The Real Atheology podcast review The Big Conversation between Graham Oppy and Guillaume Bignon.
In the 2000s, a lot of public debates about God’s existence were influenced by The New Atheist movement. However, more recently The New Atheists have seen a decline in influence and popularity from a broader cultural and intellectual perspective. What does the decline of New Atheism say about the case for Atheism generally? Not much, according to Christian Philosopher Michael Almeida: While popular Atheistic arguments are easily refuted “…serious atheists may be unimpressed. The standards for atheological argumentation also go much higher than anything imagined in Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett…”. This sentiment is echoed by another Christian Philosopher, Douglas Groethius, who points out that despite the failure of the New Atheists to give significant philosophical arguments “…formidable philosophical Atheists need to be confronted.”
Dr. Graham Oppy of Monash University is one such formidable philosophical atheist. In the words of renowned Christian Apologist and Philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig, Oppy is considered the most formidable atheist today, with Craig further writing “No one can pretend to [have] a successful theistic argument unless he has dealt with Oppy’s criticisms first”. Recently, Oppy has engaged in public debates and discussions with many leading Christian Philosophers such as Craig, Ben Arbour, Edward Feser, Josh Rasmussen, and many others. Our personal opinion has been that Oppy has had the edge in most if not all of these exchanges, however even if you disagree with that assessment no one can deny that the intellectual gap between Oppy and his interlocutors is much shorter than what we saw with Dr. Craig and Sam Harris or any of the other New Atheists.
In a recent Premier Christian Radio/Unbelievable episode Oppy locked horns with Dr. Guillaume Bignon, a French analytic philosopher, and recent convert to Christianity from Atheism. Bignon details his conversion narrative in his new book Confessions of a French Atheist. Many topics from the book make their way into this discussion with Oppy. In the rest of this article, we will pick what we thought were the three most important takeaways from this exciting dialogue.
Friendly Atheism, Friendly Theism, and Epistemic Humility
Given its monumental importance, the subject of God’s existence can bring out our deepest beliefs and convictions. This often leads to inflamed rhetoric in discussions that brings more heat than light; as was the folly of many New Atheists. In popular debates over God’s existence, it’s very common for both Atheists and Theists to label each other as being irrational or otherwise epistemically defective. However, in the exchange between Oppy and Bignon, none of this was present and its refreshing absence is something positive about this interaction to highlight.
Oppy provided his own perspective on the rationality of religious belief early on in the discussion: “Throughout my life, I’ve had interactions with Christians, and I never thought that being a religious believer .. was irrational or crazy or anything like that.” Later, when Justin Brierley asked: “… [are you]saying that the arguments leave it open, that it’s rationally permissible to be either one or the other – a theist or an atheist?” Oppy responded in the affirmative, as he felt this was an accurate characterization of his views.
Given the popularity of the New Atheists, it may seem odd to hear an Atheist say that Theism is rational, yet Oppy’s view has been historically (and presently) very popular among many of the most formidable contemporary Atheist philosophers. This view is called Friendly Atheism which is the position that although God does not exist, some (intellectually sophisticated) people are rational in believing that God exists. The term Friendly Atheism was originally coined by William Rowe who was an advocate for the position who worked to encourage better dialogue between Theists and Atheists. Many leading defenders of Atheism, such as Quentin Smith, Paul Draper, J.L. Schellenberg, Jordan Howard Sobel, Erik Wielenberg, and others have expressed sympathy and support for “Friendly Atheism.”
Just as Oppy expressed his views on the rationality of Theism, it was very refreshing to see Bignon echo similar sentiments about the rationality of Atheism. Bignon was clear that he didn’t expect his work to “strong-arm” Atheists into believing in Christianity, and he also conceded that he didn’t see his own religious experience as a “knockdown argument”, pointing out that he didn’t think that “if you’ve heard my story, you should be a Christian, and if you’re still an atheist [it’s] crazy of you to continue [to disbelieve].” Like Oppy, Bignon’s attitude is refreshing, as many Apologists label Atheism as irrational and epistemically defective in some sense.
Also like Oppy on the Atheist “side”, Bignon is not alone in his modesty. Many Theist and Christian Philosophers一 William Vallicella, Richard Swinburne, Charles Taliaferro, Josh Rasmussen, Eleonore Stump, Alvin Plantinga, Kenny Pearce, and others一affirm the rationality and reasonableness of Atheism. As Christian Philosopher T.J. Mawson notes: “theism per se doesn’t commit one to atheism’s being unreasonable for everyone or even most.” Some Christian Philosophers have even highlighted the important role that a robust and philosophically informed Atheism can play in imrpoving Theism from an intellectual standpoint by providing apt criticism. As Christian Philosopher Robert Koons notes when speaking on atheistic philosophy of religion: “I do think that the two sides have sharpened each other in various ways”.
Both Bignon and Oppy represent a dominant line of thought amongst Atheist and Theist philosophers today, and this allowed their conversation to explore more insightful avenues of conversation than is often seen when New Atheists and Apologists encounter one another . Of course, there are reasons why we can assign rationality to individuals with whom we deeply disagree. That is what we will explore next.
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The Role of Arguments
In the Philosophy of Religion there is much argument about whether certain arguments for or against God’s existence are succesful, but there is very little analysis paid to the role and use of these arguments themselves. This is something that Oppy has sought to rectify as part of his work in Philosophy of Religion(see Oppy 2002, 2006, 2011, 2015). Oppy believes that none of the arguments for (or against) God’s existence are currently compelling enough to induce belief revision in favour of their conclusion in all who are presented with these arguments. On hearing this, one might think that Oppy is an agnostic, but Oppy takes it as a fortiori that Atheism is true. In a 2013 paper Oppy said that “even in the light of ‘the explosion of Christian philosophy’, the epistemic probability of Theism ‘is so low that it approximates to zero; I expect that other naturalists acquainted with the relevant literature of the last twenty-five years will say the same.”
