On Antitheism, Science vs. God, and Whether Philosophy is Dead

On Antitheism, Science vs. God, and Whether Philosophy is Dead March 28, 2014

Yesterday’s post answering all the ways the movie God’s Not Dead argued for God and represented philosophy was so long some people couldn’t read all of it. So, I added a table of contents. You can go back to that post now and click on links to the post’s subsections and they will send you to the exact parts of the post you’re most interested in.

I also added new material today to that post. In this post, I’m presenting just that new material (nothing already covered). You can either read all of this new material or, if you want to read only what I’ve added on specific major topics, just click on any of the following links and you’ll be sent to the new material on that topic:

1. Why Do Some Atheists Say They Do Know There’s No God? Are Atheists Hypocritically People of Faith Too? 
2. If Antitheists Are Bad People, Evangelicals Are Downright Awful 
3. If Professor Radisson’s A Bad Guy, The Christian God is the Worst Possible Bad Guy
4. God of the Gaps and the Origin of Life
5. How Science and Philosophy Vindicate Metaphysical Naturalism and the Existence of Religious Scientists Doesn’t Vindicate Theism
6. Why Explaining Evolution with God is Anti-Science
7. Is Philosophy Dead?

New Responses to God’s Not Dead

Why Do Some Atheists Say They Do Know There’s No God? Are Atheists Hypocritically People of Faith Too?

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.”

If Antitheists Are Bad People, Evangelicals Are Downright Awful

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 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 unashamed to want to convince others to 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.

If Professor Radisson’s A Bad Guy, The Christian God is the Worst Possible Bad Guy

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? 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 it’s God has wicked and upside down values all throughout its holy book.

God of the Gaps and the Origin of Life

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 best explanation we have science and 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 by “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.

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.”

Why Explaining Evolution with God is Anti-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. atural selection explains why organisms evolve. Positing God adds nothing but misunderstanding.

How Science and Philosophy Vindicate Metaphysical Naturalism and the Existence of Religious Scientists Doesn’t Vindicate Theism

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 none. 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.

Is Philosophy Dead?

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.

For the rest of my critiques of God’s Not Dead, click on any of the following links and you’ll go straight there:

1. Introduction
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?
How God’s Not Dead Makes Christians Look Even Worse Than Atheists 
Why I Wrote A Bad Movie Review of God’s Not Dead
What Makes Evangelicals So Intolerable

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

Your Thoughts?

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