UPDATE: Based on the overwhelming popularity of this blog post, and the discussions it has started, I now offer a special online Philosophy of Religion class debating the existence of God and philosophically exploring the nature of religion generally. I specifically challenge God’s Not Dead fans to participate in the class. But the class is not just for theists or fans of the movie. There is a lot of value in studying the philosophy of religion for atheists as well (as I argue here). To see what the class will specifically offer atheists, see this link. Click on the banner below for class topics and times and to self-register today!
This post turned out to be not just a movie review but a nearly comprehensive counter-apologetics case that I intend to refer Christians to in the future. For both those future and current readers, here is a Table of Contents, with links, so you can jump to the section that interests you most if you do not have time to read all ~12,000 words.
2. The Hypocrisy of Christian Statements of Faith
3. Why Leaving Theology Out of Philosophy Isn’t Persecuting Students
4. Philosophy Is Not Authority Based The Way Theology Is
5. The Students in the Movie Already Believed in God
6. How I Graded Religious Students Who Disagreed With Me
7. Demanding Philosophical Reasons For Religious Beliefs Is Not Religious Persecution
8. Arguments Over Cosmology (God vs. Naturalistic Eternalism)
9. Creating A Strawman of Philosophers is a Lazy Copout
10. Why Do Christians Say Atheists Disbelieve for Emotional Reasons?
11. Who Really Are the Humble Ones More Likely to Say “I Don’t Know”? The Christians or the atheists?
12. Why Do Some Atheists Say They Do Know There’s No God? Are Atheists Hypocritically People of Faith Too?
13. If Antitheists Are Bad People, Evangelicals Are Downright Awful
14. If Professor Radisson’s A Bad Guy, The Christian God is the Worst Possible Bad Guy
15. God of the Gaps and the Origin of Life
16. How Science and Philosophy Vindicate Metaphysical Naturalism and the Existence of Religious Scientists Doesn’t Vindicate Theism
17. Why Explaining Evolution with God is Anti-Science
18. Is Philosophy Dead?
19. Why The Film Didn’t Actually Care About Proving God’s Existence
20. The Problem of Evil
21. The Appeal to Need for Absolute Morality
Ever since I inferred the plot of God’s Not Dead from the trailer and wrote a polemical response called The Atheist Philosophy Professor Strikes Back!, I had been extremely curious to see exactly what kind of a philosophical case the movie would try to muster in order to make it look like the philosophy professor was really bested intellectually by his freshman student before he inevitably revealed his real, emotional, reason for not believing (he was mad at God for killing his mom with cancer when he was 12).
So now, having seen the film, I am happy to be able to go over all the ins and outs of how it actually handled philosophy. This is the longest blog post of my own writing I’ve ever published, eight times as long as my normal posts and ~6,000 words longer than my next longest posts.
The reason I wrote so much is because I hope that there are some Christians out there who really genuinely want to understand whether common evangelical Christian ways of thinking hold up philosophically and whether philosophy is really like what’s shown in the movie God’s Not Dead. I wouldn’t be surprised if God’s Not Dead inspires a few young people to explore apologetics for themselves. I want to put on the internet a resource that allows them to deal with some of the strongest rebuttals to what this film claims about philosophy and apologetics. All of us should be interested to make sure our ideas stand up against the strongest challenges. Not just the weakest. It’s not enough to have a witty comeback or see some vague possibility for reconciling your faith with science and philosophy or have some fun seeing the people you feel persecuted by get humiliated in the movies. If you want to be right, you need to figure out that the picture of the world you have is actually the best one when tested against competitors.
So I am writing this post for the Christian who wants to know, in-depth, what a real live atheist philosophy professor, with a PhD in philosophy and 93 classes taught at the university level, thought of the worldview in God’s Not Dead. And I write as someone who also identified with Josh Wheaton. Few characters in film capture what I was like at 18 so closely. So, I write as a former Josh Wheaton to write to all you current or new Josh Wheatons out there to explain in extensive detail what’s wrong with what this movie is telling you.
Ironically, before we start. I want to point out that one of the recurring themes in this piece will be that it does not take Jesus seriously in Matthew 7:3-5:
…3“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4“Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? 5“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
The logs in these Christian filmmakers’ eyes can probably be seen from space.
For example, if you were like me, you were troubled by the idea of Professor Radisson’s desire to have his students sign a statement of belief that “God is Dead” with threats of failure if they do not do so. He was forcing them to agree to a conclusion without any debate. He was being closed minded and dogmatic.
In the real world it is Christian universities that alone in America require of students and faculty that they sign faith statements to attend or teach. If Professor Radisson’s actions bothered you, in reality you should be bothered by these Christian universities’ behavior. This is not a point against secular universities. If any atheist philosophy professor (or any atheist professor of any other kind) at a secular school has ever had anyone pledge that says “God is dead”, I’ve never heard of it. Even if it’s happened, it would be a rare outlier rather than the routine practice of faith statements at various Christian universities. Rare outliers prove nothing about there being an inherent prejudice or persecution of people of faith by secular universities or philosophy professors. You might say that statements of Christian faith are acceptable for Christian universities since people apply to be there voluntarily, knowing in advance about the faith statements, so no one is being pressured to agree to something that goes against their intellectual consciences.
But there is, nonetheless, something completely contradictory to the spirit of true inquiry to have college students, in advance of their higher education, commit to believing things on pain of having to leave the school if they stop believing them. How is that openminded? How is that interested in really proving and testing one’s beliefs? That’s saying, “Come here and we will educate you and teach you to think critically. But before we educate you and teach you to think critically, please sign this statement that you will never come to conclusions different than your current beliefs and our beliefs.” To say that to eighteen year olds, who are only just becoming adults and only just having the chance to think outside their parents’ influence, is inherently stifling. It’s contrary to the entire point of education. But Christian universities do this.
And their faculty can be fired if they think the wrong things. Imagine that. These are people hired because they are highly qualified experts in their subjects. But if they think something not pre-approved, they can lose their jobs. Does that sound like what open-mindedness about truth would be? Is that a policy that is going to lead people to correct their mistakes or start challenging discussions that might lead to greater truth. Even if the faith were to be vindicated and strengthened after challenges, you will never know that if you preclude people in advance from even questioning or temporarily thinking what looks true before it can be proven false.
Think about your whole life in the church, being asked to believe a whole raft of things about God and the world and yourself, to sign statements committing yourself to Jesus or to abstinence before you had any real opportunity to figure things out for yourself. You were not given the other side. The whiteboard at the beginning of the movie with all those atheists’ names–how many of them did you read before committing to believe by faith in the Christian God? How much time did you spend with anyone advocating for those people before you spent thousands upon thousands of hours being preached Christianity. Did your pastors or youth leaders or parents ever make sure you were thinking freely about these things without biases and free to make up your mind? Or did they tell you that something much worse than failure would happen if you didn’t believe—you would go to hell? Do you really feel secure that if you just changed your mind your Christian friends and family and church won’t mete out social penalties on you? Is your will really free in the sense of uncoerced when all these pressures make it unthinkable to you that you could ever leave your faith?
In the real world, philosophy courses are routinely the places of freest inquiry. They’re the classrooms where you can question anything. You can speculate. You can persist in pestering your professor with another “yeah, but, what about this” after everything he says and he will likely find you to be one of his favorite students. My students challenged and challenged and challenged me over the years. They spoke their minds. They found their own voices. For centuries, stretching back to at least Socrates, philosophers have been at the vanguard of free thinking unbounded by traditional authorities. It has been religious authorities, Christian and otherwise, who have had the logs in their eyes here, they have routinely been the most censorious of freedom of thought and expression of anyone until the communists and fascists gave them a run for their money in the 20th Century.
