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#97 Scepticism Quebecois

February 23, 2009

Hi. My name is Martin. I'm from Quebec and recently assisted to one of your presentations (Dieu existe-t-il?) in Quebec. I would've liked to speak to you about it, but time constraints and the language barrier made it difficult. I hope that this message reaches you.

I wanted to say that I found several of your arguments fallacious - for one, saying that "being an atheist is condoning rape" is a textbook straw man argument, and you know as well as I do that any thinking person, atheist or no, understands why rape isn't acceptable in modern society. Being an atheist isn't being a hedonist, and I feel that it's pathetic I need to remind you of this. Demonizing people for their beliefs is hardly a position you should be defending.

As an aside, if you feel comfortable associating atheists and rape, you should know that a much easier and much more popular association is catholic priests and rape.

Impressing a room full of vaguely interested people with figures about the extremely rare conditions that allow life to exist is all well and good - handwaving away the entire anthropic principle with a single bad analogy is not. And please, if you're going to explain something, don't use "You don't have the knowledge to understand this and it's complicated". It's not a convincing argument in any way. Work on that.

Twisting Nietzsche's words to support your arguments, I found, was profoundly low. Name-dropping a well-known philosopher, quoting three of his words and saying that this person supports your argument is not a good way to win people over. Please, the next time you mention Nietzsche, do it while speaking of absolute, objective morals. I hope I don't teach you anything when I quote "All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.", his multiple quotes on faith or "You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.". The Nazis tried selectively using Nietzsche's works to justify their actions, as well. Reductio ad Hitlerum, which you seem to be familiar with.

The weakest point of your presentation is easily your last "proof": "If you look for god, he will reveal himself to you". In one fell swoop, you give god an excuse for not manifesting himself by telling people to "believe harder", you back up your proof with worthless anecdotal evidence ("It happened to me! And to my cousin!") and you completely disregard things like confirmation bias by falling back on the old standard "It's just a matter of faith, if you believe something is an act of god then it is". I can't fathom how someone like you would pick faith over extremely well documented psychology principles.

Perhaps you might find this piece of information interesting, on the correlation between religiosity and intelligence: Mensa Magazine, UK Edition, Feb. 2002, pp. 1213. Analyzing 43 studies carried out since 1927, Bell found that all but four reported such a connection, and he concluded that "the higher one's intelligence or education level, the less one is likely to be religious or hold 'beliefs' of any kind." I'm not a debating expert, but I don't think the anecdotal evidence you presented ("I know a lot of smart christians!") has any value when opposed to actual studies. Feel free to look into this.

I'm not going to bother pointing out the various weaknesses of your arguments (infinity can't exist, but god being infinite is perfectly fine) - I'm sure you've heard them time and again, and you have perfect, canned responses for every single one of them - but I was disappointed to see that, when pressed, you rely on the impregnable, logic-proof shield of "faith" (I believe you are familiar with Nietzsche's works: "A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.". I expected a genuinely interesting and well thought-out presentation and was extremely disappointed.

If you do read this, as I hope you will, I have a question for you. Why (as I'm sure you're aware) is atheism slowly becoming more and more mainstream, while religion is dying out? I would love to hear a response from you.

In closing - I honestly have to hope that god isn't as weak as the arguments for his existence. Good luck to you.

P.S: Work on improving your Powerpoint presentations: 5 slides does not a presentation make.

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Dr. craig’s response


Wow, am I glad to hear from you! I'm not sure whether you were at the talk at the University of Montreal or at Laval. I was extremely frustrated that at Montreal we had almost no time for questions before the room had to be vacated for the next class. I want to hear from students like you and give you a chance to state your objections and/or questions. At Laval, by contrast, the Q & A went on for an hour and a half after my 45 minute talk ended, and with the translator present there was no language barrier.

I never cease to be amazed at the hostility and cockiness of deeply secularized undergraduate students. Their arrogance is matched only by their ignorance. Martin, your letter reeks with haughtiness and condescension. (Not even my powerpoint slides—which merely displayed the premisses of each argument to facilitate understanding and discussion—escape your criticism!) And yet your objections are so easy to answer.

Let's consider the arguments in the order in which you address them. First the moral argument:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
2. Objective moral values exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.

Your response to this argument reveals that you simply didn't understand it. You seem to think that I was claiming that atheists condone rape or are hedonists. I tried to forestall this common misunderstanding by saying,

But we must be very careful here. The question here is not: "Must we believe in God in order to live moral lives?" I'm not claiming that we must.
Nor is the question: "Can we recognize objective moral values without believing in God?" I think that we can.
Rather the question is: "If God does not exist, do objective moral values exist?"

