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Atheist Speaks to Veritas Forum

July 13, 2020

Summary

Dr. Craig listens to an atheist student who gives a case for atheism.

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, the Veritas Forum does a lot of good work in apologetics and philosophy. You’ve been on the Veritas Forum a couple of times. There is a recent one where they had a Christian, an atheist, and a Muslim to speak.[1] I thought we would look at the atheist student who brings in some of the latest things that atheist students and his peers are thinking about, and have you interact. His name is Matt Monrose from McMaster University. Here is his presentation on “Truth and Science: An Exploration.”

MATT MONROSE: Atheism. The modern world has a plethora of religions and worldviews. All religions in some way require faith to validate the assumption of some sort of celestial dictator.

DR. CRAIG: That’s obviously an extremely prejudicial and pejorative characterization of religion. I can't imagine any sociologist accepting that as a definition.

KEVIN HARRIS: A dictator?

DR. CRAIG: A dictator, and using faith to validate it. Both of those are pejorative claims that one shouldn't just allow to pass by without challenging.

KEVIN HARRIS: Looks like from the get-go we're going to deal with the old problem of how you define faith and it's going to be radically different.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, and it's sad that the presentation begins on such a tainted note. It is so obviously slanted in its perspective.

MATT MONROSE: For the sake of clarity, the working definition that I refer to is a strong belief in the doctrines of religion based on spiritual conviction rather than proof. Since Francis Bacon introduced the philosophical concept of empiricism, science and religion have had an arduous interrelated past. Today atheism is an ever-growing community of skeptics from all walks of life. Before presenting my argument, I'd like to establish what an atheistic worldview actually looks like, as well as some common myths and misconceptions that theistic apologists don't seem to understand. Atheism is not a religion. It does not require faith. I often hear things from religious apologists like when you use deduction to assert a general scientific theory isn't the act of testing that theory a practice of faith? I mean you don't actually know what's going to happen. You're just going on faith. This is where we have a problem with the word faith. See atheism takes a passive stance, whereas religion is active. This means that atheists don't actively cathect energy towards atheism or faith but rather accept the most reputable or reliable source of information. This means our opinions can indeed change. Atheists hold varying beliefs about various things but they are not theistic matter-related beliefs. A theist will actively think about their faith in God throughout the day, whereas an atheist won't even think about atheism because it is a passive conclusion to conclusive evidence.

KEVIN HARRIS: A passive conclusion to conclusive evidence?

DR. CRAIG: That’s very strange. I'm not even sure what he means by that. But it sounds to me like atheists are not very self-critical individuals on his definition – that they passively accept this belief without critical scrutiny or self-doubt. That's surely not a commendable epistemic practice.

KEVIN HARRIS: I'll tell you another thing that struck me. It sounds like he's saying, “You theists think about God all day but we atheist don't go around thinking about atheism all the time.” Well, I beg to differ. Many are obsessed with the topic. I'm not sure where he's going either. We'll continue.

MATT MONROSE: Nobody would call someone who doesn't believe in fairies an a-fairyist. Why? Because what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

DR. CRAIG: This is just confused. The atheist makes a knowledge claim just as much as the theist does. The atheist affirms, “There is no God.” The theist affirms, “There is a God.” Both are claims to knowledge and therefore both require justification on the part of the person who claims to know that. Someone who does not believe in God, like the person who does not believe in fairies, is in a middle position where he lacks a belief in God but he also lacks a belief in atheism as well. So he's conflating together atheism and agnosticism and failing to see that atheism does make a significant knowledge claim.

MATT MONROSE: This is the attitude in which atheists approach theism. Here's a short anecdote of what encapsulates an atheistic worldview. We have a hockey game. Different theists are out on the rink and they're playing hockey and skating around and trying to hit an imaginary puck. Meanwhile all the atheists are on the bleachers and they're saying this game should not be taking place – there's no puck. So how does science show faith is irrational?

