I recently debated atheist Matt Dillahunty on Theology Unleashed,. Matt is an atheist activist and the former president of the Atheist Community of Austin, Texas. Since 2005 he has hosted the televised webcast The Atheist Experience and he has also hosted a live Internet radio show and founded Iron Chariots, a counter-apologetics project. From a bio sketch:
Matt Dillahunty is a seasoned debater, the current president of the Atheist Community of Austin, and the well known host of The Atheist Experience. He has debated Jordan Peterson, David Wood and a host of other theists, and has shared stages with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Laurence Krauss. He is known for his cool headed logical arguments and philosophical abilities.
Matt describes himself as a strong proponent of debates and endorses debates as “incredibly valuable.” Ironically, following our recent debate, Dillahunty believes that debates are less valuable. The creator of Theology Unleashed reached out to Dillahunty after our debate and invited him back — I offered to debate Dillahunty as often as he would like — and Dillahunty refused any further debates with me. This is despite the fact that Dillahunty was (unlike me) paid a fee to debate.
Our first (and final) debate was a bit contentious — but only a bit. The topic was: “Does God exist?” During the 10 minute introduction I listed 10 of the most common classical arguments that demonstrate God’s existence and asked a series of six questions that atheists struggle to answer, such as “Why is there anything?” (rather than nothing).
[Partial transcripts and notes to the debate are available at the links below. – ed.]
In my presentation of the classical arguments for God’s existence, I presented about a paragraph on each argument but didn’t go into meticulous detail with any of them.
I did this deliberately. I had watched Dillahunty debate this question previously. I’ve had plenty of experience with New Atheists and it was clear to me that Dillahunty, like every New Atheist I’ve encountered, had no genuine understanding of the arguments for God’s existence. Of course, for meaningful debate, both debaters must understand the arguments and I thought a good place to start would be to see if Dillahunty did indeed understand any of the arguments that he claimed to reject. He admitted that he didn’t. His ignorance of the arguments for God’s existence became even more clear as the debate went on.
I was amazed (but not really surprised) that Dillahunty would devote his life and his career to debunk arguments that he didn’t understand, and that he knew he didn’t understand.
Dillahunty has summed up his debating philosophy elsewhere as “Take the opponent seriously: The audience has to sense that I can perfectly understand their views, and have rejected them.”
The irony is remarkable.
Since Dillahunty has refused to debate me again, I’d like to follow up on some very important points that came up during the debate that I won’t have a chance to discuss with him. At least we can reflect on these issues here.
Dillahunty began his opening statement thus:
Normally I point out in these debates that I’m not here to defend a no because the burden of proof is on those who say there is a yes. It’s not up to atheists to prove that a God doesn’t exist. So today I’m just going to say, no, there’s not a God, in the same way that there aren’t leprechauns or fairies.
Both sides in a debate have a burden of proof. The denial of God’s existence entails evidence and logic that need to be explained, no less than the affirmation of God’s existence does. The claim by New Atheists that their ideology has no need for evidence, logic, or proof is absurd and, frankly, cowardly. The inescapable inference is that atheism has a very short supply of logic and evidence and atheists will do whatever they can to avoid explaining themselves. Theists, for thousands of years, have devoted their lives to rigorous and meticulous thought about God’s existence. Atheists – at least New Atheists – merely claim that they have no responsibility to make their case. Such intellectual cowardice is one of the factors that drove me away from atheism decades ago.
Dillahunty’s invocation of fairies and leprechauns demonstrates his ignorance of the arguments for God’s existence. The classical arguments – Aquinas’ Five Ways, the Thomistic proof, the neoPlatonic proof, the Augustinian proof, the Rationalist proof, and the proof from Moral Law – don’t invoke fairies or leprechauns. They are rigorous detailed arguments that demonstrate God’s existence based on ubiquitous evidence in the natural world and impeccable logic. The arguments were developed by some of the best thinkers in human history – Aristotle, Augustine, Plotinus, Aquinas, and Leibniz, and they have been a mainstay of natural theology for over two millennia. They have certainly never been “refuted” although they have been the topic of discussion for many centuries.
