Should Christians help atheists make better arguments for atheism?

Posted on 02/01/13 17 Comments

Let’s talk about a very practical issue.

Consider two scholars, Chris the Christian philosopher and Alan the atheist philosopher.

Alan writes a new paper in which he argues that God does not exist based on the problem of evil. He sends a draft to his friend Chris and asks Chris for feedback. Chris reads through the paper and identifies a serious problem. Chris writes a critique in which he identifies the problem and identifies a way to make the argument much stronger. As a result Chris has a reasonable ground to believe that many people may read the revised paper and come to the conviction that God doesn’t exist based in part on the alterations suggested by Chris. However, Chris still believes God does exist and that anybody who concludes that God doesn’t exist will have adopted a false belief about a very important issue. And so Chris must accept that based on arguments he has fine-tuned many people will adopt false beliefs about a very important issue. Has Chris done anything wrong by offering that critique to Alan?

Christian academics rarely if ever stop to ask this question. But maybe they should.

Let’s consider another¬†situation. Both Dave and Norman are doctors who want to secure public health. Dave believes an important way to do this is by ensuring that as many people in the population get the latest flu shot as possible. Norman demurs and he writes an op-ed arguing that people ought not get the flu shot. Norman gives Dave a draft of the op-ed and asks for feedback. Dave identifies a key weakness in the argument and he perceives a way to make Norman’s argument much stronger. But if he shares this information he knows that many people will end up deciding not to get the flu shot after reading Norman’s op-ed and this will not serve the public good.

Should Dave offer the suggested revisions to Norman’s op-ed? Or is it a dereliction of his duty as a doctor to do so?

Should Chris have¬†offered the suggested revisions to Alan’s essay? Or was it a dereliction of his duty as a Christian to do so?

(Of course this could be turned around the other way: should Alan have offered parallel suggestions to Chris’ pro-theism essay, or would that be a dereliction of his duty as an atheist?)

  • Walter

    I think that we should pursue the truth and let the chips fall where they may. If Chris or Alan feel like they still have the superior argument, then I see no problem with either helping the opposition to improve theirs. But this is easier for me to say since I do not believe in a God who determines our final destination based on whether we assent to a particular doctrine or not. If you do believe in such a deity, then you might ought to think twice in giving aid to the enemy, seeing as how such aid might result in more souls being lost.

    • Randal Rauser

      Do you think the same way about Dave and Norman?

      • Walter

        If Dave strongly believes that not getting a flu shot will cost lives, then Dave should probably not help Norman. By the same token, Chris should probably not help Alan if Chris is convinced that Alan’s influence might cost someone eternal life. Alan and Norman would be free to help their opponents because for them there are little to no moral considerations involved in the decision.

  • Nolan

    I think that for people who are too irrational, more information can hurt them. If you think someone will act irresponsibly with the information you give them, and there is little room for improvement, I don’t see why an atheist or a theist ought to give the other more ammunition for irresponsibility. It’s like teaching a highly biased person about fallacies. If you think they’ll use it only against other people’s arguments, and misapply it to their own, you’ve got reason not to teach them.

    On the other hand, I think there are pretty rational theists and atheists who can take information and wield it well. Sure, they may use the information against your position, but if they are rational enough, that’s a good thing. Perhaps they can build on the new argument to help you change your mind about something you’re wrong about. For rational theists and atheists, improving opposing arguments may lead to short term pain, but has opportunity for long term gain.

    • Randal Rauser

      You’re right to note that the question “how will people interpret and use this information?” is a relevant criterion in discerning how and what you share.

      The difficulty comes in discerning how we could know the way that others will respond.

  • Katie

    I think the two situations are disanalagous. Both doctors want to secure public health, so the quesiton of whether or not to recommend flu shots is strictly empirical. Do flu shots improve public health? It’s not a case of offering better arguments for and against, but rather of looking through all the data and seeing what the data suggest. If the doctors disagree on the issue, then probably one has misinterpreted or ignored the relevant information. It makes no sense for one doctor to help another to further misinterpret the data.

