Jeffrey Jay Lowder has compiled an interesting list of arguments for atheism in his article, “A Brief Survey of Evidential Arguments for Atheism.” 1 Since this article deals with issues of much importance to the goals of this site, I have decided to offer a critique of Lowder’s work.
1. The History of Science. If there is a single theme unifying the history of science, it is that naturalistic explanations work. The history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones. Indeed, naturalistic explanations have been so successful that even most scientific theists concede that supernatural explanations are, in general, implausible even on the assumption that theism is true. Such explanatory success is antecedently more likely on naturalism-which entails that all supernaturalistic explanations are false-than it is on theism. Thus the history of science is some evidence for atheism and against theism.
This argument makes two distinct claims that I find highly suspect. I will examine them now:
1. The history of science is some evidence for atheism and against theism.
This premise may seem plausible at first. After all, our ancestors did declare all sorts of naturalistic things as actions of the gods. For example, lightning bolts used to be considered as coming from the mighty hand of Zeus.
However, this argument loses all credibility when examined closely. Imagine if our ancestors were more careful in their claims of supernaturalistic phenomenon. This would mean that only good arguments for the existence of God would be used in ancient times. Suddenly, this argument for the nonexistence of God fails. One less argument for atheism means that atheism is evidentially less likely. But all that changed was the acts and thoughts of certain men, we would still be living in the same universe!
How is it possible that, in the same actual universe, God’s existence could become more or less likely depending on the whether or not the ancients used faulty arguments for God’s existence? Obviously, God’s existence is independent of the philosophies of ancient men. Therefore, this argument is useless because it leads to an absurd conclusion.
2. There are no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones.
I would regard this claim as entirely self-serving. The scientific community, as a whole, never concedes supernaturalism, and probably never would. However, scientific finds do lead laymen and scientists to the conclusion that God exists. I think there are quite a few scientific finds that have led to a bit of trouble amongst the atheistic community.
For example, spontaneous generation used to be the preferred naturalistic explanation for the existence and origin of life. However, scientific finds disproved the hypothesis of spontaneous generation, and led to the discovery of the fantastically complex cell. The origin of life has thus become a major problem for atheists, as they find themselves forced to explain how a complex cell could be created out of inanimate materials without the input of intelligence.
One more example is the case of Cosmology. Atheists used to be fine with claiming that the universe existed eternally, thus negating the need for God. However, scientific finds have undermined the eternality of the universe, leaving atheists with a much harder time answering the ultimate question of why the universe exists at all.
Certainly there are more examples (see HERE for a more comprehensive refutation of the Argument from Science), but the previous are enough to show that the general claim “supernaturalistic explanations never overcome naturalistic explanations” is quite false. Thus, the Argument from Science fails on two accounts, and I see no reason to suppose that this argument gives atheism any increased credibility.
2. The argument from physical minds. Scientific evidence shows that consciousness and personality are highly dependent upon the brain. Nothing mental happens without something physical happening. That strongly implies that the mind cannot exist independently of physical arrangements of matter. In other words, we do not have a soul. And this is exactly what we would expect if naturalism is true. But if theism is true, then our minds should not depend on our brains for their existence; we should have souls. Also, if theism is true, then God is a disembodied mind; God’s mind is not in any sense dependent on physical arrangements of matter. But if nothing mental happens without something physical happening, that is evidence against both the existence of souls and the existence of any being who is supposed to have a disembodied mind, including God. Therefore, the physical nature of minds is unlikely if theism is true, but what we would expect if naturalism is true.
Admittedly, I do not know much about this subject matter. It is something I would like to look into more closely, but for now I will just make some preliminary commentary.
I will mention just one possibility. It is perhaps true that the soul is independent from the physical mind but cannot be expressed without the physical mind in the physical universe. In other words, the mind may be nothing more than a tool that is used for the expression of the soul. When the brain is injured, the soul is less capable to express itself in the physical world, even though it still exists.
In any case, I don’t see how this argument could possibly be evidence against God, per say. Although it may be evidence against Christianity, it is by no means an evidential argument against God. Even if it is taken as true that there is no soul, it is a tremendous leap in logic to claim that God can’t exist with a disembodied mind merely for the reason that humans don’t. It is quite possible that humans and God are simply vastly different. I see no logical absurdity inherent in the concept of a disembodied mind, so it remains very possible that God does have a disembodied mind, contrary to Lowder’s claim.
