On Being a Theist

The following is a paper I wrote for my Philosophy class at Liberty University in response to a popular article written by an atheist.

On Being a Theist

In 1968, H. J. McCloskey wrote an article titled “On Being an Atheist” which gives his personal reasons for rejecting the belief in God. Included are his critiques of the cosmological, and teleological arguments. The main portion of his paper is centered on the difficult issues of evil and suffering in a world that is supposedly created by a loving, omnipotent God. However, despite McCloskey’s (1968) desire for proof and contrary his critiques of the cosmological and teleological arguments and his assertions that evil makes a case against God’s existence, it remains that the most reasonable explanation for the universe is an intelligent, personal, loving Designer: God.

It is important to begin by addressing McCloskey’s (1968) habit of referring to arguments as proofs. The problem that arises from this habit is that McCloskey is far too quick to dismiss the arguments used in favor of God’s existence because they do not meet this standard of “one hundred percent certainty” (Foreman, 2012a). Rather than striving to prove God’s existence, one must seek to find the worldview that best explains the world around us. Proof and certainty are not always a possibility, even for beliefs held by the scientific community, such as the belief that our senses are reliable (Foreman, 2012a); yet, “the failure to produce a proof of God’s existence does not necessarily mean that no one has any justified beliefs about God” (Evans & Manis, 2009, p. 61). Since it is impossible for McCloskey’s own arguments to reach the standard of undefeatable proof, he would do well to not demand it of theistic arguments. Though McCloskey attempted to find fault with them, the cosmological and teleological arguments are two such arguments that provide superior explanations for God’s existence.

McCloskey’s Critiques

Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument is made of various attempts to show that because the universe exists, it must have a cause which is not dependent on another cause (Evans & Mains, 2009). McCloskey (1968) had two problems with this argument. First, he proposed that the premises of this argument are invalid: He held that there is no reason to believe that the universe must have a causer that was not itself brought into being by something else. However, upon further examination, the first cause argument passes the test of logicality. The universe contains objects that do not necessarily have to exist, at least in their current format (Evan & Manis, 2009). The law of cause and effect points to the fact that such objects must have a cause that had to have existed the way it does (Evan & Manis, 2009). Therefore, there must be an uncaused, necessary cause for the universe (Evan & Manis, 2009). If caused objects were contingent upon other caused objects, this creates a circular reasoning of sorts, or an “infinite regress,” where everything is caused by everything else, and there is no final, original cause, or first cause (Evan & Manis, 2009, p. 29). The concept of an eternally existing, necessary being solves the problem of the infinitely circling contingency.

Second, McCloskey (1968) found it even more difficult to believe that the cause of the universe would have to be omnipotent and perfect. He is correct in part that the cosmological argument is not proof of such a being. By itself, the cosmological argument does not even say there is a God, much less a God as McCloskey describes (Evans & Manis, 2009). It simply provides a sound argument for an uncaused cause of the universe, and, as such, warrants that every individual should seek out the characteristics of this cause (Evan & Manis, 2009). For an argument that incorporates the type of cause needed with the fact that there must be a cause, one must look to the teleological argument.

Teleological Argument

The teleological argument asserts that because the world has complex design, this is evidence of a designer (Evans & Manis, 2009). An example that is often given is that one would not expect to see an intricate watch or a masterpiece painting and respond that it must have miraculously appeared out of nowhere. It is a natural response to attribute evidences of design to the workings of a designer. McCloskey might not have disputed the premise that design indicates a designer, but he did have trouble believing that world around us is an example of “genuine indisputable” design (McCloskey, 1968, p. 64). Yet, the teleological argument does not even claim indisputability, simply possibility.

One must question if “indisputable” proof is even possible. According to Dew and Foreman (2014), it is not. Instead, it is better to strive for defeasibility, since “we can attain great levels of confidence or assurance about our beliefs, but not absolute certainty” (Dew & Foreman, 2014, p. 160). On the other hand, just because indisputable examples of design are hard to come by, that does not mean there are no examples of design available in the universe. There are many examples of design that merit a designer. However, the most convincing example is the human being. Humans contain the smallest, yet most intricate molecules, and they also form a complete, aesthetic whole. Such a living, intricate, but complex creature would be enough of an example of design, but, besides this, humans also possess the ability to think rationally. It is hard to believe that such a being—both physical and rational—could have come about through naturalistic processes.

Still, the possibility must be considered, for a designer would not be necessary if, in fact, the naturalistic process of evolution is the cause for such apparent design. However, it cannot be presupposed that either evolution or the existence of a designer is a fact. For the sake of discussion, though, let’s suppose that evolution did cause the universe. Does this indeed negate the need for a designer? Evans and Manis (2009) argued that the opposite is the case. The process of evolution operates off the laws of nature (Evan & Manis, 2009). These laws must have a necessary cause, since they are contingent, or “could have been different” (Evan & Manis, 2009, p. 83). As such, they require something non-contingent to be contingent upon. In light of the “order,” “complexity,” and “purpose” in the universe (Foreman, 2012b), this is best explained by the existence of an intelligent, personal Designer.

So, it seems apparent that, one way or the other, an intelligent designer of the universe is not only evident, but also necessary. However, McCloskey (1968) believed that the existence of pain and suffering and evil in the world negated the viability of the teleological argument. After all, if there is “design and purpose” in the universe (McCloskey, 1968, p. 64), why would there also be instances of chaotic crime and natural disasters which destroy individuals before their purpose has seemingly been fulfilled? McCloskey must remember that “the teleological argument, like the cosmological argument, is limited” (Evans & Manis, 2009, p. 86). It does not provide us with reasons for the existence of evil, and it does even not attempt to speculate whether or not the intelligent designer is an omnipotent, perfect being. It merely points out that an intelligent designer is the best explanation for the examples of design in the universe.

