Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Nature of the Atheist/Theist Debate (A Response to Braxton Hunter)

(Note: What follows is a transcription of the video) 

Hi folks and welcome to a more impromptu video where I wanted to respond to YouTube Christian Apologist Braxton Hunter, despite the fact that I largely agree with his video posted today about “What kind of atheist are you?”

Braxton talks about categories of atheism put forward by atheist philosopher William Rowe, where it describes an atheist’s disposition towards the rationality of theism. The scale ranges from unfriendly atheism where they believe theism is irrational and unjustified, indifferent atheism where they have no beliefs about the rationality of theism, and friendly atheism where the atheist says that while theists are wrong, they can be rationally justified in their theistic beliefs. 

Braxton continues by saying Internet Atheism and New Atheism are the equivalent of Unfriendly Atheism and he proceeds to critique that view by pointing out the atheistic giants of philosophy of religion all readily concede that theism is rational. He then invites atheists to be friendly atheists in their disposition towards the rationality of theism. 

By and large I agree with Braxton here. I think theism is rationally justifiable, even where I think it is false. I also have to admit that when I started working on my channel I was certainly more in the “unfriendly atheist” camp - I’ve changed my views because I’ve grown. I think a lot of anger as a newly convinced Christian apostate certainly fuels that sort of view, but the cold hard study of philosophy of religion certainly tempers that if one aims to be fair when looking at how the field works.

I want to be clear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying I find any of the arguments for god’s existence to be convincing. In fact I really don’t like the scale Braxton references in his video as a way to gauge one’s non belief in god (-100) to agnosticism (0) to theism (+100).

I am still firmly at -100. Nothing about the traditional arguments for theism or Christianity give me the slightest pause or nudge the number towards theism. I can literally counter all of them, and I find theistic responses to arguments against god’s existence to be entirely unconvincing. 

Part of me wants to self censor so that I may better extend the olive branch of peace, and I certainly am trying to extend that olive branch, but I don’t want to lie about how I feel on the matter. 

I don’t think this means I am failing to take theistic arguments seriously as Braxton says of unfriendly atheists. Yet I also readily grant theism is rational, and that theists and atheists need to find some way to make peace with one another. 

This needs to be reconciled. 

My feelings on the matter are that any argument for or against god’s existence is a matter of metaphysical debate. Like other areas of philosophical debate there is quite literally no way to adjudicate metaphysical debates other than showing one position as logically incoherent. Still, even then it’s not hard for anyone to modify their metaphysical views to resolve the contradiction once it is shown and then get to much of the same original view that they had to start with. 

For instance if I were to point out a contradiction in a Christian theological view of omnipotence or omniscience I do not expect the theologian to renounce their theism. They would likely just thank me for the contribution to their work and then amend their understanding of the problematic concept and go right on being theists. 

The dirty secret here is that much the same can be done by theists to atheists; and the atheists can just as readily amend what views we have and go right along our merry way being godless heathens.

I can’t prove my atheism and they can’t prove their theism, so should we all be agnostics?

I don’t think so. 

The issue with metaphysical debate is that ultimately one looks at the arguments presented and then you identify what seems more or less plausible to you, and then you follow that path.

For me, arguments from hell, hiddenness, the argument from heaven, and of course evil all end up being decisive reasons to reject theism. When it comes to arguments for theism I simply find the variety of rebuttals too convincing for the arguments to have any weight.

The olive branch comes in acknowledging that this is my subjective perspective. As much distaste as I have for specific religions, if I’m going to take my views about metaphysical arguments seriously I have to grant that any Jew, Christian, Muslim, Mormon, Bhuddist, or Hindu is as justified as I am in evaluating these arguments on their own terms. 

So yes, my dear godless heathen friends, please - let us be friendly atheists.

But let’s not be doormats, either.

