God’s Not Dead? Neither Is Philosophy
In God's Not Dead, the reports of philosophy’s death are greatly exaggerated.
Posted March 25, 2014
This year (2014) seems to be the year that Christians have taken over Hollywood. Son of God, Noah, Heaven is for Real, and Exodus are all due out this year. This weekend saw the release of God’s Not Dead—the tale of a college freshman forced to defend his belief in God in front of his philosophy class. Although no one else had the tenacity to join me, I sat through the entire thing on a Sunday afternoon, right alongside a huge crowd of people that had no doubt been encouraged to attend by their pastor that very morning. Tucked away in a corner with a flashlight, as far as I know I was the only one taking notes—and as a logician, and a defender of philosophy, here is what I concluded.
A Quick Synopsis
The plot of the movie is simple. College freshman Josh Wheaton (not to be confused with director Joss Whedon) elects to take a philosophy class. His professor, Dr. Radisson, informs the class they can skip the course’s hardest section, on God, if they all simply get to the point and admit that “God is dead.” Josh refuses because he’s a Christian (you can tell because of his Newsboys shirt) and learns that the alternative involves arguing for his belief in front of the class. Inspired by biblical passages that declare that Jesus will disown him before God if he disowns Jesus before man, Josh rises to the challenge. At the conclusion of three 20 minute lectures, he bests his atheist professor and convinces all 80 students in the class that God is not dead—including a Chinese student, who calls him “Mr. Josh.” (His rich Chinese (Buddhist?) father, who apparently lives in the back of his limo, is none too pleased.)
There are a number of B-stories. Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson makes a cameo or two to defend religious belief, and Radisson’s Christian wife (a former student of his) leaves him because they are “unequally yoked.” There is also a young Muslim girl, Ayisha, who works on campus and is forced to wear a head covering on campus by her very “traditional” Muslim father. She is forced to come out of the closet (i.e., admit that she is a Christian) to her father when he finds out she has been listening to Christian scripture on her iPod. (We are not told how or why she converted.) He beats her for doing so, and when she confesses Jesus as her savior, he almost chokes her to death, but then instead disowns her, throwing her out of the house.
Then there is “Pastor Dave” who encourages Josh to take on his philosophy professor, but then is kept from going on vacation with Reverend Jude because God keeps every car Dave touches from starting. This allows him to still be around to stand up for family values when Ayisha comes to him for help; he instructs her to choose her loyalty to Jesus above her family. And he is also there at the end of the film to lead Professor Radisson through the sinner’s prayer after Radisson is fatally hit by a car but kept alive by God just long enough to see the error of his ways in a very “no atheists in foxholes” moment.
Oh, and I almost forgot Amy Ryan, the vegetarian humanist reporter, who attacks Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson and his wife for killing ducks, then finds out she has terminal cancer, is consequently dumped by her self-serving asshole atheist boyfriend (apparently her only friend in the world), and then led to salvation by the Christian rock group Newsboys before one of their concerts—where all our main characters (except the dead philosophy professor) rock out for a few songs. Willie Robertson congratulates Josh on his accomplishments, and the concert attendees (and movie attendees) text “God is not dead” to everyone on their contact list.
In the end, everyone from the Muslim, to the Buddhist, to the atheist has been won over by Jesus because of Josh's brave stand for God. (The issue of how proving that God exists also proves that Jesus is God was not addressed.) It reminded me a bit of Rocky IV—the one where Rocky fights the Russian. In the end, even the Russians are rooting for Rocky. “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”
But the similarities to Rocky IV don’t end there. In Rocky IV, the Russians are unfairly caricatured as all being horrible amoral miserable people. It’s pro-American nationalist propaganda at its worst, aimed at demonizing “the other.” It is impossible to sympathize with the Russians or see things from their point of view. God is Not Dead does the same to non-believers. Every atheist and non-believer is a curmudgeon, who has no morals, doesn’t believe in love, only does things for selfish reasons—“what’s in it for me”—and whose lack of religion dooms them to lead a lonely terrible life. Of course, this is just a stereotype. There is no evidence that atheists are more lonely, don’t believe in love, are more selfish or are less moral. But it is because of the perpetuation of such stereotypes, like we see in God’s Not Dead, that atheists remain the most despised and distrusted minority in America, on par with rapists.
