Jeff Cook’s Big If

Top 10 – Arguments Against God’s Existence #4-1 (Jeff Cook)

Socrates said, “Philosophy begins with wonder” and nearly all human beings at all times have looked at the world around them and, given its beauties, powers, and complexities, asked if what they saw was designed by a mind for a purpose.

I think it is vitally important to think hard about God. Whether or not you are a committed atheist, a believer in God, or something quite different—knowing why you come down where you do is a mark of a good character, of a thoughtful soul, of a person who cares about what reality is like.

Today I conclude my Top 10 reasons not to believe in God. The best reason to believe are coming, but for now I’d like to hear your thoughts: Are there good responses for non-belief that I don’t include? Which of these arguments do you find the most compelling? Which arguments give you pause, or have actually swayed your thinking? Do I pitch the arguments well, or could you state these arguments in a more compelling way?

And of course the real question—Did I get the list right?

Here’s the recap:

#10 – The Logical Problem of Pain

#9 – The Argument from Believers

#8 – No Good Gods

#7 – The Evidential Problem of Pain

#6 – The Impossibility of a Being that is both All-Good and All-Powerful

#5 – Design Flaws

And now – #4:  Human happiness

  1. If God exists, God wants his creatures to have good souls.
  2. If God exists, he has the power to ensure that all human beings know what is required for a good soul.
  3. Human beings are deeply confused about what is required for a good soul.

Therefore, there is no God.

This is my argument and I find it compelling. In some ways it is a further building upon the #2 argument we’ll look at below, as well as arguments about the unfairness of salvation being tied to specific religions that existed for centuries in limited parts of the world.

I suppose one could argue that the conscience is enough, or that every person—at some point in their lives—is actually addressed by God and invited onto a clear path. One might bite the bullet and say Premise 1, though important to God, is not vital, and that God cares about other matters. One might argue that the transformation of a human soul takes a long, long time and one might be on the road toward a good soul without knowledge of that road. To avoid the conclusion there needs to be a story presented that’s not known to be false if the argument is to be overcome. As it stands, I don’t have a good story—someone help me out.

#3:  Religious Diversity

  1. God values truth and would not allow errors about his nature or his intensions to thrive, for such errors can do great damage to human souls and societies.
  2. There are mutually exclusive beliefs about God that thrive.

Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

I find this a compelling argument that ought to be paired with the #2 argument below, which I find even more compelling. I will respond to them together.

#2:  Divine Hiddenness

  1. If God exists, God is father-like.
  2. A good father always ensures that his “children” know he exists and cares for them.
  3. There are some people who do not know either that God exists or that he cares for them.

Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

These two argumenta are far better philosophically than the Problem of Pain. Interestingly enough, divine hiddenness is a problem frequently raised in the Bible itself by those who seem to love God best. To defeat both arguments #2 and #3, one must tell a story of why God’s restricting of his own self-disclosure and allowing errors and uncertainty to persist can be a great good, or leads to a greater set of collective goods.

In my mind, a good father cares more about the good of his children’s souls than the children’s “knowledge” of the father’s existence. It could be that overwhelming knowledge of a God could actually damage a soul if, for example, that soul wasn’t prepared for such knowledge. As such, we might be able to paint, as Pascal does (here), scenarios in which God restricts his own self-disclosure, for God knows that self-disclosure might have negative effects. It seems the best counter to the problem of divine hiddenness is to tell a story in which God’s hiddenness benefits the souls of those God cares for.

For example, I think it could be the case that God restricts significant knowledge of himself to healthy communities. That is, God may know that certain kinds of communities are the best possible spheres for a human soul to thrive. As such God may choose not to showcase himself outside of such communities, for mere knowledge of God is not as valuable as the transformed human soul. As such, God may exclusively make knowledge of himself an incentive to enter communities where human souls thrive, and as such God seems hidden outside of such health promoting communities and yet makes his existence and love known within such communities.

