Tue | Apr 24, 2018

Debating the God question

Published:Sunday | September 29, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Ian Boyne

Ian Boyne

I am happy to see more Jamaicans debating the issue of whether God really exists and the matter of science versus religion - or whether the two are compatible. But I have been disappointed at the level of arrogance, triumphalism, and plain lack of philosophical sophistication and intellectual rigour displayed, especially by those on the atheistic side.

To be sure, there has always been a surfeit of irrationality on the part of religious people. As a theist, I am profoundly embarrassed at the indescribably simplistic, fatuous and fallacious arguments usually advanced by religious people for God's existence and the religious world view. And this is not just at the popular level. Many university-educated Christians advance poorly reasoned arguments for theism and the Bible.

I have been following very closely this theism-atheism debate globally through my reading in philosophy (particularly epistemology and philosophy of religion), science and theology, and I must say that, generally, I have found the non-theists - particularly the agnostics - far more intriguing and captivating than the theists.

It is an indisputable and verifiable fact that among the most accomplished and distinguished philosophers and scientists, the vast majority are atheists and agnostics. You can find all kinds of reasons to explain that, but its truthfulness cannot be successfully questioned.

It is naïve exegesis which interprets the biblical dictum that "the fool says in his heart there is no God" to mean all atheists are fools. That would be the clearest refutation of biblical inerrancy there is! Some of the most brilliant intellectuals I know are atheists and agnostics. But I find that many of the arguments being posited by popular atheists like Richard Dawkins (in particular), the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and A.C. Grayling lack philosophical nuance. And those atheists writing in the Jamaican press show very little evidence of serious reading.

I myself will be accused of arrogance and abused for having made that statement, but ad hominem attacks - a prized methodology of trite atheists - will not deter me. The view of Dawkins, Dennett, Peter Atkins and others that atheists should be called simply 'brights' - for no truly educated or rational person can believe in God -is simply hubristic. At the same Oxford University where Dawkins holds a professorship, there are distinguished theistic professors such as John Lennox, Richard Swinburne, Keith Ward and Alister McGrath. Those Jamaican atheists writing in our press have probably never even heard of these theistic philosophers.

I can honestly acknowledge the strengths and profundity of atheists and agnostics and they can so arrogantly and frivolously dismiss all theists - without being acquainted with the best of them. How many of these Jamaican atheists can honestly tell me that they have read or have heard of Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, Richard Swinburne, Stephen Wykstra, Alister McGrath, Peter Williams, Norman Geisler, J.P. Moreland, John Macquarrie, Gary Habermas, to name a few. This is no mere name-dropping. It would be good if we are having a serious debate to know that you have done your homework before you start spouting off.


One of the most egregious errors of the new atheists is scientism. There is an appalling lack of philosophical sophistication among even the best of the atheistic cosmologists and scientists like Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking. The latter says plainly in his co-authored and popular book The Grand Design: New Arguments to the Ultimate Questions of Life: "Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science ... . Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge."

Scientists like Dawkins, Atkins, Krauss, Hawking and Steven Weinberg make many unquestioned assumptions. They subscribe to the principle of verificationism and logical positivism, which say that all truth must be empirical, testable and verifiable - which, by its own premise, is non-empirical and non-verifiable. By what scientific means can we know absolutely that science is the only way of knowing?Science describes reality and tells us how things work. But who says science is the only domain of knowledge?

The fact that science works - that it produces results - does not mean that it is competent to answer all issues. Now I accept the point that one must be careful of any God of the Gaps argument: the argument that because science has not proven something or we don't know something, God must be the answer. We don't have to supply God to fill all our gaps in knowledge.

But we also must be careful, as fallible beings at a relatively early stage of our evolution by evolutionary theory itself; we have to be careful not to pronounce finality on ultimate issues. Science is possibly only one way of knowing. How can we know definitively that it is the only way of knowing? Is that not unwarranted arrogance? Plus, you can't use the scientific method to prove science.

