Thursday, May 11, 2017

Why I Am an Atheist: A Conversation with Dr. Stephen Law

Jonathan McLatchie recently did a webinar with militant atheist philosopher Stephen Law

Some comments I made about Law's conversation:

In his presentation, Law compared theistic explanations to gremlins. That, however, reduces the discussion to hypothetical entities and hypothetical comparisons. It presumes that God is analogous to gremlins. And that's a diversion from having to study or investigate actual, specific evidence for Christianity in particular. 

Out of curiosity, what literature, if any, has Law read on miracles? For instance, Craig Keener has compiled many case-studies in his two-volume monograph on miracles (Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts). Likewise, Robert Larmer has written two recent books on miracles that contain case studies in the appendices (cf. The Legitimacy of Miracle; Dialogues on Miracle).

How, if at all, does Law propose to address that ostensible evidence for divine action in the world?

Law appealed to the evidential problem of evil as one reason he's an atheist. In particular, he cited human suffering (and animal suffering) on an "industrial scale". 

However, his alternative seems to be that those humans (or animals) would be better off if they never existed in the first place. Better not to live at all then have a short, poor, nasty brutish life. 

After all, in a nicer world, you won't have the same set of people. Different people will be born into a nicer world than would be born into a harsher world. A world with high infant mortality will have a different history than a world with low infant mortality. 

If that's what he means, what's his frame of reference? Is he saying they'd be better off if they never had a chance to live from their perspective or his perspective?

One issue that came up towards the end of the presentation was whether Law can justify objective morality, given atheism. Law said he didn't need to present a secular justification. He could appeal to intuition. He could "feel in his bones" that torturing children for fun is morally wrong. 

One problem with his response is that it's not merely a question of not having a secular justification, but whether atheism (or naturalism) generates undercutters or defeaters for belief in objective morality. And that isn't just a Christian view of atheism. Many atheist thinkers reject moral realism. 

Another problem is that early in the presentation, Law expressed distain for Christians who say they cannot or need not provide arguments for their position. They simply know in their heart that it's true.

But isn't that the same appeal to intuition that Law is resorting to? Why is it legitimate for Law to fall back on intuition rather than argumentation in defense of his belief in secular ethics, but illegitimate for some Christians to fall back on intuition rather than argumentation in defense of their faith? Law seems to be operating with a double standard?

Blake Giunta, who was pressed for time, used the following argument. (He has ten theodicies at his fingertips). He said suffering induces humans to seek God while having it too easy breeds religious apathy and indifference. 

Parenthetically, that might be why Christian miracles are reported more often in Third World countries. For one thing, places like Africa are very hazardous. Worn-torn areas, famine, tropical disease, many dangerous animals, limited access to good medical care. That's an incentive to prayer!

Law's appeal to the argument from evil appears to be circular. At the outset, he said, first of all, that he doesn't think the theistic proofs are good evidence for God's existence. And he said, secondly, that the problem of evil is good evidence against God's existence. 

But towards the end of the presentation, when he was challenged to justify his belief in moral realism from a secular standpoint, he said he didn't need to provide a justification because he'd already ruled out a theistic grounding for ethics, and you don't need to be able to provide an alternative explanation to know that the opposing position is false. 

But the only positive reason he's given for disbelieving in God is the problem of evil. If he excuses his failure to justify moral realism on secular grounds because he's ruled out a theistic alternative, and if his rationale for ruling out the theistic alternative is the problem of evil, then his argument appears to be viciously circular. The existence of evil disproves God, and God's nonexistence relieves him of the onus to show that evil really exists!

To take another stab at Law's apparently circular argument: the positive reason he gives for his belief in God's nonexistence is contingent on the problem of evil. And the reason he gives for why he has no burden to prove moral realism on secular grounds is contingent on having ruled out the existence of God, which is, in turn, contingent on the problem of evil, which is, in turn, contingent on the reality of evil, which is, in turn, contingent on moral realism…

So his positive reason for disbelief in God is dependent on the problem of evil, while his reason for not having to justify moral realism on secular grounds is dependent on God's nonexistence, given the problem of evil. So he's spinning in a circle. 

Q: Why don't you believe in God's existence?
A: The problem of evil.
Q: How does an atheist justify moral realism?
A: It's not incumbent on me to do so because I've ruled out God's existence.
Q: How did you rule out God's existence?
A: The problem of evil.

He hasn't provided any independent reason to establish moral realism. Yet his appeal to the problem of evil presumes moral realism. He says "It's wrong to make people suffer". 

In addition, his argument is a false dichotomy. Even if (ex hypothesi) you can't ground moral realism in God, the logical alternative isn't secular moral realism. The alternative might be nihilism. Indeed, many secular thinkers deny moral realism.

Technically, it's possible for someone who denies moral realism to present the argument from evil. The strategy is to show that Christian theism is internally inconsistent. That the triad of divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, benevolence) is mutually inconsistent.

But when he was questioned on his own position, Law said he inclined to moral realism (although there are days when he has serious doubts). He used the example of torturing children for fun. 

Mind you, there's a price atheists pay if they go that route. Many atheists derive great satisfaction from indulging in moralistic tirades about Biblical theism. Adopting the viewpoint of moral realism merely for the sake of argument deprives them of that satisfaction. 

Generally, atheists want to be able to say that their position is morally superior to Christianity. They have a lot to lose if they ditch moral realism. 

Indeed, if an atheist is a moral nihilist, what's the motivation for attacking Christianity? Why would you can what anyone does or believes? Why the passion?

My point is that it's illogical for someone who denies moral realism to attack Christianity. Even though they think Christianity is false, they don't believe people have a duty to believe what is true and disbelieve what is false. So why are they on a mission to dissuade folks from believing in Christianity? It can't be because they disapprove of Christian ethics, for if they deny moral realism, why would they care?


  1. I see that "intuitive sense of morality" argument employed a lot in Internet discussions. How this doesn't immediately boil down to personal preference or sentimentality is beyond me, but the arguers don't or won't accept or acknowledge that.

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  3. It's fascinating to see atheist philosophers, who should know better than your common atheist, shirking their philosophical responsibilities. By saying he 'feel[s] in [his] bones' that torturing children for fun is morally wrong, Law begs the question in breathtaking fashion. He's a philosophical slacker.

    Nice catch on the hypocrisy of Law, who in one breath chastises Christians who appeal to intuition rather than provide argumentation, then in another breath appeals to intuition rather than provide argumentation!

    This philosopher needs to pull his socks up, straighten his tie, stop slouching and pay attention.