajay,

You’re exactly right about the apples to oranges here. Remember that I did talk a lot about my own apples to apples comparison (the Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge), and that I explained several times that Craig is highly qualified and the New Atheists aren’t trained in any relevant fields.

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lukeprog March 23, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Erika,

You actually read that? I hated realizing how incoherent I still am when I do not have the option to edit my words before putting them out there!

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Scott March 23, 2010 at 9:42 pm

My biggest problems with the New Atheists is that they are like the marketable rock stars. You turn on the radio and hear generic, pseudo-grunge rock – that’s Dawkins, et al. Going through the motions, just not necessarily good at it. If you dig deeper, you find the good stuff, the more experimental, louder, heavier, rock – that’s what’s on the Truth Challenge. It’s less accessible, but the payoff is so much better.

That said, I do enjoy Hitchens’s social criticisms, and I like the calm forcefulness Harris displays – his TED lecture was great.

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lukeprog March 23, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Sobel is math rock, you might say…

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Ajay March 23, 2010 at 10:16 pm

Luke – that’s fair. And I am going to get around to that truth-seeker challenge. I just have to clear out 6 months from my schedule… ;-)

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Scott March 23, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Yep – I’ve actually jumped down that rabbit hole recently. Meshuggah is warping my mind right now, DEP a bit less. Even the proggier stuff like Isis is fantastic. My biggest complaint is that they’re so wild, they sometimes forget to make it musical, perhaps the same way Sobel is a crappy editor. I stress my profs by lamenting how badly so many philosophers write. They say it should be about the clarity and accuracy of ideas; I say if they wrote better, their ideas would be clearer.

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MC March 23, 2010 at 11:00 pm

Luke,

I really think you’re giving too much intellectual credence to Christians who advance the cosmological argument.

Having talked with hundreds upon hundreds of Christians–lay apologists, pastors, evangelists, nuns, et al.–in discussions on religion and atheism, I can only think of two or three who have advanced the cosmological argument whose first premise wasn’t similar or identical to the form: “everything must have a cause” or “everything must come from something”. Perhaps my experience is unique, but I highly doubt that the average evangelical thinks of God in such strict modal terms that you impute to them. From what I can tell, they treat God as just another contingent person like their aunt or father, except with amazing super-powers. Basically, an invisible Superman.

Hell, I’ve personally stunned dozens into complete shock and silence of door-knockers with the question “who made God?” or “where did God come from, then?” at their instance that “everything has to come from something!”

Plus, I seriously think that considering the finer issues of modal ontology–given that all cosmological arguments seek as their modus operandi to prove a contingentia mundi or ab initio mundi–make very germane questions concerning the ontic grounding, priority, or supervenience relation(s) (etc.) involved. And, given these considerations, the “what created God” objection, doesn’t seem so irrelevant even to the KCA as many think.

As Hume (Cf. part IX of Hume’s Dialogues), Kant (pp. A567/B595-A642/B670 of the first Critique), as well as J.N. Findlay (1948) and others have argued, it isn’t at all obvious that the God of classical theism, even if it exists, exists in all possible worlds. You might not realize what damage you’re doing, or to what degree you’re selling naturalism and atheism short, by so cavalierly granting to theists that God is a necessary being simpliciter. It greatly handicaps one’s argument for naturalism and atheism in the proceeding arguments and discussions; tantamount to giving the tortoise a head start in Zeno’s paradox.*

*(This isn’t just an analogy: reading Oppy, Grunbaum, Le Poidevin, Morriston, et al., it is evident that, because the KCA relies on the dualism/theism-friendly A-theory of time, set-theoretic considerations and treatments of time and temporal sequences/events, like those of Zeno’s paradoxes and other supertasks, constitute challenges, which, for my money, leave the KCA dead in the water.)

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TaiChi March 24, 2010 at 12:16 am

So if God exists, then by definition his probability of existing was 1. So there’s no sense in saying that if God existed his probability was very low, because you’re then talking about two different definitions of the term ‘God.’ So Dawkins’ argument tries to disprove a God that nobody believes in.” ~ Lukeprog

Suppose someone came up with a purported proof of Goldbach’s conjecture. The mathematical community thinks that it is possible that the the conjecture has been proven, so they lean ever so slightly towards thinking Goldbach’s conjecture is true. Several mathematicians go over the proof, and are unable to find a flaw. Now the mathematical community thinks the conjecture is likely. A hundred mathematicians inspect the proof, with the same results. And now the mathematical community accept the proof, and so accept Goldbach’s conjecture as a necessary truth.
Notice that, despite the necessary nature of the fact whose truth is in question, it still seems to be sensible for the mathematical community to ascribe loose probabilities to Goldbach’s conjecture. On your view, this makes no sense – you think mathematicians should refrain from talking probabilistically about what must be a necessary truth. But this sort of talk does make sense, because the probability being assigned to Goldbach’s conjecture isn’t a deep fact about the conjecture itself, and so does not conflict with it’s necessary nature. Instead, the probability is a measure of the evidence which we have for the conjecture, which is something external to it.

Let’s take another example. On a popular account of reference, the name “water” is a rigid designator – it picks out the same substance in all possible worlds. Moreover, what the term “water” rigidly designates is the same as what the term “H2O” rigidly designates, and so the fact that “Water is H2O” is a necesssary truth. But despite this, there was a time when this necessary truth was not known. Later, it was hypothesized. Still later, it was critically endorsed. Finally, it became part of scientific theory, having achieved this status gradually, in correlation with the accumulation of scientific evidence. So, again, we have a necessary truth which was once thought possible, then probable, then finally accepted simply as true by the scientific community. Yet, despite the necessity of “Water is H2O”, and so it’s metaphysical probability of 1, it would be unreasonable to say that the usual judgments of probability made by scientists about the matter were somehow incorrect. Why? Because the probabilistic judgments are epistemic, they describe the strength of logical inference from the evidence that the scientists have to the hypothesis they have, and do not describe ‘water’ or ‘H2O’ themselves.

The same goes for Dawkins’s musing about God. That God has a low probability is not an essential fact about what God is, but about the kind of evidence we have on the question of God’s existence. And so Dawkins is well within his rights to talk probabilistically about a necessary kind of being.

