Marcus McElhaney on Austin Dacey’s Debate with WLC

Marcus McElhaney responds to a recent blog post at Debunking Christianity which links to a video of Austin Dacey’s debate with William Lane Craig on God’s existence. Since I believe Dacey’s debate with Craig is one of the better debate performances by an atheist, this caught my eye. Here I want to comment on McElhaney’s critique.

Topic: The Argument from Divine Hiddenness

Here is McElhaney:

This thought amazes me! God is not hidden too well if I and so many others have found him.  Just because someone has not found God doesn’t mean that God is not able to be found.

Reply: The fact that someone has not found God is logically compatible with God’s existence, but that is not the question. The question is whether reasonable (non-culpable) nonbelief is more probable on the assumption that atheism is true than on the assumption that theism is true. The point of the argument from divine hiddenness (aka the argument from reasonable nonbelief) is not to deny that there are people who believe they have found God. Rather, the whole point of the argument is the fact that there are other people who reasonably do not believe in God.

In addition to the general fact of reasonable nonbelief (DH), J.L. Schellenberg has shown that there are other, more specific facts about reasonable nonbelief which are evidence favoring atheism over theism. The numbering/labeling scheme is mine; page numbers are references to Schellenberg’s book, The Wisdom to Doubt.

DH1. Nonresistant Nonbelievers: Schellenberg describes “nonresistant nonbelievers” in this way: “in the actual world persons who do not believe that there is a God, and that in at least some of these people the absence of theistic belief is not in any way the result of their own emotional or behavioral opposition towards God or relationship with God or any of the apparent implications of such a relationship.”

DH2. Former Believers: As Schellenberg points out, such individuals, from the perspective of theism, were on the right path when they lost belief. If theism is true, then such individuals already were in relationship with God and the loss of belief has terminated that.

DH3. Lifelong Seekers:””individuals who don’t start out in what they consider to be a relationship with God and may not even be explicitly searching for God, but who are trying to find out where they belong and, in their wanderings, are open to finding and being found by a Divine Parent–all without ever achieving their goal. These are individuals who seek but do not find.” (233)

DH4. Converts to Nontheistic Religions: individuals who investigate other serious conceptions of the Ultimate and who turn up evidence that produces religious belief in the context of nontheistic religious communities and/or on account of nontheistic religious experiences–and the truth of atheistic claims may be seen to follow by implication. (236)

DH5. Isolated Nontheists: “those who have never been in a position to resist God because they have never so much as had the idea of an all-knowing and all-powerful spiritual being who is separate from a created universe but related to it in love squarely before their minds–individuals who are entirely formed by, and unavoidably live their whole lives within, what must, if God exists, be a fundamentally misleading meaning system” (238).

In addition, Stephen Maitzen has identified other, more specific facts about divine hiddenness (the “demographics of theism”) which also favor atheism over theism.

DH6. The Geographical Distribution of Theistic Belief: The distribution of theistic belief is uneven around the world. Why does the epistemic or moral defectiveness of non-believers vary dramatically with cultural and national boundaries? For example, why is more than 95% of Saudi Arabia Muslim, while Thailand is 95% Buddhist and only 5% theist? Given the widely held assumption that, generically speaking, epistemic and moral defects are evenly distributed among the world’s peoples, it is hard to see how that question could be answered.

DH7. The Temporal Distribution of Theistic Belief. Maitzen argues that especially compared to naturalistic explanations, none of the theistic explanations of blameworthy or blameless non-belief accounts for how the global incidence of theistic belief has varied dramatically during the existence of the human species.

William Rowe has identified another, more specific fact about divine hiddenness.

DH8. Divine Hiddenness during Tragedies. Just as loving parents would, say, comfort a child undergoing chemotherapy, we would expect a loving God to comfort human beings who suffer as the result of tragedies. If theism is true, then God loves his creatures and wants all of his creatures to love Him in return. However, many people find it hard to love God when they do not understand the reasons for their suffering and God seems so far away. In other words, even if God has a reason for allowing tragedies, He could still comfort victims of suffering so that they know He loves them. Yet there are many victims of tragedies who report not feeling God’s comforting presence. This is not at all what we would expect if theism were true. However, if atheism is true, we would expect victims of tragedies not to experience God’s comforting presence for the simple reason that there is no God. Thus, God’s silence in the face of tragedies is much more probable on atheism than on theism.

Finally, Paul Draper has classified the history and success of science as an aspect of divine hiddenness.

DH9. The History and Success of Science. In Draper’s words, “The problem here is not the problem of why, if God exists, she would allow reasonable non-belief, but rather the more fundamental problem of why, if God or other supernatural beings exist, science can completely ignore them and still explain so much.” Since this argument is one of Dacey’s arguments, let us turn to McElhaney’s critique now.

