In the past, I posted a list of the “Worst Atheist Debaters.” I now think that title was a mistake, since it’s possible that a single debate performance may not be representative of a person’s overall skill in debate. So I am republishing that list now as a list of the “Worst Atheist Debate Performances.”
Like my list of “Best Atheist Debaters,” I don’t know of any way to be fully objective about this sort of thing. Also, like the other list, I fully recognize that others may disagree. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here is my list of worst atheist debate performances, organized by topic.
Topic: God’s Existence
- Craig-Atkins Debate (1998)
- Craig-Flew Debate (technically Flew doesn’t belong on a list of atheists)
- Craig-Stein Debate
- Craig-Stenger Debate (2010)
- Craig-Zindler Debate
- D’Souza-Loftus Debate
- Moreland-Nielsen Debate
- Craig-Kurtz Debate (for an example, see here)
- Craig-Taylor Debate
Topic: Resurrection of Jesus
- Habermas-Flew Debate
- Wood-Loftus Debate (2015)
As we saw in my last post, Dinesh D’Souza’s defense of the “moral laws presume a moral lawgiver” argument fails. In this post I want to comment on what D’Souza has to say about atheist “attempt[s] to meet this challenge” (232).
1.Like many partisan diatribes, D’Souza’s book says nothing about the strongest arguments and objections against his position. Instead, he gives unsuspecting readers the misleading, false impression that the only way an atheist might explain morality is “as a product of evolution and natural selection” (232), which D’Souza calls (reasonably enough) the “Darwinian explanation” for morality. For the record, I agree with D’Souza that evolution does not explain moral laws, obligations, or values. But so what? This is of very little philosophical significance.
Why? As Quentin Smith showed in his history of 20th century metaethics, Religious and Ethical Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language, the last century saw numerous philosophers provide robust accounts of morality without God, beginning with G.E. Moore and ending arguably with Smith himself. But D’Souza is oblivious to those accounts. Precisely none of these accounts are attempts to explain morality “as a product of evolution and natural selection.”
To put this into perspective, imagine if an atheist wrote a polemic against Christian morality and made it appear as if the only way a theist might explain morality is the (unmodified) divine command theory. That would be just as misleading as what D’Souza has done with atheist morality.
This is sophistry.
In fact, contrary to what theistic apologists like D’Souza suggest, one doesn’t have to be an atheist in order to reject the idea that God is the foundation of morality. There are theistic philosophers, like Richard Swinburne, who also reject that idea. But, again, D’Souza’s readers will learn nothing about those philosophers or their arguments from reading D’Souza’s book.
2. In the course of discussing the Darwinian explanation for morality, D’Souza argues that Darwinians are unable to explain the fact that humans engage in “high altruism.”
The problem is that this entire framework of Darwinian analysis does not even come close to explaining morality. It confines itself to explaining altruism, but it only succeeds in explaining what may be termed “low altruism.” But humans also engage in “high altruism,” which may be defined as behavior that confers no reciprocal or genetic advantage. (233)
As I have argued before, however, this argument can be turned on its head against theism: facts about the distribution of altruistic behaviors in human beings favor naturalism over theism. Humans are effectively self-centered; our tendency to behave in self-centered ways is usually much stronger than any tendency to behave in selfless ways. These selfless or altruistic behaviors can be divided into two types: kin altruism and non-kin altruism.
On Darwinian naturalism, the mixture of moral goodness and moral badness we find in Homo sapiens is easy to explain. The Darwinian naturalist explanation for our overwhelming tendency towards self-centered behavior is obvious. Kin altruism is also easy to explain: behaviors that promote the survival and reproduction of my kin make it more probable that my genes will be inherited by future generations. Non-kin altruism is weaker than kin altruism and also absent more often than kin altruism. Given that kin altruism exists, this pattern or distribution is exactly what we would expect on Darwinian naturalism.
On theism, either God created humans directly (through special creation) or indirectly (through theistic evolution or “Darwinian theism”). Since God is omnipotent and omniscient, He could create humans without making them inherently self-centered. Since God is morally perfect, He would have good moral reasons for creating altruistic humans. Furthermore, He would not create inherently self-centered humans unless He had a morally sufficient reason for doing so. So given that humans are inherently self-centered, theism entails both that God is not constrained by biological goals like survival and reproduction (and hence does not need to create human beings who are inherently self-centered) and that He had a morally sufficient reason for creating inherently self-centered human beings. And that’s a really big coincidence that Darwinian naturalism doesn’t need.
