Why atheistic apologists are generally ignorant and/or dishonest according to Chris Hallquist’s methodology
In the elegantly titled “Randal Rauser is not someone who it’s possible to have any sort of rational discussion about religion with” I provided a critical response to Chris Hallquist’s article “The ignorance and dishonesty of Christian apologetics, part 1: anti-evolutionism.” In my response I focused on a couple points, including the absurdity of Hallquist’s defense of his claim that Christian apologists are generally ignorant and/or dishonest.
Before continuing, I should note a rather bizarre defense of Hallquist that was provided in the comment thread to my article. In the thread b33bl3br0x quoted Hallquist’s exact words again
“I do not claim that all Christian apologists are either ignorant or dishonest without exception… but I do think it’s generally true of the stuff that currently dominates Christian apologetics.”
Next, b33bl3br0x commented:
“Do you see it? He didn’t extend the generalization that all apologists were “generally ignorant and dishonest”. He extended the generalization to the arguments put forward (from what he sees at least) most often. While he does claim that a specific subset of apologists are ignorant or dishonest, he differentiates later between the people and the arguments themselves.” (emphasis added)
So according to this defense of Hallquist (insofar as I understand it), he was saying not that the apologists are generally ignorant and dishonest, but rather that their arguments are! Let me note a few things in reply.
First, this is an absurd distinction. An argument is a set of propositions. And propositions aren’t ignorant or dishonest. They’re propositions for goodness sake! Technically speaking it is true that guns don’t kill people. Rather, people kill people with guns. And propositions aren’t ignorant and/or dishonest. Rather, people are ignorant and/or dishonest with propositions. So like I said, this reply makes an absurd distinction.
But it is also telling. It tells us of the absurd extremes some folks will go to defend the indefensible claims made by an apologist for the side with which they’re sympathetic.
Now back to the task at hand. Another reader named Eric replied to my critique like this:
“You have an issue with the generalization. Okay, let’s set that aside: do you agree with Chris that the arguments from Plantinga, Craig, and McDowell that he’s claimed are ignorant, are in fact ignorant?”
Note how he doesn’t come out and admit that Hallquist was wrong to make a generalized statement based on his selection sample. Rather, he says I “have an issue with the generalization”. Well I’m quite sure Eric would “have an issue” with that type of generalization if it were a Christian apologist generalizing about atheists rather than an atheist apologist generalizing about Christians. So all I’m asking for is some consistency here.
Regardless, Eric then went on to ask that I engage with the rest of Hallquist’s essay:
“One example that Chris mentioned in the last post was Plantinga’s claim that there are no transitional fossils. Do you agree that’s an ignorant argument/claim? Another example he recently mentioned was the 2LOT argument (made by various apologists, but I believe Chris cited Dembski making it): do you agree that’s an ignorant argument/claim?”
Let’s focus on Plantinga. I agree that Plantinga’s claim that there are no transitional fossils was made out of ignorance of the many transitional fossils that exist. In my first podcast “Denis Lamoureux on Evolution and Creation” I interviewed my friend Denis who completed a doctorate (one of three) on evolutionary biology with a focus on the evolution of teeth. Denis discusses this and other evidence in his books Evolutionary Creation and I love Jesus and I accept Evolution. Denis has many excellent lectures available online on evolution and theology (he also has a doctorate in theology). See here.
In May I was in New York for the annual Biologos conference. Biologos is an evangelical organization started through the efforts of Francis Collins which seeks to get evangelicals better informed on the results of Neo-Darwinian science. At the conference Dennis Venema, a biologist from Trinity Western University, did a fantastic talk outlining the fossil evidence for evolution. For those interested, Dennis has put together an online introductory course on evolution at the Biologos site. The first installment is available here.
Hopefully Christian folks who think evolution is false or in conflict with Christian theological claims will avail themselves of these resources with an open mind. I know I’ve encountered many fallacious arguments against evolution over the years. Consider, for example, the claim that evolution is incompatible with the second law of thermodynamics. While I still hear this claim, it is false since the second law predicts an increase of entropy in the entire system, a claim which is consistent with the localized decrease of entropy.
So let’s concede that many Christian apologists have made claims about evolution that revealed their ignorance of aspects of the field. Does this provide evidence that Christian apologists are generally ignorant and/or dishonest simpliciter? Of course it doesn’t. But if it did, then atheist apologists (i.e. those who argue for atheism) would likewise be generally ignorant and/or dishonest. I’ll now turn to making that case based on Hallquist’s own method.
Since Chris provided three showcase examples to justify his conclusion, I’ll provide three as well. Let’s begin with Chris himself and in particular his review of God or Godless. His review does made a fair point about his frustration with the organization of the book. But insofar as he offers critical arguments he wears his philosophical ignorance on his sleeve. For example, of the distinction between agent and event causation he asserts:
“It makes little sense outside of a dualistic view of the mind and an incompatiblist view of free will.”
To be sure “It makes little sense” is not philosophically precise, but it certainly implies that there is some problem conceptually with the notion of agent causation apart from dualism and incompatibilism. This is a jolting level of ignorance about basic metaphysics. But rather than linger on this point I want to turn to Chris’ surprising ignorance of philosophical theology.
In the very next paragraph Chris observes that I argue
“that an infinite regress of event causes is unacceptable because, “it is wholly ad hoc since we have no experience of infinite causal regress.””