One final point: Wielenberg doesn’t make the argument that you’re making here. He only brings up God’s necessity because he thinks that it entails God’s not having come into existence, and he takes this non-origination to knock down Dawkins’s improbability argument. Perhaps you know this, but you implied in the interview that the argument you gave was his, so I’m not sure.

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lukeprog March 24, 2010 at 1:03 am

MC,

You may be write about theists saying ‘everything must have a cause.’ Maybe I’m just not talking to the right theists.

I don’t grant that God is a necessary being. I was just saying that’s part of the definition of God.

One of the reasons I reject the KCA is because I reject the A theory of time. But I’m not confident in that. I need to study more philosophy of time.

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lukeprog March 24, 2010 at 1:07 am

TaiChi,

I’ll have to re-read Wielenberg’s paper; perhaps I’ve misremembered it!

I take it Dawkins was arguing for a low metaphysical probability for God. Things do get more complicated if we start talking about epistemic probability. I agree with everything you said on that subject.

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lukeprog March 24, 2010 at 1:15 am

TaiChi,

I re-read Wielenberg’s article and see that you are right. Thanks for pointing this out!

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Aaron March 24, 2010 at 2:54 am

Luke – fantastic, thanks!

One thought about Ehrman’s book. When you surmised what you thought was wrong with his book, I got the impression that he covered it.

I got the impression from his book that we can be confidence from 200-300AD onwards because of the number of manuscripts available (the blessing) however our confidence goes down the closer we get to when they were written. Therefore we can be confident our Bibles of today are an accurate representation of Bibles circa 200AD but not say 100AD and therefore we cannot exactly say what was originally written – which wouldn’t sit well with fundamentalists.

Perhaps you have a different interpretation?

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Haukur March 24, 2010 at 3:24 am

Good post, Luke. Kudos for changing your mind on the suicide bombers.

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John W. Loftus March 24, 2010 at 3:59 am

AhhhhhHaaaaa! You admit to having stole the Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge from me!!!!

Gotcha. ;-)

Hey, together we’re making a difference. Keep it up Luke.

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Charles March 24, 2010 at 5:00 am

Luke,

Great interview. Mine is just a minor gripe. I would rather that you didn’t revise blog posts by changing the original content that was submitted. It really rips a whole in the mind when you go back and read something later and can’t figure out why what you remembered is now different when the reason it seems different is because it is!

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Justin Martyr March 24, 2010 at 5:45 am

Hiya Luke,

Just wanted to say that I think this is one of your top posts. :)

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Hermes March 24, 2010 at 5:47 am

Re: Contingent/non-contingent, necessary/not-necessary.

That’s just part of the word game. If statements are made on that basis, and are not backed up, then they can be ignored. If those who don’t back them up are miffed their assertions aren’t taken seriously then they have to make the first step to back them up.

As discussions on religious ideas and theistic conjectures are both constantly sliding topics, it’s a waste of time to leap ahead and address issues that have not even been raised or if have are not adequately supported beyond the stage of being an assertion.

So, with that said, was it sloppy not to say something? Probably. Yet, the only thing I would actually fault Dawkins on isn’t in him not inoculating the conversation from those criticisms, but not addressing them as they clearly should be when the criticisms were specifically voiced; Why should those statements (on contingent/non-contingent, necessary/not-necessary) be given any reply, if they aren’t even supported beyond the level of an assertion?

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Feldmm1 March 24, 2010 at 6:23 am

I agree with MC; you are just plain wrong when you say that theists don’t advance that form of the cosmological argument. I remember being fed that argument when I was seven or so, and even at that age I could see the big flaw, but even when I pointed it out, the person telling me the argument still did not get the concept, instead saying that God does not need a cause because he is eternal. If I was given the Kalam Cosmological Argument at age 7, I would have not seen a contradiction, and I would probably be a theist today.

It’s not just MC and I that have found people that advance arguments like this. In How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic by Madsen Pirie, under the section for the fallacy of the conclusion which denies premises, Pirie remarks, “The conclusion which denies its premises constantly slips uninvited into religious arguments” (36). Then, Pirie uses arguments similar to the first cause cosmological argument that Dennett used in order to show examples of the fallacy. So I suspect that this form of the argument is much more common than you think. In fact, I would hypothesize that the reason that “what caused God?” is such a popular objection is because many atheists have, in fact, had someone try to feed them the argument when they were little, and they spotted the flaw; then, they confuse more sophisticated arguments like the KCA with the first-cause argument and give the same objection.

Moreover, although it is obvious to us that there is a contradiction, it does not seem obvious to many other people that there is one, hence its popularity and transmission (or attempted transmission) to the younger generation. Thus, although I agree with you that there are indeed many Christians which know enough logic to spot the fallacy, there are also many that do not, so it was a good idea for Dennett to refute that variation of the cosmological argument in his book, in order to point that out to anyone reading the book that has not seen the fallacy. However, I do agree that Dennett should have addressed more sophisticated cosmological arguments like the Kalam cosmological argument.

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MauricXe March 24, 2010 at 6:28 am

Luke,

What would turn you back to theism?

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Ken Pulliam March 24, 2010 at 6:34 am

Luke,

Very informative interview. Regarding Ehrman, one point that I think is missed is that in his popular writing on Misquoting Jesus, he is arguing against the evangelicals who believe in inerrancy. There is really no way to know for certain that we have the original words of Jesus or of any biblical book for that matter. All scholars know this but many evangelicals do not. We do have more relative certainty or reasonable probablility about much of the NT due to the great number of mss but that is different than saying we can arrive at the original text. As Ehrman points out, most TC today following Eldon Epp’s lead put the term original in quotations when speaking of the “original” text.

I think you are right to say that Ehrman’s point is easily confused.

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Feldmm1 March 24, 2010 at 6:35 am

I apologize if it seems like I am being a little rude when I say things like you are just plain wrong; I should have said that you are mistaken. I think part of the reason I chose the words I did was because I am somewhat astonished that you never heard any Christian say things like that before, when the fact that they do is extremely apparent to me, as well as because it irritates me that theists which use the first-cause argument in which the conclusion contradicts the premises are able to get away with it easily and then indoctrinate children with the belief that the argument works before many of them know what the word “contradiction” means. I don’t know. Anyway, I apologize again.

