Thursday, March 12, 2015

God's Not Dead 1: The Debate

I finally saw the 2014 Christian movie God’s Not Dead (see the trailer here).  I doubt that I can share all of my thoughts about the movie in one single post, so I may write more than one post about it.  Or I may not!

Here are some thoughts:

1. A key plot-line in the movie concerns Christian student Josh Wheaton’s interactions with his atheist philosophy professor, Dr. Jeffrey Radisson.  Professor Radisson shows his students the names of philosophers were were atheists, and he proposes that all of the students bypass discussion of the existence of God and sign a piece of paper saying that God is dead, so they can all move on to more important (in his eyes) philosophical topics.  Josh Wheaton says that he cannot do this because he is a Christian, so Professor Radisson shares with Josh the alternative: Josh must defend the existence of God in class.

What surprised me in the movie is this: Josh gives his first presentation on the cosmological argument, the argument that God is necessary to explain how everything began.  Professor Radisson responds that, according to Stephen Hawking, gravity makes God unnecessary for the existence of the universe, for the universe could have come into existence on its own.  Josh does not know how to respond to that, so it appears that Professor Radisson has won that round.

The thing is, it is after this particular presentation that Professor Radisson fiercely confronts Josh and says, “Do you think you’re smarter than me, Wheaton?”, and promises to derail Josh’s chances of becoming a lawyer if Josh continues with his charade.  I was expecting this scene because I saw it in the trailer.  I was not expecting it, however, to be after the presentation in which Josh lost the argument.  I was expecting it to be after the second presentation, in which Josh presented Oxford mathematician John Lennox’s critique of Hawking, then referred to Hawking’s statement that philosophy is dead, which was followed by the students’ laughter.  But no.  Professor Radisson got all fierce and defensive after actually winning the debate, after (in his words) pricking the balloon of Josh’s entire argument.

That made no sense to me.  Maybe the goal here is to present Professor Radisson as a defensive atheist, one who is insecure about the topic of God’s existence because he hates God.  That is, after all, the point of this entire sub-plot.  Perhaps that is why Professor Radisson wanted to bypass discussion of the topic of God’s existence altogether.  His stated goal, though, was that it is only after we give up religion that we can make progress.

2.  Overall, except for that scene in which Professor Radisson quoted Hawking, I found Professor Radisson to be pretty disappointing as a representative for the atheist side, at least in terms of presenting arguments for atheism.  I would expect for a philosophy professor to be able to come back with more.  Josh was saying in his third presentation that God is necessary for moral absolutes—-for saying, for example, that academic cheating is wrong.  I didn’t entirely buy that, for one can think of secular or non-theistic reasons that cheating is wrong: professors want students to learn the material, society is benefited when people actually know things rather than taking short-cuts, and those noble goals are obviated when students cheat.  But Professor Radisson did not mount a critique of Josh’s argument.

Also, I was surprised that Radisson did not criticize Josh for using Lee Strobel as a source.  Lee Strobel is a Christian apologist and was a journalist for the Chicago Tribune.  Sure, Lee Strobel knows stuff, but one should appeal to Lee Strobel’s sources (after reading them, on some level, to see if Lee Strobel represents them accurately) rather than Lee Strobel himself.  Josh in his first presentation was sympathetic to this sort of issue: Josh referred to a non-believer as an authority to rule out believer bias.  In the beginning of the second presentation, Josh referred to Oxford mathematician John Lennox—-though I found Josh’s discussion of that debate to be a bit shallow, since I wondered how specifically Hawking believed that gravity made God’s existence as a creator unnecessary for the existence of the universe, and what Lennox’s critique of that specific point was.  Still, at least Josh was referring to John Lennox!  Then Josh turned right around and cited Lee Strobel as an authority for a scientific point.  And Professor Radisson did not criticize that, or at least ask, “Who is Lee Strobel, and what are his credentials?”

3.  Professor Radisson’s list of atheist philosophers caught my eye.  I was initially surprised that he included John Stuart Mill on the list, since I thought that Mill believed in a creator, but it turns out that Mill was rather critical of Christianity and supernaturalism, even though he was not a dogmatic atheist (see here and here).  I was also surprised that Radisson included Richard Dawkins on the list of philosophers, for my understanding is that Dawkins is a biologist, not a philosopher, or one with philosophical training.  Yeah, Dawkins makes philosophical points, but his field is biology.

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