In his article “On Being an Atheist,” H. J. McCloskey makes an entertaining, but in the end inadequate, explanation as to why the arguments for God’s existence fail (limiting himself to the only two he cared to deal with), and why Atheism provides more comfort to the hurting person than Theism.
Unfortunately his article is riddled with straw men and fails to address the question of God’s existence at the level that the Theist presents it. Twice in the article he makes reference to the theist’s claim that “[God’s] got the whole world in his hands.” In his opening paragraph he makes reference to a Theist who claimed that “It’s harder if you don’t believe in God.” By selecting the least intellectual and most naïve claims made by a Christian Theist, McCloskey has conveniently set the bar low enough for him to jump over with minimal effort.
In fact McCloskey places the bar even lower by referring to the “proofs of” rather than “arguments for” God’s existence, thereby overstating the Theist’s claim. With respect to the “proofs” for God’s existence that McCloskey attempts to deal with, namely the Cosmological and Teleological Arguments, McCloskey offers trivial objections that are easily answered. With respect to arguments for God’s non-existence, McCloskey offers the logical form of the problem of evil which, while rich in rhetoric, does not contain enough logic to necessitate its title. McCloskey ends his article with a pragmatic justification of Atheist, stating that Atheism is more comforting that Theism; a point that is stark in its irrelevance.
In the first few paragraphs of his article, McCloskey does a little sleight of hand with his readers. He overstates the Theist’s case by referring to the proofs of God’s existence, and then feigns amazement at the fact that they actually don’t “prove” God’s existence. This sort of trick ought to be recognized by people familiar with philosophy of religion. The most common way Christian Apologists make the case for God’s existence is not by claiming that God’s existence can be proved, a standard that only mathematicians rise too, but rather by what is called the “inference to the best explanation.” This method takes a given phenomenon and examines different explanations for it. The explanation that turns out to be the best is the one that is preferred. With respect to things like the origin of the universe, the fine tuning of the universe, and the existence of objective moral values, God is seen as being the best explanation for these phenomenon. So it all depends on how the word “prove” is defined. If by prove, one means that no other explanation is possible, then it is false that God’s existence can be proved. After all it’s not impossible that moral values are merely illusory and therefore do not constitute evidence for God’s existence, but this seems to go against human experience in which we apprehend a realm of objective moral values. Therefore this explanation is not the best.
The first argument for God’s existence that McCloskey attempts to dismantle is the Cosmological Argument. First he complains that one is not justified in believing that the universe needs a cause because requiring a cause for the universe would also require a cause for God. And since God having a cause would either be self-contradictory, since God is thought to be uncaused, or it would lead to an infinite regress because each cause would itself also need a cause, McCloskey believes that the causal argument is unsound. He is then nice enough to admit that in order to solve the problem of an infinite regress, that God must be understood to be a being which exists necessarily. He then argues that “mere existence of the world constitutes no reason for believing in such a being.” The wording of his argument seems to indicate that he believes that the universe itself is all there is and ever will be.
This is problematic for McCloskey, especially when one considers the “non-temporal” form of the argument, which rests it’s case on the contingency of the universe, rather than on the mere existence of the universe. It is obvious to any sincere observer that the universe in composed of contingent material, or material that very well could have not existed. For example, consider sub-atomic particles, like quarks. There are a finite amount of quarks in the world. It seems perfectly conceivable that the universe could have contained one less quark than it does in fact now contain. But if that’s possible, couldn’t there be two less quarks? Perhaps maybe three less quarks? It is also possible to conceive of the universe having only three quarks. But if that’s possible, couldn’t there be only two quarks? Or perhaps one quark? Couldn’t there be no quarks at all? It is obvious with this thought experiment that quarks and other sub-atomic particles are merely contingent entities and cannot be conceived of as being necessary in their existence. The same is true for the matter that these sub-atomic particles make up.
This means that the universe is contingent. The problem is that if the universe is contingent, then it would require an explanation that must include the existence of a non-contingent, or necessary being. So therefore the Theist can wholeheartedly agree with McCloskey that the mere existence of the universe constitutes no reason for believing a necessary being exists, but the contingency of the universe does constitute reason for believing that such a being exists.
McCloskey then goes on to say that even if the cosmological argument enables us to postulate the existence of God (which it has already been demonstrated that it does), there is no reason to postulate that this God must be omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent and so forth. It is important to understand here that this argument is part of a cumulative case. Not every argument is meant to capture every aspect of God. There are other arguments that can be used to show that this necessarily existing being also has all the attributes traditionally ascribed to God.
Another argument that McCloskey attempts to deal with is the Teleological Argument. He says that there is a distinct difference between the Teleological Argument and the Argument from Design, but it is not clear in his article what the distinction is.