If this is not known to be false, and if such communities do in fact make a soul better than it would have been otherwise, then it seems God—as a good Father—has a good reason for restricting knowledge of himself to such spheres. God would then allow errors to persist both because God values human freedom and because those who have not entered a soul-transforming community must believe something, why not one of the many other faulty religious tales? In fact, the other tales may by necessity be so bad that they serve as tool for encouraging seekers to find better answers in a soul-transforming community. That is an all too brief sketch of but one potential answer. In the 21st century, if atheism continues to have popular appeal, I expect this to become a more utilized argument for advancing materialism.

And the #1 reason to reject God-belief…

#1:   Ockham’s Razor

  1. We can explain everything that needs to be explained without a God.
  2. God is an unnecessary postulation.
  3. We shouldn’t believe in unnecessary postulations.

We should not believe in God.

The philosopher Paul Draper rightly asks, “If God exists, why can science completely ignore him and still explain so much?” If Premise 1 holds, it give us the best reason to reject God belief. But that’s a big if, and in my next post: the Top 10 reasons for God-Belief, Premise 1 will be the central target.

JEFF COOK teaches philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado and is the author of Everything New: One Philosopher’s Search for a God Worth Believing in (Subversive 2012). He pastors Atlas Church in Greeley, Colorado. www.everythingnew.org

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Mark

    I would posit that Occam’s Razor is not a good argument. Have you read C.S. Lewis’ “The Cardinal Difficulty With Naturalism” ? He argues that naturalism or determinism is basically an argument that human reason is an illusion. The problem is that human reason is used to make this inference. I suspect that ‘science’ can never resolve this.

    Don’t get me wrong, I struggle with doubt about God’s existence and even more knowing anything about ‘God’ as much as anyone. I just think there are more problems going the other way, at least at this point in my journey.

    I also am not sure how Dawkins, etc. can talk about things being ‘good’, ‘bad’, meaning, purpose, responsibility, etc. if we live in a determined universe. What will be will be . . .right? I’m somewhat familiar with the compatibalism of Dennet, etc but I don’t think that changes any of this. Thoughts?

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Mark (2) We will be hitting arguments for God belief in the next set of posts.

  • Larry Barber

    Regarding #4, perhaps finding out what’s good for the soul is itself good for the soul. I doubt that a “Manual for Soul Building” is possible, part of the building of the soul includes struggling over what’s good for your soul.

    #1 is simply an abuse of Ockham’s Razor. After all, it Ockham’s Razor is “true”, and not just a good epistemic heuristic, then we must also accept Descarte’s demon and nothing outside our mind, other than the demon, exists.

  • JamesB

    If I missed this caveat somewhere along the way, I apologize, but it just occurred to me that, except maybe for #1, you are not arguing for the possibility of a god in general but for a specific version of a Christian God. Is this true?

    Yet even in #1 it still seems to be implied because I don’t know any atheist whose reason for not believing in God is an equal but counter belief that everything can be explained without him. The argument of “I can’t explain X, therefore God” just isn’t a very compelling one. In most cases, the difference between Christians and atheists when it comes to not knowing an answer to a universal question is that the atheist is OK with “I don’t know” as an answer.

  • Caleb Gates

    I agree Divine Hiddenness is one of the most challenging arguments against God’s existence. I’m still wondering what you think about Stephen Law’s “Evil God Hypothesis” argument. In summary it is a mirror image of the problem of evil. He posted a summary cartoon of this position here (http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2012/03/evil-god-challenge-cartoon.html)
    Also I’m curious about your response to John Loftus’ Outsider Test of Faith argument.
    Here (http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2006/02/outsider-test.html), and here (http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2007/05/christianity-miserably-fails-outsider.html)

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Larry (3). You wrote, “#1 is simply an abuse of Ockham’s Razor. After all, [if] Ockham’s Razor is “true”, and not just a good epistemic heuristic, then we must also accept Descarte’s demon and nothing outside our mind, other than the demon, exists.”

    This doesn’t follow. Descartes puts forward the evil demon as a possibility inducing skepticism, not as the simplest explanation.

    It seems to me argument #1 rests on the simplicity of naturalism. Is there a reason to reject the simplest answer?

