bookmark_borderOpening Statement from My Debate with Frank Turek

Although I’ve recently been too busy to spend any time writing original content for this blog, I’ve decided to post my opening statement from my 2016 debate with Frank Turek. Enjoy!


Introduction

Good evening! I’d like to thank Craig Freerksen for organizing this debate. I’d also like to thank Dr. Turek for agreeing to participate. Finally, I’d like to thank all veterans, including my opponent, for defending the right to have a debate like this. Now, speaking of our country, I thought I’d borrow a slogan from the presidential campaign. I’m not selling any hats, but I’m here to “make atheism great again.”

Definitions

In this debate, we’ve been asked to assess what best explains reality: naturalism or theism? Before we can answer that question, we need to have some idea of what we’re talking about, so let me begin by defining some terms.
First, by “naturalism,” I mean the view that the physical exists and, if the mental exists, the physical explains why the mental exists.[1] If naturalism is true, then there are no purely mental beings which can exist apart from a physical body and so there is no God or any person or being much like God.
Second, by “supernaturalism,” I mean the view that the mental exists and, if the physical exists, the mental explains why anything physical exists.[2] If supernaturalism is true, then there is no purely physical matter which can exist without some sort of ultimate mental creator.
Third, “personal supernaturalism” is a type of supernaturalism; it adds on the claims that one or more personal mental entities exist and, if a physical world exists, it or they produced the physical world for a purpose.[3]
Fourth, “theism” is a type of personal supernaturalism; it adds on the claim that there is just one mental entity, God, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect.[4]
Finally, fifth, “otherism” is a catch-all category. It says that both naturalism and supernaturalism are false.[5]
Now the question before us in tonight’s debate is this. What best explains reality: theism or naturalism?
In support of a naturalistic answer to that question, I’m going to defend three basic contentions:
(1) The best explanation is the explanation with the overall greatest balance of intrinsic probability and accuracy;
(2) Naturalism is an intrinsically more probable explanation than theism; and
(3) Naturalism is a more accurate explanation than theism.

First Contention

Let’s look, then, at my first basic contention: the best explanation is the explanation with the overall greatest balance of intrinsic probability and accuracy.
By “intrinsic probability” of a hypothesis, I mean the probability independent of the evidence we have for or against it. The intrinsic probability of a hypothesis is determined entirely by its modesty and coherence.[6]
By “accuracy” of a hypothesis, I mean the degree to which a hypothesis’s predictions correspond to reality. We measure accuracy by looking at “evidence.”
By “evidence” I mean something which makes something else more probable than it would have been otherwise. Let me give you an example.[7] Imagine you have two jars of red and blue jellybeans. In the first jar, 90% of the jellybeans are blue and the rest are red. In the second jar, 90% of the jellybeans are red and the rest are blue.
Now imagine you are handed a jelly bean from one of the jars, but you don’t know which jar it came from. If it’s a blue bean, that’s evidence it came from the first jar, not the second. The blue bean doesn’t disprove that it came from the second jar because the second jar also has blue beans, but it’s more likely that it came from the first because there are more blue jellybeans in the first than in the second. Similarly, if it’s a red bean, that’s evidence it came from the second jar. The red bean doesn’t disprove that it came from from the first jar because the first jar also has red beans, but it’s more likely that it came from the second because it has many more red beans.
Mathematicians have a formula called Bayes’ Theorem, which can be used to specify the relationship between intrinsic probability, accuracy, and the overall or final probability of a hypothesis. It follows from Bayes’ Theorem that a hypothesis is probably true, just in case it has a greater overall balance of intrinsic probability and explanatory power than do its alternatives collectively.

Second Contention

Let’s look, then, at my second basic contention: naturalism is an intrinsically more probable explanation than theism.
Intrinsic probability is determined by modesty, coherence, and nothing else. By “modesty,” I mean a measure of how much the hypothesis asserts.[8] The more a hypothesis claims, the more ways there are for it to be false and so, before we start looking at evidence, the less likely it is to be true.
By “coherence,” I mean a measure of how well the parts of a hypothesis fit together.[9] If the different parts count against each other, the hypothesis is less coherent and less likely to be true.
Now consider naturalism and supernaturalism. They are symmetrical claims: naturalism claims that the physical explains the mental, while supernaturalism claims that the mental explains the physical. Both claims are equally modest and equally coherent. Before examining the evidence, both positions are equally likely to be true.[10]
With these definitions in mind, then, I can now defend my second contention. Theism is a type of supernaturalism but could be false even if supernaturalism is true. Furthermore, theism is less modest than either supernaturalism or naturalism. Therefore, before we look at evidence, it is less likely to be true than supernaturalism or naturalism.[11] But that entails that naturalism is intrinsically more probable than theism.

Third Contention

Finally, let’s move onto my third contention: naturalism is a more accurate explanation than theism for many facts.
I’d like to present seven lines of evidence that are red jellybeans, i.e., things more probable on naturalism than on theism.[12]

Physical Matter

(1) Naturalism is the best explanation for the fact that physical reality exists.[13]
If naturalism is true, then physical reality must exist. That’s just part of what naturalism means.
If theism is true, however, things look quite different. The existence of physical reality doesn’t disprove theism; if God exists, God could have created physical space, matter, and energy as part of a plan to create a universe for human beings. But God could have also chosen to create other minds without physical bodies, such as angels. Or God could have chosen to create nothing at all. In other words, God’s existence doesn’t require a physical reality.
So because the physical has to exist on naturalism but does not have to exist on theism, it follows that the existence of physical reality is evidence favoring naturalism over theism.

Success of Science

(2) Naturalism is the best explanation for the fact that science has been so successful without the supernatural.[14]
Imagine a library that contains textbooks for all of the sciences—such as physics, chemistry, and biology—and summarizes current scientific knowledge. The percentage of such knowledge which makes no appeal to the supernatural is extremely high.
Of course, one hears about specific scientific questions which (allegedly) do not have a plausible naturalistic explanation, such as cosmological fine-tuning, the origin of life, and consciousness. But, even if that is or were true, the history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of the reverse. Indeed, naturalistic explanations have been so successful that even most theists concede that supernatural explanations are, in general, unlikely to be true.
Such explanatory success is just what we would expect on naturalism–which entails that all supernatural explanations are false–than it is on theism.[15] And that’s my second line of evidence against theism.