While I agree with Braxton I feel the need to point out that “New Atheism” isn’t the only party at fault here. A brief survey of apologetic literature for nearly any religion, but certainly Christianity will find calls about how atheism is irrational, or that it is unreasonable, or that “it takes more faith to be an atheist”. In fact the more conservative the apologist, the more likely one is to find this view. Popular level apologetic books are rife with this kind of thing.

There is no nuanced acknowledgement about how the other side is rational in their objections. If anything strawmen are just as hastily constructed and burned in apologetics books as they are in YouTube atheist videos. How many times have you heard apologists claim that atheists have to believe everything came from nothing?

Even the “kings” of apologetics like William Lane Craig are not immune from this criticism. While too smart to say something as indefensible as “atheism is irrational”, the nuance found in sober philosophy of religion books is nowhere to be found in his debate videos or popular works. His overconfident approach is part of his trademark.

The moral argument he has defended for decades is a great example. Craig is well aware of platonism or non-natural moral realism to name two atheist compatible moral realist views; yet he has contended for decades that the atheist has no basis for objective morality. 

Oh sure, Craig believes those views have problems and counter arguments. He also seems to pretend that his moral realist position does not suffer its own set of problems and counter arguments because he has answers to those objections. Well the issue is that defenders of the other views can answer his objections just as readily, and they find Craig’s answers to their objections just as unconvincing as he finds theirs.

The more defensible moral argument is where one says that theism offers a better explanation of objective moral values. You’ll notice that Craig will use that kind of argument when dealing with more philosophically formidable opponents, but he still uses the other one in his popular level books and debates. 

It’s a great example of exactly how metaphysical debates about thorny topics like “the ontological ground of morality” boil down into argumentative stalemates settled only at the subjective level of intuition we are all stuck with.

Our great intellectual champions of theism and atheism? All they do is carefully explore the options available and show how they can build a coherent web of philosophical views that is defensible. All sides of the debate can do this, and it’s high time all of us cut the crap and presented the argumentative battlefield for what it actually is.

I can’t emphasize that last point enough, and I want to explain why it’s important we acknowledge the rationality of our ideological opponents positions and start extending olive branches all around.

We are too polarized, and these divisions are harming all of us. 

I’m posting this merely 5 days before the US presidential elections in what is an extremely volatile situation where people on both sides are afraid the other won’t concede defeat in anything but a blowout. 

What undergirds so very many of our differences, especially in the ‘culture war’ issues that are at the literal heart of why Christians largely stand behind Republicans and atheists or “nones” largely back the Democrats - is that it breaks down along the lines of our base assumptions about reality.

Our irreconcilable notions of what it means “to live the good life” or our basis for morality will drive wedges between our views on abortion, LGBTQ rights, drug use, and even how the justice system should be utilized.

We are not like other countries where one side has an unshakable electoral advantage and so can dominate to the point where these issues are no longer wedges. We have got to learn to find amicable ways to split our differences or we will end up in a bad place as a people and a country.

This is not easy, most if not all of these issues seemingly can’t be reconciled which is why politicians find them so useful as wedges to divide us. 

But if we are going to find a way to get through this we are all going to have to recognize where the fault lines are at the heart of this, identify the subjective stalemate of the debate, and start being friendly atheists and friendly theists, because we can’t even start to have the conversation about how to resolve these issues and coexist peacefully until we take that first step. 



  1. Metaphysical naturalism is, however, the more parsimonious, and thus less (metaphysically/ontologically) baroque, or extravagant, position. It's thus the default position. And since no argument that purports to get 'beyond' such common-sense metaphysical naturalism is sound, normative doxastics (which deals with what we _ought_ to believe or accept-as-true) would surely seem to prescribe naturalism (and thus non-theism). Just sayin'...

  2. "I think theism is rationally justifiable"

    How? All I can imagine is that you think that theistic beliefs are properly basic. Is that it?

    The reason I'm surprised is that it seems easy to contradict this. The theist has the burden of proof, and they deliver very little to support the monumental claim of theism; therefore, they fail. Is this incorrect?