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!
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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