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9. Michael Egnor Explains Why Matt Dillahunty Is Not an Atheist

Not really, anyway, Egnor insists, because he keeps invoking a moral standard that can’t exist if materialist atheism is true

In the “Does God exist?” debate between theist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty (September 17, 2021), we find Egnor questioning Dillahunty’s atheism.

Readers may recall that the debate opened with Egnor explaining why, as former atheist, he became a theist. Then Dillahunty explained why, as a former theist, he became an atheist. Michael Egnor then made his opening argument, offering ten proofs for the existence of God. Matt Dillahunty responded in his own opening argument that the propositions were all unfalsifiable. When, in Section 4, it was Egnor’s turn to rebut Dillahunty, Dillahunty was not easily able to recall Aquinas’s First Way (the first logical argument for the existence of God). Then, turning to the origin of the universe, Egnor challenged Dillahunty on the fact, accepted in science, that our universe began in a singularity (where Einstein’s equations break down). He accused Dillahunty of using science as “a crutch” for his atheism. Then they discussed the Second Oldest Question (after “Why is there something rather than nothing?”) If there is a God, why is there evil? And then, what is the true origin of our sense of morality?

And now, what if Dillahunty isn’t really an atheist? Is that fair? Egnor presses the point:

A partial transcript, notes, and links to all previous portions of the debate follow:

Michael Egnor: Because you don’t live your life that way. (01:33:00)

Matt Dillahunty: Bullsh*t! Atheism doesn’t tell you anything at all about how to live your life. Atheism is, “I am not convinced there’s a God or I am convinced there’s not a God.” Neither of those things carry any sort of weight on how I should live my life. And for you to come in…

Michael Egnor: Here is a list…

Matt Dillahunty: … I’m still talking, sir. For you to come in and suggest that I’m not an atheist is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. But you know what? I’ve heard it from you and your ilk over, and over, and over again because the truth is you cannot imagine a world where you’re wrong. [01:33:30]

Michael Egnor: Atheists believe in a number of things that are every bit as well-defined as things that religious people believe in. They believe that there is no God. They believe that nothing caused everything for no reason.

Matt Dillahunty: That’s not true.

Michael Egnor: They believe there’s no ultimate purpose to anything.

Two chess knights facing away from each other

Matt Dillahunty: That’s not true.

Michael Egnor: They believe there’s no afterlife.

Matt Dillahunty: That’s not true.

Michael Egnor: These are basic atheist viewpoints.

Matt Dillahunty: That’s not true. No, they’re not. See, that’s the thing, it’s… [01:34:00]

Michael Egnor: So you do believe there’s a purpose?

Matt Dillahunty: No, I don’t believe there’s an externally imposed intrinsic purpose in the life in the universe, but what I believe is…

Michael Egnor: That’s what I said.

Matt Dillahunty: No, sir. It’s not what you said, and I’m sorry that mere simple, logical clarity is difficult for you. But what I believe isn’t necessarily what all atheists believe.

You tried to create a bucket and exclude me from it. And the only criterion for that bucket in your No True Atheist Fallacy is whether or not one believes there’s a god.

I happen to not believe that there’s an intrinsic purpose bestowed upon life from external, but not every atheist agrees with that. Not every atheist agrees with a great many things. So when you start making a list of what atheists believe, as soon as you get past, they don’t believe in a god, you’re wrong. [01:34:30]

christopher, Dalai Lama, 2012/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Note: Matt Dillahunty’s discussion here turns on different meanings of the word “atheism.” Naturalist atheists believe that nature is all there is and thus disbelieve in purpose in the universe, free will, or life after death. However, some traditions that could technically be called atheistic are quite different. The Dalai Lama is technically an atheist. But his Buddhist tradition makes the moral consequences of one’s behavior inescapable (karma) because an ethic that cannot be evaded is believed to underlie the universe. Thus, unrepented bad behavior in this life must be addressed in the next (reincarnation) — indefinitely, if necessary. Ancient Greek philosophers have been considered to be atheistic because they often showed little regard for the popular religions of their day. But, whatever they believed about God, they certainly believed in virtue and free will — and that there is a right way to live that is intrinsic to the order of nature. So nature, for them, was not simply blind, materialist forces. In that, they would agree with the Lama, not with Richard Dawkins.

Naturalist atheism is probably the most common type in the modern Western world and it appears to be the perspective from which Dillahunty was speaking in earlier portions of the debate.

Michael Egnor: Matt clearly takes exception to the way I’ve been dealing with him. I strongly get the sense, obviously, that Matt thinks that that’s just unfair. It’s morally wrong that I would interrupt him or that would be impolite and so on.

There’s another good example of how atheists don’t really believe in atheism in the sense that Matt is appealing to objective moral standards that I should behave in a certain way to him when his whole metaphysical perspective is that there can be no objective moral standards because there is no God.

So there is no real fairness, Matt, if there is no God, but I’ve encountered few people who demand as much fairness for themselves as atheists. Atheists don’t live like atheists. They live like theists. [01:36:00]

Matt Dillahunty: We don’t live like the straw man that you put up as atheists because when you say we don’t really believe in atheism, there’s nothing… Atheism doesn’t have any tenet and a dogma, and I’m not appealing to moral objective standards. The foundation for fairness in this debate is not because of an objective standard from an external God. It’s because we, as civil human beings, agreed to sit down and share time with a moderator to ensure that we were both treated fairly. My outrage — to whatever extent it is there — is not, as you assert, appealing to some objective moral standard. It is expecting the moderator to hold you to the fire to what we agreed to, which is to allow me to finish a sentence. And if you’re going to “straw man” all atheists, to allow me — as they are doing now — to point out exactly what you’re doing. So that when this is over and you leave, you are an embarrassment. [01:36:30]

Michael Egnor: That is a moral standard.

