Atheistic objections


Theists argue that God is the best explanation for objective moral truths.  Atheists typically appeal to the Euthyphro Dilemma (ED) to show that God cannot be the foundation for morality.  The ED asks whether something is good only because God wills it as such, or if God wills something because it is good.  If something is good only because God considers it good, then goodness seems arbitrary and relative to God’s desires.  If He had so chosen, murder could have been right and truth-telling could have been wrong. On the other hand, if God wills the good because it is inherently good, then goodness would be a standard that exists outside of God.  He is subject to the moral law just as we are.

So either goodness is arbitrary or it is independent of God.  Either God arbitrarily declares what is good or He recognizes what is good based on some standard outside of Himself.  If the good is an arbitrary expression of God’s will, then the good is subjective rather than objective.  While God may serve as the foundation for His subjective morality, He cannot serve as the foundation for objective moral truths.  On the other hand, if God wills something because He recognizes it is objectively good, then something other than God is the standard of objective moral truths.  He may inform us of those moral truths, but they do not depend on God for their existence.

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Have you ever tried striking up a conversation with someone about the existence of God only to find that they have no interest in the question?  Trying to continue the conversation is like trying to talk to a two year old about quantum mechanics.  Strategically, you must find a way to get the unbeliever to see that the question of God’s existence is relevant to his/her life.  I think the most effective approach is to appeal to common existential questions that every human wonders about.  This could include:

  • What do you think happens when you die?
  • Where did everything come from?
  • What is the source of our moral awareness?

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OmnipotentSome people claim the existence of God cannot be falsified.  As I have argued elsewhere, this is not true. One way to falsify God’s existence is to show that the concept of God is logically incoherent. This can be done by demonstrating that two or more supposed divine attributes are logically incompatible. For example, it has been argued that omnipotence and omnibenevolence are logically incompatible.

The objection

The argument is set forth along these lines: Omnipotence entails the power to actualize any state of affairs that is logically possible to actualize. There is nothing logically incoherent about an omnipotent being committing evil, so omnipotence must include the power to actualize a world in which the omnipotent being commits evil. As an omnibenevolent being, however, God is incapable of committing evil.  Therefore, God cannot be omnipotent.  While a being can be either omnibenevolent or omnipotent, no being can be both omnibenevolent and omnipotent.  Since the theistic concept of God entails both, the God of theism cannot exist.

Areas of agreement

How might the theist respond to this objection?  Let us start with some points of agreement.  First, we agree that God must be both omnipotent and omnibenevolent.  Theistic philosophers have long held that the concept of God is that of the greatest conceivable being (GCB).  God is a being of which a greater cannot be conceived.  If we can conceive of some being Y who is greater than the being we call God, then being Y is the true God. Since it is greater to be all-powerful than partially powerful, the GCB must possess the property of being all-powerful.  Likewise, since it is greater to be all-good than partially good, the GCB must possess the property of being all-good.

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Christian apologist, Tyler Vela, has observed that atheists like to define “atheism” and “belief” in very nontraditional ways, and these definitions lead to an absurdity. Consider the following: “Atheist” is redefined as someone who merely lacks the belief that God exists (rather than someone who believes God does not exist), and “belief” is redefined as holding something to be true without evidence (rather than a mental disposition concerning the truth of some proposition). Given these definitions, if God did something by which all people had direct and incontrovertible evidence that He existed, then no one could believe in God (since His existence is no longer an opinion without evidence). If no one believes in God because they know God exists, then they are atheists (because atheists lack a belief in God’s existence). Ironically, then, everyone would be an atheist precisely because they know God exists.

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Garret Merriam

Professor Garret Merriam argues that if God exists, then we can’t be moral.   In other words, we can only be moral if morality is not grounded in God’s existence.  This is a reversal of the moral argument for God’s existence.  It’s a moral argument against God’s existence.

Like many new atheists, Merriam argues that the Christian God commands and commits evil, so if morality is rooted in God and our moral duties are based on God’s commands, morality is impossible.  I don’t accept the premise that God commands or commits evil, but let’s grant it for the sake of argument.  Does his conclusion follow?  No.

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MoralityThere are two senses in which something can be considered good.  Something can be good in a pragmatic sense: that which is the most effective means for obtaining some desired outcome.  For example, if we desire to eat an ice cream cone without getting ice cream on our clothes, it is “good” to start eating from the top of the cone rather than the bottom.  This kind of goodness is judged by something’s utility.  It is considered good because it works well, and the human subject values the fact that it works well.  We might call this kind of goodness “pragmatic goodness.”

Something can also be good in the sense that it has intrinsic moral virtue/character.  For example, it is “good” to try to save someone who is drowning.  This kind of goodness is judged by the intrinsic moral character of the act itself, rather than its utility.  Indeed, risking one’s life to save a stranger has little utility for the rescuer, but great moral virtue nonetheless.  This sort of goodness is not determined by what we desire or the value we attach to the outcome, but is rooted in the moral character of the act itself, wholly independent of what any human may think about it.[1]  We might call this kind of goodness “moral goodness.”  This is the kind of goodness moral philosophers have in mind when they talk about objective morality. (more…)

Most Christians are conExperienceGodvinced of God’s existence based on their personal experience of God rather than by rational argumentation (though some are convinced by a combination of experience and argument).  This is a rational justification for such a belief. After all, we generally take our experiences to be veridical unless and until we have good reasons for thinking our experience was not veridical. An argument for God’s existence based on personal experience goes something like this:

  1. I seem to have had an experience of God
  2. I should trust my experiences unless I have good reasons to doubt their veracity
  3. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of my experience of God
  4. Therefore, I have experienced God
  5. Therefore, God exists

Atheists will often claim that they would also believe in God if they had a similar experience.  It’s not uncommon for this claim to be followed up by a question: Why, if God exists, have they not experienced Him?   (more…)

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