The Intellectual Dishonesty of Atheists

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Atheism

As an academic sending papers out for publication, it is interesting how atheism is held to a lower standard than theism. That is, if theists used the same poor arguments some atheists use, their papers would be immediately rejected. For example, if a theist were guilty of using the genetic fallacy to attack atheism, the paper would be rightly rejected. A theist might try to argue, say, that atheism had its origin among moral libertines (which is a questionable assumption); therefore, it must be false. This is a terrible argument since it is illegitimate to argue from the alleged origin of a belief to the truth or falsity of that belief. Even if it were true that atheism originated among moral libertines, it would not follow that atheism is false. If a theist is to successfully attack atheism, the theist must first of all defend the rational nature of belief in God. Thomists would go further and use the Cosmological Argument to attempt to prove God’s existence, and rationalist theists might make use of the Ontological Argument. The theist can also answer critics of theism on such points as the problem of evil and suffering. Such debate is difficult and takes a great deal of intellectual effort on both sides.

To be fair, most atheist philosophers believe that a naive genetic argument against the existence of God, such as Sigmund Freud’s “religion as wish fulfillment” hypothesis, which states that religious people want to create a powerful father-figure, is not cogent. They admit that Freud commits the genetic fallacy. But the same atheists might appeal to religious wars or damage done to society by certain theistic religions as evidence against God’s existence. Theists, on the contrary, could appeal to the positive moral influence of theistic religions. Neither argument works to prove or disprove God’s existence. But some atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, continue to make such a poor argument, which is basically a repetition of Bertrand Russell‘s argument in his book Why I am Not a Christian. I have seen college and university students fooled by the wonderful writing and rhetoric of both Russell and Hitchens–and then they are unwilling to see the vacuity of Russell’s and Hitchens’ arguments. If a theist were to make a similar argument, I have no doubt that Russell would have, and Hitchens would, call the theist to task. There is a double standard here–and a double standard that is intellectually dishonest.

No matter how sophisticated a genetic fallacy is, it remains a fallacy. An analytic philosopher can dress a bad argument up in enough Ps and Qs to write ten logic textbooks, but if the argument is fundamentally unsound, all the alphabet soup in the world will not turn a bad argument into a good one. When an atheist analytic philosopher rejects a theist for calling him on what he is actually doing, the atheist is being intellectually dishonest. The atheist may even question the competence of the theistic philosopher or accuse the theist of misrepresenting him. Now it is possible for a theist, an atheist, an agnostic, or any other philosopher to misrepresent an opponent’s argument or set up a straw man to attack. But I become angry when atheists try to hide their bad arguments in a sea of rhetoric and symbolic logic, and then accuse theists of being ignorant and misrepresenting them.

It is easy to become cynical toward my own field of philosophy. More and more I see philosophers, including myself, holding cherished positions first and then trying to back them up through philosophical argument. Perhaps these great world-view issues are so emotionally powerful that one cannot avoid prior nonrational commitments that are later putatively supported by arguments. I do not want to go the postmodern route–I do believe in “Truth” with a capital “T,” but the more intellectual cheating I see in the field, not only among atheists, but among some theists and philosophers of every stripe, the more I see faith commitments as guiding people’s lives, even the lives of philosophers, whether theist, agnostic, atheist, pantheistic, panentheistic, Platonic, or Aristotelian. But if someone is intellectually cheating and is caught, he should have the intellectual balls to admit it (and this does not exclude myself).

Cosmological Arguments Based on Sufficient Reason are Flawed

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Gottfried Leibniz, who speculated that human r...

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One of the most popular family of cosmological arguments for the existence of God is based on the principle of sufficient reason. This principle dates back to at least the time of Leibniz, who used the principle to argue that contingent beings must have a sufficient reason for their existence, and that reason is God. As much as I love the cosmological argument based on neo-Aristotelian notions of cause and effect, the argument from the principle of sufficient reason fails.

Leibniz’s own argument fails, first of all, because his notion of “contingency” is only an epistemological, not a metaphysical, notion. Beings and events are contingent only from our limited human point of view. But every object and event is logically necessary given God’s preestablished harmony between the monads, the ultimate (non-spatial, non-temporal, windowless) bits of “mind-stuff” that are the basis of all being. Leibniz was such a determinist that he believed that if at time A, person B had one less hair on his head, he would literally be a different person. Thus the contingency of being is only an appearance, only a quirk of human beings’ limited capacity to know a complex world, rather than an actual state of finite beings. Leibniz’s distinction between contingent and necessary being collapses into only necessary being, and since the distinction is essential to his cosmological argument, his argument fails. A similar criticism applies to all arguments from sufficient reason that posit a necessary connection between reasons in a deductive logic framework.

A major problem with all arguments based on the principle of sufficient reason is that this principle, beloved of many rationalists, subsumes causes under reasons. But not all causes are reasons and not all reasons are causes. The cause of the late President John F. Kennedy’s death was the bullet that caused fatal brain destruction. The reasons for his death are more complex and involve the motives of Oswald, perhaps too lax security, and so forth. It is true that we talk of reasons being causes in a loose, extended sense and vice versa, but this does not imply that the distinction is illusory or unreal.

