Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Atheism in the balance

What are the major arguments for and against atheism? What are the major arguments for and against Christian theism? How do these arguments and counterarguments measure up? What are the strong points and weak points for each position?

I. Arguments for Atheism



II. Arguments against Atheism

i) Dualism

ii) I.D. theory

III. Arguments for Theism

A. Arguments for God

i) Cosmological

ii) Teleological

iii) Ontological

iv) Alethic

v) Modal

vi) Epistemic

vii) Moral

viii) Existential

B. Arguments for Scripture


i) Prophecy

ii) Typology

iii) Thaumaturgy

iv) Realism


i) Archeology

ii) Modern miracles

IV. Arguments against Theism

A. Arguments against God:


2.The problem of evil

3.Divine silence

4.Incoherence of theism

5. Euthyphro dilemma

6. Psychogenic origins

B. Arguments against Scripture:


i) Contradictions

ii) Immorality


i) Lack of historical evidence

ii) Contrary historical evidence

iii) Contrary scientific evidence

iv) Comparative mythology


There are positive as well as negative arguments for each position, although these overlap. If you only have two alternatives, then any argument against one is potentially an argument for the other.

But some arguments are relatively independent of the alternative(s).

The Christian worldview is dualistic, affirming the existence of two basic domains: mind and matter.

Mental entities include God, angels, demons, abstract objects, and discarnate souls. If materialism is true, then that automatically falsifies the Christian worldview, and vice versa.

In principle, an atheist can be a dualist or an idealist. But the standard paradigm is materialism.

Indeed, one reason that materialism is appealing to a secularist is because it leaves no room for Christian theism.

What are the major arguments for materialism?

i) Occam’s razor.

Materialism is a version of monism, and monism is simpler than dualism.

There are, however, a couple of basic problems with Occam’s razor:

a) The principle of parsimony is an empty norm. We can all agree with it, but to say that nature favors the shortest route, or that we shouldn’t multiply entities beyond necessity, is an otiose principle since you’d have to know what reality is in order to know if an explanation is more intricate than it needs to be.

So Occam’s razor is often wielded in a prejudicial or question-begging manner. If, indeed, matter is all there is, then Occam’s razor will rightly shave away a dualistic explanation. But if dualism is true, then it will cut into the flesh and bone.

Occam’s razor can never tell you what reality is like. It can only be applied to competing explanations of the same putative reality, where one materialistic explanation is more economical than another, or one dualistic explanation is more economical than another.

Occam’s razor can only apply within a given worldview. It cannot be used to choose between one worldview and another.

b) There is also a deceptive simplicity to materialism. A dualist will appeal to certain phenomena, such as abstract objects or mental properties.

A materialist will have to reinterpret this phenomenon consistent with materialism. He will try to internalize the phenomena by domesticating them.

But his explanation will be just as complicated as the dualist. Both sides have the same number of phenomena to account for.

A materialist will have to contrive a parallel explanation for the very same phenomena. So his alternative conceptual scheme will be just as intricate as dualism.

ii) Empiricism

There is, up to a point, a natural fit between science and empiricism. To the extent that science is dependent on observation, if we make sense-knowledge the source and standard of knowledge, then that tends to edge out supersensible objects of knowledge like God, angels, or the soul.

Of course, this result is only as strong as the argument for empiricism.

It is also possible for an empiricist such as Aquinas or Swinburne to argue for the existence of supersensible objects.

iii) The uniformity of nature

By definition, if nature is a uniform in the sense of being a closed system or seamless causal continuum, then that excludes the Christian worldview.

But this appeal assumes what it needs to prove.

It’s surprising how many unbelievers appeal to this principle. The only evidence for the uniformity of nature would be the history of human observation.

But that includes the argument from religious experience, including testimony to the occurrence of miracles, as well as the paranormal.

iv) The law of conservation

It is said that any miracle would introduce new energy into system, thus violating the law of conservation.

Likewise, if the mind causes the body, via the brain, to act in a certain manner, this would also violate the law of conservation, and for the very same reason.

There are several problems with this appeal:

a) Are the laws of nature descriptive or prescriptive and proscriptive?

b) All other things being equal, the law of conservation may hold firm, but to say that God is bound by natural law merely begs the question in favor of naturalism.

c) Since a supernatural agent or agency (God, angels, demons, and the soul) is not a physical force, it does not effect a change by means of any energy transfer.

v) The scientific method

This method privileges predictability. If certain conditions are met, a certain result will obtain. But miracles are unpredictable.