Matt Dillahunty: Yes. It is not an objective moral standard from a God. It is a moral standard that I’m holding that we agreed to. It is by convention, not by a god. Your God doesn’t owe me anything. He doesn’t owe you anything. [01:37:00]

Michael Egnor: When you live like…

Nathan (moderator): Sorry to interject, guys. So just to maybe summarize the position, I think the audience is probably clear: Michael’s position is that Matt is living as if there’s objective morality. Matt’s position is that he doesn’t think that that’s the case. He thinks he’s consistently living within an atheistic worldview [01:37:30] Maybe we can agree to disagree on that point or the audience might see it a different way and move into the Q&A session.

Matt Dillahunty: Yeah. There’s questions? I’m good!

Next: Christian Egnor and atheist Dillahunty are now taking questions…

The complete debate, with transcripts and notes:

Two chess knights facing away from each other
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Egnor now tries to find out what Dillahunty actually knows… About philosophical arguments for the existence of God, as he begins a rebuttal. Atheist Dillahunty appears unable to recall the philosophical arguments for God’s existence, which poses a challenge for Egnor in rebutting him.
  5. Egnor, Dillahunty dispute the basic causes behind the universe. In a peppery exchange, Egnor argues that proofs of God’s existence follow the same logical structure as proofs in science. If the universe begins in a singularity (where Einstein’s equations break down), what lies behind it? Egnor challenges Dillahunty on that.
  6. Is Matt Dillahunty using science as a crutch for his atheism? That’s neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s accusation in this third part of the debate, which features a continued discussion of singularities, where conventional “laws of nature” break down.
    If the “supernatural” means “outside of conventional nature,” Michael Egnor argues, science routinely accepts it, based on evidence.
  7. Dillahunty asks 2nd oldest question: If God exists, why evil? In the debate between Christian neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty, the question of raping a baby was bound to arise.
    Egnor argues that there is an objective moral law against such acts; Dillahunty argues, no, it is all just human judgment.
  8. Does morality really exist? If so, does it come from God? Matt Dillahunty now challenges Michael Egnor: There is no way to know whether a moral doctrine represents any reality apart from belief. Michael Egnor insists that a moral law exists independently of varying opinions. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, that has always been the traditional view worldwide.
  9. Michael Egnor explains why Matt Dillahunty is not an atheist. Not really, anyway, Egnor insists, because he keeps invoking a moral standard that can’t exist if materialist atheism is true. Egnor: I’ve encountered few people who demand as much fairness for themselves as atheists. They don’t live like atheists. They live like theists.
  10. Christian Egnor and atheist Dillahunty now take questions… For example, “ What is Mr. Egnor’s best evidence of any god that would make me believe?” Key questions turned on whether abstractions like “right” or wrong “wrong” represent realities. It’s the perennial realism vs. nominalism question again.
  11. Is evil in the world simply the absence of good? Christian Michael Egnor argues for that view. Then he and atheist Matt Dillahunty clash over whether a cause can be outside of time. Many traditional philosophers have held that evil is the absence of good in the same way that darkness is the absence of light. It has no independent existence.
  12. Egnor vs. Dillahunty: How can God be both just and merciful? After atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty explains his view of morality, an audience member asks neurosurgeon Michael Egnor to explain how a just God can show mercy. Under what circumstances, a debate watcher asks, would it not be contradictory to show both justice and mercy?
  13. Egnor vs. Dillahunty: Are singularities a part of science? Also, an audience member asks the debaters: Does atheism make better predictions than theism? Dillahunty denies that atheism is a single position; Egnor responds that that is a suspect claim because atheist positions are quite predictable.
  14. Debate: Is morality a mere emotion that we project on others? Theist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty continue their conversation about basic issues at Theology Unleashed. Michael Egnor argues that God created the universe, imperfect in relation to himself, out of an excess of love — perhaps so that we all have some type of being.
  15. Debate: How can a cause and effect occur at the same time?? In the broken window analogy, the brick becomes a cause simultaneously with the shattered glass becoming an effect. In the wrap-up, Egnor restates that atheism is not really an argument, just ignorance, and Dillahunty restates that Egnor was attacking him personally.

You may also wish to read these pieces by Michael Egnor:

Science can and does point to God’s existence. Michael Egnor: Natural science is not at all methodologically naturalist — it routinely points to causes outside of nature. If we are to understand natural effects, we must be open to all kinds of causes, including causes that transcend nature.

The Divine Hiddenness argument against God’s existence = nonsense. God in Himself is immeasurably greater than we are, and He transcends all human knowledge. A God with whom we do not struggle — who is not in some substantial and painful way hidden to us — is not God but is a mere figment of our imagination.

Atheist Claims about logical fallacies often just mean: Shut Up! In the recent debate, Matt Dillahunty accuses theists of “the fallacy of the argument from personal incredulity” because we examine his claims and find them incredible. What atheists fear most is having to explain themselves, and the invocation of fictitious “fallacies” is one of their favorite ways to evade scrutiny.

Theists vs. atheists: Which group has the burden of proof? Because Dillahunty refuses to debate me again, I’ll address his claim that atheists have no burden of proof in the debate over God’s existence in this post. Both atheists and theists make positive statements about the nature of the universe. If atheists shun the ensuing burden of proof, it should count against them.


Atheist spokesman Matt Dillahunty refuses to debate me again Although he has said that he finds debates “incredibly valuable,” he is — despite much urging — making an exception in this case. Why? For millennia, theists have thought meticulously about God’s existence. New Atheists merely deny any need to make a case. That’s partly why I dumped atheism.

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9. Michael Egnor Explains Why Matt Dillahunty Is Not an Atheist