How would atheism fare if it were put on trial? Leading trial Lawyer Mark Lanier believes the evidence undermines atheism and points firmly to the existence of God. In this interview, Sean and Scott talk with Mark about how his legal training shapes the way he addresses faith questions, and they evaluate some of the evidence against atheism and for God.
Hailed as a "superstar among plaintiff's lawyers" by the National Law Journal, Mark Lanier is an acclaimed trial lawyer and the founder of the Lanier Law Firm, with offices in New York, Texas and California. He is the author of Christianity on Trial and is a frequent guest on Fox News, MSNBC, and other prominent news outlets.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. A podcast from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of Christian Apologetics.
Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host, Scott Rae. Dean of faculty and professor of Christian Ethics.
Sean McDowell: Today, we've got a topic dear and near to my heart as an apologist. We're going to talk with Mark Lanier, who is a... He's been dubbed by the National Law Journal as a superstar among plaintiff's lawyers. He's an acclaimed trial lawyer, has been on Fox News, and a host in CNBC Squawk Box, teaches classes at Stanford and other universities. He's written a fascinating new book called Atheism on Trial, which we're going to jump into. But Mark, I know you're a super busy guy. Thanks for carving out some time to talk to us about your new book that just released.
Mark Lanier: Well, thank you. All you do to defend the faith in intellectual ways that don't bypass our minds, but take into account the totality of experience and people. So, it's my honor to get to be on your podcast.
Sean McDowell: Well, amen to that. I really got the sense in the book that you are arguing as a lawyer, which is an intellectual pursuit, but you care about the heart and you care about people and didn't want to set up any straw man along the way. So, maybe before we jump into some of the case that you make challenging atheism, I'd love to just hear about really practically how your training as a lawyer has shaped the way you think and how you approach religious questions such as the existence of God.
Mark Lanier: Well, before I became a lawyer, I trained to be a biblical language scholar. So my undergraduate degree is in Hebrew and Greek and I sidelined it also with a preaching degree. And I've always had one foot in the legal world and one foot in the world of faith. And so they're just my two legs and that's the way I walk. And it's interesting because the interplay has been quite well fit to my personality. I got into biblical languages because I got tired of hearing people telling me what the Bible says and I wanted to be able to read it and translate it myself.
Mark Lanier: I got into law and I learned that one of the fundamental aspects of practicing law is that you do original research. You don't say, "Here's what someone told me the law is," or even "Here's what someone told me happen." You need to go back as close as you can to the original sources, and use those in the practice of law. So you put those together and it's shaped the way I look at my faith, but it's also shaped the way I practice law. It's two legs that walk together.
Scott Rae: So, let's talk just a little bit about just more personally and how this approach that Sean asked you about, how did that impact your own decision to become a Christian? Is that basically the approach you followed when you came to faith?
Mark Lanier: No, it's not. It's the approach I followed in growing in my faith. I came to faith as a young boy. I grew up in a Christian home, but my mom and my dad always taught me to question everything. They believe that God was truth and that that truth you don't need to ever shy from questioning. So I hit that adolescent late teen, early twenties years, where I really tried to examine my faith to determine if it's something I merely inherited or if it's something that met the academic rigor that my Hebrew studies met or that my study of constitutional law met. And so it was at that point in my life, already a Christian, but where I wanted to try assiduously hard to set my Christianity aside and look objectively at the reasons that I believe my faith to be valid.
Mark Lanier: And so I began to do that. And then when our son was getting his PhD in Philosophy and Logic at Oxford University, and he'd gotten his Masters there as well, I came into a contact with a lot of his friends who were atheists. And I started working through these discussions with them in an effort to try and help them sharpen their focus on what the real questions were that frankly they had trouble answering. And so I think this informed not my decision to become a Christian, but certainly my walk and in faith as a believer.
Sean McDowell: Can you talk about one of the approaches you take in this book as making a distinction between direct evidence, such as eyewitness testimony, and indirect circumstantial evidence that shapes how we put something like atheism on trial.
Mark Lanier: Sure. So, I've just finished trying last November, the national opioid case in Cleveland, Ohio. It's in federal court and the judge gives instructions to the jury before they go back there and make their decision. Now, this has all of the press. It's supposedly the most complicated case in the history of the American judicial system or so said The New York Times. It's got national implications, billions of dollars are on the line. It's got the focus and attention of most of the legal world. And in a case of that magnitude, the judge instructed the jury on something very important.