    On the other hand, the existence of God is a question situated well outside the realm of empirics. In this case it is relevant and reasonable for parties to pose theoretical arguments for and against, and it seems as if a way of furthering the discussion is to try to pose the best arguments on both sides. So, it makes sense for Chris to help Alan with his argument. In any case, I doubt most of the public would be swayed away from their faith as a result of philosophical arguments going on in academia.

    • Walter

      What if the data concerning the efficacy of flu shots is ambiguous? In that scenario Dave–whether he turns out to be right or not–may strongly feel that his interpretation of the data is the correct one, and that it is his moral duty to give no assistance to another person whose arguments will likely lead someone to a preventable death.

      • Katie

        “What if the data concerning the efficacy of flu shots is ambiguous?”

        If the data are statistically inconclusive, then the doctors have an obligation to say so.

  • David Evans

    Perhaps Chris should refuse in advance to give any feedback. If his feedback is useless, what’s the point? If it’s useful in any way, it will allow Alan to improve his paper and therefore cause more people to disbelieve.

  • Bilbo

    Why do I keep thinking that Chris should offer the suggested revisions to Alan? Is it that there’s something about the pursuit of truth that should somehow compel Chris to offer them?

  • L.W. Dickel

    Great new suggestion for the subtittle of your blog.

    Progressively Christian, aka Progressively stupid.

    You’re welcome.

    • Jeffery Jay Lowder

      Wow, what a zinger of an argument you have there. You must have studied philosophy for years in grad school to come up with that one.

      • L.W. Dickel

        Hey Jeffy, thanks for taking time away from your masterbation schedule to comment.

        How is your gonorrhea treatment working? I’m sure it must be difficult having your wife piss down your throat, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

    • epicurus

      Well that’s rude. I don’t agree with lots of Randal’s views, but come on, at least put some effort in rather than just name calling.

  • epicurus

    On a similar theme, but I guess off topic, I’ve never put too much stock in results of watching or listening to live debates in front of an audience because it seems often that the most important thing is to not help your opponent or give him anything that would help his position, whether his is right or not. While I enjoy debates, and recognize the value of structured moderated formal discussion- it’s certainly better than unstructured bickering-I have never seen or heard a debater acknowledge an opponent’s point and say he would check into it further, or that he might be wrong in his thinking. It’s sometimes seems more about the sound bite, or charisma of the speaker. William Lane Craig is an excellent debater and speaker, and all credit to him. At the same time, I’ve seen him debate opponents who haven’t really prepared, maybe they don’t take him seriously, and he stomps them. But they don’t acknowledge any of his points, or that they have made some error in thought or logic – they would look foolish up on stage to do so. I actually had a few courses with a philosophy prof back in the mid eighties who debated Craig at the U of Alberta in Edmonton. He wasn’t a specialist in phil of religion, I think one of the campus Christian groups were just looking for someone to debate Craig and worked down the Phil dept until they found someone. Anyway, someone in class a while later asked about the debate, and he said something like “well, these debates about God’s existence never really solve anything, you just kind of dance around the periphery and don’t get into anything your opponent might be able to latch onto.”

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  • Erroll Treslan

    This post reminded me of the following excerpt from Alan Watts’ “The Nature of Consciousness”:

    This is what people really believe today. You may go to church, you may say
    you believe in this, that, and the other, but you don’t. Even Jehovah’s
    Witnesses, who are the most fundamental of fundamentalists, they are polite when they come around and knock on the door. But if you REALLY believed in
    Christianity, you would be screaming in the streets. But nobody does. You would be taking full- page ads in the paper every day. You would be the most
    terrifying television programs. The churches would be going out of their minds
    if they really believed what they teach. But they don’t. They think they ought
    to believe what they teach. They believe they should believe, but they don’t
    really believe it, because what we REALLY believe is the fully automatic model.
    And that is our basic, plausible common sense. You are a fluke. You are a
    separate event. And you run from the maternity ward to the crematorium, and
    that’s it, baby. That’s it.

    I would be the first to criticize Watts for his “religious” certainty that we are all flukes, although I believe that is the most likely conclusion. My interest is in his “screaming in the streets” comment. If you honestly believed Christian theology, there would be nothing wrong with “lying for Jesus”. In fact, weighed against an eternity of bliss with one’s maker, I would think that you could justify any earthly wrong. Scary.