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lukeprog March 24, 2010 at 6:51 am

Aaron,

I’m glad to hear you got a different impression from Ehrman’s book. Perhaps it is not so pessimistic-sounding as I and many others think.

What you say is of course correct, though note that we are in a much better position with regard to the NT than with any other ancient text.

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lukeprog March 24, 2010 at 6:52 am

John,

I think I admitted that in my very first post on the challenge, didn’t I? :)

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lukeprog March 24, 2010 at 6:54 am

MauricXe,

What would persuade me to adopt theism? Exactly the same thing that would persuade me to adopt string theory, the many-worlds hypothesis, or any other theory. Sufficient evidence.

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lukeprog March 24, 2010 at 6:56 am

By the way, it should be noted that I already disagree with some of what I said back when this interview was conducted. For example, TaiChi pointed out that I slightly misrepresented Wielenberg’s argument, and I think I would be a bit softer on Ehrman now.

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James Thompson March 24, 2010 at 6:59 am

Luke, I just listened to Sam Harris’ speech from Aspen. I thought he made a good point about dogma of Nationalism, Politics and Religion being much the same.

I think the New Atheists don’t emphasize that point more.

Maybe Sam would do an interview with you?

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Ken Pulliam March 24, 2010 at 7:42 am

Luke,

We are in a much better situation with regard to the NT text than we are all other ancient docs. However, the error that Geisler and Craig make and which Ehrman calls them on is that we still cannot arrive at certainty on what the original wording of the docs. is. That is not a problem unless you believe in inerrancy as Geisler, Craig and most evangelicals do.

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Tony Hoffman March 24, 2010 at 9:08 am

Luke: “Now of course Dawkins could say that there can’t be any such thing as a necessary being, and he could give an argument for that, and that would be on-target for disproving theism.”

I think that you’re basically making a category error here. Dawkins is a populist writer, and he (correctly, I think) criticizes the “reasoning” used to demonstrate that if a designer is required to explain existence, then the explanation is either ad hoc or more improbable than that which it seeks to explain. And his argument does this.

What Dawkins argument does is relegate the theist to the position of arguing for a necessary God, which she is free to make. The problem there (which he may have done through ingenuity or just good writing instincts), is that Dawkin’s argument has chased the theist into the realm of the (technically) philosophical. That fight can, I think, be won on different merits, but the fact is that Dawkins argument, while not being technically sound, does confine the theist argument to place few can, or care to, follow. As a new atheist, I think he fits his function to a tee.

I sometimes wonder if you are not faced with the inverse of the curse of knowledge on this issue. (The term comes, I think, from a psychology experiment where the player is shown a song that she must play using only her fingers drumming the tempo, while the listener must guess based on that drumming. The result is that the drummer estimates that the listener will guess the correct answer WAY more times than they really do. So I wonder if you may not realize that Dawkins argument may only be designed to demonstrate not that God does not exist, but that the argument for his existence can only be articulated in a way that virtually all Christians are unable to follow.)

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Christof Jans March 24, 2010 at 9:49 am

I’m with Tony Hoffman here. Dawkins is basically saying that invoking God as an explanation is invoking something that is more improbable than what you are trying to explain. So it’s not a good explanation. That is what Dawkins is trying to say and I don’t see why it is mistaken.

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cl March 24, 2010 at 11:12 am

I think my main problem with Sam Harris’ approach is that he identifies the source of the problem in religion and I think the source of the problem is just in human nature in general. (Luke)

I’m glad an atheist finally said that. Every theist error has its atheist counterpart, because, it’s human nature to err.

Dawkins is basically saying that invoking God as an explanation is invoking something that is more improbable than what you are trying to explain. So it’s not a good explanation. That is what Dawkins is trying to say and I don’t see why it is mistaken. (ChristofJans)

Well, I thought Luke’s objections were valid, and I see Dawkins’ argument as mistaken for at least two reasons:

1) To simply label God “improbable” is a naked assertion (though I grant that the word ‘improbable’ was your addition and may not appear directly in Dawkins’ argument as delineated in The God Delusion);

2) Causes are not required to be more complex than their effects.

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cl March 24, 2010 at 11:17 am

Feldmm1,

“What caused God” is only a valid response to somebody who argues that all that exists requires a cause.

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Reginald Selkirk March 24, 2010 at 11:27 am

My main critique is this: in criticizing the ‘New Atheists’ you often make an apples-to-oranges comparison

What’s wrong with that?

Apples and Oranges — A Comparison
by Scott A. Sandford

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Reginald Selkirk March 24, 2010 at 11:31 am

and I like the calm forcefulness Harris displays – his TED lecture was great.

The one where he tries to claim that science can determine moral values? I thought that was philosophically retarded. I look forward to lukeprog dismantling it.

Harris has a tendency towards black and white thinking which leads him into certain errors.

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mikero March 24, 2010 at 11:32 am

I was surprised by your criticism of Sam Harris. In almost every Sam Harris video I can recall seeing, he has been explicit that he is opposing dogma, of which religion is one instantiation. I know I’ve heard him say this many times. I haven’t read his books, so can’t attest to what he writes in them.

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lukeprog March 24, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Ken,

Yes.

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Silas March 24, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Good job Lewk. Doing stuff IRL is hard, but you did well.

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Feldmm1 March 24, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Feldmm1,“What caused God” is only a valid response to somebody who argues that all that exists requires a cause.  

Yes, that was the premise that was originally presented. All that the person needed to do was modify their original argument to make it like the Kalam, but they did not.

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Haecceitas March 24, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Ken,

Technically, the doctrine of inerrancy doesn’t even require the current existence of a single manuscript or a printed version of the Bible. All that it requires is that the originals were inerrant (and even this is qualified to a greater extent than many think – though you know this, obviously) when they were produced.

The doctrine of the preservation of scripture is another matter.

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Haecceitas March 24, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Swinburne rejects the logical necessity of God, by the way. But then again, he argues against the idea that God is complex.

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lukeprog March 24, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Haecceitas,

Dawkins argument wouldn’t apply to Swinburne’s God, either, because Swinburne’s God is eternal, and never ‘came into existence.’ Wielenberg notes this in his paper.

