Victor Stenger on How to Debate a Christian Apologist

Victor Stenger was an important figure in the New Atheist movement, although he was less polemical than the others, less popular and more reasonable. Stenger passed away actually not very long after writing this article for the Huffington Post. So how does Stenger believe that one should debate a Christian apologist? It is great to hear a figure associated with the New Atheist movement at least acknowledging the existence of  Christian apologists, and to recognize their skill. This is very rare among New Atheists. Most atheist activist organizations, and the New Atheists themselves, ignore apologists like William Lane Craig, instead going after easy targets like young-earth creationists and other Christians or religious people who make some foolish pronouncements related to their faith. In short, New Atheists and their fans are not interested in addressing Christianity at it’s best intellectually, but prefer to attack it only when those defending it are doing so in the most implausible ways. I think the lack of integrity in this strategy has become more evident to people, including atheists, as Christian apologists have gained more prominence. So Stenger, at least, addresses apologists but he also misrepresents the arguments. He addresses a number of claims he ascribes to Christian apologists in general. We’ll address some of his responses.

“God can be proved to exist by logic alone. For example, we have the ontological argument, which appears in many forms. It was first proposed by St. Anselm in the 11th century. He defines God as “a being than which no greater can be conceived.” If such a being only exists in the mind, then we could conceive of a greater being. But we cannot imagine a greater being than God, so God must exist in reality.”

 I think this is a bad summary of the ontological argument, since it presents Anselm as attempting to define God rather than arguing from a concept of the greatest conceivable being. It is rather clumsily formulated.

Stenger responds that all versions of the ontological argument has flaws and that it can be used to prove the existence of many nonexistent things, including a perfect pizza. William Lane Craig has done a great job of responding to this argument. Basically, almost everything that atheists claim can be proved through utilizing the logic of the ontological argument turn out to be problematic. A pizza does not have objective great-making properties. What would be a perfect pizza? How much cheese is too much?  It would be different for each person. Also, things like pizzas do not have properties with “intrinsic maximums.” In other words, there cannot be such a thing as a greatest pizza, because you can always add more cheese, you can always add more toppings, you can always have a bigger pizza or more dough. See here for a fuller response to objections to the ontological argument.

Stenger also responds that only observation can tell us whether the premises in the argument is true. He simply asserts this without argument. But in the case of the ontological argument, it is not true. The premises of the ontological argument are modal – they rely on what is logically possible. You do not need observation to determine what is logically possible, because something is logically possible simply if it is not self-contradictory. You can determine what is self-contradictory and what is not without needing to observe anything.

“Science and religion are compatible as evidenced by the fact that many scientists are believers.”

Christian apologists tend to say that there are many religious scientists to refute the New Atheist claim that there are very few of them. It is the New Atheists who started this merry-go-round. Dawkins claimed that the paucity of religious scientists gave evidence for the incompatibility between science and religion. The argument that there are religious scientists and therefore science is compatible with religion is an appeal to authority. And like all appeals to authority, it is pretty weak as an argument. But it is not meant to establish the compatibility of science and religion all by itself, but merely to give some initial credibility to the claim.

Stenger claims “Believing scientists compartmentalize their brains, leaving their critical thinking skills at the lab when they go to church and leaving their Bibles at home when they go the lab.” I’m sure Stenger has interviewed all of these scientists, or a representative sample, to make such a bold and sweeping claim. To make the assumption that all religious scientists are fideists, without even talking to them, is uncharitable and irrational.

“Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible because of their contradictory views on the source of knowledge. Science assumes that only by observation can we learn about the world. Religion assumes that, in addition, we learn by revelations from God.” Yes, but this is only if you pit them against each other as two competing metaphysical worldviews and if you do that we are no longer talking about science vs religion, but about scientism vs religion. To pit the methods of science against the methods of religion is to assume that science can stand on it’s own as a metaphysics and epistemology. That is scientism, not science. This means that Stenger is assuming scientism to argue for it, making it circular. Take a look at my article on science and religion for a more in-depth response to this objection.

“Science was developed in Christian Europe”

“Science was well on its way in ancient Greece and Rome. But the Catholic Church muffled science when it took over the Roman Empire in the 4th century, ushering in the 1,000-year period known as the Dark Ages. This ended with the Renaissance and the rise of the new science, when people could once again think and speak more freely. So it is ludicrous to argue that science was a product of Christianity.”

This contains a few historical whoppers. Stenger claims that “science was well on its way in ancient Greece and Rome”. If belief in the Four Humours, the Four Temperaments and the Four Elements ( including aether) represents science being well on its way, then I think pretty much any theory about the natural world represents science being well on its way. The church fostered and encouraged science during the medieval period, its conflicts with a few scientists notwithstanding. Take a look at James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers and How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas Woods.

“Science has not shown how life began”

“That is true; but it does not follow that life had to be created by God.”

I’ve never heard an academic apologist, or any of the influential popular apologists, claim that the absence of scientific explanation for the emergence of life proves that God exists. This is common atheist misrepresentation of theistic arguments – that theistic arguments are based primarily on the fact that there is no scientific explanation for a particular phenomenon.

“How did something come from nothing?”

““Nothing” is notoriously difficult to define. To define it you have to give it some property. But then if it has a property it is not “nothing.” So this is an incoherent question unless you define nothing as an empty vacuum. In any case, the multiverse didn’t have to come from anything. It always was.”

Nothing is not notoriously difficult to define. It only suddenly becomes difficult to define to atheists who are trying to avoid this theistic argument. Nothing is no-thing, not anything. Stenger claims that in order to give a definition of nothing, you have to give a property to it, which means that it is not “nothing”. But Stenger can conceive of “nothing” in this second sense, in the sense of no-thing, since he is contrasting it with the nothing he says we must populate in order to define. Notice the irrationality here. Stenger can conceive of nothing in the sense of not anything, but he says that he can’t define it because that would add a property. He can already conceive of nothing in the sense we normally mean it, because he realizes that for it to have any properties is to make it something. The purpose of language is to put your conceptions into the words. If you can already conceive of nothing in the sense which it is normally meant, then you are engaging in meaningless word play by saying that it has to have a property. Furthermore, a negation is not a property. To say that something is not something else does not add a property to that thing. If I say that you are not a frog, I have not described any of your properties. Almost anything or nothing can satisfy the criteria of “not a frog.” So to define nothing as non-being or not anything does not add a property to it.



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