The Muslim father is a stereotype as well, insisting his daughter cover her head and nearly killing her when he finds out she is a Christian. This is true of the Chinese father as well. Even the students in the philosophy class are a caricature of the American college atmosphere. Josh and Pastor Dave estimate that, out of the 80 students in the class, Josh is the only one that has ever set foot in a church. In reality, 78% of all Americans are Christian—almost 4 out of every 5. Yet at this American university, only one in every 80 students has ever been to church? This fits quite nicely with the narrative propagated by many conservative media outlets that the white Christian is a persecuted minority in America—despite the fact that they make up a majority of the population, control the highest rated news media outlets, the lion’s share of the nation’s businesses and money, and have dominated political power since the nation’s founding.
As one reviewer put it, “God’s Not Dead is a…an uninspired amble past a variety of Christian-email-forward boogeymen that reinforce the stereotypes its chosen audience already holds [and] weirdly fetishizes persecution.”
Jeffery Radisson: World's Worst Professor
But the worst caricature of all is Radisson himself and every professor in the world should be insulted by how he is portrayed. Not only does he assign non-existent texts like Hume’s “Problems of Induction,” but he does things that no professor would ever do. He is a strawman.
First of all, Radisson is willing to skip covering the God section of the course if the students will simply write "God is dead" on a piece of paper. No professor worth his salt would ever do this with any subject. For example, the whole point of a philosophy class is to learn how to do philosophy—not to regurgitate facts or the opinions of the professor. The main point of covering the arguments for God's existence in an introduction to philosophy course is to (a) enable the students to draw a conclusion for themselves about God's existence informed by what the world's best and brightest have had to say on the subject, and (b) to teach general reasoning and argumentation skills by evaluating those arguments in detail. Writing "God is dead" on a piece of paper accomplishes neither of these things.
Second of all, no professor would single out a student and demand he defend his beliefs without a similar demand being made of every other student in the class; certainly no professor would make them do this in front of the entire class. What’s more, no professor would ever challenge their student to a one-on-one debate or belittle a student outside of class like Radisson does Josh. A student might be asked to defend their beliefs in a paper (along with every other student in the class), or even in a formal debate with other students—but this is no different from any other class on a college campus.
The movie actually lists a number of court cases, in the credits, as the “inspiration” for the movie, to leave the viewer with the impression that this kind of thing happens all the time. In reality, of course, they are largely just the aforementioned “Christian-email-forward boogeymen.” Take the case of Raymond Raines, who Christians claim was picked up by the scruff of the neck and yelled at by his teacher and principal for praying over his lunch in public school at the tender age of five. In reality, he was ten (not five), he got detention (not picked up and yelled at), and it was for fighting in the cafeteria (not praying over his lunch). It’s all just part of that victimization narrative. The standard movie disclaimer says it all: “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious.”
Of course, if a Christian student gets a bad grade on a paper that defends God’s existence they might feel that they are being targeted because of their belief. It’s more likely, however, that they simply don't understand why they got a bad grade: their argument was bad. There are laws of argumentation, just like there are laws of mathematics, by which an argument can be evaluated. A good professor teaches students these laws, gives examples of good and bad arguments on the topics they write about, and then grades accordingly. And if you give an argument that is objectively bad—especially if you simply regurgitate an argument the professor has already shown is bad—you can’t expect a good grade.
(That’s not to say that you can’t give an argument for God good enough for an A. It’s just that usually when students feel like they are targeted for their belief, it’s because they don’t understand that their argument was bad. When I assign argument papers, I always give examples of student papers from both sides of the issue that each received an A. This shows that it is the quality of their argument, not what position they take, that is being graded.)
Jeffery Radisson: World's Worst Philosopher
Not only should all professors be insulted by Radisson’s portrayal, but philosophers specifically should be doubly insulted by the poor showing they get.
For example, Radisson doesn't know what the phrase "God is dead" means. He does realize it doesn’t mean “God was alive but is now dead.” But instead he thinks it means that “God never existed in the first place." The phrase, coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, means nothing of the sort and in fact has nothing to do with God's existence. Instead, Nietzsche was trying to argue that belief in God no longer affected how people live their lives; specifically, God was no longer used as a moral compass or a source of meaning: If only Radisson, and the makers of the film, had bothered with a four second Google search. If they had made the point of the film to refute that claim, then I might have been able to get on board. The mere fact that the movie was able to be made and appear in theaters clearly indicates that the idea of God still plays a significant role in many people's lives.