After reading your email, I'm still not clear which premiss of the moral argument you reject. When you say "any thinking person, atheist or no, understands why rape isn't acceptable in modern society," are you asserting anything more than that rape is taboo in modern society as a result of socio-biological pressures? Or do you think, as I do, that Catholic priests' raping little boys is objectively wrong? Are you clear yourself on which premiss of the argument you regard as false, and why?

I quoted Nietzsche to the effect that the death of God implies nihilism. That is what he believed and said. You beg, "Please, the next time you mention Nietzsche, do it while speaking of absolute, objective morals." But, Martin, how could I have been clearer? (Look at my much maligned powerpoint slide of the argument!) I defined what I meant by "objective" and gave an illustration. For whatever reason you just weren't listening carefully.

Now consider the argument from the fine-tuning of the universe:

1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design.
2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.
3. Therefore, it is due to design.

In my discussion of the alternative of chance, you accuse me of "handwaving away the entire anthropic principle." But, Martin, the Anthropic Principle is explanatorily useless unless it is conjoined with a World Ensemble hypothesis. That's what Leslie's firing squad illustration shows. Why do you advise me: "don't use 'You don't have the knowledge to understand this and it's complicated'?" You know I never said any such thing. I explained the World Ensemble, or multiverse, hypothesis and then presented two objections against it, including Roger Penrose's devastating criticism. Or is Penrose just a hand-waver, too, in your book?

Next, consider my claim that belief is God is properly basic for those who experience Him. I explicitly stated, "This isn't really an argument for God's existence; rather it's the claim that you can know God exists wholly apart from arguments simply by personally experiencing him." After further explanation I summed up as follows:

1. Beliefs which are appropriately grounded may be rationally accepted as basic beliefs not grounded on argument.
2. Belief that the biblical God exists is appropriately grounded.
3. Therefore, belief that the biblical God exists may be rationally accepted as a basic belief not grounded on argument.

Need I say again that I never uttered any of the words you attribute to me? Why do insist on putting words in my mouth? You need to show why it is not rational for me to take belief in God as properly basic. Vague appeals to confirmation bias won't do the trick, my friend; this cuts both ways.

Finally, the cosmological argument:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

You offer this one line pièce de resistance: "infinity can't exist, but god being infinite is perfectly fine." Do you imagine, Martin, that God is a collection of an actually infinite number of definite and discrete parts? If so, then you don't understand the classical concept of God; if not, then mathematical, quantitative concepts of the infinite are irrelevant to God's infinity, which is a qualitative concept expressing God's superlative attributes like necessity, aseity, eternality, omnipresence, omnipotence, and so on.

In sum, you've evidently not thought very deeply about these questions, Martin. If you found my arguments uninteresting and not well-thought out, perhaps that's more reflection on you than on the arguments I gave.

Now compare your own arguments. People with higher education tend to be less religious. So what follows? Do you really imagine this to be a serious objection to the truth of religious belief? It may just as well be a reflection of the socialization process that takes place at the secular university. Indeed, when I look at the many brilliant theists there are and the lousy arguments secularists typically give for their unbelief, I suspect that's exactly what it is. This sort of cultural elitism—all too familiar in the political sphere—actually short-circuits rational investigation and evaluation.

Again, when you ask, "Why (as I'm sure you're aware) is atheism slowly becoming more and more mainstream, while religion is dying out?", you only reveal how parochial you are, Martin. Students in highly secularized Quebec tend to think that all the world is like them. You don't realize that in Asia, Africa, and Latin America evangelical Christianity is surging at unprecedented rates. Moreover, in the Anglophone realm, there has been going on since the late 1960s a revolution is the field of philosophy, such that today many of England and America's most brilliant philosophers at many of our major universities are outspoken Christians. (Take a look at my article "The Revolution in Anglo-American Philosophy" under Popular Articles on this site.) The arguments for God's existence that I shared are all defended by thinkers today who are far more brilliant than you or me. Atheism has been in retreat for several decades now and will continue to decline as the old guard dies off and their places are taken by brilliant, young Christian graduate students who are percolating through the system.

I know, Martin, that all this sounds strange to you. I lived in Europe for thirteen years and know how an overwhelmingly secular culture can skew one's perceptions. Francophone philosophy has not been touched by the revolution I mentioned. I encourage you to try to break out of your immediate cultural milieu and look at what's going on in the broader world of scholarly endeavor. I know you'd be shocked.

- William Lane Craig