Topic: The Evidential Argument from the History of Science

Here is McElhaney:

Logic and mathematics are the key to science. God didn’t just create reality he created all the mathematics and logic on which science is based. The pioneers of what we consider modern science know something that has been lost by people who make arguments like this one: studying science is studying God. The more we learn about the universe the more we understand about the one who created it. Why would nature follow discoverable laws? Why is the universe understandable to any degree? The fact that the universe is understandable to a growing degree shows that there must be a mind behind it. The creation isn’t mean to tell us everything we need to know about God, but it helps us understand and know God .

Reply: McElhaney’s comments are a textbook example of the fallacy of understated evidence. He is arguing—asserting might be a better word, for he hasn’t actually stated an argument in the above paragraph—that the intelligibility of of the universe is evidence favoring theism over naturalism. For the sake of argument, let’s assume he’s right about that. The fact that the universe is intelligible hardly exhausts what we know about its intelligibility. Given that the universe is intelligible, the fact that so much of our universe is intelligible without any appeal to supernatural agency is much more probable on naturalism than on theism. See here and here.

Topic: The Evidential Argument from Physical Minds

Here is McElhaney:

There is no reason to think that the human mind should be independent of the brain and body.. Yes, the damaging a person’s body or brain affects a person’s ability to think and interact with the world mentally. Duh! From a Biblical point of view, remember that humanity is not intended by God to exist as disembodied consciousness. A whole human being has a sound mind and body – which is for what Jesus came died for us to have. The expectation that we should be able to scientifically measure and observe the whole of the human person is naive.

Reply: McElhaney’s response indicates he has badly misunderstood Dacey’s argument from physical minds. Contrary to what McElhaney claims, there is good reason “to think that the human mind should be independent of the brain and body” on the assumption that theism is true. Theism entails the existence of at least one unembodied mind, namely, God’s mind. Therefore, theism provides at least some antecedent reason to expect that human minds will be embodied/disembodied. See here.

Topic: The Evidential Argument from Evolution

McElhaney:

The thought that evaluating the universe as poorly designed is very stupid. In order to come to that conclusion means that you know what the design criteria and limitations and the final conclusions. We don’t. For example:  try coming in off the street and telling an engineer that his/her design is flawed and not knowing nothing about why the engineer made the choices that was made. You’d be an ignoramus.

Reply: The evidential argument from biological evolution doesn’t even need the concept of “poor design.” Here’s a brief, informal statement of the argument.

To be sure, biological evolution is logically compatible with theism; God could have used evolution to create life. But if theism were true, God could have also used many other methods to create life, methods which are impossible if naturalism is true. In contrast, if naturalism is true, evolution pretty much has to be true. Furthermore, since theism implies a metaphysical dualism, it is antecedently likely on theism that minds are fundamentally nonphysical entities and therefore that conscious life is fundamentally different from nonconscious life. But this in turn makes it likely that conscious life was created independently of nonconscious life–that evolution is false. Thus, the scientific fact of biological evolution is more likely on the assumption that naturalism is true than on the assumption that theism is true. See here.

Topic: The Evidential Argument from Evil

McElhaney:

There is no such thing as pointless suffering. God has given us what we need to eliminate measles and malaria and many other issues, but we choose not to. Why don’t we? Greed and power. Could God supernaturally change this so we would not have to do anything about it? Yes. God chooses not to based on His own will and reasons. Not one of us can know all the good that will or has resulted  or the bad that was and will be restrained or avoided. God does not have to explain his reasons to us. And God does tells what we need to know – that is what science and scripture are for. .God does comfort his people when they suffer. For example that is what many people who have experienced terrible pain and suffering have found out firsthand.

Reply:

1. If theism were true, God could prevent tragedies in many different ways, ways that would not take away our free will or our ability to develop moral character.

2. As Draper has argued, proponents of the Free Will Defense (like McElhaney) “neglect to ask whether or not humans are worthy of the freedom* to seriously harm others. A good parent gradually increases a child’s responsibility as the child becomes capable of handling greater responsibility. Children who are unworthy of a certain responsibility are not benefitted by parents who give them that responsibility.” On the assumption that theism is true, “one would expect God to give all or some humans less responsibility and in particular no ability to do serious evils-until they freely* developed the strength of character that would make them worthy of greater responsibility.” The fact that human freedom is not scaled according to strength of character is much more probable on the assumption that atheism is true than on the assumption that theism is true.

3. Of course, it’s logically possible that God has a reason for allowing tragedies, a reason we humans do not understand. But it’s also logically possible that God has extra reasons for preventing tragedies, reasons we also do not understand. We have no antecedent reason to believe that, if God exists, God’s unknown reasons for allowing tragedies outweigh God’s unknown reasons for preventing tragedies.

4. Finally, as we saw earlier, there are many victims of tragedies who report not feeling God’s comforting presence.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.


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