Mark Lanier: The judge said there are two kinds of evidence. There is direct evidence, which might be I'm standing outside. I see that it's raining so I can testify on direct knowledge. It is raining. But the judge said there is also circumstantial evidence and circumstantial evidence is not anybody has testified I directly see the rain, but we see a flock of people coming in from outside. They're all wearing rain gear. They've got umbrellas. They're soaked to the skin. They're umbrellas are shaking off water. And we hear thunder and patter, patter, patter on the window panes.
Mark Lanier: Now, that's not direct evidence it's raining, but it is circumstantial evidence. And the judge tells every jury, whether it was at nationally important opioid trial, or just a car wreck where Billy Bob runs a red light, the judge will always say that you are to give circumstantial evidence just as much weight and authority-
Sean McDowell: Wow!
Mark Lanier: ... as direct evidence, because oftentimes you don't have direct evidence in this world. I'll never, in a murder case, have direct evidence absent and eyewitness. But that doesn't mean that if there's no eyewitness, you can't convict someone a murder. You've got to take the circumstances into account.
Scott Rae: Mark, let me tackle another aspect of your legal practice that I think is really helpful for this discussion. One of the most insightful parts of the book I thought was your discussion of the burden of proof, and who is it? Either the atheist or the theist that ends up having the burden of proof in the question of God's existence. And I thought one particularly helpful insight was that oftentimes when atheists are challenged, the way they respond to that is by shifting, just sort of reflect almost reflectively, shifting the burden of proof back onto the theist. But you hold something different. How does the notion of the burden of proof work itself out in the question of God's existence?
Mark Lanier: Well, when I go to trial, the judge will never let me, if I'm representing a victim, the judge will never let me win if I don't carry the burden of proof. If I'm going to show that my women developed ovarian cancer because they used baby powder that was laced with asbestos, I've got to prove that. That's my burden. And I go into court and I take it gladly. If someone is an atheist and they want to try to tell me that there is no God. Then the burden of proof, I think, first falls on them. And don't get me wrong, I think there are valid proofs for the existence of God, and I'll talk about those in a moment. But if someone's going to say, "There is no God," then my response to them is, "What's your proof of that?"
Mark Lanier: I mean, 90% of the world believes there's a God. Now we may argue over whether it's Vishnu, or whether it's Allah, or whether it's Yahweh, or whether it's just Hashem. But you know, that the existence of deity and divinity is recognized historically by enlarged, by most people who are humans. So if you're going to take that underdog view that says, "There is absolutely no divinity in existence," then if that's the minority of a huge minority view, you really are incumbent to come forward with some evidence. Now, if you want to be an agnostic and simply say, "I don't know. Maybe there is maybe there isn't, I can't make up my mind." Then I think it's appropriate for me as a theist to say, "Well, let me give you reasons that you shouldn't believe." And then I can take the burden of proof there. But an atheist who says, "There is no God", prove it.
Scott Rae: So Mark, why, do you think atheists so commonly shift the burden of proof in this conversation when faced with challenges to their view?
Mark Lanier: Well, they shifted because they can't prove God doesn't exist. And they'll say things like, "Well, you can't prove a negative." Oh yes, you can. You absolutely can. And they'll pull out like Carl Sagan's argument of the dragon in the garage, where you can't... and Sagan was using it for not belief of God purposes, but it's used in that manner now. And Sagan's argument was, "Well, as you say, I can't prove there's no dragon in your garage." And because if I say, "There's no dragon," and you look in the garage, you'll just say, "Well, it's an invisible dragon." Well, how do I show it's not an in, you know, and da, da, da, da, da. And I'm thinking, well, that's just silly because in a courtroom you can absolutely prove a negative.
Mark Lanier: I can prove there's no dragon in the garage. The first thing we do is define what a dragon is. And once we get that definition, that it's corporeal, that it's lizard-shape, that it breathes fire, whatever definition we agree to, if you do the proper steps, you can prove a negative. There is no dragon in the garage. If you define it differently, if it's the Queen of dragons on Game of Thrones on a DVD. Okay. Well, fine. Let's define it differently in the DVDs stored in your garage. But you can prove negative. However, an atheist can't prove there's no existent. There is no God because there is. They don't have the ability to prove that negative. So, what they have as their last result is, well, I don't see them so you prove it. And that's just a cop out.