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Haecceitas March 24, 2010 at 2:07 pm

I haven’t read his paper, but isn’t it at least a bit more unclear whether Swinburne’s concept of God would escape Dawkins’ criticism simply by virtue being eternal? Especially given his own emphasis on simplicity as a significant factor in making a hypothesis probable (and conversely, complexity making a hypothesis improbable).

Also, you’d have a much easier time convincing everybody that Dawkins is attacking a straw man if you think that eternity is all that is required for the concept of God to avoid the criticism. There may be at least sizeable minority of theists who don’t think that God is necessary, but very few if any theist would deny the eternality of God.

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Lee A. P. March 24, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Very informative interview. Regarding Ehrman, one point that I think is missed is that in his popular writing on Misquoting Jesus, he is arguing against the evangelicals who believe in inerrancy.

Yes. Exactly. I am confused that Luke does not seem to understand that.

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Haecceitas March 24, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Luke,

One point that I wished you’d have made in this interview is that the definition of “faith” as inherently irrational as it’s used by many of the new atheists is a gross misrepresentation if they are intending to interact with the actual top apologists rather than what may be the perspective of the common person in the pew or certain fideistic theologians. The evidentialists will typically define faith as conviction and trust grounded in evidence, whereas presuppositionalist and reformed epistemologists will argue for warranted faith by a different route (still not saying that it’s “blind faith” by definition). Christian apologists may be wrong, of course, but at least they should be allowed to define their own terms.

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Haecceitas March 24, 2010 at 2:18 pm

I think people like Wallace are fully informed (obviously) about the textual issues and that may lead them to be hesitant about affirming the doctrine of the complete preservation of Scripture, but this isn’t inerrancy as such. (Also, I have no idea as to how many pastors, etc. will take the same route, so perhaps Ehrman’s points are legitimate when criticizing them.)

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Ken Pulliam March 24, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Ken,Technically, the doctrine of inerrancy doesn’t even require the current existence of a single manuscript or a printed version of the Bible. All that it requires is that the originals were inerrant (and even this is qualified to a greater extent than many think – though you know this, obviously) when they were produced.The doctrine of the preservation of scripture is another matter.  (Quote)

Yes, I agree but as Ehrman points out from a practical standpoint, if only the original wording is inerrant and we can’t be certain about the original wording, then what value does inerrancy serve? I guess you could say that it means that at least the beginning of the stream was not polluted but if it has become polluted since the beginning, what practical difference does it make?

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Haecceitas March 24, 2010 at 2:47 pm

“Yes, I agree but as Ehrman points out from a practical standpoint, if only the original wording is inerrant and we can’t be certain about the original wording, then what value does inerrancy serve?”

I guess someone might ask the same question about many other theological doctrines. But perhaps that’s just a wrong question to ask. Why is it necessary that there should be some practical value? Is that the only basis for Christian doctrine?

I suppose some inerrantists believe the doctrine simply because they see it as a logical consequence of holding that God inspired the Bible.

But at the same time, one could argue (with considerable plausibility) that if the originals really were inerrant, then it is very probable that the types of omissions from the original inerrant text that the may have crept into the textual tradition are (in light of the wealth of textual evidence) rather insignificant for practical purposes.

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Conversational Atheist March 24, 2010 at 4:00 pm

I’ve been thinking about these kinds of objections for a while, and I think what Dawkins means is something like the following.

It’d be like people coming across a tall wall with a name written in chalk on it 30 feet off the ground. A person might ask, how could a person ever climb a ladder high enough to write his name on a wall?

If someone said, well you’re ok with the notion that a person, once attaining a height on a ladder, can climb back down easily, right?

Right.

Then it’s easy, a person climbed a ladder to an even higher height, and wrote his name 30 feet off the ground as he was climbing down!

The new problem becomes obvious — if the difficulty was to explain “how could a person got up a ladder THAT HIGH”, how does “well, a person got up a ladder EVEN HIGHER and came down a bit” — do anything but make the thing being explained even more difficult?

I think Dawkins isn’t trying to merely saying that because the thing you use to explain complexity is *unexplained* it fails (I agree saying ‘unexplained’ alone doesn’t work for reasons you’ve previously argued). I think he’s saying that because the thing you use to explain complexity is *more complexity*, the only think you’ve accomplished is created a new thing that “needs to be explained” in the same exact way as the first — and to a higher degree.

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piero March 24, 2010 at 8:15 pm

Well, I thought Luke’s objections were valid, and I see Dawkins’ argument as mistaken for at least two reasons:
1) To simply label God “improbable” is a naked assertion (though I grant that the word ‘improbable’ was your addition and may not appear directly in Dawkins’ argument as delineated in The God Delusion);2) Causes are not required to be more complex than their effects.  

Yes, the word “improbable” does appear in Dawkins’s argument, and with good reason, I think. It is not a naked assertion, but a consequence of the theistic argument for the existence of God that runs something like: “It is extremely unlikely that the universe arose spontaneously, so there must be a creator”. If the universe is unlikely to have arisen spontaneously, then it is even more unlikely that something so complex as the universe’s creator arose spontaneously. So this creator had to have a creator, etc.

Concerning causes, you are right in general, but wrong in particular. God is not posited as the mere cause of the universe, but as a creative, conscious, purposeful cause: when a theist says “God is the cause of the universe” he/she does not mean “cause” as in “subduction is the cause of Chilean earthquakes”. The fundamental difference is obvious: subduction does not intend to cause earthquakes, whereas a theistic God is the willing cause of the universe.

Unless, of course, you subscribe to a naturalistic view of God, in which case there’s not much point in antagonizing atheists by using a non-standard nomenclature. Just call a cause a cause, and a spade a spade.

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Hermes March 24, 2010 at 9:23 pm

I think he’s saying that because the thing you use to explain complexity is *more complexity*, the only think you’ve accomplished is created a new thing that “needs to be explained” in the same exact way as the first — and to a higher degree.

Yes, and a bit more. It was clear to me that he was mocking the absurdity of the complaints ID/Creationists have against evolution. If they want to use ‘it is too complex!’ as an argument, then they have to deal with the consequences.

It’s kinda silly to insist that Dawkins have a bullet proof answer to such a malformed argument that basically boils down to personal incredulity.