KEVIN HARRIS: Did you notice there the affirmation, “There is no puck.” Not just, “I don't believe there is a puck.” There is an assertion – there is no puck. That's what atheism asserts – there is no God. That's a knowledge claim, and therefore if he claims to know that he must claim to have some sort of justification for that. Otherwise it's not a knowledge claim; it's something he just takes by faith.

MATT MONROSE: First, I'd like to acknowledge the major role religion has had in both enhancing scientific processes as well as detracting from it. Though we can talk about the positive applications and contributions religion has donated, they are transient compared to the accomplishments of scientific discourse.

DR. CRAIG: I think that's again naive because the contribution that religion has often made to science as to provide undergirding for the philosophical presuppositions of science (like the laws of logic, the moral values that govern scientific investigation and reporting, the orderly structure of the external world, the reality of the external world); these are not just passing cultural fashions. These are deep metaphysical presuppositions that lie at the root of science.

MATT MONROSE: Today's science employs Baconian empiricism and Karl Popper’s falsification as well as other philosophies. These various views and methods are designed by epistemologists who are concerned with establishing a certain standard of evidence to be used to determine what constitutes scientific fact. Remember that atheists require a specific standard of evidence that religion, religious books, and religious apologists don't.

DR. CRAIG: With what right does he make that assertion that atheists require standards of evidence that religious apologists don't? You can't just assert these things. You need to justify them. I don't think that that's true, and especially with respect to atheism itself. If atheism is just a view you passively accept as conclusive, well then what standards of evidence are there that go to show that there is no God, which is what he wants to assert. Boy, I hope that students aren't taken in by this sort of rhetoric. It's just assertion, but I'm not hearing any argument to justify the assertions.

MATT MONROSE: Baconian inductive empiricism demands that an observable fact must be used to create a generalizing or working theory to explain certain phenomenon. Here atheists and theists reach our first impasse. A great example that illustrates this impasse are the Young Earth Creationists. Today geologists and paleontologists have shown us a world much older than what Young Earth Creationists can accept. If a book like the Bible creates enough ambiguity to be poorly interpreted in a way that contradicts scientific wisdom, maybe that book is wrong.

DR. CRAIG: If I heard him rightly, I thought he said, “If the Bible can be poorly interpreted in a way that contradicts scientific wisdom, the book is wrong.” Well, no. It would be if the Bible when correctly interpreted contradicts scientific wisdom, that book is wrong. But if indeed it's a misinterpretation of the book (to say, for example, that the Earth is the center of the universe, or that the Earth does not move and the sun goes around the Earth) then that's a mistake of interpretation. It's not a mistake of the book.

MATT MONROSE: A book is not self-authenticating. Furthermore, faith has the pernicious ability to convince the most intelligent and sane person that an untestable emotional belief in a celestial dictator is a feasible explanation not only for the creation of the universe but for laws and morality as well. This is often when I hear apologists say things like, “Well, how do you think the Earth or the universe came into existence?” Though there are many plausible theories as how the Earth came about, an atheist position will be, “I don't know” and that is OK. The lack of evidence for any speculated action God performs or any phenomenon for that matter does not imply the existence of a God.

DR. CRAIG: OK. Let's stop there. It's not true that atheists are so ignorant as he suggests. Atheists will have scientific theories about the origin of the Earth, and these will be weighed on the basis of the evidence. The atheist is not some sort of obscurantist or ignoramus that says, “We don't know how the Earth came to be.” He’s really impugning atheism in the characterization he gives. All of us who want to understand the origin of the Earth and of the universe will be open to what modern science has to tell us about that.

KEVIN HARRIS: A couple of things he said there reminded me of an earlier podcast we did with godless mom who also complained and said, “It's OK to say I don't know.” So there's a recurring theme here.

DR. CRAIG: Which is really strange because why isn't that answer available to the theist to difficult questions? Suppose the theist is asked, “How do you reconcile divine sovereignty with human freedom?” And the theist replies, “I don't know.” Why isn't that a legitimate reply for him? Or the problem of evil and suffering. Why does God permit so much evil and suffering in the world? Why isn't the theist at liberty to say, “I don't know.” Why is it that, “I don't know” is an acceptable response for the atheist but not for the theist? There's, I think, a double standard operative here.