Sean McDowell: I think it's important when we talk about atheist on trial to have clarity what we mean by atheism, because in the philosophical literature, and you mentioned reading some of the new atheists, they're pretty clear that it's a belief that God doesn't exist. Not necessarily certainty that God doesn't exist, but a belief that God doesn't exist. That's different than how some people will define atheism as like a moral lacking morality. Atheism just lacking a belief in God. So when you say atheism on trial, just for clarity, you're saying atheism as the belief that there is no God that carries a certain burden of proof, and the claim that there is no God or belief that there's not, you're challenging that saying that's not the most reasonable belief to come to. Is that fair how you see it?
Mark Lanier: Yeah, I think that's fair. I will say this, I've got so many friends who are atheists and so many friends who are agnostic and many of them are incredibly moral, wonderful, great people. I'd let them babysit my grandchildren. I mean I've got, I recognize that there are people who are still hardwired with God's morality, even if they don't know that it's God who hardwired them that way. And so, they can be marvelously moral, but not believe in God. And I'm quick to stress that you take these outspoken atheists and these are the pop writers. These are the people that frankly, you know, Richard Dawkins is a really good scientist, and I take my hat off to him as that, but I think he's a hack as a philosopher. And I think he, that's just not his-
Scott Rae: Don't sugarcoat that assessment now.
Mark Lanier: ... yeah. Well, I say that in Texas, we would add, bless his heart. So it doesn't sound so bad. But I would say that, frankly, he is a hack when it comes to philosophy in my estimation. Now maybe I'm an idiot and I'm wrong, but that's the way I see it. So these types of people who are evangelistic in their atheism have a burden of proof in my mind. Now, if you want to be someone who says, "I just don't know," and that's where you want to land. If I want to bring you to my side of the fence in as a theist, as someone who does believe there is divinity that exists in this world, or in this existence, then I've got a burden of proof there.
Mark Lanier: And I'll gladly take that on. I'll gladly tell people, "Come with me on this logical journey into the courtroom and let's look at the evidence," because when we assess the evidence, I think it is overwhelming in support that there's a divinity. I can't find a better explanation for why the world is the way it is, why I am the way I am, and why we live this life we live.
Sean McDowell: One of the things I found really helpful in your bookmark is that you have a lot of kind of beginning introductory material from your training in law, to how you approach this question, such as how you keep your Christian bias out of the investigation. But for sake of time, let's jump into some of the objections that you really deal with. For example, we often hear that unanswered prayer proves atheism, or maybe prove it's too strong, it suggests atheism. What do you make of the phenomena of unanswered prayer?
Mark Lanier: Well, I think a lot of people don't think this through well. First of all, I have five children. We're up to eight and a half grandchildren. But one thing I've learned is that my children always had an ability to ask me for things. And many things they'd ask me for, and my answer would be yes. Many things they'd asked me for, and my answer would be no. And many things they'd ask me for, and my answer would be not yet. And all of those are answers. If I say no to one of them, they can't walk away and say, "Dad didn't answer my request." I did answer it. I answered it, "No." So this idea of unanswered prayer, isn't really what people are concerned about. What they're more concerned about is God doesn't seem to be our butler at our command to, or our DoorDash driver who's going to bring us our food of choice when we ask for it, no questions asked.
Mark Lanier: That's a rather immature way of looking at the complexity of the cosmos. There was an economics textbook I had. I was an economics minor. The book's still available. It's called, There Ain't No Such Thing As a Free Lunch, which is an abbreviation, TANSTAAFL, among economist. And it's a recognition that something as small as the price of shoe leather in China can affect the price of eggs in Canada. Now, it may not be a very big effect. It may be so infinitesimal that you can't trace it, but it will have an effect upon everything because everything's related. So, if you get the complexity of this grand global scheme, you multiply at times all of the years that have come before, and any years that may come into the future. The biblical view is that God is working all of this towards an end product. That is for the good of his people, the redemption of the planet, and the establishment of his kingdom among us.
Mark Lanier: Now, if that's where God's working everything toward that, and he's got all of these moving parts, we cannot be narcissistic as to expect that God, to grant all of our personal desires, or maybe only 90% of them, or maybe we're extra generous this day 70%, but not understand that it has implications. One example, I was at a football game, college football game, and I'd gone back to attend it, and we won. I was so excited we won. I'm driving back to the airport to fly home. I'm listening to the post-game interviews on the radio. And one of the players, bless his heart as we say in Texas, one of the players says, "Well, I knew we were going to win because I prayed to God that we would win."