McCloskey’s Arguments

The Problem of Evil

The majority of McCloskey’s (1968) article addresses the idea that the existence of suffering is incompatible with the idea that there is a loving, perfect God. He stated, “No being who was perfect could have created a world in which there was avoidable suffering or in which his creation would (and in fact could have been created so as not to) engage in morally evil acts” (p. 65). One could contend that perhaps God did not create such a world, but it is obvious that McCloskey’s (1968) intended argument was that it is logically impossible that a perfect, loving, all-powerful God would allow suffering. In order to create this flow of logical thought, the premise is held that a good, all-powerful God must eradicate evil (Evans & Manis, 2009). If, however, there is a chance that this premise is not true, then the argument does not hold. Evans and Manis (2009) pointed out that it is not necessary to know why God would allow suffering in this world; only to know that it possible that He did for reasons we may never know. Thus, “the burden of proof is on [McCloskey] to show what the contradiction is” (Evans & Manis, 2009, p. 167). So long as there is a possibility that God has His reasons, whatever they might be, for allowing evil, it cannot be said that evil negates His existence. It is evident that there are possibilities that could solve this seeming discrepancy that McCloskey has not taken into account.

Yet, McCloskey (1968) argued that if God is truly able to do all things, He could have saved a lot of pain and heartache by simply creating humans who would not have abused their freedom of choice. After all, he reasoned, if God can “[possess] a free will and as [be] incapable of acting immorally,” why could He not create humans in the same way (McCloskey, 1968, p. 66)? However, by definition, freedom of choice must include choices (Hasker, 1983)—if choosing the wrong was not an option, there would be only a “pseudofreedom” (Evans & Manis, 2009, p. 163). Furthermore, it is not logical to think that God could have created two contradictory types of worlds—one in which humans are incapable of sinning, and one in which they have that choice (Evans & Manis, 2009). Either He can create the one, or He can create the other, and since the world we have now is an example of the latter, it is only logical to conclude that the former is not possible (Evans & Manis, 2009). If, as a last resort, McCloskey were to claim that, even if the existence of evil does not make God’s existence impossible, it does make it highly improbable, it must be answered that it is still possible. Also, it is equally probable that, in the “vast amount of knowledge of which we are ignorant,” a solution to this supposed problem exists (Evans & Manis, 2009, p. 170). Obviously, the problem of evil is no more a proof that God does not exist than the cosmological argument is an undeniable proof that He does. There are other factors at play that must be considered.

Atheism As Comforting

According to McCloskey (1968), there is one last reason to reject the belief in God: When the hardships and evils of life strike close to home or even personally befall an individual, one is happier in the belief that there is no God, as then there is no one to blame for having caused the event or having done nothing to prevent it. Craig (2008) pointed out that turning to atheism creates an even worse predicament, for one is then unable to account for the worth and purpose of living in the first place. Indeed, “if God does not exist, then all we are left with is despair” (Craig, 2008, p. 77). Thus, though it is inconsistent with a naturalistic worldview, in order to live happily, the atheist is forced to reason that purpose and meaning in this life do exist (Craig, 2008). Rather than trying to do the impossible and make atheism compatible with a purpose-filled, happy life, how much better it would be to take comfort instead in God’s existence. For then there is the hope of heaven and the promise that good can come even from suffering (Rom. 8:18-28, New King James Version). The atheist can find no such comfort, for “if there is no God, then… the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose” (Craig, 2008, p. 72). Thus, while the one who clings to a belief in God must do so by faith despite trials and hardships, the one who rejects His existence has nothing better to turn to.

The response can be taken one step further. The existence of evil actually points to the existence of God, for what exactly is evil, if there is no objective code of morality in which to compare it? Without a God, objective morality is impossible. As Craig (2008) put it, “If God does not exist, then in a sense… there is no right and wrong; all things are permitted” (p. 80). In fact, what McCloskey (1968) labels as evil, such as the death of a loved one from a terrible disease, would really be the naturalistic process of evolution at play in weeding out the weaker life forms. If so, then from this viewpoint, such an event should not be sorrowed over by the family members, but rather this process of improving the human race should be celebrated and even aided. This leads to practices, which McCloskey (1968) praised, such as abortion and physician assisted suicide, which are used to create “fewer occasions on which people need the comfort and help of others” (p. 69). This is far from comforting—on the contrary, true atheism, if it does not borrow from the theistic worldview, can provide no comfort, no hope, no value, and no purpose in life.

McCloskey’s arguments, though deserving of examination, do not take into account all sides of the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God. Furthermore, his demand for proof is impossible to meet, even for his own arguments. Instead, it is clear that the best explanation for the universe, its design and order, and even the evil that exists in it, is a loving, personal, Creator God.

 

References

Craig, W. L. (2008). The absurdity of life without God. In W. L. Criag, Reasonable faith: Christian truth and apologetics [3rd ed.] (pp. 71-90). Retrieved from Blackboard: www.learn.liberty.edu

Dew, J. K. & Foreman, M. W. (2014). How do we know: An introduction to epistemology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Evans, C. S. & Manis, R. Z. (2009). Philosophy of religion: Thinking about faith [2nd ed.]. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Foreman, M. (2012a). Approaching the question of God’s existence . Retrieved from Blackboard: www.learn.liberty.edu

Foreman, M. (2012b). Arguments for God’s existence . Retrieved from Blackboard: www.learn.liberty.edu

Hasker, W. (1983). Metaphysics: Constructing a world view. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

McCloskey, H. J. (1968). On being an atheist. Retrieved from Blackboard: www.learn.liberty.edu

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