Twenty questions atheists struggle to answer:
How theism does better on the first six
by Dr. Peter Saunders
Last week I put together a list of twenty questions that, in my experience, atheists either ‘won’t or can’t answer’ and invited coherent responses. I was not, in posting these, saying that atheists have no answers to them, only that as yet in over forty years of discussion with them I am yet to hear any good ones.
The post generated 2,400 page views and 52 comments in a week and ten people attempted to take up the challenge by answering the questions.
Three of these (John Saucier, Kees Engels and Bagguley) posted responses on my own blog whilst seven others (Rosa Rubicondior, Richard Carrier, DoubtingThomas, Dude ex machina, Lady Atheist, Sarah Elizabeth and Dead-Logic) posted on their own blogs.
Of these Richard Carrier and Rosa Rubicondior were the most comprehensive and the former also included extensive cross-references to other material by both himself and other authors. Some opted to answer all twenty questions and others were more selective but all seemed to think they had done a good job. I am grateful to them for their time and effort.
Several Christians also posted the twenty questions on their own blogs but as far as I know only one, ‘A Christian Word’, posted some answers in his Responses to Rosa Rubicondior .
I promised to post my own observations about the questions soon and start doing so now with the first six.
However, let me first make some preliminary comments.
First, atheism and theism are mutually exclusive world views which both deserve careful consideration. They cannot both be correct and yet each world view is held by a large number of leading academics and scientists and large proportions of the world’s population (there are 3.9 billion theists and 1.1 billion atheists). This alone should lead us to approach the question of which, if either, is correct with a degree of humility and respect for those who hold a contrary view.
Atheists are materialists, believing that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of physical phenomena. They accordingly believe that God and the supernatural do not exist and that there is therefore no judgement and no afterlife. Both physical and biological complexity (including both the universe and human beings themselves) are simply the product of chance (random processes) and necessity (the working of physical laws) over time.
By contrast theists (including Christians, Muslims and Jews) believe that the universe was created by an all-powerful, all knowing, rational, omnipresent, benevolent, and personal God who is both transcendent (separate from it) and immanent (intimately involved with it). They believe that human beings were made for relationship with God, that death leads on to judgement by God and that there are two destinations for human beings, either enjoying God’s company in paradise/heaven or separated from him forever in Hell. So, theists believe that, in addition to chance and necessity, the universe was also the result of intelligent design.
Second, many atheists and theists hold their beliefs with considerable tenacity. Just as there are theists who reject out of hand observations, theories and worldviews which challenge their theistic convictions, so many atheists have an a priori commitment to atheism which leads them to seek exclusively materialistic explanations (and reject wholesale supernatural explanations) for all phenomena from religious experience to the origin of the universe and biological complexity.
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As Richard Lewontin, a world famous geneticist at Harvard, has said:
‘ We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs… because we have a prior commitment…to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover that materialism is absolute for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.’
In other words many atheists assume the truth of the atheistic world view as a non-negotiable starting point and are accordingly strongly resistant to questioning it.
My question, however, is whether the atheistic world view has the explanatory power of the theistic one for the available evidence. I don’t believe that it does and have posed these twenty questions to make that case.
Third, I challenge atheists (and agnostics) reading this blog not to adopt the view, as a matter of faith, that the atheistic world view is some sort of neutral default position and that the burden of proof lies solely with theists to prove their case. Let’s not have any of the usual allegations of ‘meaningless questions’, ‘God of the gaps’, ‘appeals to authority’ or the mockery, ridicule and ‘face-palming’ that often accompanies any attempt by theists to advance their case.
Start instead with the admission that theism is a plausible, internally consistent world view held by intelligent people that might indeed be true, and ask yourselves which of atheism and theism is the best fit for the phenomena raised by the twenty questions. I am not claiming that any of these answers constitutes a knock-down proof of theism or rebuttal of atheism, just that theism explains these phenomena better than atheism does. So let’s hear respectful sound argument (devoid of patronising putdowns and ad hominem attacks) as to why you think that is not actually the case.
Fourth, I am aware that each of these twenty questions has occupied minds far finer than mine over many centuries and that different people have come to different conclusions. I am aware that books have been written about each one, but also that few of us has the time to examine in detail all the arguments advanced by each side in the debate. I myself am a generalist not a specialist. I am neither a philosopher nor a research scientist but simply a doctor. Therefore, in the interests of dialogue and in making these arguments more accessible I have tried to keep my replies brief and to keep cross-referencing to a minimum.
My aim is that this will encourage good debate and discussion and I remain very open to expanding individual answers in subsequent blogs as and when responses call for a more detailed case to be made on any particular question. Can I suggest in turn that readers keep responses brief and if necessary link to more detailed material elsewhere. But even better make the case yourself.
Fifth and finally, whilst it is absorbing, even fun, to discuss questions of this kind, let’s bear in mind that the position we take on them may have far-reaching consequences. If God does indeed exist, and if there is a judgement and a heaven and hell, then to reject a theistic view and to persuade others to follow is a very serious matter indeed. On the other hand, if atheism is true, then well over half the world’s population has been, at least seriously, and perhaps, even dangerously, misled. Just as many atheists are committed to defending their convictions because they believe that theism is a damaging deception, so my own commitment to defending Christian theism is motivated by a desire that many who do not currently hold to it will change their minds and come to share my belief in Jesus Christ as God incarnate, the creator and sustainer of the universe, visiting our planet in human form with all that that involves.
Many of my replies however are advanced in defence of theism generally, rather than in Christian theism specifically. And I have taken care not to assume belief in the Bible, or any other religious text, as infallible, whilst still drawing on it to help answer one or two question as a historical record.
And so to the twenty questions: Why is it that I believe they point more to theism than atheism as the correct world view? Here are my answers to the first six…
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