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…)

Brute Facts Yellow Garbage CanCaleb Clanton wrote an article in the most recent volume of Philosophia Christi in defense of the cosmological argument.[1] More precisely, he argued for the principle of sufficient reason that undergirds the argument, and against the existence of brute facts which undercuts the argument. Here is a brief summary of his argument.

A contingent being is one whose existence is derived from a source outside of itself.  Everything we see around us is a contingent being: trees, rocks, planets, stars, and even the universe itself.  How did the set of all contingent beings originate?  While the vast majority of all contingent beings can be explained by appealing to a prior contingent being, this cannot go on ad infinitum because an infinite regress is logically absurd.  It follows, then, that the entire set of contingent beings cannot be explained by appealing to another contingent being because as the set of all contingent beings, there can’t be any additional contingent beings.  Only a being that is not contingent can explain the set.  A being that is not contingent is a necessary being, meaning it does not derive its existence from anything outside of itself, but has existence in and of itself by a necessity of its own nature.  Theists identify this necessary being as God. (more…)

God of GapsI’ve noticed that many nonbelievers (and even believers) misunderstand what constitutes a “God of the gaps” argument.  They tend to think one is guilty of a God of the gaps argument if they offer God as an explanation for some X rather than some natural phenomenon.  The problem with this definition is that it presumes the only valid explanation is a naturalistic explanation.  God is ruled out as a valid explanation for anything a priori, so anyone who offers God as an explanation for X is thought to do so merely because they are ignorant of the proper naturalistic explanation.  This begs the question in favor of naturalism and against theism.  One could only conclude that every effect has a naturalistic explanation, and that God is not a valid explanation, if one has first demonstrated that God does not exist.  So long as it is even possible that God exists, then it is possible that God may be the cause of X, and thus explain X.

What makes an argument a God of the gaps type of argument is when God is invoked to explain X simply because we do not know what else can explain X.  In other words, God is used to plug a gap in our knowledge of naturalistic explanations: “I don’t know how to explain X, so God must have done X.”  This is not at all the same as arguing that God is the best explanation of X, based on what we know regarding X and the explanatory options available to us.  Here, God is being invoked to explain what we know, not what we don’t know.

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Not scienceMany believe science has disproven God.  This is not possible, even in principle.[1]  The truth of the matter is that advances in science are providing more reasons to believe in God, not less.  While scientific discoveries cannot prove God’s existence, they can be used to support premises in arguments that have theistic conclusions/implications. For example, science has discovered that the universe began to exist.  Anything that begins to exist requires an external cause.  Since the universe encompasses all physical reality, the cause of the universe must transcend physical reality.  It cannot be a prior physical event or some natural law, because there was nothing physical prior to the first physical event, and natural laws only come into being once the natural world comes into being.  Whatever caused the universe to come into being must be transcendent, powerful, immaterial, spaceless, eternal, and personal, which is an apt description of God.

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WaldoMany atheists employ the concept of divine hiddenness to argue against God’s existence.  If God exists, they argue, why is His existence not more obvious?

I have blogged on this issue previously (here and here), so I won’t rehearse the arguments again.  Instead, I’ll simply assert that I do not accept the claim that God’s’ existence is not obvious enough.  I think there is good evidence for God’s existence, and that God only appears to be hidden because we have not looked for Him with an open mind and heart.

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disembodiedSome atheists claim that God cannot exist because unembodied minds are impossible; i.e. that persons must be physical beings.  I spoke to this in a 2008 post.  Prayson Daniel recently blogged on the subject as well.  I would encourage you to read his post.  I commented on his post, and wanted to share some points I made that supplement the points I made in my previous post. 

This argument begs the question in favor of materialism and atheism. It merely assumes that minds/persons are reducible to brains; that we have no immaterial mind that is capable of existing apart from our bodies. No reason is given for thinking that a mind/person needs a body other than the fact that we are not familiar with it. That’s a very poor reason.  It confuses common properties of persons with essential properties of persons. 

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For the previous installment, click here.

So far I have provided what I consider to be reasonable responses to the HoG objection.  Now I want to discuss a couple of popular responses I find inadequate for the task.  The first is to assert that God has provided enough evidence to convince those who are willing to believe in and submit to a relationship with God, but not so much so as to compel the unwilling.  The idea here is that if God were to provide more evidence of His existence, people would be compelled to believe in Him, and thus be robbed of their free will.  But what exactly would they be compelled to do?  At best, they would be compelled to believe that God exists (a rational obligation); however, such knowledge does not coerce one into a relationship with God.  Rational obligations tell us what we ought to believe given the evidence; they do not coerce us into believing or doing anything in particular.  Our beliefs and actions continue to be free.

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Given the inadequacy of so many “old” philosophical arguments against God’s existence, atheists are increasingly turning to the “hiddenness of God” (HoG) to argue that God does not exist (or that His existence is highly improbable).  The essence of this argument is that God’s existence is not as obvious as it should be.  If God existed, we would expect to find more evidence of His existence than we in fact do.  Given the inadequacy of the evidence, rational persons should conclude that God (probably) does not exist.  Some HoG proponents go so far as to argue that if God existed He would prevent unbelief by making His existence obvious and undeniable.  He does not do so, therefore, He does not exist, or if He does exist, the fault of human unbelief is to be laid at His feet.

There are a number of ways to respond to the HoG argument.  One could agree with the HoG advocate that God’s existence is not as obvious as we might think it should be, but deny that the conclusion—“God (probably) does not exist”—follows from such an observation.  After all, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  Perhaps there is insufficient evidence on which to conclude that God exists, but God may exist nonetheless.  At best, an insufficient amount of evidence for God’s existence should result in agnosticism, not atheism.  To conclude that God does not exist one needs positive evidence against His existence, not a mere lack of evidence for it.

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