The Secret Agreement between Atheists and Theists

by Eric Steinhart

Atheists and theists have a strange secret agreement. You can see it if you look at the way they treat the arguments for God, like the cosmological argument.

The theists say: (1) If the reasoning in the cosmological argument is correct, then God exists. (2) The reasoning in the cosmological argument is correct. (3) Therefore, the argument proves that God exists.

The atheists say: (1) If the reasoning in the cosmological argument is correct, then God exists. (2) The reasoning in the cosmological argument is not correct. (3) Therefore, the argument fails to prove that God exists.

Atheists and theists both agree on the major premise: if the reasoning in the cosmological argument is correct, then God exists. Why the agreement? Why grant that the cosmological argument is an argument for God? Sometimes atheists do point out that it might not be an argument for God – it might be an argument for something else. But I’ve never seen that possibility seriously explored. And it’s too bad.

On the one hand, atheists can attack theism by showing that the classical arguments for God are logically flawed. On the other hand, atheists can attack theism by showing that those very same arguments are arguments for things that are not God. Which attack is deeper?

I think it’s clear that the second line of attack is much deeper – it’s much, much more threatening. When your enemies attack your arguments, well, you can always deal with that. But when your own arguments turn against you, you’re in big trouble.

So I’m going to encourage atheists to look at the classical arguments to see what else they might be used for. Fix them up, make them all shiny, and use them to drive to some new place. For an illustration, stay tuned . . .

Guest Contributor Eric Steinhart is an associate professor of philosophy at William Paterson University. Many of his papers can be found here .

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • David E

    No such secret agreement exists (except among the least philosophically literate atheists, perhaps). It’s long been pointed out that there are nontheistic, non-sentient, naturalistic candidates for what caused the big bang or for a first cause in general.

    “Sometimes atheists do point out that it might not be an argument for God – it might be an argument for something else. But I’ve never seen that possibility seriously explored.”

    Below you can find many papers on cosmological arguments for theism that explore just that possibility in a serious way:

    http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theism/cosmological.html

    Here is the abstract for one of these papers:

    “Some believe that evidence for the big bang is evidence for the existence of god. Who else, they ask, could have caused such a thing? In this paper, I evaluate the big bang argument, compare it with the traditional first-cause argument, and consider the relative plausibility of various natural explanations of the big bang.”

    http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_schick/bigbang.html

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    @David – Good points, but it seems you’re focusing on something like the Kalam Argument, which is just one of many cosmological arguments. And it’s pretty weak anyway, as are the naturalistic replies. The big bang, after all, is just another physical event. Aquinas (in his Third Way) or Leibniz (in his Sufficient Reason Argument) would have asked: why are there any physical events at all?

  • Jeff Dale

    Actually, I’ve more often heard atheists challenge premise #1 than accept it. The problem I’ve seen is what often comes next.

    The atheist shows that the argument, even if valid, could just as easily prove any of the other gods man has invented, or any god man has never heard of, or a committee of technologically sophisticated (natural) beings from another universe, or any of countless other creating entities imaginable and unimaginable. So far so good. But then the theist retorts that the atheist hasn’t disproved God (and in fact has admitted it as one of the many possible creating forces). So the theist walks away thinking that the argument still supports his belief in God because all his *other* reasons for believing point to God being the creating entity supported by this argument.

    It’s important always to drive home the point. It’s still *possible* that God exists in spite of what the arguments say. The atheist isn’t claiming that he’s disproved God; theists often mistakenly think we need to disprove God, and this point of the argument just reinforces their thinking along those lines (and therefore reinforces their belief). Rather, what the atheist has shown is that the argument provides no support for belief in God. The theist needs to look back at those *other* reasons for belief and see if they stand up on their own; they can’t be combined with *this* argument to stitch together a case for belief.

    To put it another way, we have to remember that many theists hold as one of their unrecognized assumptions a false dichotomy: that either God must be disproved or he exists. Showing that the argument above leads to vast numbers of possible creating entities, one of which is God, may just play right into this false dichotomy. Unless we also insist on the need for positive reasons to believe, theists can continue taking belief as a default until atheists come up with a decisive defeater.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Jeff, nicely put! You say that “the argument, even if valid, could just as easily prove any of the other gods man has invented, or any god man has never heard of, or a committee of technologically sophisticated (natural) beings from another universe, or any of countless other creating entities imaginable and unimaginable.”

      But how could that be true? All the things you give as alternatives are contingent beings that would fall within the scope of any serious cosmological argument. So an atheist can’t offer them as alternatives.

  • Jeff Dale

    Jeff, nicely put!

    Thanks!

    But how could that be true?