This is true, but beside the point. The scientific method is applicable when and where it’s applicable.

vi) The explanatory scope, power, and progress of science

On this view, phenomena which used to be attributed to supernatural agency have steadily retreated in the face of naturalistic explanations. Thus, any appeal to the supernatural is a stopgap.

This is a valid argument against a naïve form of supernaturalism. But it makes no dent in more astute versions:

a) The Christian worldview doesn’t deny, but generally affirms, an order of second-causes.

b) Science is successful where we’d expect science to succeed, in the manipulation of matter and energy, as well as the regime of ordinary providence.

But its area of success is by no means prejudicial to the supernatural realm.

vii) The correlation between mental and neural events

The naturalist will draw our attention to obvious points of correlation between mental states and neural states. From this he will deduce the causal dependence of the mind on the brain, and further deduce the identity of mental events with neural events. I’ll have more to say about this below.


i) An atheist will argue that evolution eliminates or undercuts the argument from design. Of course, that inference is only as good as the argument for evolution.

A Darwinian appeals to certain phenomena which he regards as evidence for evolution, viz. transitional forms, vestigial organs, suboptimal organs, comparative anatomy (homologies), comparative biochemistry (cognate DNA), atavism, artificial selection, biogeography, the cone of diversity, relative dating (superposition), absolute dating (radiometric dating).

There are many variables in play when sifting this data:

a) There are metascientific assumptions regarding the uniformity of nature which one must postulate to justify a linear extrapolation from the present into the distant past.

This tends to beg the question in favor of evolution at key junctures in the debate.

b) Because the creation/evolution debate is so interdisciplinary, no one man is competent to assess all the evidence.

c) Between (a)-(b), this is a theory with many moving parts. It is, as such, vulnerable to attack on several different fronts.

d) And what, moreover, is a layman to think when the experts disagree? To take a couple of examples, there was a ferocious debate between Gould and Dawkins over the correct model of evolution.

Now, while both sides would vehemently deny that theory of evolution itself was open to debate, yet how do you account for the intensity of the debate unless both sides felt that the theory of evolution was threatened by the competing alternative?

Likewise, Dembski or Behe or Meyer or Wells will write a book in which they appear to poke holes in naturalistic evolution.

A Darwinian will then pen a scathing review in which he appears to poke holes in the book.

Dembski, et al. will then pen a detailed rejoinder in which they appear to poke holes in the review.

And so it goes, round and round. The “winner” is the last writer you read.

There are also gifted critics of evolution who have no alternative theory or religious agenda. They simply think that evolution is bunk, and it’s better to have no answer than to insist on a bad answer. Junk the theory and wait for a better alternative.

ii) An indirect argument for evolution comes from materialism.

If materialism is true, then you need no direct evidence for evolution. Evolution is the default position of materialism, for if materialism is, indeed, true, then something close to evolution had to happen to account for the origin and diversity of life.

Of course, this inference is only as strong as the argument for evolution.

iii) Evolutionary theory can also be deployed to argue against Cartesian dualism. Man is just a higher animal, and consciousness is an emergent property which has a physical origin in a naturalistic process.

Once again, this inference is only as strong as the argument for evolution.

But one ironic consequence of evolutionary epistemology is how quickly it leads to extreme skepticism.

A fine example is eliminative materialism. This is a logical extension of naturalized epistemology.

And yet it’s denial of our mental life amounts to an argument ad impossibile for naturalism and naturalistic evolution.


Arguments for dualism serve as counterarguments to materialism.

a) This would include arguments for the irreducibility of abstract objects to a physicalist framework.

b) This would also include arguments for the irreducibility of some or all mental properties to a physicalist framework, viz. consciousness, qualia, privacy, intentionality, personal identity, self-presenting states.

For some fine online resources, cf.:























2.Intelligent Design theory

At present, I.D. theory is the leading challenger and rival to the throne of naturalistic evolution. Some I.D. theorists are opposed to evolution, per se, while others are opposed to naturalistic evolution, while remaining open to theistic evolution.

