Thoughts on a recent dialogue: “Is God a Figment of Our Imagination?”

A couple of weeks ago there was a big dialogue in Toronto with the topic, “Is God a Figment of Our Imagination?” There were roughly a thousand people in attendance (myself and some friends included). As the dialogue went on, I realized that it was going to play out quite a bit different than I had expected. I was originally very excited for this, but honestly, I was pretty let down by the end of it. Many people, Christians included, said that Michael Shermer (the one representing atheism) won the dialogue hands down. This is strange, because Alister McGrath is one of the world’s leading apologists, and has done an excellent job in defending the faith in the past. He’s written many excellent books, and has done fairly well in past dialogues. Check out his dialogue with Richard Dawkins, where he does the same sort of argument he did with Shermer, but then he goes further and argues some points that were surprisingly missing from this dialogue. However, now that I reflect on the dialogue, I do believe there was some merit to his approach.

How a dialogue like this usually goes

When I heard there was going to be a dialogue on whether God is a figment of our imagination, I assumed it would go something like this:

Atheist – God is an invention of society to make people behave better. There’s no reason to believe God “actually” exists.

Theist – That’s actually the genetic fallacy, and there are many good reasons to believe God exists (continues to give something like the teleological argument).

Atheist – Here’s some thoughts from some psychologists about the religious mindset. Also, your argument for God doesn’t work because (insert counter argument here).

Normally, dialogues go this way where both sides present evidence and arguments, and then counter the other person’s points while defending their own. I don’t feel like that happened in this particular dialogue. It seemed more like they were each presenting their opinions (largely without evidence), and then ignoring the points of the other person. In a sense, it felt like they were talking past each other. However, there were some good points made, and instead of going through a point-by-point of the whole dialogue, I’ll go over some of the main arguments made, and how they worked or didn’t work. As I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve quickly realized that there is far too much content to discuss regarding this dialogue. There’s more to write about here than I can go into in one short blog. So for the next while I’ll be releasing a series of blogs on the content behind this dialogue. Below I give a description of the basic points made, how the dialogue progressed, with the main focus being on McGrath’s method. In a few future blogs posts I’ll go over the content in more detail, and give my responses to the points made.

Check out the dialogue online

If you’re interested in watching the dialogue, you can do so by clicking here.

If you’re interested in reading McGrath’s opening talk, it’s been published here.

Shermer’s Points

While I agree Shermer likely won the dialogue, that doesn’t mean I think he presented good arguments. To be honest, he resorted to the stereotypical “meme level” type arguments that get thrown around on the internet all the time, but that true scholars of religion and philosophy don’t typically use. As I said, there’s not enough space to go into all these in depth right now, so I’ll do so in future blog posts. Here’s some of the topics he touched on:

The problem of evil (why God allows suffering in the world)

The hiddenness of God (does God actually intervene in our lives?)

Objective morality (Shermer seems to believe things “really are” evil, which might seem commonsensical, but we’ll go into this more in a future blog)

How we define God (Things like omnipotence are merely relative, so how would we know a being is God, even if we have direct contact?)

Atheism just goes one God further (We disbelieve in all other gods, so why not the Judeo-Christian God?)

Burden of proof (Atheism is merely a lack of belief; there is no need to argue for it. Theists, however, must give good reasons for what they believe. Shermer believes they can’t, so he feels justified in his atheism)

Internal and external validation (Scientific truths are able to be proven true, while religious truths are more like a personal conviction, rather than being able to be proven true)

Jesus is based on myths (Shermer claims many other mythological figures have had similar qualities as Jesus, so, it looks like Jesus is merely the “myth that worked”)

McGrath didn’t really respond to the majority of these challenges, which felt quite strange. Shermer also challenged McGrath a few times, demanding evidence for theism. Sadly, McGrath didn’t really give any solid reasons for why theism is likely to be true. Shermer also mocked the idea of salvation in Christianity, and asked for an explanation of the atonement; why did Jesus have to die for our sins, rather than have God simply forgive us? Again, sadly, McGrath didn’t really give a response to this challenge. Now while it might seem like the majority of the rest of this blog is about McGrath’s points, I’ll be spending a good deal of time on these points made by Shermer in future blog posts.

McGrath’s Main Points

One thing that McGrath focused a great deal on was the issue of faith and science. He showed the audience that no matter what the worldview (theism or atheism), all of us get to the point where the evidence runs dry, and we need to form our beliefs based on faith. For example, the atheist might try to show that everything in the universe can be explained naturally, but at some point, atheists need to admit that they cannot prove God doesn’t exist. Now they have to decide how to live their lives. Do they live as though God exists, or as though God does not exist? This decision seems to be a faith commitment, even though it can be justified by reason and evidence. Many things that we believe can be validated by facts, but when we start getting at the deeper and more meaningful questions about life, we all inevitably end up making decisions that go beyond proofs. McGrath (who used to be an atheist, and later converted to Christianity), went so far as to say this, “In moving from atheism to Christianity, I was actually moving from one unprovable belief system to another.” This caused quite a few people in the audience to recoil, considering hundreds (if not thousands) of books have been written on the topic of showing Christianity to be true. McGrath is correct in a sense, but not in the way some think he came across in the dialog. I’ll go further into this in the future when I write on the concept of proof.