If a cosmological argument for the existence of God is to be sound, it must start from cause and effect among finite beings, with the finite causes being contingent because they do not have the cause of their existence within themselves, and therefore they are liable to change, decay, and in the case of living things, death. Aquinas’ Five Ways to prove God’s existence are examples of arguments based on traditional Aristotelian causality. Of course the arguments will have to be updated to some degree due to their statement in terms of outmoded Aristotelian science, the substance of those arguments are correct–but that discussion is for another day.

So…. Where Did God Come From?

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Like many children, I drove my parents crazy by asking questions. One question I always had was, “Where did God come from?” Later I discovered how the question “Where did God come from?” differs from the question, “Where did the universe come from?” In an earlier post, I mentioned Aquinas’ Third Way to prove God’s existence, a version of the Cosmological Argument. Now if the universe is contingent, that is, it does not have the source of its existence within itself, then it must have a cause. Without the possibility of an infinity of contingent causes (for the infinity of contingent causes are still contingent), there must exist a Necessary Being that creates and sustains the universe. Now a necessary being cannot pass out of existence–so there is no issue of where a Necessary Being come from; God, the Necessary Being, just IS, ipsum esse, existence itself. Thus, the childhood question of “Where did God come from?” is an inappropriate question, a “category mistake,” to use Gilbert Ryle’s term.

But there is a psychological reason that we ask the question. When we see the world, the only conscious beings we know are humans and many animals. But humans and animals all die. Yet if we see a mountain in the distance or look up at the moon at night, psychologically it seems that they have existed forever and will exist forever. This is an illusion of our short life span as human beings. We do not have time to see massive geological and astronomical changes. But we do have time to observe the deaths of family members, beloved friends, and beloved pets. But there is no necessity that every conscious being be finite and contingent like us. I could not understand, as a child, how God could be conscious forever, past and future. Now I accept the Classical notion that God transcends time, but my mind cannot wrap itself around that concept–and why should it? For a species that cannot exhaustively understand finite things, it makes no sense that it could exhaustively understand God–such understand that we have is more at the level of an ant trying to comprehend human beings. It is still hard to grasp, having lost my best friend to cancer at the end of May, how a mind could exist eternally. But that is not a philosophical difficulty. The solution to the psychological difficulty is to accept that God, a Necessary Being who cannot not-be is required philosophically, and to realize that something can be true without our understanding it. Intellectual humility is a virtue.

Aquinas’ Third Way to Prove God’s Existence

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St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the eponym ...

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I’ve always hated change. Perhaps that is part of being an Aspie (having been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome), or perhaps it is that longing for something permanent lodged in the human soul. As a small child, I cried when my parents replaced my old bed with a new one. But more important losses came–my dog Fuzzy was killed by a car, my Uncle died suddenly when I was in my junior year of high school, my Granddaddy in my senior year of college, Granny while I was in graduate school. I remember the Sunday dinners at Granddaddy’s and Granny’s with all the great aunts and great uncles and my aunt and uncle. Meatloaf, black eye peas, lima beans, salad with rich French dressing, pecan pie, Coca-Cola cake, strong but good iced tea. Outside was a world of wonder under twin maples, and I’d swing across the gravel drive, lost in the moment. All those moments live only in memory–every moment is, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1869-1947) said, is “perpetually perishing.”

What does this have to do with Aquinas’ third argument in his Summa Theologica for God’s existence? The Third Way has to do with contingent beings and necessary beings. A contingent being is anything that is possible both to exist and not to exist. For example, you and I are contingent, as well as trees, dogs, cats, the earth, the moon, the stars, galaxies, and even the entire universe. It is possible for all things to pass out of existence. But if everything were contingent, if the universe has existed forever, then all would have passed out of existence (or at least the universe might “exist” as ruined husks of old stars and dead dark matter) by now. But things do exist now, so there must exist a necessary being, one that cannot pass out of existence, and this necessary being is God. Given the radical contingency of everything in our lives–we ourselves will lose all, literally, at death, it is comforting to realize that a necessary being must exist–a being who can never change, who is all-loving and all-powerful, who will restore everything that is good at the end of time. Aquinas’ Third Way speaks to me because my greatest fear has been to lose all in annihilation. It is not just my own annihilation that matters, but that of all those people (and animals) who loved me and whom I have loved–and I’ll even include some of the inanimate objects. A necessary being cannot let us down. He keeps contingent things in existence constantly–creation is not a point act but continues throughout time. If God were to (metaphorically speaking) remove His creative glance from the universe for one microsecond, everything would immediately pass into nothingness. Aquinas’ argument speaks to all of us who have suffered loss, who have felt the contingency of all finite things (especially the very old, who lose so many loved ones as they age). And we all suffer loss. But since God, the Permanent Thing, lives and creates the universe by His power and His love, we have a door that opens beyond the multitude of life’s changes. As the old hymn, “Abide with Me” says,

Change and decay in all around I see;

O Thou who changest not, abide with me.