  • http://www.christylambertson.com Christy

    I agree with James. I consider “I don’t know” to be a perfectly valid answer to a number of important questions. (and I’m not even an atheist.) It does seem like you are arguing for a very specific, Christian conception of God. (For example, argument #2′s premise that “If God exists, God is father-like.” has a whole bunch of assumptions contained within it that many people who believe in some sort of Divine/Higher Power would not agree with.) There’s nothing wrong with arguing for the existence of the Christian God, of course, but I think it’s always good to be clear that you are positing the existence of a very specific conception of God, rather than simply arguing against a purely materialistic world view.

    If you are interested in aiming your arguments specifically at atheists, that’s fine, but that’s still a pretty small segment of the population (even though the New Atheists have an excellent PR department.) Most non-religious people and most non-Christians already believe in God in some fashion, and see no necessary logical connection between “There is a God.” and “Christianity is true.” For those of us in that camp, the entire Christian/atheist debate is largely irrelevant.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    JamesB (4) A few thoughts:

    You wrote, “It just occurred to me that, except maybe for #1, you are not arguing for the possibility of a god in general but for a specific version of a Christian God. Is this true?”

    I think these arguments are seeking to show that an exceedingly good, exceedingly powerful instigator of our world doesn’t exist. If there are outs for the non-Christian theist you can certainly post them.

    You wrote, “I don’t know any atheist whose reason for not believing in God is an equal but counter belief that everything can be explained without him.”

    I hear this argument frequently from academics who wish to justify non-belief, and perhaps that’s the difference. Some folks do not feel compelled to give a reason for disbelieving in God, but the folks I work with do.

    You wrote, “The argument of “I can’t explain X, therefore God” just isn’t a very compelling one.”

    I think this is false. The best arguments in the sciences, in history, in politics, and in philosophy and theology are of this sort. The interlocutor reveals an anomaly for the position in question and show that given that commitment the anomaly cannot be justified. See Thomas Kuhn’s, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” on this where he works through the work of Newton and Einstein in this way.

    The opposite is also true. Certainly the atheist can be correct in saying (in your words), “I can’t explain X (evil, divine hiddenness, etc), therefore no God.” These arguments can be sound.

    You wrote, “In most cases, the difference between Christians and atheists when it comes to not knowing an answer to a universal question is that the atheist is OK with “I don’t know” as an answer.”

    But if one says arguments are irrelevant, they can join up with the Young Earth Society for the rationality-doesn’t-matter luncheon. “I don’t know” can certainly be a legitimate answer when there is room, but the best arguments for God belief leave no such room (I’ll be posting some of these shortly).

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Caleb Gates (5). One needs to define evil for this argument to work. If I hold to an Augustinian view of evil, then the evil-god cannot possibly exist.

    How do you define evil?

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Caleb Gates (5). On the links. This article is naive: http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2006/02/outsider-test.html

    The crux said, “How is it possible to rationally evaluate the Christian faith when the Christian can only do so from within the presuppositions of that faith in the first place–presuppositions which he or she basically accepted.”

    Presuppositions are inescapable for anyone thinking philosophically. (See chapter two of my “Everything New” (here: http://amzn.to/PXmiMJ) and how philosophical commitments work).

    Because you cannot begin your philosophical thinking with propositions that are “true”, you must begin with what is “believed”. The problem is *everyone* begins their thinking with differing presuppositions, not just the theist.

    This problem is built on in the next article you linked, here: http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2007/05/christianity-miserably-fails-outsider.html

    The author writes, “Agnosticism is the default position given the outsider test, and I further argue that agnosticism leads to atheism.”

    No. There is no default. There is only what you assume. Material makes very important claims, and they are not justified without argumentation.

    On “The outsider faith” question raised by the author: I became a Christian after I got a graduate degree from Colorado University in philosophy. I describe that journey in Everything New (linked above). Given those arguments — now tell me why that step is irrational or unjustified.

  • JamesB

    Christy (7),

    Thanks for the affirmation.

