I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating the atheist/theist debates I’ve seen. There have been some very good moments for atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens’ trouncing of former Prime Minister Tony Blair in the opening salvo of their debate. But informally, there have been a lot of bad moments, too. It’s not so much that the atheists “lost,” but they also didn’t win. Even though most (or even all) of what they said was correct, they were not convincing. I believe I’ve identified two of the most common underlying problems with these discussions.
It’s a Problem With the Nets
Daniel Dennett famously invented the metaphor of a tennis match where one side plays with the net up and the other with the net down. This is nowhere more applicable than in a typical theist/atheist debate.
The questions posed by theists cover a wide, wide range of topics. They want to know how the universe came to exist. They want to know the chemistry of abiogenesis. They want to quibble over intricate points of evolutionary theory. They want to argue the genetics of homosexuality. They want to pinpoint the exact nature and origin of morality.
This is just the short list, of course. But it’s a good starting point. It also represents several human lifetimes worth of reading — just to stay current on any given day! It’s monumentally naive to expect one person to be able to adequately and accurately answer all a theist’s questions about every avenue of modern science.
Nevertheless, we’re all expected to know all the answers. And if we don’t, the theist goes away claiming victory.
The theist’s job is much easier:
- How did the universe come to exist? God did it.
- How did abiogenesis occur? God did it.
- What’s the mechanism behind descent with modification? God did it.
- What do we need to know about morality? God did it.
In more sophisticated circles, theologians will offer intricate analyses of scripture, and there are theists capable enough to trot out some facts and figures for the audience to mull over, but I have yet to see a genuine debate on equal footing, where science is argued with science. There just don’t seem to be any top notch evolutionary biologists willing to argue scientifically for an absolute morality, or cosmologists willing to talk about causality before the Big Bang.
While I’m on the subject, I’ve noticed a glaring difference between atheist conventions and theist conventions. It’s rare to nonexistent for a theist presenter to say “I don’t know.” They’re generally happy to answer questions on pretty much any scientific topic despite the fact that most theologians have had little to no training in any of the sciences they so blithely dismiss.
On the other hand, when scientists present at atheist conferences, I frequently find myself frustrated by audience members who insist on asking a biologist questions of cosmology and receiving a polite, “I’m sorry, that’s not my field. Next question, please.” Scientists generally know their limitations and are quick to admit them. (There’s usually someone in the front row who IS a scientist in that field. Presenters know better than to embarrass themselves.)
The harsh reality is that no single person has all the answers in intricate, precise scientific accuracy. This isn’t a fault with scientists, or atheist debaters. It’s a problem with how the debates are framed, and the expectations of the audience.
You’re Asking the Wrong Question!
The most glaring mistake I see in casual discussion is answering the wrong question. Or, more precisely, it’s when atheists answer a religionist’s question as asked, even though it’s loaded and doesn’t represent an accurate understanding of reality. Let me give you some examples:
- Q: What about the problem of infinite regress? There had to have been something to cause the big bang, right?
Of all the questions theists ask, this may be the most loaded. I’ve learned a quick way to illustrate this: I’m sorry, but there’s a problem with your question. The consensus among cosmologists is that matter/energy/space/time began to exist at the Big Bang. And you’re asking me a question about before the big bang, which doesn’t make any sense, since “before” is a question of time. So… until you can ask a coherent question, I don’t see how I could possibly answer you.
This may seem flippant or dismissive, but it’s not. It’s a real problem — If time did not exist before the Big Bang, how can we ask about anything before the Big Bang? If you ask a real cosmologist this question, you’re likely to get overwhelmed very quickly by a barrage of terms you’ve never heard. That’s because science is hard. It takes years to comprehend. And there’s no easy answer to this question.
A theist’s question of “before the big bang” and causality is based on a pre-scientific linear understanding of space/time. Yes, it’s an age-old and compelling question, but we’ve learned that reality is not as simple as a straight line. The truth is often counter-intuitive and human minds were not designed to intuitively grasp matter/energy/space/time.
Nevertheless, I’m not trying to settle an issue of cosmology. I’m illustrating the main reason why theist/atheist debates are not finding any middle ground. The questions theists are asking represent a fatally flawed view of reality. Unfortunately, it takes twenty minutes to give the painfully abbreviated explanation of how and why the questions are flawed. And when that’s over, all the theists in the room will nod smugly and think, “Yep… he didn’t answer the question. We WIN!!”
Here’s another example:
- What about morality? Science can’t give us an objective algorithm for morality. It can only describe our moral feelings, not prescribe our actions.
Here’s a good answer: Well, the problem is the assumption that there ought to be an objective algorithm for morality. Your question presumes that such a thing exists, even though moral philosophers have never been able to find one. You’re asking a question of “ought” while invoking the “ought-is” fallacy. That’s like… a “double ought-is.”
This answer is usually unsatisfying to a theist because they really, truly, deeply believe that there is and ought to be a real, quantifiable, objective prescription for good moral living. The reality is that there may not be. In fact, there probably isn’t. Even so, atheists spend hours upon hours tying themselves into knots trying to answer a question that isn’t based in reality. We don’t have to explain why science can’t give us the ultimate moral equation because nobody’s demonstrated that such an equation exists in the first place!
The fundamental problem is that religion and science live in two different universes. The theist world is much simpler in some ways. All questions have answers, and they’re easy to understand. Morality is straightforward and objective. Cause, effect, space, and time are linear and direct. Human desires and purposes are tiny mirrors of greater universal desires and purposes. There is real meaning in everything.
Unfortunately, science has shown us rather conclusively that many of these perceptions are wrong. The universe shows no signs of motivated intelligence or purpose. Morality is a complex system of conflicting evolutionary drives, with no apparent “ultimate purpose” and therefore no ultimate prescription for happiness. Or healthiness. Or greater good. In fact, there appears to be no way to pick one “ultimate goal” for the “ultimate prescription.”
Even so, educated scientists and philosophers continue to entertain theist questions and challenges, even when they are based on centuries old scientific illiteracy. It’s a catch-22 of the worst kind. Answer honestly and be accused of evasion and condescension. Play on the theist’s turf and get caught in the snares their questions create. Either way, the scientific atheist is perceived as the loser.
If there was ever a reason to insist on good science being taught in school, this is it. The debate between religion and science is one of the most important cultural discussions we’re having today. Unfortunately, when 90% of the audience is uninformed of the current state of cosmology and the “human” sciences, it’s an uphill battle. Education is and always has been the best antidote for religion. That applies not only to the answers, but the very questions we’re asking.