Here is the video of my talk at University of California, San Diego for Rational Thought. About 50 people attended. The title is “Why the New Atheists Failed, and How to Defeat All Religious Arguments.” It is followed by an excellent Q&A session, some of which is unfortunately missing due to the battery capacity of the camera.
It’s hard to see my PowerPoint slides on the video, so here they are.
Hi, everyone. My name is Luke Muehlhauser, and I was a born again, baptized, Bible-thumpin’ son of a preacher man for 21 years in Minnesota. At age 20 I wanted to do nothing else but be like Jesus to a lost and hurting world. So, I had to figure out who Jesus really was, and I began to study the Historical Jesus.
What I learned, even from Christian scholars, was shocking to me. The Bible is full of contradictions. The New Testament authors have different theologies, and in fact the mission of Paul was quite different than the mission of Jesus, and it was the mission of Paul that became Christianity as we know it today. So Christianity should really be called Paulinism.
This was all pretty scary for me, because all my dreams, all my plans, all my relationships, all my comfort revolved around me being a Christian. So I read the works of conservative Christian historians and philosophers to try to recover my faith, but just to be fair I read a little bit of skeptical material as well, and I found that what the skeptics said made plain, simple sense, and meanwhile the Christian apologists had to do intellectual bacflips just to say Christianity was defensible.
So I lost my faith and now I run a popular website about atheism and morality.
The title of my talk today is Why the New Atheists Failed, and How to Defeat All Religious Arguments in One Easy Step.
Now that’s a pretty sensationalistic title, and I hope you’re all very skeptical of it. But I do want to mention that nothing I’ll say here today is original to me. I’m just popularizing and summarizing the work of professional philosophers in technical journals that nobody reads.
But let’s talk about that first part: Why the New Atheists Failed. You might say, “Luke, what do you mean the New Atheists failed? Atheists are coming out of the closet in droves. The famous New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are appearing on TV shows and radio programs all over the place to talk about atheism. And atheism books are selling millions of copies, for the first time ever. You call that failure?”
Well, no, of course not. I am tremendously grateful to the New Atheists.
What the New Atheists have failed at, rather, is something different, but something very important to the New Atheists, and that is: they’ve failed at giving a strong intellectual case for atheism.
Now I’m sure Richard Dawkins would be upset by this claim. But it’s uncontroversial among those who argue about the existence of God for a living: professional philosophers. I’ve spoken with dozens of them, believers and atheists, and none of them think the New Atheists have made a strong intellectual case for atheism.
Of course the religious philosophers write a lot about the New Atheists because they’re quite eager to show how bad their arguments are, but atheistic philosophers mostly just ignore the New Atheists, because they’re working with better arguments already, and there’s just nothing to work with in the New Atheists.
I’ll give you just two examples.
The first is what Richard Dawkins calls the ‘main argument’ of his book The God Delusion. It’s a 6-step argument that goes something like this. He says, “Look, if you’re going to posit that God is the best explanation for the bacterial flagellar motor or the human eye, then that doesn’t really help anything, because an intelligent designer of that thing as to be even more complex. Your brain, when you design something, has to be a lot more complex than the thing you design. So if you’re going to say it’s unlikely that complex things should come into existence, therefore we need God to explain it, then you’ve got an even bigger problem with God, because he’s even more complex. So it’s very unlikely that a complex God would ever come into existence. If anything, God would have to come about by a long, gradual process like evolution.”
So that’s the gist of his argument. Why does it fail?
The first problem with Dawkins’ argument is that it’s logically invalid, which is to say that even if all his premises were true, which I’m not sure they are, they still don’t even support his conclusion! But let’s say Dawkins wasn’t trying to give a logical argument, but rather some sort of messy outline toward an argument he wants to make but never does. Either way, it’s not very useful.
The second problem is that Dawkins is trying to disprove a God that almost nobody believes in. Let me explain. The God that Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in is all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing, non-physical, personal, eternal, and necessary.
And it’s those last two that pose a problem for Dawkins. Because if God is eternal or necessary, then he didn’t “come into existence.” God is not the sort of being that came into existence like you or me, he’s supposedly a necessary feature of any possible world, and has always existed. So if Dawkins wants to say that it’s unlikely a complex God would come into existence, then he’s just trying to disprove a God that almost nobody believes in.1
This all comes from a paper by atheistic philosopher Erik Wielenberg, who tried to resurrect Dawkins’ argument into some logical form, only to find that it fails anyway.
So this is what I call, in my braver moments, the epic fail of the New Atheism. 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.