How then does Oppy reconcile his views about the lack of successful arguments, with his own commitment to Atheism? The answer lies in the analysis of arguments. Oppy believes that the key role of an argument is to compel belief revision in the person it is presented to so that they believe the arguments conclusion. A successful argument ought to persuade all reasonable people who have reasonable views about the matter. This may seem to be a high standard for arguments, but Oppy doesn’t think this without reason, as one reviewer of Arguing About Gods points out, Oppy’s reasons for such a standard:
“….emerge out of an equitable and reasonable consideration of how we interact with beliefs and with others who hold other beliefs. Intelligent people can disagree without there needing to be someone guilty of irrational thinking. Many of us hold different bodies of evidence before us at different times in our lives, just as we hold different prior beliefs at different times in our lives.”
While it is tempting to think of ourselves as completely rational in our deliberations, this just isn’t borne out in reality . Our assessments of arguments is colored by background considerations related to prior commitments. Bignon discusses this when reflecting on Oppy’s view:
“…plausibility is going to vary with the person, because our commitments – our plausibility’s structure – are educated by our commitments in the first place.”
At the halfway mark of the debate, both Bignon and Oppy carry on this point, tracing how an Atheist or Theist might contest a specific argument’s premises, digging down through the chain of justification, with more arguments offered for each disputed premise,‘till eventually we reach some bedrock and our spade is turned. Disagreement at this point is ultimately going to be in light of broad and systematic Worldview differences which are no longer being adequately compared by focusing on whether or not some argument is sound.. This is not to say giving arguments is always fruitless一If we can show that from within an ideological opponents commitments certain contradictions follow then they have some work to do to resolve them一, but we should be sensitive to our respective position on the epistemic landscape, be aware of our background knowledge and its role in disagreement, be cognizant of our goals in the dialectic when offering arguments, and be modest in the power arguments we provide to persuade thoughtful people who disagree with us about the conclusion of these arguments. Oppy summarizes this point:
“you can just reflect that amongst professional philosophers of religion, there are plenty of theists, plenty of atheists … it does help to recognise that no matter how high up you go – no matter what level you play this at – there’s nothing that compels opinion to converge in that particular place”.
These observations fit well with the account of rationality that Bignon and Oppy are sympathetic towards. One can be a rational Atheist or Theist based on careful study and deliberation, but can also recognize a reasonable opposing party is not epistemically defective for disagreeing, given their own commitments and background knowledge. Offering arguments can be valuable in gaining an understanding of what the opposing side believes, but we should be careful not to overstate their powers to persuade.
Conversion and Religious Experiences
A significant portion of the debate focused on the topic of conversion and religious experiences. The main question was how Atheists should consider or interpret conversion experiences akin to those like Bignon’s as well as religious experiences more broadly? Should these stories given Atheists any reason to doubt? Oppy opted for a similar strategy with regards to both questions, pointing out that a reflection on the total data paints a more ambiguous picture of the evidential value of such stories and experiences:
“It’s just that when you’re thinking about what’s the total evidence here, there are stories in both directions. So it’s not clear that the kind of existence of the stories is going to cut much ice, one way or the other.”
Bignon elaborated on some of the unique intellectual considerations that were crucial in his journey, however, Oppy responds correctly when he cites not only his own experience but also that of others. While it is true that there have been a number of intelligent and well-read Atheists that have converted to Christianity (Peter Byrom and Leah Libresco are two examples), one can also furnish similar stories for Atheists. For example, Paul Draper was a former Christian graduate student who became an Atheist as a result of his study on evidential arguments from evil. J.L. Schellenberg partially became an atheist as a result of his study on the argument from Divine Hiddenness. As Oppy again pointed out: “It’s not like, you know, there aren’t really very interesting stories on the other side, right, with details, you know.”
Oppy makes an identical point with considerations about religious experiences. Again pointing to “how astonishingly diverse and vast the range of divination practices actually is”. Oppy points out that whereas the Atheist can give a uniform exploration of religious experiences, Bignon’s explanation is going to be non-uniform, and given that Bignon would agree with the Atheist about the vast majority of experiences, it is going to be tough to carve an exception for his own religious practice that isn’t going to look like special pleading. As in the case of conversion, Bignon tried to argue that the Christian does have reasons to privilege their own religion from an intellectual standpoint citing the historical evidence and conversions to Christianity. However again, Oppy pointed out that a comparative task between Christianity and other religions is not going to be easy and it isn’t clear that Christianity is going to look as plausible at the end of it.
Overall, this was a fascinating and interesting and we hope this will encourage both Atheists and Theists to reflect and think deeply about these importance issues. As Oppy reminded us: “you don’t have to become Alvin Plantinga or John Mackie in order for it to be worthwhile to think about the arguments”
Real Atheology podcast is a philosophy podcast that seeks to provide a skeptical/atheist perspective on the contemporary analytic philosophy of religion. They host interviews with leading Atheist and Theist philosophers, strive to promote rigorous and philosophically informed analyses in parallel areas related to metaphysics and epistemology, and also encourage civil and reasonable dialogue between Theists and Atheists. You can find out more of their work here, as well as a list of their episodes here.
 For a general elaboration of how both Atheists and Theists can be rational despite their disagreement, see Johnson 2003
 Daniel Kahneman & Amon Tversky have done extensive work in Cognitive Biases and Heuristics. Leon Festinger When Prophecy Fails. Carol Tavris Mistakes were made but not by me