KEVIN HARRIS: By the way, I do know. It's Molinism. [laughter]

MATT MONROSE: If you invoke God as the answer to every question you can’t explain then, in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, “God is in an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that gets smaller and smaller and smaller as time goes on.”

DR. CRAIG: This is the old God-of-the-gaps objection that I think has been answered again and again. For example, in the Kalam cosmological argument, one isn't appealing to God as a stop gap for scientific ignorance. Rather what one is claiming is that the best scientific evidence we have says that the universe is not past eternal but had a beginning. Why won't the atheist follow the evidence where it leads? He should agree with that religiously neutral statement on the basis of the evidence. And then it's only in the context of this philosophical argument that it implies a conclusion that has theological significance. God isn't being used as something to plug up the gap in scientific knowledge; rather it's on the basis of our best scientific knowledge that we believe one of the premises of this theistic argument.

MATT MONROSE: This could be paraphrased again by saying that any reliance on a god or supernatural being to establish truth obviously blunts Occam's razor.

DR. CRAIG: Again, these are slogans. Occam's razor says don't multiply causes beyond necessity. You only posit such causes as are necessary to explain the effect. But obviously Occam’s razor does not say don't posit any causes! Otherwise you would never have any scientific explanation. You would just remain with the data and would explain nothing. But Occam's razor is a principle of economy that says you are justified in positing only such causes as are necessary to explain the effect. And that's exactly what the theist does in inferring to God as the cause of the beginning of the universe, or the source of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, or the applicability of mathematics to the physical world. It's not in any way a violation of Occam's razor.

MATT MONROSE: In short, science does not invoke supernatural entities or use faith for things in which it cannot explain. This is where the true nature of the God argument manifests. In accepting a lack of evidence as evidence for God or coincidental phenomenon, theists and atheists come to an impasse. Often theists give tautological arguments like “God is great all the time” or “God's actions are excused because he knows best” or “I am right because my book said so.” If this is what theists consider evidence then there is nothing an atheist can say to counter . . .

DR. CRAIG: Those are neither tautologies nor are they arguments. Those are just assertions. It's not an argument; it's not a tautology.

MATT MONROSE: Yes, we cannot use natural processes to prove or verify the way in which the universe came into existence, but we also cannot employ faith just because we don't know. Ancient books attempting to explain the universe written by men who don't know where the sun went at night are not viable sources for explaining existential truths. The divide between atheists and theists is then often based on different standards of evidence.

KEVIN HARRIS: Would that be argumentum ad annis?

DR. CRAIG: [laughter] Against the ancients?

KEVIN HARRIS: Faulting of you because of what point in history it was given or that it was old?

DR. CRAIG: I think the fallacy there is he identified existential truths something to which they can't speak. I would say on the contrary, while we might not expect them to be able to speak to questions of modern science, they can certainly speak to existential truths which are truths about the meaning and purpose of human existence. Are human beings intrinsically valuable? What is the purpose of life? Why are we here? Is there meaning to my existence? Those are existential questions and in that case the thinking of Plato and Aristotle and other sages throughout history are just as sound or viable as contemporary thinking.

KEVIN HARRIS: I'm thinking even more so in a lot of ways because they weren't as distracted as we are today. If anybody could sit and think through these things it would be the ancients who didn't have a TV blaring all the time! I've often thought of that. Here we go. Continuing.

MATT MONROSE: If a person does not value logic or evidence there really is not much one can do to convince them other of the fact. As scientific discourse develops and the world becomes increasingly secular, religion has been forced to amalgamate scientific discourse into their worldview.