Obviously, these counterarguments are only as good as the supporting arguments for dualism (see above) and I.D. theory:






3.Theistic Arguments

Over the centuries, many arguments have been devised for the existence of God. I’ve reviewed some of the better arguments here:


4.Arguments for Scripture

In addition to the somewhat generic arguments for the existence of God, there are also arguments for the self-revelation of God in Scripture.

A. These include lines of internal evidence, such as the argument from prophecy and typology. By “typology” I mean the thematic progression and convergence of otherwise disparate theological motifs as we arrive at the NT.

Unbelievers have different ways of responding to this line of argument.

a) One contention is that NT writers quote the OT out of context.

b) Another contention is that OT or NT “prophecies” are really vaticinia ex eventu (prophecies after the fact).

This involves redating a book of the Bible.

Christians will respond to (a) and (b) individually.

But one of the interesting features of the liberal reply is the relation between (a) and (b). For these two arguments cancel each other out.

If an unbeliever is going to redate a book of the Bible so that its “prophecies” are actually vaticinia ex eventu, then there’s no need to say the Bible writer also quoted the prophecy out of context.

If a Bible writer were writing after the fact, then why would he quote a prophecy out of context when he is free to fabricate the context in which it is fulfilled and thereby make the “fulfillment” flawlessly dovetail with the prediction?

So either he’s writing before the outcome, in which case it’s not a vaticinium ex eventu; or else he’s writing after the outcome, in which case he’s has no motive to quote it out of context.

ii) Another argument is the argument from miracles.

a) On this face of it, this may seem to be a weak argument. After all, if an unbeliever disbelieves the Bible, he will disbelieve the Biblical record of miracles. So this appeal seems, at best, circular.

At worst, his chief reason for disbelieving the Bible is its miraculous claims. Many unbelievers regard Hume’s attack as definitive.

At yet the argument is not that simple.

b) It isn’t enough to deny the account. An unbeliever must offer an alternative explanation for why Bible writers and those they write about believed in miracles. After all, this is said to be based on eyewitness observation or eyewitness testimony.

c) Likewise, why should we be prepared to believe people when they tell us about natural events, but be unprepared to believe them when they tell us about supernatural events?

Why does an otherwise reliable eyewitness or reporter suddenly become unreliable as soon as he changes the subject?

iii) Many believers also are also impressed by the psychological realism of Scripture. The saints and sinners of Scripture all act in ways we can relate to were we in their situation.

And these are not stock storybook characters, but have an unmistakable individuality. Clearly we are reading about real people in real situations, saying and doing what we would do under the very same circumstances.

B. In addition to the internal lines of evidence there are external lines of evidence.

i) These include archeological confirmation, as well as:

ii) Modern miracles, such as amazing answers to Christian prayer or other providential events of divine deliverance and healing.

Critics frequently counter the second move by pointing charlatans or cases of unanswered prayer.

However, the existence of a charlatan no more undercuts a miraculous healing that the existence of a quack undercuts medical science.

Likewise, cases of answered and unanswered prayer are not symmetrical, just as a nonevent does nothing to negate an event.

5.Atheistic Arguments.

The unbeliever may parry theistic arguments with atheistic arguments. These include:

i) Ignosticism.

Some unbelievers claim that God-talk is literally meaningless. Talk of discarnate agency is simply a negation of human experience. As such, all God-talk is vacuous. It has no positive content. It merely takes something we know, then empties it of any concrete content. God is said to be “timeless” or “immaterial.”

This objection is only convincing if you subscribe to a form of radical empiricism. So, in order to make good on this objection an unbeliever would have his own burden of proof. He would need to mount a supporting argument for radical empiricism and successfully rebut counterarguments to his theory of knowledge.

For example, one well-known philosopher (Norman Malcolm) denied that we had a dream life since dreams, as private rather than public phenomena, would be unverifiable.

ii) The problem of evil

This may have become the most popular objection to God’s existence.

a) Our theodicy is indexed to our theological tradition. So, for instance, a libertarian will offer the freewill defense.

By contrast, a supralapsarian Calvinist will say that God foreordained the fall as a means to a second-order good.

So it’s not as if the Christian has no answer to the problem of evil.

b) Another problem with this argument is that many unbelievers are amoral inasmuch as deny moral absolutes. Hence, they are in no position to distinguish between good and evil in order to get their argument off the ground.

iii) Divine silence

Another objection which is gaining popularity takes unbelief self-warranting.

