Episode 090: Does God Exist? (an Apologetic Debate)
Does God exist? This is the question we’re tackling on indoubt’s very first apologetic debate. Justin Brierley, host of Unbelievable? and Andy Steiger, director of Apologetics Canada, argue with one another over this question – a question that’s been thought about for years. Though both guests are genuine Christians, Justin takes the role of an atheist and uses arguments against Christianity that he’s heard over the years on his show. Though this conversation is fun, it’s also quite informative.
Who’s Our Guests?
Justin Brierley presents Faith Explored in the UK which includes the debate programme Unbelievable? The show is also a popular podcast and has produced an annual evangelism and apologetics conference. He is also the Senior Editor of Premier Christianity Magazine. Justin has a wonderful wife called Lucy and four amazing children too. When he’s not working Justin is usually either spending time with his family or helping out at the church.
Andy Steiger is the founder and director of Apologetics Canada. He created and hosted the Thinking Series and is the Author of Thinking? Answering Life’s Five Biggest Questions. He has spoken on life’s big questions internationally in universities, conferences, churches, prisons and coffee shops. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Andy lives in Abbotsford, BC, Canada with his wife, Nancy, and their two boys.
Justin’s book is called Unbelievable? Why After 10 Years of Talking to Atheists I’m Still a Christian.
You can also access Justin’s Unbelievable? show.
Andy’s book is called Thinking? Answering Life’s Five Biggest Questions.
You can also listen to the Apologetics Canada podcast.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
Well today is quite the unusual indoubt episode. I’m actually really looking forward to it. I have the privilege of introducing two special guests today. Firstly, Justin Brierley. He’s host of the popular radio and podcast show, Unbelievable?, in England. Yeah, he’s joining us. Thanks for being here, Justin.
Great to be with you again. Thanks for having me on.
And across from me in studio, he’s a friend of mine, Andy Steiger, who is an author, he’s a pastor, and he’s the director of Apologetics Canada. He once was my world religions teacher in college as well. So thanks for being here, Andy.
Yeah, great to be here.
All right, so here we go. Justin’s just written a book called Unbelievable?: Why After 10 Years of Talking With Atheists, I’m Now an Atheist.
No, it’s actually not that.
I’m like whoa!
It’s actually Unbelievable?: Why After 10 Years of Talking With Atheists, I’m Still a Christian. But for the sake of this conversation, we’re going to go with the former. And hopefully, have a little bit of fun. Anyways, I should say this,
welcome to indoubt’s first Apologetic debate featuring Christian, Andy Steiger and Atheist, Justin Brierley!
Gentlemen, is there any words you’d like to say before we start this friendly, hopefully, debate?
Well all I can say is I hope Andy is ready to renounce his faith by the end of today’s episode because I’m pretty sure my debating skills after all these years are going to be put to good effect on him.
I was also wondering if there was a spot where Justin’s going to be able to kneel down before the cross after this, and give his life to Jesus.
Well we’ll see. We’ll see which one goes.
Okay. Justin, we’re gonna start with you. I’m gonna give you about roughly five minutes or so to explain your case for why God doesn’t exist, or why you don’t think Christianity makes sense at all, so go for it.
Okay. The reason God doesn’t exist is because essentially, we have good ways of explaining all the things that we used to attribute to God. For instance, we used to believe that God must exist because look at how fantastically complicated and organized we are as human beings, and the animal kingdom, and the world is. We thought there must be a designer behind it all. That was the way we understood it.
We did the same for things like the weather patterns. We always had this inbuilt tendency to put agency on everything. But as we’ve become more scientific as a people, as we’ve begun to understand the world around us, we’ve realized that all of these aspects of life and reality can be explained by physical processes. So the weather patterns, we know how they’re caused and why they exist. We know that when we pray for rain, our prayers make no difference.
It’s simply a product of the physical forces that exist in the world.