Chris then offers the following retort:
“But it’s controversial to say the least whether we have experience of uncaused gods–and if Randal is going to respond that we do, he’s no longer presenting the cosmological argument, but the argument from religious experience.
“Similarly, he writes, “it offers no explanation of what caused this mysterious, infinite, causal series, and this it is really a pseudo-explanation.” But I could just as well complain that Randal offers no explanation of what caused this mysterious all-powerful creator.”
There are at least three problems in these two paragraphs, but I’ll focus on the most glaring. Chris says that God is “a pseudo-explanation” because the theist “offers no explanation of what caused the mysterious all-powerful creator.” Really? Chris is supposed to have a background in philosophy and he offers the “What caused God?” retort?
Incredibly this is not an infrequent occurrence. Indeed, one often finds atheists making a similar point. Let’s consider the example of Keith Parsons. (I should note, by the way, that I had a bit of a heated exchange with Keith Parsons a couple weeks ago. He emailed me afterward to “bury the hatchet” and in doing so he showed himself to be really a first class individual. So what I say here should not be taken to suggest any personal enmity whatsoever.) In his essay “The Brutal Facts about Keith Parsons” Edward Feser quotes Parsons as follows:
Both theists and atheists begin with an uncaused brute fact.
Feser then goes on to comment (and I quote at some length):
“And the problem is that that is precisely not what theists do, at least not if we are talking about theists like Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, and all the other great representatives of classical theism. Aristotle’s Pure Act is not a brute fact. Plotinus’ One is not a brute fact. Anselm’s That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Conceived is not a brute fact. Aquinas’s Subsistent Being Itself is not a brute fact. And so forth. In each case we have arguments to the effect that the material universe in principle must have had a cause and that the divine cause arrived at not only happens not to have a cause (as a “brute fact” would) but rather in principle could not have had or needed a cause and in principle could not have not existed. And the reasons, of course, have to do with the metaphysics of potency and act, the difference between composite substances and that which is metaphysically absolutely simple, the real distinction between essence and existence in anything contingent, and other aspects of classical metaphysics in the Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, and Scholastic traditions.
“At this point, I imagine Parsons might, like so many other atheists under the delusion that they’ve mastered the arguments of the other side, indignantly demand an explanation of all this obscure “act and potency” and “essence versus existence” stuff that he’s never heard of, and of how it is supposed to show what the thinkers in question say it shows. (Or at least he might if he wasn’t retired and all. Sorry if I’m keeping you off the links, Keith!) If so, my response would be: If you really need someone to explain all that to you, then with all due respect, it’s a good thing you have given up philosophy of religion, because you are simply not competent to speak on the subject.
“Neo-Platonist, Aristotelian, and Thomistic and other Scholastic writers are hardly marginal theists, after all. They are the paradigmatic theists. They invented (what is these days called) the philosophy of religion and the core arguments in the field. They represent a 2300 year old tradition of philosophical theism, and their thought has historically determined the intellectual articulation of revelation-oriented religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the case of Christianity – certainly of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy – you simply cannot understand the key theological ideas without an understanding of the Platonic and/or Aristotelian concepts in terms of which their orthodox formulations were hammered out. And none of these thinkers would regard God as a “brute fact.” Nor is this some incidental feature of their position; it is the very heart of it. The whole point of theism, for these classical writers, is that the explanatory buck must stop with something that is in itself intelligible through and through – precisely because, unlike the mixtures of act and potency which make up the world of our experience, it is purely actual; or because, unlike the composite things of our experience, it is absolutely simple; or because, unlike compounds of essence and existence, its essence is existence; and so forth. For an Aristotle, Plotinus, or Aquinas, to show that there is no such thing as Pure Act, the One, or Subsistent Being Itself would not be to show that God is after all just a “brute fact” among others; it would rather be to show that there is no God.”
So both Chris Hallquist and Keith Parsons are ignorant of the most basic conceptual distinction of philosophical theology.
Now for our third example. Not to be outdone, Richard Dawkins wears his ignorance of philosophical theology on his sleeve in The God Delusion. For example, he takes philosophers like Richard Swinburne and Keith Ward to task for mistakenly assuming that God is simple. In fact, Dawkins claims, God is complex, and more complex than any putative effect he might be invoked to explain (p. 176 ff.).
This is ignorance of the content of classical theism to rival that of Hallquist and Parsons. Dawkins shows he doesn’t understand even what the concept of simplicity means or why God has always been understood in the classical theist tradition to be metaphysically simple. (What is more, Dawkins gets himself into an absurdity with the assumption that invoking a cause more complex than the effect it is invoked to explain is somehow problematic. This is extraordinarily ignorant. A mind is more complex than the chocolate cake baking in the oven, but the operations of a mind is surely the best explanation of the cake.)
But Dawkins goes one better. Not only is he ignorant of the content and methods of philosophical theology, but in the introduction to the paperback edition of The God Delusion he proudly places that ignorance on display by deriding philosophical theology as “fairyology”.
So there we have three token apologists for atheism who make the most rudimentary blunders in philosophical theology. Now Hallquist’s method kicks in. Based on this evidence, and the evidence that this ignorance is more widespread, we can conclude that atheistic apologists are generally ignorant and/or dishonest.
However, this is one of the many points where I have to part ways with Hallquist. Unlike him, I don’t think it is helpful to look for the quickest justification to marginalize entire groups of people. Instead, I choose to interact with individuals as individuals, and to point out ignorance, bad argument, and questionable principle as it comes whether the source is a Christian apologist, an atheistic apologist, or anybody else.