DR. CRAIG: He's made this point a couple of times and I let it pass. The world is not becoming increasingly secular. When you look at the population of the world, Christianity is growing at unprecedented rates in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America. It's in Europe and to a lesser extent in the United States where the growth rates are flat. But it's simply sociologically false to say that there is this tidal wave of secularism that is growing. He'd like to believe that perhaps. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

MATT MONROSE: There is debate whether science and religion contradict. Despite numerous ways in which they could be forced to co-exist and authenticate each other still the scientific method itself has no space for faith. Imagine a scientist using God as the premise for an inductive argument. The argument could go as follows. God exists, therefore the sky is blue. Most academics would not take the argument seriously.

DR. CRAIG: What is he talking about? That wasn’t an inductive argument that he offered. That wasn't any sort of sound argument. It was just a pair of assertions slapped together. You can have inductive arguments for the existence of God and for other conclusions of theological significance. I think he's just terribly confused.

KEVIN HARRIS: I will tell you where I thought he was going to go. You have a mathematical formulation (steps and premises), and then you have a premise that says, “and then a miracle occurred” and then have the other one.

DR. CRAIG: Well, that would have been a better objection – that's sort of your God-of-the-gaps or something of that sort. But here he wanted to reason from the premise that God exists to the conclusion “therefore the sky is blue.” It's irrelevant because nobody's trying to argue for the blueness of the sky. We're talking about are there good theistic arguments, and it's not inductive either. He is just very, very confused.

MATT MONROSE: If this is one's basis for logic and reasoning then scientific rigor potentially is not useful in your life. As the saying goes, you can't reason someone out of something they were never reasoned into in the first place.

DR. CRAIG: Oh, stop. Stop. That’s obviously false. Think of all the Christians who lose their faith because they encounter atheistic arguments or other sorts of challenges that they can't answer because they were raised in a home in which these questions were not allowed and maybe were swept under the rug and all they had was emotional experiences. That type of person can be reasoned out of his faith very easily. In fact, we recently talked about a Christian musician who made headlines who came out of that sort of emotional background and was reasoned out of his faith. So that's simply wrong. Similarly, there can be unthinking atheists who just passively accept atheism who can be reasoned out of it if they're open-minded enough to consider the arguments and evidence. We receive emails all the time from people who have come to believe in God on the basis of these arguments.

MATT MONROSE: And of course faith is not often something people were often reasoned into. The number one way in which religious faith survives today is through the proselytization of children. Science requires a scope of understanding beyond that of faith which relies more often than not on unconditional positive regard. Science, on the other hand, survives and endures through rigorous debate, quality education, and constant scrutiny. So how does science show the irrational nature of faith? Faith tends to lead to atavistic behavior inconsistent with modern knowledge, evidence, and logic. The successes of modern science, logical discourse, and the truths they reveal are self-evident. Medicine, engineering, psychology, and myriad other advances that today many theists accept as fact. Now then, let's go back to 14th century Europe. A time when the bubonic plague had most of Europe trapped in religious fear. Plagues of antiquity were often thought to be punishment for various behaviors including homosexuality and menstruation. Today we know the bubonic plague and other diseases are not caused by divine intervention but rather bacteria carried by fleas and rats and other animals. Therefore we clearly know it is not demons or God's vengeance that perpetuates any medical issue. Despite this, many theists and religious leaders advocate for practices that are known to be antediluvian, archaic, and immoral. In many places throughout Africa and the Middle East millions believe that curing the AIDS virus is much more sinful than to treat it. Many Christians and Muslims throughout the world subscribe to the erroneous belief that the AIDS virus is punishment from heaven because of a man's homosexual promiscuity. Some religious populations throughout Africa today subject their children to circumcision and infibulation. This procedure is often done with a sharp stone and without observing adequate sanitation or pain management. For women, infibulation is often subsequently followed by stitching up the vaginal opening with string only to be broken on the wedding night by male force.

DR. CRAIG: He's talking about an Islamic practice in certain Muslim countries.

KEVIN HARRIS: Certainly. He's saying that religious elements can lead to these weird things but science, never.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, as if science were never employed by people for immoral ends. That again is just terribly naive.