Now there is a grain of truth, that the filmmakers misrepresent as a log of hypocrisy, in something Radisson says when Josh Wheaton is firm in his initial refusal to write down that “God is dead”. Radisson nastily suggests to Wheaton that he may go back to his dorm room “sink to [his] knees” and pray all he wants on his own time and it’s none of his [Radisson's] business but what goes on in the classroom is his business.
Now, this is a really uncharitable and demonizing way to deal with a real issue that does come up in philosophy classes with religious students. Occasionally religious students think of philosophy classes as theology classes. They want to give theologically derived answers to philosophical questions. Sometimes this is helpful and we can run with it because in the theological concept is something genuinely philosophical that we can all understand, appreciate, and analyze even if we do not share the faith that formulated the point in that way. That’s great!
But it’s not strictly speaking philosophical to try to answer philosophical questions by simply taking a theological source as a final word. Just saying that a scripture or a prophet or your minister says something does not prove it true philosophically. Now this was a distinction many religious thinkers (the “official philosopher of the Catholic Church”, St. Thomas Aquinas, among them) understand. When I was a believer I understood this and when I did philosophy I tried to see if my beliefs could work and vindicate themselves when not just theologically assumed. I tried to see if there were formulations of those beliefs that could persuade people who didn’t already share my theological commitments. And, most importantly, a lot of theological issues are irrelevant to philosophy. Philosophy is only about what all people can reason about, like science is, not about what people within a given faith tradition think.
This does not necessarily presume theology or religion are all false. It’s just that even if it’s true, it requires a reliance on belief in authorities that is antithetical to the specifically philosophical mode of discourse. Religious thinkers may argue that authority based reasoning is valid. They may argue theology itself is valid. But it no longer is philosophy when your argument’s compelling power hinges on belief in a very particular set of religious documents, traditions, people, etc.
For example, if I say to you that a given ethical precept is the right one because the Upanishads indicate that it is, as a Christian this wouldn’t move you at all. If the Hindus happen to be right, the Upanishads would indeed be true. They would be the best source of theological wisdom. But they are philosophically uncompelling to you since they require allegiance to Hinduism (or Buddhism) and you see no reason to simply adopt either of those religions. If the Bible or the Q’ran say something that has philosophical force even to non-adherents, then by all means, bring it to bear! I just quoted Jesus atop this post because what he said there is a fine bit of advice for intellectually and morally scrupulous behavior that I accept as an atheist even though, I have to admit, I don’t even very much personally like Jesus.
So, even if theology can be a source of truth, it’s neither the subject nor the method for working in a philosophy class any more than the methods of carpentry or architecture or software engineering or baking or physics are. Unless a particular philosophical problem happens to intersect with a problem in another area of thought (like cosmological arguments about God’s existence interact with physics), that other area of thought’s methods are illegitimate.
And in philosophy classes I discouraged students from making ethical or metaphysical arguments that hinged on theological authorities. Where relevant, we studied theologians’ philosophical works. They were not excluded with any prejudice. Anyone with great philosophical insights is relevant! My philosophy of religion readings featured many theistic philosophers (some of whom were also theologians) defending theism. That’s par for the course.
What was illicit were arguments that took the form of “the Bible says x and therefore, on the basis of the Bible’s authority alone, x must be true”. Those kinds of arguments are not what philosophy class is about. In that limited sense, philosophy professors like me might ask a student not to be theological in class or, as I did, have a general explanation at the beginning of the semester that explains these distinctions. If a religious student feels like that much bracketing of their faith for the sake of conversation in which we can all participate on neutral philosophical grounds is too much, then they really have no place in philosophy. But they are not being persecuted any more than a Biology student who refuses to do lab work but rather quotes scripture or an engineering student who refuses to learn mathematics and instead tries to use the Bible in designing things would be persecuted for being told they had to stick to the tools and methods of the discipline while in that class.
And, it’s worth noting that many secular philosophy professors love and admire religions so much that they don’t mind mingling theology and philosophy freely. And my students at Catholic schools I taught at occasionally complained that they’d wind up with the occasional old Catholic professor that took philosophy class to be a chance to dogmatically preach Catholic dogma to the students, with little input, dissent, or dialectic welcome. So, again, the log is in the Christian eye here in my real world experience.
This issue of the difference between theology and philosophy brings me to the next major problem. As a Christian, you inevitably rely on authorities who tell you things that you really cannot back up with reasons. For example, even if you could prove something like the existence of God using philosophy, you still believe in way more than just the philosophical proposition that God exists in order to be a Christian. You believe in countless claims about how to interpret historical events, about the occurrence of particular miraculous events, about the natures of supernatural realms and rules, etc. You do much more than trust the Bible as some kind of a historical document. You trust the Bible and/or the Church and/or various other prophets, traditions, clergy, etc. to tell you the theological meanings of events, to tell you that supernatural things you haven’t seen for yourself exist, etc. Even if you reason for yourself about some of these issues, you use as “data” the claims of other people that you can never really verify as being actually true using philosophy, science, or the tools of rigorous historical analysis.
A great deal of what you accept just as part of being a Christian comes with little to no evidence of the kinds we use everywhere else in life to confirm facts. Historians, scientists, courts of law would never be able to look at all the inventive speculations of holy books and prophets, etc., about supernatural matters or supposed miraculous occurrences and sign off on such things as true. When historians, scientists, and jurists happen to be religious anyway it’s because they apply to their religion and theology far laxer standards of evidence, or substantially waive most of their evidence requirement altogether and simply believe by choice. I.e., they believe by faith. They commit themselves to thousands of propositional claims that have little to no evidence because they want to.
So, theology is very authority based, rather than reason or evidence based. And if you don’t trust the authorities of a given religious tradition, it’s super easy to just not believe that religion. That’s how you, as a Christian, dismiss the entireties of the Muslim and Hindu traditions (among many, many others) without a second worry that maybe you are missing something true. If you are like most Christians who don’t live in India you have probably never lost a night of sleep worrying that maybe the Hindu gods are the true ones.
Nothing about the Islamic or Hindu traditions compels belief if you don’t in the first place buy into their arbitrary authority claims. And if you weren’t born into a given religion, comparably few people ever feel the slightest compulsion to buy into it. Most religious people simply adhere to the religion (or at least some sect within the broader religion) that they were born into and indoctrinated into or exposed to through cultural hegemony. Late in life conversions from one religion to another or from atheism to theism are the anomalies. Most believers are solidified as such when young, when the sway of arbitrary authority is easy to ingrain in their naturally conformist and childish minds. So, ask yourself, if you share the same religion you grew up with, either preached to you since you were a baby by your family or by the predominantly Christian culture that surrounded you even if your parents were secular, what makes you any different than a Saudi Arabian Muslim or an Indian Hindu? Why are you any more likely to be right than they are when you are both just believing the arbitrary authorities pounded into your head by your own cultures?
In God’s Not Dead, the supposedly philosophical discussions hardly resemble philosophy. They’re citations of authority back and forth. But that’s not what philosophers do. This makes sense on Josh Wheaton’s side. He is a first semester freshman in his first two weeks of school (laughably, all the film’s events take place in that tiny window of time). But Radisson is basically an impotent philosopher who parrots scientists and literary figures and has not an idea in his head of his own. Again, it’s the Christian who has the log in the eye for always citing the Bible or, for less Bible focused Christians, the Church or the general teachings of Christianity, etc.
Wheaton has to give speeches. If he can convince the class God is not dead, he doesn’t fail the 30% unit on the existence of God. If he cannot convince them, he does fail. The filmmakers (unwittingly) actually admit the game is rigged in Wheaton’s favor. Even though all the students but Wheaton were willing to write down that God is dead and even though Pastor Dave advises Wheaton that he must give his speeches because it may be these classmates’ only chance to “hear about God and Jesus”, the filmmakers actually rightly assume (and are statistically correct to do so) the students do believe in God already. It’s no surprise the students all stand up at the end and say “God is not dead”. 80%-97% of Americans believe in God.
