Other Worldviews

Answering the New Atheists—Part 1

Author Greg Koukl Published on 05/01/2008

Escape from Reason

The so-called “New Atheists” grabbing the headlines lately have been creating a stir. These are old-school modernists with an attitude. They’re angry. Not only is theism false and religion inherently irrational, according to them, religious people are dangerous.

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, compares the evils of religion to the evils of smallpox, “but harder to eradicate.” He equates religious faith with mental illness. According to Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, religion is so bad it should be eliminated like slavery was. Christopher Hitchens’s title speaks for itself: god [sic] Is Not Great—How Religion Poisons Everything.

A closer look at their arguments, however, reveals serious weakness. There’s really nothing new about the “new” atheism except, perhaps, the belligerence. No new breakthroughs in science, discoveries in history, or developments in philosophy have overturned theism in general or Christianity in particular.

On the contrary, the more we learn, the stronger our case becomes. Just recently one of the preeminent philosophical atheists in the world, Antony Flew, did a dramatic about-face and embraced theism on the strength of the scientific evidence for a designer.

Nevertheless, the assault has continued. The New Atheists generally do not argue for atheism. Instead, they attack religion. And they are very good at it. These writers have tremendous rhetorical appeal, overwhelming their opponents with dozens of objections fired off in rapid succession.

Though I do not have space here to parry every allegation, most of the objections fall into three specific categories. The New Atheists think reason is on their side, science is on their side, and morality is on their side. In the next three issues of Solid Ground, I want to show they are wrong on each count. I’ll take on the question of rationality first.

Since these challengers take the side of reason, we need to take a moment and see exactly how careful thinking works. In any debate, there are always two distinct elements in play: substance and style. These are often confused with each other. Those good at gamesmanship are sometimes persuasive for the wrong reasons. In order to separate the wheat from the chaff, you need a game plan based on the fundamental skills of critical thinking.

A Crash Course in Critical Thinking

The primary purpose of reason is to help us discover what is true. The primary tool of reason is argument. An argument is a specific kind of thing. Think of it like a simple house, a roof supported by walls. The roof is the conclusion, and the walls are the supporting ideas. If the walls are solid, the conclusion rests securely on its supporting structure. If the walls collapse, the roof comes down, and the argument is defeated.

The task of critical thinking is to weed out distracting or irrelevant details so you have an unobstructed view of the structure of the core argument and can assess its strength. This involves a simple, four-step plan.

First ask, “What is the claim?” This may seem like an obvious initial step, but you’ll be surprised how often we charge ahead without having a clear fix on a target. Take a moment to isolate the precise point being made. Write it down in unambiguous terms if you need to. In this case, the claim is clear: God does not exist.

Second ask, “What are the reasons given to support the claim?” The person making the point is trying to persuade you to believe him. How is he doing that? Sometimes the rationale is obvious, but not always. The more troublesome appeals are implicit, hidden in the rhetoric. Pay close attention and note what you discover.

Third ask, “Which appeals are irrelevant?” This is the “weeding” step and it’s the most difficult because you have to know what counts as a relevant reason and what does not. Appeals are frequently unrelated to the claim. These include any attack on a person’s character, psychology, circumstances, or culture.

For example, ridicule and scorn are not evidence. Simply labeling an idea as silly, simplistic, or unsophisticated does nothing to disprove the idea itself. True, many religious people are foolish and gullible, but so are many non-religious people. This observation gets you nowhere.

Some Christians may be hypocrites—fakers. Church-goers may have all sorts of vices, but this tells you nothing about Christ. It may be that many Christians born in America would be Muslim if born in Iraq. This may tell you something about culture and psychology, but it tells you nothing of the relative merits of Christianity vs. Islam. For some, God is a crutch, but that doesn’t prove there is no God to hold them.

Each of these is a rabbit trail because none addresses the issue. As one has said, “You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content.”1 The atheist’s question is simple: Does God exist? Any appeal that does not speak directly to that question is an irrelevant, irrational intrusion. Anyone who advances such an appeal is being unreasonable. Weed out the nonsense.

Finally ask, “Does the conclusion follow from the evidence?” Once you isolate the structure of the argument, it’s time to test the walls (the reasons) to see if they are strong enough to keep the roof (the claim or point of view) from tumbling down. Are the factual claims accurate? Do the reasons give adequate support for the claim?