    I’m not sure I understand. Maybe I should’ve said that the argument, even if valid, only supports the existence of some kind of creating entity, but does nothing to establish which. The long list of possible alternatives is merely meant to broaden the theist’s horizons; if his only concepts are his own god and all the mythological ones of ancient societies (blithely failing to notice that the former is manifestly one of the latter), he might not realize how much competition his god has. I wouldn’t actually offer any of them as a serious alternative, except to note that they’re all possible and (in part because there are so many) each individually improbable.

  • Patrick Jenkins

    Jeff, as a theist, I’ll personally say that any effort to “drive home the point” that an individual’s interpretation of God may be inaccurate is not at all useful to the cosmological argument. The argument seeks to prove the existence of God – not the nature. In fact, my common experience of atheists seeking to drive home your point has only brought about a thinking that all atheists share an incredibly overwhelming bias against religion, rather than a core bias against the existence of God.

    This trap that many atheists seem to get stuck on is what Eric is hoping to overcome by disproving the logic of the first claim – thereby trumping the presumed trump. I’m interested in hearing what you come up with.

  • Jeff Dale

    Hi Patrick. I’m not sure if we’re talking about the same thing. The point I wanted to “drive home” was not that any particular interpretation of God was inaccurate, but that no particular interpretation of a creating entity was probable given the vast numbers of other possible creating entities. The argument is posed to prove God but it does no such thing. Even if it were valid, it would only say that there is some kind of creating entity, but that creating entity is no more likely to be the biblical God (whichever version thereof one happens to prefer) than any of the countless other possible creating entities. There’s nothing about the argument that logically limits it to one particular creating entity you might like to propose, and so the argument can’t provide special support only to one creating entity while not providing the same support to all the others. Is that clearer?

    I can’t speak for all atheists, but I’ve met quite a few. We aren’t free of biases, of course, but it’s safe to say that you haven’t understood where we’re coming from at all if you think “all atheists share an incredibly overwhelming bias against religion.” That statement itself betrays an incredibly overwhelming bias.

  • Patrick Jenkins

    Haha, the statement was intended to be biased. Sorry if I wasn’t clear. My “common experience of atheists” has produced that opinion. I’ve not accepted that as a shared commonality among all atheists, however.

    Also, I apologize if I didn’t quite follow you the first time, but I admit I’m seeing the second go of it the same way. Perhaps let me clarify that when I mention God in the case of the cosmological argument, I’m making no claims as to precise shape/number/version of that God. I agree with you that the argument is unable to provide special support to one creating entity – but I’m also pointing out that is simply not the case for the argument.

    As I see it, the argument stands as a way of affirming that something beyond our ability to understand has to exist. The theist lives within the accepted logic of Newton’s First Law as an absolute basis of our reality. All it proves is that there is a greater reality than which we can perceive. The nature of that reality is left untouched by the argument.

    • Daniel Fincke

      No, it’s not Newton’s First Law you refer to (that’s a very specific physical principle), it’s the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

  • Jeff Dale

    I only have a few minutes left online tonight, so if you reply again I probably won’t get to it until tomorrow at the earliest.

    When you say that your “common experience of atheists” has revealed an overwhelming bias against religion, I’d say that what you encountered was “bias” in the same sense that most people today are biased against believing that the world is flat, or biased against being eaten by lions. In other words, it’s a “bias” acquired by becoming convinced of the wrongness or undesirability of something. But you probably meant that bias was involved in becoming convinced about religion in the first place. There’s not time or space here to hash that out, so I will simply say that any fair consideration of the evidence available on the God question will yield a convincing negative answer.

    One key sentence of your comment seems self-contradictory, so it might be missing a word or two: “I agree with you that the argument is unable to provide special support to one creating entity – but I’m also pointing out that is simply not the case for the argument.”

    But if I understand the gist of your message, it’s this: You agree that the argument doesn’t provide evidence for any one possible creating entity vs. all the other possible creating entities, but it does affirm *something* out there that is beyond our understanding and might be a creating entity. And I take it that you believe that this “something” happens to coincide with the version of God that you believe exists. It sounds like you’re conceding my point, so there might be something I’m missing. I’ll paraphrase what you seem to be saying: You agree that this argument can only (at best) be used as evidence for the existence of *some* creating entity. You acknowledge that there are countless *possible* creating entities, leaving any one (such as your God) with a very low individual probability. But in spite of that, you believe that your God *is* the one creating entity that this argument supposedly points to. Now, you might be willing to say this because you have *other* reasons (outside of this argument) to believe that your particular God exists. Those other reasons could, I suspect, be disputed, but all I was trying to say above is that the cosmological argument doesn’t *add* any support to your belief that you don’t already have from those other reasons. As I said when I referred to the need to drive a point home, a theist shouldn’t come to this argument, say “See? It proves there’s a creating entity!” and consider themselves to have found support for *their* particular preferred creating entity.

