Response to an Atheist

Posted: April 9, 2012 in Growth Charts

Following is a response to an article written in 1968 by an atheist well versed in the philosophical arguments of the theism scale. This is a link to the article, titled “On Being an Atheist” by H J McCloskey, 1968 for Question Journal.


            H J McCloskey wrote his article, “On Being an Atheist” in 1968, providing a summary of his arguments against the existence of a god. His article was short and concise and attempted to use logic combined with emotion to convince his readers to adhere to atheism. While his arguments appear strong and with a wide range, there is a sound and valid theistic response to them all, which this paper means to iterate.

            McCloskey argues against what he refers to as three distinct proofs that theists use, but promptly argues against all of them with the same response.  His response is that you can’t prove either the cosmological or teleological argument to be true, and for that reason, it isn’t. His argument is centered behind necessity of incontrovertible proof, yet surely he accepts certain scientific laws to be true without the same kind of incontrovertible proof. Examples such as the existence of magnetic fields and black holes fit the situation appropriately. McCloskey, and those who agree with him, would argue that they have best explanation to observed phenomena in both these examples. The theist understands that God is the best possible explanation to the observed world – as both existing and complex – rather than ruling theism out simply due to a lack of incontrovertible proof.

            McCloskey also relies heavily on his argument about the existence of evil when arguing against the cosmological and teleological proof. He claims that the mere existence of evil demands that even if all other arguments for the two proofs were accepted, the most that could be concluded “was that there was a powerful, malevolent, or imperfect planner or designer.” McCloskey makes a clear jump in logic by failing to consider any other explanation of the existence of evil whatsoever. He assumes that the designer must be malevolent because of this evil. This logic jump is simply a continuation of his sweeping generalizations like his assertion that a reason one would see environmental adaptation as evidence of design is because they know nothing about evolution.

            McCloskey states that “If we use the causal argument at all, all we are entitled to infer is the existence of a cause…” He does not really go into further detail, but instead concludes that such a cause would be powerful and imperfect enough to have created our world. He denies that this cause would be a necessary being. Because he does not argue that the universe is uncaused, we must conclude that he adheres to the other argument against a necessary being – that there is an infinite series of contingent causes. The theist can respond by saying that the series as a whole does not have a cause or explanation. Furthermore, the theist can conclude that the existence of any given contingent cause is not adequately explained by the previous – that it is an endless loop that never concludes with a real reason, and that simply doesn’t answer the question. Using this logic, we must conclude that every contingent cause ultimately traces back to a necessary being.

            McCloskey attempts to appeal to emotion where his logic has gaps. One such example is his statement that the cosmological argument “does not entitle us to postulate an all-powerful, all-perfect, uncaused cause.” While this is partially correct, he uses the descriptive language prior to his term for a necessary being, to attempt to paint the cosmological argument as absurdity. These adjectives preceding “uncaused cause” are very explicitly not contained in the cosmological argument. The cosmological argument does not attempt to state that the God of the Bible is the only possible necessary being. It only states that there is a necessary being. McCloskey uses a wrong understanding of the argument to create animosity in his fellow atheists towards theists.

            McCloskey’s claim that “genuine indisputable examples of design and purpose are needed” is a high standard that he himself cannot live up to within his own belief system. Indirectly, he states earlier in the article that he adheres to the belief of evolution. Evolution has no “genuine indisputable examples” for its truth. As discussed earlier, many scientific theories that are widely accepted as truth do not meet this standard of indisputability. This objection is unfounded and very weak when considered in relation to a wider range of beliefs. It is highly unlikely that McCloskey demanded this standard of everything in his life, because such standards would result in the belief in nothing at all.

            Had any major scientific laws been fundamentally different than they actually are, the universe, and specifically planet earth, would be dramatically different. In such an earth, life would literally be impossible. The combination of laws that exist on earth in order to make life possible make the odds of any natural cause of any life so incredibly small that it can nearly be labeled impossible altogether. The laws of nature on earth have been combined in such a way that it can be called “fine-tuned” and the result of intelligent design.

            Were the theist to conclude that evolution were indeed a valid and true theory, McCloskey’s assumption that evolution displaces need for designer is still a jump in logic. The theist can argue that while evolution exists, its components cannot be understood to produce the clear order and mechanical nature of the species of earth without either a guide or a designed starting point. Beneficial order is still the result that the world has come to, and beneficial order requires either design or the 1 in infinitesimal chance result.

            A conclusion of orderly design of the universe is not the same thing as a conclusion of the orderly design of the universe by the God of the Bible, who is described as good and holy and without evil. Therefore McCloskey’s statement that that the existence of evil “tell[s] against the perfection of the divine design” is yet another appeal to emotion cleverly disguised as an attempt at a logical argument. The teleological argument does not argue for “perfection of the divine design,” but for beneficial order. This beneficial order has been proven to be the logically sound and valid previously in this response and it renders this appeal to emotion and misappropriation of descriptive terms absurd.

            McCloskey argues that God and evil are logically incompatible. Fortunately for the theist, he is incorrect. Alvin Plantinga developed an argument that proves that God and evil are logically compatible. Plantinga’s argument that there is the possibility of different worlds in which either a good or an evil action is possible given free will. This means that there are logically possible worlds which even an omnipotent god cannot make exist. There is logically a world in which free beings exist but never do anything evil, but there are logically some worlds that an omnipotent God can never create when all creatures have true free will. This proves that God and evil are logically compatible.

            The theist does not need to know why God allows evil to exist to argue against the logical form of the problem. The theist does not need a full theodicy because the logical form of the problem is only stating that theism is contradicting itself. The atheist needs an argument that evil and an omnipotent God cannot coexist to use the logical argument against theism at all. The burden of proof lies with the atheist in this particular argument.

            McCloskey’s argument that God and evil are logically incompatible originated from J. L. Mackie, but met its demise at the hand of Alvin Plantinga. Any atheist who adheres to sound logic retreats from the logical form of the problem of evil and focuses on the evidential problem. This problem states that if God exists, he allows no pointless evil, but that there is probably pointless evil and therefore God probably does not exist. The key word in this argument is probably. It is based on evidence.

            There are a couple responses the believer can take to this evidential problem of evil. First, the believer can consider the Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access  (CORNEA). This concept states that it is not justifiable to conclude something without being able to perceive its existence in one’s current epistemic state. In other words, the atheist is unjustified in saying that there probably exists pointless evil, because man is not in an epistemic state to observe all evil and determine whether or not it has a point.

            Second, the believer can state that he believes God has reasons for evil, without knowing or needing to know what those reasons are. This response carries weight by switching the conditions of the evidential problem and stating that If God exists, he allows not pointless evil, and that probably God exists, so probably there exists no pointless evil. This argument is just as valid and sound as the argument posed by the atheist, so there is logically no conclusion that can be reached with the evidential problem.

            Atheism cannot practically be more comforting than theism. Without God, several ultimate things are non-existent. Man cannot answer the questions that rage inside him without God. Without Him, there is no ultimate meaning in anything – man or universe. Without Him, there is no value in anything – no decision man makes or achievement reached carries any value because there is no right and wrong. Without Him, there is no purpose – there is no reason to do anything, not even a purpose to man’s or the universe’s existence. Only one who does not believe in God can believe that such a belief is more comforting – and that atheist is just fooling himself.

            In conclusion, McCloskey’s article for atheism is logically unsound, appealing more to emotion and uneducated readers than to valid arguments. He makes the same arguments that have been made by others, and provides nothing new in the argument of the truth or lack of truth of God’s existence, much like this response.


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