For example, Christopher Hitchens notes that any person looking to nature for evidence of design must face the fact that 98% of all species ever “designed” are now extinct. This he takes as evidence against a Designer.

But is this a good reason to deny God? What logical link is there between the design of a created artifact—whether a species or a buggy whip—and its demise? Even something perfectly designed is crafted with particular circumstances in mind. When conditions change, its usefulness may have run its course. When carriages give way to cars, buggy whips disappear. When wetlands dry up, frogs fade into oblivion. Extinction may tell you something about circumstances. It tells you nothing about design.

Since Hitchens’s conclusion does not follow from his evidence, this argument fails. The rules of reason show him to be unreasonable at this point.

Dawkins’s Delusion

Richard Dawkins fares no better. In his case, we do not need to dig for the argument. On pages 157-8 of The God Delusion, Dawkins summarizes what he calls the “central argument” of his book. The substance is as follows:

  1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.

  2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself.

  3. The temptation is a false one because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.

  4. The most ingenious and powerful explanation is Darwinian evolution by natural selection.

 The appearance of design is an illusion.
  5. We don’t have an equivalent naturalistic explanation for the apparent design features of physics.

  6. We should not give up the hope of a better explanation arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology.

  7. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

Now it’s time to do some weeding. The first premise is an introductory observation. It may have literary value, but it’s not part of the argument. Weed it out.

In (2), Dawkins notes the powerful, completely rational tendency to infer design from the appearance of design. This is a problem for him, so he offers (3) to rebut it. Regardless of the legitimacy of (3) (I’ll address that below), notice that neither of these points moves Dawkins closer to his conclusion. He does not intend them to. Rather, he is trying to anticipate an objection and dispatch it before it gets traction. Since Dawkins means (3) to cancel out (2) so he can make room for his own naturalistic explanation for the appearance of design, you can strike them both. Neither contribute to the core argument.

(4) is a mini argument of its own (Darwinism adequately explains the appearance of design. Therefore, this appearance is an illusion. It is not evidence for God.) I’ll let it stand for the moment.

(5) is not a premise. It’s a candid admission of a problem. Dawkins thinks Darwinism provides an explanation for the “illusion” of design in biology, but there’s no such naturalistic explanation for the appearance of design in the fine-tuned constants of physics. He admits the problem, then punts. (6) is not evidence. It is an article of faith. Since (5) and (6) have nothing to do with the argument, eliminate them both.

Now that we have relieved Dawkins’s argument of all its irrelevant and distracting details, this is what we are left with:

(4) The most ingenious and powerful explanation [for the appearance of biological design] is Darwinian evolution by natural selection.

 The appearance of design is an illusion.

(7) Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

As you can see now, our final step of analysis is virtually effortless. Clearly, there is no rational connection between (4) and (7). Even if we grant (4)—a highly controversial point, given the amount of contrary evidence—Dawkins only succeeds in showing that the design argument fails. It’s entirely possible that other arguments succeed. Since there is nothing in Richard Dawkins’s line of reasoning that contributes to his conclusion, the central argument of his book is irrational.

In both of these cases, the rules of reason show that the New Atheists have not taken the rational high ground. But how does theism fare when put to the same test?

A Simple, No Frills Argument for God

The case for theism can be made with a simple argument. It doesn’t trade on irrelevant attacks on atheists, but rather on sound reasons for believing in God. When someone charges, “It’s not rational to believe in God; there is no proof,” this straightforward line of reasoning rebuts the charge.

Note in advance that I am defending the rationality of theism, not the absolute certainty of it. Mine is a very modest claim. If I succeed, then theists are within their rights to believe in God.

My main premise is an uncontroversial, self-evident principle: Every effect requires an adequate cause, and nothing can cause itself. Simply put, things happen for reasons. Those reasons have to be sufficient to explain what took place. Nothing that happens made itself happen. Something else must have been the cause.

Three more premises are added, creating three distinct arguments that all lead to the same conclusion:

  • A Big Bang (effect) needs a Big Banger (cause).
  • Design (effect) needs a designer (cause).
  • Moral law (effect) needs a moral law giver (cause).
  • Therefore, God exists.

There are sophisticated ways of defending these premises,2 but you don’t need them. A simple summary of the rationale for each variation will do for most cases.