Yet, the typical tactic of many professional theist debaters is to load up dozens of arguments and questions and shot gun them out — unexplained and unsupported.

Meanwhile, it is somehow bad taste to cut corners on any reply. Sophistry I like, but not in the worst sense when used as a legalistic tactic.^

^. Related: The Romans (~second century CE) loved suing each other, and even the educated ones were not taught general knowledge but how to argue, so people who were good at arguing were held in high esteem.

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Steve n Carr March 25, 2010 at 12:33 am

‘Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.’

In other words, the citations often have a different text to that in modern Bibles..

Let us look at one example – Matthew 19.17 /Mark 10.18/Luke 18.19

One very early Church Father is Justin. In his Dialogue 101.2 (probably from the 140s or 150s) , we read “One is good, my Father in the heavens.” This very early quotation is not what we read in the Bible today.
Perhaps he was just working from memory, or did he have a manuscript which differed from today’s Bibles?
EPHREM: Commentary on the Diatessaron, XV.9, in both the original Syriac and the Armenian (2 manuscripts) reads: “One is good, the/my Father who [is] in the heaven.”
Ephrem died in 373, and the Syriac manuscript of the Commentary is fifth century. And Tatian, of course, composed the Diatessaron (the gospel harmony upon which Ephrem was commenting) about 172, on the basis of the gospel texts current then. And this citation agrees precisely with Justin’s, allowing for the differences in Syriac and Greek. We now have two independent sources which show that the 2nd-century manuscripts of this Gospel verse differ from what is read today.
IRENAEUS: Haer. V.7.25 (pre-185): “One is good, the/my Father in the heavens.”
Another second-century source confirming the ‘wrong’ version of Matthew 19:17.
HIPPOLYTUS: Haer. V.7.25 (pre-222): “One is good, the/my Father in the heavens.”
Another early Christian Father has the ‘wrong’ version.
CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA: Strom. V.10.63 (composed c. 207):”One is good, the/my Father.”
At least Clement drops the ‘in the heaven’ phrase.
PSEUDO-CLEMENTINE HOMILIES: XVI.3.4 about 260 AD. “For one is good, the/my Father in the heavens.”
Another early Church Father disagrees with the ‘correct’ version of the Bible.
VETUS LATINA MS e (apud Matthew, 5th cent.): “Unus est bonus, pater.”
This is the second most ancient manuscript and it also has ‘Father’
VETUS LATINA MS d (apud Luke, 5th century.): “Nemo bonus nisi unus Deus pater.”
‘Father’ again.

So how can we ‘reconstruct’ the text of modern Bibles when all these church fathers say something different to the modern text.

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TaiChi March 25, 2010 at 12:41 am

I re-read Wielenberg’s article and see that you are right. Thanks for pointing this out!” ~ Lukeprog

Excellent! :)

I haven’t read his paper, but isn’t it at least a bit more unclear whether Swinburne’s concept of God would escape Dawkins’ criticism simply by virtue being eternal? Especially given his own emphasis on simplicity as a significant factor in making a hypothesis probable (and conversely, complexity making a hypothesis improbable).” ~ Haecceitas

This is my view, too. Wielenberg fairly quickly decides that Dawkins is assuming God to have come into being at some point in time..

..let us direct our attention to the fourth premise of the Gambit:
(4) It is very improbable that there exists something that (i) is at least as complex as the natural, complex phenomena in the universe and (ii) has no explanation external to itself.
Much of the support for this premise rests on the idea that the more complex a being is, the less likely it is that such a being would spontaneously come into existence by chance alone. Dawkins sees a kind of tension between conditions (i) and (ii) specified in (4) above. If something has no explanation external to itself, then presumably it somehow came into existence on its own. The more complex the entity in question is, the less likely it is that this would occur. Thus, a spontaneously-formed God who is at least as complex as the physical universe itself is very improbable.
” ~ Wielenberg

.. and dismisses Dawkins argument with ease, on the basis that Dawkins targets a God of no interest to theists. But with you, I think that something complex is improbable whatever the facts concerning its past existence or non-existence.
Suppose there were a deck of cards, that for reasons unknown, had enjoyed eternal existence, and hadn’t been shuffled or tampered with in any way during this existence. What are the chances that the card on top of the deck is a diamond? That is the Queen of spades? Surely the odds are just the same as if the deck had been fairly shuffled. And what are the odds that the cards are arranged alphabetically, then numerically, front to back, so that the order of cards is unique? Again, just the same as with our regular deck of cards, shuffled fairly.
Well, a complex God seems to me like that ordered deck of cards – it is a particular permutation of parts, and as one amongst many possible arrangements of parts, it is, as a logical matter, quite an unlikely arrangement. So a complex God is unlikely, his eternity notwithstanding.

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MauricXe March 25, 2010 at 6:19 am

haha bad question.

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lukeprog March 25, 2010 at 6:55 am

TaiChi,

Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that. I can see how Wielenberg interprets Dawkins in terms of ‘coming into existence’ as Dawkins frames the problem in the context of evolutionary mechanisms, but what happens if we draft a new argument against God from complexity that does not depend on God ‘coming into existence’? Hopefully my upcoming biblioigraphy on complexity and simplicity will assist us in thinking about that issue.

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cl March 25, 2010 at 9:37 am

feldmm1,

Okay, well.. now you’ve got me curious: if you understand the distinction, why did you previously say,

If I was given the Kalam Cosmological Argument at age 7, I would have not seen a contradiction, and I would probably be a theist today.

IOW, if the distinction has been made, and you understand it, then where’s the contradiction? Or, maybe I’m just hearing you wrong and you are actually saying there is no contradiction in the KLA?

piero,

It is not a naked assertion, but a consequence of the theistic argument for the existence of God that runs something like: “It is extremely unlikely that the universe arose spontaneously, so there must be a creator”. If the universe is unlikely to have arisen spontaneously, then it is even more unlikely that something so complex as the universe’s creator arose spontaneously. So this creator had to have a creator, etc.

Causes are not required to be more complex than their effects. IOW, not only is Dawkins’ assertion naked, but ignorant: I’m not arguing that the universe’s Creator arose spontaneously, and neither are most monotheists. This is exactly what people are talking about when they say the New Atheists tend to make lame arguments: Dawkins’ assertion of “improbable” is founded on an instance of the genetic fallacy, and responds to a strawman argument.

