Here’s part 1 of my review where I provide a summary and critique of Trent Horn’s opening statement. You can also click that link to watch the debate itself.
I now turn to my review of Dan Barker’s opening statement.
As I said, in part 1, I undertook a detailed summary of Horn’s opening statement followed by some critiques. That was a lot of work. Too much work. So this time around, I’m just going to give some reader’s notes as I listen to Barker.
Mic Problems and Miracles
Dan Barker’s presentation began rather infelicitously with a struggle with the mic. My sympathies here. I too have struggled with technical issues in front of a live studio audience and it ain’t fun! Barker makes the best of it with an ironic quip: “Would somebody pray for a miracle?” That elicits a predictable laugh from the audience and a moment later a young man from the audience fixes the mic.
But in fact, this event encapsulates an important feature of the dialogue about God’s existence, namely the underdetermination of theory to evidence. Did that young man’s fixing that mic illustrate that there is no God to answer prayers and thus we need to depend on each other? Or might we conclude that God answered the prayer through that young man? After all, a miracle is, at its core, a divine sign, not, as atheists love to suppose, a divine intervention that violates natural law.
The fact is that two reasonable people could interpret the same event very differently based on different background sets of beliefs. Unfortunately, as we shall see, this kind of chastening nuance is wholly absent from Barker’s presentation.
At this point, Barker launches into his presentation and it immediately becomes clear that his debate method is scattershot, i.e. briefly refer to multiple claims, arguments, and lines of evidence but don’t explain any one of them by clearly articulating a logically valid argument which is open to critical inspection.
Okay, I’m going to come out and say it: this is a coward’s debating strategy, one that intentionally seeks to place one’s claims beyond rational scrutiny both for the sheer volume of those claims and the lack of specific development for any one of them. Please note:
If you are forcing your interlocutor to attempt to tease out your premises, then you haven’t done your job.
Why the Christian God?
Barker begins with the assertion, “The Christian God does not exist.”
Barker then asks a question: why even debate the existence of the Christian God? Why not debate another god like the god of the Lenape Indian tribe?
Um, because, Mr. Barker, you agreed to debate Trent Horn, a Christian. No doubt if you’d agreed to debate a Lenape apologist, the topic would change accordingly.
One suspects that Barker’s question is actually posed for rhetorical purposes. Perhaps he is attempting to offer some sort of criticism of Christianity based on the fact that there are many conceptions of divine beings in various different belief systems. However, what is the argument, exactly?
As I said, Barker opts for the coward’s debating strategy, in this case by preferring suggestion to statement.
From there, Barker appears to invoke a divine hiddenness objection. He asks: “If God exists at all, why does he need arguments? Why does he need proofs?” And then he adds, “This very debate is one evidence against the existence of God.”
Oh really? Please, Mr. Barker, share your premises.
Atheism, Definition, and Burden of Proof
Barker then says: “Atheism is a lack of a belief in God or gods.”
Barker is incorrect. Granted, his definition reflects a recent trend to define atheism in accord with what has classically been called weak agnosticism. Barker’s milquetoast “atheism” is even weaker than T.H. Huxley’s agnosticism which asserted that no one can know if God exists. Barker, by contrast, merely says he’s without belief in God.
Why does Barker adopt this incredibly weak definition? He explains, “We atheists don’t have a burden of proof. The one who makes a claim has the burden of proof.”
Is this also cowardice? Or merely a lack of confidence? Or something else?
Regardless, Barker does have a burden of proof. In this debate, his burden of proof is to show that the Christian God does not exist. Indeed, as I noted above, he begins his debate with that very assertion: “The Christian God does not exist.”
Consequently, when Barker now says atheism has no burden of proof, he’s talking out of both sides of his mouth by attempting to exempt himself from the very burden he just assumed.
More generally, the lesson here is this: if you want to persuade someone of a truth claim, you have a burden of proof. That is true whether that truth claim is God exists or God doesn’t exist or You should be without belief in God or anything else.
Atheism and Religion
At this point, Barker adds that atheism is “not a religion.” Well, of course, lacking a belief in something is not a religion. Who said it was?
Nor for that matter is atheism as historically defined — i.e. belief in the non-existence of God — a religion.
But then, neither is theism a religion.
Both these claims — God exists; God does not exist — are far too minimal to constitute religions.
However, it is also the case that some religions are theistic and other religions are atheistic. But Barker neglects to mention that point.
Barker then says that he’s an atheist because there isn’t a coherent definition of God.
Barker is confused on this point. If the concept of God is incoherent, as he claims, then he is, in fact, an ignostic, not an atheist.
And why does he think “God” is incoherent? He briefly alludes to prima facie attribute conflicts. E.g. how can God be both omnipotent and omnibenevolent?
Er, okay. Surely Barker is aware that there is a huge literature discussing precisely these questions, isn’t he? When we were at King’s College, London together, my friend Daniel Hill wrote a doctoral thesis on this topic, later published as the monograph Divinity and Maximal Greatness (Routledge, 2004). What, do you suppose, is the chance that Barker has no familiarity at all with the high-level philosophical discussion in Daniel’s work?
(By the way, in 2006 Daniel Hill and I coauthored the modern classic Christian Philosophy A-Z a must have for any philosophy of religion nerd.)
