The Intellectual Dishonesty of Atheists



As an academic sending papers out for publication, it is interesting how atheism is held to a lower standard than theism. That is, if theists used the same poor arguments some atheists use, their papers would be immediately rejected. For example, if a theist were guilty of using the genetic fallacy to attack atheism, the paper would be rightly rejected. A theist might try to argue, say, that atheism had its origin among moral libertines (which is a questionable assumption); therefore, it must be false. This is a terrible argument since it is illegitimate to argue from the alleged origin of a belief to the truth or falsity of that belief. Even if it were true that atheism originated among moral libertines, it would not follow that atheism is false. If a theist is to successfully attack atheism, the theist must first of all defend the rational nature of belief in God. Thomists would go further and use the Cosmological Argument to attempt to prove God’s existence, and rationalist theists might make use of the Ontological Argument. The theist can also answer critics of theism on such points as the problem of evil and suffering. Such debate is difficult and takes a great deal of intellectual effort on both sides.

To be fair, most atheist philosophers believe that a naive genetic argument against the existence of God, such as Sigmund Freud’s “religion as wish fulfillment” hypothesis, which states that religious people want to create a powerful father-figure, is not cogent. They admit that Freud commits the genetic fallacy. But the same atheists might appeal to religious wars or damage done to society by certain theistic religions as evidence against God’s existence. Theists, on the contrary, could appeal to the positive moral influence of theistic religions. Neither argument works to prove or disprove God’s existence. But some atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, continue to make such a poor argument, which is basically a repetition of Bertrand Russell‘s argument in his book Why I am Not a Christian. I have seen college and university students fooled by the wonderful writing and rhetoric of both Russell and Hitchens–and then they are unwilling to see the vacuity of Russell’s and Hitchens’ arguments. If a theist were to make a similar argument, I have no doubt that Russell would have, and Hitchens would, call the theist to task. There is a double standard here–and a double standard that is intellectually dishonest.

No matter how sophisticated a genetic fallacy is, it remains a fallacy. An analytic philosopher can dress a bad argument up in enough Ps and Qs to write ten logic textbooks, but if the argument is fundamentally unsound, all the alphabet soup in the world will not turn a bad argument into a good one. When an atheist analytic philosopher rejects a theist for calling him on what he is actually doing, the atheist is being intellectually dishonest. The atheist may even question the competence of the theistic philosopher or accuse the theist of misrepresenting him. Now it is possible for a theist, an atheist, an agnostic, or any other philosopher to misrepresent an opponent’s argument or set up a straw man to attack. But I become angry when atheists try to hide their bad arguments in a sea of rhetoric and symbolic logic, and then accuse theists of being ignorant and misrepresenting them.

It is easy to become cynical toward my own field of philosophy. More and more I see philosophers, including myself, holding cherished positions first and then trying to back them up through philosophical argument. Perhaps these great world-view issues are so emotionally powerful that one cannot avoid prior nonrational commitments that are later putatively supported by arguments. I do not want to go the postmodern route–I do believe in “Truth” with a capital “T,” but the more intellectual cheating I see in the field, not only among atheists, but among some theists and philosophers of every stripe, the more I see faith commitments as guiding people’s lives, even the lives of philosophers, whether theist, agnostic, atheist, pantheistic, panentheistic, Platonic, or Aristotelian. But if someone is intellectually cheating and is caught, he should have the intellectual balls to admit it (and this does not exclude myself).

Stephen Hawking on God’s Existence

Leave a comment

NASA StarChild image of Stephen Hawking.

Image via Wikipedia

Suppose you’re walking in a park one day when you are startled by a man standing right in front of you. After jumping higher than you ever have in your life, you force out the words, “Where did you come from?” The man answers, “I just created myself.”

Would you believe him? I wouldn’t. For a man to create himself before he exists is impossible, for if he doesn’t exist, he wouldn’t be there to create himself in the first place! Yet it is this rabbit out of the hat trick that Stephen Hawking uses to explain how God is not necessary for the creation of the universe.

Stephen Hawking is a brilliant man–I give him credit for doing wonderful work in physics and astronomy, especially in the area of black holes. I also admire his brave fight against ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), from which he has suffered for over forty years, making him by far the longest-lived survivor of that debilitating disease. Despite his handcap, he has continued to write and lecture, and he is a fine popularizer of complex ideas in physics for people without training in the field.

However, in  accepting the view that there is no God because the universe created itself from nothing, he is contradicting himself. If he said that the universe is everlasting, that it has always existed, then he would at least be holding a coherent position. But in saying that the universe “spontaneously created itself from nothing,” he falls into incoherence. If the universe created itself from nothing, then it would already have to exist to do so.  Nothing can be prior to itself. Nothing can exist before it exists. If this what Hawking actually believes, his belief is just as much false as believing in a square circle. If Hawking replies that a quantum vacuum, even a “true vacuum,” produces particles and antiparticles all the time that then annihilate one another, then what he calls a “true vacuum” isn’t. His quantum vacuum is NOT nothing. Even a sea of quantum events is something. Pure nothingness is just what the word implies–no particles, antiparticles, no annihilation of particles and antiparticles, no space, no time–sheer, absolute nothingness. If Hawking’s concept of “nothing” includes more, then he is manipulating words to mean what he wants them to mean. Since his notion of “nothing” isn’t really no-thing, he does not believe that the universe created itself; in a sense, some kind of energy has always existed. I have always been suspicious of arguments such as Hawking’s, whether they posit true and false vacuums, zero-point fields, or some other pseudo-nothingness to argue that the universe arose from nothing. It may be that true and false vacuums exist, and there is good evidence for the existence of a zero-point field, but all of these items exist in some sense. The universe could not have arisen from literal non-being–and this is what Hawking would have to say to justify his claim of a spontaneous universe arising from nothing.

Does Hawking’s view explain the existence of a quatum foam of particles and antiparticles in a “vacuum”? Does it explain why enough energy arose for the universe to have arisen? Or does he say explanation stops at that point–if so, why? If he is saying that the universe is some kind of necessary being, this seems inconsistent with stellar life cycles–eventually the formation of new stars will stop, and the universe will consist of white and black dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes–and even these will evaporate. All these items are contingent–they do not have to be. Thus a necessary being is required to explain the existence of contingent things, whether those things be the universe, a zero-point field, or a “true vacuum” that really isn’t a true vacuum. Once atheists get to the point of saying that the universe created itself, they are holding a view so irrational that it would be best to halt discussion, go to a bar, have some drinks, and talk about the upcoming NFL season.