Mark Lanier: And I thought, well, out of the 65 people on the team, I'm sure a number of them were praying to God, but I'm sure a number on the other team were praying to God that they would win too. So, God's got to answer that prayer, quote- unquote, but one team's going to win and one team's going to lose. And so does the team who wins walk away and say, "Hey, there is a God. He answered our prayer." And the team that loses walk away and say, "There is no God. He didn't answer our prayer."
Mark Lanier: Well, the world's just too complicated to make it so simplistic. And so I urge anybody who thinks that God didn't answer their prayer, look beyond the immediate let down of not getting what you wanted, even as virtuous as it may seem to you at the moment. The death of a child, the cancer that won't be treated. I mean, there are some horrible things that happen to people that some are answered by prayer and with yes, and some are answered by prayer with no. But we need to keep in mind that this question is so much bigger than, "Hey God, at six o'clock tonight, would you cure all the cancer in the world?"
Scott Rae: Mark, let me pick up on that just a little bit, because one of the other challenges to theism is from as you know, the problem of evil and as you point out, there's a difference between evil that is cause by fallen human beings. I think that's easy enough to account for in the fact that God allows genuine free will. And we live in a world where God doesn't intervene to stop every little bit of evil because it would also blunt free will. But the harder one I think is the stuff that's not a product of human evil, such as tsunamis that hit places along the coast or a cancer that arrives in the life of a child. That those seem to be a little tougher challenges for theism. But what do you say to those?
Mark Lanier: Well, I have two group responses to that in a sense, or two family of responses. The first is before answering it, the very fact that we cry out at the injustice and the pain of it all should tell us something very significant about who we are and how we're made. Because I don't think that the sharks in the ocean, when another shark eats a fish, I don't think that they go into mourning over the fact that the shark's eating a fish. There's something unique about us because we sense that this should not be. This is not fair. It's not fair that the hurricane wipes out the God-fearers, while the godless people with all the money got out of the way. It's not fair that the tornado tore through the church, instead of the nightclub. It's not fair that the fill in the blank, that the whole idea of fairness is something that's so deep within us and uniquely human.
Mark Lanier: And so I don't want to just go to an answer without first noticing how important it is that we're asking the question, because I think that's of great importance. Now, what are the answers? The Odyssey is a combination of two Greek words Theo, we're still back with that word for God, and Dike is the Greek family of words that talk about victory and things like that. Judgment is there, but righteousness, and all. And so the righteousness of God is at issue when hurricane blows through and takes people out. And how do we explain that? Well, there are a number of different people who come up with a number of good questions. I mean, good answers to this.
Mark Lanier: I was talking last week with Michael Lloyd, who's the principal at Wycliffe Hall at Oxford University. And he's got some really strong views that are worth people Googling. I won't parrot them here. But what I would urge people to realize is God did not set up a world system where humanity wasn't given a responsibility to try to fight against these injustices, and against these tragedies. So I view science as a tool that God has given humanity. I think, you can find the charge to understand the creation and to work through the creation in a way to mitigate and to lessen the pain, and the suffering, and the problems that come about. And if you look at science, science is a tool that can be used for good, or can be used for evil, like most anything else God gives us. I can eat food to the nourishment of my body, or I can eat food in a glutinous way. That's going to send me hardened arteries into the tomb. We've got an ability to use medicine and science in ways that are beneficial.
Mark Lanier: And so my charge and responsibility is that God doesn't want the hurricane to wipe out people, that God wants us to use science to try to figure out if the hurricane's coming. And if it is, to get people out of the way to try to reach those people whose homes have been destroyed with compassion and love, and help them rebuild or help them mud out their homes. We're to find the hungry and the places of famine, and we're supposed to bring them food. We're supposed to use science to help us figure out how to grow food more efficiently. We're supposed to use these tools God's given us to lessen the pain that comes through this world, and the way it is right now.
Sean McDowell: So, I got a question for you related to human value. One of the things that argue in the book is that non-believers live as if God exists. And this shows kind of the weakness of their own worldview and arguably of the strength of a biblical worldview. Why can't there be human value if there is no God?
Mark Lanier: Okay. Think about it this way. If there is no God, what based upon the best science that we rely on every day just to get in a car and drive? What do we have? We have atoms, and subatomic particles, but let's zoom in on the atoms. And those atoms put themselves together in a way that makes molecules. Now, I don't think that the atom itself has got some overweening morality or ethic to it. It simply is. It is a non-personal physical part of nature. And those atoms then come together into molecules and those molecules get manipulated and changed to such that you're able to ultimately build yourself up to a car, or build up to a human being. But if a human being is only a collection of atoms, only a collection of molecules, if you can break molecular biology down and find that there's nothing more to a human, then the idea that there is morality is myth.