TaiChi,

Hey there. Though it took a while, I just wanted to let you know I got back to your comment here. Also, I started my own little series of posts on desirism here, in case you’re interested. My first goal is to clearly articulate where I agree and disagree with Fyfe.

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TaiChi March 25, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Lukeprog,

Looking forward to it.

Cl,

Thanks, I’ll check those out.

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Rodrigo March 25, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Congratulations, Luke!! It was a pretty good interview and you made your points very clearly. I think you are absolutely right when you say that the New Atheist don’t address the best theist arguments (or should I say the best formulations of these arguments) found in the professional religious philosophy literature or at least from the arguments formulated by Christian Apologists who are familiar with analytical philosophy and modern metaphysics. I think your right on the mark, but I’ve listen all the theist arguments that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris engage and respond, told by many religious people, most of them don’ t even know what “necessity” means and really see God as a kind of person just with hyper-overdimensioned qualities and abilities. I’ve indeed read worst and more simplistic formulations of those arguments by theist, even some theologists, than the one’s used by Dennet or Dawkins. I think that is against these low level arguments that the works of the New Atheist are directed to and they serve as an introduction to the debate. Yes, I would love to see the debate get deeper and see more qualified work from Atheists who really engage in the more complex theist arguments in more popular books.

Best regards and sorry for my English,

Rodrigo

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Hermes March 25, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Rodrigo, if you have not read it, this is partially in line with what you bring up;

The Courtier’s Reply

Background: http://deoxy.org/emperors.htm

I admit it is not a reply, but if you haven’t seen it yet you might find it informative.

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piero March 25, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Causes are not required to be more complex than their effects. IOW, not only is Dawkins’ assertion naked, but ignorant: I’m not arguing that the universe’s Creator arose spontaneously, and neither are most monotheists. This is exactly what people are talking about when they say the New Atheists tend to make lame arguments: Dawkins’ assertion of “improbable” is founded on an instance of the genetic fallacy, and responds to a strawman argument.

As I said before, it is true in general that a cause need not be more complex than its effects, but it is not true in the case of a willing cause. A willing cause is what we call a designer, and a designer has to be more complex than the thing designed. Now, if you are willing to accept that God is less complex than the universe, you will get no argument from me.

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Hermes March 25, 2010 at 8:41 pm

it is true in general that a cause need not be more complex than its effects, but it is not true in the case of a willing cause.

Well said.

Now, if you are willing to accept that God is less complex than the universe, you will get no argument from me.

If the Christian deity exists, of course it is less complex than the universe. It didn’t have to do any heavy lifting such as actually doing anything to get the whole ball rolling.

It clearly hates knowledge, and seems to be indifferent about evil — giving as well as taking. Otherwise, though, it ‘behaves’ exactly like other equally credible regional deity, though maybe some of the others have a better general attitude. Dagda or Bacchus, for example.

Yahweh seems to be be in desperate need of a vacation or a screw, as He acts both uptight and ironically much more irked about “His creation” than someone who has some foresight. He seems to have a really bad sense of timing as well. Maybe he’s more like the office mooch who takes credit for the work of others? No wonder he’s not more accepting of the results! How can you complain about someone else’s mistakes if you’ve already taken credit for their work? :-)

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Rodrigo March 25, 2010 at 11:08 pm

Rodrigo, if you have not read it, this is partially in line with what you bring up;The Courtier’s ReplyBackground: http://deoxy.org/emperors.htmI admit it is not a reply, but if you haven’t seen it yet you might find it informative.  

Thanks Hermes,

Yes I knew the Courtier’s reply. I agree with you that it’s related, but it is a bitdifferent. In these case the ones using these strategy are not lay religious people or simplistic theologists, the one’s targeted by the New Atheists arguments, in my view. They are intellectuals like Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton who admire religion and “believe in belief” (as Dennet says) but don’t really believe in the same kind of god most people worship, but they won’t admit it. They prefer a more abstract kind, like a “transcendental impetus” but conform with most naturalistic attitudes. But there are no real arguments backing them up. At least they never state them. So they cite obscure works and ancient theologists, that are supposed to be refined and deep, but never state explicitly the arguments favoring these particular theologies. They just say that the New Atheist are ignorant of those particular authors, as it was relevant for the discussion.

Rodrigo

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Hermes March 26, 2010 at 8:11 am

Rodrigo, agreed. Well said. I found PZ’s summary helpful, but Jason Rosenhouse’s review (linked by PZ) to be the real meat of that issue. It was a shame I did not pay attention to it more the first time around.

FWIW, I am a fan of Armstrong’s work, if not her conclusions.

For example, her book A Short History of Myth is informative, has an interesting perspective, and also has just about driven me to do a screaming tirade of nearly every paragraph in that book.

She does an amazing job of almost getting it, then in the same paragraph of taking back much of her advances by simply inserting a slight tweak that causes the whole paragraph to be wrecked.

Doing this occasionally — or to be a devil’s advocate — is fine, yet I suspect either she has an agenda or is holding on to an idea that leads to her very strange and unsupportable conclusions. It’s almost like she’s gossiping about the topic, and spreading unrelated innuendo in the process.

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Rodrigo March 26, 2010 at 2:39 pm

I feel the same way about Eagleton whose criticism against some post-modernist relativists positions I liked very much. And about Allan-Orr, a evolutionary geneticist, who works on adaptaion genetics and speciation, but used the same kind of reply against Dawkins and after that was heavily criticized by PZ Myers.

Rodrigo

Rodrigo, agreed.Well said.I found PZ’s summary helpful, but Jason Rosenhouse’s review (linked by PZ) to be the real meat of that issue.It was a shame I did not pay attention to it more the first time around.FWIW, I am a fan of Armstrong’s work, if not her conclusions.For example, her book A Short History of Myth is informative, has an interesting perspective, and also has just about driven me to do a screaming tirade of nearly every paragraph in that book.She does an amazing job of almost getting it, then in the same paragraph of taking back much of her advances by simply inserting a slight tweak that causes the whole paragraph to be wrecked.Doing this occasionally — or to be a devil’s advocate — is fine, yet I suspect either she has an agenda or is holding on to an idea that leads to her very strange and unsupportable conclusions.It’s almost like she’s gossiping about the topic, and spreading unrelated innuendo in the process.  