Contrary to the entire essence of philosophy, Radisson comes to his philosophical conclusions for completely irrational and emotional reasons. He is an atheist not because he has evaluated the arguments and evidence, but because he’s mad about his mom dying when he was 12. He converts in the end not because he was proven wrong, but because of a touching letter from his mother and because he is scared of death.
Radisson is also in the habit of giving poor arguments from authority. Basically his argument for atheism consists of listing a few smart people who are atheists. This argument of course would stand for no longer than it took to list an equal number of smart people who are theists. Every philosopher knows that the existence of God is not something that can be settled by authority.
In fact, it seems that the reason Radisson wants to skip the God section of his course is because he apparently skipped it himself. Despite the fact that he is a tenured philosopher (about to be appointed as his department’s chair) who is hell bent on proving atheism, he is apparently unaware of any of the many philosophical arguments for atheism that exist. He does mention a conclusion of Steven Hawking, and a student mentions an argument from Dawkins—but Hawking and Dawkins are both scientists. (As one who loves science, I’m a fan of both of their work—but when they venture into philosophy, their arguments can fall short.) Radisson does assign Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian,” but apparently he is not familiar with it himself—along with the works of William Rowe, Michael Martin, Ricki Monnier, Julian Baggini, John Mackie, Quentin Smith and many others. Their arguments could easily be used to show the flaws in Josh’s arguments, yet Radisson seems completely oblivious.
So, with such works in mind, let’s take a careful look at Josh’s arguments.
Evaluating the Arguments: Josh’s First Lecture
In his first lecture, Josh begins by observing that you can’t disprove God and then asks us to consider that the early “steady state” models of the universe, which suggested that it had always existed, were disproven by the discovery of the Big Bang. This means, he suggests, that the Bible (Genesis) got it right and science got it wrong. He then goes on to point out that since ordinary objects don't pop into existence from nothing, it would be crazy to think that the universe did. And when a student points out that, “If you can ask what created the universe, then I can ask what created God” Josh argues such an objection only applies if God began to exist, which he did not.
What mistakes does Radisson miss? First of all, the fact that you can't disprove something's existence is not a reason to think that it exists. That's called an appeal to ignorance. The burden of proof lies on the one making the existential claim, and without evidence, disbelief is the rational position. If Josh fails to make his case, atheism is a rational response.
Next, Josh's claim that Genesis got it right when science got it wrong is ludicrous. First of all, science didn’t get it wrong; scientific reasoning is what demonstrated the occurrence of the Big Bang. Yes, scientists have gotten things wrong in the past, but science itself continually moves us closer to the truth. But once science has discovered something, you don't get to retroactively reinterpret your scripture and say that it predicted what you just discovered. That’s what people do with Nostradamus—take his vague quatrains, and then after something occurs (like WWII) they interpret them to fit the bill. It’s called postdiction, and it’s the pinnacle of stupidity. Now, if Genesis has said “God created the universe 13.8 billion years ago by generating all matter in the universe through the creation of a single point that subsequently expanded…” then, okay. But Genesis in no way gives an accurate account of what happened when the universe first came into existence. In fact, it gives two contradictory accounts—dogmatic adherence to which held back science for centuries. Yes, like just about every other creation myth, it suggests that there was a moment of creation—but that doesn’t count as a “hit.” That’s is not predicting the discovery of the big bang.
Josh's argument that “ordinary objects don't pop into existence and neither could the universe” is based on a category mistake. When ordinary objects come into existence it is because matter that already exists has come to be arranged in a certain way. (When you build a house, you don’t create new matter. You rearrange already existing wood and brick and stone into a new form: a house.) But that tells us nothing about whether matter itself can come into existence, unexplained, from nothing. In fact, quantum mechanics has shown us that matter indeed does come into existence—unexplained, from nothing—during what is called a vacuum fluctuation. In fact, it is quite possible that the existence of our universe is due to a larger version of just such a fluctuation.
