INTRODUCTION

In the article entitled “On Being an Atheist,” H.J. McCloskey attempts to refute the notion of the existence of God.  He opens with his stated goal:  “In this article I wish to remind fellow atheists of the grounds upon which theists base their belief in God, of the inadequacy of these grounds…”[1]  He then addresses several different methods with which Christians argue for a Creator and attempts to refute each one.

While he does develop a particular stance on the issues of the usefulness of proofs, the inadequacies of the cosmological and teleological arguments, the existence of evil as a detriment to belief in God, and the futility of faith in times of crisis, McCloskey is rarely capable of leaving the realm of assertion to formulate a true argument.  Consequently what appears to be a thoughtful treatment on the existence of God, at first blush, turns out to be nothing more than cleverly worded opinions that are vulnerable to critique as it will shortly become evident.

PROPER USAGE OF PROOFS

The first observation McCloskey makes is on the reliance of proofs.  He writes that philosophers, “… attribute too much importance to the role of the proofs of the existence of God…”[2]  He uses phrases like “less conclusive” and “no such indisputable examples” to drive home the point that a Christian’s arguments for God cannot be definitively established.  And, if they cannot be definitively established, they must therefore be rejected.

But this is a clever bait-and-switch.  If McCloskey is going to approach certain proofs for the existence of God, he must first make apparent the way in which these proofs are being used.  Arguing against a deductive proof when the deductive proof logically cannot prove anything is appropriate given the circumstances.  But arguing against a deductive proof when a deductive proof is not even being employed is simply an example of attacking a straw man.  It may be that some Christians are trying to make an argument in that sense but McCloskey is implying that Christians are only making one type of argument and is therefore not providing an accurate characterization of the particular arguments for God’s existence.

The argument for belief can actually be stated inferentially; what C. Stephen Evans cites as “inference to the best explanation.”[3]  Since it is possible that something other than the theistic argument is true, Christians are not stating anything in terms of deduction; rather their goal is to rely on what is probable.  McCloskey seems to be sidestepping the plausibility issue of the theist’s position over that of the atheist’s by simply stating that the theist’s position fails as a deductive proof; but, again, this fact has no bearing on the true location upon which the Christian stakes her argument.

THE COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT

After addressing the notion of proofs in the general sense, McCloskey then zooms in on the cosmological and teleological arguments specifically.  In trying to address “defects” in the cosmological argument, he writes, “The mere existence of the world constitutes no reason for believing in the existence of such a [necessarily existing] being.”[4]  But this is simply an assertion, not an argument.  If we were to study the nature of objects on this planet, we would quickly notice that no object exists necessarily.  By extension, there is not one living thing that does not owe its existence to some other living thing.  These “contingent” beings, therefore, must have a “necessary” being in order to exist considering that a string of “contingent” beings simply leads to infinite regress with no explanation as to a cause.

Evans writes, “A necessary being is the only kind of being whose existence requires no further explanation.  In short, there is an ultimate explanation for the existence of a contingent being only if there exists a necessary being.”[5]

The breakdown looks something like this:

  1. Contingent beings require a necessary being as a “cause” to exist.
  2. Contingent beings exist.
  3. Therefore, a necessary being must exist.

McCloskey has not dealt with this particular argument, rather he has, again, managed to sidestep the particular issue in order to make his case more persuasive.

He writes that the cosmological argument, “… does not entitle us to postulate an all-powerful, all-perfect, uncaused cause… This objection is one way of putting Kant’s criticism that the cosmological proof involves the ontological proof.”[6]  On the one hand he is absolutely right.  The cosmological argument, as it stands, is not arguing for particular attributes of the uncaused cause.  There is no room in the premise of the argument for such attributes.  On the other hand McCloskey is trying to defeat the cosmological argument by stating that the ontological proof must play a factor in the argument.  Neither is this stipulation evident nor is it necessary for the ontological to be involved in the cosmological.  All the cosmological argument is stating (as laid out above) is that an uncaused cause must be the explanation for contingent beings.  Therefore McCloskey has travelled quite a bit further out past the limits of his own assertion.

THE TELEOLOGICAL ARGUMENT

McCloskey also focuses on the teleological argument, noting that, “To get the proof going, genuine indisputable examples of design or purpose are needed.  There are no such indisputable examples, so the proof does not get going at all.”[7]  In other words, because the proof is not “indisputable,” we must therefore reject it outright.  McCloskey is relying on the false assumption that this particular argument must be deductive and therefore indisputable to be sound.  As has already been pointed out, the teleological argument is not being used deductively but rather inferentially as the best explanation available.  And since it is inferential, it does not follow that a proof must either be indisputably proved or rejected.  All that is necessary for an inferential proof is that the proof be probable.