Biological Evolution

(3) Naturalism is the best explanation for the fact that complex life  evolved from simple life.[16]
I’m going to list five scientific facts which support biological evolution. Since Dr. Turek likes acronyms, I’m going to give you the evidence in an acronym, BONES.

  • B is for biogeography;
  • O is for vestigial organs;
  • N is for natural selection;
  • E is for embryology; and
  • S is for stratified fossil record.

Let’s look very briefly at each of these.

Biogeography

First, the evidence indicates that the habitats of plants and animals are distributed in a puzzling way. For example, why are there no land-based mammals on any island more than 300 miles away from the mainland? As University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne puts it, “The biogeographic evidence for evolution is now so powerful that I have never seen a creationist book, article, or lecture that has tried to refute it.”[17]

Vestigial Organs

Secondly, a variety of animals have organs which display traits that would be unnecessary if the organs had been designed from scratch, but would have been useful to an ancestor.

Natural Selection

Thirdly, when the genetic differences between living things provides an advantage, things with that advantage tend to be more successful at survival and reproduction than things without that advantage. This is the essence of the process Darwin called natural selection.

Embryology

Fourthly, as Coyne points out, the evidence indicates that all vertebrate embryos begin development in the same way, looking like embryonic fish, but as they progress, they often go through strange contortions before reaching their final form.[18]

Stratified Fossil Record

Fifthly, the available fossil evidence indicates that as one goes from the oldest to the youngest layers of the fossil record, the layers show gradual change from simple to more complex life forms.
Taken together, the BONES evidence is much more probable on biological evolution (which says that complex life evolved from simple life through trans-generational genetic change)[19] than it is on special creationism (which says that God created all life virtually simultaneously).[20]
If either naturalism or supernaturalism is true, life could exist or not exist. If naturalism is true and life exists, evolution pretty much has to be true. But if theism is true, God didn’t have to use evolution. Furthermore, since theism says that at least one mind existed before any physical matter, it gives a reason to expect that any other minds are fundamentally nonphysical. But that, in turn, leads us to predict conscious life was created independently of nonconscious life, contrary to what evolution claims.[21] So theism predicts that evolution is false.
Thus, the scientific fact of evolution is more likely on naturalism than on theism, and so that’s my third line of evidence against theism.

Pain and Pleasure

(4) Naturalism is the best explanation for the biological role (and moral randomness) of pain and pleasure.[22]
I’m going to give three lines of evidence.
First, moral agents experiencing biologically useful pain and pleasure.
Suppose you are a teenager sleeping in a hotel that has caught on fire. The hotel is old and doesn’t have smoke alarms. The fire gets closer and closer to you until you are actually in pain from the smoke and the intense heat. Your pain wakes you up in time for you to escape; you survive and start a family in your twenties. Your pain in this case was biologically useful because it contributed to your survival. This is just what we would expect on naturalism (and human beings are the products of evolution by natural selection).
Second, moral patients experiencing biologically useful pain and pleasure.
Most human beings are moral agents, people who can be held responsible for their actions and their consequences. But some human beings, such as young children and humans with certain mental disabilities, as well as non-human sentient animals, such as primates and dolphins, are moral patients: sentient beings who can be harmed from their own point of view, but are not responsible for their actions.
On naturalism, we would expect that (biological) sentient beings, including moral patients, would experience pain and pleasure because moral patients are biologically similar to moral agents. On theism, however, we would predict that moral patients do not suffer the same kind of pain as moral agents because such pain plays no known moral role in the lives of the moral patients who experience it.
Third, sentient beings experiencing gratuitous pain and pleasure.
Consider, for example, an animal trapped in a forest fire, suffering horrific pain as it slowly burned to death. On the one hand, this kind of pain is biologically appropriate: it is biologically useful that animals in general feel pain when they come in contact with fire. But, on the other hand, this specific instance of pain was not biologically useful because it did not contribute to the biological goals of survival or reproduction.
On naturalism, this is just what we would expect.  If naturalism is true, all animals are the byproducts of unguided evolution by natural selection, which is both indifferent to suffering and incapable of preventing it.
But if theism is true, God could “fine tune” animals so that they only experience physical pain and pleasure when it was morally necessary. So theism leads us to expect that pain and pleasure are fundamentally moral phenomena, which just happens to be connected to the biological goals of survival and reproduction. That’s a huge coincidence that naturalism doesn’t need.
So this evidence is very much more probable on naturalism than on theism.

Mind-Brain Dependence

(5) Naturalism is the best explanation for the fact that human minds are dependent upon the physical brain.[23]
Philosopher Paul Draper of Purdue University puts it this way: “Consciousness and personality are highly dependent on the brain. Nothing mental happens without something physical happening.”[24] Now Michael Tooley, a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has stated five lines of evidence in support of this claim.[25]

  • When an individual’s brain is directly stimulated and put into a certain physical state, this causes the person to have a corresponding experience.
  • Certain injuries to the brain make it impossible for a person to have any mental states at all.
  • Other injuries to the brain destroy various mental capacities. Which capacity is destroyed is tied directly to the particular region of the brain that was damaged.
  • When we examine the mental capacities of animals, they become more complex as their brains become more complex.
  • Within any given species, the development of mental capacities is correlated with the development of neurons in the brain.

Take together, this evidence is much more probable on physicalism, which says that the mind is made only of physical matter, than it is on dualism, which says says that the mind is made of two substances (the physical and the mental). if God exists, God is not in any sense dependent on physical arrangements of matter. So theism entails the existence of at least one unembodied mind. Furthermore, if God wanted to create other minds, he didn’t need them dependent on physical brains.
So the dependence of human minds on brains is evidence against the existence of any being who is supposed to have an unembodied mind, including God. Therefore, the physical nature of minds is evidence favoring naturalism over theism.

Empathy and Apathy

(6) Naturalism is the best explanation for the neurological basis of empathy and apathy, including some moral handicaps.[26]
In many cases, our ability to choose do morally good actions depends upon our having properly functioning emotional capacities, especially empathy, i.e., our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.[27]
We now know, thanks to the relatively new discipline of neuroscience, that certain brain abnormalities cause people to experience less or even no empathy.[28] According to Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University, “There is a consensus in neuroscience that at least ten interconnected brain regions are involved in empathy.”[29] These regions are shown on the slide.
For example, violent psychopaths may know in some abstract sense that their behavior is morally wrong, but utterly lack empathy.[30]
While theism is compatible with a neurological basis for moral handicaps, the fact that at least some moral handicaps can be explained neurologically is much more probable on naturalism than on theism. If theism is true, then that means both 

(a) God creates some human beings with moral handicaps that are not the result of the freely chosen actions of any human being;

and

(b) These moral handicaps make it more likely that they will harm others.