They initially write down that “God is dead” at Radisson’s behest not because they’re atheists but because they’ve been conditioned by our educational system to be spineless conformists who defer to authorities. They will write down whatever their professors want if that’s what will get them their grade and get them to where they want to be in life. This cynical indictment of American college students unfortunately has a grain of truth. Students can be shockingly intellectually lazy opportunists obsessed with grades and indifferent to thinking sometimes. But it’s far from the whole story. When professors like me empower our students to freely think and effectively get students to appreciate what problems exist to think about, they do have opinions and they do stand up to us. I was always very proud of how well I trained my students to vigorously and unapologetically disagree with me. Some of the best criticisms anyone’s ever given of my own personal ideas have come from my students, when I’ve floated them by them. This, and the fact that I base my whole ethics on the concept of empowering people, made it most upsetting to me when Radisson explicitly scoffed, “Why would I empower [my students]?”
The giant log of lazy intellectual conformism and thoughtless deference to authorities is still in the church’s eye. It is churches that praise submission to Christ, overcoming doubts not by endless questioning but by deferring to the Sunday School teacher. I cannot tell you how many atheists I talk to who recount being told to shut up by their religious instructors at church or school for asking too many questions.
The filmmakers’ hint that indicates that they know the students really believe in God at the start is loaded into Radisson’s ominous advice to just write down “God is dead” so they can skip the unit where the most students get their lowest grades. Why would students usually get the lowest grades in the God unit from this God hater who grades people down for disagreeing with him, unless they disagreed with him and believed in God?
Now, a quick word about grading essays on God as an atheist philosophy professor. I have never graded my students on the content of their opinions and whether they agreed with my own.
What I graded, and what all professors I have encountered graded, was how well the students have learned, assimilated, and philosophically skillfully analyzed the ideas from class, and thought creatively in philosophically interesting ways for themselves. Not all ideas about God or faith or religion are terrible ones. Lots of interesting philosophical arguments can be made. In fact, I love busting my students’ chops trying to get them to see what might be plausible about some of the arguments for God’s existence (especially the counter-intuitive ontological arguments–which I find very philosophically provocative personally). A few students surely must be tempted to forget the time I spend advocating for God when, in my advocate’s style, I switch to busting their chops from an atheistic perspective. But I always give room to any good argument I can think of and have time for, whether it’s pro-God or anti-God. Because when I’m teaching philosophy, all I care about is that we explore all the good arguments and think creatively and critically. I’m not preaching, I’m teaching.
So there are plenty of ways for students to earn an A despite defending a position I think is, when all things are considered, profoundly wrong. And the vast majority of professors seem to have a similar attitude. Our classes are not about manipulating people into becoming converts (again–stop projecting, evangelical Christians–that’s your log in your eye, not the average philosophy professor’s thing by a mile!), they’re about training in independent thought. Even the rare atheist philosopher like I, who actually does desire to deconvert people generally, usually does not see that as trumping the responsibilities to let students freely think for themselves in the classroom without fear of bad grades. I want people to become atheists because I’ve shown them everything I know, hidden nothing from them, and, having seen the best arguments on both sides, they come to the conclusions that I think are right too. I’m not interested in having them believe for any biased reasons or due to a one-sided presentation.
But, for all this, there are two problems. On occasion, I have taught a semester’s worth of philosophy of religion in which we covered a range of complex, nuanced ideas, including some of the most famous, Christian-approved, philosophical advocates for theism (Augustine, Aquinas, Swinburne, Plantinga, Craig, et al.) and as devastating counter-objections to them as I could muster (philosophy of religion textbooks underrepresent atheist viewpoints criminally–again, the log is in theistic philosophers’ of religion’s eye for marginalizing atheistic ones, rather than the other way around), only to receive despairingly many papers from students that amount to “I believe in Jesus because he is my savior and how can you look at a mountain and say there is no God.”
If a Christian writes a paper like that and receives an F (which I didn’t even give them though they probably deserved it) or if they try to use a philosophy or biology class to wholesale dismiss the scientific consensus on evolution and argue that creationism is true and get a bad grade, that’s not religious persecution. Science is still true, even in philosophy class. There is certainly more room in philosophy class to have robust debates about what the metaphysical implications of the science is. For example, “What is the impact of the fact we evolved on our definitions of God or hypotheses that God exists?” is a much more philosophical than strictly scientific question. But it’s not acceptable in philosophy to contradict science as though it does not exist and has no epistemic weight that can override whatever you want to think.
And this gets to the other issue where religious students might wrongly feel persecuted. It’s not persecution when you are forced to give reasons for your positions. When I ask for philosophical justifications and argue that faith is an invalid form of reasoning, you have to either defend faith as a valid form of reasoning or stop making faith-based assertions. The standards of logic, empiricism, and rational standards of consistency, conceptual clarity, and coherence still apply in looking at God and religion related questions as they do in all the other philosophical areas of inquiry.
Tellingly, it is only in the God related areas that students have ever started turning against reason itself on me. Only when they encounter challenges to their religious beliefs do they start turning against all the logical rules of reasoning that they naturally and happily operated under all semester prior with no complaints. Though I am told so often by Christianity’s defenders that there is no contradiction between good reasoning and Christianity at all, by curious coincidence it is only when religiously important beliefs (and no other kind) come up against vigorous counter-objections that my students ever start trying to deny the validity of reason itself. Why should I conclude that reason and religion are best friends when it is precisely religion that makes people explicitly resent and agitate against reason more than anything else?
So, again, it’s not persecution when in a philosophy class, often for the first time in your life, you have to be confronted with rigorous philosophical interrogation of your beliefs. This is not authoritarian and bullying. This isn’t philosophy professors telling you what to think. Again, the log is in your churches’ eyes. Your churches have been indoctrinating you since the day you were born in most cases. They manipulate you at camps, they preach at you constantly, they make exacting demands on your sexuality, they encourage you to put their beliefs between you and your friends or family wherever they conflict (as happens repeatedly in God’s Not Dead), and whenever you have doubts they engage in whatever means of faith-preserving rationalization or emotional non-sequitor necessary to get you to believe. Some religious people say doubt is a great thing and a free mind and a free will are great things. But they have no interest whatsoever in the real kinds of doubt, freethinking, or free will–the ones that could decide to leave the church. That’s sin. If you leave the church, you will find out how nastily uninterested in your freedom of thought those fellow Christians who right now claim to love you can become.
When you’re told, “Sure! Doubt! Use your mind! Exercise your freedom! But all atheists are liars who secretly hate God and want to sin, and we’ll disown you if you ever walk way!” You are not being trained to use your free will or to doubt seriously.
No one genuinely interested in the truth should ever confuse a vigorous, honest philosophical set of rejoinders to their beliefs for persecution. Just because your professor does not join you in rationalizing or let you get away with a rationalization with no further follow ups to press you to do better, does not mean she is abusing her power. Your churches are those who abuse their power over your mind and have done so since you were little. They find the cognitive biases and pronenesses towards conceptual mistakes that are endemic to all human brains and instead of fixing them, they exploit them to pitch their religious beliefs. They exacerbate natural human irrationality rather than educate you to overcome it. The log is in the church’s eye.
But, then, to the actual arguments.