3. The argument from biological evolution. This argument assumes the truth of biological evolution; for a defense of that assumption, see the Talk.Origins archive. To be sure, biological evolution is logically compatible with theism; God could have used evolution to create life. But if theism were true, God could have also used many other methods to create life, methods which are impossible if atheism is true. In contrast, if atheism is true, evolution pretty much has to be true. Furthermore, since theism implies a metaphysical dualism, it is antecedently likely on theism that minds are fundamentally nonphysical entities and therefore that conscious life is fundamentally different from nonconscious life. But this in turn makes it likely that conscious life was created independently of nonconscious life—that evolution is false. Thus, the scientific fact of biological evolution is more likely on the assumption that atheism is true than on the assumption that theism is true.
The interesting thing about this argument is that it is a double-edged sword. If it turns out that only one biological structure or organism is impossible to come by with the process of evolution, then atheism takes a huge blow.
A further interesting point is that evolution (if true) may actually be evidence for the existence of God! Consider which is more likely in an atheistic universe- the evolution of simple life forms or the evolution of complex sentient life forms with self-concept and imagination. It seems to me that it would be much more probable for there to be less complex life forms on the assumption that atheism is true.
In fact, this hypothesis may be confirmed by calculations. Note the following from William Lane Craig:
“And I’m going to suggest that the idea that evolution could have occurred without an intelligent Designer is so improbable as to be fantastic. This has been demonstrated by Barrow and Tipler in their book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. In this book, they list ten steps in the course of human evolution, each of which is so improbable that before it would have occurred the sun would have ceased to be a main sequence star and would have burned up the earth. [John Barrow and Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986)., pp. 561-565.] They estimate the odds of the evolution of the human genome by chance to be on the order of 4-360 (110,000), a number which is so huge that to call it astronomical would be a wild understatement. In other words, if evolution did occur, it would have been a miracle, so that evolution is actually evidence for the existence of God” 2
It may seem, after all, that evolution is no evidence for atheism at all! An atheist may point out that this argument is faulty because there is no inherent need for particular homo sapiens to evolve. However, Barrow and Tipler’s calculations confirm that it is vastly improbable for sentient beings equivalent to human beings to develop by means of evolution.
Evolution, it seems, may not quite be the ally the atheists count it as. See HERE (upcoming) for more analysis of this argument.
4. The biological role of pain and pleasure. The naturalistic explanation for this is obvious. If animals are the products of evolution by natural selection, we would expect physical pain to aid survival. But not all physical pain and pleasure aids survival. For example, think of the horrible pain that inflicts many people with terminal illnesses. If atheism is true, this is what we would expect: evolution by natural selection is not an intelligent process; there seems to be no way for creatures to have evolved so that they only feel pain when it will aid survival. In contrast, if theism were true, God could “fine tune” humans so that they experience pain only when it is necessary for some greater good. If God did exist, what possible reason could he have for allowing people with terminal illnesses have to endure such agonizing pain until they finally die? The chances that such a reason would intersect with the biological goal of survival is pretty slim. Thus, the biological role of pain and pleasure is more likely on atheism than on theism.
This is essentially the Argument from Evil, which claims that God’s existence is unlikely due to the amount of pain and suffering in the world. Lowder, however, admits that it is possible that God allows us to experience pain for our own greater good. It seems therefore that the Argument from Evil is defeated.
But in fact, this does not seem to be Lowder’s conclusion. For some reason, Lowder thinks there is no possible way (or claims that he can imagine no possible way) for certain forms of pain to be for any greater good. This strikes me as rather presumptuous. In any case, I’ll go ahead and offer a few reasons why such pain (in this instance, the immense pain one feels dying a slow death) could possibly be for greater good. If I, a mere human being, can imagine good reasons, then certainly it is quite possible that an omniscient God has good reasons for allowing pain in the world.
1. Closer relationship with God.
God may allow a slow and painful death because it may lead to a greater respect and love for God. God knows that a good relationship with Him is quite desirable, the temporary pain an individual experiences in their lifetime could certainly be worth it if there are positive consequences in eternal heaven.
2. The human deserves punishment.
All humans deserve punishments for some things. It would go against God’s nature to allow men to get away with evil without punishment. Pain in this world may be allowed because the man deserves such a thing.
3. Others could grow closer to God.
God could perhaps allow a person to suffer if it leads others to develop a stronger faith in Him. A dying loved one could cause somebody to take God more seriously or grow more respect for Him. (One might complain that this is unfair for the individual feeling the pain, but he/she could be repaid in eternity anyways, thus nullifying any wrongdoing on the part of God.)
The previous three reasons are enough to show that immense pain during death is not a priori, a reason to reject the proposition that God exists.