    I should also point out that the logic of the various forms of this argument has *also* been debunked, so it doesn’t even actually point to *any* creating entity. That was alluded to in the original post but not elaborated upon, but you can easily look it up.

    So in summary, the argument does not support any generalized belief in a creating entity (which might just as easily be a committee of extraterrestrials as any god), and it certainly does not support any belief in a particular creating entity (yours or anyone else’s). It doesn’t disprove God or debunk your other reasons for believing; it’s simply invalid.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Jeff, I wholeheartedly agree with and endorse your insistence that people not leap from the view that there must be a necessary, non-contingent, deist philosopher’s god to the view that their own highly idiosyncratic, highly dubious personal god of choice is that being.

      But the point Eric is driving at is that the real question is what to make of the intuitive idea that nothing can come from nothing. Talking about the speciousness of choosing to believe in Yahweh or Zeus over the possibilities of aliens or a computer program building the world is only talking about this on the level of contingent beings. Talking about how an unstable state of unformed matter which is in physics called “nothing” leads to the creation of things also misses the question of where it all comes from at all, i.e., why there is even some matter in the first place. Same with the multiverse—it might explain this universe’s origin but not its own.

      The Third Way and the Principle of Sufficient Reason drive the question inexorably back to the question of “why is there something rather than nothing?” It’s not a question of “why believe in this anthropomorphic designer deity rather than aliens or a computer program or another possible anthropomorphic designer being?”, it’s a question of how to answer the question of what in the universe (or outside of it) is necessary and why is it necessary and can we know anything about it using reason.

      I do not have a specific idea of where Eric is going with his answer but I am most intrigued.

  • Patrick Jenkins

    Daniel, you’re right. Thanks. I’m no example of depth in knowledge on this stuff, just a guy that tries to remain honest in his approach. Using Newtonian physics made sense in my mind, but I’ll go with using the Principle of Sufficient Reason for here on.

    Jeff, you’re right in that I don’t base my limited understanding of these things solely on a cosmological argument. Perhaps it could be said that theists view it as a stepping stone whereas atheists consider it a small useless boulder disconnected from any other relevancy. Regardless, I’m here to learn so I’ll look up the debunking of the argument.

  • Jeff Dale

    Being “here to learn” is way cool. I try to be “here to learn” wherever I happen to be. ;-) Always glad to converse with a sincere fellow traveler of any ideological stripe.

  • David E

    “All the things you give as alternatives are contingent beings that would fall within the scope of any serious cosmological argument. So an atheist can’t offer them as alternatives.”

    You’re going to need to define contingent since the term has more than one relevant usage.

    That said, let me offer this as a logically possible alternative: the big bang emerged from a quantum fluctuation in a larger, eternal “meta-universe”.

    An if this quantum fluctuation is just one of many that created a big bang it also addresses the argument from anthropic coincidence as well.

    Again, I present this only as a logically possible alternative. Yes, it’s purely speculative. But that’s all that’s needed for the cosmological argument to fail: alternatives that are at least as plausible as the theistic alternative.

    And that’s just one of many alternative possibilities.

    “The Third Way and the Principle of Sufficient Reason drive the question inexorably back to the question of “why is there something rather than nothing?””

    Is not the most obvious and sensible answer that it’s a simple brute fact? It’s not (or, at least, may not be) logically or metaphysically necessary that anything exists. It just happens to be the case and there’s nothing more to it than that. Just because the principle of sufficient reason states that the no state of affairs can hold without some reason for it being so doesn’t mean that this principle actually applies. Yes, most states of affairs have a reason why they are the case (some cause). But a first cause, whether God, the gods, an eternal meta-universe of quantum fluctuations or whatever else would pretty much have to simply be a brute fact.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      But now the meta-verse (which obeys the laws of quantum mechanics) is just some big physical thing surrounding our observable universe. So why is there a meta-verse rather than no meta-verse? Why does it obey the laws of quantum mechanics? Even if the meta-verse is eternal, its non-existence is possible.

  • David E

    See the last paragraph above. No need to respond a second time when I’ve already addressed that question.

  • CalebTheGnome

    I have to agree with David on this one. Appealing to a “necessary being” (via some form of the ontological argument) in order to escape a situation in which things have always existed or came into existence in spite of the principle of sufficient reason only works if one thinks that existence is a logical predicate. I find it much more appealing to go the Russelian route and say that existence is not a logical predicate but rather a quantifier (which also rather nicely solves other problems in the philosophy of language). If existence is not a logical predicate, then a conceptually necessary being would not have to necessarily exist.

    One might answer “why is there something rather than nothing” with “why should there be nothing rather than something?” The principle of sufficient reason should always hold, and the simple fact that we _think_ we can imagine “nothing” need not entail that a state of nothingness is even something that ever could have been the case or ever will be the case. It’s an interesting question, but I think people may be mistaken if they think it warrants an answer.


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