The New York Times asks: Is Atheism Irrational?

No. No it’s not.

Okay, we got that out of the way.

On The Stone, The New York Times‘ philosophy/opinion blog, Gary Gutting interviewed Alvin Plantinga. The former is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame; the latter is a former professor of philosophy and a former president of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Philosophical Association. Plantinga also recently wrote a book called Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.

When I initially read this article, I just skimmed it and rolled my eyes a couple of times. When I began writing something up on it, I read it more thoroughly and had this response:

The conversation between the two philosophers was… interesting. It seems like to be an exercise in various types of bad arguments.

But, here we are. Who’s ready to dive in with me?

Gary Gutting: A recent survey by PhilPapers, the online philosophy index, says that 62 percent of philosophers are atheists (with another 11 percent “inclined” to the view). Do you think the philosophical literature provides critiques of theism strong enough to warrant their views? Or do you think philosophers’ atheism is due to factors other than rational analysis?

Alvin Plantinga: If 62 percent of philosophers are atheists, then the proportion of atheists among philosophers is much greater than (indeed, is nearly twice as great as) the proportion of atheists among academics generally. (I take atheism to be the belief that there is no such person as the God of the theistic religions.) Do philosophers know something here that these other academics don’t know? What could it be? Philosophers, as opposed to other academics, are often professionally concerned with the theistic arguments — arguments for the existence of God. My guess is that a considerable majority of philosophers, both believers and unbelievers, reject these arguments as unsound.

Okay, to start with, Plantinga is claiming that about 30-35 percent of academics are atheists. I’m not sure where he got that number — a preliminary online search didn’t pull up anything, aside from the oft-quoted but flawed study that found 93 percent of members of the National Academy of Sciences do not believe in a god. If anyone has any similar numbers, by all means leave them in the comments.

His sort of smugness about “what do these people think they know that the rest of us don’t?” feels like a really lazy argument and one that can be applied to anything. “Oh, you picked these lottery numbers instead of those? What do you know that I don’t?” It neither proves nor disproves anything. It gets us nowhere.

Plantinga continues, citing Richard Dawkins‘ invocation of Bertrand Russell should he ever come face to face with God:

… “If you died and arrived at the gates of heaven, what would you say to God to justify your lifelong atheism?” [Dawkins'] response: “I’d quote Bertrand Russell: ‘Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!’” But lack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars. The right conclusion would instead be agnosticism.

That’s a false equivalency. There is an equal likelihood that there are an even number of stars as there is that there are an odd number. But I would argue that the question of whether or not a god exists doesn’t come down to a coin flip. When all of the evidence points to one thing and there is an utter lack thereof of another thing, it’s no leap of faith to draw a conclusion from the data that exists.

In the same way, the failure of the theistic arguments, if indeed they do fail, might conceivably be good grounds for agnosticism, but not for atheism. Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence.

We do have evidence. Like… all of the evidence.

Guys, that was just his first answer. First of 16. (BRB, I have to go yell at my stupid friend who made me read this. I never liked her anyway.)

Let’s hit the highlights (lowlights?), shall we?

Next, Gutting invokes Russell’s teapot argument, and Plantinga responds:

Russell’s idea, I take it, is we don’t really have any evidence against teapotism, but we don’t need any; the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and is enough to support a-teapotism. We don’t need any positive evidence against it to be justified in a-teapotism; and perhaps the same is true of theism.

I disagree: Clearly we have a great deal of evidence against teapotism. For example, as far as we know, the only way a teapot could have gotten into orbit around the sun would be if some country with sufficiently developed space-shot capabilities had shot this pot into orbit. No country with such capabilities is sufficiently frivolous to waste its resources by trying to send a teapot into orbit. Furthermore, if some country had done so, it would have been all over the news; we would certainly have heard about it. But we haven’t. And so on. There is plenty of evidence against teapotism. So if, à la Russell, theism is like teapotism, the atheist, to be justified, would (like the a-teapotist) have to have powerful evidence against theism.