5. The flourishing and languishing of sentient beings. Only a fraction of living things, including the majority of sentient beings, thrive. In other words, very few living things have an adequate supply of food and water, are able to reproduce, avoid predators, and remain healthy. An even smaller fraction of organisms thrive for most of their lives, and almost no organisms thrive for all of their lives. If naturalistic evolution is true, this is what we would expect. If all living things are in competition for limited resources, then the majority of those organisms will not survive long enough to thrive. Moreover, even those organisms that do thrive for much of their lives will, if they live long enough, deteriorate. However, if theism is true, why would God create a world in which all sentient beings savagely compete with one another for survival? Does anyone really believe that this could be morally justified? The fact that so few sentient beings ever flourish is more likely on atheism than on theism.
This seems to simply be another form of the Argument from Evil (See HERE). However, the Argument from Evil is ineffective because it is quite possible that God has sufficient reasons for allowing evil to continue in the world. I therefore cannot see this argument as being an effective counter to the existence of God.
6. Tragedies (or gratuitous evil). There are many examples of evil in the world which do not fit into any of the above categories but which nonetheless appear pointless. If theism were true, God could prevent tragedies in many different ways, ways that would not take away our free will or our ability to develop moral character. And despite centuries of theological reflection by some of the greatest minds in history, most theistic philosophers now admit they have no idea why God allows tragedies. Of course, it’s logically possible that God has a reason for allowing tragedies, a reason we humans do not understand. But it’s also logically possible that God has extra reasons for preventing tragedies, reasons we also do not understand. Clearly, then, tragedies are improbable on theism. But if atheism is true, there is no God who cares about our suffering; thus, we would expect tragedies. Therefore, tragedies are some evidence for atheism and against theism.
Once again we have another form of the Argument from Evil. It seems to me that Lowder is merely trying to make it look like the Argument from Evil is more than one argument for the mere sake of making it appear that he has more than a few objections to God’s existence. Whatever the case, this argument fails just like the previous, because there are both possible and plausible means for God to allow evil.
Once again, it must be mentioned that I am a mere human, nowhere close to being an omniscient being. Now, if I can come up with possible or plausible reasons for the allowance of tragedies on the part of God, then certainly atheists are in no position to claim that God could have no reason. For God is infinitely more knowledgeable than I, and there are probably reasons for the existence of tragedies which I cannot comprehend but are nonetheless actual.
1. Closer relationships with God.
Tragedies could lead many to an increased love and respect for God. This is perhaps the most desirable thing for any human to achieve, so God thus has a good motive for helping humans attain it. Also, if the Christian God exists, then He is probably most concerned with whether or not humans receive salvation. Any event that could lead others to God would therefore be justified. In addition, events that occur which do not lead people directly to God could be justified anyway because the event could stop a series of events from occurring which would eventually lead to less love and respect for God (and, consequently, less humans who attain salvation).
Imagine if God stopped all tragedies before they started. How would humans react? My guess is that humans would show no thanks and would take advantage of the situation, perhaps becoming arrogant and self-worshipping. Tragedies may play an important function in that regard.
2. Humans deserved the punishment.
God is not a push-over. Humans oftentimes deserve punishment, and it would go against God’s nature to allow humans to commit evil without any consequence. Thus, the existence of tragedies could be the result of the sin of mankind.
These ideas, in my mind, are not only possible, but also plausible on the assumption that God exists. I therefore see no reason to give Lowder’s argument any credence.
7. God’s silence in the face of tragedies. Just as loving parents would, say, comfort a child undergoing chemotherapy, we would expect a loving God to comfort human beings who suffer as the result of tragedies. If theism is true, then God loves his creatures and wants all of his creatures to love Him in return. However, many people find it hard to love God when they do not understand the reasons for their suffering and God seems so far away. In other words, even if God has a reason for allowing tragedies, He could still comfort victims of suffering so that they know He loves them. Yet there are many victims of tragedies who report not feeling God’s comforting presence. This is not at all what we would expect if theism were true. However, if atheism is true, we would expect victims of tragedies not to experience God’s comforting presence for the simple reason that there is no God. Thus, God’s silence in the face of tragedies is much more probable on atheism than on theism.
Firstly, I must say that there are certainly many victims of tragedies who do claim to feel the comforting of God. Therefore, it is false to say that God is silent in the face of tragedies.
Much more important, I think, is the fact that in no way is God obligated to send immediate comfort. God is an eternal being, and His way of thinking is much more advanced than that of most humans. Most humans tend to look at the here and now. However, the end result- what happens in the long run- is the most important thing. There is no reason to suppose that God will comfort victims immediately following a tragedy. It is, however, very possible that the end result (which is the only thing that matters) will result in greater good. His comfort may come, but just not on the timescale of humans.