Wheaton starts with the Big Bang and argues two things. The weakest thing he argues is that God’s beginning of creation with “let there be light” could be seen as a metaphor for the Big Bang. He cites a scientist who makes this tendentious connection. But this proves nothing. This is easily chalked to coincidence if accurate. “Let there be light” is in no way scientifically specific. The supposedly omniscient knower who was behind the writing of the Bible couldn’t have offered an actually specific set of details that no ancient person could have known, which would then be later verified by rigorous science thousands of years later? That would have been impressive! But “let there be light” isn’t anywhere near such a huge and unaccountable bit of knowledge that had the ancients had it might have indicated they were getting special, unguessable information from a supernatural source. And, in fact it’s really not very good as a metaphor since, as physics PhD student Adam Freese put it to me, “For what it’s worth, the first ~400,000 years of the universe had no free light. The entire universe was filled with electronic plasma, which is opaque. Light first appeared after the plasma cooled and formed atoms, which was called recombination.” So the universe didn’t start out with light at all!
The other argument draws on Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig without directly citing him. Wheaton cites atheist cosmologists Steven Weinberg and Stephen Hawking as saying the universe needed a beginning and, as Craig does, leaps to the conclusion that that means it cannot be eternal and requires a supernatural agency outside itself, God. He leaps right over the huge chasm between asserting the universe needed a cause outside itself and believing that this is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob who was incarnated as Jesus. Even were there to be a need for a cause outside the universe, it is dubious to posit a personal being and even if you can prove it had to be a personal being, why believe the ancient people who wrote the Bible had any special revelation from this being?
Again, Adam Freese puts the point well, “the argument that the big bang theory vindicates a religion is pretty common, but it only really consists of claiming that a holy book predicted that the universe began at some point. It’s not really an impressive argument, and is a pretty easy thing to guess, even with no theoretical justification for the guess; it just kind of makes intuitive sense. It would have been impressive if the Bible or the Koran predicted an age for the universe, said that light first appeared 400k years after the beginning, mentioned inflation, etc.”
But, more importantly, there is a huge leap Wheaton makes in assuming the universe (or the multiverse if that’s what we actually exist in) requires a causal principle outside itself. The idea that everything with a beginning requires a cause outside of it is just asserted by people like Craig and this film’s Josh Wheaton. I think it rests on what is called a “composition fallacy”. The composition fallacy is when you mistakenly take an attribute of a part of a thing to be an attribute of the whole thing. For example, say someone claimed down pillows must be soft because they are filled with feathers and feathers are soft. This neglects the fact that if you pack enough feathers together in a pillow they can cumulatively be a rock hard pillow.
When we look at the natural world and we try to find causal connections that’s because that’s what will make sense of the sequence of our experiences the best. Particular configurations of matter are as they are because of some constitutive materials that make them up and that are as they are because of some process of interactions with other physical entities. That’s necessary to explain those particular configurations. But that does not mean that the universe’s materials themselves require a further cause. Cosmologist Sean Carroll recently debated with William Lane Craig. See the embed of the video which I encourage you to watch for yourself below:
In the debate Carroll made it clear. Cosmologists are capable of giving accounts of the universe which are coherent and potentially complete without the need for some further supernatural causal explanation outside of it. The universe, taken in sum total, is not like the kinds of things which we experience within the universe which require some further cause and effect dynamic or some further account of what simpler stuff makes up the more complex stuff. The fact that our universe has a beginning moment does not mean it cannot also be eternal.
The analogy I suggest is to imagine an eternally existing video tape with a movie on it. The movie has a finite duration of moments. The beginning scene is always the beginning of the movie and the end scene is always the end. To ask about the scenes in the movie before the first scene is to ask a confused question. To ask what scenes come after the movie is over is a confused question. The video tape could exist eternally, even as the beginning would always be the first sequential moment that happens within the movie and the ending the last sequential moment.
Think about it like this. Right now in every digital file or video tape of every movie, both the beginning and the ending are there. They both exist. You could right now watch the end or the beginning. You could even watch it backwards if you want. Nonetheless, each moment, though simultaneously existent in one sense (and so analogous to eternally existing here) is in another sense sequential. The beginning is ordered before the end. They’re both here right now. The beginning doesn’t make the end happen. They both simultaneously are there. But in a certain order. The universe may be a set of moments all eternally existing, even if they have a temporal order and sequence where one goes first and is the “beginning” and another goes last and is the “end”.
The universe could be eternal. If something must be eternal (as I am tentatively persuaded seems to be the case) then I see no reason not to simply apply this eternalist interpretation to the universe. It is one that neither physicists nor philosophers of time rule out. It requires no unnecessary leaps to whole realms of supernatural beings. And, although this does not add anything to truth value, I personally find it profoundly emotionally satisfying because it says every moment of the universe exists eternally. If that’s true, that means that our lives never wink out of existence. Every moment of them is a permanent part of an eternal reality. That we die only means we are not part of the whole universe (which is a bummer) and that we do not have as many moments as might allow us to experience more of the good things about our lives (which is also a shame). But every single moment of our lives eternally happens, if this is true. That means the past never really goes away. Your past self is still back there experiencing it and eternally is experiencing it. Your future self is already experiencing the future and eternally is experiencing it. The passage of time is just an illusion on this view.
I don’t know at all that this is true. So I only tentatively put this forward as a plausible hypothesis that I find very meaningful to contemplate.
When Wheaton claims the universe needed God to create it, Radisson said exactly what I (and probably most atheists) in the audience immediately thought, “then who created God?” Why can God be a special uncaused thing if you just said that everything needs a cause. (But, this being authority obsessed God’s Not Dead, Radisson cites this as Dawkins’s challenge.) In reply, Wheaton follows standard theistic retorts here and completely begs the question. He says that only created things need an explanation and not uncreated things like God. (By the way, since I just used the phrase beg the question I’m reminded–at one point Wheaton misuses “begs the question” where he meant “raises the question” and I cringed. The writers of philosophy classroom scenes don’t apparently know basic logic terminology.) Again, Wheaton assumes the universe is a created thing and not itself the thing that can be uncreated. The universe having a first sequentially existing moment in a sequence is not the same thing as the universe ever having not existed, any more than higher numbers must have been created after lower numbers if numbers are eternal. Eternally existing sequences can be what they are eternally.
At this point, Professor Radisson pathetically argues like a bully. He cites Stephen Hawking saying, “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” Wheaton hadn’t come across this in his mere couple of days that he had to prepare this speech (unrealistically given on the second day of class) and like the worst philosopher and teacher in world history Radisson, rather than teaching him, holds Wheaton’s completely excusable ignorance against him for no good reason. He rubs it in Wheaton’s face when Wheaton admits he does not know how to respond. Instead of praising his honesty, Radisson abuses him over it. It’s a total strawman. It’s antithetical to the whole spirit and nature of philosophy.
Christians who feel embattled, listen to me. If you want to deal with your anxieties about philosophy’s hostility towards your religion, you need to address its nature honestly. Philosophers don’t make you feel uncomfortable because they play “gotcha!” with you and pull out authorities you can’t deal with and then make fun of you for saying you don’t know. We also are not authoritarians who just tell people to affirm what goes against their intellectual consciences. We do not take away people’s freedom of thought or their free will. And it is a complete joke to suggest that the strong majority consensus of philosophers against theism is all because we secretly hate God. It’s completely implausible that 83% of people who study philosophy professionally all come down against theism for emotional reasons rather than cognitive ones. You would have to be accusing philosophy of being a profession that disproportionately attracted liars and incompetents at a rate seen nowhere else in humanity except for politics. And in politics, the lying and incompetency make sense–they’re means to power! What good reason do you really think the 83% of professional philosophers have to spend their lives lying to themselves, for a living, while deep down knowing there’s a God that they just hate? And where is the hatred for God in the numerous of these atheist professors who are actually hospitable to religion in a number of other ways, despite their atheism?
If you want to present us in all these ludicrous and implausible ways, embodied and represented by Professor Radisson, you are basically saying the whole reason philosophy seems against you is that 83% of those who go into philosophy hate God so much they want to spend their lives philosophically lying to people and bullying Christians out of their faith against their free will. That’s a preposterous hypothesis.