Oh my, he massively missed the point of Russell’s teapot. By a mile. The teapot is an example. A stand-in. Maybe a more appropriate argument would have been the invisible pink unicorn. The point is to invoke a thing that is utterly un-provable. It feels really intellectually dishonest for him to tap dance around the argument that way.

Next, the problem of evil is addressed. Well, “addressed”:

The so-called “problem of evil” would presumably be the strongest (and maybe the only) evidence against theism. It does indeed have some strength; it makes sense to think that the probability of theism, given the existence of all the suffering and evil our world contains, is fairly low. But of course there are also arguments for theism. Indeed, there are at least a couple of dozen good theistic arguments. So the atheist would have to try to synthesize and balance the probabilities. This isn’t at all easy to do, but it’s pretty obvious that the result wouldn’t anywhere nearly support straight-out atheism as opposed to agnosticism.

Guys, according to Plantinga, the problem of evil is the only way to disprove theism. The only evidence against god is the fact that there’s evilz.

I mean, at least he grants that there’s “some strength” to the argument. But even a skosh of genocide shouldn’t be acceptable under any sort of worship-worthy higher power. (Edit: This paragraph has been edited to clear up a misunderstanding on our part!)

Also, he’s using agnosticism wrong. Everyone uses agnosticism wrong.

There’s so much to dive into, so I’m going to just pull some quotes (not remove them from context, I hope, but I’m like 1/8 through the original article and 1,200 words into this post, so I think it’s time to start wrapping it up):

I should make clear first that I don’t think arguments are needed for rational belief in God. In this regard belief in God is like belief in other minds, or belief in the past.

So, there’s that.

Scientists tell us that there are many properties our universe displays such that if they were even slightly different from what they are in fact, life, or at least our kind of life, would not be possible. The universe seems to be fine-tuned for life.

Really…? The whole universe? Because Earth is the only planet that we know of that actually supports life, and it has done so for a relatively brief amount of time. God made the whole entire huge massive gigantic universe so he could make the perfect conditions for life on one itty bitty little planet? Okay. Fine. Sure.

But then your question makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin or suffering. And is that true? Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong.

Of course, I can’t say for sure, but I want to say yes? I mean, big picture, I get that we experience ups and downs in our lives and it may make us stronger or appreciate what we have and all of that. But, man, I’m not willing to say that the world is a better place because “bad stuff.” And he says that evil exists because of free will and sometimes people do the wrong thing, which is true enough. But that’s not the only reason bad things happen. Is the world a better place because of tsunamis that kill untold thousands? Tornadoes that wipe out entire towns? Droughts?

Okay, one more, then that’s it. You guys can tackle the rest in the comments.

Some atheists seem to think that a sufficient reason for atheism is the fact (as they say) that we no longer need God to explain natural phenomena 00 lightning and thunder for example. We now have science.

As a justification of atheism, this is pretty lame. We no longer need the moon to explain or account for lunacy; it hardly follows that belief in the nonexistence of the moon (a-moonism?) is justified. A-moonism on this ground would be sensible only if the sole ground for belief in the existence of the moon was its explanatory power with respect to lunacy. (And even so, the justified attitude would be agnosticism with respect to the moon, not a-moonism.) The same thing goes with belief in God: Atheism on this sort of basis would be justified only if the explanatory power of theism were the only reason for belief in God. And even then, agnosticism would be the justified attitude, not atheism.

WE CAN SEE THE MOON! We have stood on the moon. We can measure the effects of the moon on the tides (Bill O’Reilly‘s comments, notwithstanding). The moon is there. The fact that we no longer credit lunacy to the moon just means people have used science to figure out what is actually going on.

Ugh. This isn’t fun anymore.

Guys, please finish tearing Plantinga’s terrible arguments apart.

(Thanks to Leah for the link!)

About Jessica Bluemke

Jessica Bluemke grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and graduated from Ball State University in 2008 with a BA in Literature. She currently works as a writer and resides on the North side of Chicago.