The first variation is called the cosmological argument. That the universe had a beginning is completely uncontroversial in virtually any circle, scientific or theological. Something outside the natural, physical realm must have caused the cosmos. Because of the nature of the effect—a massive, complex, material world—something personal, powerful, and non-physical is the most likely explanation.

What is more reasonable? The cosmos came from a personal, powerful Creator outside the natural, material realm, or the universe popped into existence out of nothing for no reason?

The second is called the teleological, or design, argument. Richard Dawkins himself affirms that design needs a designer. He begins his book, The Blind Watchmaker, with this sentence: “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”3 He tacitly admits that something must account for the intricate order. Though he thinks the mechanisms of Darwinism are up to the design task in biology, it is dubious in the extreme that the complex set of instructions in DNA, for example, have no author. Design evident in physics has no such naturalistic explanation, as Dawkins himself admits. Thus, the “fine tuning” argument was largely responsible for the conversion of philosophical atheist Antony Flew.

What is more reasonable? The intricate and delicately balanced design in the universe—both in biology and in physics—is an accident, or the “appearance” of design is the result of an actual, intelligent Designer?

The third is called the moral argument. Even though there is a relativistic impulse in our culture, when pressed, virtually everyone affirms objective morality, including Christopher Hitchens. Even those who deny morality contradict themselves in everyday conversation. The person who says, “Morality is relative,” and then says, “It’s wrong for you to push your morality on me,” or “We should tolerate others,” or “We have an obligation to the poor,” proves my point. Morality entails obligation, and we only have obligations towards persons.

What is more reasonable? Transcendent moral obligations have no explanation—there is no one we must obey and there are no ultimate consequences for behavior, either good or bad—or transcendent moral obligations are grounded in a transcendent personal God who’s character defines goodness, to whom we are accountable, and who will ultimately punish badness and reward goodness?

Each variation of this argument shows that belief in God is rational, that there are good reasons to conclude God exists. Even if it turns out that theists are mistaken, there is nothing irrational about their conviction. Contrary to the New Atheists claim, theism has a solid foundation in reason.

Who Designed the Designer?

But who made God? Richard Dawkins thinks theism has “utterly failed” because apparently there is no answer to this question. Sam Harris shares this conviction. The utter failure, however, is with the objection, not with theism.

First, if you see shoe prints in the sand, you don’t need to know the manufacturer of the shoe in order to know that shoes made the imprints, not the accidental collision of seashells in the surf. An explanation can be a good one even if you do not have an explanation for the explanation.

Second, the objection commits the straw man fallacy because it mischaracterizes our argument. Our main premise is not, “Everything has a cause,” but rather, “All effects have causes.” Though there are many empirical reasons to believe the cosmos is an effect, there is no reason to think that an eternal, self-existent God who exists outside of the natural world and physical time is an effect. If everything must have a cause, we are pushed into a regress of infinite causes with no ultimate beginning.

Moreover, God Himself is not “complex” in the way the universe is. Philosopher William Lane Craig notes:

As a non-physical entity, a mind is not composed of parts.... In contrast to the contingent and variegated universe with all its inexplicable quantities and constants, a divine mind is startlingly simple. Certainly such a mind may have complex ideas—it may be thinking, for example, of the infinitesimal calculus—but the mind itself is a remarkably simple entity.4

The “Who designed the designer?” objection misses the mark widely. It creates no logical, rational limitation to the argument for God based on the existence of the cosmos, design, or morality.

Theism on the High Road

The New Atheists claim that reason is on their side and that atheism represents the rational high road. My point in this short piece was to show this is not the case. Though I have not addressed each of their arguments—that would take a book—I have taken representative examples from their writings to show they are often irrational in the way they reason.

Theists, on the other hand, are well within their rational rights to hold that God exists. The arguments I’ve offered build from common-sense premises to a conclusion that seems to be the most reasonable inference from the evidence provided. There are no linguistic tricks, rhetorical ruses, rabbit trails, or red herrings.

The charge that belief in God is irrational is common, but completely without basis. There is nothing unreasonable about the idea of a personal God designing and creating the cosmos, or grounding transcendent moral law. This is a thoughtful conclusion based on the evidence.

By contrast, atheism seems more at odds with good thinking. The arguments are often filled with irrelevant distractions and logical fallacies, and the pertinent evidence does not deliver the conclusion they are after.

In the next issue of Solid Ground, we will see if the New Atheists fair any better with science.