What moral justification would God have for allowing both (a) and (b) to obtain? This seems utterly surprising and completely random from a theistic, moral point of view, but precisely what we would expect on naturalism (and blind nature is indifferent to the moral consequences of brain abnormalities).[31]

Nonresistant Nonbelief

(7) Naturalism is the best explanation for nonresistant nonbelief (in God).[32]
Imagine you’re growing up in an orphanage and I told you I had met a man who claims to be your father and who really wants a relationship with you. Days, weeks, even months go by but you never actually meet your father. You never get a card, letter, phone call. In fact, the only evidence that your father is alive is my claim that he exists. Why haven’t you heard from him? Perhaps your father is ashamed for abandoning you. Or maybe he’s a prisoner of war and his captors won’t even let him write you. Although you hope your father is alive and wants to meet you, you remain skeptical.
Just as you do not believe your father is alive and wants to meet you, there are people who do not believe that God exists.[33] But notice that, whatever reasons we might invent to explain your earthly father’s absence do not explain their heavenly father’s absence.
At least some of the people who deny God’s existence are “nonresistant” nonbelievers. As philosopher John Schellenberg explains, their nonbelief is “not in any way the result of their own emotional or behavioral opposition towards God or relationship with God or any of the apparent implications of such a relationship.”[34] Such nonbelievers are open to having a relationship with God—in fact, they may even want it—but are unable to have such a relationship. But why, if God exists, does that happen?
On naturalism, blind nature doesn’t care whether anyone believes in God and so the fact of nonresistant nonbelievers is hardly surprising. On theism, however, this fact is very surprising. On theism, we would expect a perfectly loving God to always make a meaningful relationship available to those He loves.

Conclusion

So, in sum, we’ve seen seven lines of evidence that naturalism is true. I also happen to think there is some evidence for theism, but that it is outweighed by the evidence for naturalism.[35] In my other speeches, I will explain why I think this as I respond to Dr. Turek’s arguments.[36]

Notes

[1] I owe this definition to Paul Draper.
[2] I owe this definition to Paul Draper.
[3] This definition is similar to, but not identical with, one offered by Paul Draper.
[4] I owe this definition to Paul Draper.
[5] I owe this definition to Paul Draper.
[6] I owe this to Paul Draper.
[7] I owe this jelly bean analogy to Paul Draper. Draper’s full analogy also includes an equal number of yellow jelly beans in both jars, where yellow signifies something that is equally likely to have come from either jar and hence is not evidence that it came from either jar. I have omitted the yellow jelly beans solely in the interest of time.
[8] I owe this definition to Paul Draper.
[9] I owe this definition to Paul Draper.
[10] Paul Draper, “God and the Burden of Proof,” Secular Outpost (July 21, 2014), https://secularfrontier.infidels.org/2014/07/21/new-by-paul-draper-god-and-the-burden-of-proof/
[11] Paul Draper, “More Pain and Pleasure: A Reply to Otte” in Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil (ed. Peter van Inwagen, Eerdmans, 2004), 41-54 at 49.
[12] Let N stand for naturalism, T for theism, and F for any of these facts. Using the symbol “Pr(F | H)” to stand for the epistemic probability that F is true conditional upon H, then the claim that some fact is evidence favoring naturalism over theism should be understood as the claim that Pr(F | N) > Pr(F | T).
[13] Jeffery Jay Lowder, “Potential Objections to Swinburne’s Cosmological Argument,” The Secular Outpost (March 17, 2014), https://secularfrontier.infidels.org/2014/03/17/potential-objections-to-swinburnes-cosmological-argument/. Note that here I am using the word “matter” as a way to provide a concrete example of something “physical.”
[14] See Keith M. Parsons, Science, Confirmation, and the Theistic Hypothesis (Ph.D. Dissertation, Kingston, Ontario, Canada: Queen’s University, 1986), 46; Paul Draper, “Evolution and the Problem of Evil” in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (3rd ed., ed. Louis Pojman, Wadsworth, 1997), 223-24; and idem, “God, Science, and Naturalism” Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (ed. William Wainwright, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 272-303; and Barbara Forrest, “Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection” Philo 3 (2000): 7-29.
[15] Draper 2004.
[16] See Paul Draper, “Evolution and the Problem of Evil” in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (3rd ed., ed. Louis Pojman, Wadsworth, 1997), 219-230; cf. Louis P. Pojman, Philosophy of Religion (Mayfield, 2001), chapter 6.
[17] Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True (New York: Penguin, 2009), 88.
[18] Coyne 2009, 56.
[19] Draper 1997, 221.
[20] I’m using “virtually simultaneously” as a shorthand way of accounting for the seven literal days described in Genesis 1, in order to contrast that chronology with the sort of geological timescales needed for evolution.
[21] Draper 1997, 224.
[22] Paul Draper, “Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists.” Nous 23 (June, 1989), 331-350.
[23] Jeffery Jay Lowder, “The Evidential Argument from Physical Minds,” The Secular Outpost (https://secularfrontier.infidels.org/2012/06/13/the-evidential-argument-from-physical-minds-apm/), June 13, 2012.
[24] Paul Draper, “Opening Statement” in William Lane Craig and Paul Draper, Does God Exist? (videotape, West Point, NY, 1996).
[25] Michael Tooley, “Dr. Tooley’s Opening Arguments”  in William Lane Craig and Michael Tooley, The Craig-Tooley Debate: Does God Exist? (http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/craig-tooley2.html), 1994, spotted 25 Jan 99.
[26] Jeffery Jay Lowder, “The Evidential Argument from Physical Minds,” The Secular Outpost (https://secularfrontier.infidels.org/2012/06/13/the-evidential-argument-from-physical-minds-apm/), June 13, 2012.
[27] Simon Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 16.
[28] Baron-Cohen 2012, 39.
[29] Baron-Cohen 2012, 28.
[30] As Baron-Cohen points out, the neurological basis for moral handicaps challenges traditional views about moral responsibility. “If zero degrees of empathy is really a form of neurological disability, to what extent can such an individual who commits a crime be held responsible for what they have done? This gets tangled up with the free will debate, for if zero degrees of empathy leaves an individual to some extent “blind” to the impact of their actions on others’ feelings, then surely they deserve our sympathy rather than punishment.” See Baron-Cohen 2012, 160.
[31] Some theists have pointed out that moral evil, such as fallen angels or demons choosing to do evil, might explain so-called “natural evils.” This argument makes the inverse point: certain natural evils explain at least some moral evil.
[32] J.L. Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993); idem, 2007.
[33] This sentence, of course, assumes that at least some (if not most) professions of atheism are genuine. Those familiar with intra-Christian debates on apologetic methodologies will notice that I have just ruled out the claim of some (or all?) presuppositionalists, namely, that there are no atheists and instead there are only professed atheists. I agree with  John Schellenberg: “it would take something like willful blindness to fail to affirm that not all nonbelief is the product of willful blindness (even if some of it is).” See J.L. Schellenberg, “What Divine Hiddenness Reveals, or How Weak Theistic Evidence is Strong Atheistic Proof” God or Blind Nature? Philosophers Debate the Evidence (http://infidels.org/library/modern/john_schellenberg/hidden.html), 2008.
[34] Schellenberg 2008.
[35] It follows from a Bayesian approach to evidence sketched in my first contention that there can be “true evidence” for a false proposition. Consider, for example, people convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony for crimes they didn’t commit, only to be exonerated years or decades later by DNA evidence. The eyewitness testimony was some evidence for a false proposition (“The defendant is guilty”), but it was greatly outweighed by the DNA evidence against that false proposition. The fact that there can be true evidence for false propositions should serve as a “warning flag” to anyone who wants to claim that there is absolutely no evidence for naturalism (or theism). “There is no evidence for naturalism (or theism)” does not follow from “Naturalism (or theism) is false” or even “I believe naturalism (or theism) is false.”
[36] I am grateful to Paul Draper, John Danaher, Robert Greg Cavin, and Eddie Tabash for helpful comments on a previous version of this speech.