So, sticking it to the strawman of Professor Radisson avoids honestly dealing with sincere and rational philosophers. Does Christianity preach intellectual laziness? Does it preach that the best way to reason is to avoid the best alternative ideas and instead only address the weakest ones? Does it really preach that every time you encounter a tough challenge from an atheist which you can’t intellectually answer that you must dodge the question and make the atheist’s heart the issue instead? If you, who truly believe, can’t answer atheists’ objections, why do you assume atheists are not atheists because they themselves can’t defend theism against the objections they offer to it. In other words, what’s so implausible about the idea that atheists are just convinced by atheistic arguments on the merits? Why are you so afraid to take this seriously?
Why Do Christians Say Atheists Disbelieve for Emotional Reasons?
One hypothesis about why you keep changing the subject from the intellectual reasons to the atheists’ hearts is that it’s another instance of projection. It’s another instance of you accusing atheists of doing what you yourselves do–only ten times worse. The log in many religious believers’ eyes is that they believe for emotional reasons rather than rational ones. You guys even admit this regularly. You say you are in it for the hope, because they don’t want to stay dead when you die, because you fear life would be meaningless without God, because you were hurting from bad relationships with other people so found refuge in Jesus, on and on. Part of why you project onto atheists that we are people who have an emotional need for God that we’re secretly hiding is because that’s how you convert. That’s how you live your faith. But it’s not how most atheists feel.
Even in the film, at the end, the Newsboys say they believe because it gives them hope and the atheist (Amy, played by Trisha LaFache) they are talking to is speechless when asked where she gets her hope. She caves in and converts on the spot not because of reason but because of hopelessness. It is evangelical Christians who exploit people’s irrational, emotional weaknesses with a disgusting shamelessness in order to manipulate them into conversions that don’t make sense. Why is the desire for a supernatural source of hope a reason to believe in one? It’s not.
This is not to say you can’t ever psychologize atheists. I psychologized myself and explored the interactions between my psychology and my atheism here. But it’s an evasion of all our arguments when you psychologize us in ideological ways rather than honest ones and when you confuse psychologizing us for refuting the force of our actual arguments. Even were we all claiming to be atheists because we hated God, there still may not be a God and the arguments we give may still indicate the reasons to think there isn’t one.
And the conversion of Amy undermines the film’s pretensions to celebrate admitting you don’t know. In the classroom Wheaton, representing Christians, is admirably unafraid to say when he does not know how to answer Professor Radisson. In fact, at the classroom climax, he claims no one can either prove or disprove God’s existence. The philosophy professor and antitheist is accused of being a dogmatist uninterested in free thought or free will. The Christian is someone unafraid to admit he doesn’t know and who just wants to give you choices.
And yet, again, the log, in reality, is in the Christian’s eye. In the real world, when atheists routinely say, “we don’t know how the universe came into being, it just seems to simply exist” the theists are the ones who leap dogmatically to “It had to be the supernatural being revealed in the Bible and the Bible must be 100% true and reliable and the Christian faith must be worth living by 110%!” Where biologists say they don’t know how life originated, they are waiting for an actual explanatory account, routinely, Christians triumphalistically try to say that God explains it even though just saying “God did it” does not humbly wait for a real, scientifically verifiable answer that can actually be proven.
In reality, it is the atheists who are mocked by the Christians for admitting “We don’t know. Philosophy and science only tell us so much.” Christians leap dogmatically to a completely unprovable (and wildly unlikely) answer that a God who incarnated himself as human and died for their sins explains everything. And then in this movie they try to cast themselves as honest people who admit what they don’t know?
And when Amy really doesn’t know where to find hope, her honesty is not affirmed by the Christians. It’s taken as an opening to convert her to Christianity.
Also along these lines, let me note another hypocrisy. Christians regularly insist that anyone who doesn’t know with absolutely 100% certainty that there is no God is not really an atheist but an agnostic and should be honest and call themselves that instead. But why don’t you Christians who say you don’t know 100% certainly there is a God call yourselves agnostics? Why is someone only allowed to be called an atheist if they have an impossible standard of knowledge (100% certainty–something we actually have in hardly any of the cases of saying “I know”) but Christians can call themselves theists when they admit they only believe by faith?
And atheism is not just a faith position. Many atheists are very careful to say they only “lack belief” in gods, not even that they know there are no gods. They are agnostic atheists (agnostic in the sense that they claim not to know exactly, but atheists in that they think the most rational default is non-belief). Those of us (like me) who are more “gnostic” atheists say we know there is no God not because we make a leap of faith but because positions with no good reason to believe in them, which are riddled with rational contradictions, anti-scientific supernaturalisms, and historical fabrications, can be dismissed as 99.999% likely to be false. Christians don’t give a second thought to dismissing the existence of 99.99% of gods every proposed by humans. You don’t just “have faith” there is no Zeus or Ganesh or Apollo. You don’t just “have faith” there are no leprechauns or unicorns or abominable snowmen. You know there aren’t as well as you know there isn’t a dragon in the room with you right now. Sure, there’s an infinitesimal possibility you’re wrong. But not enough to refuse to say you know these things don’t exist. We atheists, hard as this may be to fathom to you, simply do not share your arbitrary, culturally and psychologically engrained double standard by which you give the God of the Bible a pass on the same logic. That’s it. We do not have “faith” your God does not exist. Some say, there’s no reason to think it so we just “don’t believe” or “lack belief”. Others of us say, “yeah, we know you’re wrong.”
This also does not mean that being an “antitheist” is being persecutory of Christians. Wheaton tries to argue that what’s really wrong with Professor Radisson is neither his philosophy or atheism but his antitheism. The desire for others not to be theists is cast as authoritarian. But why? If we really think it’s false and harmful enough to oppose it, why shouldn’t we make our rational arguments? Granted we shouldn’t be dogmatic bullies like Professor Radisson. Granted we shouldn’t let that interfere with our responsibilities to first and foremost be empowering educators to our students when we are professors. But that’s an uncharitable presentation of antitheists. It picks on the worst of us but not the best. Why should civil but adamant atheists have to be any less aggressive about promoting our views and values than you are about promoting yours? Why is it a-okay for Josh to explicitly seek to use his philosophy class to preach Jesus but it’s not okay for an atheist to challenge a student’s Christian faith? When at the end of the movie the Newsboys encourage the audience members to text everyone they know with the message that “God’s Not Dead”, in hopes of reaching a million people, is that not obnoxious? With your thin skins, you would feel persecuted to the nth degree if atheists texted everyone they knew that “God is Dead”.
Why is it persecution when we vigorously challenge you and try to change your minds but it is not persecution of us when you vigorously try to save our souls? And which group is more aggressive about this? Who has a two thousand year history of demanding conversions from everyone around them? Atheists? Or Christians? Who exactly has the log in their eye here if proselytizing is a terrible sin?
And if we can agree (as I do, as an evangelical atheist who is unashamed to want to convince others of atheism) that it’s okay to dispute with each other over our views and values, even ones related to faith, which group explicitly advocates persuading people by reason and which one will use any emotional reason whatsoever? Which group regularly can be found telling people they have to let go of their reason and just accept things by faith? That log is in your eyes, not ours.
The projection of the sins of Christianity onto atheists continues after Wheaton’s presentation on cosmological arguments for God. Radisson acts incredibly insecure and pettily. With the most vulnerable ego of anyone in power ever, he accuses Wheaton of trying to show him up and thinking he’s smarter than him. And then, amazingly, he tells Wheaton, “In that classroom there is a God and I am him.” Then, astoundingly, he says he’s a “jealous God”. And he threatens vindictively to go beyond just failing Wheaton in his class, for insolently disagreeing with him about God in front of the class, but to even go so far as to destroy his hopes of being a lawyer altogether.