There is something that should be addressed at this point that is noticeably lacking from McCloskey’s article.  As Evans suggests, it is not simply a matter of denying something that is the atheist’s responsibility.  “The arguments can be rejected, but the person who rejects them pays a price.  For to deny a proposition is logically equivalent to asserting another proposition.  To deny p is to assert not-p.”[8]  While McCloskey is asserting not-p, so to speak, he is not even bothering to prove his “not-p” assertion.  In other words he says, for example, that the teleological argument does not work but then does not attempt to show why it does not work.

COUNTERFACTUALS IN SUPPORT OF TELEOLOGY

Since there is no work done here to defend his particular position, it begins to break down under further scrutiny.  For instance, a Christian can address the counterfactual example that scientists have noticed an invisible effect on the mass density of the universe called “dark matter.”  In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking writes, “Our galaxy and other galaxies, however, must contain a large amount of ‘dark matter’ that we cannot see directly, but which we know must be there because of the influence of its gravitational attraction…”[9]  This is not an “indisputable” proof for the existence of “dark matter” but is, rather, an inference to the best explanation given the empirical evidence that can be observed.  While all scientists would have no problem with this concept of “dark matter”, McCloskey would have to reject the notion based on his own standard.

Other counterfactuals to McCloskey’s assertion are the magnetic field and black holes as was addressed in Lesson 18.[10]  Neither of these can be indisputably proved using the scientific method yet scientists adhere to those particular views based on what are the best explanations available.  Christians are no different when positing an intelligent designer to explain the appearance of purposiveness in the natural order.  Therefore, McCloskey is overreaching when he states that his indisputability method is a “very conclusive objection.”

EXAMPLES FOR THE TELEOLOGICAL ARGUMENT

Two great examples of teleological arguments that provide, inferentially, a proof for the existence of God are not only the features of “design” in the universe but also the nature of its measurability.  In describing the “fine-tuned” character of the universe, Hawking notes, “The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers [of physical constants] seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”[11]  This quality of “design” is apparent throughout nature.  What happened at the Singularity is a perfect illustration of Hawking’s point:  “If the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size.”[12]

In an article entitled, “The Measurability of the Universe – A Record of the Creator’s Design” Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez argues that our planet is situated just so in order to not only benefit from the features of the habitable zone (the area relative to a star where an Earth-like planet can flourish) but to be able to measure and comprehend the universe as well.  He writes, “The same processes and features that make Earth habitable also make and preserve a record of activity and provide a means for measurement.”[13]  He goes on to contrast other areas inside our Milky Way that provide hardly any visibility; concluding that, “Humanity’s home planet is a comfortable porch from which curious humans can gaze out to the ends of time and space.”[14]

Either the universe is the product of a grand-scale (yet extremely elegant) accident or not.  Given the immense unpredictability of the “random chance” argument, Christians are within reason to posit that the best explanation for the specific particular features conducive for not only life but intelligent comprehension of the mechanisms of our universe is an “Intelligent Designer.”  McCloskey, on the other hand, has made no case for an elegant accident in his attempted refutation of the teleological argument.

DOES EVOLUTION REPLACE DESIGN?

He does, however, try to replace the appearance of a Designer with evolution when he says, “So many things which were, before the theory of evolution, construed as evidence of design and purpose, are now seen to be nothing of the sort.”[15]  What McCloskey does not acknowledge is that evolution, or more specifically macroevolution, has not been conclusively proved – a detail that he ignores outright when solely focusing on the “indisputability” nature of the argument from design.  This places the theory of evolution, at best, alongside the teleological argument in the realm of inference to the best explanation.

Assuming for a moment that McCloskey is correct and evolution is the direct explanation behind the appearance of “design” in nature, it still does not provide an ultimate explanation for evolution in the first place.  All evolution can do is mechanistically explain the process of change but not the reason for the existence of such change.  Therefore, the subject of what is essentially a first-order question cannot jump categories and answer the second-order question for itself.