    A small point not at all germane to this post is that the number of atheists and non-religious seems to be rising, especially among young people. And I suspect the number of atheists is actually higher than reported because most aren’t vocal about it or would rather remain in the closet. While not an activist myself, I do believe religious/non-religious debate does matter when religious belief is used as a reason for enacting laws or changing what should be taught in schools. This is generally what atheist activists are arguing against more so than whether or not a god exists.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Christy (7) You wrote, “Argument #2′s premise that “If God exists, God is father-like.” has a whole bunch of assumptions contained within it that many people who believe in some sort of Divine/Higher Power would not agree with.”

    I think this is false. If God is both exceedingly good and the creator of our world, God must be, in some measure, father-like. How would you argue the opposite?

    You wrote, “Most non-religious people and most non-Christians already believe in God in some fashion, and see no necessary logical connection between “There is a God.” and “Christianity is true.” For those of us in that camp, the entire Christian/atheist debate is largely irrelevant.”

    I think the debate between the Christian and the Atheist can say quite a bit to the general theist, for answers to the problem of evil (for example) rely on theological commitments. I do not find the answers from “theism in general” very compelling at all to the arguments I’ve listed above. What say you?

  • JamesB

    Jeff (8),

    You say, “‘I don’t know’ can certainly be a legitimate answer when there is room, but the best arguments for God belief leave no such room”

    This tells me everything I need to know. And if you can’t see the hubris in that statement, I’m not sure what else to say. Enjoyed the chats. Thanks.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Why think that answer prideful? It could be the case that there are arguments that succeed, ya?

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    JamesB (13) I forgot to reference your post in post (14). Do look above.

  • John I.

    I don’t find the anti-theistic arguments very persuasive at all, because they include unstated assumptions about the character of God, about what is possible for omnipotence or about what is true.

    Some of the premises are either untrue or unprovable, such as “We can explain everything that needs to be explained without a God.” We cannot explain the origin of life, nor can we explain the existence of the mind.

    Some of the premises make deniable or unprovable claims about God, such as “God values truth and would not allow errors about his nature or his intensions [sic.] to thrive”. One has to, in addition to giving God the attribute of omnipotence, specific other aspects of his inherent nature. The character of the Christian God revealed by the Bible is not one such that he would not allow errors to thrive. I’m not inclined to argue for some generic God, only for a specific one, and the atheist has not given me reason to think that the Christian God must have some character trait (not allowing error) rather than another (allowing error). Saying that God is infinitely “good” is insufficient to counter or even undermine my assertion, because both character traits are compatible with “good”.

    Some of the premises of the anti-theistic arguments can be addressed by saying that the premise is not possible, not even for an omnipotent God. There is no possible world in which God can make 2 + 2 = 5, as that is just nonsense. Omnipotence does not endow the power to perform nonsense. It is neither certain nor provable that “If God exists, he has the power to ensure that all human beings know what is required for a good soul.” I would argue that (assuming the following is true) the fact that all human beings know what is required for a good soul, proves that it is impossible for an omnipotent God to create a world in which ” all human beings know what is required for a good soul”. The argument could also be addressed by arguing that the statement is not provable, or by arguing that all humans do have such knowledge but suppress it / ignore it/ deny it, or etc.

    Some of the arguments appear to work only because they pretend to be played on the atheists home field, when in actuality they are not: e.g., arguments about the soul. The atheist doesn’t believe in one, so he can’t argue on the basis of one; if she tries to, then she is merely smuggling in her own assumptions about it and thus cooking the argument. If the atheist wants to argue about a soul, then she has to use my definition–and if she doesn’t like my definition then she has to show why my definition is wrong given my own beliefs about the matter (or show that these other beliefs are wrong and so lead to errors in my beliefs about the soul, etc.).

    Furthermore, many of the arguments have apparent strength because they use terms that are ambiguous, vague, or equivocal: “good”, “father”, “explain”, “know”, “soul”.

  • Larry Barber

    Jeff (3), what use Descartes made of his demon is immaterial. The fact remains, if Descartes’ demon hypothesis is true you only need to postulate that two entities exist, you and the demon. If, on the other hand, what we perceive is a more or less accurate representation of reality, with no demon controlling controlling your perceptions you must postulate countless entities. Therefore, according Ockham, you must prefer the demon, if Ockham’s Razor is more than a good heuristic. But nobody really believes in Descartes’ demon, therefore the Razor shouldn’t be used in the way that your argument #1 uses it.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Larry (17). I like this argument. Ok. Are the number of things an evil demon can create in your mind more or less than those in reality?