Again, the projection is breathtaking. Radisson’s conception of God is the Christian one. The log is in your God’s eye, Christians! When you loathe the way Professor Radisson leverages his power to pick on someone smaller than him, you should be loathing your God for doing that to the humans He creates and demands obedience from. When you’re appalled at Radisson’s jealousy and vindictiveness, you should disown when your own God call himself a jealous God who punishes those who don’t worship Him singlemindedly. When Radisson threatens disproportionate punishments for expressing freedom of conscience (which is really doing nothing wrong at all) you should understand that your Bible, which demands people submit to the arbitrary will of some arbitrarily posited deity, threatens people with eternal hell simply for not believing in your God. What happened to people’s free intellectual conscience?
All the authoritarian vices of Radisson are inherent in the God of wrath who sends people to hell in Christianity.
“But,” you say, “God is righteous and only sends people to hell because they deserve it.”
I’m sure Professor Radisson thinks he is right to do what he does too. But that doesn’t make it true. We need objective ways to assess the claims to righteousness of people in authority. And the God of the Bible fails the most important moral tests we have. He condemns the whole human race for Adam and Eve’s sin–cursing us with original sin and with suffering. It’s immoral to punish people for others’ sins. In the Old Testament He commands genocides, commands slavery, commands stoning people for petty infractions, and drowns everyone on the planet (even the innocent babies). In the New Testament the idea of hell is introduced–infinite punishment for finite sins, which is the height of cruel injustice.
The only way to say God is righteous is to ignore everything we have come to realize about morality in the last 2,000 years and for no good reason, by faith, declare all the evils in the Bible good out of the dogmatic assertion God must be good so whatever God did must be right. That’s not proving your God is good, it’s ignoring all the clear counter-evidence and warping all your moral judgments accordingly, even if it means making excuses for the most heinous crimes imaginable. That is arbitrariness and authoritarianism, the total antithesis of objective morality. Saying that wickedness can be justice if only God says so is the height of subjectivism in morality. It’s “might makes right” as a theology. You say we need Christianity in order to know right from wrong? You say we need Christianity in order to know right from wrong? I say it’s Christianity’s fault you can’t tell right from wrong whenever your own God does evil. Why in the world would I trust you to tell me right from wrong?
An objective morality would be one objectively demonstrable from rational reasons open to anyone, not one that required stumbling upon the right arbitrary religion and believing it on faith, even though its God has wicked and upside down values all throughout its holy book.
When the arguments resume, Wheaton makes another tendentious, arbitrary attempt to link a metaphor from Genesis to a scientific truth. This time evolution is somehow indicated by Genesis because plants and animals as we know them are an extremely late development in evolutionary time, which makes it like they happened on a “late day” like the fifth and sixth in Genesis. This proves less than nothing. It doesn’t show that the Bible had anything like any special knowledge later vindicated by science.
Wheaton tries to argue that because scientists do not have an account yet of the origin of life that perhaps it was God that originated it. What is so tedious about this is that it is a “God of the Gaps” argument antithetical to the entire spirit of science. “God of the Gaps” is an expression used to point out that theists used to think of God (or gods) as explaining a great number of phenomena that are now explicable in scientific ways. As science has filled in more and more of our understanding of the world, God keeps being proposed by theists as supposedly necessary to explain whatever happens to be left unexplained. It seems implausible that scientific (and correlate philosophical) advances would keep happening and happening and replacing God-explanation after God-explanation and yet whatever we happen to have not figured out yet is what God alone can account for.
God has been overturned over and over again as not the best explanation we have in science and in philosophy. It repeatedly proves to be a bad explanation. So there is no reason to stop doing science and philosophy and just say “God did it.” Had scientists and philosophers stopped any of thousands of other times with “and here we stop thinking and just say that ‘God did it’”, enormous leaps of understanding would have never happened. If we start doing that now because we all become theists, how much progress will we lose?
Christians sometimes try to solve this by saying God is not just “a” being among other beings but rather is “nature” itself or “being itself”, somehow the being in which and through which all others exist. But that road is the road to pantheism. That is compelling only if we just make Nature and God synonyms. Attributing to that God personality and interventions into history like read in the Bible is just nonsense. That’s just saying Nature itself is like a human being. That’s as arbitrary as saying Nature itself tastes like tomato sauce. (For much more on what’s so wrong with the concept of God, see my post examining some divine attributes.)
So, it is silly when Christians say that since we are missing an exact, verifiable scientific account of the dynamics by which the origins of life happened, that somehow this means it could have been God or that the scientific method is flawed or limited. Science is limited here not by a conceptual impossibility (i.e., not because it makes no sense for life to come into being through a naturalistic process), but rather because life’s origins happened very long ago and it happened with such tiny rudimentary organisms that they didn’t leave fossil traces. There are a range of ways abiogenesis (“the origin of life”) could have happened that scientists can dream up that are plausible. When scientists say they don’t know how life began it’s not because they can’t imagine things or that nothing would make sense, whereas Christians have a profound imagination or the only sensible possibility. Rather, it’s that unlike Christians, scientists are patiently waiting for evidence rather than just making something up. They’re being humble and waiting to actually know.
Christians are not smarter or more rational for just insisting they know and not waiting for evidence. Were all science to work like that, there’d be no science. Don’t blame scientists for embodying the patience and temporary comfortability with not knowing that routinely leads to actual scientific success. You can’t say science and Christianity are compatible and then show that in your own thinking you advocate rushing to conclusions and stopping inquiries and settling for “God did it” explanations and disparaging the patience of scientists. When you do those things, you embody and promote anti-scientific attitudes in practice. You hurt the cause of science. There is more to supporting science than just mouthing the words, “I support science.”
I also, more controversially, think it is similarly unscientific to say that both God and evolution go together because God makes evolution happen. The reason this is unscientific is that it spits in the face of the discovery of natural selection.
The idea that species evolve from ancestors to descendants was already understood in the idea of breeding. We knew we could artificially select for traits in animals and plants to make them have the traits we wanted to by controlling which ones mated with each other. What was so amazing and paradigm-shifting about Darwin’s discovery was that just the dynamics of nature alone could have the same effect as intelligent breeders. What was amazing was that an environment just being inhospitable to a trait and accidentally making it so the bearers of that trait just couldn’t live long enough to reproduce offspring with the same trait could weed out that trait as effectively as humans choosing to not let dogs with a given trait reproduce.
The amazing realization of evolution by natural selection is that the interaction of environments with traits can all by itself, over millions and millions of years make the changes happen with no intelligent agency at all necessary. And, in fact, many of the ways the “designs” that resulted from these dynamics came out, it is clear that they’re not always perfect or logical. They involve all sorts of inefficiencies and non-ideal designs and superfluous dimensions all because they were the traits and combinations of traits that happened to evolve and fit well enough to the environment that they worked. They don’t bespeak a perfect designer who foresaw what maximum efficiency would require and implemented it. They look exactly as they would if random mutations and random changes in environment were selected by whichever happened to fit the best, though not perfectly.
Saying “I accept evolution happens…because of God!” becomes as superfluous and unscientific as saying “I accept that lightning happens…because of Thor!” Or “I accept that if I fall out the window I will fall because of the natural law of gravity…and because God pushed me!” The electrostatic discharge is sufficient to explain the lightning all by itself, naturalistically. Positing Thor adds nothing but misunderstanding. Gravity explains why you fall. Positing God adds nothing but misunderstanding. Natural selection explains why organisms evolve. Positing God adds nothing but misunderstanding.
