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Atheism debate stretches from pop culture to history

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Honest dialogue rather than heated debate characterized day two of the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Feb. 23-24.

Scholars Keith Parsons, William Lane Craig, Evan Fales and Hugh McCann continued the discussion of the topic “The Future of Atheism.”

Akin to previous Greer-Heard Forums, both scholars from the Friday night dialogue -– evangelical theologian Alister McGrath and atheist professor Daniel Dennett -– responded to each of the four presenters.

Parsons and Fales, representing an atheist viewpoint, offered some of the most challenging questions of the day. Parsons, professor of philosophy at the University of Houston at Clear Lake, started the Saturday sessions with his paper titled “Atheism: Twilight or Dawn.”

Parsons responded to the book by McGrath titled “The Twilight of Atheism,” in which McGrath points to the decline of atheism and the resurgence of religion in the 20th century. Parsons was unconvinced.

“How odd, in that case, to find atheist books recently heading up the bestseller list and atheists showing up on the TV talk shows to make the case for unbelief,” Parsons said.

This, he said, evidences the public’s pro-atheism leaning.

Parsons, though, didn’t rest his argument on public opinion. He attributed the success of atheism to religious institutions themselves. Religions, namely Christianity, set themselves up to fail, he said, because of the claims they make for themselves.

“The Christian church, according to its own account, was charged by its founder to be the light of the world and the holder to the keys of the kingdom of God,” Parsons said. “When so much is expected of an institution or an individual, moral lapses are going to stick out with particular vividness.

“It cannot be enough to be no worse than others when you present yourself as setting the standard.”

Parsons then posed this question: “Who needs atheist agitators when the day-to-day impact of the church on people’s lives is so small?”

In response to Parsons’ charges, McGrath warned today’s Christians by way of history: In his book The Twilight of Atheism, he found that whenever in history Christianity became linked to power, atheism played a major role in the revolt against it. With this in mind, he cautioned American Christians against becoming too politically powerful.

“There is a burden on all of us who hold a religious position to ensure that this is actually lived out properly and does not lead to violence,” McGrath said. “That seems to raise a whole range of political and ethical issues.” He pointed to the Amish community who, when violence occurred at one of their schools in 2006, gained the attention of much of the world through their response: forgiveness.

“They have recognized in the DNA of Christianity is the nonviolent ethic of Jesus of Nazareth,” McGrath said. “The Amish made no call for retribution but instead offered forgiveness.”


Evan Fales, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Iowa and the second atheist to speak, devoted much of his attention to the matter of motivation: If a person believes there is no God, what is there to motivate him or her toward moral living?

“Devotion to family and friends and to the wellbeing of all humanity, happy pursuit of one’s calling, delight in the beauties of nature and art, commitment to moral ideals and courage in their defense: these are all enough to fill a life with worthy goals and satisfactions,” Fales said.

Also, because the atheist does not believe in God, he or she cannot rely on God ultimately to right all of history’s wrongs, Fales said, which, too, is a motivation to moral living.

“That … makes life infinitely more precious and the need to pursue the good while we can an infinitely deeper obligation,” Fales said in contending that God’s existence has no bearing on morality.

McGrath’s response to Fales’ argument, therefore, didn’t simply hinge on the existence of God. Instead, it focused on the existence of a personal God.

McGrath told how he, as an atheist when he was young, would gaze up at the stars and sense the temporal nature of life. “Now as a Christian, I look at the same stars and they symbolize something very different,” he said. “In dealing with God, we are not dealing with an indeterminate, divine entity. We are dealing with a very specific, divine entity who chose to enter into this world and put Himself at the disposal of people.”


William Lane Craig, research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, and Hugh McCann, professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University, made the case for theism.

Craig, who has presented papers at all three Greer-Heard Forums, discussed current convincing philosophical arguments for theism, which include the cosmological argument, the Kalaam cosmological argument and the teleological argument.

Ultimately, he said, these reasoning tools point to the universe having both a beginning and a cause. That cause, he said, necessarily transcends space and time and is, thus, changeless and immaterial.

“Such a cause must be beginningless and uncaused,” Craig said. “Such a transcendent cause is plausibly taken to be personal.”

Dennett, however, did not think the idea of a changeless God to be an appealing one. “The problem with a changeless God is that it is changeless. It is outside of time,” Dennett said. “Don’t bother praying to it and certainly don’t expect it to hear and answer your prayer.”

McCann briefly addressed the personal nature of God. He presented three areas in which religion offers a source of knowledge about God. Through religion, adherents gain an understanding about the origin of the universe and, therefore, the creator of the universe. In addition, believers gain knowledge of particular events that occurred miraculously. The third source of knowledge spoke to the question of the personal nature of God raised by Dennett after Craig’s paper.

That last source of knowledge is experience. “Suppose someone tells us he has had an encounter with God,” McCann said. “For him, he says, the matter is settled. He knows there is a God because he has learned it from direct experience.

“Is there a way to approach a claim such as this with a scientific spirit?” McCann asked. “In part, I think the answer is yes. Those who make such statements are testifying to something they say they have observed.”

McCann offered Jesus as an example.

“Regardless of what you think about who Jesus was, this is a guy who had a rich spiritual life,” McCann said. “He told people about it. It had quite a profound effect [on the world].”

Even though personal experience of God is not necessarily scientifically measurable or observable, McCann said, it does not make that knowledge inadmissible.


The success of the Greer-Heard Forum was measured in dialogue, said Bob Stewart, associate professor of philosophy and theology occupying the Greer-Heard Chair of Faith and Culture and the forum’s director.

“I fear that too often we become entrenched like battles in World War I,” Stewart said. “We rise up periodically to fire off an intellectual mortar and never know if we hit anyone or do any good or ill.

“Let’s talk to each other more in the future. Let’s talk with conviction and respect.”

    About the Author

  • Michael McCormack