In any case, there is no reason to suspect that God’s comforting has to be felt. God could provide situations of comfort for victims without them even feeling the presence of God. For example, God could allow a relative of a victim to deliver a healthy baby. The victim, angry for the time being at God, may not realize that such an event is really a comforting mechanism, amongst other things. So, even if you could prove that God’s presence is not felt in the majority of victim’s, we would still not get anywhere in supporting the proposition that God does not exist because He could comfort victims in ways that we don’t think of.
8. Religious and ethical confusion. Religious believers hold a wide variety of beliefs about the supernatural and the nature of God. Besides Christianity, there are many other religions, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, to name just a few. All of these world religions make different claims about the nature of God and about the religious path God wants us to take. Now let’s suppose that you are an open-minded theist trying to decide which religious path to follow. Why should you choose one religious path over another? The answer to that question is far from obvious. But all this is pretty strange if theism is true. On theism, we would expect God to clearly reveal his plan for salvation so that there would no confusion about which religious path to take. However, if atheism is true, there is no God and therefore no reason to expect religious believers to agree on anything. Thus, religious confusion is evidence for atheism and against theism.
I find no reason to suppose that, on the assumption that Christianity is true, we should suppose that there would be little or no religious confusion. In fact, the opposite seems true. Christianity constantly teaches about the sinful nature of human beings and their tendency to disobey God. One would expect a multitude of manmade religions to be the result of the sinful nature of human beings on the assumption that Christianity is true. This argument is dead in the water.
In any case, Lowder has by no means shown that God has not provided sufficient evidence for the truth of Christianity. In my mind, Christianity is the religion that is most likely true. In fact, I believe Christianity is one of the only religions in contention for the rational man at all (see HERE).
Beyond this, Lowder has not even shown that, given the nature of human beings, it is even possible for God to create a world in which there is no religious confusion. It is my contention that, given the nature of human beings, it is impossible for a world to exist in which there is both free will and no religious confusion. It therefore seems to me that Lowder is demanding that God create a world which could not logically exist. I believe this is a bit too much to ask of God.
Similarly, there is a huge amount of disagreement concerning what constitutes morally acceptable behavior (e.g., war, slavery, abortion, euthanasia, gun control, etc.). While I don’t think this disagreement poses any problem for moral realism per se (contra J.L. Mackie), it seems to me that this disagreement does pose a problem for a theistic interpretation of moral realism. Given theism (and the moral realism it entails—see below), the fact of moral confusion is not what we would expect. But if atheism is true, there is no God to “set the record straight” on what is and is not ethical. Thus, ethical confusion is evidence for atheism and against theism.
Once again I find Lowder to be gravely mistaken. I do not see a possible way for God to create a world with free will and lack of moral confusion. The very concept of free will necessitates the ability for humans to declare certain things moral or immoral despite God’s commandments.
In addition, moral confusion is an expected outcome of Christianity. Christianity teaches that men are sinful. This sin could obviously lead to declaring immoral actions moral, or even vice versa. Moral confusion is quite compatible with Christianity.
If moral confusion is an argument for atheism, then is moral coherence an argument for theism? After all, there are many things that almost all sane men will admit are evil (murder, rape, child abuse). Should we therefore jump to the conclusion that God exists? I somehow doubt that Lowder would agree with this reasoning. Thus, it seems to me that the Argument from Moral Confusion has no force.
9. The reasonableness of nonbelief. There are many people, including myself, who don’t believe in God but who wish that some sort of a theistic God did exist. Now the Apostle Paul, in Romans 1:19-21, implies that the existence of God is just obvious to everyone, even atheists and agnostics. But just think about that for a second. How do you prove that something is obvious to another person? Lots of nonbelievers claim that the existence of God is not obvious to them. Indeed, many nonbelievers claim that it is just obvious that it is not obvious that theism is true! Why is this evidence for atheism over theism? Because if theism is true, we would expect belief in God to be obvious. What possible reason could God, if He existed, have for not revealing Himself? God is not shy, God is not busy, and so forth. But if atheism is true, there is no God and we would expect nonbelief to be reasonable. Therefore, I think reasonable nonbelief is much more likely on atheism than on theism, and that’s my eighth line of evidence for atheism.
Personally, I find the existence of God quite justified. Based on my own knowledge, I would be irrational to reject the existence of God. Lowder claims otherwise, but I must wonder how I am supposed to know Lowder’s true reasons for disbelief. I do not wish to insinuate that Lowder is a liar, but it is quite possible that his nonbelief is not as reasonable as he claims.