3. Finally, D’Souza argues that Darwinian naturalism cannot explain the tendency of conscience to favor our weaker inclinations to operate against self-interest: in his words, “conscience is nothing other than the voice of God within our souls” (236). I suspect, however, that D’Souza overestimates the degree to which humans experience urges to display non-kin altruism. According to human evolutionary psychology (HEP), human moral knowledge and emotions developed in the Paleolithic environment of our hunting-gathering ancestors. On the assumption that Darwinian naturalism and HEP are true, one would expect human altruistic behaviors to be distributed on a bell-shaped curve skewed towards the self-centered side of the spectrum. There is no reason to predict that each generation will contain no individuals who exhibit non-kin altruism. All that matters is the overall distribution of self-centeredness and altruism among human beings; as we’ve seen, that favors naturalism over theism.
A few years ago, Dinesh D’Souza wrote a book titled, What’s So Great about Christianity? His book contains numerous arguments for theism and against atheism. Since I mentioned D’Souza’s version of a moral argument for theism in my last post, I want to expand on it here.
In chapter twenty, “Natural Law and Divine Law: The Objective Foundations of Morality,” D’Souza argues for the following thesis:
Morality is both natural and universal. It is discoverable without religion, yet its source is ultimately divine. (225)
A little farther down, D’Souza clarifies that there are three central issues:
[(1)] Is there a universal or objective morality? [(2)] Does it have a religious foundation? [(3)]How can it be known? (225)
D’Souza’s answers to these questions may be summarized as: (1) yes; (2) yes; and (3) through conscience. While I am inclined to agree with D’Souza about (1), I think he has overstated his case for (2).
How does D’Souza defend his claim that morality has a religious foundation? By appealing to the old “laws must have a lawgiver” slogan. He writes:
If there are moral laws that operate beyond the realm of natural laws, where do these laws come from? Moral laws presume a moral lawgiver. In other words, God is the ultimate standard of good. He is responsible for the distinction between good and evil that we universally perceive as binding on human action. The fact that these standards are distinctive to human beings implies that there is something special about us, and that God has a special interest in how we live. (233)
Now, off the top of my head, I can think of six (6) contemporary theistic philosophers who’ve defended some sort of moral argument for God’s existence: Robert Adams, David Baggett, Jerry Walls, William Wainwright, Phillip Quinn, and C. Stephan Evans. None of them defend this argument. So why should anyone agree with D’Souza that “moral laws presume a moral lawgiver?” Laws require a lawgiver only if they are, in fact, given (or made). Statutory (governmental) laws are the paradigm example of laws that require a lawgiver, but, to use one of William Lane Craig’s trademark expressions, statutory laws began to exist. Not all laws are given, however. The laws of nature, logic, and mathematics are three examples of laws that are discovered, not invented. Not only do these examples undercut the support for D’Souza’s slogan, they actually provide the basis of an argument against it, based on the following negative analogy.
(1). The laws of nature, logic, mathematics, and (objective) morality did not begin to exist.
(2) The laws of nature, logic, and mathematics also do not have lawgivers.
(3) Therefore, the laws of (objective) morality do not have a lawgiver.
(3) entails, accordingly, that the slogan, “laws require a lawgiver,” is false.
Furthermore, not only did the laws of (objective) morality not begin to exist, a moment’s reflection should reveal that objective moral laws are the sort of thing which cannot be invented. To say that morality is objective is to say that the truth of objective laws is independent of the subjective states of minds. For example, if it’s an objective truth that it’s prima facie morally wrong to harm someone, then it’s prima facie wrong to harm someone regardless of how many people agree or disagree. So how could any mind invent an objective moral law? Any would-be moral law that a mind might invent would seem to be a subjective moral law (or inter-subjective, in the case of agreement of many minds). This shows that objective moral laws cannot have lawgivers.
Jerry Coyne just posted an article titled, “Paul Bloom debunks the ‘Moral Law argument for God.’” I found myself getting irritated as I read the article because it’s obvious Coyne doesn’t know what he is talking about.
Before we get to Bloom’s findings, what is the “moral law argument”? It’s simply this: human altruism can’t be explained by any kind of evolution. What I mean is pure altruism, whereby an animal helps another animal not only unrelated to it, but not part of its social group, and helps in such a way that it sacrifices its own reproductive potential without getting anything back. It’s unrequited altruism. That kind of behavior simply can’t evolve, at least by natural selection, because it reduces the fitness of the performer.
No. That is NOT “the moral law argument” defended by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. Coyne is attacking a straw man argument.
First, we need to be clear that there is no such thing as “the” moral law argument. There are many moral arguments. D’Souza, in his book, What’s So Great about Christianity?, defends an argument I’ve called the “Moral Laws Require a Moral Lawgiver” argument. I invite the reader to click that link, see my summary of that argument, and decide for themselves whether Coyne’s post has anything at all do with that argument.