Science does not just assume God doesn’t exists. Scientists have just found that saying, “well, maybe it’s because of God” is useless in the laboratory and in theory making. Even religious scientists who make great discoveries or build great technologies understand that they have to essentially leave God and holy books completely out of their scientific work because the only accounts that can really be meaningful are those that are empirically and mathematically precise and God is not those things. This is part of why the mere existence of religious scientists does not prove that religion and science go together. Religious people are good scientists only when they leave their religious beliefs out of their science and engineering. As people, this means they are living with cognitive dissonance. In the laboratory they think as though there were no God, that is, they think as though they were atheists, and precisely because of that they are successful. But in church and personal piety they live as though there were one. They abandon all the categories of rigorous thinking that they employ in the lab when looking at their Scriptures. They can only be both religious and scientific by being categorically unscientific and accepting baseless religious authorities when being religious.
Some Christian apologists concede that we have to be “methodological naturalists” in the laboratory (that is, people who assume the natural world and natural explanations all there are but who only assume this when doing science) but that doesn’t mean we should be metaphysical naturalists (people who think really all there is is nature and natural explanations). They accuse metaphysical naturalism of being an unwarranted assumption. But I see it as a finding, an inference we have come to (rather than assumed) by seeing the enormous explanatory power that opens up when we assume that nature is all there is. If that holding that position is so unprecedentedly powerful for generating truths in the laboratory, why not think it’s because it’s also metaphysically true.
There is also a rational consideration that makes me a naturalist. I do not understand how supernaturalism can be coherently conceived. I do not know how anything could exist without a nature. Even if there is the Christian God, God seems like He cannot be supernaturally above logic. How could He be? To say He was beyond logic would be to say He could both exist and not exist at the same time. He could be both absolutely omniscient and simultaneously know nothing. In other words, if God is not bound by logic, He would both have the classical attributes ascribed to God and not have them at the same time. That’s nonsense. God would have to be bound by logic as much as anything else and be some kind of thing or other. God would, in other words, have a nature more deep than what it subsequently creates. So, the most fundamental reality even for Christians seems to be nature. And every “supernatural” event would be a suspension of one set of laws for another according to God’s will, but still the things that seemed “supernatural” to us, being accustomed to our world’s normal laws would operate by “natures” of some sort rather than chaotically.
Wheaton returns to the Hawking quote and cites John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, claiming that Hawking is guilty of circular reasoning. Hawking wants to accept a universe with no further cause outside of it, so he simply posits that it must be self-creating. In reply, instead of reasoning about the objection like a philosopher, Radisson just intones imperiously asking whether Wheaton is daring to challenge the great physicist Stephen Hawking. Again, so pathetic. The log of appeals to authority and majesty that trump actual reasons is in the Christian eye.
This is also symptomatic of another trend in the film–no philosophers are actually cited (except for Nietzsche’s concept of the death of God at the beginning) and no strictly philosophical cases are central to anything. (By the way, if you’d like to learn about Nietzsche, he’s my specialty, you can read more starting here and even take a class online with me about him.) The assumption of the film is that all the real action is in science. So there are no interesting philosophical discussions at all. There are just quotes of two towering English academics in math and science, an appeal to Dawkins, a reference to cosmologist Steven Weinberg, some hand waiving about evolution and how since biologists haven’t figured out the exact nature of abiogenesis (the process by which the first life formed), maybe it’s God!
This is basically a philosophy class that has no interest in philosophy itself. And, in one of the rare moments of cleverness, Wheaton quickly rubs in Radisson’s face Hawking’s misguided dig that “philosophy is dead”. God’s not dead, philosophy is dead. Nice bumper sticker. This is one of many reasons it is ignorant, anti-intellectual, and counter-productive to the cause of critical thinking and atheism when scientists mouth off in anti-philosophy ways. In doing this scientists like Hawking and Krauss give undeserved ammunition to people who want to attack reason in general–since so much reasoning in general is more philosophical than quantifiably scientific in character.
Philosophy is unavoidable. Science does not answer every question, because some questions are not amenable to strictly scientific analyses. Or other questions that are capable of scientific analysis still require time and scientific progress and new discoveries before they can be scientific. This does not mean that theology is the answer. Theological answers are just ancient guesses with no magic plausibility just because better scientific ones don’t yet exist. There are philosophical ways to deal with a huge range of issues that people think about. Applying tests of logic, consistency, coherence, conceptual clarification, thought experiments, extrapolations from scientific findings to philosophical implications, and using common sense reasoning, we can rationally approach the huge panoply of questions that right now don’t have specifically scientific answers. The limits of science are not the door to intellectual anarchy and theology. We must grapple with other questions than scientific ones some times and when doing so we must do so as rigorously as possible, rather than as carelessly. Saying philosophy is dead is only an invitation to ignore crucial questions and, so, answer them thoughtlessly, with who knows what consequences for our lives. Our culture suffers from a failure to do good philosophy.
The major political and social and religious and ethical debates of our time are as bad as they are because of philosophical ignorance and incompetence among the public as much as anything. Science is doing swimmingly. It’s philosophical errors among the populace in epistemology, in political theory, in ethics, in metaphysics, that make people think that religious authorities can trump scientific ones, that make uninformed laypeople think they can pronounce upon scientific questions better than scientists can. Our problem in this culture is not a failure to do good science, it’s a failure of the populace to understand philosophy so that it knows what to make of what science is telling it. Our populace does not know how to contextualize science within a theory of knowledge and reality that is coherent. For all our scientific understanding, people still believe, in parallel, in superstitions of immaterial souls and faith-based epistemology, and outdated metaphysical dogmas that good philosophy refutes.
Our fights over gay and trans people’s rights or women’s rights or how to ethically structure our relationships between men and women beyond merely legal issues? These are all fundamentally philosophical problems.
Secular people’s questions of how or whether to replace religious institutions in people’s lives with sufficient secular alternatives. Our problems about the numerous social science issues have (so far) intractable philosophical issues involved. How to demarcate what is a mental illness? What is racism? How does morality work? These and numerous other huge problems in psychology and sociology have major philosophical dimensions to them that are not merely empirical.
The many theists and atheists trying to debate God’s existence are not merely publishing findings in science journals at that point. They’re extrapolating from the science to all sorts of further metaphysical and epistemological conclusions about the plausibility of naturalism, the limits of needs for causal explanations, the nature of knowledge about questions that are not strictly settleable with concepts that reduce to mathematical formulas.
If you’re going to respond to people’s desires for a coherent rationality based ethics for approaching the world (or to theists’ barbs accusing such a thing of being impossible), you’re going to be engaged in philosophy. If you’re going to puzzle out the nature and limits of free speech, separation of church and state, or other rights, you are going to be engaging with difficult philosophical problems. If you are going to puzzle out the nature of objective discourse itself, or who can provide insight into what questions and why, or whether some questions are too dangerous to ask or whether everything must be questioned, you’re going to be engaged in philosophy. If you’re going to have a thoughtful and careful grasp of when war is justified or why, you’re going to be engaged in philosophy. If you’re going to try to figure out how to crack the nut of whether or to what extent we paradoxically must tolerate the intolerant, you’re going to be doing philosophy. When you’re faced with excruciating end of life decisions related to active or passive euthanasia, you’re going to be doing philosophy. When you’re trying to build AI as a computer scientist, you’re going to have to solve an immense amount of philosophical problems or the AI will be everything science fiction nightmares are made of.
If you are going to have to figure out how to understand the role of your emotions in your life, the challenge to rank priorities in life, the ways to assess competing values of urgent existential import in your life—you are going to be doing philosophy.
There are plenty of constructive debates to be had about exactly how to do philosophy appropriately, how to improve our methods, how to situate its role within the larger project of knowledge development. But it’s a dangerous world where people are philosophically incompetent. And I’m disgusted and disappointed by my supposed fellow defenders of reason when they short-sightedly and ignorantly turn on philosophy and, to my mind, betray the very cause we were supposed to be allied together in.