bookmark_borderWhy the moral argument fails

Of all the arguments for the existence of God, there is one argument (or one style of argument) that I have never had any sympathy with and never understood why anyone has any sympathy with, and that is the moral argument. It seems to me and has pretty much always seemed to me (at least as long as I have reflected on the issue) that the claim that moral phenomena depend for their existence on God is pretty clearly false. I want to emphasize that this is not just an intuitive reaction, it is a considered judgement. The idea that God is somehow the foundation of moral reality strikes me as one of the strangest, not to mention most unfortunate, ideas that humans have ever come up with.
By “moral argument” I mean to include any argument that involves any claim that some aspect of moral phenomena depends on God, or any inductive argument to the effect that some aspect of moral phenomena makes it more likely that God exists. Of course, there are many types of moral argument, and, limited as I am, I cannot hope to have exhaustive knowledge of every version of every argument that falls under the umbrella of “the moral argument.” What I can say is that I have never come across anything that falls under that umbrella that has seemed remotely convincing. But lest this become merely an exercise in Jason expressing uninteresting biographical facts about himself, I will try to explain what is so unconvincing about the moral argument.
None of what I am saying here should be taken to imply that I don’t think that moral arguments can’t be interesting, sophisticated, or important. I have learned quite a bit about morality by considering moral arguments for the existence of God. And there is no doubt that very skilled and insightful philosophers have produced interesting versions of the moral argument. What I want to say has nothing to do with the intellectual sophistication or significance of moral arguments. Furthermore, I cannot hope to address what is wrong with every instance of a moral argument. But what I can do is point to a fundamental problem that, I believe, lies at the heart of any suggestion that moral phenomena are evidence that God exists.
Let me start by removing one potential misunderstanding. One might claim that every concrete individual thing that exists depends for its existence on God. Thus, if God does not exist, then the states of affairs, actions, experiences, etc. that are the bearers of moral properties would not exist and so there would be no moral properties. I doubt that such a claim can be substantiated, but, regardless, it misses the point. This kind of dependence is irrelevant to the moral argument. The moral argument identifies a type of property, moral properties, and claims that these would not exist if God did not exist and that therefore their existence indicates that God exists. If this argument depends on the claim that no concrete thing exists and no properties exist if God does not exist, then this is no longer a moral argument. The moral argument claims that there is something special about the moral realm that indicates the existence of God, not that everything indicates God’s existence. If the existence of every individual thing and every property is evidence or proof that God exists, then first, we don’t need a moral argument, and second, there is nothing special about moral phenomena, as opposed to other phenomena, that indicate that God must exist. Furthermore, the kind of dependence currently under discussion is not the right kind of dependence. It is one thing for the things that bear moral properties to depend for their existence on God, another thing for moral properties themselves to depend on God. It is the latter claim that underlies the moral argument.
One reason that the moral argument is a failure is the Euthyphro problem, which, in my considered judgement, decisively shows that God does not have the power to create moral properties. (If you are interested, you can read this paper, which explains, in part, why I think this.) But, in addition to this, there is something that I think of as a more basic and fairly obvious point, which I want to make here.
Here is the point: that particular actions, states of affairs, experiences, etc. have the moral properties that they do have does not depend on God because God’s existence is irrelevant to those features that plausibly give actions, experiences, and etc. their moral properties. It is easier to see this with an example of an act for which there is almost universal agreement about its moral status. So, consider the moral status of child torture. That the torture of small children is morally wrong depends on the fact that torturing a child causes severe undue suffering. It does not depend in any way on the existence of God and it is very unclear how God’s existence, or anything God could do, could make a difference to the moral status of child torture. Such facts as that children exist and that some people are capable of torturing children might depend on God. But that torturing children is wrong is not a fact that could depend on God. And by this I mean that so long as there are children, it is wrong to cause them unnecessary suffering. God could do nothing to change, and his existence could have no implications for, the moral status of child torture.
I realize that pointing out that something is obvious to me is hardly an argument. But two points: First, I doubt that I am the only one who has this reaction, the only one for whom it is obvious that God’s existence is irrelevant to morality. Second, because of this, it is incumbent on those who wield the moral argument to explain precisely how morality does depend upon God. It is not enough, for example, when employing the moral argument, to just claim, as William Lane Craig has done, that if God does not exist, there is not a sound foundation for morality. If you are going to defend the moral argument, you need to explain both how the lack of God would eliminate moral phenomena and how the presence of God guarantees their existence. Any defense of the moral argument should explain, for example, how it can be that something like child torture would, in the absence of God, be morally unproblematic.
I have read many professional papers that attempt to articulate and defend some version of the moral argument. But I have never encountered so much as an attempt to explain how God’s non-existence would imply that child torture is morally unproblematic. Nor have I encountered concerted efforts to explain why the moral status of any action, person, or state of affairs would be affected by God’s non-existence. All too frequently defenders of the argument say things like the following, from William Lane Craig:

on the atheistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings. They’re just accidental by-products of nature that have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth*