EVIL AS EVIDENCE AGAINST GOD

McCloskey then focuses his attention on the presence of evil in the world as a means to refute the cosmological and teleological arguments.  This particular line of reasoning seems to be either a clever attempt to merge disparate types of arguments or is just an example of careless writing.  The cosmological and teleological argument never addresses the notion of morality.  Evans writes, “By itself, the [cosmological] argument only seems to show the existence of a necessary being that is the cause of the universe.”[16]  By itself, the teleological also seems to only show an intelligent being.  The two arguments strive to prove nothing more than that.  Therefore the concept of evil that McCloskey is trying to use as a rejoinder to those specific arguments is completely irrelevant.

THE LOGICAL FORM OF THE ARGUMENT

The presence of evil and suffering is given some attention in McCloskey’s article where he tries to show the contradictory nature of the simultaneous existences of God and evil.  He writes, “No being who was perfect could have created a world in which there was avoidable suffering or in which his creations would (and who could have been created so as not to) engage in morally evil acts…”[17]  This particular objection seems to take a logical approach; its breakdown is something like this:

  1. If there is a perfect God, He would not allow evil to exist.
  2. Evil exists.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

The problem here is in the assumption of premise (1).  It does not follow that, if there is a perfect God, He would not allow evil to exist.  There may be a purpose for evil that we cannot comprehend from our particular vantage point.  More specifically, it is evident that there is what Evans calls a “second-order good” that emerges from the allowance of evil in certain circumstances.  If an atheist were to step in front of a bullet to protect a loved one, the fact that he was shot would be an evil but an evil that garnered a second-order good when he chose to be courageous and use himself as a shield.

By the way it is important to notice that McCloskey is trading on certain terms like “good” and “bad” without bothering to determine the origins of these particular terms in the first place.  If not from a God who is the standard of all moral goodness, then from where does he get the moral descriptive “good” or “bad”?  As Evans explained earlier, the atheist is certainly not off the hook when it comes to explaining the notion of morality.  He still must explain how these moral terms mean anything if there is not a standard from which to judge.  Saying that, while good and evil do exist, there is no God seems to be the equivalent of saying that, while McCloskey’s article evidently exists, there is no McCloskey.

It is not necessary for Christians to conclusively disprove the logical form of the problem of evil.  All that is required is that they can show there are possible reasons why God would allow it; thereby refuting the claim of a logical contradiction.  These possible reasons, like the example above, can be shown to exist given certain circumstances.  Therefore, this particular argument does not prove to be a problem for the compatibility of God and the existence of evil after all.

FREE WILL TO ALWAYS CHOOSE “GOOD”

McCloskey appears to follow J.L. Mackie’s script when he says, “… might not God have very easily so have arranged the world and biased man to virtue that men always freely chose what is right?”[18]  But this appears to be a problem in terms of how McCloskey defines free will.  There cannot, by definition, be free will in the libertarian sense (that is that one can freely choose to do X having the ability to choose otherwise) if God is “arranging” it so that one cannot freely choose other than X.  It appears that McCloskey is siding more with what can be considered compatibilism, that one has the freedom to choose X even though she does not have the choice to do otherwise.  But this seems to go against what is self-evident to our nature — that we feel as if we have the freedom to choose otherwise.  Therefore, the hypothetical that McCloskey employs here seems rather implausible without further argument.

Given this notion of the antithetical natures of libertarian free will and God’s omnipotence, Alvin Plantinga suggests that it is not true that God can actualize a world wherein men can always freely choose the good.  If, for example, a husband were contemplating whether or not to cheat on his wife then two future possibilities immediately present themselves:

  1. The husband will cheat on his wife.
  2. The husband will remain faithful to his wife.

Since God has no control over free choice in the libertarian free will view and can only create the world in which one particular free choice has been made, then, if it were the case that the husband would cheat on his wife, God cannot actualize a world where the husband remains faithful to his wife.  If, on the other hand, the husband will remain faithful to his wife then God cannot actualize a world where the husband cheats on his wife.  Either one or the other can exist but not both considering the particular view that God has no control over human free will.  In other words, given the libertarian view, God cannot actualize all possible worlds as McCloskey and Mackie suggests.

ATHEISM AS A COMFORTER IN TIMES OF HARDSHIP

Towards the end of his piece, McCloskey argues that atheism, not theism, is the particular view that provides more comfort during times of pain and struggle.  He writes, “… one must feel much happier in the knowledge that there is no God, that God had nothing to do with the blow one had suffered.  And instead of cold comfort in religious belief, the atheist in such a situation would seek and receive strength and comfort where it is available, from those able to give it, his friends and men of good will.”[19]

But is McCloskey’s assertion, that atheists would be much more comforted in knowing that there is no God during times of hardship, true?

In Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, William Lane Craig gives an appropriate response when he says, “Man cannot live consistently and happily as though life were ultimately without meaning, value, or purpose.  If we try to live consistently within the framework of the atheistic worldview, we shall find ourselves profoundly unhappy.  If instead we manage to live happily, it is only by giving the lie to our worldview.”[20]

Craig makes three essential points in his essay.  The first is that, given the second law of thermodynamics, all things in the universe are moving towards decay.  The atheist should ask herself then whether there is a point to existence in the first place since all things die.  The second point is that, in a world with no God, humans have no value.  Morality and ethics become nothing more than simple statements about favorite ice cream flavors.  In other words no objective moral standard can exist without God.  And the third point is that humans have no purpose without God.  They are merely accidents of random variation that appear to exist based on chance but only for a short while before losing everything they have strived for and acquired.  If death really is all that awaits us then the atheist cannot find comfort, as McCloskey suggests, only despair.

This rationale is very compelling.  It seems self-evident that sufferers feel the urge to contemplate their circumstances hoping to arrive at some form of understanding given a particular perspective.  Either they get that perspective from themselves or from somewhere else but the notion that a grievous suffering could take place with absolutely no urge to understand or gain perspective is to deny something that plainly exists in people on the whole.

Even McCloskey cannot resist the urge to find some sort of explanation or perspective through suffering.  He argues that believing in a God during this period will lead to thinking that God is the reason for suffering.  Therefore, it is better to understand it in a different sense:  that God does not exist and is therefore not the reason behind suffering.  McCloskey is doing two things here that are counterproductive to each other.  On the one hand, he is affirming the felt human need to contemplate our own painful situations but, on the other, he wants us to take away any meaning or purpose to those situations.  And then he concludes that following his advice will lead to greater happiness.  This line of reasoning does not follow at all, as Craig articulately points out.

CONCLUSION

Given McCloskey’s notable intellect and the nature of his stated intentions in his article, one would expect not only a diligent refutation of the grounds upon which theists make their arguments but a reasonable set of argumentation in favor of the atheist position.  As Evans writes, one cannot deny something without making an assertion oneself.[21]  Unfortunately, for atheists, McCloskey rests almost his entire case on nothing more than bald assertions and, therefore, his article cannot be considered a successful refutation of the Christian worldview.

[1] McCloskey, H.J. “On Being an Atheist.” Question Journal (vol. I), 1968, 62

[2] Ibid

[3] Evans, C. Stephen, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith (Contours of Christian Philosophy), 02 ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 79

[4] McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” 63

[5] Evans, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith (Contours of Christian Philosophy), 69

[6] McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” 63-64

[7] McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” 64

[8] Evans, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith (Contours of Christian Philosophy), 67

[9] Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time, 10 ed. (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1998), 48

[10] Liberty University. “Lesson 18: Approaching the Question of God’s Existence.” Accessed October 8, 2011. http://bb7.liberty.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-12888658-dt-content-rid-38122937_1/courses/PHIL201_B05_201140/PHIL201_B05_201140_ImportedContent_20110815094231/PHIL201_LUO_8wk_DEV_ImportedContent_20110513104525/PHIL201_LUO_8wk_MASTER_ImportedContent_20110513090642/PHIL201_DLP_8wk_DEV_ImportedContent_20110208104730/PHIL201_DLP_8wk_MASTER_ImportedContent_20101122121953/Course%20Content/Module/Week%206%20–%20Philosophy%20of%20Religion/Instructor%27s%20Notes/Lesson%2018%20PointeCast/GodsExistence/index.html

[11] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 129

[12] Ibid, 126

[13] Reasons to Believe. “The Measurability of the Universe – A Record of the Creator’s Design.” Accessed October 8, 2011. http://www.reasons.org/cosmic-design/measurability-universe%E2%80%93%E2%80%93-record-creator%E2%80%99s-design

[14] Ibid

[15] McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” 64

[16] Evans, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith (Contours of Christian Philosophy), 77

[17] McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” 65

[18] McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” 66

[19] McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” 68

[20] Craig, William Lane, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 03 ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 84

[21] Evans, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith (Contours of Christian Philosophy), 67

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