Wheaton does not think citing Lennox wins him the case for God. He is just happy to be able to tell the students, “look, a super smart guy believes in God too, so it’s not intellectual suicide to believe.” Wheaton’s not out to prove to his classmates that the argument for God is really overwhelmingly rational. The filmmakers just want him to convince the class and the viewing audience that reason is inconclusive. Why? Because, again, the filmmakers know most people already do, and want to, believe in God. So, the pretense at doing philosophy or engaging with science is half-hearted. It’s just presenting the appearance of some smart reasons to doubt atheists. A lot of Christians feel pressured to conform to atheist pressure for fear of being called stupid. That’s the only anxiety here. The viewer is assumed not to really care about being sure they’re right. They just want permission to believe without worrying they’re dumb to do so. Well, I agree, Christians, you are not stupid. But that’s not enough to be justified in believing whatever you want.
The film, like, in my reading, much of the Bible, assumes almost everyone believes in God and that the real challenge of faith is the challenge to trust God. The filmmakers then treat all the atheists (except possibly Mark, played by Dean Cain) like secret Christians in denial. They think the problem of evil is the real issue and so the whole film is really structured about making the argument that God is good despite evil.
Professor Radisson is not really an atheist. He’s a misotheist–someone who believes in the gods (or God) but hates them (or Him). Amy hounds Christians as a gotcha journalist because she secretly envies their hope. The students all write down that God is dead because of pressure to conform by denying God.
The film tries several ways to sway people to accept God is good despite evil.
One argument comes from the sudden prophetic utterances of an elderly woman suffering dementia and coming in and out of lucidity. She has a sudden moment of clarity where she lectures her smug, materialistic, unabashedly selfish son Mark who gloats about getting away with being rotten while she suffers after a life of devotion to God. In her speech, as though channeling some supernatural entity before suddenly snapping out of it and not even knowing who she is talking to again, she talks about how bad people prosper in this world because the devil wants it that way. He makes their sinfulness so comfortable on Earth that they never repent. They are people actually in a spiritual jail cell who can leave at any moment. The door’s open. But they never walk out. Then, when they die, the door slams shut and they’re trapped and they learn the true nature of what they’ve chosen.
This is wishful fantasy. Not much of an argument. It also raises questions of why God lets people be deceived like that. Romans 9 would tell us that it’s because He makes some people with the express purpose of never saving them, that He actively hardens some people’s hearts against Him, and that He creates them in the first place to be destroyed. John 12:40 explains the unbelief people experience even when seeing Jesus perform miracles by saying this is to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that “The Lord has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts–so that their eyes cannot see, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and have me heal them.” Who has blinded the people so they cannot turn to Jesus? Not the devil, but the Lord. So much for free will, Christians!
Wheaton tries to cite the existence of evil as necessary for the sake of free will. Radisson has exactly the right reply but the film (like too many Christians) leaps topics instead of directly addressing the point. Radisson points out it is excessive and irrelevant to free will that we have to deal with such gratuitous evils as tsunamis, genocides, etc. And Radisson mocks that the next thing you know Wheaton will be talking about absolute morality. Wheaton jumps on this opening to talk about morality. But the point Radisson could have been making is that if absolute morality is real, then surely it must hold God accountable for all the gratuitous evils He allows go well beyond what is actually necessary for free will to be legitimately present in the world. This is a strong case against believing there is an omnibenevolent and morally perfect God at all.
The final way the film tries to make the case that evil is not so bad is in its horrible death scene for Professor Radisson, which I criticized as the crux of a previous review of the film. To sum up quickly here, the characters wring a repentance out of Radisson, as he lays dying, and then celebrate, expressing envy towards him that he gets to go to heaven and noting that his pain before dying mercifully lasted mere moments while the joys of heaven will be endless. In this way the filmmakers try to model for us how we are supposed to readjust the way we interpret everything so we see it as all wonderful in the bigger context of God’s grace. If only they can train their fellow Christians to see everything in the way that makes it evidence of God’s grace, why then, they won’t have anguished, bitter rejections of God that supposedly accounts for so much atheism.
It doesn’t really, of course, account for much atheism at all. Atheists are not misotheists. We don’t hate God. We just don’t believe in God. What some of us hate is that we think Christianity and other religions lie to people, hindering them in their abilities to think for themselves or to think with proper information and make the best decisions for themselves. When we’re mad we’re not betraying that we secretly believe in God and we’re not just mad because we met a few bad apple Christians. Rather we’re angry with the effects of religious institutions and beliefs we think are harmful. We also may get angry when we hear all the evils that we see praised in the Christian God treated as wonderful things. We assail the deification of traits we have good reason to think are terrible. We assail the perversion of ethics and politics and metaphysics represented by the God concept when we attack it. And some of us mourn from the disillusionment of having been falsely promised divine protection as believers only to come viscerally to understand that no such thing exists.
But I digress, the unintended actual effect of the film’s closing attempt to show us how wonderful the world can look if only you see it through the eyes of faith is actually to make the film’s Christians look cultishly dangerous, inhumanly capable of pleasure at other people’s deaths, and vulture-like in their willingness to prey upon a dying doubter to try to get him to pray out of terror. Again, my full explanation of why is in another review.
I also have two other posts on God’s Not Dead, one addressing the problem with Evangelicals’ pushy proselytization tactics and one explaining why this present review focuses so much on Evangelical Christians’ persecution complexes.
Finally, let me address the argument from morality raised briefly in a classroom scene. Wheaton claimed that Professor Radisson was a moral relativist who believed there could be no moral absolutes but inconsistently would surely apply moral standards were a student to cheat. The fact of the matter is that, despite being 83% non-theists, philosophers who believe morality is real outnumber those think it is not real at a rate of 2 to 1.
I will also stress that it’s a false dichotomy to imply that for morality to be objective, rational, and compelling it has to be “absolute”. For my full argument about why Christians again have the log in their eye and really believe in the most subjectivist version of morality possible and why it is either irrational or superfluous to say God is the source of goodness, I implore you to read my post called God and Goodness which is an in-depth dialogue on this very topic.
I also encourage you to take my interactive online Ethics class to explore the topic in rigorous depth with me. For an overview of my detailed positive secular account of ethics, read my post My Systematic, Naturalistic Empowerment Ethics, With Applications to Tyrants, the Differently Abled, and LGBT People. Or you can watch the video at the very bottom of this post in which the philosopher John Shook and I explain lots of ideas about how to be a naturalist who believes in objective morality.
And, again, in response to the wide interest in my posts on this film, I am now challenging fans of the film (and offering theists and atheists of all stripes) to study with me, a real atheist philosophy professor, in my Philosophy of Religion classes, running year round. We will dig in to the real arguments for and against God, from real philosophers, theistic and atheistic. And I encourage atheists to take either that class or my Philosophy for Atheists class, which is 1/3 philosophy of religion oriented, 1/3 topical introduction to philosophy, and 1/3 history of philosophy.
Below is a full list of my course offerings for anyone to choose from. Courses run year round, so whenever you read this, something will be available to sign up for. Details on how classes run are here.
For more on God’s Not Dead see my other reviews: How God’s Not Dead Makes Christians Look Even Worse Than It Makes Atheists Look, What Makes Some Evangelicals So Intolerable, and Why I Wrote A Bad Movie Review of God’s Not Dead (which responds to criticisms of this post you’ve just read). In response to an e-mail from a Christian seminarian who asked, upon seeing my criticisms of this film, what he thought I should recommend he say to young Christians he works with so that they can evangelize better, I also wrote 10 Tips For Christian Evangelizing.
Below is John Shook and me explaining numerous avenues for understanding secular ethics in productive ways:
Write me at camelswithhammers@with any questions or concerns.