One of my readers, Frokid, forwarded to me an article by Victor Stenger titled “How to Debate a Christian Apologist.” The article presents the most cynical view of debating possible, reducing it to little more than a base exercise in sophistry. This is the reason I’m not very keen on the conventional debate format, because by its very form it encourages a polarization of opinion as each side postures to “win the debate”.
In an attempt to culture-jam this tiring format, I’ve invited atheists to debate according to two different possible formats.
Scenario 1: I defend atheism and the atheist defends Christianity. Then we provide a response to the other side followed by an open dialogue.
Scenario 2: Each side shares the top three things that most bother them about their own views, followed by an open dialogue.
As some of you may remember, I originally invited John Loftus to a public debate using the Scenario 2 form. He declined, stating that nothing bothers him about his views. And so we instead had three conventional debates. (See our YouTube Edmonton debate here.)
But I digress. My main point in writing this article is not to gripe about the polarizing debate format. Instead, it is to gripe about one snippet in Stenger’s article. And that comes at the point where he responds to the claim that “Many Christians believe in evolution.” In reply, Stenger writes:
“Not really. Surveys indicate that what most believe in is God-guided evolution. That is not evolution as understood by science. That is intelligent design. There is no room for God in evolution.”
Stenger is claiming here that Christians who claim to believe in evolution do not really believe in evolution because they believe God superintended the process. He then claims that this is in fact intelligent design.
This is all completely fallacious. The problems start with Stenger’s glaring ignorance as to what intelligent design is. Intelligent design is not the position that God superintended the evolutionary process. It is, rather, the position that intelligent causes in the natural world are scientifically detectable.
In order to see concrete evidence of the difference, one need only observe that many theistic evolutionists are among the most vocal critics of intelligent design theory (e.g. Ken Miller; Francis Collins). For Stenger to lump theistic evolutionists in with intelligent design theorists suggests either an extraordinary level of ignorance about intelligent design theory and theistic evolution or a deliberate attempt at obfuscation.
Stenger insists that God-guided evolution is not evolution. But that’s simply ridiculous. Evolution as a biological theory has nothing to say about whether any God is behind the evolutionary process or not. That’s because claims of this type are theological or metaphysical claims which by definition stand beyond the purview of the scientific theory. The irony then is that Stenger is the one who is erroneously bringing theology into the laboratory.
Let me close with a delicious bit of irony. Stenger seems to be taking the position that adding any claim about divine action to assent to a scientific theory is sufficient to undermine one’s assent to the theory. That is, I’m assuming that his claim is generalizable and is not arbitrarily limited to biological evolution. We can call this “Stenger’s Principle.”
Now note that Isaac Newton included divine action in his understanding of classical mechanics (see his famous essay “General Scholium” which is appended to the second edition of the Principia.) It follows from Stenger’s Principle that Isaac Newton was not, in fact, an adherent to his own theoretical proposals in classical mechanics.
Reductio ad absurdum indeed.