KEVIN HARRIS: Think of the Nazi doctors.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah. Or think of the employment of, say, nuclear weapons to have thermonuclear war. That would be made possible by the advances of nuclear physics. But you don't indict science for that. It's the people who are to blame. Similarly, these practices that he mentions are not ones that you or I would endorse. These are abuses.

MATT MONROSE: Carrying on, in Canada, some groups of Christians, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other anomalous sects, do not seek medical treatment when ill. Some of these groups even go as far as to prevent their own children from seeking medical care, believing that whatever transpires is God's will. On the other hand, some theists might believe that faith works through medicine and science to cure. As wonderful as a thought this may be, faith has never cured an amputee. I would challenge any person of faith to pray to their deity to grow a new leg. Unless you're an octopus, it probably won't happen.

KEVIN HARRIS: I can see that the “Why doesn't God heal amputees?” trope is still around.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah. It is, isn’t it?

KEVIN HARRIS: It really continues to make rounds.

DR. CRAIG: I hope if there are any non-believers listening to this podcast that they will be more critical than this young man is in painting with so broad a brush as to think that because you can indict certain African Muslim practices, Jehovah's Witnesses, and faith healers that this somehow invalidates theism or Christianity. You can always point to the aberrations and the marginal things, but that doesn't mean that therefore Jesus wasn't who he claimed to be or that God doesn't exist.

MATT MONROSE: There's conclusive evidence confirming that high morale and self-efficacy is often enough to cure even the most terrible of diseases. For most of us, these actions of genital mutilation, sexual deviancy, and medical abuse would be immoral, sinful, and despicable. Many theists here would not commit these atrocious acts and might even condemn them as contrary to their beliefs. But this is a fallacy. These people who commit the terrible actions upon their children do so out of faith. Some of you who are faithful may be thinking that those who commit atrocious crimes out of faith are simply not exercising their faith properly. Just because you practice your faith differently than others does not make it more logical than the extremists.

DR. CRAIG: Well, obviously not that. But that doesn't imply that there are not aberrant practices and correct practices.

KEVIN HARRIS: They have faith. We have faith. They're extremists. We're not. But we're not off the hook because we both employ an element of faith or embrace faith.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, it just doesn't make sense. Pointing to these aberrations is like pointing to crank science. And of course there's quackery in medicine and in science, and there's quackery in religion. But pointing to those things doesn't do anything to invalidate medicine, science, or religion as such. It calls upon us to be wise and discerning.

MATT MONROSE: Faith still brings wrong conclusions even if they are relatively safe. In this brief talk I have outlined some of the main reasons science shows faith is irrational. From an atheistic perspective, science is one of the many areas of study that leads to agnostic conclusions. An atheist is not often an atheist simply because of science, whether it be historically, philosophically, psychologically, ethically, or scientifically there are many inconsistencies that lead truth-seekers toward an atheistic worldview. In short, atheism is not founded on faith. It is a passive worldview. Theists assume the existence of God without adequate evidence.

KEVIN HARRIS: A passive worldview?

DR. CRAIG: That’s just bizarre, isn't it? Atheism is a passive worldview. You accept it without justification, without scrutiny, without self-critical examination? What in the world could he have in mind? He can't mean merely that it makes no positive assertion because he's admitted it says “there is no puck on the rink.” There is no God. So for all his talk of logic and evidence, his speech has been full of logically fallacious inferences, and he hasn't provided any evidence in support of his atheistic worldview.

MATT MONROSE: Religious faith brings unnecessarily wrong conclusions. If truth is what you seek then start learning with a blank slate and build your knowledge on logical standards of evidence. If faith gets in the way of truth, it's probably not worth having. Ultimately the truth is out there, and it will be there whether we accept it or not. Thank you for your time.

DR. CRAIG: I certainly agree with the last statement that truth is objective and there to be sought. I hope that this young man and others like him will exercise the same sort of critical scrutiny when they come to formulate their own worldview as that which they demand of religious believers.[2]

 

[2]           Total Running Time: 29:08 (Copyright © 2020 William Lane Craig)