If you look at other dialogues with Alister McGrath (including the one with Dawkins I mentioned), you’ll see a common concept being employed. In attempting to show the rationality of theism, McGrath has a tendency to focus on the subjective, rather than the objective. What I mean by this is that McGrath shows that Christianity helps provide purpose and meaning to life. To explain what he was doing, I’ll quote for you something C.S. Lewis said that McGrath mentioned during the dialogue, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.” McGrath focused much of his argument on the fact that Christianity provides a framework for a person, so that they can understand the universe around them in a more profound and meaningful way. He said that “Christianity offers an explanatory capaciousness which helps us make sense of our world and our place within it, both cognitively and existentially.” In other words, when a person asks the really deep questions of life like, “how did I get here?”, “why am I here?”, “how do I find happiness?”, and “what’s the meaning of life?,” atheism will give you answers that will be quite disappointing, but Christianity will provide answers that will satisfy your very soul, cause you to get excited about life, and will give you a more meaningful existence. McGrath summarized his argument by saying, “In short: I believe it to be trustworthy, but I know that it satisfies the deepest longings of my mind and my heart.”

This argument that McGrath makes is quite powerful in some ways, but it leaves a huge gap in the discussion. A person could easily say, “sure, it works well for you, but it doesn’t work for me,” or, “I’m glad it works so well for you, but I’m quite content in my own worldview.” The real issue is this: Did Jesus actually live, die, and rise again? Is Christianity factually true? In this dialogue, it seemed almost like McGrath deliberately avoided talking about this, and thus, left many in the audience feeling like there was a huge hole in the content of his argument.

Why did McGrath dialogue this way?

In conversation after the dialogue, people were trying to politely challenge the method McGrath employed in this dialogue. Apparently the rationale he gave was that, in past dialogues, Shermer has been known to outright dismiss all evidence and arguments the theist makes, and then simply demand more.

Note: This method of arguing, where one person gives evidence/arguments, and the other person does not respond to the evidence/arguments, and simply dismisses them, then demands more evidence, is actually a logical fallacy called “moving the goalposts.”When someone gives reasons, evidence, and argumentation, the proper response is to deal with these things rationally by giving counter-arguments.

Imagine for a moment you’re playing soccer, and you get a goal. However, after getting the goal, the goalie says “oh no, you didn’t actually score,” then continues to move the goal posts backwards until the ball isn’t in the net anymore. He then says, “see, the ball isn’t in the net, you have to kick it further.” Then, you kick the ball again, and again, you score. However, the goalie then moves the goal posts even further back, and proclaims, “still no goal!” This is obviously a fallacious way to argue. In past dialogues, when Shermer was given evidence/arguments, he didn’t actually deal with them. Instead, he just demanded more evidence (this is actually quite common in these sorts of conversations). The common reason atheists give for doing this is that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (something that Shermer actually said during this dialogue as well). While it’s true that more radical claims demand more evidence, that does not give the person justification for tossing out the evidence that is available. What really seems to be happening here, is that Shermer will say “your claim is extraordinary, and your evidence isn’t extraordinary,” but in reality what he’s saying is, “your claim is so extraordinary, that no matter what evidence you give, it will never be enough.” This isn’t a good way to argue. When someone gives reasons, evidence, and argumentation, the proper response is to deal with these things rationally by giving counter-arguments. By dismissing the arguments and evidence, he’s actually arguing fallaciously, and should be called out for it.

All that being said, instead of pointing out the fallacious way that Shermer has counter-argued in the past, McGrath decided to not even give Shermer the chance to commit his regular fallacious response. McGrath instead chose to refrain from giving any evidence for Christianity, so that Shermer wouldn’t have the opportunity to stick his nose up at it. While this takes away Shermer’s opportunity of demeaning the evidence for Christianity, it also takes away the audience’s opportunity to hear the evidence for Christianity, which is what many people in the audience had a problem with, and is why many have said Shermer won the dialogue hands down.

Is this method effective?

While many of us felt quite annoyed (if I’m being honest), from what I’ve been told, it had a different effect on people who aren’t quite so solidified in their beliefs. A friend of mine had discussions with different non-religious people after the dialogue. What he told me is that these students found McGrath’s approach to ignite a spark of interest in them in regards religious matters. My friend told me that it looks like these students will likely do further research into apologetics, or, at the very least, will be far more open to hearing about Jesus in the future. This is likely because McGrath’s debating style hits on the more emotional side of the person, and tugs at the longing in a person’s heart, showing them why that longing is there, and how it can be fulfilled. By pointing people in this direction, even if McGrath didn’t give any reasons to think Christianity is true, it did give the questioning and seeking individuals motivation to look more into these matters. Hopefully this dialogue has affected people enough that they’ll go out and find the reasons for theism and Christianity (which are quite easy to find on the internet or the library), and that in future conversations with their Christian friends they’ll be more likely to ask deep questions, and get into some good discussions.

While I believe it would have been far more effective for McGrath to at least mention some of the objective arguments for theism and/or Christianity, his approach does have some merit, and I believe it could easily have helped some people in their spiritual journey.

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