But for an attempt to prove that without God, moral properties do not exist, such claims are utterly useless. It is merely an assertion of the conclusion. Given that we are talking about human beings, the bearers of mental states such as pleasure and pain, beings that are capable of making decisions and who value making their own decisions, who conceive of themselves as beings that persist through time and make plans accordingly, the, as Derek Parfit puts it, “animals that can understand and respond to reasons”, there is every reason to think that, even if God does not exist, human beings are morally significant. If all the above features of human beings are not sufficient to make us morally significant, it is very unclear how God could change that. So why should we think that, in an atheistic universe, there is nothing special about humans? What would account for that? Craig does not tell us.
God could change some things. An all-powerful being could make it so that children do not suffer when they are subjected to torture. Indeed, an all-powerful being could completely eliminate suffering. But this would not change the fact that it would be wrong to cause a child to suffer needlessly. The fact that torturing a person causes intense suffering is already, all by itself, enough to make it prima facie wrong to torture a person. It is not at all clear what role there is for God to play with respect to the deontological status of inflicting torture on small children.
If we think otherwise, that is, if we think that only God could make child torture wrong, then we must make the case that God’s existence makes a difference. We must therefore answer the following questions: What could the existence of God have to do with the wrongness of torture? What does the existence of God add to the situation that would account for its wrongness? If the fact that torture causes severe physical and emotional suffering is not sufficient to make it wrong to torture innocent children, then what could God do to make it wrong?
Let’s take a look at one (admittedly not very sophisticated) example of an apologist employing a a moral argument (Why talk about it if it is not very sophisticated? Mainly because I find it very annoying that people can so confidently assert things for which there is no ground whatsoever. In addition, I think that in its failure to even attempt to address the points that must be addressed by any moral argument, it is indicative of a larger trend.)
In this article, Frank Turek says the following,

In an atheistic universe there is nothing objectively wrong with anything at any time.

Why does Mr. Turek believe this?
First, let’s consider what an odd claim this is. To say that some act is objectively wrong is to say that there are overriding reasons to not engage in that act and that these reasons are objective. To say that they are objective is to say that the existence of these reasons does not depend on the reactions, beliefs, or judgements of any subject (individual or collective). So, if we believe that some things are objectively wrong, we believe that there are reasons for action and that some of these reasons are overriding in the sense that they are stronger than other reasons with which they may compete. So, if we believe that nothing is objectively wrong, we believe that there are no objective reasons for action that are overriding in the sense describe above.
At first glance, there does not appear to be any reason to think that in a world without God there could not be such reasons. Consider, for example, the act of rape. If God does not exist, rape is still wrong. Consider the facts that rape is a violation of a person’s autonomy and causes severe emotional and physical suffering. Even if God does not exist, these facts about rape would still be true. On the assumption that these provide us with overriding reasons not to rape, even if God does not exist, rape is still wrong. And if we thought that these do not provide us with overriding reasons not to rape, what difference would God’s existence make?
If you think that in an atheistic universe nothing is objectively wrong, then you think that these facts about rape (that it violates autonomy and causes severe emotional and physical suffering) do not provide us with overriding reasons to not engage in rape. That is a very odd thing to believe. In addition, you must believe that God can do something that somehow makes it the case that rape is wrong (or maybe that his mere existence can make it the case that rape is wrong). This is also a very odd thing to think. On this view, an act of rape, considered in isolation from God (i.e., considered merely as an action in a context in which God and his capacities are not present) is not wrong. So, on this view, God has the capacity to take an action that is not wrong (considered in and of itself and in isolation from God) and make it wrong. How does God do it? What kind of power is that? Turek does not answer these questions and has nothing to say about how God is able to accomplish this amazing feat. Turek’s is a very strange view.
So, there are two reasons that the view that Turek expresses, namely that in a universe without God there is nothing objectively wrong, is so odd: (1) It implies that facts such as that an act causes severe undue and uncompensated suffering are not sufficient to make an act morally wrong, and (2) It implies that God has the special and unexplained ability to take an action that would otherwise have no moral properties, and make it have moral properties.
Given the strangeness of the view, someone who want to defend it should provide something by way of argument in its favor. So, what does Turek offer? Not much. Here, as far as I can tell, is the sum total of the considerations that Turek offers in favor of the thesis that without God there would be no morality:

If material nature is all that exists, which is what most atheist’s claim, then there is no such thing as an immaterial moral law.  Therefore, atheists must smuggle a moral standard into their materialistic system to get it to work, whether it’s “human flourishing,” the Golden Rule, doing what’s “best” for the most, etc. Such standards don’t exist in a materialistic universe where creatures just “dance” to the music of their DNA.

One thing that I will briefly mention and then set aside is that it is a mistake to claim that atheism is committed to the claim that material nature is all that exists. Turek seems to recognize this, hence his use of the word ‘most.’ I don’t know if most atheists think this (I don’t), but even if it is true that most atheists think it, this is irrelevant to the issue of whether moral phenomena depend on God.
Another quick point: It is not clear what an immaterial moral law is. For that matter, it is not clear what a moral law is or what it would have to do with the existence of moral properties. It is telling that Turek does not believe that it is necessary to clarify in any way what ‘immaterial moral law’ is supposed to mean.
The main problem with Turek’s attempt here is that he does not in any way address the two points I made above. He does not explain why the intrinsic natural features of an action such as rape (e.g., that it causes severe suffering) are not sufficient to make the action morally wrong. More generally, he does not explain why the features that an action has independently of God are insufficient to ground the action’s moral properties. And he does not explain how the existence of God can make an action, e.g., morally wrong when, in the absence of God, the action would have no moral properties whatsoever. I don’t think that any moral argument can do either of these things. Again, I have not seen every version of the moral argument that does so. If you know of an argument that is more successful, please let me know.
It is unfortunate that apologists such as Turek believe that they need hardly defend their bold claims about the dependence of morality on God. I hope that those who, like me, are very skeptical of the moral argument can do more to push back against the unjustified presumption that God is intimately connected to morality.