Mark Lanier: It's a made up occurrence. It's not something that... I mean, at what point do these molecules cross over and start having morality? If all we are are sacks of chemicals, what makes one sack of chemical any better than another? Now maybe the answer is, some are more complicated. And we should value the sacks of chemicals that are more complicated, because that gives them some inherent value. Okay. Now this gets really interesting. Because I don't know many people who want to side with Adolf Hitler, but Hitler's entire position was there are limited resources in this world. Let's use those limited resources on the best breeding stock so that that breeding stock will further humanity down the chain of evolution. And so Hitler has every reason in the world to support this idea that some are better than others.
Mark Lanier: Yet we come to the scene and say, "No. All human beings have value and merit." Well, where does that come from? How do you get that? Simply from a world that views us all as sacks of chemicals, that we're cosmic stardust. And that there will come a time where our chemicals will quit interacting in such a way that we have these electrical and chemical synopsis in our brain that give us conscious thought and puff, we're gone, and we return to more obvious cosmic stardust. You know, that's an illusion. Morality is an absolute illusion if there's nothing to give it meaning.
Sean McDowell: Mark, I've got one last question for you, but I want to make sure our audience understands that you respond to some common objections in here that we want to have time to go into such as, what if somebody doesn't feel God? Does that mean God is not present? And you also put forth some other positive evidences for the existence of God that challenge atheism such as beauty. But I'm curious, as a lawyer, would you say simply using the legal system in the United States itself, can we conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that atheism is false, theism is true and Christianity is true? If you were limited to those tools, what do you think could be shown to be the case beyond reasonable doubt?
Mark Lanier: I think we could show beyond reasonable doubt certainly by the preponderance of the evidence, which is the greater weight of credible evidence, the civil burden of proof, but either one. Both that there is a God, and that Christianity is the most reasonable explanation for why the world is the way it is, for why you are the way you are, why I am the way I am. It's a worldview that's livable. It's a worldview that makes for good people in a good society if it's truly followed, and it passes all of the tests that I have for something that's valid. So this is actually the second book that I've written for IVP. The first book I wrote was Christianity on Trial. And Christianity on Trial was one where I asked the questions, okay, is there a God? If so, what sort of God would he, she or it be?
Mark Lanier: And would this God have any interest in humanity? And if so, why? And is it reasonable to think that this God would attempt to communicate to us in holy scripture? And is it reasonable to deduce? Can you fairly determine that even down to the resurrection of Jesus, the audacity of the resurrection of Jesus, what evidence do we have for that? What evidence do we have for an afterlife? What evidence do we have for free will that we're actually making some choices here? All of that, I put into that book, because I think that that itself is very provable. And then I'm a year out. In fact, I'm sending in my manuscript in a couple of days for the third, which is World Religions on Trial. So, it's a trilogy.
Sean McDowell: Ohh!
Mark Lanier: And in that, yeah, I look at the, first of all, what I call secular spiritualism. The idea of people who'll say I'm not religious, but I am spiritual.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Mark Lanier: But I look at that. I look at the mystical faiths, Hinduism, Buddhism, et cetera. And I look at the historical faiths. I take a look at Islam. I take a look at Mormonism. I take a look at political Christianity as I call it, which is not the Christian faith I adhere to. So that book will be coming out. But I think you can come to all of these conclusions and be rational. And I don't find any other answers that come that explain this to me.
Sean McDowell: Well, Mark, your book is fascinating as an apologist. Anytime I see anybody with training outside of formal apologetics, especially law, taking a look at these questions, it gets my interest. So I appreciate given all just the success and a claim you've had as a lawyer carving out time to write this book. I think it's great for Christians. You'll be challenged to think about your belief in a new way. And even apologist will find some fresh insights in this. But also seekers, if you listen to this and you're not a believer, and you're open to an atheist worldview being put on trial, this is a great place to start. So Mark, thanks for writing a great book, Atheism on Trial, and thanks for joining us on the Think Biblically podcast.
Mark Lanier: You bet Scott and Sean. Thanks for what you're doing and keep it up.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Offering programs in Southern California and online, including the new fully online Bachelors in Bible Theology and Apologetics. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app, and consider sharing with a friend. Thank you for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.