Lastly, Josh’s “Dawkins dodge” is based on the assumption that God is non-created—but Josh is merely stipulating that this is so. Josh might insist that this is true of God by definition, since God is a perfect being, but the god that stands at the origins of his religion (the one worshiped by early Jews and Christians) was not perfect. The idea of a perfect being was imported…you guessed it…from philosophy. Besides, although our current model suggests that the matter of the universe came into existence, the quantum foam from which it likely sprung has always existed. And if the theist demands that the foam still needs an explanation, he must also require an explanation for God. If the ever-existent foam warrants an explanation, so too must an ever-existent God.
Evaluating the Arguments: Josh’s Second Lecture
Radisson replies to Josh’s first lecture by pointing out that Stephen Hawking concluded that the universe can and must explain itself. But Josh begins his second lecture by quoting Gavin Jenson, a “philosopher, scientist and mathematician,” who claims that Hawking’s argument about a self-explanatory universe is circular. Josh then goes on to quote Hawking’s claim that "philosophy is dead" and so concludes that, if Hawking is such an authority, "there is no need for this class." He then goes on to point out that evolution can't account for life's origins, and that Darwin himself said that "nature does not jump," yet in the cosmic scheme of things, "life did appear suddenly."
The flaws in Josh's second argument are numerous: First of all, Gavin Jenson is not a philosopher, scientist, or mathematician. He is a BYU graduate with a degree in Graphic Design and his response to Hawking has not been peer reviewed and is not published anywhere besides his right-leaning blog—which as far as I can tell is the extent of his “academic” accomplishment. In addition, his critique of Hawking is quote mining at its worst. He takes Hawking out of context and interprets his statement as uncharitably as possible. Best of all, if Jenson’s argument refutes Hawking, it also refutes theism. He suggests that it is logically impossible for something to be self-explanatory—yet that is exactly what Christians claim is true of God.
(I should also mention that since Hawking is not a philosopher, he is not in a position to declare whether philosophy is dead—being an authority on one subject does not make him an authority on all others. But we will return to that claim in the conclusion.)
Josh's argument about evolution is equally bad. First of all, Darwin did not develop a theory of evolution – it was already established. Darwin discovered the mechanism for evolution: natural selection. Second of all, evolution does not account for the origin of life because that is not what the theory is about. Criticizing it on this basis would be like criticizing the germ theory of disease because it can't account for the effects of brain injuries. That's not what the theory is about. And while it is true that we have yet to discover how life first appeared on our planet—although there are many viable theories about how that could have occurred—that is no reason to conclude that “God did it.” This kind of reasoning commits what I call the "mystery therefore magic fallacy,” a variety of appealing to ignorance. That you can't figure something out is not a reason to conclude that your favorite supernatural entity—whether it be aliens, ghosts, or God—is responsible. The better explanation is your own ignorance. Such reasoning holds back science by discouraging any attempt to discover the real explanation.
Josh's claim that the appearance of life on earth violates Darwin's "nature does not jump" rule is also preposterous. First of all, life has been evolving since about 3.6 billion years ago, when simple life first emerged on Earth. The universe is 13.8 billion years old. So it’s taken 25% of the universe’s existence to produce life on Earth in its current form—hardly the wink of an eye, even in cosmic terms. But even if we limit ourselves to the last 600 million years—the time it took to go from simple animals to Homo sapiens—yes, that is a short amount of time when compared to the age of the universe. But that can hardly be considered the kind of jump that Darwin said nature avoids. In fact, it is exactly such grandiose time frames that Darwin suggested natural selection would need to accomplish evolution. Josh’s argument equivocates on the term “jump.” Is like me saying, “I can’t leap from my house to my office in a single bound” and you saying, “Sure you can. Think of how hard it would be to leap across America in a single bound.”
Of course, Radisson doesn't bother to point any of this out, but simply observes that, “most atheists are Christians who simply took off their blinders.” I don’t know if this is true. I do know that it is irrelevant.
Evaluating the Arguments: Josh’s Third Lecture
In his last lecture, Josh answers the problem of evil with the free will defense. God allows evil to occur because he wants us to have the free will to choose him and thus enter heaven. God simply wants the students to have the choice to choose to accept or reject him—a choice that Radisson wants to take away. Josh then argues that atheists like Radisson have no grounds for moral absolutes and yet would obviously claim that a student cheating on a test was “wrong.” He follows this with the famous Dostoyevsky quote "without God everything is permissible." Josh then confronts Radisson directly, claiming that: “Science proves God's existence and you know it. So why do you hate him?” When Radisson admits it's because God took everything away from him, Josh simply asks: “How can you hate someone if he doesn't exist?” It was at this point that everyone in the theater, on that chilly Sunday afternoon, applauded vigorously.