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Michael March 26, 2010 at 3:05 pm

A red flag went up for me in reference to misquoting jesus that has been addressed by others here also. The significance was not being able to piece together what the earliest bible said but the inability to piece together the original god inspired inerrant text ‘because all we have are copies of copies of copies’ but not the original text itself. It is with the multitude of copies with their multitude of variations that makes the point. An appologists would be better served to ignore the significance of Ehrman’s inerrancy conclusion and change the focus to the ‘conflict’ which isn’t really there. Thanks for the thought provoking discussion!

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oarobin April 3, 2010 at 5:58 pm

i am intrigue by this statement “That is, God exists in every possible world.”
it seems to suffer from the same problems as the naive set theory concept of universal set
i.e. if a god exists in all possible world does he exist in a world that has no God (ala mimicking set of all sets.) or the world where there is no existence.
i would like to see how theologians have formally dealt with this problem.

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lukeprog April 4, 2010 at 2:02 am

oarobin,

The whole point of saying God is necessary is to say that he exists in every possible world. There is no world in which god does not exist. All such worlds are impossible worlds.

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oarobin April 4, 2010 at 1:59 pm

i know “The whole point of saying God is necessary is to say that he exists in every possible world” . the effect though it that it puts the existence of god in the definition of world since it was not deduce from the premises. this has the immediate effect of defining other classes of objects i.e. pseudo-worlds that has in its definition the non-existence of god or super-worlds that just drops the god question altogether. it then naturally leads to a question of which one of these worlds are we currently in.
in short using the existence of god in the definition of world does not mean you are describing our existence nor does it mean that it is not a more elaborate description of the empty set.

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Tony Hoffman April 5, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Besides any problems that oarobin may be on to regarding logical problems with God’s necessity, I’d like to add that it also has the disadvantage of a) positing something that we have never encountered (an uncaused cause), b) is beyond our ability to experience or comprehend, and c) is superfluous.

I do believe, as well, that a post on God’s necessity is overdue here. Or did I come late and miss that party sometime more than a year ago?

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DVD June 26, 2010 at 10:16 am

what? why are you so anti-atheist for being an atheist? It’s like…it’s one thing to be anti-war, it’s another thing to be pro-Islam. there’s a book out by a conservative Atheist called “Losing Our Faith” which criticizes the media for being anti-religion. this website sometimes reminds me of that. you can criticize the president without criticizing the troops. you can criticize Atheists without all out criticizing them. if there’s anything that bothers me about this site, it’s how much gratitude is given to jerks like WLC. He is not great!

Craig has used the same exact arguments since 1993 EVEN after he’s lost the debate! It’s like running on raising someone’s taxes, losing an election, and not running on tax cuts the 2nd time. Can you imagine that?

What’s more, Craig’s shotgun style is BS. There’s two videos on you tube that demonstrate this. One’s called William Lane Craig and the five ways. Pretend for example, we were debating abortion and I said conservatives were hypocrites for:

1. being against universal health care
2. being pro-gun
3. being pro-war
4. being pro-death penalty

NOW,

I could have an argument on any one of those 4 for hours! So what Craig’s opponent usually does is get to 1 or 2 (the way Hitchens gets to the fine-tuning) and all Craig has to say is well, you didn’t address 2,3, or 4. So what he’s saying is I have to address BOTH my own argument, why abortion is wrong, and all 4 arguments, often in under an hour? NO!

BUT….notice the more specific Craig gets the more he loses. Like if the topic is just about morality with Shelly Kagan. Or if it’s just about the Historical Resurrection of Jesus (notice how pathetic Craig looks in the last section where he speaks about the experiential Jesus as evidence as if that’s worth anything more than the way Muslims feel about Muhammad or Jews feel about God and not Jesus).

So far, I’ve watched 6 debates with Craig and I only felt Craig won ONCE. I did not feel that Christopher Hitchens lost the debate at the Book Expo by any means. Probably because Hitchens wasn’t obligated to answer Craig’s questions since he had all sorts of other questions going at him. So when Craig accuses Hitchens of not answering his questions in that debate, it looks rather stupid. And none of the Christian Book Expo people give a good reason for Fraulein Freizel’s (the girl who was raped by her father for years without anyone knowing) suffering whatsoever. I think you WAYYY underestimate Hitchens! And so do other Atheists. He is a brilliant historian and also notes that almost all Biblical stories have virgin births.

The first debate I watched with Craig was that with Kagan and I felt Kagan clearly won! Especially when Craig tried to argue that Christians were better when it came to the environment and treatment of animals? Please. The second debate was just him and Hitchens. I’ll have to watch that debate again. It seemed like they were just going in different directions and neither addressed either one’s question particularly well. The third was Hitchens with the Christian Book Expo and I felt Hitchens held his ground pretty well considering he was up against 4 Christians. He was funny, and I thought he made them look nervous, especially, the guy standing at the podium. The 4th debate was with Bart Ehrman on the Historical Resurrection of Jesus, and I thought Ehrman definitely won. So did you tube comments. So I don’t know why you wrote that Ehrman’s not qualified to debate Craig! Finally, I decided to watch a debate where I knew Craig won, which was in Canada with John Shook. Craig did a good job of being quick with slamming the stock market analogy. However, Shook did introduce me to the idea of multiverse, so I suppose it was worth watching for that. The next debate was with Austin Dacey and I felt that Dacey won that debate and gave good evidence for Atheism. Next I plan on watching the debate with Ray Bradley about hell, which, no surprise, I heard Craig lost. So, no, I do NOT think highly of Craig. And this is not just me criticizing theists. I think very highly of Francis Collins and I even read a little bit of his book. While Craig calls all our lives objectively meaningless, I think that Craig’s life is subjectively meaningless. He hasn’t dedicated anything to science the way Francis Collins or Richard Dawkins has, he hasn’t dedicated anything to history the way Hitchens has, he hasn’t dedicated anything to entertainment the way Penn, Teller, or James Randi has, etc, etc. (although he has convinced people to believe in the magical powers of Jesus [by the way, Jesus would never accept Randi's million dollar challenge]). Now it could be that philosophy is just not that contributable a field to society. On the other hand, some original philosophers like Ayn Rand (not that I agree everything she has to say by any means) have dedicated a whole hell of a lot, whereas Craig’s philosophy is nothing new and almost all theists – believe it or not – actually use at least 3 of Craig’s arguments in their debates (including Douche Dinesh D’Souza — yeah, they all use the fine-tuning argument, the resurrection, the Big Bang; Craig is nothing new, nothing special).