Equally, what seemed like an amazing design that goes into who we are and the world around us has equally been well-explained by a physical process of evolution, blind forces of nature.
And so in that sense, all of the reasons we used to have for believing in God have now been stripped away.
We’ve got no reason to put God in. Any time that we do tend to use God now, it’s a ‘god of the gaps,’ and we quickly find that those gaps can soon be explained by physical explanations. The reason I’m an atheist and I don’t believe in God is because we don’t need God anymore. We’ve got perfectly good explanations of all the things we used to invoke God for.
Okay. What do you say to that, Andy.
Yeah. This is something that I hear quite a bit. I just want to thank Justin for his honesty and being on the show, and sharing with us what he thinks. When we look at atheism, what we’re looking at is somebody who obviously doesn’t believe that God exists, and I do believe that God exists. When I look at the belief of God, what we’re talking about here is faith.
I believe and define faith as trusting what you have good reason to believe is true.
And so when we look at the evidence, then we’re looking at “Which direction is it leading, what is the truth, how actually is the world?”
As Justin was talking there, he’s talking about how this ‘god of the gaps,’ I would actually posit that there’s ‘atheism of the gaps,’ that is that when you’re coming and you’re looking at the evidence, that’s very easy to posit what you want it to come to, especially if you’re coming to it with a commitment. I’m hearing the commitment from Justin, and that is a commitment to physicalism, a commitment to a metaphysical naturalism, a world in which all that there is is the physical world, and there’s nothing beyond that.
The problem with this worldview, and this is one of the problems with atheism, is that
atheism is a reductio ad absurdum argument. It’s an argument that leads to absurdity. It can’t support itself.
The reason is because atheism is more than just God not existing, in this worldview, humans can’t exist either, as Francis Schaeffer put it. And the reason for that is it’s because it’s a reductive anthology. If the way that you’re viewing the world, is, all that exists is the physical, then everything gets reduced to the parts of the world. But we are well aware that there’s a difference between the parts that the world is made of and the purposeful whole to which things are made for.
The problem is, though, it’s always going to collapse on itself, and atheism is going to continually lead back to the parts that the world is made of, just the physical stuff, including humans. In doing so, not only are you getting rid of causal agency of the universe, you’re getting rid of all causal agency, including yourself.
Justin, Andy’s made some big statements about atheism there. I’m not sure how you’d respond to that.
I guess my obvious response to that, Andy, would be that I haven’t been given any evidence that there is anything but the physical nature of the universe and us that exist, because that’s all that we can see when it comes to our science. I’ve never been given any evidence that supernatural beings exist as anything more than the physical nature of what makes us up, that our consciousness can simply be reduced to a brain activity, as incredible as that may seem. It looks the way it is. You would have to show me that I’ve got any reason not to assume physicalism and just that all does exist is physical stuff.
Great. That’s exactly where this goes to, is now we want to look at, okay, what do we have good reason to believe is true?
The very fact that we’re having this conversation is good reason to believe that there is more to the world than just the physical, because we’re using language, Justin and I are speaking English, and we’re using sounds and words that have meaning attributed to the sounds that we’re making. Now there’s nowhere in the world that I can go, and there’s no physical process that I can use to go find out what is this thing called meaning or purpose. These things are non-physical. They’re beyond the physical world. Then we endow words, in this example, we could use other things, but we’re endowing them with meaning.
To make this argument then, we can see this in dead languages. When you come to a dead language, say Egyptian hieroglyphics, it didn’t matter how much you took physics or chemistry to go study those ancient markings. You’re not going to be able to decipher what they mean. That’s because the information there is beyond the physical. This is something that is found in agents, in particular, human beings. In that we’re able to endow things with purpose. In fact, we look for purpose. I could keep going but I’ll stop there.
Okay, okay. Well Justin, I want to just ask you something because Andy sort of alluded to now and even just before, he’s talking about, really, that atheism will collapse on itself when it comes to purpose and meaning. Again, that’s a pretty big statement.