What’s wrong this time?
Josh admits that the problem of evil is the atheists’ strongest argument, but he neglects to mention that the classic "free will defense" is only effective against one version: the logical problem of moral evil (and some philosophers even question its effectiveness in that regard.) It does not address the logical problem of natural evil or the evidential problem of evil at all. Many philosophers think these arguments are conclusive.
Secondly, the “everything is permissible without God” argument is one of the worst arguments for God. Not only are there many secular ethical theories, but divine command theory—the idea that God grounds all ethical truths—is one of the most discredited positions in all of philosophy. Not only is it subject to the Euthyphro problem (which suggests that God determining morality makes morality arbitrary) but it's not clear that divine command theory is any better than a "God of the gaps" argument: “What makes a good, good and the bad, bad? I don't know, God did it.”
Josh “wins” the debate, not surprisingly, with a lie (science hasn't actually "proven God") and a logical fallacy: a loaded question: “Why do you hate God?” Clearly this question assumes that the person being questioned believes: that God exists. Again, Radisson is the worst philosopher in the world if he doesn't see this trap coming. The correct answer is simply: “I don’t hate God, but the evil I and others have suffered is good reason to conclude that God doesn’t exist. No minimally decent person, much less a perfectly benevolent being, could ever allow such things to happen.”
Philosophy’s Not Dead
God’s not Dead has one more thing in common with Rocky IV. It’s anti-intellectual. If you recall, the Russian boxer Drago trains in a state of the art scientific facility, where they measure the impact of his punches, train him on machines and try to figure out how to make him a better fighter. Meanwhile Rocky runs out in the snow and lifts logs. God’s not Dead is very similar. The reiteration of Hawking’s statement that philosophy is dead was not accidental. It is something that the conservative evangelicals who made this movie desperately want to be true. In the real world, Hawking’s statement was met with condemnation from both scientists and philosophers, and philosophy is so alive and well today that the Christian right-wing feels they need a movie to demonize it. But this is a part of a larger anti-intellectual movement in evangelical Christianity that distrusts what academics say on everything from American history to evolution.
As part of his deathbed conversion, Professor Radisson says that human wisdom pales in comparison to God’s. Here the film’s writers are echoing the biblical sentiment that any criticism of God must fail because God’s is so grandiose that we could never figure him out. Regardless of how convincing any reason or argument might seem, it can’t be trusted—it’s nothing compared to the reason of God.
This is extremely problematic. Not only does this argument beg the question—it doesn’t establish God’s existence, but merely assumes it—it questions the legitimacy of all reasoning. It endorses what’s called fideism, the idea that believing by faith (without evidence) is superior to belief based on reason. (This is all but stated explicitly in the final conversation between Pastor Dave and Rev. Jude at the end of the film.) But the problem is that, by endorsing this view, one loses all credibility. Anyone can believe anything by faith, no matter how ridiculous. So if you are a fideist, and someone says that God is a turnip, you have no right to object. In fact, you have abandoned the very thing that would enable you to do so: argument and reason.
The endorsement of fideism and faith is quite ironic coming from a movie that just spent an hour and a half trying to present evidence for God's existence. Faith is, by definition, belief without evidence. If the movie succeeds in its endeavor and proves that God exists, then it actually eliminates the need for faith—the very thing it says it is defending. Interestingly, I believe that many of my Christian theologian colleagues would object to this movie just as I do. The point of religious faith is exactly that—to believe without evidence. Some even suggest, as Kierkegaard did, that one should believe God exists because it is absurd. My theist friends and I will disagree about whether such belief is advisable, but I think we would all agree that trying to prove that God's not dead is a bad idea—especially if you do so by demonizing and straw manning your opponent in a movie filled with really bad arguments.
**A special thanks to my much better looking colleague, Mike Berry, for greatly furthering my Rocky IV analogy.
Copyright 2014, David Kyle Johnson
David Kyle Johnson