Unfortunately, there is absolutely no way I can ever know whether or not Lowder’s nonbelief is reasonable, so I really am in no position to analyze it. However, since my belief in God is justified to me, there is no reason for me to suppose that I should reject God’s existence merely because Lowder doesn’t believe Him for reasons that I am unaware. Just as in the instance of personal experiences, Lowder’s nonbelief may be evidence to him, but it is certainly not evidence to me or any other.
Whatever the case, it is possible that God has not yet provided Lowder with sufficient reasons to believe. However, Lowder is still alive and so he cannot discount the possibility that his unbelief will become irrational at some point in the future. Thus, it is impossible even for Lowder to claim that God is being unfair with regards to providing evidence. As long as God makes sure Lowder has a fair shot, He is ultimately not guilty of wrongdoing. See HERE for a more comprehensive analysis of the Argument from Nonbelief.
The previous nine arguments composed what Lowder calls his “cumulative case for atheism”. For the rest of his article, Lowder comments on a few arguments for atheism that he has either not analyzed enough or does not consider effective arguments for atheism. I will comment only where I find necessary, as it is obvious that there is little need for me to rebut arguments that Lowder has already rebutted himself.
Lowder first discusses the incompatible properties arguments against God’s existence. These arguments attempt to show that two proposed attributes of God are mutually contradictory and thus impossible to exist. Therefore, an incompatible-property argument, if successful, would refute any concept of God that possesses the two mutually contradictory attributes.
Lowder says that he is undecided upon such arguments, as he has not looked into them in detail. He does, however, site an interesting article by Theodore M. Drange on the subject. 3 I also must admit that I have not spent an abundance of time on the subject. In the future, I hope to look into such arguments and offer my own response. I will, however, offer two critiques of Drange’s article, found on the SecularWeb, which may be of some use. 4,5 I will simply let the reader decide for the time being whether or not any of Drange’s arguments actually hold up.
Another argument used by Lowder, apparently with some agreement, is the supposed Principle of Conservation. According to this, we should not use hitherto unknown explanations when there are explanations available that we do know. Basically, the claim is that naturalistic explanations should be preferred over supernaturalistic explanations. For the most part, I actually agree with this. However, there are many cases in which the naturalistic explanations are either ridiculous or nonexistent, and the theistic hypothesis is valid. In these cases, I see nothing wrong with postulating the existence of God. There is also a hint of the God-of-the-gaps objection which I will not bother with in this article because I have already answered the charge thoroughly .
The Argument from Asymmetry. Doug Jesseph used this argument in his second debate with William Lane Craig. Believers in one concept of God tend to deny the existence of other god-concepts by using naturalistic explanations. We should be consistent and apply naturalistic explanations across the board. Naturalistic explanations work. Supernatural explanations don’t.
This argument is inconclusive. It could be that naturalistic explanations work to eliminate gods such as Zeus, but naturalistic explanations don’t work to eliminate the Christian God. It is also boldly generalizing to claim “Naturalistic explanations work. Supernatural explanations don’t.” The interesting thing about theism is that it is not required to show that all occurrences are supernatural. Naturalists, however, do have a burden to show that all occurrences are natural. And there are in fact many scientific finds that lend increased credibility to belief in God.
One more argument that Lowder distances himself from is the Argument from Extraterrestrial Life. One might be quite shocked to know that somebody has already formulated an atheistic argument for the nonexistence of God based on intelligent extraterrestrial life forms- even though we have no evidence whatsoever that intelligent extraterrestrial life exists! It seems to me then, that if we count this argument as valid, the current lack of extraterrestrial life as we know is actually an argument for theism. It is a good thing, therefore, that Lowder rejects this argument.
I do not believe that Lowder has offered a bad article on the reasons for atheism. On the contrary, I feel that Lowder’s work is a relatively good article detailing the case for atheism. I do not feel that the fault is in Lowder’s effort, but in Lowder’s position. There are simply very few or no good reasons to be an atheist.
1. It appears that this page is no longer on the Internet. However, this is of limited importance- when I first wrote this article I used a sufficient amount of quotation so that a direct link is unnecessary to understanding Lowder’s position.
2. William Lane Craig, http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/craig-pigliucci3.html Debate with Pigliucci.
3. Theodore M. Drange, Incompatible-Properties Arguments: A Survey, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/incompatible.html
4. Joseph A. Sabella, The Case for a Coherent God, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/joseph_sabella/coherent_god.html
5. Ralph C. Wagenet, The Coherence of God: A Response to Theodore M. Drange, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ralph_wagenet/response_to_drange.html