 
*This quote comes from a debate that Craig had with Paul Kurtz, published in Is Goodness Without God Good Enough? I offered more extensive criticism of Craig’s use of the moral argument here.

bookmark_borderChad Gross’s Review of my Debate with Frank Turek

Chad Gross at Truthbomb Apologetics has written a fair, open-minded review of my debate with Frank Turek:

“Lowder’s debate style is very similar to that of William Lane Craig. He begins with the contentions he intends to defend and then supports them with his arguments. This should be modeled by all those who desire to debate successfully…. It was obvious, especially in the case of Lowder, that the debaters were familiar with their opponent’s position and written work…. Lowder majored on content. It was evident that Lowder had over prepared for the debate and, as a consequence, was unable to cover all his material as he would have preferred…. This debate was pure mind food.” (boldface mine, I love that sentence)

LINK

bookmark_borderRandal Rauser’s Most Excellent Review of the Lowder-Turek Debate

I think this just might be the best review ever written of a debate between an atheist and a theist. It’s comprehensive, thoughtful, irenic, fair, and well-written. I agree with almost the entire review, with the exception of Randal’s point about the definition of naturalism. I don’t consider that to be a flaw of the review in any way, however. Rather, I consider that to be a reasonable disagreement.
Check it out!
LINK

bookmark_borderVideo of Lowder’s Debate with Frank Turek on Naturalism vs. Theism

Topic: “What Better Explains Reality? Naturalism or Theism”
Link: https://youtu.be/ENZYEPpR2Jc


Links to Specific Elements of Debate:

This debate featured many arguments. Against theism, Lowder defended the following evidential arguments:

Against naturalism, Turek argued that atheists have to steal several intellectual concepts from God in order to argue against God. These concepts include Causality, Reason, Information and Intentionality, Morality, Evil, and Science, as summed up by the acrostic CRIMES. In response to the alleged ‘CRIMES’ of atheism, I argued that what we really needed to talk about are the VICTIMs of Christian apologetics: Value, Induction, Causality, Time, Information and Intentionality, and Morality).
See also my comments about the debate (written a day or two after the debate).
I haven’t watched the video yet, but I’d love to hear what you think of the arguments.

bookmark_borderThe VICTIMs of Christian Apologetics

My latest video, “The VICTIMs of Christian Apologetics: The Things Apologists Falsely Say Depend on God, But, if God Exists, God Depends on Them,” is now available on YouTube. It is a narration of some of the many hundreds of PowerPoint slides I created in preparation for my recent debate with Frank Turek on naturalism vs. theism.

This video presentation is a (roughly) 2 hour 30 minute critique of Frank Turek’s latest book, Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case. Turek accuses atheists of stealing from God in order to argue against God. How do atheists steal from God when arguing against God’s existence? According to Turek, this is summed up by the acrostic CRIMES (Causality, Reason, Information and Intentionality, Morality, Evil, and Science). So his argument is that atheists must assume each of those things, but each of those things in turn presuppose God’s existence.
For each letter in CRIMES, atheism can steal these concepts from God if and only if: (a) atheism is logically incompatible with the concept represented by that letter; and (b) positing an all-powerful God explains that concept, not just assumes it. But as I will explain, each letter in CRIMES fails one or both conditions.
Now, since repeatedly accusing an innocent person of a crime harms the accused, I’m going to frame my response as an acrostic of my own: VICTIM (Value, Induction, Causality, Time, Information and Intentionality, and Morality). Instead of talking about crimes, what we instead need to talk about are the VICTIMs of Christian apologetics. The VICTIMs of Christian apologetics are things which Christian apologists falsely claim depend on God, but the truth is that God depends on them.
Since the video is quite long and detailed, the following serves as a handy index:
Counter Apologist went through the effort to list the topics covered and give time-stamps/links for each topic which you can find below:

HT: Counter-Apologist for creating the index

bookmark_borderMy Debate with Dr. Frank Turek

Last night I had the privilege of debating the question, “What Best Explains Reality? Naturalism or Theism?”, at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas before an estimated crowd of approximately 900 people. Although the breakdown of Christians and atheists was probably 898:2, I truly felt like the audience was respectful. In fact, after the debate, several Christians came up to me and said some version of, “I think you were very brave to defend atheism in Topeka.” I explained that I didn’t feel brave because everyone in Kansas had shown me such great hospitality.
Neither Dr. Turek nor I cared who spoke first, so, by the flip of a coin, it was determined that I would go first. The format was as follows:

  • Lowder’s Opening Statement (20 minutes)
  • Turek’s Opening Statement (20 minutes)
  • Lowder’s Rebuttal (10 minutes)
  • Turek’s Rebuttal (10 minutes)
  • Lowder’s Cross-Examination of Turek (10 minutes)
  • Turek’s Cross-Examination of Lowder (10 minutes)
  • Audience Q&A (15? minutes)
  • Lowder’s Closing Statement (5 minutes)
  • Turek’s Closing Statement (5 minutes)

I’m guessing a video of the debate will be available on YouTube in a couple of weeks; I’ll make an announcement once it is available. In the meantime, since I do not have the benefit of the video recording as I write this, going from memory here’s how I think I did.
(Note: This paragraph was added a few hours after the original publication of my post.) I hold all debaters to a high standard. I have been very critical of other debaters in the past. I hold myself to the same or an even higher standard. I may change my assessment below after I’ve had the opportunity to watch a video of the debate.
Opening Statement
Content and Slides: A
I defended three contentions:

  1. The best explanation is the explanation with the overall greatest balance of intrinsic probability and accuracy;
  2. Naturalism is an intrinsically more probable explanation than theism; and
  3. Naturalism is a more accurate explanation than theism.