In his book, Daniel articulates the concept of God within the framework of perfect being theology. Here’s a simple definition of God from within a perfect being framework (and one that I think is fundamentally correct):
God is that being who exemplifies the maximal set of compossible great-making properties.
The onus is on Barker to show that this definition is, as he claims, incoherent. Note that compossibility is built right into the definition. This means that to the extent where two prima facie great-making attributes appear to conflict, one revises one’s conceptions of one (or both) of the attributes so as to remove the apparent conflict. In this framework, perfect being is the core definition and the list of great-making attributes that define that being is part of the supporting, axial claims.
And yes, in case you were wondering, there is within perfect being theology an extensive discussion of the criteria by which one identifies a great-making attribute.
Finally, let’s concede for the sake of argument that the concept of God faces some intractable conceptual difficulties such that no completely satisfactory definition of God, as yet, exists. Does it follow that one ought to disbelieve in God? That can only be answered by addressing a more general question: if a concept generally faces some intractable conceptual difficulties, are we rationally obliged to disbelieve in the existence of that concept?
Well, consider what that means with another concept: time. As Augustine famously observed, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”
Augustine is not the only one to point out the deep difficulties with the philosophical concept of time. But time is hardly unique here. Indeed, spend any *time* (whatever that means) reading philosophy and you’ll discover many other concepts that fit that same bill: substance, abstract objects, properties, sense perception, facts, propositions, persons, … In each case, we find a term that is polyvalent and a range of conceptual analyses of that term which are disputable and, to various degrees, unsatisfactory. It hardly follows that the proper response is to surrender belief in all those entities/relations/concepts.
But if we don’t give up on substance, abstract objects, properties, sense perception, facts, propositions, or persons, then why God?
One more thing: the definition of naturalism is every bit as polyvalent and disputable as God. So there’s that.
God and Scientific Evidence
Next, Barker claims that if there were evidence for God someone would have won the Nobel Prize by now in virtue having identified the God-force in the cosmos.
Really? So Barker assumes that if God exists then God should be detectable as a distinct force in the universe which is the object of scientific analysis?
Thomas Aquinas rolled over in his grave with that one. As did thousands of other deceased theologians (may they rest in peace). (As for the thousands of theologians now living, counterfactually, we would have done the grave roll had we been deceased at the time.)
Appeal to Authority
Dan Barker then tells us that he has participated in 130 public debates and he has seen no evidence for God.
First off, I am quite sure William Lane Craig has conducted at least that many debates. So what?
Second, the fact that Barker claims he has seen no evidence at all in favor of the debate resolution after having done 130 debates is not something to brag about.
Barker then adds another appeal to authority by citing Bertrand Russell as claiming that most arguments for God’s existence “beg the question”. But let’s be clear: while Bertrand Russell made substantial contributions to many aspects of philosophy including philosophy of language, metaphysics, and logic, his contributions to the philosophy of religion in the books Why I am Not a Christian and Russell on Religion: Selections from the Writings of Bertrand Russell are rudimentary bordering on sophomoric. Nor does his famous debate on God’s existence with F.C. Copleston show an especially astute grasp of the field.
Perhaps most importantly, Russell lived at a time (logical positivism; ordinary language philosophy) when philosophy of religion was at a low ebb. The field has exploded since Russell’s death in 1972. Consequently, to quote Russell in favor of the view that the future of philosophy of religion is atheism is like quoting a 1960s futurist in favor of the view that the future of dinner is a synthetic pill.
The conversation has moved on, bruh.
Barker then complains that various religious factions (Protestant vs. Catholic; Sunni vs. Shia) are “killing each other over these trivial, irrelevant doctrinal differences.” You truly have to be willfully ignorant to think these kinds of disputes are merely driven by differences in doctrine rather than a complex nexus of historical, geopolitical, social, and cultural factors including religion.
As the old joke goes, a group of angry Irishmen cornered a passerby in an alley. “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?” they growled. The man, terrified, replied, “Neither, I’m an atheist.” A moment later, the mob replied, “Okay then, are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?”
Sadly, Barker ignores all this and engages in the crassest of reductionism about so-called religious conflict simply to land a point in his debate. (For more on this topic, see this excerpt from my book An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar with Justin Schieber.)
And of course, he still hasn’t shared with us a fleshed out argument.
Problem of Evil
Barker then claims that Christians have no reply to “the problem of evil”.
Should I bother to mention that there are many problems of evil and many replies to those problems?
Never mind. Here is Barker’s rebuttal to all theodicies and defenses:
“All you have to do is walk into any children’s hospital and you know that any good god does not exist.”
There is no doubt that the prospect of children suffering is terrible and emotionally wrenching. But that fact alone doesn’t constitute a formal argument against God’s existence. So … what’s the argument?
Failure of Petitionary Prayer
In fairness, Barker does follow up that claim with what seems to be the beginnings of an argument: he claims that petitionary prayer does not provide a statistical increase in wellness. But which Christian claims that if God exists we should expect to see a statistically identifiable increase in wellness for those who receive petitionary prayer? There are so many problems with this crass assumption, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Fortunately, I have an article for that: “Failed Prayer Studies: A Response.”
The short of it is that when folks like Barker invoke failed prayer studies as evidence against God, they’re almost inevitably shadow boxing. And that’s no way to win a debate.
Whew, I only made it about 5-6 minutes into Barker’s opening remarks and already I’m spent. Looks like I’ll need a part 2 for this one.