If God exists, he should make his existence so evident that there would be no unbelievers.

As with the problem of evil, the answer will turn on your theological tradition.

For a Calvinist, the phenomenon of atheism or idolatry is not only consistent with reprobation and the noetic effects of sin, but an implication of Reformed dogma.

iv) Incoherence of theism

An unbeliever may contend that the divine attributes are mutually incompatible or generate paradoxical consequences.

This objection can only be addressed on a case-by-case basis. But, as a general matter, it’s a straw man argument because the atheist defines in divine attributes in very artificial, unqualified terms.

v) The Euthyphro Dilemma

To paraphrase Socrates: Does God will it because it’s good, or is it good because he wills it?

If the former, then morality is ontologically independent of God; if the latter, then morality is an arbitrary fiat.

One problem with this argument is that it’s rather culture-bound. For the dilemma is generated by the limited conceptual resources of a pagan Greek philosopher. Whether this can be carried over to Christian theism is a very different question.

cf. http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2004/04/why-im-not-bertrand-russell.html

vi) Psychogenic origins

Since the days of Freud, Feuerbach, Marx, and Durkheim, faith has been explained away as either a psychological projection or else a result of social conditioning.

But there are several problems with this contention:

a) It’s a double-bladed sword, for it can be turned against the atheist with equal ease.

b) It’s a sweeping overgeneralization which cannot do justice to the diversity and particularity of religious faith.

c) The Bible doesn’t deny that there’s such a thing as wishful thinking. Indeed, the Bible regards idolatry as Exhibit A of fallen man’s decadent imagination.

6.Arguments against Scripture.

A. Internal objections

Just as there are internal and external lines of evidence for Scripture, the atheist will mount internal and external objections to Scripture:

i) Contradictions.

The unbeliever will allege that Scripture is self-contradictory.

As with the incoherence of theism, this is a charge which can only be rebutted on a case-by-case basis.

But, as a general matter, this is also a straw man argument because the unbeliever imposes on Scripture a very wooden and extrinsic standard of accuracy, disregarding the literary idioms, conventions, and genres of Scripture.

ii) Immorality

Unbeliever often attack the Bible because they take offense at the value-system of Scripture, viz. hell, holy war, patriarchy, heterosexism, slavery, &c.

But there are several problems with this line of attack:

i) Insofar as many unbelievers subscribe to moral relativism, they lack a moral platform from which to launch an attack on the value-system of Scripture.

ii) Even if they had such a value system of their own, all they’ve done is to beg the question by assuming that they are right, and Scripture is wrong. They take their own framework for granted, and then proceed to foist that unquestioned datum onto the Bible. This is truth by imposition rather than argument.

iii) One cannot fail to notice that what they find offensive in Scripture is a mirror-image of the reigning academic fad. As such, they merely advertise their bondage to radical chic social conditioning.

iv) Their objections often have no logical basis in their own worldview. For example, there’s no scientific reason why a Darwinian should believe in homosexual rights or transgender rights.

Indeed, it’s not without reason that Darwinians used to subscribe to social Darwinism, until that went out of fashion. Political correctness changes from one generation to the next. But the social Darwinians had logic on their side, give the operating premise.

B. External objections

An unbeliever may raise a number of external objections to the Bible as well:

i) Lack of historical evidence

This is an argument from silence.

a) In that regard it’s very revealing that unbelievers reject the argument from religious experience, and yet they often base their atheism on an argument from religious inexperience.

Unless they can have a personal experience of the supernatural, they won’t believe in it. So there’s a double standard in how they deploy the argument from silence.

b) Moreover, experience and inexperience are not on an epistemic par. Inexperience does not negate experience. Inevidence does not negate evidence.

The absence of evidence is not equivalent to having positive evidence against something.

ii) Contrary historical evidence

Unbelievers may contend that the record of Scripture is contradicted by extrascriptural evidence.

To this, several things need to be said:

a) Conflicting evidence for x does nothing to negate the evidence for y. So even if our sources were to differ on what part of the record, that’s irrelevant to the points of agreement.

b) At most, conflicting evidence would only go to show that one (or both) of our sources is wrong. Taken by itself, it doesn’t point in any particular direction.

c) Because much of our archeological evidence is mute, there can be uncertainties in the identification of a certain site or individual with a proper name or place name in Scripture.

d) It is much easier to account for a coincidental disagreement than it is to account for a coincidental corroboration.