In support of my third contention, I argued that naturalism better predicts 7 lines of evidence than theism:
3.1. Physical “Stuff”
3.2. Success of science (without appealing to supernatural agency)
3.3. Biological evolution
3.4. Pain and Pleasure
3.5. Mind-Brain Dependence
3.6. Empathy and Apathy (including the neurological basis for some moral handicaps)
3.7. Nonresistant Nonbelief
Delivery: C (or possibly even worse)
I had rehearsed my opening statement several times; it was supposed to take me 19 minutes and 53 seconds to finish it. Instead, to my horror, I finished the opening statement in just under 17 minutes. Apparently my adrenaline had gotten the better of me and I spoke too fast.
Rebuttal
Content: A
In his opening statement, Dr. Turek’s basically summarized the major points of his latest book, Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make their Case. The major points are summed up in the acrostic CRIMES (Causality, Reason, Information and Intentionality, Morality, Evil, and Science).
I was expecting this, so I answered with an acrostic of my own VICTIM (Value, Induction, Causality, Time, Information and Intentionality, and Morality). I introduced the acrostic this way:

Now, since repeatedly accusing an innocent person of a crime harms the accused, I’m going to frame my response as an acrostic of my own: VICTIMs (Value, Induction, Causality, Time, Morality, Science). Instead of talking about crimes, what we instead need to talk about are the VICTIMs of Christian apologetics. The VICTIMs of Christian apologetics are things which Christian apologists falsely claim depend on God, but the truth is that God depends on them.

Delivery: C+ or B-
Having spoken too fast in my opening statement, I think I may have overcompensated during my rebuttal and spoken too slow. I didn’t get to my response to the “S” in CRIMES (for science) in my speech before I ran out of time. In other words, I “dropped” an argument. I know better than this.
My Cross-Examination of Dr. Turek
Content: B?
I had a strategy, a pre-written list of questions, and even corresponding visual aids (more PowerPoint slides).
The first half of my questions was designed to get Dr. Turek to agree with the inductive Rule of Total Evidence, which says that the premises of inductive argument need to embody the total relevant evidence. Imagine I have a jar with three slots (one slot for red, blue, and yellow jellybeans) and the total number of jellybeans in all three slots is 100. If I reach in and pull out one, two, or even three blue jellyeans out of the blue slot, but you can’t see how many jellybeans total are in each slot, you don’t yet have enough information to say that the jar has mostly blue jellybeans.
The second half of my questions was designed to expose the fact that his book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, is fatally flawed because it violates the Rule of Total Evidence. I showed Frank Turek screenshot after screenshot of my bibliography of arguments for atheism as defended by actual atheists. Each time, I asked him if he had anywhere addressed any of the arguments for atheism (or naturalism). Each time he said no.
Delivery: ?
I’m not sure how I would rate my delivery here. When I did cross-examination debate and mock trial in high school, I was trained to avoid trying to ask “gotcha” questions, and so I did. But I think I overcompensated by being too subtle. Three different people who attended the debate asked me the purpose of my questioning. I should have begun my opening statement with the “results” of my cross-examination: Dr. Turek admits that three blue jellybeans isn’t enough data to say the jar has mostly blue jellybeans, but his book makes precisely that mistake. He can argue (in his book) that that God’s existence is established beyond a reasonable doubt only by ignoring the facts which naturalists argue are evidence against theism. In effect, in his book, Dr. Turek pulled three blue jellybeans out of the blue slot (for theism) without ever pulling jellybeans out of the red slot (for naturalism). So his book doesn’t come close to establishing that our universe is best explained by theism, much less than the conclusion that it establishes theism “beyond reasonable doubt.” I think this should create some cognitive dissonance with Dr. Turek’s fans, who probably had no clue about the wealth of atheistic scholarship.
Dr. Turek’s Cross-Examination of Me
Content and Delivery: C?
From memory:
One of his questions was essentially a version of the argument from reason. He wanted to argue that, if naturalism is true, there is no reason to trust our reasoning ability, so one has to borrow from from God to argue for naturalism (and against God). Part of his supporting argument was that, if naturalism is true, we’re just “moist robots” who are the result of blind, impersonal process. In my response, I pointed out that he is confusing the origin of a cognitive mechanism with its accuracy. Just as (on naturalism) our eyes are the result of unguided evolution and yet almost all humans have sight which is generally reliable, so too (on naturalism) our brains are the result of evolution and there is clear survival value in having generally reliable cognitive mechanisms. If I remember correctly, he also tried to link reason to the determinism vs. free will debate. I responded by arguing that debate is completely irrelevant: whether I am a “moist robot” whose beliefs are pre-determined or I am a being with free will has precisely nothing to do with whether or not my beliefs are accurate. Indeed, if we are “moist robots” that would seem to be an argument for the strength, not weakness, of reasoning abilities on naturalism, since robots, computers, and calculators, generally do things correctly.
His other major line of questioning had to do with morality. He presented me with the horrific story of a woman who had been repeatedly molested as a child. He asked some version of, “If there is no God, why is that wrong?” I first clarified whether he was asking from the perspective of metaethics (i.e., moral ontology) or normative ethics (e.g., utilitarianism, deontological ethics, etc.). He said he was interested in moral ontology. I said I could give two answers, since I am torn between the moral anti-reductionism of Erik Wielenberg and the naturalistic moral reductionism of Larry Arnhart. On Arnhart’s view, the good is the desirable and so what constitutes goodness or badness is determined by how well it satisfies universal human desires.
At this point, I think the cross-examination broke down, at least in content if not also in decorum. As even some of the Christians told me after the debate, they thought Dr. Turek started to mock Arnhart’s Aristotelian ethical naturalism.  I think he asked me something along the lines of, “Why human flourishing and not cockroach flourishing?” With all due respect to Dr. Turek, I didn’t get the impression he was very familiar–if familiar at all–with Arnhart’s book. I will have to write a separate blog post about that once I have a copy of the debate video. With all due respect to myself, I don’t think I had a good “soundbite” answer. I think I may have rambled in my explanation and I think that is why he kept repeatedly interrupting me. Because I was in Topeka, Kansas and because I am very much aware of the ‘angry atheist’ stereotype, I did not interrupt him. But I should have been much more concise and I should have made this point: “Arnhart’s view is partially an updated version of Aristotle’s view. Aristotle’s view is not an anti-God approach to ethics; in fact, it forms the basis of natural law theory, which (I think) is pretty much the ethical theory of the Catholic church. So it’s not just atheists like myself who say that moral value doesn’t depend on God; Aquinas and (I think) the Catholic church say pretty much the same thing.”
And I never got to mention during the CX period the other major option, what I call “moral anti-reductionism,” as defended today by Erik Wielenberg and as goes all the way back to Plato.
Morality is such a complex topic that it really cries out for a dedicated debate of its own.
Audience Q&A
I don’t have much to say here, other than there were no “gotcha” questions and I think I did well.
Closing Statement
Content and Slides: A
I began by reviewing my three contentions. I pointed out that Dr. Turek never disputed my first or second contentions and instead focused on my third contention. Even there, he did not address all of my arguments.  He never said anything about my arguments from physicality or empathy and apathy (including the neurological basis of moral handicaps). I next refuted the “S” in his acrostic CRIMES, which represents the claim that science depends on God.
Delivery: C?
I prepared hard for this debate. In fact, I may have over-prepared. I had so much material that I was struggling to jump around from PowerPoint slide to PowerPoint slide in my closing statement, so that I would address only the points raised by Dr. Turek, but do so within the allotted time limits. (I mention this not as an excuse, but as an explanation.) I need to come up with a better system for my next debate. Even if that had not been a factor, however, I still would not have had enough time and I still would have dropped arguments.
On a positive note, all of the basic points from my earlier speeches were intact (e.g., positing God assumes, not explains, most of the things in the CRIMES and VICTIM acrostics; by itself theism doesn’t predict a lot of the data he says it does; all six of my objections to his ‘fine-tuning’ argument; etc.).
 