Okay, before the atheists here stone me, one more example of bad arguments from atheists.
On page 71 of God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens writes that:
The postulate of a designer or creator only raises the unanswerable question of who designed the designer… Religion and theology… have consistently failed to overcome this objection.
Who designed the designer? Who made God? This is a question that a 5-year-old can ask. But it’s a bad argument, and I’d like to explain why. I get a lot of criticism for this because it’s very popular to say “Who designed the designer?” But anyone who has done Philosophy of Science 101 will know it’s a bad argument.
Do you remember when you were a kid and you discovered that you can ask a parent “Why?”, and then no matter what they say, you can just ask “Why?” again?
“Daddy, why do birds fly?”
“Because they have to get food for the baby birds.”
“Because otherwise the baby birds will die.”
“Because they need energy to keep living.”
“Because… ugh, daddy’s tired, please just go away.”
Of course even if Daddy was a professional biologist, there would still come a time when she could not answer the Why question.
And scientists know this.
Many years ago, physicists posited atoms to explain certain observations – and they were right, even though they had no idea what could explain atoms themselves.
And now they posit electrons and photons and so on even though they cannot explain electrons and photons themselves.
So if in order to offer something as a ‘best explanation’ you had to have an explanation for the explanation, then you could never explain anything, because you’d need an explanation of the explanation, and then you’d need an explanation of the explanation of the explanation, and then you’d need an explanation of the explanation of the explanation of the explanation, and so on… into infinity!
So I don’t think the New Atheists should require that explanations themselves be explained, because that would destroy science, and the New Atheists seem rather fond of science.
So that’s another bad argument from the New Atheists and it comes from the fact that none of them are actually scholars of religion.
Well, this brings me to the second part of my speech: How to Defeat All Religious Arguments in One Easy Step.
So why is “God did it” a bad explanation? It’s not because God himself is unexplained. It’s for other reasons. And this is how you defeat all religious arguments in one easy step.
Let’s look at a list of arguments for the existence of God:
You’ve got cosmological arguments: God is the best explanation for why something exists rather than nothing.
You’ve got design arguments: God is the best explanation for certain complex things.
You’ve got moral arguments: God is the best explanation for why some things are really right and wrong.
And here are some other arguments proposed by the most important Christian philosopher alive today, Alvin Plantinga:
He says: God is the best explanation for the existence of mathematical sets.
God is the best explanation for our experience of flavor and color.
God is the best explanation for our appreciation of Mozart.
God is the best explanation for our experience of nostalgia.
So by now you might have noticed a problem. How does saying “God did it” explain any of these things? How does “God did it” offer a solution to any of the problems that philosophers and scientists are working on? When you’re confronted with a difficult problem, you can’t just say “Well, I guess it was magic.” That doesn’t solve anything!
“Poof! Magic” is not an explanation.
But I can’t just say that “Poof! Magic” is not explanation. I have to argue for it.
Scientists and philosophers, when looking for a best explanation, have identified some qualities that are often associated with good explanations. What is it that makes something a best explanation? What is it that makes one thing a good explanation, and another thing a not-so-good explanation?
Well, the first thing is that they are testable. In fact, if a theory wasn’t testable, it wouldn’t make much sense to say it’s the best explanation of something, because there’s no way for you to test whether it’s true or not! These theories render specific predictions, so you can go out in the world and see whether those predictions are true or false.
And of course, it should be not only testable, but it should pass the test. Astrology is very testable.
For example, many astrologers say that a woman’s menstrual cycle corresponds to the phases of the moon. That’s testable! And guess what? We tested it; it’s false.
Our most successful explanations also tend to be consistent with our background knowledge. If your new theory requires that we throw out everything we know about gravity and light and animals and humans, then that’s probably not the right theory. Consistency with background knowledge is important for a best explanation.
Successful explanations also tend to be simpler than alternatives. If a cookie is missing from a cookie jar, that’s probably just because Timmy took the cookie. It’s possible that the FBI and a gang of poltergeists conspired to use a time-stopping machine to freeze time and walk right past you and steal the cookie and then get away and unfreeze time again. That’s possible. But it’s extremely unlikely. Why? Because every element in that story is by itself unlikely, and the theory requires that they all be true, which is even more unlikely. So don’t add things to your theory that don’t need to be there.