Turning to Collins, I don’t have a copy of Collins’ book handy as I’m writing this post, but Collins explicitly says that he was convinced by C.S. Lewis’s moral argument. When reading Collins’ book, I remember thinking to myself, “Collins is pretty much making the same argument Lewis did; he’s just adding on some information about sociobiology.” It could be the case that Collins did make the absurd claim that atheism cannot explain moral emotions; I’d have to go re-read his book to find out. But, even if he did make such a claim, Coyne would still be guilty of attacking a straw man because there is much more to Lewis’s argument (and Collins’s defense of it) than an appeal to known facts about moral psychology (i.e., moral emotions). The focus of the argument is about the Moral Law, but Coyne writes as if Lewis, Collins, D’Souza had only talked about altruism and said nothing about moral ontology (or moral epistemology).
Let’s review what Lewis actually wrote, since a quick summary of Lewis’s argument (which is defended by Collins) will show that Coyne has simply missed the point of the argument. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity, was originally delivered over the radio for BBC for a popular audience and only later printed as a book. So he didn’t present his argument in its logical form, with neatly labeled premises and a conclusion. Nevertheless, I think we can quite easily place his argument into is logical form. The first thing to note is that Lewis was making an explanatory argument, i.e., he was arguing that God (in his words, the “Religious View”) is the best explanation for certain known facts about the Moral Law.
Let’s begin with some definitions:
“materialist view”: the hypothesis that there is no Mind “behind” the universe (i.e., there is no Creator). The universe itself, as well as all the creatures inside it (including humans), are not the effect of a supernatural First Cause or intelligent Designer.
“Religious view”: the hypothesis that there is a Mind behind the universe which caused and designed the universe, partly to produce creatures that, like It, have minds.
Lewis includes three statements in the background information relevant to his explanatory argument.
1. The materialist view entails that there is no Mind “behind” the universe (i.e., there is no Creator). The universe itself, as well as all the creatures inside it (including humans), are not the effect of a supernatural First Cause or intelligent Designer. (21-22)
2. The Religious view entails that there is a Mind “behind” the universe (i.e., there is a Creator who is conscious, has purposes, and preferences). This Mind created and designed the universe partly to produce creatures that, like It, have minds. (22)
3. A Mind “behind” the universe could reveal Its existence to us by trying to get us to behave in a certain way. (24)
Lewis says that there are three facts about the Moral Law which need explanation.
1. Human beings have moral obligations which are grounded in the Moral Law.
2. Most human beings know at least the general principles of the Moral Law.
3. Most human beings experience moral emotions related to the Moral Law, such as guilt and obligation.
Using this distinction between background information and the evidence to be explained, Lewis’s argument becomes a straightforward explanatory argument.
(1.) The evidence relevant to the Religious view is known to be true. [Note: this evidence is composed of the three facts just listed above]
(2.) The materialist view has weak explanatory power, i.e., the evidence to be explained is very improbable if the materialist view is true.
(3.) The Religious view has strong explanatory power, i.e., the evidence to be explained is very probable if the Religious view is true.
(4.) So, the Religious view is the best explanation of the relevant evidence.
(5.) Therefore, the Religious view is probably true.
This summary of C.S. Lewis’s argument should make it immediately obvious that Lewis, at least, does NOT make the absurd claim that “human altruism can’t be explained by any kind of evolution” (my emphasis). Coyne, of course, is correct that evolution can explain human altruism. But that doesn’t refute Lewis’s argument. First, Coyne’s post is irrelevant to Lewis’s claims about moral obligations and moral knowledge/beliefs.
Second, even when it comes to Lewis’s point about moral emotions, such as guilt and obligation, Coyne still misses the mark. An explanatory argument, as the name implies, is an argument about which hypothesis gives the best explanation. It’s logically incorrect to claim an explanatory argument for some hypothesis A is refuted by the fact that some other hypothesis, B, can also explain the evidence. Even if that’s true–in other words, even if B can also explain the evidence–that’s irrelevant. All that matters is whether the explanatory argument’s comparative claim, that A is a better explanation than its competitors, is true.
This shows that Coyne needs to do more than simply show that evolution can explain moral emotions. He needs to directly refute the claim that God is the best explanation for moral emotions, either by showing that an evolutionary explanation is as good as a theistic explanation or by showing that an evolutionary explanation is better than a theistic explanation. Coyne doesn’t do either of those things, however. The closest Coyne comes to doing this is when he talks about how the evolutionary explanation is “more parsimonious” than the theistic explanation. That’s a good point as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough to successfully refute the explanatory argument. It doesn’t show that the parsimony of the evolutionary explanation is so great as to outweigh the (alleged) superior explanatory power of the theistic explanation.