Second, the Dawkins argument is not that every explanation must have an explanation. That’s NOT why theists fall into a trap. WHAT explained GOD IS a relevant question because it is the old watchmaker argument…something complex such as humans must have come from some greater intelligence. BUT if you say that everything complex comes from God you fall into a paradox because if something complex comes from the most complex thing in the universe (unless of course Christians want to change the definition of complex the way they change the definition of evil) it is the theist, not the Atheist, who falls into a trap. The fact that WLC laughs this off just shows how blindly his followers, including Atheists, shrug this argument away. It IS relevant!

Finally, when Atheists do not argue that Stalin was bad because he was dogmatic, but rather that Fascism, Marxism, etc., are STATE RELIGIONS! Nationalism is state religion. It’s a blind faith with a binding relationship to leaders. Patriotism is a sort of religious cult. Very much in the same way that a member of the army will follow a president’s command and not talk trash on the president even when he disagrees with him, a religious person will not talk trash on God even though he might be uncomfortable with some of what God says or commands. So yes, the state can be a religion. Atheism has nothing, or at best little to do with it.

I showed my Christian uncle a video of Craig talking about intelligent design and he hit his hand up to his forehead. After he saw the clip of Kagan talking about why humans are special from a naturalistic perspective and then Craig’s video on the intelligent design, Flying Spaghetti Monster trial, my uncle noted how stupid he thought Craig was! Compare this to my Christian friend who watched Christopher Hitchens talk about Mother Teresa on Penn and Teller’s Bullshit, I showed him some other videos of Hitchens and my Christian friend thought Hitchens was smart and brilliant right away. Looks can be deceiving but overall I think you WAYYY too much compliment Craig and WAYY too much demonize Hitchens and other New Atheists. I thought this website was supposed to be called Common Sense Atheism, NOT Criticize Atheism. Even though you post a lot of intellectual content, and some of your criticisms are valid, I think you kiss Craig’s ass too much. I wish you would remove his name from this site. I do not believe in intellectual dishonesty and so I will continue to read the smart things you have to say on this website, as well as the things Craig says on his website, “Reasonable” Faith, despite how bizarre I often think they are (EX. being gay is equivalent to being an alcoholic or drug addict; the suffering of the Cananites in the Old Testament is OK because God says so [which is like saying If the president does it, it's not illegal], and that Dawkins doesn’t recognize Craig [he actually made a post on his website criticizng Craig for his statement about the Cananites, but you don't hear Atheists complaining about Craig not responding to that, now do you??].

One thing I have to say about New Atheist (A. I don’t see how they differ from old Atheists), but rather than claim Agnosticism like Michael Shermer (still, I like Shermer), they’re no non-sense attitude. I love how Hitchens and Penn Jillette (probably my two favorite Atheists) just say, you know what, you don’t like my way of life, **** you. I would personally love to see WLC debate Penn Jillette and WLC say your life is objectively meaningless, and Penn to say, you know what **** you, your life is subjectively meaningless. And he would. And, like you, I would also like to see WLC debate Michael Shermer. I read that they were going to debate on July 8th, but then I never saw that post again.

To SUM up, when you call your website Common Sense Atheism, you are establishing yourself as playing for the A-Team! It’s one thing to give constructive criticism to your team, it’s one thing to give the benefit of the doubt to theists, it’s another to flat out kiss the other team’s ass! Please, if I have two requests for this website, 1. stop playing devil’s advocate against the New Atheists, and 2. remove William Lane Craig’s name and stop kissing his ass! Please, even if you do not respond to this, please, please, please read.

Thanks.

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lukeprog June 26, 2010 at 12:25 pm

DVD,

I welcome your opinion, but I disagree.

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DVD June 26, 2010 at 4:22 pm

OK. Thank you for reading and responding.

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lukeprog June 26, 2010 at 4:35 pm

DVD,

BTW, I should not that I have already been persuaded to disagree with some particulars of what I’ve written in this post.

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Jason Vacare August 17, 2010 at 2:13 pm

@lukeprog

This is an old post I had bookmarked. Having just randomly read the last couple comments I have to say that I’m actually HUGELY THANKFUL that you give atheists as much (if not more) grief for their arguments as theists. I think it is the heart of intellectual integrity to be able to look at people who ostensibly agree with you and say “what the fuck are you talking about?”

In so doing, you have greatly improved the intellectual integrity of many atheists (and theists) who read your blog. I know many of them. So I’m glad you disagree with DVD. There are no “teams” when it comes to the pursuit of understanding :)

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lukeprog August 17, 2010 at 6:42 pm

Thanks, Jason Vacare.

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believeordoubt May 8, 2011 at 3:37 pm

I’m a theist, but I just wanted to ditto the last comment; I really appreciate your blog, especially the reviews of William Lane Craig’s debates. It’s getting harder to find people who try to be fair to the other side in the God debate (both theists and atheists are acting like jerks these days), and try to approach the topic in a cool headed way. Also, someone needs to stand up for philosphers; scientists disregard us too often. We need more atheists like you. Let’s focus on the arguments.

BTW, I’d actually be a little easier on Dawkins’s Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit. He’s responding, at least in part, to Richard Swinburne’s arguments. Swinburne, as you probably already know, makes probabilitisic arguments for God’s existence, and he doesn’t believe that God’s existence is logically necessary. A defender of Dawkins could reply that if Swinburne, a prominent philosopher of religion (arguably one of the most prominent, I’d put him in the same league as Plantinga), can coherently make probablistic arguments for God’s existence, the Dawkins is justified in making probablistic arguments against God’s existence.

We can make sense of probablistic statements (and arguments for them) about statements in math — suppose Godel’s proof hadn’t been offered, someone might argue that it’s probably true/false. There is epistemic probability as well as logical probability.

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