Stephen Law, an atheistic philosopher, debated philosopher and theologian Dr. William Lane Craig on the existence of God. Law, when presented the cosmological argument, ignored it because it didn’t prove that God was good. According to Law, Craig had the responsibility to prove the Christian God, not just any old god. Since this debate I’ve seen other atheists use similar arguments. However, behind Law’s debate strategy rests a few philosophical and theological issues that I wish to deal with. My aim is to critique them from all angles and conclude that Law’s criticisms fail.
An Irrelevant Argument or a Poor Excuse to Dodge an Issue?
Law speaks truthfully when he claims that the cosmological argument doesn’t prove that God is good. Fair enough. However, Dr. Craig was building a cumulative case for theism, and the cosmological argument certainly adds additional probability that theism in general is true. Christianity, as a type of theism, enjoys more warrant with the cosmological argument than without. If I entered my apartment and saw shoes on the ground that weren’t mine, dishes in the sink when I knew they were clean before, and could hear that the shower was on, then the probability that my roommate is home is higher with, rather than without, these facts. Likewise, the probability that Christianity is true given that the cosmological and teleological arguments are true is much higher.
The atheist could object by claiming that their atheism is a lack of belief in the Christian god, and that the cosmological argument doesn’t demonstrate the Christian god. And rightfully so! No philosophical argument could ever prove this much, since the facts relevant to the Christian God could only be revealed by God Himself. Persons have private access to certain facts about themselves that no other person can see. Therefore, you must reveal this information, not derive it from argument. Either way, defining yourself as an atheist in the sense that you have a mere lack of belief in the Christian God isn’t very helpful. One’s atheism stems from a worldview which, more often than not, rejects all supernatural entities, and hence is a form of naturalism (materialism). What in their worldview would allow for the existence of Allah, but not God? If the atheist holds back on what they truly affirm, then they can get away from a burden of proof, but this is intellectually dishonest. In a casual setting, the cosmological argument would prove deism, and consequently refute atheism.
Law’s ‘Evil God’ Objection
"If you believe in a good God, you face the problem of explaining why there’s so much bad stuff in the world. If you believe in an evil god, you the face mirror problem of explaining why there’s so much good.
So why, we might ask, if the problem of good is fatal to the evil god hypothesis—and surely it is—, is the problem of evil not similarly fatal to the good God hypothesis? If one hypothesis is pretty straightforwardly falsified by observation of the world around us, why isn’t the other one?"
I take issue with Law’s ‘evil god’ objection for a few reasons. First, the very definition, or essence, of evil is to reject and go against moral obligation and duty. If there was an evil god, then what moral obligations would he be rejecting if not for some higher good above him? Since the ‘good’ is conceptual, then it would be embedded in a mind, and hence if an evil god exists, then God exists. Moreover, there is also another difficulty given that such an evil being would exemplify all the vices to the maximal extent (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride). Impatience, embedded in this type of wrath, would be one property this being would have, but this would contradict the good we see in the world. A supremely impatient being would snuff out any good in the world instantly, but a patient god would work for some good end while tolerating the evil in the world. Law's question, therefore, is answered by noting that it is asymmetrical. The properties of an evil god make it susceptible to 'observational refutation', while the properties of a good god make it more likely that he would tolerate evil in order to bring about a greater good; and since in our world we do observe good, then we can conclude either (1) God is morally indifferent, or (2) God is good. Law’s mistake is to think that Christians argue for God’s goodness based on observations of the world (with regard to responding to the problem of evil). If this were so, we might conclude (1). However, Christians have traditionally argued for God’s goodness from the top down, that is, through philosophical and theological arguments.
Christians argue that God is good because we adopt what’s called ‘perfect being theology’, or a view of God as the maximally great being such that nothing greater can be conceived. Unlike concrete objects which cannot possess ‘great-making properties’, a being can possess certain attributes such that they can be called great. A great making property includes power, wisdom, moral perfection, necessity, etc. Now the most contestable among these properties would be ‘moral perfection’ since it could be argued that whatever that being ‘is’ and ‘does’ would be considered moral. Instead, we must work with the terms evil, good, and indifference in order to pinpoint what ‘moral perfection’ could mean. Evil was already eliminated above because it was shown to be a dependent property rather than an independent property. It’s now up to ‘goodness’ or ‘indifference’ to take the stand. But how could one argue for the greatness of indifference? Indifference, after all, is a lack of concern or interest in something. Think about how it would play out with a being possessing infinite power and knowledge; it would appear odd that such a being would have no opinion on the matter, either positive or negative. Since this being would know all truths, then any action he performs would already be known. However, this presupposes that there be some concern behind the action, for absolute indifference would yield no action. Action requires some motivation, an end, and hence ‘concern’. Therefore, indifference only seems to be a human flaw stemming from ignorance. Would anyone take seriously Michelangelo if he said, while sculpting David, “Ah, I really don’t care that I’m doing this, it really makes no difference whether I sculpt or not; in fact, I just don’t care.” Of course not! Therefore, I think it’s safe to conclude that indifference is not a great making property. But this entails that a perfect, maximally great, being would possess goodness by nature. Consequently, then, Law’s objection fails.
One-sided Burden of Proof…All the Time?