Do you find purpose in your worldview, and would you say that there is purpose and meaning within an atheistic worldview?
Well obviously as an atheist, I don’t believe there’s any purpose out there beyond us.
I don’t think that we have been created by anything that intended to give us purpose. I simply believe we do exist. We are the results of a process of chance, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t create purpose for ourselves. I’m an atheist but I’m also a humanist. I believe that we are all endowed with the ability to create our own meaning and purpose, and that it’s important that people do that. But that’s equally just something that we ultimately can trace back to our evolution or history. I’m sure that there’s a good explanation for why we all need to feel like there is a purpose and meaning to life in order for us to be able to effectively pass on our genes, because it gives us the reason for living.
I think if you’re looking for purpose, we can find that we create it ourselves, and it all ties in to ultimately an evolution or scientific explanation of who we are.
Yeah. One of the things that we’re looking for isn’t just, “Let’s play pretend and pretend that I can give the world meaning.”
Either the world has meaning or it doesn’t.
Particularly, I’m talking in the objective sense. On the one hand, I can subjectively give anything meaning. But on the objective sense, I’m asking what is the intended meaning. This is something that I can’t give myself. I can’t give myself meaning or purpose. I didn’t create myself. I didn’t bring myself into existence. This is outside of my control. In fact, in philosophy, we call this requiring requisite control.
You need a certain level of control to be able to give something or endow something with meaning or purpose.
Now, more than that though, at first, Justin started out by just saying that those things don’t actually exist. We can play pretend like this, but they’re not really there, which again, leads to this very reductive ad absurdum argument where things begin to reduce to absurdities again. The idea being that your life in fact doesn’t have purpose, but we can pretend that it does have purpose.
Interesting. Okay. Are you living a pretend life? I guess that’s the question for you, Justin.
I think I’m just living life the best I can in the circumstances I have.
I’ve never felt like I need God to make sense of my life. I simply do the best I can within my limited sphere of abilities, and in the end, that’s enough for me. I don’t seem to need to have any ultimate sort of meaning or purpose.
I’m very happy to make the best of the life I have now. If it doesn’t carry on after I die, that’s not a problem for me. I’m just going to accept that I had what I had. And I don’t understand why anyone else would feel like we can’t say why purpose has to be handed down from somewhere. Isn’t just an assumption on your part that we have to have an explanation in ourselves for why we’re here and what we’re created for.
What if there is no explanation and we are just the results of chance?
Yeah. This, again, leads to the absurdity. I heard you earlier, Justin, say that we’re just brain chemistry. I mean that’s all we are. So then when we begin to try to live in that worldview, then that means that I’ve got to accept the love that I have for my children is in fact not love, that it’s in fact brain chemistry. This is just chemical reactions in my brain. That also means then that I, myself, am just chemical reactions in my brain. And again, we’re reducing myself to the parts of the universe, in such that now all I am is a brain, and a brain working according to chemical and physical laws, and nothing more. Now if that’s true, then Laplace as demon is true as well in this scenario.
His thought experiment from the 18th Century is quite a simple one, that if the world is full of these parts, called particulars, and if these particulars are following physical laws, then if you knew the trajectory and you knew the velocities of those parts, then you could predict where they’re going just like a billiard game, and you could predict where they came from.
Inside of this, you lose all free will. All that you have, as Carl Sagan would say, is just stardust. We’re just carbon in motion, and that’s it. In doing so, you lose agency.
Interesting. Justin, I’m guessing your comment on that would be, “Yeah, that’s right. And I’m just living the best I can as this, sort of, bag of chemicals,” you could say.
Yeah. I think that I have to accept that it is possible that there is no real agency, no free will, or whatever, and if we are living in a deterministic kind of universe.
But the reality is that I believe in a process of evolution, which is kind of made us instinctively believe that we do have control over our circumstances because that’s helpful for our survival.