There are many reasons why two sources might differ or appear to differ—consistent with the reliability of one or even both sources.

But independent corroboration is difficult to square with an unhistorical account.

iii) Contrary scientific evidence

The unbeliever may say that Scripture has been falsified by modern science. Paradigm-cases are the creation account and the flood account.

There is obviously a vast literature on both sides of the debate. For now I’ll make a few quick comments:

a) Regarding the creation account, unbelievers generally disregard the internal implications of creation ex nihilo. They don’t bother to ask what such a world would look like.

Instead, they simply say that our world wouldn’t resemble Gen 1 given the natural processes postulated by modern science.

But that fails to engage the inner logic of the text, where a very different mechanism is in view.

b) Regarding the flood account, unbelievers generally judge the narrative by contemporary, postdiluvial conditions, extrapolating back in time to the prediluvian setting.

In this regard, the flood account is inconsistent with certain anachronistic, extratextual assumptions which are interpolated into the text, without any generic connection to the narrative viewpoint of the original text.

c) The scientific “evidence” is often theory-laden evidence, so the evidentiary appeal is viciously circular.

d) Oftentimes the unbeliever will operate with a tacit philosophy of scientific realism, which, in turn, depends on direct realism.

More often than not, no effort is made to defend either proposition.

e) Yet another problem is that without a doctrine of divine creation and providence, the unbeliever has no principled grounds for the reliability of induction or the laws of nature.

Cf. http://www.ccir.ed.ac.uk/~jad/induction.html



iv) Comparative mythology

An unbeliever may say that Scripture is mythological because it’s comparable to world mythology.

This objection is problematic on several grounds:

a) At one level, it’s the polar opposite of the argument from silence. Instead of saying there are no extrabiblical parallels, in which case the Bible writer concocted the story whole cloth, we told that there are extrabiblical parallels, in which case the Bible writer plagiarized the story whole cloth.

This is a good example of the double standard employed by unbelievers. The absence of parallels disproves the Bible while the presence of parallels also disproves the Bible!

b) All this comparison amounts to is the common denominator of a supernatural outlook. So the objection boils down to the circular contention that what makes mythology mythological is the supernatural element; Scripture contains a supernatural element; hence, Scripture is mythological; hence, Scripture is unbelievable because we don’t believe in the supernatural, and we don’t believe in the supernatural because it’s mythological.

This argument makes all the progress of a kitten chasing its own tail.

c) The alleged “parallels” rarely get beyond name-dropping or tendentious summaries. Never direct, verbatim quotes from the primary sources.

Up close, the parallels dissolve under the spotlight:






  1. I met and spoke with Jimmy the Greek of gambling fame long ago, but I am not one of his converts.

    While not a professional gambler (as such) I would wager the total of my retirement income that there are no true atheists in the entire
    universe five seconds after their physical deaths.

  2. Ah, but a materialist atheist believes his death results in the permanent cessation of his thought-life, including any inclinations toward atheism he might have held. Therefore, after his death he would no longer be a true atheist (except in the same sense that rocks and sticks are atheist), so he would be obliged to agree with you.

  3. Well said, Kaffinator.

    And we'll never get to say "I told you so."

  4. Guess you'll have to do it now, while you still can? :)

    Hmmm ... that explains a few things.

  5. Interesting summary. I found your comments under materialism a little weak. I notice that these are just summaries and not a full examination of the arguments, but when you conceded that an atheist can be a dualist, I think that deserves further attention.

    I do think that what troubles atheists is defining what naturalism actually is. Christians or theists are not the only ones who are trying to "solve" the mystery of the supernatural and natural, or the nature vs. grace controversy. Atheists must to. If, for example, one can adopt D. Chalmers' philosophy of mind and still say, "well, the mind is naturalistic," then when does naturalism stop? In other words, what exactly is the supernatural and what is the natural. Are abstract objects natural? Why? And so it seems to me that this is one good argument to show that atheists need to refine the concept of naturalism.

  6. I don't believe in the existence of the supernatural. I think that everything we can possibly know about exists in the natural world.