Dillahunty’s characterization of these arguments as invocation of ‘fairies and leprechauns’ is an admission on his part of his complete ignorance as to their content. I won’t go into the details of each of these arguments here – for readers who are interested I have posted on several of these arguments in considerable detail (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), and Ed Feser has a superb analysis of most of these arguments in his books Aquinas and Five Proofs for the Existence of God.
Dillahunty knew none of these arguments. Astonishingly, the public claim that these arguments are untrue is what he does for a living. What a remarkable precis of New Atheism — loud, shameless, persistent ignorance.
Given the wording of this debate, “Does God exist?”, we’re asking a question: Is God’s nature consistent with existence? Does God exist? It’s not about: Do I believe? It’s not about: Do I have good reason to believe? But I can’t actually address the ontology of God because there’s not a God in front of me to assess. There’s not even been a God defined for me to begin to assess. And so the question is kind of ill-formed.
Dillahunty implies that ambiguity in defining God makes the question about his existence moot. Again, it’s clear that Dillahunty doesn’t understand the arguments for the existence of God. God is not a thing within nature; He is not an object that can be defined as one might define a car or tree. He cannot be known fully as He is in Himself. He is after all the Ground of Existence, the Prime Mover, the First Cause, the Necessary Existence, the Ultimate Goodness, the Intelligent Designer. While all of these terms are a kind of description and can be justified by abundant evidence and logic, God transcends the kind of definition that we would apply to objects in nature. God is not a thing. He is the Source of all things.
How then can we know God? Aquinas points to three ways:
- We can know God by what he is not — he is not limited, he is not material, he is not mortal, he is not evil, etc.
- We can know God by his creation, that is by his effects in nature. Natural theology is the study of God based on his effects in the natural world. This kind of study of God’s existence is in fact completely analogous to any other theory in science, in the sense that it entails examination of evidence and inference to best explanation for the evidence. I believe that God’s existence is more thoroughly proven than any other theory in natural science – I have posted on that here.
- We can know God by analogy. Because all that is good in creation is a manifestation of His transcendent goodness, we can know much about Him through analogy to good things in nature. By analogy we can begin to understand His wisdom, His mercy, His justice, His beauty, and His love.
The answers I’ve given here to Dillahunty’s questions are not, of course, originally mine — they are answers that have been given for a couple of thousand years to these questions. Yet Dillahunty obviously knows nothing of them. Or if he does know them, perhaps he hopes that his audience doesn’t.
I believe that the reason Dillahunty won’t debate me again is that I insist upon telling the audience the truth about the arguments for God’s existence. That is the truth that Dillahunty — and New Atheists like him — will do anything to deny.
Editor’s note: In the current debate which is already taped, it’s Mike Egnor’s turn to rebut Dillahunty… so stay tuned for Egnor’s rebuttal: No, the burden of proof is on all of us…
The debate to date:
- Debate: Former atheist neurosurgeon vs. former Christian activist. At Theology Unleashed, each gets a chance to state his case and interrogate the other. In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and broadcaster Matt Dillahunty clash over the existence of God.
- A neurosurgeon’s ten proofs for the existence of God. First, how did a medic, formerly an atheist, who cuts open people’s brains for a living, come to be sure there is irrefutable proof for God? In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, Michael Egnor and Matt Dillahunty clash over “Does God exist?” Egnor starts off.
- Atheist Dillahunty spots fallacies in Christian Egnor’s views. “My position is that it’s unacceptable to believe something if the available evidence does not support it.” Dillahunty: We can’t conclusively disprove an unfalsifiable proposition. And that is what most “God” definitions, at least as far as I can tell, are.
You may also wish to read: COVID-19: Atheism went viral as well. Atheists are uniquely unsuited to accuse others of devaluing human life. Professor Steven Pinker’s quickly deleted tweet provides a window into anti-religious hate. In health and medicine, he is entirely mistaken. (Michael Egnor)