As Richard Dawkins puts it, “The universe doesn’t owe you a purpose.” Just because we don’t like the idea of that ultimately being the way things are, it doesn’t stop it being true. I guess I’m just facing up to the hard fact that yeah, maybe we do live in a deterministic universe in which there is no ultimate purpose in which many of the things we think are dear, like love and morality and so on, maybe they are illusions. But hey, that’s life. You just got to deal with it.
And frankly, most people get on just having to deal with the illusions that they find themselves with.
See now, this gets back to absurdity again. The absurdity here is that Justin believes his worldview is true. But if determinism is true, you could never know that that’s true. And then it becomes quite bizarre that he would want to convince me that his view is true and my view is false. It is because his atheism was determined for him, and my theism was determined for me on that worldview.
And really you can’t know truth. I mean, you could never get to what reality actually is. All you could ever discover is what you were determined to believe. You are just particles in motion, and that’s the most that you could ever hope to know. Again, you’re falling into a worldview that is absurd, and that is not coherent within itself, because even in this debate, he can’t even coherently live in determinism.
Well look. Okay, that’s not a bad point you’re making there. But the problem is that your worldview has all kinds of issues with it as well, because
if there is a God, let’s just assumed there is for the sake of argument, He’s doing a really bad job.
When you look at all the awful stuff that happens, if your God does exist, and He’s all powerful and all loving and all good, why does He allow children to be raped, and awful natural disasters to occur, and all of those terrible things? Surely this just shows either that your God is evil or that there is no God, and these are just the natural aspects of the world we live in, and we can’t do anything about them.
Again, this leads to the absurdity that I was talking about earlier, and that is, if we’re just determined, and this is just particles in motion, then there is no such thing as morality. There is no such thing as a way that we’re supposed to live. This, by the way, I find so ironic that Sam Harris, who wrote a book called Letters to a Christian Nation in which he said very similar things that Justin had said. But then he goes on to write a book called Free Will in which he argues that there is no such thing as free will, and there is no such thing as morality.
You’d think, “What are you so upset about then?” Right? I mean, how could you charge God against this idea of being immoral when you don’t even think morals even exist? Again, I mean you have to be consistent within your worldview.
And if you really are upset about morality, then you have to actually live as though morality does exist, which would be non-physical.
Now we’re back to this idea again.
And if Justin’s view was to be correct, I mean, if we want to just follow that out, at best, it would just mean that you don’t like God. But it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. Then what we could ask is, given the suffering and evil in the world, could it possibly be that God does have a good reason for allowing it in the world? Now we’re getting back to the idea of purpose.
What did God purpose or intend in His creation?
I guess the question for you then, Justin, would be, you say that for the sake of the argument, there is a God, He’s allowing these “bad things” to happen, that implies that you do believe in some sort of morality.
Now I know you’re great friends with Sam Harris, and you’re in his club, his atheist club.
That’s right. They’ve added me on as the fifth horseman actually recently. I’m very honored, yes.
Do you believe in morality?
Well as I said, I think that we just tend to use the things that work for us, evolutionarily speaking.
That means that embedded deep down in us is some sense of right and wrong, but it’s not given from outside.
It’s sprung up from our evolution or history, and learning how we cooperate best together means that it makes sense to get on with your neighbour, and do things together. Now, that means that we all have a working thing that we call morality and we call good and bad. What that means is that’s the way we get through life and so adopt this framework, but it is a subjective one. It’s one which is purely an outworking of our evolution or history, and what helps humans to survive and need to get through life with meaning and purpose and value and everything else that I find dear. But that doesn’t mean it really exists from an outside source.
In particular, in relation to the question of why God would allow suffering and evil, I can’t see why God on the balance of all the evil that we do see in the world, the things that stop us being able to flourish as human beings, I find it very difficult to see how a god could have any reason to allow things that just seem gratuitously wrong, like the rape of little children and that kind of thing. How on earth, what on earth kind of purposes could you possibly ascribe to God that would make sense of that?
