Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Thoughts on Arguing with Atheists

The popular view of atheism has been all over the place in the last few years. A mere couple years ago, Alister McGrath contended that atheism was largely a spent force, and the recantation of atheism by Sir Anthony Flew, perhaps the most rigourous living defender of atheism appeared to confirm his judgement. But today, with the books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others, atheism is said to be on the rise.

What are the best arguments against atheism, and which are weak? Allow me to suggest, firstly, that atheism is often as much a deep-seated emotional reaction as it is an intellectual conviction, and dealing with that is a matter for which I am unqualified to address. On the intellectual side of things, the great advantage of atheism is that it appears to give a full understanding of the world around us. The strongest argument then, is that the world described by atheism is not a world we can recognize. Arguments about evolution, intelligent design or the anthropic principle attempt to fight the battle on athesim's favourite field of battle, and don't truly address this central issue of accurately describing the world we know.

Instead, I think the best strategy is to discuss facts of life we all know or think we know: consciousness, morality and free will. The existence of consciousness is a powerful argument against materialism, but oftentimes too abstract to be subjectively convincing. While there is no theory under which the physical world produces subjective experiences, atheists often have a touching faith that eventually science will explain the existence of consciousness. This can perhaps be useful to demonstrate the extreme faith necessary to believe in an atheistic universe.

The existence of morality is a little weaker in argument. While no atheist would seriously deny the existence of consciousness, there are many that deny an objective morality. Nevertheless, very few individuals do not implicitly believe in objective morality. Few would claim rape and genocide to be merely subjective or relative evils, and it usually fairly easy to demonstrate a belief in objective morality. Nevertheless, an objective morality does not pose a fatal problem for many atheists- while they typically recognize that such an objective morality is not a natural quality, many are content to merely assume an objective moral order without recourse to God. Moreover, disputes over morality often lead Atheists to accuse Christians as founding their understanding of morality on the commands of God, which is ultimately arbitrary. While an unconnected theory of morality does not have anything but belief supporting it, it at least is not arbitrary in the manner in which atheists often interpret religious theories of morality. In fact, of course, Christianity does not teach a divine command theory of ethics, but rather that goodness is an intrinsic part of the divine nature. As such, God cannot "command" other than he does; but neither is this an ethical theory that is unmoored from the rest of the Christian world view, as the assumed standard of ethics is from the otherwise materialist atheistic world view.

The existence of free will is to my mind, the greatest problem for atheists. Nearly everyone assumes and believes they possess this kind of liberty of action, but atheism provides no means to understand how we could possibly possess it. Indeed, provided atheism is a materialistic or naturalistic view of the universe, there is no manner in which free will could be true. Our understanding of the material world is rooted in causality. Every action is caused by previous actions; and under this view, there is no room for the possibility of having true freedom: external stimuli, genetic traits, and brain chemistry determine the choices we make rather than any independent faculty. Nevertheless, there is often a great deal of misunderstanding: Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and the notion of quantum flux or randomness are invoked to maintain free will. Yet neither Heisenberg's uncertainty principle nor randomness help to establish free will in any way. Instead, randomness and the uncertainty principle only demonstrate that at a certain level, some causes cannot be perfectly defined, and some evetns are merely random. But free will posits independent agency to human beings- and neither uncertainty nor randomness can provide that. The loss of free will also implies either the non-existence of ethics or that we can do nothing to fulfill ethical requirements. Either way, the view of man as a creature subject to morality is frustrated.

I think these three thrusts- consciousness, morality and free will, can be employed in tandem, and that these methods are the simplest and best way to establish the insupportability of the atheist position.


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