bookmark_borderChristian Apologists Ignore the Best Objections to the Moral Argument

(Redated post originally published on 2 August 2014)
To be precise, there are many kinds of moral arguments for theism. The question in the title is really talking about what we might call “ontological” or “metaphysical” moral arguments, the kind which claim that we need God in order to have an “ontological foundation” for objective or absolute morality.
People who defend a version of this kind of argument include a veritable “Who’s Who?” of contemporary Christian apologists: C.S. Lewis (see here and here), Alvin Plantinga (see here and here), William Lane Craig, Paul Copan, J.P. Moreland, Randal Rauser, David Baggett, Jerry Walls, Norman Geisler, Frank Turek, Roger Olson, Michael Horner, and so forth.
While there have been many critics who seem to be clueless about how to refute such arguments (see here and here for just two of probably 100+ available examples), there are many other philosophers who understand the arguments perfectly well and–gasp!–actually offer relevant objections. (What a concept!) In my opinion, the two best critics of ontological moral arguments are Erik Wielenberg (see here and here) and Wes Morriston (see here and here). Why, then, do apologists who’ve written on the topic in the last decade continue to ignore Wielenberg and Morriston?
I’m starting to think Ex-Apologist has a great explanation, albeit one he didn’t invent specifically for this topic. In fact, I think he has a great name for this great explanation. In a post entitled, “Proposal for a New Entry in the Philosophical Lexicon,” he calls this behavior “craiging.” Here is how he defines it.

craig, v. (a) to engage in dialectically illegitimate argumentative maneuvering, such as (e.g.) construing an interlocutor as offering a rebutting defeater for P when it’s more charitable to construe them as offering an undercutting defeater for P[1]; (b) to maintain a somewhat positive image of one’s positions in part by choosing not to address, mention, or cite the strongest criticisms of them; (c) to take up, critique, and/or ridicule an uncharitable construal of the theses and arguments of one’s interlocutor.

——————————————-
[1] Relatedly: to infer or otherwise assume that because a reply fails to rebut P, it also fails to undercut P.

It is (b) which I think applies to contemporary defenders of ontological moral arguments for theism: they simply act as if these critiques don’t exist.

bookmark_borderAre Pain and Suffering the Only Evidence for Atheism?

Frank Turek is a Christian apologist, debater, and author or co-author of several books, including I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (see my rebuttal here). He recently tweeted the following:

Make sure you click on the link that begins with “pic.twitter.com” to see the infographic.
Such a tweet is simply embarrassing. For Turek (and for his source, Dennis Prager). He evinces no awareness of recent scholarly work on arguments for atheism. My own case for naturalism, which entails atheism, includes many more facts than pain and suffering.

bookmark_borderA Moral Argument for God which Begs the Question against Theists

Reposting a comment I left on fellow Patheos blogger Bob Seidensticker’s blog, Cross Examined. Bob was writing about Geisler’s and Turek’s book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an AtheistBob quoted this passage from their book:

 If the atheists are right, then we might as well lie, cheat, and steal to get what we want because this life is all there is, and there are no consequences in eternity. (p. 68)

Bob’s response:

Wow—what planet are these guys from? How many atheists think that it’s fine to lie, cheat, and steal? Are the prisons filled with atheists? Do atheists not care about their reputations with their family and friends? Do atheists not have consciences?

Since you’ll agree, after a moment’s reflection, that atheists are indeed moral, maybe you should drop the “atheists have no morals” claim and wonder where they get their morals from. I predict it’s the same place where you do.

Atheism does indeed mean that “there are no consequence in eternity,” but (dang it!) there are consequences right here and now, so I’d better cancel my Saturday night orgy ’n bacchanalia.

What follows was my comment.

—-

I think this reply misses the mark. Joe Sixpack will read this and say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I think of atheists.” And apologists will surely respond, “Yes, there are atheists who do that, but they’re simply acting inconsistently with or better than their atheism.”

If you’ll indulge me, I think a better reply would be something like this:

Geisler and Turek claim that by ruling out the supernatural, Darwinists can avoid the possibility that anything is morally prohibited. In fact, Geisler and Turek are tearing down a straw man of their own creation by linking ‘everything is permitted’ with the wrong ‘-ism.’ Contrary to what Geisler and Turek claim, neither atheism nor Darwinism says everything is morally permitted. That’s what nihilism says.
In fact, at least in this instance, it is Geisler and Turek, not atheists, who are guilty of ruling out things in advance. Geisler and Turek can assume that atheism leads to nihilism only by assuming that some God-based theory of morality, such as the (Modified) Divine Command Theory is true.
But that assumption is hotly contested, even by other theists. If someone read only Geisler’s and Turek’s book, they’d think the choices were “Theism and God-based morality” and “atheism and no morality whatsoever.” But that’s false. Bare or ‘mere’ theism says nothing about whether morality is based upon God. The belief that morality is somehow based upon God is an extra belief, on top of theism. Thus, Geisler and Turek not only beg the question against atheists, but they beg the question against other theists also.
First, their argument begs the question against moral anti-reductionists (like G.E. Moore) who hold that moral facts and properties are not reducible to non-moral facts and properties. There are both theists and nontheists who hold this position.
Second, their argument begs the question against reductive moral naturalists who hold that moral facts and properties are reducible to natural, non-moral facts and properties. As before, there are both theists and nontheists who hold this position.