I just had a two hour plus debate with Dr. Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic Magazine, on the question: “What better explains reality: Theism or Atheism?” Given the title of the debate, both of us had the burden of proof to detect the cause (or causes) for certain effects we all see. That’s what scientists, philosophers, and investigators do—they observe effects and attempt to discover their causes. Since science is a search for causes, I thought Dr. Shermer, who writes for Scientific American each month, would posit adequate causes for reality in this debate. He didn’t.
But before I unpack where I think Michael went wrong, I want to commend him for his kind manner and for agreeing to engage in cross-examination. So many formal debates are nothing but dueling speeches where the two debaters never interact and can, therefore, ignore each other’s points. This debate was not like that. After we each gave 20-minute opening statements, the hour after that was a spirited back and forth, first between us, and then between us and the audience. (We then took it to a restaurant where my friends Oleg and Karina treated us to the best steaks we ever had!)
In my opening statement, I gave evidence to support my conclusion that six major effects comprising reality—presented with the acrostic CRIMES—are better explained by God, and, in fact, wouldn’t exist unless God existed. I started with the most obvious effect that needs to be explained: the Creation and fine-tuning of the universe itself. Then I moved on to our ability to Reason, the Information found in the genome of living things, objective Moral values and obligations, the existence of Evil, and an orderly natural world that allows us to do Science. (If you want more detail than a 20-minute statement, there is a chapter on each of the CRIMES in my book Stealing from God: Why atheists need God to make their case.).
In his opening statement, Dr. Shermer assumed he didn’t have any burden of proof. Instead of giving evidence how reality could be explained by causes other than God, he just claimed that science is superior and would one day find naturalistic causes for CRIMES. But that claim is, ironically, a faith position. In fact, it is a blind faith position because it’s impossible in principle to find a natural cause for each of the CRIMES.
Consider Creation. If the entire natural world (space-time and matter) had a beginning as most atheists admit, then the cause can’t be part of the natural world but must transcend it. The cause of nature must be spaceless, timeless, immaterial, powerful to create the universe out of nothing, and personal and intelligent in order to choose to create. In other words, we’ll never find a natural cause for all of nature. Whatever created nature must be beyond nature (which is what the word “supernatural” means).
The rest of the CRIMES are not subject to the scientific method either, which means, despite Dr. Shermer’s charge, they are not “God of the gaps” arguments that can one day be overturned by some future scientific discovery. For example, we’re never going to find the cause of orderly natural laws or our ability to reason—including the laws of logic and the laws of mathematics—by running some kind of experiment. We must assume those laws in order to do the experiment! In other words, science is built on metaphysical principles that can’t be explained by science—they are needed to do science.
Objective moral obligations can’t be explained through science or materialism either. If there is no God and we are all just moist robots dancing to our DNA (as Richard Dawkins put it), then how does a materialist explain the fact that love is objectively better than hate? You can’t explain that running an experiment or by appealing to mere molecules in motion.
Dr. Shermer didn’t even try. Instead, he shifted the problem by talking about how we know what’s right rather than explaining how an objective standard of rightness exists in the first place. (This is a common and illicit move by atheists: they want to focus on epistemology—how we know morality or goodness—and ignore ontology, which seeks to identify the grounding of morality or goodness.)
Michael asked the audience to think of reasons, other than God, as to why we ought not sexually abuse children. He said it’s wrong because it hurts other sentient beings and you wouldn’t want anyone to do that to you.
But those “reasons” merely appeal to other moral principles that need grounding themselves. He’s merely shifted, not solved the problem. Why is it wrong to hurt other sentient beings? Why should we follow the Golden Rule? Who said? If we’re just overgrown germs dancing to our DNA and fighting for survival, what is the cause or source of such moral obligations?
They don’t come from science or the natural world. Science can help you discover how to create a bomb, but science can’t tell you whether or not you ought to use it. You need a moral standard that transcends human opinion for that. You need an immaterial, authoritative essence known as Goodness, Righteous or Justice. You need God’s Nature (see our first debate for much more on that).
It might come as a shock to atheists, but science is not the only way of discovering causes. In fact, in order to explain CRIMES, you need to use other disciplines outside of science. These may include philosophy, history, reason, and direct observation.
Dr. Shermer may scoff at philosophy, but he actually uses it as do all scientists. It’s required in order to do science. Why? Because science actually doesn’t say anything—scientists do. All data needs to be gathered and all data needs to be interpreted. Science doesn’t gather and interpret the data; it’s scientists applying philosophical principles who do that. The philosophical principle that Dr. Shermer applied was to rule out God in advance. Michael kept saying, “God is not an explanation.” Well, how does he know that? He’s assuming what he’s trying to prove. He’s not showing it; he’s merely asserting it.
Perhaps Dr. Shermer thought he didn’t have to provide reasons for atheism because—according to him—atheism is just the lack of a belief in God. “It just means we don’t believe in God. Full stop.” He said atheism entails no other beliefs. (By the way, that’s another philosophical position, not a scientific one).
But if Michael just “lacks a belief in God”, then he’s only making a statement about his psychological state and nothing about external reality. Yet the cause of external reality is what we were there to debate! So why did he even show up?
If two homicide detectives discover a dead body with a knife in his back, bloody footprints leading out the door, and a cryptic note from the killer, both should hunt down a suspect. If one detective shows evidence that suspect A is the cause of this murder, the other detective isn’t doing his job if he merely says “I just lack a belief suspect A is the murderer,” and I’m not required to investigate anymore. He should give reasons why A isn’t the real murderer, and then provide evidence that another suspect had the ability, motive, and actually committed the murder.
Dr. Shermer did not do that. He neither refuted the evidence for my suspect (God) nor did he identify another suspect who could account for CRIMES. The materialistic causes he suggested—evolution, quantum vacuums, and speculations about aliens and bouncing universes— even if true require causes or preexisting laws themselves and have no ability to cause the immaterial aspects of CRIMES.
Instead of providing evidence for his position, Dr. Shermer did what most atheists do in debates. Despite being materialists, they grant themselves immaterial realities such as the laws of logic, math, morality, and orderly natural laws, and then extol the virtues of science that require those laws while making complaints about how God is running the universe.
Without an objective standard by which to judge, they steal a standard from God and judge that there’s too much evil in the world, God is evil, or if God existed He would do things differently (like heal everyone or write the atheist’s name in the sky). And don’t forget—religious people are stupid and religion is evil. None of that shows there is no God or explains reality in the absence of God. In fact, evil actually demonstrates God’s existence because there would be no thing such as evil unless there was an objective standard of Good, which is God’s nature.
In short, atheists don’t have arguments—they have complaints. And complaints are not arguments.
So what best explains reality: theism or atheism? I gave my case for theism. I’m still waiting to hear the case for atheism.
Frank Turek is an American Christian author, public speaker, radio host and the president of CrossExamined.org. He is the author of four books: Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to make their Case, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, Correct, Not Politically Correct and Legislating Morality. A former aviator in the US Navy, Frank has a master’s degree from the George Washington University and a doctorate from Southern Evangelical Seminary.