Successful explanations should also have good explanatory scope, meaning they should explain a wide variety of data. Take, for example, the theory that those puffy white lines you see in the sky sometimes are from government planes dropping mind-control gas on all of us. One problem with this theory is that it might explain why New Yorkers see them, but it does not explain why you see lots of puffy white lines in the sky over deserts and oceans, where there are no minds to control. So that theory might explain some of the data, but it doesn’t explain all the data. It has weak explanatory scope.
So this is just the start of what scientists and philosophers look for in a good explanation, but we can already see there are major problems for the “God did it” theory.
For example, is the God hypothesis testable? No. Saying “God did it” renders no specific predictions for us to test, because God is all powerful and he could be responsible for anything. And theologians are very insistent on this because if they started to make the God hypothesis more specific and he would render specific predictions, it usually turns out that he fails the test. So they’ve been very careful to make God this mysterious, all-powerful thing and we don’t understand his purposes and he could be doing just about anything and we wouldn’t understand why. So there are no specific predictions that come out of the God hypothesis; there’s no way to test it. And it doesn’t make sense to say God is the best hypothesis if there’s no way to test whether or not that hypothesis is true.
What about the second criterion? Is the God hypothesis consistent with our background knowledge? Not at all. God is an extreme violation of our background knowledge about how things work. God is a person but he doesn’t have a body. God thinks, but without the passage of time. He knows everything, but he doesn’t have a brain. God is a terrible violation of our background knowledge in many serious ways.
Is the God hypothesis simple? If you’re talking about the God of the Bible, definitely not. The God of the Bible is an extraordinarily complex person; a being with thoughts and emotions who loves and hates and condemns and forgives; a being who turns a staff into a snake and a woman into salt; a being who changes his mind; a being who starts fires and throws rocks from the sky; a being who kills and resurrects; a being who takes part in personal relationships and political struggles; and a being who incarnates himself as a complex biological organism known as Jesus of Nazareth. The God of the Bible is far from simple.
And even if you’re talking about a more generic kind of God, God is not simple. Christian philosopher C. Stephen Layman lists four ways that a hypothesis can simple, and in all 4 ways he admits that the God hypothesis is more complex than the atheistic hypothesis. But I don’t have time to go into that here.
What about explanatory scope? Does the God hypothesis have good explanatory scope? Again, no. I’ll give just one example. If you invoke God as the explanation for apparent design in the universe, you immediately run into the problem of all the incompetent and evil “design” in the universe.2
So why is “God did it” a bad explanation? It’s because “God did it” lacks all the virtues we look for in successful explanations, and instead has many of the qualities that appear in terrible explanations, like explanations from pseudoscience and superstition.
So how do you defeat all religious arguments in one easy step? When someone gives an argument for God, pick out the part where they’re saying God is the best explanation for something and ask: “How is ‘God did it’ a good explanation for that? How does ‘Poof! Magic’ explain anything? Please tell me exactly how magic is a good explanation for that.”
And when you do that, it becomes immediately clear what’s really going on here. Believers aren’t really offering a ‘best explanation’ for anything, what they’re offering is a good-old argument from ignorance.
“Woah! Lightning! I don’t know how that happens, so… it must be an angry magical being in the sky throwing down lightning bolts!”
“I can’t explain the bacterial flagellar motor, so… it must be the work of an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing, non-physical, timeless, spaceless, personal magical being!”
These are arguments from ignorance and they’re really bad. When you say “We don’t know,” you don’t say, “… it must be… anything!” When you say “I don’t know,” that’s where your sentence should stop.
So when you ask people to explain “How is ‘poof! Magic’ the best explanation for this?” it becomes clear that believers are just offering arguments from ignorance and dressing them up with the language of ‘best explanation.’
How do you defeat all religious arguments in one easy step? You pick out the part of the argument that posits God as the best explanation for something, and you ask: “How is God the best explanation for that? How is ‘poof! Magic’ the best explanation?”
P.S. Be sure to check out the talk that Victor Stenger did for Rational Thought.
- Now of course Dawkins could offer an argument that God can’t be eternal or can’t be a necessary being. But if he had such arguments then those arguments would disprove theism, and his argument about complexity would be unnecessary and irrelevant. [↩]
- An all-good, all-powerful God is not a good explanation for congenital diseases. He is not a good explanation for the blind spot in your eye. He is not a good explanation for the fact that a baby’s head is often bigger than a woman’s pelvic opening, which has led to millions of women and babies dying before we invented the C-section. He is not a good explanation for the useless femur and pelvis in whales, left over from when they where land animals. [↩]
Previous post: Intro to Language: The Referential Theory of Meaning
Next post: News Bits