I’m a simple flawed human being, but even I can say that if had the power to stop something like that, I would stop it in an instant. So for me, that’s very strong evidence against God.
I absolutely agree with Justin that morality does in fact exist, and that it is truly horrible. There’s an issue though that, here with Justin’s thinking, and that is just because you may be able to come up with a reason – we call this the genetic fallacy – just because you could come up with a reason as to how morality could have come about, that doesn’t mean that you’re now somehow obligated to follow that, and particularly, if given this evolutionary idea of it evolving, or potentially, just being that “Hey, this is what leads to human flourishing.”
Justin has moved, especially at the end there, from an is to an ought, and that there’s a way that we ought to behave, and then if I see something, I ought to stop it. But the problem is from the atheist worldview, you have no access to that. How is it that you are moving from an is to an ought, and that morality does in fact exist, and now we’re talking about something that’s non-physical?
When we’re talking about God, this becomes a whole other conversation now, because in my worldview, I’m working off an atheistic worldview in which I’m talking about God, and then Christianity in particular, God has revealed Himself. This is significant, so that I can understand what God’s purposes are. The Bible explains, and Jesus Christ exemplifies that God created human beings for relationship, and that we can live in relationship with Him, and in a relationship with each other. That is God’s desire and purpose. This requires, Christianity would argue, free will.
And that we could say then that one of the potential reasons why God would allow the type of evil that we do in fact see is an unfortunate side effect of a potential of a world with freedom and love, and the ability to care for each other or the ability not to care for one another.
Yeah, that’s good. Andy just obviously opened up a whole new subject with bringing in Jesus Christ. But sadly, unfortunately, I’m sorry, Justin, to leave you hanging, but we’re not going to be able to get into that, unfortunately.
That’s how I planned it.
All right guys, the formal debate has now finished. That was very good. Well done both of you. That was very, very good.
Well thank you.
If you’re listening right now and you’re slightly confused, maybe you started listening on the radio, and it’s just partway through, our atheist Justin Brierley is actually a Christian. So if you listen to this sort of ‘fake debate’ and were convinced by what Justin was saying, then I would really encourage you to go read Justin’s book, Unbelievable?: Why After Ten Years of Talking with Atheists, I’m Still a Christian, because he is.
I was wondering maybe you can say that, Justin, so we know for sure.
Well only because Andy has done such a convincing job. I’ve just about hung in there, so yeah. No, it was fun. It was very different. I’ve never done this before where I’ve played the atheist, though I have had someone else do it on my show before. In fact, you may know him, Randall Rauser, who’s in Canada as well. He came on an edition of my Unbelievable? Show in which he played the non-believer, the skeptic, as a Christian, and my atheist guest, Michael Ruse, he played the, best for him, theistic arguments.
Oh, that’s awesome.
That was a very interesting sort of swapping of roles where both tried to make the best arguments they could for the other side.
I know that’s very, very good. Yeah, both of you, Andy and Justin, you guys are both familiar with Sean McDowell. The first time I saw this sort of thing being done was at the Apologetics Canada Conference a few years ago now where Sean put on a pair of eyeglasses and he sort of played an atheist. I found it very helpful actually and that’s the point even of this conversation. We want to hear from two Christians some of these arguments being flushed out, so that’s why I wanted to do it today.
I also wanted to mention Andy’s book called Thinking? Answering Life’s Five Biggest Questions. Both of these books are just great apologetic resources for you to get your hands on. So both can be found on Amazon and I’ll provide links also on the episode show page.
But gentlemen, I just want to say thank you so much for doing this. It means a lot. Thank you, Justin, all the way from England. And thank you Andy.
Well thank you, Isaac, and thank you, Andy. It’s been great to be involved.
Yeah, it’s great to be with you.