Atheist Arguments Against Theism

In an earlier post, I discussed a portion of a course offered at Suite 101 entitled The Philosophy of Atheism" and I said:

The course is so incredibly shallow and superficial as to be a complete waste of time for anyone who is seriously interested in the issue of the truth or falsity of theism and atheism. His "hack-job" summaries of the arguments for the existence of God would be laughable if it weren't for the fact that his course may be being read by people without much knowledge of the subject.

I may be reading the comments wrong, but it appears to me that at least one person thought I was talking about arguments advanced against theism by atheists generally when I said they were "shallow and superficial". Well, let me set the records straight. As the paragraph above shows, the thing that was "shallow and superficial" was the course being offered at Suite 101 -- not atheist arguments generally.

In fact, I think that atheist arguments, while ultimately wrong, are very challenging and complex. They often present a labyrinth of problems that must be navigated before a solution can be reached, and those who not particularly good at keeping the course can get lost in their subtleties. Atheists are not stupid people. Many are very smart (a concession which I find few atheists are willing to make about Christians who they overwhelmingly see as too stupid to see the truth -- hence, their adoption of the title "freethinkers"). But while they are smart, there is not a single atheist argument that has ever disproven God's existence, and every one of their arguments I have ever seen has been answerable. The atheist may not be satisfied with the answer given, but that doesn't change the fact that their every challenge has been answered.

With respect to the course, I want to make sure that I point out why I think that the arguments presented in that course are shallow and superficial. To do so, I will simply use as an example, the first argument that the course author claims to debunk: the Design Argument. Here is what he says in toto:

The design argument or the teleological argument states that everything around us (flora & fauna) is well suited to survive in earthly settings and perform complex functions, thus indicating that its all been designed by someone. It compares nature with a watch made by a watchmaker.

Unfortunately it is logically impossible to compare a watch created by a human with a complex and dynamic thing as 'nature'. The analogy is simply too weak. Also Charles DarwinÂ’s theory of evolution that explains the mechanism of biological adaptation turned the tables on the idea of a supreme creator.

On a philosophical level the argument also poses problems to monotheistic beliefs, as the world, being such a intricate thing, could have been built by a number of smaller gods. Also it fails to explain why a benevolent and just God would create evil things when he crafted the world. He could have very well avoided doing it.

That's it. This subject which has inspired countless books both pro and con has allegedly been rebutted in two paragraphs (the first paragraph merely attempting to give a summary of the argument). Let's break the argument down beginning with the third paragraph.

The author's first sentence is just plain silly: "On a philosophical level the argument also poses problems to monotheistic beliefs, as the world, being such a intricate thing, could have been built by a number of smaller gods." I suppose it could have been built by a number of smaller gods, but that is an issue unrelated to the question of design, isn't it? After all, the Argument from Design simply asserts that there was a designing intelligence behind the existence of the universe. It does not tell us that it was the Christian God as opposed to any other god or gods that created it. While there are many reasons to believe that it is the God of Christianity that is the Designer behind the Design Argument, the Design Argument itself is not somehow rebutted because it turns out that there may be a number of smaller gods that did the creating. This rebuttal misunderstands the design argument.

The author wraps up the third paragraph by stating the design argument "fails to explain why a benevolent and just God would create evil things when he crafted the world. He could have very well avoided doing it." Actually, all he is doing here is restating a different argument against the existence of God -- the problem of evil. Like his first rebuttal in this paragraph, this rebuttal does not recognize the limits of the Design Argument. As I just noted, the Argument from Design does not specify the God of Christianity as the designer, and it may be that the god who did the creating is not all-good or may even be evil. That is not a question addressed by the Design Argument. (Of course, it does need to be dealt with, but it is dealt with when it is shown that the existence of evil is not contradictory to the belief in a good God who is the creator.)

Since the final two rebuttals in the third paragraph are not rebuttals against design but arguments against identifying the God recognized by Christians as the designer, the author's real rebuttal against the Design Argument is reduced to one paragraph -- the second. So, I will now turn my attention to that paragraph.

The author begins by stating that it is "logically impossible" to compare a watch with nature. In what way? How is it "logically" impossible? He gives no explanation for this claim other than to claim that the "analogy is simply too weak." I'm sorry Mr. Murali, but I don't see why the analogy is too weak to make the comparison, nor do I think the comparison to be impossible -- logically or otherwise. A watch is a complex piece of machinery which one would not expect to arise from natural forces acting without a directing intelligence. If a working timepiece cannot simply come into existence basrf solely on natural processes, then how can the universe, which I agree to be infinitely more complex and dynamic than a watch, which seems precisely engineered to support life (when it need not be capable of supporting life at all) have done so?

Continuing on, the course author then claims that somehow Darwinism "turned the table on the idea of a Supreme Creator." Certainly, Darwin gave a mechanism which could explain the diversity of life and the rise from simple life-forms to complex life forms, but Darwin's theories have difficulties and certainly there is no certainty that Darwin was right. There are some adaptations that seem so specialized that scientists have difficulty seeing how they could have arisen naturally. Intelligent Design theorists have been slowly making inroads into a scientific community steeped in philosophical naturalism using concepts like "irreducible complexity" that give a scientific footing for design and Darwinists have yet to provide workable answers to these challenges.

But supposing that Darwin was right (I don't think he was), does the "fact" that the diversity of life on this planet was caused by "natural selection" mean that there wasn't a designer? No, it may be that God didn't "design" the differences between cows and toads and flowers, but the influence of a designing intelligence can be seen in the formation of the first living cell (how it could have come into existence remains a mystery to scientists) and the design implicit in the universe that led to a habitat specially suited for supporting life.

Thus, Mr. Mulani is left with only two rebuttals: You cannot compare a watch with the universe because it is somehow "logically inconsistent", and the unproven ideas of Darwinian evolution created a system that allows diversity without the need for God. Perhaps there are arguments here that can be fleshed out to create real problems for the Argument from Design, but the author of this course sure hasn't done that.

Let me make this clear: the atheist arguments challenging the Argument from Design for the existence of God are actually quite complex. But what Mr. Murali writes as if it resolves these very difficult questions is simple, superficial and shallow.
Shallow and superficial? Yes, I think so.


Brian said…
I'm afraid I currently do not have the time to answer your "Intelligent Design" statements fully. However, I will try to do what I can.

If the universe was created by an intelligent designer, where did the intelligent designer come from?

You are right, intelligent design does not stipulate one or many gods... after all, as the Raelians point out, life on earth could have been created by extraterrestials. The point is meaningless.

Here is a more important question. If a supreme being (beings) created the universe, how did they (he/she/it) do it? What processes did they use?

Maybe we could use SCIENCE, the study of NATURE, as a way of determining how the universe was created? Oh wait, we are... evolution and the big bang!

Anyway, back to the series you mention...

From your essay, it sounds like the lecturer worded himself poorly. I think when he mentioned that Darwin's idea of evolution, Darwin was not rejecting a supreme designer, but rather that the concept rejects the idea of a Christian God (man created from clay, woman from a rib of man).

It is ridiculous to use your argument that no atheist has disproven the existence of a god! How many times do logicians need to make the statement,

"You CANNOT prove a negative!"

You can't prove that God doesn't exist. Likewise, you cannot prove that vampires, wumpuses, or mermaids do not exist!

How do you prove that a god exists? How do you separate a god from naturally occurring forces?

If a god materialized in front of you, how do you prove that it is a god and not a highly intelligent extraterrestial (or time-traveler) pulling your leg?

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