There seems to be the misconception, a misunderstanding, that the theist has the sole burden of proof in any debate where God’s existence is being discussed. In a round-based debate, the theist has the burden of showing why the proposition, God exists, is true. Likewise, the person representing the negative has to provide arguments that the proposition, God does not exist, is true. It’s been common practice, however, to have an agnostic sit in the negative seat and ‘critique’, or call into question, the theist’s arguments. Although I agree wholeheartedly that an agnostic enters into these debates with no burden of proof, I reject that they cannot accumulate it later in the discussion. Even if the agnostic succeeds in critiquing the theist’s argument, this in no way shows that the negative position is true; it may vindicate or confirm their agnosticism, but perhaps not for the person in the audience.
I’m more or less willing to concede that the theist should be more robust and active in round-based debates. However, in every other situation where the theist and atheist are discussing these questions, other topics can enter into play which forces the atheist (agnostic) to bite the bullet, so to speak, and take a stance on an issue. For example, an atheist might begin by saying, “I don’t believe in God because there is no evidence that He exists.” The theist could respond, and rightfully so, “Can you please be more specific by what you mean by evidence?” If the atheist says, “Facts about the world that are agreed upon and demonstrated by the scientific community, and also serve to demonstrate another fact about the world", then this would be a valid and honest answer; but the theist could immediately shift the burden of proof to the atheist by asking the following: “Are you saying that in order for something to be demonstrated as ‘existing’ it must be proven via the scientific method?” If the atheist agrees, then he or she has affirmed a stance on epistemology. The theist would rightfully challenge this by saying, “You’re asking me to prove an immaterial being with a method that can only demonstrate physical truths; what reasons can you give me to conform to this epistemology?” The theist certainly hasn’t dodged the main question (Does God exist?), but rather is asking the atheist to clarify an issue that stands between any reasons he could give. It makes no sense, for example, for the theist to use a pure philosophical argument for God’s existence if the atheist will merely reply with the classic ‘science of the gaps’ reasoning: “Well, science just doesn’t know yet.” Clarifying epistemology saves time (headaches) and makes the agnostic own up to his positive claims about the world around us.
Another issue that comes up in these types of discussions is what I call “the problem of agnosticism.” There is a subtle, but very active, debate in the atheist community as to what ‘atheism’ actually is. Most have acknowledged that it is a mere agnosticism. Fair enough. However, this is a very misleading thing to lean on. After all, what is agnosticism? As was mentioned above, propositions have either a positive or negative truth value; that is, propositions are either true or false. When it comes to beliefs, however, one doesn’t have to affirm either in the dichotomy, but could rather choose not to commit or believe in any of them. But one can refrain, or be ‘agnostic’, with regard to any proposition. It’s a negative term that tells us what the person is not, rather than what the person is.
For example, if I told you that I’m a non-republican, then does this mean that I am a democrat? No. I could be a democrat, a libertarian, a communist, an anarchist, etc. However, if I told you I was in fact a democrat then I've told you everything that I stand for in a general political sense. Likewise, someone who is non-Christian could be a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Sikh, a Taoist, a Pagan, or even an atheist. But this leads me to my final point.
There is, after all, a worldview which says that any supernatural beings (i.e. gods, angels, demons, etc) do not exist. In philosophical circles, this is known as naturalism. All naturalists are atheists, but not all atheists are naturalists. Some atheists could be realists, that is, they could believe in abstract, nonphysical, objects. But regardless of the niceties, the view these two flavors have in common is the rejection of supernatural beings of any sort. These naturalists would be able to defend the positive claim that God(s) does not exist, so why not give the title ‘atheist’ to these people? The term ‘atheism’ is an umbrella term including both naturalists and agnostics (after all, if you don’t believe in god, for whatever reasons, then you are an atheist), but I think this is where the confusion comes in. I think agnosticism with regard to God should be separated from the term ‘atheist’. If you asked me my stance on the ‘X’ interpretation of the quantum theory, I would have to say, “I don’t know”, or, “I don’t know enough to have an opinion.” It would be absurd to take my comments and group me with those who reject ‘X’ interpretation of the quantum theory. So I ask, why should agnosticism be included under this umbrella term, “atheism”? Agnosticism simply isn’t very helpful in discussions.
After all, a simple retort to the agnostic’s, “I have a lack of belief in God”, is to simply ask, “Why?” If they reply, “I just find myself unconvinced”, simply reply, “Why?” Inevitably the ‘agnostic’ will have to offer a positive claim somewhere down the road, thus revealing the worldview behind their agnosticism, which I argue, more often than not, is true atheism. An agnostic cannot object to the Kalam cosmological argument by saying, “The universe has always existed” without offering a positive claim about how reality is. The theist would rightfully reply, “Oh, so it isn’t that you are unconvinced by the Kalam argument, but rather you have positive reasons for suggesting that it is false.” Instead of beating around the bush with this, “I have a lack of belief” or “I’m not convinced”, the agnostic should have been more upfront with the positive worldview that he believes in, and which serves as a relevant part in the God discussion. Although adopting agnosticism in discussions allows you to fold your hands and merely criticize the other person’s view (while offering nothing positive yourself) might be easy, it is, in the end, a dishonest thing to do when a positive worldview is held behind the mask of mere ‘nonbelief’.