He suggests that the argument can be dismantled by denying the premise that there is apparent design in the universe. Logically speaking, he is right; the conclusion, “God exists” can be avoided simply by denying one of the argument’s premises. However his attempt at denying the premise, that there is apparent design in the universe seems rather week. He suggests that there were examples of apparent design in the universe prior to the discovery of biological evolution. Since that discovery, all examples of apparent design can be dismissed as being the result of evolution. Even if one were to grant the truth of evolution, which is still a matter of controversy, there are still two fundamental problems with his line of thinking.
First, biological evolution merely explains how the human body is functionally complex. This is done by saying that our ancestors might have had less functionally complex bodies and as a result died, or was not able to produce offspring. Humans, as they exist today simply made it through the filter that killed off all other possible designs of humans. But this does not explain other examples of apparent design. For example the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life would still require an explanation. Even if evolution were true, the universe would still have needed to be finely-tuned in order for life to exist. The only way McCloskey can maintain that there is no apparent design in the universe is to extrapolate the reasoning of biological evolution and make it apply the universe as a whole, thereby suggesting that the universe itself has evolved from a simpler, less complex organism. The problem is, there is absolutely no evidence for that. So unless McCloskey wants to admit that he has faith that these things are so, it would behoove him to back off the teleological argument.
Secondly, evolution itself points to the existence God. This has been demonstrated very well by Philosopher William Lane Craig. According to Frank Tipler and John Barrow in their book the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, there are ten steps that had to have occurred during the process of evolution. Each of these steps are so improbable that before any of them would occur by chance alone, the sun would have ceased to be a main sequence star and incinerated the Earth. Tipler and Barrow estimate that the odds of the evolution of the human genome are between 4 to the -180th power to the 110,000th power and 4 to the -360th power to the 110,000th power. Therefore, if evolution did occur, it would have literally been a miracle. In other words, evolution is evidence for the existence of God.
In addition to this, McCloskey suggests that the existence of imperfection and evil in the world is evidence that a perfect being does not exist. This unfortunately is a red herring. McCloskey is trying to get his readers to focus more on the problem of evil than on the evidence for design. Even if imperfection and evils are shown to exist, that does not in anyway mean that the universe is not designed.
But even if the problem of evil is not successful in invalidating the argument from design, could it have any more luck with the existence of God? McCloskey argues that there is evil in the world and that this evil is incompatible with the existence of an all good God. Unfortunately McCloskey fails to give any reason why the existence of God and the existence of evil is incompatible. It is perfectly possible that God has morally justifiable reasons for allowing the evil in the world to exist, even if his reasons are not apparent to us.
McCloskey also argues that the “free will” defense is an inadequate theodicy. He says that since God is thought to be all powerful then he should have the ability to make people freely do the right thing under every circumstance. The problem is that McCloskey apparently doesn’t understand that it is logically impossible to force someone to freely do something. If someone were forced to do something, then the action would not be free. If the action were free, it can only be because it was not forced. God’s omnipotence does not at all mean that He can do the logically impossible. Of course, if God could do the logically impossible then the logical problem of evil fails because then, even if God and evil are logically incompatible, God’s ability to bring about logical impossibilities would override that.
Finally, McCloskey argues that Atheism is more comforting that Theism. This point is blatantly irrelevant. Whether or not a proposition is comforting has absolutely nothing to do with the truth of that proposition. Nevertheless, something can be said for McCloskey’s attempt to make the Atheist worldview more appealing by saying that it is comfortable.
This amounts to little more than the Noble Lie that Dr. William Lane Craig mentions in his article “The Absurdity of Life without God.” In this article, Craig explains that it is impossible for anyone to live happily and consistently while believing in Atheism. Thus Atheists have adopted the Noble Lie in order to give their lives an illusion of meaning. This is what McCloskey is doing. If McCloskey’s views were pressed to their logical conclusion then the universe has no purpose and neither do the humans who occupy it. Thus in the absence of God, life is absurd. But since McCloskey cannot live with the knowledge that life is ultimately absurd, in order to get through the day, he invents meaning for his life. He says that Atheism leads to self-reliance, and self-respect and for this, he can feel a sense of pride. But he ultimately knows that that pride is an illusion and that, if he is right about God’s non-existence, then his life is ultimately absurd.
I find it very interesting that embedded in McCloskey’s critiques of the Cosmological and Teleological arguments, and his argument against God’s existence from evil, is the suggestion that maybe a Deistic god exists. A Deistic god wouldn’t be so bad. Such a god wouldn’t impose any moral values on McCloskey or say that he couldn’t do certain things, and he certainly wouldn’t care enough to throw him into Hell. I personally don’t think that McCloskey’s objections against God are intellectually based, but rather spring from the fact that he does want God to exist.