Agnosticism More Appealing

This is why I have always found agnosticism far more appealing than atheism. Agnosticism is at least open to the possibility of other ways of knowing, but simply proclaims that certain things are outside our epistemic ken. That seems a better approach for fallible beings than the dogmatic atheistic approach.

Plus, how do we know that our faculties are sufficient to know ultimate truths? In a naturalistic universe which came about by random occurrence and as a species who supposedly arose from random mutation and natural selection, with our central nervous system adapted for our survival, on what basis do we assert that we have the incapacity to know about not just our natural environment but our vast universe? How do we know our minds can know ultimate truths? As postmodernists would query, how do we know knowledge is more than a social construct?

My atheist friends should examine Christian philosopher Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism. But even before him, they should read philosopher Thomas Reid, who wondered how we can really trust our cognitive faculties. And what about consciousness?

Consciousness a problem

We didn't need it for survival. We didn't have to have reason for survival. Other primates survive well without it. This problem of consciousness is a serious problem for evolutionary theory, and I recommend to my Jamaican atheists who would want a debate to read a book that Oxford University Press published last year by the brilliant and well-known atheistic philosopher, Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. This book has become controversial because Nagel cannot be dismissed and his atheistic credentials are firmly established.

Nagel says, "Mechanisms of belief formation that have selective advantage in the everyday struggle for existence do not warrant our confidence in the construction of theoretical accounts of the world as a whole. The evolutionary story leaves the authority of reason in a much weaker position. This is even more clearly true of our moral and other normative capacities - on which we rely to correct our instincts.

"Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn't take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends." Remember now Nagel is no believer. But he is a brilliant and sophisticated thinker and, as such, is not imprisoned by dogma, and he certainly has greater intellectual exposure than many who deign to enter this theism-atheism debate.

Continues Nagel: "In the meantime, we go on using perception and reason to construct scientific theories of the natural world, even though we do not have a convincing external account of why those faculties exist that are consistent with our confidence in their reliability. The existence of conscious minds and their access to the evident truths of science, ethics and mathematics are among the data that a theory of the world and our place has yet to explain."

Nagel bears further citing: "What explains the existence of organisms like us must also explain the existence of mind. But if the mental is not itself merely physical, it cannot be fully explained by physical science."


There is a great deal of creative thinking and questioning being done by serious atheistic philosophers and scientists, but many of these atheistic popularisers are not aware of it. One of the most creative atheistic philosophers working today is Oxford-educated John Schellenberg. For both theists and atheists alike who savour ideas, I commend wholeheartedly his trilogy, Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion,'The Wisdom to Doubt, and The Will to Imagine. Sheer intellectual rapture! And he has just come out with the book which summarises his philosophy, Evolutionary Religion.

Schellenberg's basic point is this: The Big Bang occurred about 13.7 billion years ago. Homo sapiens have been here for a relatively few years. We are in the early stage of our evolutionary development as a species. We have made tremendous advances in the last few centuries alone. But just as we are light years away from our ancestors of just 1,000 years ago, what can we predict for the next 20,000 or 50,000 years?

How can we freeze our present knowledge, our present methods of knowing, and foreclose on all other possible ways of knowing? How can we say that science is the ultimate truth? We don't have a Theory of Everything yet.

Let's not be arrogant, Schellenberg advises. There may well be other ways of knowing that our relatively young species can't imagine. Our finitude demands humility. In his reply to critics in the June 2013 issue of Religious Studies which was dedicated to his path-breaking ideas in philosophy, Schellenberg asks piercingly: "For how do we know that there aren't positions we can't understand supported by evidence we couldn't assess which entail ... how can we rule out the existence of facts - whether discoverable by us or not - that cancel the force of those physical facts on which arguments against the afterlife are based?"

There are serious atheists doing serious thinking beyond the popularisers. I hope our Jamaican atheists get acquainted with some of them.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.