  • J

    @1Mark “naturalism or determinism is basically an argument that human reason is an illusion. The problem is that human reason is used to make this inference. I suspect that ‘science’ can never resolve this.”

    Academic philosophy assumes that value can always be explained or argued. But love is an embodied reality, never bound by mere explanation. My friend once substituted the word “love” for God in many NT passages. The results were stunning, and such a reading could help bridge part of the chasm between theism and naturalism.

    “I’m somewhat familiar with the compatibalism of Dennet, etc but I don’t think that changes any of this. Thoughts?”

    While not theists, the Dennet’s consider themselves “Cultural Christians.”

  • Amanda B.

    It seems to me that “God could ensure that we all knew how to do life properly”, “God could ensure that we knew how to find Him”, etc. are not very compelling.

    Firstly, He took on flesh and lived, breathed, walked among, and taught people on earth. That’s pretty darn significant communication. Secondly, we have a whole collection of books (the 66 of the Bible) recording His existence. I know that this does not convince an atheist, especially in light of so many contradictory religions claiming to know the truth about God/the gods. But if the claims of Christianity are, in fact, true, then God has given us incredibly clear witnesses as to who He is and how we ought to live. The question then becomes, “How do we know that the claims of Christianity are true”, rather than “How can we know, entirely apart from the specific claims of Christianity, that God exists?” As a Christian, it is ludicrous to me to exclude God’s explicit self-revelation of Himself from the discussion of, “Why hasn’t God revealed Himself yet?”

    But even leaving aside those points, I think it’s worth pondering what the alternative is to points 3 and 4. Suppose that God point-blank did not allow us to believe anything that wasn’t true. Isn’t that the equivalent of divine brainwashing? Do we really want a deity who does that to us? If we value our freedom of thought so much, and see it as inherently good, why do we demand that a good God, if He existed, would take that from us? We warn parents about smothering and overprotecting their children–yet we’d expect God to smother and overprotect His children?

    We also have to ask what a good God would want from humanity. Does He care more about us not offending Him (thus enforcing strict control and micromanagement over us), or does He care more about us learning to love Him and trust Him and receive His love for us (thus He gives us the dignity of a free will–which comes with the possibility of making mistakes in both practice and belief)?

    In other words, when we arbitrarily decide what a “good god” would want, value, and act like, we end up inventing a god who is not really all that good. He may be *right*, but he is hardly kind, gentle, loving, or relational–simply a capable, stoic, and hard-nosed micro-manager. No wonder people don’t desire something like that.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Larry (17). Also, depending on how you consider the question, materialism gives a single explanation–a material world is everything–whereas the evil demon explanation requires two (you and the demon).

  • J

    @20Amanda “He took on flesh and lived… That’s pretty darn significant communication. Secondly, we have a whole collection of books (the 66 of the Bible) … God has given us incredibly clear witnesses.”

    Amanda, the vast majority of people have come and gone, never hearing about Jesus. Not sure I would call that “darn significant communication.” If access to the 66 books is a prerequisite for club membership, most people failed. This makes it difficult to overlay temporal-parochial-tribal restrictions onto spirituality. Atheists are right to pull us away from the limitations of religious symbolism and exclusivities. In Paul’s language, our cherished constructs will fail. The Hindu’s also have a similar concept in “neti neti” — not this, not that. In Christian theology, it’s called apophasis — understanding God by stripping away all that is not God.

  • Larry Barber

    Jeff, I don’t know if purely mental constructs should be considered “entities”, but if you are going to count them in one scenario, you must count them in both. Since there are many more minds in the second scenario it still fails Ockham’s test, just about every real entity will also exist in many minds.

    As far as the materialist claiming that “material” is one entity, couldn’t you say that “mind” is similarly one entity in the first scenario?


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